Category Archives: Syrian Civil War

Finding Aleppo in a War-Torn World

The deep frustration at being able to map the Syrian civil war around Aleppo–combining the actual inability to map the factions in the conflict, and the actual unmappability of the deeply unsettling destabilization of civil society in the five-year civil war which is waged by outside actors, as much as by the Syrian government–has sapped confidence in the ability to negotiate a cease-fire or indeed to find a civil solution to a conflict that has both created an ongoing flow of refugees and destroyed civil society in the region, as well as an equilibrium of power.  And the more we are frustrated in being unable to map the conflict and its descent into inhumane violence, the more violent it has become and the farther removed from being able to exist again as a country.

 

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Any theater of war is extremely difficult to endow with coherence in a map–one speaks of the “fog of war” to describe the clouded experience in the confusion of military conflicts.  But the difficulty of gaining purchase on the extent of the destruction of the ancient city of Aleppo that is particularly troubling–and troublingly matched by the difficulty of mapping or imagining the targeting of the city and Aleppo’s inhabitants and the refugees who have left the city.  The failure to describe, document, or respond to the costs in the sustained aerial bombardment in recent months seems an abdication of ethical responsibility before such escalated destruction that almost fails to acknowledge its scope.  The terror of aerial strikes against civilians have led to the targeted destruction of schools and hospitals in the rebel-occupied regions of the city hard to imagine, as a besieged city is isolated from the world.  While we don’t have access to the maps and plans that were used during the sustained engagement of rebel forces in Aleppo, and have rather watched screen-shots of the diminishing areas of the region “held” by “rebel forces” over months, those very images distance us from the human rights tragedies that is occurring on the ground with the dismantling of public health care and social institutions, as if extending so many false possibilities of the tenuous grasp over territory of opposition groups.  With unclear data on suffering, deaths, refugees or destroyed buildings in the encircled city, we map territory as the clearest index of the balance of war, but ignore the scale or scope of its ongoing bombardment and destruction, as the country has not only “gone dark”–

 

 

–but the city destroyed under unimaginable sustained assault.

 

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News wire sources have tried to “map” the extent of those lines areas held in the heavily bombed city, to be sure, in recent months.  But the absence of clear lines of jurisdiction or control of a battle that is increasingly waged from a move–but shown as if it were a land war–echoes the military divisions of cities in ways that seem incommensurate with the suffering or mischaracterization of the actors of the war, and the lack of limits with which the Assad regime has enlisted foreign help to destroy its former cultural capital and economic hub, as if trying to efface the opposition that it has for so long successfully tarred by their association to ISIS and the Islamic State–and as a media blitz has tried to portray the battle in Aleppo as a fight against ISIS rather than a defining moment in the escalation of military forces against one’s own people by Bashar al-Assad.

Even though the aerial attacks on Aleppo began as early as July 2012, the escalation of attacks by Russian bombers that began to target buildings and humanitarian supplies with intensity from July 2016.  While we were in the midst of the farce of our recent American Presidential election, we have watched maps of the Syrian conflict at an odd remove, depicting the city the city as a multi-colored sectored region, as if a point of stasis in slippy map of sovereignty, as much as a focal point where five different forces seem to lock horns.  The disservice of these opaque colors seem to erase and to be done such a deep disservice with Microsoft Paint.  And as we do so, we can only fail in an attempt to chart the intensification of suffering that is only like to increase in coming months, as the shrinking green lands held by rebel forces have depicted the so-called “situation in Syria” in increasingly disembodied fashion.

 

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As we watch the layers of colors, trying to map the levels of conflict from an empyrean remove that has echoed the official policy of not putting “boots on the ground,” we fail to account for the destruction of houses, massive departures of residents, targeting of humanitarian assistance and destroyed infrastructure and human services in the city.  The layers with which we discriminate a war-torn city set to conceal terrifying human costs in the rather terrifying palette of pastels in its curious camouflage, as if to hold out hope for an amicable solution, but to erase the destruction of civilian lives, hospitals, residences, or food and needs supplies that tried to arrive in the light green rebel-held areas of the city that suggest an island around the Citadel of Aleppo.

 

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For the limited information about Aleppo’s continued destruction by aerial attacks as well as bombardments makes the extent of the human costs its destruction increasingly difficult to render with coherence.  This absence of this coherence perhaps leadt some twenty-nine million to be struck by viewing the dazed five-year old Omran Daqneesh and the tragically bloodstained face from which he gazes somewhat stoically and looks at his bloodied hand–as if dazed to be transported from the scenario of violence in which he lived to what seems a setting of sanitized medical care, his blood-stained face contrasting to the clean orange cushions of an emergency ambulance.  The transferal of Omran from the battlefield like context of Aleppo to the emergency health care vehicle show him dazed not only at his change of context, but almost in shock of being in a controlled ambulance in which he sits, if a sign of hope, is also emblematic of the inability or difficulty to bridge the controlled context of medical and clinical care of the Emergency Medical Services and the rubble of the besieged city, almost the negative image of a controlled environment:  the image circulated by Aleppo Media Centre was emblematic of the dissonance between the emergency services and the onslaught of bombs where civilians are targeted daily amidst the rubble of the besieged city, so that the dazed look of poor Omran seems a substitute for our own helpless bewilderment at the war crime of the sustained aerial bombing of Aleppo’s buildings, health care providers, hospitals, and inhabitants.

 

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If the image is manipulative–and difficult to include in yet another post on Aleppo–its power seems to derive from the failure we feel between inability of the child who touches his hand to his head, to take stock of his head injury as he tries to process the loss of his family, after being carried by an emergency worker into the new setting of an ambulance.   The image was so poignant it was shared so widely all over the world on Facebook, as we searched collectively for an emblem of good, of one child rescued from the violence of Aleppo–as nine million Facebook users tried to transcend the broken windows, destroyed buildings, and slim hopes for the survival of Aleppo’s citizens, increasingly targeted in inhumane ways to which we are so unable to respond.

For if there is a lack of any coherent purchase on the city’s destruction on such an unprecedented scale of its bombardment, even for the Syrian Civil War, the saving of one child after his family was lost allowed the survival of a child to exist in the blood-streaked face of the five-year-old Omran Daqneesh that circulated globally on social media seemed finally to locate a “face of the Syrian Civil War” against the city’s dire destruction.  Indeed, the actual improvised settings of health care in eastern Aleppo–

 

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–continued as bombs continued to strike the neighborhoods and where the living and dead lay beside one another in emergency rooms that lacked adequate medical supplies.  The absence of medical assistance or facilities, even as Bashar al Assad rejects the last proposal proposed by the United Nations for a local truce that recognized any claims to separate sovereignty of rebel forces, if it was not armed, arguing that it was a violation of “national sovereignty,” seems to have invited an endgame of increased military raids, as the “area held by rebel forces” has shrunk in recent days to a small region curving around the medieval fortified Citadel, sandwiched between advancing regime forces.

 

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The garishly bloodied face of Omran, the sole survivor of an air strike on his family home in Aleppo’s rebel -held territories, seemed a ghost, but served as a respite from images of the dead, and his transport to an ambulance from the horror of Aleppo seemed a promise of the future.  The image posted by the Aleppo Media Center provided little orientation to the actual struggle, but the apparent shock of the contrast of Omram’s evident transport, his face and T-shirt covered in dirt and blood, to safety offered more than a reprieve from image of dead children:  seated in an ambulance, fingering his bloodied head, his place provided a bizarre juxtaposition of a world of safety and medical supplies who had moved from the bombing of his family’s building in a war-torn city we can barely map.  The arrival of the child into a setting of Western safety almost seemed an image of the precareity of saving a child out of its destruction, and preserved an odd ability of hope even as airstrikes would soon hit four hospitals in east Aleppo, and continue to target civilians.

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Filed under Aleppo, data overlays, human rights, Syrian Civil War, Syrian Free Army

Palmyra in the World and on the World Wide Web

 

The long-fears impending destruction of Palmyra, not “just another town on the map,” says the NBC Nightly News, but a site for “erasing history” has been identified as an epicenter of the feared project of cultural genocide of opulent archeological remains–as well as of actual human deaths.  After the Islamic State published photographs of the destruction of the World Heritage Site, the recent damage assessment of the city recovered by Syrian forces suggests the preservation of some 80% of ruins, and despite the reduction of several 2,000 year old temples to rubble, after Syrian Army jets helped retake the ancient city.  Yet the episode suggested the horror of the loss of ancient fragments that ISIS seems to have decided, with good judgement, to preserve, including its Roman amphitheater, despite the apparent destruction of its elegant Triumphal Arch.

 

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The concentration of destruction of sites that were deemed to be of cultic value–as the  Temple of Baalshamin or semitic Temple of Baal, or statues of Athena–seen as heretical, while benefitting from media attention to the survival of ruins to treat them as hostages.  But the city offered a stage for conductive provocative assaults,

 

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Many objects were, of course, sold on the black market to raise needed funds.

The longstanding difficulties of securing artifacts from smugglers from ceramics to bronze lamps to mosaics illustrating Homer’s Odyssey to medieval illuminations of the Quran, to the destruction of actual minarets, souks, and entire sites of archeological excavation.  David Brook’s claim that ISIS has created a wormhole of history that has transported us to a “different moral epoch” as much as a different political landscape, utterly removed from the moral codes he has recently celebrated, affords a prime spot to the destruction of archeological treasures.  As much as introduce a “wormhole”–a space-time passageway, theorized by Einstein and Rosen as a theoretical “bridge” that jumped huge distances that connect distances of billions of light years, the topography of Palmyra’s ruins offer something of a historical echo chamber as the fears of the disturbance of its awesome ruins were relayed across the world wide web, as well as an act of unpardonable criminal destruction.

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The fears of losing such cultural monuments may reflect deep uncertainties in the possibilities of devoting military forces to protect physical objects from looting and destruction–and to continue to guard them in the face of military–but also reflect the scorched earth policy that the Assad regime has adopted in relation to its own lands.  And months after Syrian forces assured the world of the security of Palmyra’s ruins and of the city’s surrounding hills in mid-May 2015, the late-August announcement that explosives have demolished the Baalshamin Temple, a site to worship the Phoenician god of fertilizing rains which once stood some five hundred meters from the city’s amphitheater, has realized deep fears of cultural destruction and become emblematic of the extreme fragility of one’s relation to a historical past.  The site, long emblematic of a material presence of the ancient world in the wilds of the Syrian sands, became a theater for the destruction of antiquities, and even of the beheading of an eighty-two year old scholar of antiquities, Khaled al-Assad, whose executed body was strung up and suspended as an object-lesson.  The report that the Islamic State purposefully planted explosives in the city’s monumental ruins–“western” ruins in addition to the Assyrian monuments in Nimrud–and the recent images of explosives at the Temple of Baalshamin–offers grounds for the realization of fears to the pledge of an unidentified militant that “whenever we seize a piece of land, we will remove signs of idolatry and spread monotheism.”

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Khaled al-Assad

Although the capture of the city may have been more closely tied in the mental geography of ISIL figures to Tadmur prison‘s destruction, a site of arbitrary and inhumane detention from the 1970s–“High walls of cold cement/ Control towers/ Mine fields/ Check points/ Barricades and special military forces/Finally… A space of pure patriotic fear,” wrote the poet Faraj Bayrakdar, who had been imprisoned there for some six years, “If the whole of Syria falls/ This prison will never ever fall.”  But the French-buiilt prison, fashioned as a panopticon in true Benthamite style, was the in the 1930s in the desert, site of a massive slaughter of members of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hafaz al-Assad’s henchmen and of sanctioned beatings and whippings, whose interiors were first broadcast by the ISIL as they recaptured the site and before they had destroyed it, were almost emblematic of the crimes against humanity of the current regime’s predecessor.

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The attention to this site of fear and horror were quickly shifted, however, to the fears of the destruction of the city’s ancient amphitheater, which quickly became an arena of institutionalized violence for ISIL occupiers.

Such growing fears of expectations of destroying a Unesco World Heritage Site that would surely lead to a swift world-wide condemnation–as well as an offense against Syrian culture–were stoked by worldwide media, and must have partly led ISIS to release multimedia images that affirmed the preservation of cultural heritage that lies on the site of the Syrian-Iraq border to calm such accusations.  Even as the Director of Antiquities in Damascus has asserted that many treasures have been preemptively removed from the city, a counter-offensive by ISIS was adroitly waged on the world-wide web, as they posted images of intact ruins in the Syrian city–even as the humanitarian crisis in the area grew with air-strikes from the forces of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.

