Middle East

Mapping out the tapestry of Syria’s civil war of attrition

BEIRUT: Two maps created by an independent researcher of the Syrian war provide a good idea of how 2014 has unfolded militarily, as the year draws to a close and a U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes against jihadis has been added to an already complicated, horrifically destructive conflict.

The maps of the situation on the ground by Dutch activist Thomas van Linge might not be endorsed by everyone, but his division of the country agrees with most versions of what is taking place.

One map, from March 15, represents the situation after Free Syrian Army militias pushed ISIS militants out of Idlib province, the city of Aleppo and some of Aleppo province.

This campaign forced ISIS to regroup to the east, consolidating its forces around its de facto capital of the city of Raqqa, while the Al-Qaeda splinter group remained outside much of next-door Deir al-Zor province and its main city.

The other map is from the beginning of this month, after a whole series of gains and losses by the various sides over the last seven months.

The color coding of the maps identifies these main groups: Assad regime (red), ISIS (black), the Nusra Front (dark gray), Islamist rebels (dark green), mainstream FSA (light green), and the Kurds (yellow).

The second map, from Dec. 1, introduces a shaded color-coding that gives a telling picture of how some of the main players – principally the regime of President Bashar Assad, and the militants of ISIS – exercise two degrees of control: a darker hue to indicate their core presence, and a lighter shade, hinting at less direct control over territory.

The year is drawing to an end with talk of how the rebels are on the verge of collapse, after gains by the regime and ISIS. The reality is more nuanced, however.

In March, ISIS forces were relatively strong, but in a smaller area of territory. After ISIS swept through much of Deir al-Zor province during the summer and established a presence in the city, the group now holds more territory. But much of it – unpopulated steppe areas, for the most part – is under a kind of loose control that could be challenged if other sides had the capabilities to do so.

The regime, meanwhile, wielded direct control over nearly half the country in March but at the end of the year, a huge chunk of its territory is marked with a lighter hue, indicating indirect control.

The Kurds began the year holding three sizeable chunks of territory along the northern border with Turkey. The portion furthest west has remained stable, but the middle portion, around the border town of Ain al-Arab, or Kobani in Kurdish, has seen significant losses to ISIS.

But the ISIS militants, after launching an offensive against Ain al-Arab in September, don’t seem poised to finish off this tiny pocket of Kurdish control, after U.S-led coalition airstrikes began targeting their positions and after the arrival of reinforcements from the FSA and Iraqi peshmerga. The largest Kurdish-held portion, furthest to the east, has seen losses and gains on a relatively small scale.

As for the rebels, the maps note how the mainstream FSA has lost territory over 2014, particularly in the northern provinces of Hama, Idlib and Aleppo. But in Deraa and Qunaitra provinces in the south, the rebels have made gains against regime forces, particularly in the last two months.

Over the year, FSA-aligned militias have lost significant territory in Idlib province to Islamist groups, and particularly to Al-Qaeda’s affiliate the Nusra Front. But in many theaters of the war, the rebels are organized in loose “fighting coalitions.” FSA groups might combine efforts with either the Nusra Front, as in Deraa province, or members of the conservative Islamic Front, as in several locations.

Van Linge’s maps also provide details at the level of individual towns and cities, as Syria’s extremely complicated military situation requires considerable time and effort to map out.

The regime maintains a small presence in the southern city of Deraa, although much of the town and the surrounding countryside are in the hands of rebel groups. The regime also retains pockets of control in the northeastern cities of Hassakeh and Qamishli, although Kurdish militias and ISIS control most of the province.

In one sense, 2014 can be summed up by two offensives – the Latakia campaign by the rebels, and the Qalamoun offensive by the regime and its paramilitary allies. Each effort produced gains of territory, at the cost of many lives, but either a withdrawal (by the rebels in Latakia) or an eventual stalemate (for the regime in Qalamoun). And the two campaigns appear to have settled very little in terms of prospects for bringing the war’s end any closer.

Twitter account of Thomas van Linge:

https://twitter.com/arabthomness

Maps distributed via Belgian researcher Pieter van Ostaeyen:

http://pietervanostaeyen.wordpress.com/

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 12, 2014, on page 12.

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