Maps created by Léopold Lambert for The Funambulist (April 2015) / Download a high-quality version of them here (5.5MB) (license: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0)
The following article is not an analysis of the current Syrian situation, simply a collection of facts that, I hope, are more imprecise than inaccurate. When a situation is this much complex however, documents that gather this kind of information appear as helpful — if not for anyone else, at least for the person producing this work. Although the two maps were made not to necessitate a text on their side, they are complex documents (because describing a complex situation) and I would like to try to explain each of their points, one by one, throughout the following article:
Although it is tempting to explain every Middle Eastern conflict through the ethic prism like we currently do in the Yemen civil war, things are always more complex. An essentialization of groups into two major categories, (shia and sunni for instance) instead of one, certainly reveals a higher degree of reality’s complexity; yet, it remains fundamentally a categorization of groups that, often, are unrelated despite a shared label. Ethnicities, and in particular religions are also often used to provide a simple narrative to explain a conflict (in Northern Ireland or in Palestine for example), when the reality may be more related to (geo)political issues — something more difficult to describe through a mainstream journalistic narrative — as Ahmed Henni attempts to explain (in French) in the context of the struggle between shias and sunnis.
Map by Michael Izady (source)
In the case of Lebanon and Syria, we nevertheless need to start with a cartographic understanding of ethnicities. Lebanon, for instance, recognizes eighteen different sects among its citizens. This official characteristic for each one of them — one has his/her religion written on their identification card — has crucial political consequences since the Lebanese parliament itself is elected based on religious quotas between Christians (Maronites, Greek Orthodoxes, Greek Catholics, Armenian Orthodoxes, Armenian Catholics, Protestants, and other minorities) and Muslims (Sunnis, Shias, Alawites and Druzes). The map presented above does not include the differences internal to Lebanese Christianity. The four types of areas represented illustrate strong ethnic majorities of Shias (23% of the national population), Sunnis (23%), Druzes (7%), and Christians (41%).
Syria’s population is not as immediately diverse as far as these large categorical groups are concerned. 64% are Sunnis — again, it is important to remember the existence of internal branches within this label — while 18% are Shias, 5% Druzes and 13% Christians. Since 1966 however, the country is lead by an Alawite (a branch of Shia Islam), in the successive persons of Salah Jadid (1966-1970), Hafez al-Assad (1971-2000) and Bashar al-Assad (2000-now), all belonging to the Syrian Ba’ath Party. Once again, the simple observation that the country is ruled by a representative of a minority (18% of the Syrian population is Alawite) and the rebels are primarily Sunnis is not enough to explain the civil war. An easy way to understand this consists, among other things, in noticing that 14% of the Sunni population is actually Kurdish, and thus belongs to a nation without a state, Kurdistan being a region overlapping lands under Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian sovereignty.
The second layer to observe on the first map consists in the hatched zoning over Syria and Lebanon (non-hatched part being under the control of the respective state armies). We can roughly distinguish eight distinct belligerents currently fighting in Syria: (1) the Syrian regular army taking orders from Bashar al-Assad fights against (2) the Syrian Rebels — themselves partitioned into different factions — (3) the al-Nostra Front (Al Qaeda in Syria and Lebanon), (4) Daesh (ISIL), and (5) Israel, which occupies the Golan Heights since 1967 and occasionally bomb military facilities (2014) and Hezbollah convoys (2015). (6) the Lebanese Hezbollah fighting alongside the regular army against the rebels and Daesh, mostly in Syria, but also in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. In addition it is continuously at war with Israel, and reciprocal attacks often occur in proximity with the Golan Heights. (7) the Kurdish People’s Protection Units defend Kurdish areas against all groups trying to take control of them. (8) the International coalition led by the United States and including Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, launches regular airstrikes against Daesh (see map here).
In future articles, I might try to articulate a few things I read about Aleppo, the largest city of Syria that experiences the multiplicity of these fronts on at the urban scale, as well as about the strategy of the Hezbollah since I recently started reading Aurélie Daher’s apparently exhaustive work about the question. In the meantime, the following is a recent map created by the cartographic department of Le Monde (February 27, 2015):
Another dimension showed on the map is the part of the Palestinian population that lives in UNRWA refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria. This population has played a very important part in Lebanese politics since its forced arrival in the country in 1948 and 1949 — the PLO headquarters were even located in South Lebanon between 1971 and 1982. In Syria, these camps suffer drastically from the war, and on April 1, 2015, Daesh attaqued the largest of them: Yarmouk, a few kilometers outside Damascus. Although temporary (for the last 58 years!), the camp is the home of about 150,000 refugees, who are now deprived of most accesses to food. For more information, see UNRWA’s website.
It is impossible to evoke refugees without speaking of the Syrian refugees who fled the combat zones to neighboring countries: 1.20 million to Lebanon, 1,76 million to Turkey, 630,000 to Jordan, 250,000 to Iraq, and 130,000 to Egypt.
The second map attempts to illustrate the drastic decrease of access of electricity, illustrated by the comparison of night time satellite imagery between March 2011 and February 2014 (Xi Li and Deren Li, 2014). The correlation might not be as simple as affirming that the absence of lights at night necessary equals the lack of electricity, especially in a time of war where visibility provides targets; yet there is a reasonable suspicion that such a correlation can be made.
Another aspect showed on the map is the centralization of the internet port of Syria in Tartous that, not only is situated in a predominantly Alawite region, also hosts a Russian naval base since 1971. Although the access to the internet could not possibly be compared with access to food like the one described above in Yarmouk, it seemed important to correlate this map with a recent article I wrote about the geopolitics of Internet submarine cables. In it, I was describing how the fragility of the Syrian internet port had been used repeatedly by Bashar al-Assad in order to fully shut down the Internet access of the whole country for periods of time from a few hours to two full days.
In conclusion, I would like to apologize in advance to anyone who will find that the sum of information given above does not touch enough the level of complexity to which such attempted study should pretend to be useful. These maps and text were merely a snapshot of the situation in April 2015, without an explanation of how history lead us here, nor an analysis of what this snapshot can tell us for the future. I simply hope that it allowed a few readers to have a glimpse at the political complexity unfolding on a small territory — as indicated on the map, the distance between Damascus and Aleppo and between New York and Boston is almost exactly the same. I might also use this article as a toolbox for a more precise look at specific situations like the urban dimension of the war in Aleppo for instance.