Mining underused data
Satellite imagery has been used in various publications to illustrate the magnitude of destruction of Syrian cities such Aleppo, Homs, Dayr Zor and Raqqa. One promising but underexploited form of such imagery is that provided by light signatures: maps that capture the average intensity of nighttime illumination in a given locality. By way of example, Synaps has been exploring a set of free images, representing monthly nightlight averages spanning April 2012 to July 2017, made available by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a branch of the United States Department of Commerce. While such images are by nature abstract and impressionistic, they can nonetheless provide valuable insight into the social, political and economic trends that have transformed—and continue to transform—the country.
Perhaps most strikingly, they capture the degree to which large swathes of the country have been plunged into literal darkness over six years of war. While all of Syria’s communities have suffered immensely throughout the conflict, such blackouts capture the more extreme levels of dislocation endured in certain localities. The shift from illumination to pitch black may signify one of several developments, or, most often, a combination thereof: physical destruction incurred by relentless aerial bombardment and/or systematic looting; depopulation, as communities were forced to leave en masse; lack of resources sufficient to sustain a basic economy, including power generation; and the absence of sociopolitical structures providing any but the most perfunctory forms of governance. A somewhat subtler but no less critical corollary of these emerging black holes regards the degree to which Syria has lost, since 2011, its overall cohesion as a state and a society, with the country’s various constituent parts increasingly separate from and alien to one another.
These images, moreover, are not merely a testament to the destruction that Syria’s war has wrought: they are also a stark, visual reality check at a time when Syria’s neighbors and the international community are increasingly tempted by the notion that the conflict is drawing to a close, and may soon permit the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees to their ruined homes across Syria. For the moment, however, no actor has demonstrated even the outline of a plan that would re-establish a degree of livability in these areas. Absent such a plan, discussions of potential returns to Syria remain decidedly premature, and indeed run the risk of generating momentum toward propelling vulnerable civilians back into the void from which they fled.
From integration to archipelago
A birds-eye view of Syria underscores the country’s atomization, most strikingly through the sparseness of light patterns across large swathes of rural, mostly agricultural territory in northern, eastern and southern Syria. If light signatures in such areas once resembled the Milky Way—with population centers linked together by more or less contiguous strings of less intense light sources—they now look increasingly like a disjointed constellation or archipelago, with islands of light surrounded by total or near-total darkness. Perhaps the most startling example of this trend is the transformation in light signature in the fertile territory along the Euphrates river, which runs from northern-central to southeastern Syria.
This shift has two likely explanations. First, Syrian government tactics—which rely heavily on indiscriminate aerial bombardment—have emptied out entire towns and villages in response to the presence of opposition armed groups. Second, conditions of wartime scarcity have predictably led to the concentration of resources—including electricity, and fuel to power generators—in population centers, which Damascus has understood as central to its survival. As a result, internally displaced persons (or IDPs) from rural areas have largely gravitated toward urban areas in which they expect to secure some minimum threshold of security and basic necessities. (That such migration is not reflected in increased light patterns of cities hosting IDPs presumably reflects those cities’ own resource shortages and out-migration.)
This trend, moreover, has dramatic implications for Syria’s future. For one, these wartime dynamics of rural-urban migration and preferential resource allocation have reinforced longstanding imbalances in Syria’s rural-urban equilibrium, which by many accounts helped fuel the conflict in the first place. Relatedly, the hollowing out of many rural, agricultural areas has the potential to incur longstanding demographic and economic knock-on effects, with which all stakeholders will need to grapple if any semblance of stability is to take hold in the foreseeable future.
Visual turning points in the war
Satellite imagery, here used in monthly averages, captures the way that different parts of Syria went dark at very different moments during the conflict. This timeline includes just a few examples of striking turning points.
Central Syria and sectarian fissures
The Syrian conflict arguably was at its ugliest in central Syria, where it exacerbated latent sectarian tensions and tended to pit certain Sunni constituencies against Alawites and small numbers of Shiites, while Christians and other minorities stayed largely on the sidelines.
