Mapping the conflict in Aleppo

Caerus's map of Aleppo detailing its 56 neighborhoods
Caerus’s map of Aleppo detailing its 56 neighborhoods

From September 2013 to January 2014, Caerus Associates worked with local research teams in Aleppo to conduct an assessment of the conflict in the city using First Mile Geo, a cloud-based map and data analytics platform. Thursday morning the American Security Project hosted a briefing in which Dr. David Kilcullen and Nathan Rosenblatt of Caerus reported their findings.  The full report can be downloaded here.

Dr. Kilcullen (CEO, Caerus) explained that the report is not a policy prescriptive exercise. Above all else, Syria is a humanitarian tragedy. When working in a conflict zone, it is extraordinarily difficult to approach a civilian community to find out what is happening without jeopardizing or endangering them. Caerus has successfully done so in Aleppo.

Matt McNabb (CEO, First Mile Geo) described how over the last 3.5 years Caerus has been trying to understand how to enable local communities and NGOs to collect, share, and make visible insights that are apparent to people living on the ground but that are not obvious to outsiders. How can we make visible that which is hyper local in places of crisis? Through the report they were able to acquire information and drive local data-driven decision-making. Now the report is widely available to any interested parties.

Nathan Rosenblatt (MENA Analyst, Caerus) answered the question, why study Aleppo? In addition to being Syria’s largest and most diverse city, it is heavily divided and contested. With barrel bombs being regularly dropped by the Syrian government, thousands of people have fled the city. Conflict in Aleppo is relevant to and a microcosm of what is happening in Syria. Furthermore it has both urban/rural and ethnic/sectarian dynamics. Aleppo’s fate be similar  to that of Mosul or Benghazi. The situation is difficult to control. This creates opportunities for non-state armed groups and terrorist networks to find safe havens and to thrive. One of the things that most motivates Caerus is how to identify armed groups that are exerting control over Aleppo. This helps to understand how groups take hold in the future and how they got there. This is important for future studies of the city and more generally Syria.

The findings of the report were the following:
1) The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has grown and evolved. Al Qaeda-affiliated ISIS actively imposes its ideology on residents in Syria. It is growing in the poorest parts of Aleppo and the newest areas of urban growth. ISIS directs its efforts towards “soft targets” – places away from the front-lines. These areas are less threatened by the regime and are not well protected by other opposition groups closer to the fighting. ISIS still controls more neighborhoods (10) than any other armed opposition group, despite their efforts to drive it out of Aleppo.

2) There has been a rise in “franchise” brigades. The total number of armed groups has been decreasing every month. The strongest brigades in each neighborhood are franchising the smaller brigades and becoming larger. Through this consolidation of brigades, they became larger, but fewer in number.

3) At the beginning of the research, regime-held bakeries charged 3-5 times more than those in opposition-held neighborhoods in Aleppo. In October 2013, regime-held area bakeries returned to pre-war bread prices and were cheaper than the opposition bakers. This is because the Syrian government only has one land supply route into Aleppo. When cut, the price of basic necessities rises. It wasn’t until October that the regime regained access to this route.

4) Opposition-held Aleppo’s most vulnerable neighborhoods receive some of the least assistance.

5) In four months of surveying 561 residents, Caerus learned that almost 40% of Aleppo residents – across all districts – believe no one is a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. In comparison, 21.3% of those surveyed believed the Free Syrian Army was the most representative and 12.1% believed the Assad regime was. As these two groups are the ones participating in the Geneva talks, these results suggest that neither has much legitimacy on the ground in Syria.

6) Regime support is not monolithic.

7) The regime deploys its Air Force Intelligence, the strongest agency in its security apparatus, to crush dissent. It now controls 10 out of 22 regime-held neighborhoods.

8) Armed groups from both sides set up checkpoints, restricting citizens’ movement and cutting off travel to and from Aleppo.

9) About 40% of bakeries in opposition-held Aleppo are closed or destroyed. The regime deliberately targets and drops bombs on bread lines. This causes residents to organize and work with neighborhood councils to distribute bread. Now about 90% of bakeries are not open to the public. Instead, bread is distributed by local neighborhood councils. While there is little variability in price, it is generally higher in opposition-held neighborhoods.

10) Caerus identified three municipal institutions that predated the uprising. All three were present in nearly every regime-held neighborhood. None existed in opposition-held areas. Residents in regime-held neighborhoods reported receiving more than 12 hours of electricity from the government grid. In contrast, residents in opposition-held neighborhoods have 6 or fewer hours of grid electricity. The Syrian government provides basic necessities to regime-held neighborhoods and sabotages opposition-held neighborhoods.

More information and interactive maps from the report can also be found here.

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