Atlas of Obedience

The way each country’s media draws its maps of the civil war in Syria dictates how readers imagine the conflict should be ‘solved.’ And these maps, as as  French political scientist Lucile Housseau shows here, largely follow the political and diplomatic positions of each country’s leaders.

Maps are not impartial documents, and even less so when they depict armed conflicts. In the following discussion, we look at a number of maps depicting the conflict in Syria. They were published by American, French, Saudi and Russian media; as we shall see, they illustrate how the political discourse in each country strongly influences the way its maps are drawn.

After the chemical weapons attacks in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21 of 2013, the US, UK and France announced that they were planning an armed intervention in Syria. Media around the world, and newspapers in particular, published numerous articles regarding these threats to intervene, illustrating many of them with maps.

Among them were the following four maps published respectively by the Wall Street Journal [USA], Le Monde [France], Al-Arabiya [Saudi/Dubai] and Kommersant [Russia], in which an examination reveals differences in cartographic choices, in map scaling, in the elements which are represented, as well as in the choices of symbols. We will see that how these cartographers draw their maps largely follows the diplomatic positions of the countries where they are published.

The Western maps first of all place an emphasis on representing their own armed forces, followed by those of their allies, and nearly ignore the military capabilities of their adversaries. The American map (Map 1) mentions the “allies” of the US though it gives no details about the countries which might have, in the case of a military assault on Syria, formed a coalition with the Americans.

The UK is not mentioned, despite the fact that, on August 27, 2013, the date the article was published, the British had still not disengaged from the conflict. France is not mentioned either. The map equally ignores the Russian arsenal which is deployed in the Mediterranean. In contrast, it presents in detail and with numerous illustrations the American military arsenal.

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MAP ONE – WALL STREET JOURNAL, AUG 27 2013.

This is the same method that was taken by the Le Monde newspaper in presenting the French military arsenal (Map 2). The illustrations represent French forces; there is in contrast no trace of Syria’s military forces. In both maps, Syrian territory is represented in small scale, stripped of details, and appears at the center of the image, like a target.

And while the American map indicates seven Syrian military sites, it does so in the form of red dots, and actually specifies that they are targets for Tomahawk missiles. A demonstration of the trajectory of these missiles is in fact integrated into the map; and the diagram makes a point of underlying the accuracy of this type of weapon.

This infographic echoes the statements of Senator Bob Corker who was, two days before this map was published, the first to raise the prospect of ‘surgical strikes’ in the context of an American intervention in Syria. This depiction in fact resembles a promotion of his notion, and the extreme simplification of the Syrian territory, in which nothing appears other than the major military sites which are destined to be bombarded, reinforces the impression that “surgical” strikes without collateral damage would be possible.

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MAP TWO – LE MONDE, SEPT 20 2013.

The anticipated military operations represented by these two newspapers thus appear to be simple matters, without real obstacles. Syrian territory is emptied out, dehumanized. Everything suggests that it will not be a war so much as a simple, efficient, and masterful military intervention.

Another map, published by Le Monde on Sept 5, 2013, represents the political positions of the various Arab countries toward an anticipated Western intervention (Map 3). It bears the title “Support from the Gulf Monarchies for Intervention.” But it is the subtitle that betrays the map’s real intent: it lays out the positions of all the Arab countries on intervention in Syria, represented with a simple but by no means innocent color code.

The countries labeled “interventionist” are represented in dark green; the countries labeled “legalistic” labeled in light green and the “anti-interventionist” in red. The color choices are very significant firstly because, as Michel Pastoreau explains in his writings, colors have a cultural and psychological anchoring.

In the West, the color red signifies refusal or danger, while green has a more positive connotation: it is the color of consent. Moreover, in this map the same color, in a darker or lighter shade, is used to represent very different positions, as if the cartographer wanted us to confuse them; the map thus creates the illusion of a support for Western intervention that is more widespread than in reality.

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MAP THREE – LE MONDE, SEPT 5 2013

The Saudi map, though it is more fantastical, still very much resembles the Western maps (Map 4). A military aircraft is about to overfly a Syrian territory that is emptied and presented as a target. The choice of a satellite photo gives the reader an impression of realism, letting him imagine that the military intervention, though still in a planning phase, has already begun.

The lighthearted tone of the map’s title takes the drama out of the military action. The reader can have no doubts that an armed intervention is legitimate. The planned western operation in Syria was, we should remember, very strongly supported by Saudi leaders.

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MAP FOUR – AL ARABIYA, AUG 29 2013

The Russian map (Map 5) is very different from the Western and Saudi maps. It is the only one in which Syrian military capabilities appear-and not depicted as targets-and it also indicates Russian logistical resources in the area.

This map foregrounds the complexity of the situation: the presence of human populations, the territories controlled by various belligerents (governments, insurgents, Kurds), and the zones of confrontation.

The expanded map of the city of Damascus emphasizes the idea of the risks of military intervention. In sum, this simplified map of the capital depicts six structures: first, the military airport, the Ministry of Defense, the Presidential Palace, the Parliament-in other words the potential Western bombing targets-but also the Omayyad Mosque and the Citadel: two historic monuments situated near the previously cited target buildings.

Implicitly, this map is evoking the risk of damage that airstrikes could cause to the country’s cultural heritage. It also avoids the simplified chessboard images of the other maps which suggest that an attack would be easy and clean. In this sense, the map reflects the position of Russian leaders who have since the beginning of the conflict opposed a foreign military intervention which would in the words of the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, “plunge the country into chaos.”