While all sides suffered enormously, rural Sunni communities incurred the most thorough disruption. Zoomed-in images from central Syria capture this trend, showing discreet pockets of depopulation—or at least constant blackouts—where there were once small Sunni towns and villages between Homs and Hama and between Hama and Aleppo. Christian and Ismaili localities around Homs and Hama also were largely untouched, and thus fall in areas that remain bright.
For their part, the cities of Homs and Hama remain well-illuminated—particularly when compared with the much larger city of Aleppo, which has been all but extinguished. The mostly Sunni city of Hama has endured by mostly abstaining from the rebellion, haunted by the ghosts of its own 1982 showdown with Damascus. Homs, however, endured widespread inter-sectarian violence; its continued visibility, therefore, is likely attributable to the continued operation (and associated light pollution) from its oil refinery and other industrial facilities. That being said, higher quality images would convey the uneven distribution of damage and depopulation within Homs, whose poor Sunni neighborhoods have been largely levelled.
In sum, this image is telling for what it says about the violent fallout between the regime and various Sunni constituencies, particularly in rural and semi-rural communities. Such dynamics will persist and potentially deepen in the period ahead, not least because the Syrian government is likely to devote disproportionate resources to restoring services and rehabilitating infrastructure in territory that has been relatively loyal throughout the conflict.
The southern front
South of Damascus, light signatures reveal two distinct patterns that have crystallized in the period since January 2013. First and most striking is the patch of relative normalcy represented by Suweida governorate (also known as Jebel Druze) to the southeast, where the majority Druze population has painstakingly maintained its neutrality vis-à-vis Damascus.
This contrasts dramatically with the overwhelmingly Sunni Hawran region to the capital’s south and southwest, which early in the conflict became a bastion of opposition influence and, as such, has suffered widespread displacement and destruction. Likewise noteworthy are small pockets of Christian territory, which—much like the Druze community—have maintained a studious neutrality.
A second, subtler pattern lies in the two tendrils of illuminated territory that cut across the Hawran: one stretching south from Damascus to Daraa city and the Jordanian border, and the other southwest up to the Israeli-occupied Golan heights. These heavily fortified axes offer a potent representation of the Syrian government’s strategy throughout the southern front and elsewhere in opposition-controlled Syria: fall back to defensible, strategically vital positions, consolidate a foothold, and set about pounding surrounding territory into submission.
These trends further reflect the aforementioned dynamics of rural displacement and increasingly pronounced communal divisions visible across the country.
Wanted: lights at the end of the tunnel
Recent months have witnessed a pronounced shift in the international discourse on Syria. Increasingly, outside actors—ranging from the Lebanese, Turkish and Jordanian governments to their European counterparts and the United Nations—appear to be setting their sights on “the day after,” contemplating ways that Syrian refugees might begin to go home. Spring 2017 ushered in a limited but significant precedent in this respect, with tens of thousands of refugees returning from Turkey to areas of northern Syria following a mixture of Turkish and Syrian Kurdish operations to evict the Islamic State. Some areas witnessed a measure of revival that more granular imagery could help confirm, monitor and analyse effectively.
While this arguably represents a positive development, any discussion of returns to Syria deserves a large measure of caution and indeed concern. A growing narrative among Western and regional states supposes that active warfare has been the primary factor keeping Syrians from heading back to their cities, towns and villages. The reality, of course, is far more complicated, inextricably bound up with the patterns of social, political and economic degradation that have evolved throughout the conflict, and which are certain to persist or even intensify in the near-term.
Although the images discussed above help visualize the deep fractures incurred by Syrian society over six years of war, fault-lines existed long before its outbreak, and they were many: between competing cities, urban and rural, rich and poor, or various communal entities. Those fault-lines, however, have by now stretched into chasms. These will not be bridged in the near- or medium-term, in large part because no party to the conflict has demonstrated the slightest willingness or ability to build bridges. In just one striking example, the Syrian government has shown no interest in encouraging large-scale returns to areas it has reconquered; on the contrary, so far it has evinced an inclination toward social re-engineering in ways that threaten to exacerbate rather than rein in the country’s dissolution.
