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Mapping a ruination
Maps to Help You Understand the Syrian War

The complexities of the Syrian War remain mystifying for most Americans, despite years of bloodshed and ink spilled. The country is a hodgepodge of ethno-religious communities, and always has been. Various competing groups are fighting passionately for different causes, along battle lines that often overlap. Meanwhile, refugees are fleeing in great numbers to neighboring countries.

We’ve put together some maps to illustrate all this (click to enlarge):


The war's battle lines

Battle lines of the war

Religious demography of Syria

Syria’s rich religious diversity

Flows of refugees out of Syria
Refugee flows out of Syria

We hope these help untangle some of the intricacies that so often get glossed over in coverage of the war.


maps by Lindsey Burrows

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  • Fat_Man

    You should add this one:

    It shows the division of Syria in 1922, which was more realistic than the unified state that existed until the current civil war broke out.

    • mc

      Realistic? It was a recipe for chaos and in the event completely unworkable. The West would be ill advised to atone for its previous map-drawing hubris by embarking on a new chapter of map-drawing hubris. The problem is not, or not merely, that borders don’t align with ethnicity; it is that all borders are bad. An Alawite state cannot survive without Latakia and Homs; under no conceivable conditions will Sunnis relinquish Latakia and Homs. It would be a terrible injustice and a rewarding of ethnic cleansing were the West to assist in the creation of an Alawistan. It would also be profoundly stupid, dumberer by an order of magnitude than the European imperialists who drew up the post-Ottoman maps.

      • Fat_Man

        was more realistic in 1922

    • Andrew Allison

      Exactly. The sins of the so-called “Great Powers” in the post-WWI carve-up of the former Ottoman Empire are being visited upon us unto the third and forth generation.

  • Clayton Holbrook

    Great maps. +1 for GIS.

    A very small note though: On the last map depicting refugees, no where on the actual map does it mention refugees is what its trying to depict and quantify. It says refugees up in the URL, and in very small print on the main post below the map, but no where in the map. So at first glance I see borders, colors and arrows, and numbers in the key, but after clicking on and seeing the map .png on its own I wouldn’t quickly know it’s depicting refugees.

  • mc

    Not bad, but I’d redo the Alawite part, though I doubt any Alawis would object. The “Alawi” portion of Syria is in the foothills and mountains off the coast, though they have made substantial inroads in Latakia and Tartus. It’s maps like this that encourage our Junior Strategists to believe that a neat division of Syria is possible. It isn’t, and a more finely grained map would show that a crude and cruel division is impractical too.

  • Andrew Allison

    What is so complicated about the Syrian conflict? A minority group (the Alawites) is, so far successfully, ruling over an artificially-bounded and religiously diverse country.
    The so-called “Arab Spring”, which might better be described as the unleashing of a frenzied power struggle, had the effect of weakening the hold of the Alawites to the extent that an insurrection, which has devolved into what is, essentially a Sunni/Shiite slugfest, occurred. Although the outcome is far from certain, what is certain is that it will result in enormous suffering. At the risk of being repetitious, history tells us that inter-tribal conflict can be resolved in one of two ways: iron rule or partition.

  • lukelea

    A map of tribal areas and the clans that compose them would also be useful. Do such maps exist? Of course they do.

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