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But the very images themselves conceal a bit of a debate about what a cultural heritage actually is:  as much as ISIS commander Abu Laith al-Saoudi somewhat convincingly assured Syrian audiences that his forces could commit to no violence against a cultural patrimony.  “Concerning the historical city, we will preserve it and it will not be damaged,” al-Saoudi clarified that his targets were idols, rather than architecture, as if to lend the veneer of a theological disputatio to their actions:  “what we will do is to pulverize statues that the miscreants used to pray for,” he clarified, but “as for the historical monuments, we will not touch them with our bulldozers as some tend to believe.”

Whether the Palmyran monuments would be considered part of Syria’s cultural patrimony or antique architecture is not clear, although the manner that the winged Assyrian bulls or horses constituted part of an Iraqi cultural patrimony–much as the ruins of Palmyra for Syrian–may be very tragically overlooked.

Winged Bulls

In asking what constitutes a historical monument and what a religious icon, al-Saoudi raises a cultural quagmire and a debate on iconoclasm all too familiar from the sixteenth-century Reformation if itself also inherited from the ancient world–even as he seeks to invest the destruction of a classical heritage with an aura of doctrinal debate.

But the possible preservation of many statues, if indeed taken to safekeeping before the invasion, has not led to any hesitation of using the backdrop of its second-century ancient Roman amphitheater to round up and execute at least twenty supporters of the Syrian state, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, and kill two hundred more.  What constitute the Palmyrene divinities–reliefs on funerary monuments? lions and eagles with open widespread wings? images on tombs?–is open to interpretation and will probably not be that closely overseen.  The monuments that have remained less vulnerable to air bombardment, weather damage, acid rains, suggest a vulnerability to the widespread but only recently recognized looting of antiquities that have slowly resurfaced on the black market, providing a source of income that has recently rivaled Syrian oil fields as a needed source of cash as other sources are drying up for ISIS–if we trust the record of financial transactions recently found on one of the flash drives of an ISIS commander, which detailed the sales of some $36 million of stolen ancient artifacts that were sold on the black market.

The recent specter of the destruction of tombs outside the city of Palmyra by explosives offered a taste, however, of the destruction that might be waiting to be unleashed.

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Is it really true that, as the New York Times reports, the cultural vandalism of tombs and statutes–a destruction whose propagandistic value Amr Al-Azm of Shawnee State University compares to the choreographed beheadings of captives as designed to appeal to some ISIL supporters–occurred as a cautionary warning to nearby Syrian troops?  or a sign of their withdrawal from a region, and the acceleration of demolition in the face of military defeats?  The value of the Palmyran antiquities to ISIL, whose sales of antiquities from an Abyssinian monastery in Syria’s Nabek district totalled $36 million, must reveal canny knowledge of the calculus of their value as intact objects.  So many antiquities now stand guarded by Syria’s government that a list of Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk has been distributed to border guards, as many looters in ISIS have become amateur archeologists, and, until ISIS troops took the city, a guard was stationed at the amphitheater itself, as if to declare its worth to the state.

The release of some ten photos by the Islamic State showing the preservation of architectural ruins contrast to the familiar photos posted online in February of the destruction of antiquities in Mosul, but seems to be an attempt to repristine their image, despite the brutality of the executions, as Syria’s official news agency, SANA, released file photos of the city’s antiquities that were threatened with destruction, no doubt in an attempt to gain world attention as well as stoke nationalist sentiment as well as horror.  The place of antiquities is a delicate one within the propaganda forces that have mobilized behind the war, with ISIS using the destruction of antiquities as a bit of a rallying cry to supplement Jihad, long after it had actually destroyed substantial numbers of churches.

But if the value perceived in the destruction of antiquities may have been feared to make Palmyra something of a poster-child, the videos that successfully cast the ISIS trips as philistines for folks like Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who confessed to be moved to future mobilization by the hopes to defend Assyrian Gods who sport “those curious ringleted beards in the shape of typewriters” and profiled horses, as if they were ready to suddenly sign up for fighting on the frront lines to defend the heritage, or at least give thanks for the oft-criticized custodial role London’s British Museum–which seems to have been Johnson’s real (and openly knee-jerk nationalist) point.

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Telegraph

Although Barack Obama and the United States has not openly entered the conflict, the ongoing promises of continued military, economic, and diplomatic assistance has been poised behind the notion of joint Sunni-Shi’ite counteroffensives yet to materialize, but seemed to place us on the brink of war.  But Palmyra stands at more than the symbolic epicenter of the war, or as a strategic gain of the extent of “territory” that ISIS (or ISIL) can be said to “hold” as a cohort of alliances:  it is a benchwater of how rapidly the Islamic State has spread, and the rapidity with which the Syrian Free Army, without any credible external assistance, has been able to hold agains the two-fronted assault it faces from government and foreign troops, and its effective marginalization to the West.

May 2014-May 2015 Syria

The expansion of the congeries of ISIS/ISIL-held lands have effectively isolated a front in the northeast from the western fronts against which limited resistance remains, and Assad’s forces have proved to be little effective military resistance.

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In a sense, the ruins of Palmyra are enshrined as sources of material contact with the past in the landscape in the engravings from Robert Wood’s Ruins of Palmyra, otherwise Tadmor, in the Desart [sic] (London, 1753), based on the surveys taken by the architect and artist Giovanni Battista Borra, informed by Borra’s own close study of Vignola, which are again echoed in the visual composition of many of the images of the local ruins now feared to be facing destruction or destroyed in the global media.  Borra’s expertise in such neoclassical views had been honed, interestingly, in his own set of views of Turin, Vedute principali di Torino disegnate in prospettiva, as well as his views of Rome and Tivoli, which his dramatic elevated views of awesome intact colonnade and surrounding ruins echoed.

But Borra’s Palmyran views of Wood’s archeological sites gained an international appeal that provided immediately accessible memories of the elegance of the city’s ancient past and a repertory for neoclassicism.  And rather than a prison, their grandeur suggest the odd emptiness of Ozymandian ruins of past grandeur that his own architectural expertise allowed him to recognize.

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Giovanni Battista Borra, Palmyra

Palmyran Colonnade

Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries

Borra’s majestic engravings are romantic, if oddly analytic in their silent statuesque melancholy.  They also evoke the tragic prospect of the loss of such sites, whether due to ISIS militia or possible future aerial bombardment of the region from Assad’s Syrian air force if not American troops.  While standing at quite considerable chronological remove, their silent beauty serves to underscore an enormous potential tragedy of looting a desert landscape of ancient architecture.

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Jonathan Klein/AFP/Getty Images

All too often, however, we are apt to focus on the awe of monuments that have so long occupied the Western imagination–with a legacy this post has rather cursorily tried to map–rather than the humanitarian injustices of the continued displacement of human refugees in the ongoing Civil War, according to images released by Human Rights Watch this April, for which there seems no clear end in sight–especially along the so-called “demilitarized” border between Syria and Jordan.

April 20 Encampments and tent shelters on Jordanian border

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Filed under ISIS, Islamic State, Syria, Syrian Civil War

Mapping the New Enemy

Maps offer a unique tool to display the relation of power to territories, and the use of a magnified map of Syrian airstrikes performed a useful function in the news conference of Defense Department Spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.  “We hit them [in airstrikes] last night out of a concern that they were getting close to an execution date of some of the plans that we have seen,” said Attorney General Eric Holder–whose tenure at the Department of Justice must have been more consumed by approving surveillance activities than he had expected–on the eve of his resignation from the Obama Administration.  Using such a circumlocution was tellingly (if not intentionally) obfuscating, in ways that may acknowledge the prominent role of the Department of Defense in the decision to launch such airstrikes.  For the Attorney General–whose tenure at the Department of Justice now seems more consumed by approving surveillance activities than he ever expected–boasted about successfully delivering a round of airstrikes of Tomahawk missiles into Syria.

The map’s finality effectlivly obscured the problematic legal status of launching the airstrikes.  Holder omitted that planes fired into Syrian territory on September 23 was not only mapped in the image issued by the Department of Defense, and explained by its spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, against strongholds of the new enemy to the Homeland identified as the “Khorasan Group,” but defined the legitimacy of airstrikes that had expanded the fight against ISIS to a new enemy.  “I think it’s absolutely safe to say [the group’s plots have been] disrupted,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey noted, although he kept alive the justification for future strikes by adding that “their aspiration to conduct attacks in Europe and the United States and elsewhere in the region remains an aspiration.”

The Khorasan Group have yet to make themselves known or confirm their very own existence.  Rear Admiral Kirby described how the attack had disrupted “imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests” from the very  “training camps” and “bomb-making facilities,” destroying a “safe haven” they secured in Syria to develop the very sort of external attacks with which ISIS has not been identified and had even distanced its principal goals.  But the existence of “bomb-making facilities,” almost designed to trigger fears in the American public, keying in as they do to a narrative of terrorist attacks against the Homeland, provided a rationale for extending the airstrikes campaign into Syrian territory in order to eliminate the threat that the Khorasan Group posed.  The dangers that were posed by the group against whom the attacks had been directed, according to US Central Command, justified expanding the war that intended to “degrade” ISIS to a broader fight to protect national interests.  The situation maps Kirby showed also mask both the failure to seek broader Congressional authorization for the strikes and the potentially disastrous long-term consequences of continuing such attacks and targeting  sites that involved untold civilian casualties.  Although the map did their best to isolate the targets for these strikes, they illustrated both the pronounced geographic and cultural remove of Department of Defense decision-making, as well as the costs of staging these attacks from aircraft carriers in the Red Sea or Persian Gulf.

Mapping the airstrikes served several functions, ranging from putting the unknown Khorasan Group on the map to lending legitimacy to incursions into Syrian airspace, without Congressional approval or UN support.  Indeed, the flatly declarative map  advanced arguments about the just nature of the war against the “Khorasan Group” by American forces, even if few had heard of the Group only days before.  With the crude map, the presence of sites of danger suddenly assumed concrete locations and had already been vanquished:  eight “Khorasan sites” according to anonymous sources, were hit by Tomahawk Cruise Missiles launched from ships or submarines in the nearby Red Sea and F-22 Raptor stealth aircraft and Predator or Reaper drones, as if those same sites of training camps where alleged threats against the Homeland were being planned did not lie in Syrian territory or the attacks against them did not violate Syrian airspace.  Rear Admiral Kirby, the Department of Defense spokesperson, bluntly summarized the results of the airstrikes with the satisfied resolve of self-justification:  “We certainly believe that we hit what we were aiming at.”

The map before which he spoke at the DoD news conference suggests more targets, but show eight yellow bursts west of the embattled city of Aleppo, where the Khorasan Group is said to be based, close to the border with Turkey.  The strikingly cartoonish map signs that designate targets of airstrikes are akin to explosive bursts as if taken from an outdated video game that suddenly seem the centers of attention in an opaque landscape, which is so different from the recent maps we have seen of an expanding Islamic State–the alleged focus of earlier airstrikes across the region.  And rather than display the movement of arriving airstrikes, moreover, the explosions ringed with orange suggest an ability to attack across the country.

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Such situation maps immediately circulated on the nightly news and online alike, in a remarkable instance of a single map that has been adopted wholesale to explain and describe the airstrikes effectiveness against targets.  Attorney General Holder’s odd obfuscations seemed desperate attempts to justify the bombing of select Syrian sites, and broader justifications that claimed the airstrikes were performed “out of concerns that they were getting close to” attacks.  This affirms claims that the bombings were needed to stop “imminent” attacks on the “homeland” of the United States, in ways that evoked 9/11–although “imminent attack plotting” was newly qualified in Orwellian Newspeak when intelligence identified plans as “in an advanced stage,” albeit without known targets or actual attacks suspected or needing to be feared.  (The discussion of these bombing strikes from planes and ships conspicuously did not include acknowledging possible civilian deaths or casualties–and neither did  President Obama’s speech to the nation–as civilian casualties reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights including at least 300.)

The signs designating hit targets, akin to dated video games, but seemed, placed on a map, to affirm the remove at which Pentagon mappers of the scene of battle, as if to designate the complete obliteration of a place without civilian casualties:

 

 

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What were these targets they took out, and how immanent was their threat?  The maps issued by the Department of Defense did the difficult work of parsing a national incursion aimed at cells lying within a country but is not part of it, in what seems a new triumph of the logic of a war on terror that knows no bounds.  With “US-only strikes against the Khorasan group” sent into Syrian airspace beside an unspecified number of other international pilots to perform over 200 strikes on a dozen targets, they gave legitimacy to the “Khorasan Group”–evocative less of an insurance firm than an Afghan drug cartel traded on the deep web or Silk Road–as being worthy for attack that did not deviate from a mission ostensibly directed against the expansion of the Islamic State.  Indeed, while the territory that the Islamic State controlled have been so often mapped and re-mapped in recent weeks, the Khorasan Group has suddenly emerged, territory-less, just around September 20, three days before the airstrikes, as “the cell in Syria that may be the most intent on hitting the United States or its installations overseas with a terror attack.”  The maps elevated targets of alleged imminent danger at the same time as apparently wiping them out.

The map persuaded public viewers that our bombing campaign was indeed justified, against the specter of a careful construction of the danger of an immanent “homeland” attack.  The designation of the Khorasan Group was explicit, effective and swift.  Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs Chairman, described “imminent attack plotting” as if to compensate for the acknowledgement that, for all its horrors, ISIS did not in itself pose a threat to the United States; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff William Mayville, a public face for the army, described “The Khorasan group [as] in the final stages of plans to carry out attacks against Western targets and potentially against the US homeland,” although he was loathe to say the effects of strikes definitively degraded or deterred imminent threats to the “West and the homeland.”  The implicit narrative, of course, was of an attack forestalled, and, this time, the eradication of conspirators poised to attempt to hijack another airplane destined for the United States.  The existence of such a super-national entity raised some eyebrows in Syria, as well as in the US-based press; Glenn Greenwald wryly noted how government leaks “after spending weeks promoting ISIS as Worse Than Al Qaeda™, . . .  unveiled a never-before-heard-of group that was Worse Than ISIS™.”

The maps issued by the Department of Defense jumped several steps in logic in order to advance this argument, skipping over questions of international law or powers to declare war.  “Imminent” is a key word by argued the attacks made without Congressional consultation were justified.  They almost represented an interesting illustration of the evolving nature of President Obama’s thoughts on Presidential prerogative.  For the situation map legitimized the prerogative to invade a nation’s sovereign boundaries without Congressional oversight.  If Senator Obama had forcefully argued in 2007 “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” holding “military action most successful when it is authorized and supported by the legislative branch,” decisive weight fell on the formulation “imminent threat.”  United States Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes described the Khorasan Group as holding “very clear and concrete ambitions to launch external operations against the United States or Europe” in ways that justified their inclusion in an already loosely justified attacks on the Islamic State–even if the strikes were clearly removed from the areas under IS control in maps as the below, as if in the hope that this detail would not be noticed.

 

SYrian Air Strikes

The singling out of this region of attack is a clear expansion from maps of earlier airstrikes that were diffused by Central Command, where bomb-bursts correlated closely with strategic points held by the Islamic State, as if to demonstrate the effectiveness of the response that the United States was asked to contribute in Iraq:

w-CENTCOMstrikes-9-26

 

The strikes seem planned with the intent to show the ability of the American air force to strike targets in western Syria, even should Turkey not grant them permission to use a nearby air base, as well as to generate a confidence in the US government’s vigilance against terrorist threats.  This alternate configuration of the airstrike map did interesting work by isolating the Khorasan Group as something of a separate entity from other Syrian rebels, worthy of intense attention from American air force.  Although the identity of the Khorasan “Group” was much less clear to most Syrians on the ground, including members of the US-backed Syrian Free Army, among whom some eyebrows were quickly raised about the expansion of the attack; Charles Lister quite damningly questioned the proper nouns as a “label created by officials in the US and has no recognition within Jahbat al-Nusra or al Qaeda circles.”  Indeed, a US official even set the size of the alleged cell as but a few dozen.

The relation of Khorasan Group to the Al-Nusra Front was important for the US to solidify, given that the last folks we should to attack are those aiming to topple Assad.  But the two groups overlap in the eyes of Syrians who watched them at first hand–and speculated as to their danger.  Indeed, since the Al-Nusra Front is dedicated to toppling Assad’s bloody dictatorship in Syria, the attack seems to have deemed important as a means to “take out” an international player in Syria–rather than interfere with Syria’s ongoing  civil war.  In a majestic bit of Orientalist rhetoric, among the “hardened al Qaeda members” killed in the airstrikes was the leader of the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, Abu Yousef al-Turki, “also known as ‘The Turk.”’

The Khorasan Group were identified as the targets of exclusively US airstrikes indeed do seem to have their own black flag–distinct from that of Jabat al Nusra–that jibe with the evocative hadith from which the name of this “Group” seems to derive:   “If you see the black banners coming from Khorasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice; no power will be able to stop them. And they will finally reach Baitul Maqdis [Jerusalem], where they will erect their flags.”

khorasan-flag

We were familiar with the terrifying mobilizing force of the closely similar flag of the Al-Nusra front, although it lacks scimitars as the Khorasan flag:

image-456128740

 

Although the Group may only number several dozen folks, the possibly organization was itself persuasively mapped to 9/11.  The Khorasan Group™ were tied to a bomb-maker in Yemen, responsible for terrorist explosives that have been found on air flights, providing grounds for aims beyond the Syrian and Iraqi fronts–apparent validation of their association with Homeland threats to “U.S. aviation”–as if U.S. aviation has come to constitute a threat worthy of defense or surrogate for globalization. “Khorasan members come from Pakistan,” explained former CIA director Mike Morrell on televisions news programs, and “focus on attacks in the West” and even fixate on the aviation industry itself “as a symbol of the West.”  The argument did not go over well in Syria, but played well in the Homeland, where many Khorasan members have been tied to to al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, AQAP, including al Qaeda’s bomb-builder Ibrahim al-Asiri, of underwear bomber fame and to Musin al-Fadhli, an al-Qaeda insider who knew of plans for the 9/11 attacks, further justifying links to Homeland threats–rather than understanding their actual agendas in Syria.)

The logic of bombs fit closely into the rationale that lent the airstrikes legitimacy.  President Obama explained the parallel ongoing strikes against areas occupied by ISIS, not themselves controlled by Assad, but his opponents, as giving Syrians a choice “in side of Syria other than between ISIL and Assad,” but found it justified to initiate the bombing without Congressional authority as Commander in Chief.  The naming of a precise region in Syria bequeathed a more concrete logic for bombing by mapping a site that became a safe land for “a mix of hardened jihadi from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Europe,” according to unnamed US officials, which by this past September 13 was identified as posing a greater danger to the US than ISIS itself–the original target of attacks, undertaken at the alleged request of an Iraqi state in need of defense from internal dangers.

The story led to a rather rehearsed an improvised re-mapping of terror threats–and seems to have followed a search  for how one could possible pinpoint a direct threat to the United States in an area of the Middle East where the Islamic State existed, which could be said to pose concrete threats to American well-being and be seen as lying within the broad rubric “national security” rather than military aggression.  The “cell in Syria” that was “little-known but well-resourced” could pose a direct threat to the US, the Pentagon explained, possessed “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building and command and control facilities.”  Televised graphics suggested the vigilance of F-22 Raptor stealth aircraft overlaying Syria, targeting presumed national enemies:

 

cbs-article-display-b

 

The apparent widespread newsleaks that led to clear hyping created a new sense of who we were targeting and why, providing a basis for attacks that did not need Congressional approval, or require more evidence aside from “aspirational” terrorism.  Reporter Ken Dilanian offered the somewhat more “nuanced” take FBI director James Comey offered that “the U.S. did not have precise intelligence about where or when the cell, known as the Khorasan Group, would attempt to strike a Western target,” but that Syria is “a place where we don’t have complete visibility.”  Director Comey offered that the FBI and US government was working with intelligence of “the kind of threat you have to operate under the assumption that it is tomorrow;” in the words of Pentagon spokesperson Kirby, “I don’t think we need to throw up a dossier here to prove that these are bad dudes [italics added].”  Comey backtracked a bit from the “imminent danger” that the bad dudes posed, even as the battle drum had begun.  “I don’t know exactly what that word means,” Comey added when questioned about the dangers’ identified as “imminent,” Dilanian notes quite amazingly.   The group was identified in the media as able to “launch more-coordinated and larger attacks on the West in the style of the 9/11 attacks from 2001,” although by mid-September, or days previous [i.e., earlier] to the strikes, no official pronouncements had yet been made about the Group known as “Khorasan.”

The quite nondescript map of airstrikes unveiled and glossed at the DoD news conference does considerable work to tell a single story about the range of airstrikes US planes made with regional “allies” primarily concerned to communicate the danger Islamicists posed their own states.  The map suggested an intensity of concerted actions, as if all of the airstrikes were directed against a common or single enemy, despite their distinctly separate targets of attack:

 

screen shot 2014-09-23 at 11.08.47 am.png

The eight strikes convey an odd sense of attacking an uninhabited borderland, which is also the very region where many Syrian refugees have passed on the way to crossing Turkish border:

 

Graphic

 

Who are these new folks who our are enemies?  For Thomas Joscelyn, whose The Long War Journal has described the extended war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Khorasan consists of members of “core Al Qaeda” dispatched to Syria by Ayman al Zawahiri, and are embedded in the Al-Nusra Front, but the references of “seasoned al Qaeda operatives in Syria,” provides a new nomenclature of evil by which the US can, as CNN put it, “take the fight to the terrorists” hiding in “safe havens” west of Aleppo which, as Samantha Power put it as if to offer a validation for the ongoing attacks, “The Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront . . . effectively itself.”  The US-only airstrikes–in which “coalition members” as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar, each eager to address Islamicist threats endangering their own states, were absent–constituted something of the chief area that the US government seems to have wanted Americans to watch.  But the low quality of the DoD map–and absence from it of a layover showing the Islamic State’s regional presence, or terrain–evokes a Google Maps base-map and image, designed less for informational value than to illustrate the clustering of American airpower west of Aleppo–outside regions held by the Islamic State.

 

SYrian Air Strikes

 

The ill-defined maps on most new services were strikingly opaque and stripped of local detail, especially for showing such a frequently mapped area of strategic importance to the world.  For they elicited minimal interest in the area or region where the airstrikes occurred, almost disembodied from thickly traced lines marking a sense of territoriality which most folks who have been following the news realize are increasingly of questionable value as points of actual reference or political orientation, but are presumably on the rather minimal base-maps afforded by Google Maps.

e3358c4b-8dea-4a20-a5fd-e68024fba8bd-620x461

The concreteness implied by the use of this new proper name for a seemingly small group of individuals evokes a land “of the rising sun,” oddly quite similar to the Levant, but invested with tones of violence by the hadith of classical Islamic teachings that describes an army worth joining “even if you have to crawl over ice.”  The pre-Islamic area of Khorasan from the 5th century A.D. till the second half of the 19th century A.D. is no real help–but seems to bring us back to Afghanistan and the AfPak problem of old.  Despite much of the skepticism about how a group “suddenly went from anonymity to the ‘imminent threat’ that became the [compelling] rationale for a emergency air war” coming from the right, who mockingly distinguished “core al-Qaeda” from “al-Qaeda in Iraq” or the “Islamic State” that was formerly “al Qaeda in Iraq and al-Sham,” itself unlike “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” charging Obama with a strategy of “miniaturizing” a problem rooted in the reading of Islamic scriptures that drives Sharia suprematism and the deception perpetrated by a misguidedly Islamophilic President, according to former terrorism federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy in the National Review; Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain offer a parallel critique of how news feeds from Washington have incrementally but steadily perpetuated the myth of a deadly Khorasan splinter aimed at attacking America through hijacked planes, feeding legal justification for bombing Syria to a national press ready to recycle with appropriate graphics for broadcast on Nightly News.

The attacks did not hit the “Khorasan Group” seem rather transparently about a form of “degrading” that had little to do with the organization of the Islamic State.  Multiple news graphics on nightly television focussed on targeting of makeshift oil refineries that have financed the Islamic State’s revenues upwards of $3 million/day from oil smuggled out from eleven fields under their control–refineries that our “partners” were eager to help destroy–as if this somehow lessened the danger of collateral damages of airstrikes by legitimizing their targets.  Yet despite the preemption of an ability to “degrade” what is now the richest terrorist organization in the world, existing investment in institutions and bureaucracies that uphold and strengthen Sharia law and governance and an efficient financial network will simply not be able to be destroyed through use of airstrikes alone.

refineriesAssociated Press Interactive

A collapsed map of the extent of “allied” airstrikes over the region tragically reveals, however, the intensity with which the area has continued to be pounded from the skies by manned or unmanned flights already for a series of months, in what can almost be mapped as an extended war of nerves.

