When academics and journalists forego sharing their findings, out of intimidation, we all lose out.
- Academic freedom is what makes a university space work as a setting to develop students' capacities. It is the permission to think freely, and have contrarian discussions, that leads to new insights.
- There are whole zones of knowledge that we never get to because of intimidation put on academics: "We simply don't know what we haven't even thought to ask."
- Self-censorship, especially regarding sensitive topics, is the dark matter of the academic freedom universe. Out of fear of being attacked, or their families being harmed, some journalists and scholars will forego publishing their findings.
- The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
No, the Syrian civil war is not over. But it might be soon. Time for a recap.
- The War in Syria has dropped off the radar, but it's not over (yet).
- This 1-minute video shows how the fronts have moved – and stabilized – over the past 22 months.
- The clip runs, specifically, from 1 January 2017 to 4 November 2018 at the rate of 10 days per second.
The Syrian civil war no longer dominates the headlines. It has, in fact, almost completely dropped off the radar. Why? It's too complex and has gone on too long. Fighting has already lasted two years longer than World War II. And with the near-elimination of the (so-called) Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the darkest shade of evil has disappeared from the many-sided conflict.
Meanwhile another civil war, in Yemen, is deteriorating into a man-made famine that has already killed 85,000 children and threatens the lives of up to 14 million people. Plus, even more than usual, there's plenty of domestic violence and insanity to fill the news bulletins and stretch our attention span.
But the fighting in Syria is not over. At least not yet. This video, recapitulating the movements of the front lines over the past 22 months, does indicate that the Syrian war is moving into an end phase.
Running from 1 January 2017 to 4 November 2018 at the rate of 10 days per second, the video shows what atlases are too slow and sluggish to record: the shifting fronts in Syria's civil war, and thus the changing fortunes of its various combatants.
The area colors denote who's boss, the icons encode acts of war: airstrikes, shootings, road blocks, drones, shellings, armored vehicles (and their color, again, who is responsible). A note on territorial colors:
- Red is for the Syrian regime, led by president Assad (and supported by the Russians and Iranians).
- Green is for the various rebel factions (some supported by the West and/or the Saudis and various other Sunni Arab regimes).
- A duller (less visible) green is for Turkish troops and their local allies, in a zone in Northern Syria.
- Yellow is for the Kurdish forces (receiving some support from the U.S. and other Western powers).
- Grey is for ISIS (the territorial embodiment of the fundamentalist Islamic desire to re-establish a Caliphate).
- Blue is for the Golan Heights, Syrian territory occupied (since 1967) by Israel.
This corresponds largely with icon colors, except that blue here denotes Coalition strikes (and a strange coalition it is: encompassing both Israel and Saudi Arabia, plus U.S. and other NATO forces).
Frenzied iconstorms point to where the war is waged at its most intense. Bits of territory change color as they change hands. Below are seven stills, each three months apart, giving an overview of what's happening.
January 2017: Peak ISIS
At the start of 2017, the Islamic State has not just the color but also the size of an elephant, dwarfing all other players on this map. ISIS holds about half of Syria's territory, mainly in the centre and east. It even spills over into Iraq, of which it occupies the western third. One major caveat: a large part of the territory held by ISIS is uninhabited desert. Most Syrians live in the coastal zone, disputed between the Syrian government and the 'official' rebels.
April 2017: the Caliphate in retreat
Another caveat: we just passed IS's high-water mark. At the start of April, while IS has maintained its territories in Iraq, everyone has been nibbling at its lands in Syria. The Kurds are moving south, towards the Euphrates (that ribbon cutting through the emptiness of eastern Syria). The Syrian government has advanced towards Palmyra, in the empty centre of Syria. And the rebels have eliminated an IS pocket in the south.
July 2017: Raqqa falls to the Kurds
By mid-2017, the Kurds have firmed up their presence north of the Euphrates, taking IS capital Raqqa and eliminating a rebel patch on the wrong side of the river. The Syrian regime has expanded its territories in the south and north. All (mainly) at the expense of IS. The rebel areas in the southwest and northwest of the country seem pretty resistant to intrusion by the regime – and unable to expand at its expense.
October 2017: Rebel territory shrinks
The main feature is the large intrusion of regime forces into IS territory – but remember, this is mainly empty desert. Equally portentous is the fact that the pockets of rebel territory in the east keep shrinking.
