The damage in Homs.

Photographer: Mahmoud Taha/AFP/Getty Images

What Maps Say About Russia's Syria Aims

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Russia vehemently denies that its forces in Syria are bombing any group other than the so-called Islamic State. Western news organizations have countered that assertion with maps showing where different groups have control and the locations of Russian airstrikes. Russian media, too, have drawn some maps. No two maps are exactly alike, and many bear no resemblance to one another.

Syria's Civil War

It's a pointless debate in any case: Russia, invited into the conflict by President Bashar al-Assad, will bomb his enemies, whoever they happen to be. The U.S., the European Union, Turkey and Saudi Arabia can protest about the choice of targets, but Russia won't feel any obligation to listen. 

Nonetheless, figuring out where Russia is choosing to bomb is necessary to understanding President Vladimir Putin's tactical goals. In  theory, the maps would provide the answer, but they are unsuited to this purpose.

The Russian Defense Ministry has reported the airstrikes since they began Wednesday. The information it provides is not complete, but it usually contains location data that can be compared with the various maps. For example, on Thursday, it reported:

Later, it reported strikes on an "ISIS terrorist base" near Maarat al-Noaman, a "command center" at Jisr al-Shoughour in the Idlib province and a "hidden HQ" near Raqqa, the Islamic State stonghold.

Looking up these places on all the different maps is a confusing experience. The Carter Center, which has a Syrian war mapping project, places Idlib, Maarat al-Noaman and Jisr al-Shoughour under the control of anti-Assad rebels and puts Hama in Assad-controlled territory. 

According to the U.S. Institute for the Study of War, Idlib is held by the Syrian rebels, Jisr and Maarat appear to be controlled by the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and Hama is an Assad town.

An unsourced map used by the Financial Times put "ISIS areas of influence" near Idlib and Maarat al-Noaman.

The Russian business daily Kommersant's map, also with unclear sources, shows an area contested by the Syrian opposition and Islamic State next to Hama, and places Idlib and Maarat under the Syrian rebels. 

Raqqa is known to be under Islamic State control, and all the maps reflect this.

Even though the maps that attempt to pinpoint the Russian strikes are recent, the areas controlled by the various groups -- there are about 7,000 organizations involved in the Syrian conflict -- differ greatly in size and shape.   

Christopher McNaboe, with the Carter Center's Syria Conflict Mapping Project, said he uses three main sources: activist networks such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, social media and a network of contacts within Syria -- fighters in a number of armed groups and about 300 local residents. "These various sources work to corroborate each other, allowing us to determine front lines and their changes over time, the distribution of and relations between armed groups, and a fair amount of information regarding the movement of internally displaced persons," McNaboe said in an e-mail.

John Lawrence, director for external relations at the Institute for the Study of War, said in an e-mail that his organization's maps rely on "a variety of sources, including social media, official statements, news reporting, as well as videos people post." 

This means the mapmakers have to sift through the boasts of various groups, often unreliable evidence from local activists and residents and data from news reporters on the ground, who are severely constrained by the extreme danger of the conflict. The cartographers' work is hugely useful, but they cannot answer for its precision, especially in a rapidly changing situation. They cannot even pinpoint the Russian strikes because their sources may be wrong about who dropped a bomb where (and the Defense Ministry in Moscow is hardly a trustworthy source). That's why the most recent map from the Institute for the Study of War, produced Friday, marks some of the possible Russian strikes "low confidence":

If you accept the data on control areas and the location of the strikes as more or less accurate, it appears the Russian air force is hitting mainly opposition pockets within Assad-controlled territory, as well as targets along the separation line between Syrian government troops and various opposition militias. The reason various maps are unclear about who exactly is in control where is that these areas are hotly contested.

The Russian operations appears to be part of a concerted effort to help Assad recapture territory. If the Syrian dictator's land forces push ahead in the areas where Russian planes have dropped bombs, the purpose of the campaign will become unmistakably clear.

Russia also has struck a couple of Islamic State strongholds to the east, but the purpose of these missions may be to deflect accusations that Russia is not fighting that group, even though that was its stated purpose for intervening in Syria.

The publicly available maps, however, could be off target and the plan might be different. The targets the Russian air force is striking undoubtedly reflect the Syrian regime's priorities, which could include taking out particular enemies and small groups, as well as thwarting the U.S. -- a goal that's never far from Putin's mind.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net