Airstrikes Map

 

The Department of Defence situation maps that described the bombing of the Khorasan Group west of Aleppo served, in reference to a mythic land or region, to embody the enemy in a new way, giving them a redolent name–even if one not actually apparent on the several situation maps so conspicuously displayed, by evoking a group which once constituted a region, or territory, until the late nineteenth century ruled by the “Khorasan” Kings.  Although the term that jihadists used to refer to folks from that area in the world–described by the West as “embedded” in the Al-Nusra Front–suggests a recycling of the toponym perhaps helps suggest a site of mythic struggle for US airplanes to attack, as if to deflect the question that we are not attacking Syria’s sovereign lands without Congressional authorization, if only since the Group seemed to arrive from a different territory.

 

Khurasan_Ancient_Boundaries_-_Kurasan_e_Buzurg_or_Greater_Khurasan

 

The Khorosan region perhaps gains its very nefariousness since it is not a state, but its statelessness manages to overlap with a region of danger, but itself to possess even more terrifying but less recognizably coherent bounds than the Islamic State–and as if the association of the name with the region of Afghanistan communicated its credibility as a national threat.  (The very fact that Jihadists are themselves widely known to refer to anyone who comes from the geographic area as “Khorasan” raises questions about the integrity or identity of an actual fully-fledged “Group.”)

 

kho

The name inspires terror, indeed, as, while never used to name the interests of a purported Al-Qaeda cel, it is implicitly linked to the threat of redrawing the map of the Mideast in an imaginary optative geography in which the current group of US allies would no longer exist:

Khurasan

 

Few would be likely to consult early nineteenth-century printed maps to locate the Khorasan Group or follow the rapidly evolving news, but a simple search would have led to a region suspiciously near to Afghanistan, and not a disembodied “Group” that the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper suggested, when he warned on September 13 with  administration sources of “veteran al-Qaeda fighters . . . who travelled to Syria to link up with the al-Qaeda affiliate there, the Nusra Front,” going so far as to admonish the public that “in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State.”

As the thinly informative airstrike maps made their circle on the news circuit, embodying the threat of the Khorasan Group as if it had migrated from Central Asia to west of Aleppo, instead of lying in Syrian “safe-havens,” that constituted a “serious threat to our peace and security” as if they offered grounds that the airstrikes constituted a means “to defend our country.”  The striking thin-ness of the map of airstrikes contrast to even the far greater local detail with which Khorasan was embodied as a region in this 1881 map “Khorasan and Neighboring Countries,” whose topography was delineated with lavish local detail by Lieut. Colonel C.E. Stewart:  if Stewart attempted to concretely render the region, the danger of the “Group” lies in its ability to move, hidden, under the radar as it accomplishes underground and illegal acts of terror both outside and against the recognized group of nations.

 

29426Wikipedia

 

Rather than map the lay of the land or encourage interest in its inhabitants, the maps used in news conferences and that migrated to news shows are dense graphics that limit their content to the view from the Pentagon.  It bears remembering that the stories that our current strategic maps tell are far more limited, and seem designed to display far less curiosity about who are the inhabitants of these lands; they go so far as to embody them far less concretely, displaying the overlays of boundary lines between nation-states in thick black lines, as if to create the somewhat outdated illusion that sovereign states of Syria and Iraq still exist in what seems a staging area for war.  The maps situate the location of the strikes against the Khorasan Group–which somehow seems improbably hit without civilian casualties–in the far left cluster of explosions sent by American planes based in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, using symbols that recall the medium of an old arcade video game so clearly that one is tempted to take the thin view of history they offer as their message–in a radically flattened view of the complexity of ongoing conflicts between Syrian opposition, ISIS, Iraqi troops, and Islamist movements.  What, the message of the graphic seems, else do we need to know?

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aleppo and raqqa

 

Where they are located perhaps seems less the point anyway, since they have been “taken out.”

What seems less widely mapped is the extent to which the folks we are attacking are already surrounded, and we sought to display how even an area near the Turkish border–where the United States has an Air Force Base, but from which the Turkish government would not allow United States planes to fly or missiles launched into Syria–but also lying at much remove from what we have mapped as the expanse controlled by the Islamic State as of September 23, 2104.  It allowed us to defend American interests at the same time as we continued to “degrade” the Islamic State from military bases that lie to the South, as both “allies” like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan allowed their airspace to be used, at significant cost.

 

US Allies in the RegionWashington Post, September 23 2014

ISIS Sept 23 map

0923-airstrikes-ai2html-600U.S. Defense Department; Institute for the Study of War; September 23

Coolition AirstrikesAP Interactive; October 2

BN-EW313_Airpla_F_20141006120849Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

 

The extreme short-term benefits the Department of Defense claimed for the airstrikes –allegedly stopping planned attacks on the United States–may have unplanned consequence of creating deeper ties between the rebels, Islamic State and Al Qaeda, and cast the US as a protector of Assad.

Syrian reactions to airstrikes have not been mapped sufficiently or in detail.  But unannounced strikes extending beyond attacks on ISIS both raised suspicions about US priorities and intents and suggested an unwarranted deflection of attacking the Islamic State among groups who long hoped that the very same airstrikes would be launched at Assad’s forces, and not at an organization not known to Syrians, who deemed it a creation of the US government and false screen for giving cover to Assad’s government troops to advance.  With houses destroyed, numbers of refugees increasing, and women and children injured in targeted marketplaces in Aleppo, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, local desperation has grown in direct reaction to foreign interference.  Despite claims the US has a comprehensive strategy to defeat the Islamic State, the attacks seem short-sighted in encouraging the very conditions to encourage the spread of extremism, local instability, distrust, and the isolation of local forces, both breeding insecurity and hurting a crumbling infrastructure.  The reclusive leader of the Al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Jolani, previously presumed dead, foretold the eruption of a “volcano” against the US and its allies would be the consequence of the attacks, and argued that the airstrikes were leaving Aleppo vulnerable to government forces.  “Short-termism” sadly afflicts the strikes whose results extend far beyond the assassination of Al-Nusra frton leader Abu Yousef al-Turki.  Meanwhile, ISIS advanced within shooting range of Baghdad.

The spread of protests across the country against US-led airstrikes raise questions about what their long-term strategic value really was, aside from leading many to question whether western help would ever arrive.  (Questions about the precise accomplishments of the strikes seem deflected by Pentagon spokesmen.)  Protests against the airstrikes are poorly mapped, but seem to have grown from Islamic State strongholds like Raqqa to cities held by the rebel alliance in Idlib province, as Maaret el Numan, or centers of the Free Syrian Army like Talbiseh, near Lebanon, as well as some forty other towns including Homs and Aleppo–some bearing signs such as “The International Alliance Kills Civilians.”

