Working with research teams and surveyors on the ground in Syria’s largest city, it conducted biweekly and monthly in-situ assessments over a four-month period.
“Collectively, this provides a rich and dynamic picture of the humanitarian and security conditions within the ongoing conflict, its impact on the city’s residents, and the strategies of those who employ violence to assert control,” it said in a report accompanying the data.
Among the team’s key findings were that violent extremists remain strong despite conflict with other opposition groups; the Syrian government faces deteriorating public support despite military superiority; no national institution is regarded as as a “legitimate” representative of Syrians; and that the Syrian government has only one land supply route into Aleppo that, when cut, dramatically raises the price of basic necessities in government-controlled areas.
We asked Nathaniel Rosenblatt, the Caerus senior analyst who spearheaded the research, to weigh in on what was found, and why mapped block-by-block data is important to understanding and analyzing the conflict.
We’d been working on helping humanitarian agencies make sense of the Syrian conflict since November 2012, and this particular project came out of an interest in utilizing geo-social mapping software that we’d been developing in-house and seeing what kinds of insights can be gained from doing structural research. We’re taking big data and giving it a map structure.
We really felt like Aleppo itself was an important place to do that proof of concept. We picked it because Aleppo is Syria’s largest city, it had about one-third of Syria’s industrial output. More importantly it really embodies a few major trends of the conflict.
One is this urban/rural dynamic. It’s no secret that Aleppo was late to the uprising in Syria, and when the fight was brought to it in September 2012, one Free Syrian Army fighter said, we waited and waited for Aleppo to rise, and it didn’t, so we had to bring the revolution to Aleppo. At that time there were a lot of merchants and businessmen and wealthy people who didn’t have an interest in the revolution. And there was this interesting interplay between rural Aleppo communities and migrants who had come to Aleppo’s city center and suburbs. Their relationship with those traditional business elites played out in the city’s conflict. A lot of the urban growth of Aleppo took place in eastern Aleppo, which are now the opposition-controlled areas of the city.
Then there are the ethnic and sectarian aspects of Aleppo. It probably has the largest Christian population of any city in the Middle East, other than Beirut, so the intercommunal tensions reverberate across Syria.
Most importantly in our minds, it’s a second city for Syria. It’s away from the capital and hard for the capital city to govern. But it’s still a huge city, so there’s lots of opportunity for armed groups to section off parts of it, control them and make money off things like increased rents. We knew that if we could figure out exactly who those armed groups were, how they related to the community and their strategies for gaining control, we could gain a really important baseline of information.
We worked hard to represent the way the conflict unfolded across the whole city, not just the opposition-controlled areas. We found really interesting things in regime-controlled Aleppo. One is that regime support is not unanimous: people’s political preferences in regime-held areas are not monolithic. In some parts of Aleppo city, one survey question we asked was, who is a legitimate representative of the Syrian people? Options included the FSA brigades, Etilaf, the regime and “no one.” “No one” won by a lot, with about 40 percent of the city vote across regime and opposition areas. The Assad regime only won 12 percent, concentrated in only three of the 22 neighborhoods that it still controls. You are looking at a city that is heterogenous in its political position.
We also looked at who they felt was the strongest armed group in each neighborhood. Regime neighborhoods were where the Syrian Air Force Intelligence agency was the strongest group. The position of the regime in regime-held areas is heterogenous, and the regime is still really calculated in its ability to offer carrots to people who support them and sticks to those who don’t. The Air Force Intelligence Unit is designed to suppress dissent. In other pro-regime areas where there was [widespread support for] the regime, 100 percent of residents were getting either a government salary or regular working wages.
The study was designed to identify where to look and what questions to ask so that people who want to do further research on conflict dynamics in Aleppo know where to go and what to ask. It’s a way to help people get a better sense about what’s going on. What we have now is a lot of experts on Syria working independently of one another. I want people to start interacting with one another, sharing what everyone knows.