January 2018: Euphrates becomes border
By the new year, Syrian president Assad's forces have pushed the rebels out of more areas in the south, and the Kurds have pushed down along the east bank of the Euphrates all the way to the Iraqi border. The river is now essentially a border between the Assad regime and the Kurds.
April 2018: Turks take Afrin
Turkish troops and their allies take the Kurdish-controlled exclave of Afrin, leading to a massive flow of refugees. The Kurds receive no international support: none of their western allies are keen to engage directly with the Turks.
July 2018: Mopping up
The regime is mopping up resistance, eliminating smaller rebel enclaves while the two main ones retain their size. Kurds reduce the IS pocket on their side of the river, but IS territory expands a little again on the other bank, the regime side.
November 2018: Consolidated zones
This is what the map of Syria looked like early November 2018, and the situation hasn't substantially altered since then. The various parties have consolidated their territories: Kurds and allies generally control everything east of the Euphrates,
Turkish-backed rebels hold a northern patch, adjoining the only major territory still held by the 'official' rebels, around the city of Idlib. The rest is controlled by the Assad regime and its allies, save for two patches of desert: a V-shaped zone where IS clings on to life, and a circular area on the border with Jordan.
The borders of these various zones have achieved a measure of fixity over the past months. Barring any major offensive by the various exhausted parties, they may even achieve a degree of permanence.
Perhaps the final map of Syria—final enough to make it into an official atlas — will look something like this: a Kurdish zone in the east, Turkish occupation in the north, with perhaps one or two rebel pockets bordering Turkey and Jordan, and the rest at the command of Assad, undefeated but not entirely victorious.
The video is the result of meticulous record-keeping by Live Universal Awareness Map (Liveuamap), an independent organisation dedicated to factual and impartial map-based reporting.
Liveuamap was founded in 2014 to inform the world about the conflict in Ukraine. Its combination of chronology and cartography, aimed at bringing "clarity and transparency of information" to readers around the world, has proved popular. The site has since expanded to cover a total of more than 30 regions and topics.
That being said, this video is a bit… off. Summarising almost two years of bloody conflict in a one-minute video, complete with generic rock music soundtrack, feels callous to say the least — a 'gamification' of large-scale suffering.
But perhaps this too is part of the brutality of war: death and misery turned into a database. And we know our way around Big Data much better than Stalin did. "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic", the Soviet dictator famously said. This video takes it one step further, turning tragedy into animation.
Strange Maps #949
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When it comes to ISIS, terrorism, and global and domestic instability, America has been its own worst enemy.
For the last 25 years, the U.S. has based its foreign policy on a sense of primacy and idealism rather than restraint and realism, says William Ruger, Vice President for Research and Policy, Charles Koch Foundation. Ruger asserts that the U.S. failed to recognize the human and economic cost of international military and political intervention. "We've really opened up all kinds of challenges in this attempt to open up an exemplar for the Middle East. We actually have created an exemplar," he says, "an exemplar of what can go wrong if you engage in the world without first thinking carefully about what is necessary for American safety, and what the unintended consequences of our behavior could be..." The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the Foundation is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.
The #1 problem with America's mission to spread democracy? We don't know how to do it.
Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been trying to create a liberal world order—and it's been a bipartisan effort, says Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University. The problem is that pushing democracy onto other nations is a "delusional" pursuit that destabilizes states in already fractured circumstances. Walt uses the cases of Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan to demonstrate why the US needs an intervention on its constant military interventions. A better approach to US foreign policy? Walt suggests leading by example. The best way to spread democracy abroad might be to have a strong democracy at home. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the Foundation is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.
ISIS, Hurricane Katrina, Fukushima—for each of these disastrous developments, there was someone with a bunch of data that no one would listen to.
Noticing a pattern emerge in the aftermath of some of the worst catastrophes in recent years—like Hurricane Katrina, Fukushima, and the formation of ISIS—global security experts Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy wrote a book called Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes. It is an historical investigation and instructive framework that can be used to predict disasters before they occur. How can they do that? Well, the predictions already exist, it's just that no-one is listening. These people making the predictions—who are always experts with strong data to support their claim, but who are dismissed by other experts—are known as 'Cassandras' (a name taken from Greek mythology). By sifting through history to find past Cassandras, they have developed a system to know which predictions are false alarms, and which are absolutely critical to humanity's future. Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy's new book is Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes.