Category Archives: Max Fisher

Targeting Sites of Attack in Syria

Syria, for now, remains on the map.  But in the course of over two years civil war aged across Syria, the government of Bashar al-Assad has stock-piled chemical weapons as a last line of security in multiple sites.   President Barack Obama’s administration has made use of chemical weapons against Syria’s population a justification for military attacks against or intervention in the country.  But the prominence given to drawing this “red line” on the use of such weapons neglects to assess the pragmatic results of any intervention, and the nature of what form on-the-ground intervention in the relatively shifting state would take–or what ends such military actions would be able to serve.

The direction of the situation is not good, to be sure. The number of Syrians reported killed, abducted, gassed, or poisoned during the civil war over the past two and a half years, tabulated by Syriatracker, clearly centers the focus of violence around its capital city, Damascus, and is probably vastly under-reported:


Syria Tracker-  Missing, Killed, Arrested

The on-the ground situation is more complex than this map of reported violence:  especially if one looks at the disparate groups that have independently continued (or sustained) the ongoing rebellion against the Syrian government, or, even more strikingly, at the huge number of internally displaced Syrians, a number greater than anywhere else in the world; and the  number of Internally Displaced People is difficult to count; estimates are 4.25 million–almost 1 in 5 Syrians.  The consequences of this displacement are impossible to map.
The situation on the ground has provoked this displacement through the fragmenting of the Rebellion into multiple fronts.    An important and informative interactive Al Jazeera map of groups in the Syrian rebellion provides a far more complex measure of divisions among rebellious groups that have attracted different financial and military backing to overthrow Assad also challenging to map:  rebels on different fronts include the large Northern Front near Damascus to Aleppo Front, Idlib Front, and Eastern Front, some in uneasy relations to one another, and is worth examining in depth at its website, in order to understand the mosaic of divisions in a landscape whose sectors are often pointlessly divided between “rebel-held” and those where Assad is dominant:
Mapping Interactive Map of Syrian Opposition
Al Jazeera English
The above image of the fragmented nature of local control, and the independence of each group from one another, suggests the difficulty of defining a clear point of entrance and reveals the nature of ‘proxy war’ that has expanded over two years since the Arab spring, as the response to the Arab Spring of April 2011 that challenged the Assad dictatorship were almost randomly attacked by a violent militaristic security forces that echoed the violent tactics of Bashar’s father, firing live bullets into crowds of protestors and unarmed civilians, killing many innocent children, in acts of carnage and terror documented by Human Rights aWatch as killing 587 civilians and over 250 children that emulated the theatrical mass-assassinations orchestrated against Syrians by his father, Haifez al-Assad.  The repressive violence of these events, before civil war, increased the range of foreign bankrolling independent factions of rebellion, which is misleadingly cast as uniform by a map of anti-government forces as the below two-color map devised for Max Fisher of the Washington Post, which borders on intentional political disinformation:
if not patronizing in the uniform color by which it designates “rebel presence” as a single block, as if to erase the nature of what David Brooks and others correctly identify as a “proxy war” and “combustion point for further waves of violence.”
We are ill-served to understand the nature of this “proxy war” by the reductionist attempt to map ethnic diversities in Syria.  Such a map implies that the many sectarian divisions masked by the creation of the Syria’s borders account for instabilities among rebel groups, as if they are inherent in a multi-ethnic state as an amalgam of faiths destined to implode, regardless of the brutality of the two generations of the Assad regime:
Yet the divided nature of the country lies in part in the improvised nature of resistance to a totalitarian regime, and the culture of violence that has been normalized within the Assad regime and within Assad’s security forces–the notorious Air Force Intelligence (إدارة المخابرات الجوية‎), whose ties to chemical weaponry have been substantiated in the recent past.
The drawing of stark divisions between areas controlled by different fronts and subject to government control obscure the near impossibility of drawing these lines of distinction along clear territorial boundary lines–and prepare a deceptively simple image of Syria’s future.  One BBC news-map helpfully re-dimensions the local conflict, mapping government positions toward the coast and eastern cities, around holdouts and temporary redoubts of rebel resistance–although clear mapping of their division is difficult given the shifting landscape of alliances and lines of territorial defence among highly mobile guerrilla forces, who often tactically withdraw, rather than face military engagement, but can’t map the shifting lines of opposition or control–or the relations between the fronts that are themselves supported by different constituencies in a patchwork of strongholds:
Mapping Syrian Conflict BBCBBC/Syria Needs Analysis Project
The map poses deep questions of what intervention would mean without a clear map even available to be read.  They also reveal how much the debate about war is being waged not only in words, but maps.  The focus of global attention is not only on the violence that has divided the country for over two years, to be sure, or the humanitarian disasters created by the many refugee camps on Syria’s borders, but allegations of the use of chemical weapons.  Yet the mapping of Syria’s disasters and composition are central to any discussion of military intervention.
And we now have a map of where strikes might be directed against air force bases and sites of chemical production, courtesy Foreign Policy magazine, which uses a Google Maps template to mark the storehouses of potential chemical factories and air bases targeted as primary sites of missile attack:

Air Bases and Chemical Sites in Syria

What sort of a vision of Syria as a country does it describe?  The visually striking deployment of skulls-and-crossbones icons to designate locations of plants that produce chemical weapons is scary, and so much so that it almost evokes incursions by pirates along the Mediterranean coast–as much as sites of chemical weapons.  (Of course, such sites would not in themselves be targeted, but the decision to avoid them depends on the accuracy of military intelligence; the decision to target all pharmaceutical factories also poses a  future crisis for already over-crowded Syrian hospitals.)  But it suggests a rather blunt map of the notion of military intervention, and reveals the difficulty of projecting a limited surgical strike against selective sites that are removed from the Syrian population.

In the light of the relative military success of the long-distance bombing strikes into Algeria, it seems tempting and morally compelling option to end the violence and self-evident terror of gas attacks by unseating the Assad tyranny, or by providing Syria with a clear warning–although what it would warn we are not sure–against purposefully deploying chemical agents against its citizens.

The map raises many questions by marking so many facilities along Syria’s Mediterranean coast.  It makes one wonder how such a map became so easy to reconstruct–and the wisdom of allowing such a plan of attack to be rendered public on the internet.  For the map suggests that strikes can be easily launched, in a sort of war conducted from aircraft carriers at a distance against Iran’s close ally, firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at them from American warships moved to the eastern Mediterranean–although it’s relatively easy construction has led many to openly wonder why such a detailed range of options would be publicly leaked by the White House in such detail, even indicating the targets of a strike of one to two days against fifty specific sites.  (Reuters found redeployment of many key army, air force, and security headquarters buildings in central Damascus that might attract U.S. cruise missiles, and poison storehouses, if not sites of production, could be moved.)  Would it be worth the potential danger of hitting a storehouse of sarin or FX?

Targeting chemical factories, moreover, does not address the likely existence of available chemical arms–although attacks render their release more likely. Every chemical plant is not the producer of sarin and mustard gas.  In imagining the raids on the air-bases and potential sites of chemical weapons, the map takes advantage of a registry compiled by the  Nuclear Threat Initiative locating where weapons are either manufactured or stored.  Yet despite the offensiveness of chemical gasses, their repellent nature, and their close historical association with threats or attacks of terrorism, what sort of counter-attack on the Syrian population the government would unleash as a response to the attack is not clear.  The attempt to paralyze Syrian aircraft who might attempt to deliver them seems worthy, but the bombing of potential plants risky at best. Bombing sites of chemical production doesn’t sound like that great an idea after all, however, since this would most likely disperse the very gasses that they contain–with more dangerous effects than the uses of Sarin or FX against the Syrian population–if such targeting would of course not be intentional.  The incommensurable relationship between an air-raid or selective missile strike with storage-sites of chemical weapons has led several to question the value of such attacks, even after knowledge that the government may have intentionally used poison gas against its own citizens.  There is a small likelihood of eradicating more than a small portion of stockpiled chemical weapons in the country, since, unlike biological weapons, most probably will only be widely dispersed by such a blast–and conceivably hurt civilians as they more widely and rapidly disperse, considerably raising the bar for “collateral damage.”

How any such sort of attack will change “action on the ground”–and the questions of what military strike can alter the humanitarian and moral disaster that Syria has already become–remind us of the pressing need to have a clearer map of the action on the ground than a Google Map can reveal, as we examine consequences of a “limited air strike” beyond the hope to cripple the Syrian airforce or discourage the terrifying possibility of further use of poisonous gas against an opposition–and ask if a “limited air strike” is possible in this complex geopolitical microclimate.