For as long as this remains the case, there should be no illusions: Syria’s conflict is far from over, and efforts to fast forward to repatriation will remain naïve at best and criminal at worst. Just as nightlight imagery helps illustrate major developments during the conflict’s escalation, it can likewise provide a powerful tool for documenting patterns of revival across different regions of Syria—particularly if deployed at the neighborhood level. Indeed, a recovery process driven by inclusive, forward-thinking urban policies would produce an altogether different light signature relative to one defined by cronyism and discrimination. International actors will inevitably play a role in propelling Syria along one trajectory or the other, and satellite imagery will prove one of various avenues for shedding light on the precise nature and implications of that role.
11 September 2017
Grateful credits: Rouba Wehbe for the creative cartography, Charles Maalouf and Alameen Najjar for technical advice, and NOAA for the data.
The Syrian tragedy has produced vast quantities of information, making it arguably the best documented conflict in history. While such information is indispensable for those seeking to document the conflict and untangle its many convoluted threads, its sheer volume can also be overwhelming—seeming, in a sense, to reflect the war’s chaos rather than making sense of it all. Synaps is exploring ways to extract meaningful insight from these mountains of data. Some options are deceptively simple, requiring little more than a web browser and the right mix of empathy and creativity.
A prime example is Google Trends, a tool that enables users to identify patterns in Google searches performed by people around the world. The system tracks keywords as they are “googled” over time, and presents data as a percentile of the strongest show of interest during the period considered. In Google’s own explanation: “A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. Likewise a score of 0 means the term was less than 1% as popular as the peak.”
Applied to the Syrian conflict, this tool can highlight social trends and point toward key junctures in the war’s trajectory. While the insights it offers are naturally imperfect and impressionistic, they can nonetheless prove a useful complement to other forms of research. Here are a few examples of relatively straightforward applications.
Syrian society goes dark
As the uprising kicked off in March 2011, Google searches in Syria reflected unprecedented inquiries regarding “virtual private networks” or VPNs, namely software that anonymizes the internet user, protects him or her from intrusive surveillance, and enables access to banned websites.
Interest in such software proved intense from mid-2011 to mid-2013, a period during which the regime gradually ramped up its suppression of a society that was not yet as geographically and politically fragmented as it is today. June 2011 marked a shift in the regime’s approach from tentative and ambivalent reform and repression to an all-out crackdown; June 2013 constituted another major turning point, with the massive use of chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus completing the process whereby President Bashar Assad essentially renounced any prospect of future reconciliation. It may be that, after that date, the segmentation of society was such that covert uses of the Internet declined-with Syrians either submitting to the regime or living in areas with which all bridges had been burned.
Incidentally, the sudden popular recourse to VPNs in the midst of the uprising was seeded by the regime itself in the period that preceded the conflict. In November 2007, the Syrian government officially banned the use of Facebook, citing security issues relating to Israel. In February 2011, it unblocked the social platform, either as a sign of goodwill in the face of mounting popular frustration across the Arab world, or to better equip itself to monitor such discontent, or both. The initial ban did less to deter Syrians than encourage them to explore VPNs. Specifically, they turned in 2009 and, even more vigorously, in 2010 to Hotspot Shield, software that remained popular during the uprisings.
The semi-public space
Regardless of escalating repression and widespread efforts to evade surveillance, Syrian adoption of social media followed patterns similar to—albeit slower than—those in less tightly contained societies. Whereas Western countries generally embraced as early as 2008 social platforms in general, and Facebook with more particular enthusiasm, the same process only kicked-in and accelerated in Syria as a result of the Arab uprisings: a relatively flat curve up to January 2011 became a steep upward slope, gradually eclipsing more traditional online sources of news such as al-Jazeera. The political trigger of this explosion in social media interest suggests the emergence of a “semi-public space” organized, at least initially, around the exchange of politically relevant information.