 

WO-AT876_SYRPRO_G_20140926180820Reuters

 

For the strikes indeed confirmed deep suspicions that official US policy is less concerned with ending Assad’s dictatorship, lent credence both by the public statements from Assad’s foreign minister that the Assad regime was “OK” with such airstrikes, which implied a collusion between Americans and the Assad regime; the occurrence of the first airstrikes to enter Syrian territory without any coordination with rebel groups to whom they might have offered strategic value seems to have sidestepped any support from the Syrian Free Army or its allies.  For Americans find themselves in the intensely awkward position of relying on the OK of the Assad regime to “downgrade” or attack ISIS in Syria.  The strikes seemed to realize fears and distrust about whose interests the United States wants to serve:  Rami abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights alleges that the airstrikes illustrate the start of “a phase of targeting civilians under the excuse of targeting the Islamic State.”  In a region where the claim “We kiss the hand that holds the trigger against Assad” is common, it is hard to know how bombings undertaken with the Assad regime’s OK would be seen as constructive.  The bombings may have provoked a rise in Syrians declaring allegiance to the Islamic State.

la-apphoto-mideast-syria-jpg-20140929Idlib News Network:  Syrians examining the ruins of a house allegedly targeted by airstrikes in Kfar Derian, a center for Nusra Front opposition

 

We might remember that most all maps posted above derived from a map that really was carefully staged as a screen, which obscured far more that it revealed.

 

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Filed under Al Qaeda, human rights, Islamic State, Mapping Terror, Maps and Politics, Syrian Civil War

The Betrayal of Sykes-Picot? Mapping the Expansion of Violence in Syria’s Civil War

In the shadow of two large, formerly centralized states–Iraq and Syria–the “Islamic State” has spread across their common confines in ways that seem to re-map the Middle East.  The surprising success of the ISIS in Syria has been striking in the face of fatigued fighters of the Free Syrian Army, who, exhausted by fighting three years after the uprising began, have enjoyed considerable success in the face of the attrition of rebel fighters.  Even as the Assad government worked to retake significant ground in the country’s center and north, the new stability of ISIS has drawn on Sunni ties and allegiances deeper than national ties, and promised greater regularity in food supplies that have enjoyed wide appeal in a worn-torn country.

How to map the basis of this appeal, and how to chart the entity of the Islamic State has frustrated western cartographers and news maps alike, despite the proliferation of maps to track the unfolding of day-to-day events on the ground.  Recently, the possibility that “it may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria” that John Kerry acknowledged–and that the prospect of dividing the country between forces controlled by and loyal to Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s northwest–would be a painful rejection of a secular Syria.  It would also be a capitulation of sorts to Russian interests of securing a rump state of Syria to defend their airbases and deepwater naval bases in Tartus, established since 1971, confirmed by the cancellation of a huge $13.4 billion debt for Soviet-era arms sales in 2005 of which Russia is loathe to abandon as it is the basis for continuing arms sales and its sole tie to the Mediterranean.  The capitulation to the division would effectively abandon parts of the country to the Islamic State, Hussein Ibish has argued, as a “Little Syria” would effectively be a Russian client state, and a strong ally of Iran.  The current plan for partition seems to take its spin from the Russian demands for a sphere of influence, but would carve Syria in ways that erase the state.  A cartographical archeology reveals the deep difficulties in preserving the current theoretical national boundaries of the multi-ethnic state.

The boundaries between Syria and Iraq drawn for the interests of occupying British and French powers at the end of World War I and fall of the Ottoman Empire at the Sykes-Picot Accord of in 1916, is being altered in the region’s current map:  yet the deep destabilization created across the former provincial regions of the Ottoman empire reflect problems in defining allegiances in a map.  The increasingly tenuous ties across the region are tied as often to the provision of bread or the guarantee of temporary security in regions which have suffered ongoing lack of stability in past years–or any ties of food or health security–as they are to the effective tolerance of an ongoing civil war that has destroyed national infrastructures.  The severe instability across Syria that has ramped up support of ISIL, making the Islamic State a credible opposition to Bashar al-Assad, that reflect less the undue carving of the Ottoman Empire’s expanse than continued juggling of a system of alliances to secure oil, with little attention to the country’s inhabitants, that have allowed us to tolerate or suspend attention to the deep instabilities revealed in Syria’s civil war, and to the effective implosion of its state.

The newly centralized state that has emerged after the truncation of its name from the “Islamic State of Syria and the Levant” to “ISIS” transcends the notion of national boundaries.  As much as reject the reconfiguration about the littoral region of the Levant, in pivoting from the Mediterranean region of the Levant, ISIS has tried to assume the status of a state that is able to recuperate the notion of a mythic caliphate as a point of resistance.  But it is deeply rooted in the Syrian revolution, and a good portion of ISIS fighters have not only come from Syria, but have left the Syrian Free Army for ISIS, a more credible opposition to Assad’s regime, dissatisfied with their own leaders, and attracted by the clear vision of a state that the Islamic State provides.  The declaration of a New Caliphate not only “seeks to redraw the map of the Middle East, but dismantle the shortcomings and maladministration that is associated by earlier mappings of the region, and with the corruption of the Syrian state.

Its future survival however raises questions what sort of unity and coherence exists within a region out of the deep instability of Syria’s civil wars.  There is a clear tension in articulating a “State” in dialogue with extant maps, including the many maps drawn and redrawn across the region since World War I, in the hope of securing more fixed territorial bounds than existed in the Ottoman Empire, and a rejection of the territorial entities that seem to have been created in a colonial past for the ends of replicating a Eurocentric balance of powers, as much as the needs or allegiance of local residents.  Although ISIS promises to promote “justice and human dignity” for Muslims everywhere, the creation of such universal claims to over-write existing formerly centralized states in the region–dismantling any pretense of unity or national centralization that used to exist in Iraq, or of the imploded state of Syria–only mask a deep fracturing as individual oil companies back the break-up of oil-rich northern regions of the former Iraq in ways that may yet happen in other regions of the Middle East.

 

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Filed under Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, Islamic State, Middle East, Syrian Civil War

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 Watch 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:
syriaForMax-2
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:
Levant_Ethnicity_lg-smaller1-zoom
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.

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Filed under Mapping Chemical Weapons, mapping ethnic groups, Mapping Targets, newsmaps, Syrian Civil War