Lastly, the mapping of clear targets and divisions within Syria’s boundaries obscures a hidden map of refugees on the borders of the country.  As well as having internally displaced millions, the fragmentation of fronts in the country have created a growing humanitarian crisis in camps on Syria’s borders, and the 3.5 million refugees who are estimated to leave the country by the end of 2013 for neighboring regions, further fragmenting and dispersing the country’s population:

map refugees Syria by 2013 3.5 mill

In this color-coded map, the largest number of Syrian refugees (more than half a million) are situated in Lebanon, and just less than half a million are in Jordan and Turkey, and smaller numbers in Iraq and Egypt  – 161,879 and 75,456. This map poses a problem of how each of these countries respond to the crisis:  such a data-visualization fails to render the different immediate challenges of each refugee family, their poverty, and their amassing on the borders of each region, rather than throughout the country.  In short, this is a humanitarian disaster waiting to be mapped.

Given the difficulty in mapping the multiple divisions within the country into rebel and government forces, and the crises of internal and external displacement of Syria’s population, we must resist seeing mapping clear targets of attack.  The maps of clear divisions in the country as a clear opposition of forces are distorting filters that are more distracting than they are informative, with overly neat and tidy boundary lines.  The complex conflicting rebel factions supported by backers, and the sort of power vacuum that would be created by significant and serious destablization of the country or desperate responses (or the shifting of responsibility) that strikes against the country’s remaining inhabitants might trigger.

Syria’s conflict of course exists not only as a map of frontiers and inhabitants.  Worldwide, it should be remembered, there remains significant opposition to military intervention, charted by Mona Chalabi and Charlotte Henry in the The Guardian’s datablog–not only because of longstanding alliances between Iran and Syria, or Syria and Russia, but exceedingly complex questions of what ends intervention would accomplish–and what outcomes it would produce, as well as how it would be sustained.


Condemnation of Intervention


Viewing the conflict in Syria not only through the lenses of national alliances, but by what can be best mapped on the ground, must become more central to US foreign policy objectives.  We cannot “chastise” or “wound” the Assad regime without realizing that we may wound the country, or erase it from the map.


Filed under Google Maps, Mapping Chemical Weapons, mapping ethnic groups, mapping rebel constituencies, Mapping Targets, Max Fisher, military maps, newsmaps

On Viewing the Flattened Past

Immediate access to images, maps, and other information makes us wax nostalgic for postal delivery on a 24-hour clock, and stamped snail mail six days of the week.  Even the labor of licking and affixing a stamp seems antiquated now.


Google Classic


If the notion of allowing a thirty-day wait in red bold letters is the best addition to this artificially aged virtual post card, the app “Historic Earth” offered touchscreen reminders of the pastness present in a landscape that was ever mapped for a short time, in a neat if cautionary collaboration between university libraries and iTunes.

The re-use of maps that this app encouraged provide an interesting case of the circulation of older maps that digitization allowed.  It’s as if Google Earth teamed up with an expansive archive of older maps, allowing us to summon on screens images of place which retain feel and detail and of paper originals, which were georeferenced to modern maps of the actual positions where one stands, using the background of an OpenStreetMap to suggest a layering of a map of actual space.  (OSM is a crowd-sourced alternative to Google Maps that provides a platform to load maps inspired by Wikipedia, whose over 600,000 contributors offer GPS readings, often taken with simple handheld units, aerial photographs, and other geospatial data, in the largest collective mapping project on Earth; the non-proprietary notion of the map OSM uses lends itself especially well to “Historic Earth.”   The service is also popular  as an alternative to default backgrounds in GPS receivers.)  The astoundingly large trace-density of OSM in Europe alone make it a perfect model for providing a background for older maps, as is made clear in a map Eric Fisher plotted of its specificpoint density:



The value of such a comprehensive open-source database facilitated the very features of geolocation “Historic Earth” boasted as its central selling point–providing an easily adjusted template of even broader scope than the uploaded maps covered.  The concept of geoindexing a variety of older maps for daily reference is exciting, but the curiosity in  older maps of all places was  not uniform for all sites  even the marketers realized that the interest of split-screen historical maps of few places were as compelling as those of the built environment of New York City, and even these poorly translated to an iPhone’s small screen:

The contrast of a cut-screen overlay was :

Historic EarthTM 1885 iScreen


How did the OSM background help “Historic Earth” work  to view local landscapes through the screens of old maps?  On the one hand, the app “Historic Earth” provided a great way to appreciate the map as a human artifact–as well as, more obviously, an earlier sedimentation of human space.  The maps that were made available in the app–formerly available from iTunes at bargain basement prices of $3.99 (£3.99 in the UK), uploaded from digitized images of the Osher Map Library, synchronized to one’s own GPS-determined position.  Rather than map actual space, or presume a single point of view, the app offered users a form of virtual time-travel through scanned media:  the experience of looking at an archive or junk store (or glove-compartment) is collapsed into the real-time consultation of a range of maps of wherever you are; the maps rotate in synchrony with your current location–so long as that location has been mapped.  (The availability of maps of North American cities is evident in the below screen, for example, especially of the Northeast, LA, and Midwest, as well as parts of the Northwest around Seattle:  urban views, one would guess, would work the best on this sort of app.)




Representations of a geographic space were geo-indexed for viewers, who could choose the epoch, from among the available years!  The strikingly high-res app reflects the large collection of digitized maps of Historic Map Works, which already boasted a “geographic time machine.”   The app goes further than digitization by providing a crucial element of geocoding to index this sizable virtual archive of over one million property maps, old road maps, antiquarian atlases, nautical charts of oceans, star maps, and views of place.  Their digitized collection constitutes something of a veritable grab-bag of images–predominantly focussing on North America and including England and Ireland, and while this is not able to provide the universal coverage one would like, the collection mirrored a considerable market-share.  In short, the app provided access to the world’s largest single collection of geocoded maps, both to “map the history of cities, times, buildings and landmarks” and “watch the landscape change over time.”  Historical Earth offered viewers readily accessible proof that all landscapes had a history.

Whereas Historical Map Works grew out of the internet ancestry industry, with the somewhat interesting demand to ‘visualize where your ancestors lived,’ albeit in schematic form, the app offered a counter-map to Google Maps, or anti-Google map, at the same time that app’s coverage grew, by exchanging a standard or uniform Google Earth visualization for the proliferation of a multiplicity of maps from historical eras–raising questions, I suppose, of where the market lies.  The expansion of this app at a heady time of the expansion of totalizing catalogues of images on-line mirrors the extreme optimism of a widely usable web interface for digitized maps.  But the range of time that folks seemed interested in looking at old maps was limited, in comparison to other mapping software.  Unfortunately,  the app launched in October 2009 received mixed reviews, and folded the following year, despite the 32,000 high-resolution images of American cities and multiple antiquarian maps it promised to correlate.  But the app deserves examination as a response to the widespread digitization of images.

Historic Map Works met the antiquarian in us all with the desire for a material record of place, by allowing us to order our own “personalized maps” of place suitable for framing above the fireplace or in one’s library, a ready-made family heirloom.  In contrast, the app would allow one to flip through a variety of maps at any site, through views oriented relative to your actual position, providing a record not only of space but, documenting “changing space perception” as Urban Tick put it, by comparing the changing manners for representing the salient features of a place where one is actually located.  The special feature “lock frame when browsing maps” allows one to select a demarcated frame of reference–and a rubric for placing one’s position relative to areas of the maps one might want to consult–to make it far easier than dealing with originals that might demand a similar practice of orienting oneself to each map as one goes through the requisite period of initial orientation to gain one’s bearings.

But is this really not a diminishing of what one might call map literacy, or the ability for reading information from maps?  In a kind of antiquarian’s Google Street View, one can look through sepia-colored lenses at the past, condensed at a safe distance and with only an aura or hint of materiality, arrayed on the screen of one’s tablet or phone, adjusting the map by a slider in the same way that one reads Google maps, panning and zooming on a touch-screen, and in essence forgetting how maps are read.  It creates, as well, some wacky hybrids, so that one can imagine oneself keying one’s position to a mid-19th century map while strolling in lower Manhattan, by the same iconography of a Google Map:




That could be fun.  Or, if it would be any use, while driving in a landscape that you thought was familiar, but might want to see exactly how upper Manhattan looked and was mapped a hundred and fifty years ago:



Needless to say, it flattens history:  we see, rather than inhabited lands, lines of property (old real estate maps) and architectural views, all represented in synchrony with the present GPS-derived screen, with little sense of their evolution (make your own links) or social geomorphology, to coin an absurd phrase to capture the gamut of forces that shaped the world in its current disposition and form.
Speaking of dispositions and maps, flattening history on maps can work in at least several (or multiple) ways, even the end result is two-dimensionality.  There is something of a self-referential circularity to the practice of mapping–albeit a compulsive one of providing a total image of the earth’s surface–analogous to the use of OSM in the ill-fated if temporarily super-popular on-line version of Monopoly City Streets–but along the lines of the basic diachronic question, “Isn’t it amazing how much things have changed over the last 1,800 years?”   This underlies, and is even openly asked, by the Washington Post‘s Max Fisher in the synoptic survey of all world history in but 40 maps, a post recently cobbled together from varied sources.
It took more than the simple ten whose design Peter Barber of the British Library judged worthy to be named the ten “greatest” maps to sum up human history as well as effective cartographical communications and shifts in cartographical media:  to be sure, Fisher adapted the maps from a website boasting “40 maps they didn’t teach you in school, but essentially offers a Robinson global projection (or the variation of the Mercator projection that serves as the Google Maps template) to ask informed readers “how many of this map’s divisions are still with us today?” and break down a variety of economic databases or Gallup Polls on a multicolored data visualization.  Two measure such stereotypically quasi-racist questions whether national Muslims worldwide “believe in democracy rather than a strong leader” or view “religious conflict” as “a very big problem” in their countries:  these maps serve to reveal “big secrets” that we already suspected, in short, or provide us, as the map of countries that possess nuclear warheads; North Korea’s missile range, or the infographic that sadly compares economic inequality in the United States to the rest of the world–in each case transposing sourced data to familiar (if not generic) cartographical schema.
My favorite two are typical in being less about rendering space, spatial relations, or really even the explanatory ability of the map:  the first, revealing who “loves and hates America [i.e., the United States], an emblem of our current isolationism–
–and another that maps “self-love,” but also reflects the meaningless nature of emotional “liking”–in the sense, itself residing in that meaningless, promoted by Facebook culture–of where people feel “most loved yesterday” in the world:
Each map poses as a sort of revelation about global conditions in a pretty half-hearted way:  folks aren’t that happy in central Asia, but Americans and Canadians, as well as Brazilians and Australians and South Africans (and Saudi Arabians!), seem pretty well off!  One is tempted to read the greyness of Russia as a gruff “there is no data here,” but it is a more believable probably less than half.  The ‘map’ of Central Africa is sad, but does it map that much anyway, except what we already expected?  In spite of the global purview of each, re-use of identical cartographical templates in each of these images diminish their cartographical arguments–or obscure in intentional manner the power of the map as an argument.
Fisher’s map is likely to celebrate in somewhat jingoistic and reassuring fashion of explaining what one already knows, as in the affirmation of “where it is best to be born” whose broad swaths of blue and expanse of red only obfuscate variations in the economic data used to decide what “best” means:
It’s odd that Fisher only included two maps weren’t digital constructs or data visualizations for his post at WaPo.  Both of these are in fact newly designed maps, and both border on cartoons:  a historical missionary map of Africa of ca. 1908 and a 1990 map of a Russian political scientist Igor Pannarin, inexplicably chosen, prognosticating dissolution of the United States would split into six distinct pieces by 2010, each parts of separate sovereign states, in a reverse fantasy.
Only these maps out of those that Fisher posts make clear arguments, either as propaganda or wishful thinking (or fantastical projections)–but both do so in ridiculous forms.  The other maps, deriving from a digital sphere, celebrate the transparency of the map as an elucidation, that hint at ethical problems in the naiveté of the re-use and circulation of maps in the blogosphere that echo the range of ethical problems Ellen Ulman associated with the “digital environment.”
Perhaps this environment is yet another inflection of a post-modern condition:  does our ability to map most everything undermine or empty reading maps as sources or categories of information or to read them as descriptions of space?

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Filed under counter-map, digital environment, Facebook, georeferencing, Google Classic, Google Earth, Google Street View, Historic Earth, Historic Map Works, Igor Pannarin, infographic, Max Fisher, Open Street Maps, Peter Barber, Robinson Projection