The elusive peace process
Google Trends offers few insights into rebellious patterns of behavior, due to self-censorship and VPNs. It does, however, present useful indications on how people in Syria respond to the conflict’s more innocuous forms of politics, notably peace talks.
The following chart tracks Syria-based Google searches for cities where key diplomatic events occurred in connection to the Syrian conflict. A striking peak of interest occurred in January 2014, as the United Nations hosted the “Geneva II” peace conference, which was designed to revive, update and operationalize the “Geneva I” agreement brokered in June 2012. Although Geneva II negotiations ended with no deal, they generated far more attention than the previous, more fruitful talks. A likely explanation is that Syrian society combined, at that point, a genuine eagerness for a political solution and some measure of hope that it could still be attained.
By contrast, Geneva III and IV, held respectively in January 2016 and February-March 2017, spurred both marginal and declining interest. The parallel “Vienna Process”—which as of October 2015 brought together key international players such as the United States, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia—generated less curiosity still. The opposition conference held in Riyadh in December 2015 prompted a level of interest slightly superior to the launch of the Vienna Process. Finally, talks organised in the Kazakh capital Astana, which have drawn considerable coverage by mainstream media and become, de facto, the primary venue for Syrian peace talks, have left Syrians cold. Digging deeper into the data and its geographical distribution across the country suggests that what little attention they have garnered, unlike other rounds of negotiations, has been centred in Damascus.
Fear of escalation
A search for Valium or Diazepam—an anti-anxiety medication widely used to manage stress in Syria—brings up a relatively stable graph, with a striking anomaly: on 18 June 2017, interest surged, notably in the Damascus and Aleppo governorates. On that day, two events set eerie precedents: on one side, the US for the first time downed a Syrian warplane; on the other, Iran launched ballistic missiles into Syria, allegedly targeting the Islamic State, but more likely in a show of force aimed at deterring Washington.
Although many Syrians express that a certain numbness has set in surrounding the horrific events in their conflict, this recent spike suggested a still-untapped reservoir of anxiety at the prospect of things getting worse still.
A search for different keywords suggesting a desire to leave Syria reveals trends that follow, predictably, the arc of the conflict. Syrians initially stayed put, showing, if anything, less of an appetite to leave their country than they did in the preceding period. Interest later grew as violence escalated and hope for the future plummeted. It culminated with the sudden summer dash to Europe in mid-2015, and dropped markedly thereafter—in reaction, no doubt, to radical European countermeasures and a general realization that this exit route was closed. Meanwhile, the spike of interest for the word “visa” in January 2016 is linked to a specific event, namely Turkey’s imposition of a visa regime on Syrians entering by air or sea.
For now, it would seem that Syrians who remain in Syria have largely given up on looking for emigration prospects, at least through Google searches—as opposed to offline networks and various forms of social media, which have developed into increasingly sophisticated tools for orchestrating emigration.
The data provides more unexpected insights also. People googling “ta’shira,” the formal word used for visa, or “Schengen,” happen to be concentrated in Damascus, where the most legitimate forms of travel seem to remain an option in the minds of those enquiring. Elsewhere the colloquial for “visa,” the keyword “emigration” as a generic query, “asylum” and even “smuggling” dominate.
Finally, the data highlights a somewhat counterintuitive seasonality: during the four years where trends were clearest (2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015), peaks occurred in September. This may correspond to the ominous approach of winter, or to a new cohort of young men who, not being registered in university, became susceptible to being drafted.
Again, the insights provided by these data are partial and subject to interpretation—but they are also highly suggestive, raising questions that can be further unpacked through qualitative fieldwork. Synaps will be continuing to explore how this and other open-source data tools can augment our own fieldwork-centric methodology.
31 July 2017