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:
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:
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.
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.