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MAP FIVE – KOMMERSANT, AUG 28 2013

These differences are not simply ordinary variations in the way one might choose to draw a map: they are clues to the world view of the cartographers themselves.

A careful survey of all of the maps of the Syrian conflict printed by these four publications from the beginning of the uprising in 2011, through June of last year, shows that each of them consistently emphasizes particular elements of the conflict. An emphasis that repeats, here as well, the diplomatic position of each publication’s particular country.

For example Al Arabiya’s maps accentuate the humanitarian catastrophe, which has become the main justification for the Saudis’ bellicose discourse against the regime of Bashar al-Assad–while the maps published by Kommersant reflect the attention of Russian leaders toward the communitarian dimensions of the conflict.

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MAP SIX- AL ARABIYA, OCT 7 2012

The Saudi publication builds its representation of the war in Syria around the conflict’s humanitarian catastrophe. The majority of maps of the Syrian conflict published by Al-Arabiya between March of 2011 and last June are concerned with laying out the various humanitarian repercussions: deaths, refugees, displaced people, poverty resulting from the conflict, destruction of property.

This focus on the victims seems intended to justify the belligerent discourse of Saudi leaders toward Bashar al-Assad, whom they regularly characterize as a “butcher.” The elements which appear on these maps leave no doubt about the message they are trying to deliver.

The map published on Oct. 7, 2012 (Map 6) represent the number of deaths in each region of Syria. Beside the map is a picture of Bashar al-Assad, wearing a silly expression clearly intended to trigger outrage in readers [when paired with the body count graphics]; at the same time, the map suggests that the human cost, which has been laid out beside and below him, is his responsibility.

On the maps published on Sept 4 and Dec. 3, 2013 (Maps 7 and 8), images of women and children with distressed expressions have been superimposed.

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MAP SEVEN-AL ARABIYA, SET 4 2013

This use of the stereotypical iconography of pain and weakness is a kind of theatrical staging of the distressed populations, intended to play on the emotions of readers, thereby making them more susceptible to the aggressive political discourse of Saudi leaders toward the Syrian regime.

It is particularly interesting to note the proliferation of these kinds of maps after the official Saudi declaration in favor of armed intervention following the chemical weapons attacks that took place in August, 2013. During a meeting that took place in Cairo on Sept. 13 of that year, the Saudi foreign minister declared before his counterparts from the Arab League that it was “time to demand that the international community take up its responsibilities, and take dissuasive measures” against the Syrian regime; he went on to say that any opposition to such an intervention would “encourage the regime in Damascus to continue committing its crimes.”

In the course of the three months that followed this declaration, Al Arabiya published as many maps related to the humanitarian catastrophe as it had in the first two years of the conflict, in spite of the fact that there was no sudden increase in the number of refugees.

The focusing of attention on the victims by way of this profusion of maps, the dramatization of the humanitarian situation, as well as the laying of blame on the Syrian regime by way of the photographs, all become tools for condemning that regime, and add up to making the Saudi demand for military intervention legitimate, even morally necessary.

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MAP EIGHT – AL ARABIYA DEC 3 2013

During this same period, Kommersant dedicated most of its cartography to depicting ethno-religious communities. A choice that echoes the communitarian reading of the conflict that had been adopted by Russian leaders since the spring of 2011. Putting the question of minority communities at the center of the diplomatic debate –most notably the country’s Christians– Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described Bashar al-Assad in 2012 as “the guarantor of [their]security.”

At the fiftieth annual Munich Security Conference, held between Jan. 31 and Feb. 2 2014, he expressed his unease in the face of “the bloody conflict in Syria [which]has transformed this country into a bastion for extremists and terrorists around the world.” He said he was very pessimistic regarding the “atrocities committed them against the Christians and other minorities of the Near East.”

The historian Frederic Pichon explains that Russian support for the Baathist regime owes much to the Orthodox Christian idea of Russia as the protector of Christian minorities in the Arab world. The country, he says, is also renewing its imperial tradition, in which the Orthodox Christian community served to spread Russian influence throughout the region.

This importance given to minorities by Russian leaders is also reflected in the maps of Kommersant. The map published on Aug. 30, 2012 is particularly eloquent (Map 9). The map’s key exaggerates the proportions of minorities in the overall population, and in particular that of Christians.

While in reality they represent less than 5 percent of the population, according to demographer Youssef Courbage, the map claims twice that (10 percent). If we rely on this demographer’s figures, the real proportion of Alawites and Kurds is also smaller than that depicted on the map (10.2 percent Alawite, instead of the 12 percent claimed in the map’s legend, and 8.3 percent Kurdish, in place of the claimed 10 percent).

The map also creates a Christian region to the west of the Alawite region. Although this region does contain small pockets of Christians, it is more heavily populated by Sunnis and Alawites. Finally, the light yellow color of the Sunni population loses out to the darker colors used to represent minority regions, making them more visible by contrast.

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MAP NINE – KOMMERSANT AUG 30 2012

Some maps are simple mouthpieces for the political choices of national leaders. Others however are more than that: they are tools which create legitimacy and justification for the positions of these political elites in relation to the conflict in Syria.

Maps can also give clues to the deeper concerns of leaders, laying down in graphic form the real reasons behind the public diplomatic choices they make. In the end, they are not just projections of conscious political choices, but the product of the cultural biases of those who draw them. Not only tools of information, maps seem to reveal the conflict of representations that overly the armed conflict.

Lucile Housseau Translated from French by International Boulevard