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Satellites for conflict zone monitoring

Syria, or the Syrian Arab Republic, has witnessed unspeakable devastation in the last decade. Its refugee crisis, next only to World War II, has left over five million people displaced. In the absence of monitoring organizations on the ground, satellite imagery has played a significant role in assessing the extent of damage caused by a long-standing conflict. 

The first casualty when war comes is truth. Hiram W. Johnson, a Republication Senator from California may have said this way back in 1917. But a century later, it holds true like never before. Monitoring the extent of devastation in a conflict zone is never easy — there are few or no independent agencies/journalists on the ground when the entire region is marred by heavy firing and bombing. In addition to aiding propagandas, the monitoring agencies’ inability to ascertain the damage in a conflict often results in unchanneled reconstruction efforts, sometimes leading to war-torn cities turning into permanent ghost settlements.

In the case of Syria, which has been witness to one of the deadliest conflicts in recent times that has led to the biggest refugee crisis since World War II (with over five million people displaced), satellite imagery was the only way to see through the propaganda and get accurate statistics and data.

What happened in Syria

The conflict in Syria has been raging since 2011. From a civil war, it has turned into a multidimensional conflict, involving multiple nations both directly and indirectly. What began as a series of peaceful protests by civilians in the southern city of Darra — in the wake of the Arab Spring that had engulfed the entire Middle East — against the decades-old Baathist regime in Syria, soon turned into an armed uprising converting the country into an epicenter of insurgency and terrorism.

In this background, satellites from the space have been aiding non-profit organizations, local governments and international developmental organizations in gathering authentic information, identifying risk zones, verifying the extent of damage and formulating an outline for post-conflict reconstruction.

Satellite imagery by Google Earth and Airbus/McKenzie Intelligence Services shows stark contrast between eastern and western Damascus

Infrastructure

Syrian capital Damascus is often referred to as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Amidst the conflict, normalcy could be seen in the western part of the city that was controlled by the government. On the other hand, almost all buildings in the militant-occupied eastern suburbs like Ghouta were completely flattened. Juxtaposition of satellite imagery by Google Earth and by Airbus/McKenzie Intelligence Services shows this striking contrast.

Another map prepared by UNOSAT shows satellite-detected damage in the suburbs of Kafr Batna and Irbin, and in the eastern parts of Damascus.

DigitalGlobe (now a Maxar company) satellite imagery shows that the devastation when the entire district of Masaa Al Arbaeen in Hama, the site of the doomed uprising and the bloody massacre of 1982, was razed to the ground in 2012. It is estimated that over 3,000 buildings were destroyed.

DigitalGlobe imagery shows the state of Hama city before and after the conflict

Aleppo, the largest industrial manufacturing center of the country and its most populous city, suffered heavy damage to infrastructure as a result of relentless bombing by Syrian and Russian forces. Satellite imagery by DigitalGlobe/UNITAR-UNOSAT shows the destruction of houses in the Karm ad-Da’a district of Aleppo and schools and nearby houses in the Jabal Badro area.

In November 2012, Dar al-Shifa Hospital, one of the biggest medical facilities in Syria, was reduced to rubble after a massive airstrike.

In the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, images show the destruction of the suspended pedestrian bridge across the Euphrates River that was the link to the neighborhood of Hassakeh. Nearly 50,000 people were isolated after the bridge was damaged.

Heritage sites

Syria was once known as the ‘throbbing heart of the Arab world’. The country has many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including ancient souks, citadels, mosques and churches. In Palmyra, ruins of an ancient Roman Temple were wiped out by the ISIS in 2016.
Last year, UNESCO said that around 10% of Aleppo’s historic buildings were destroyed and more than 50% showed signs of damage.

DigitalGlobe imagery shows devastated citadel of Aleppo on May 26, 2013

The ancient Citadel of Aleppo, one of the oldest fortresses in the world, has suffered damage in its vicinity. The large complex of the Abshir Pasha mosque, and the Behramiyah mosque in the historic Al-Jdayde district, were also destroyed during the conflict.

Pedestrian bridge in Deir-ez-Zor (above); and the destroyed structure (below)

Refugee crisis

Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has called the Syrian refugee crisis “the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time”. With more than 30% of the country’s population, or over five million people, rendered homeless, the crisis created convulsions in the politics of most western countries. A majority of the Syrian refugees currently live in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Sentinel-2 satellite imagery shows rapid expansion of refugee camps in Rukban, a remote area in the extreme northeast of Jordan, adjacent to borders with Syria and Iraq. Imagery by ESA also shows expansion in the Zaatari camp.

UrtheCast Deimos-2 imagery reveals rapid growth of refugee camp near Jordan border

Blackouts

In any prolonged war zone, breakdown of power supply only compounds the woes of the people. According to analysts, more than 80% of Syria suffered severe blackouts in 2016. Satellite images analyzed by scientists from Wuhan University, China and #WithSyria, a coalition of humanitarian and human rights organizations, show most of the Syrian landmass shrouded in darkness with only a few bright spots.

Visualization by scientists from Wuhan University China and #WithSyria shows most of Syria in darkness

Ecology

Using Landsat satellite imagery, researchers at Stanford University found out that agricultural irrigation and water reservoir storage in Syria has depleted by more than 50%. The area of arable land has also decreased substantially, as compared to pre 2011.

Oil spills and burning of oil wells leads to air as well as water pollution. Sentinel-2 satellite imagery shows oil spills in the eastern Deir ez-Zor, which contains 40% of the country’s oil reserves and Hasakah region. ISIS used scorched earth tactics in Deir ez-Zor and burnt most of the oil wells. This led to a severe hike in groundwater pollution and contamination of potable water. In Rmeilan, north east Syria, oil waste polluted agrarian land.

With the help of Flash Environment Assessment Tool (FEAT), Copernicus Sentinel Hub identified the potential environmental risks associated with pollutants in the areas affected by the conflict.

Agriculture

According to a report by the FAO (Food and Agriculture organization), food production in Syria has plunged to a record low and more than 50% of the population is unable to meet its daily dietary needs. Al-Hassakah, Ar-Raqqa, Rural Damascus, Deir-ez-Zor, Dara’a and Idleb are the regions where agriculture has been most severely affected.
Deimos Imaging started a project for monitoring farms and arable land in Syria and neighboring war-torn Iraq with Earth Observation satellites Deimos-1 and Deimos-2. Both these satellites constantly monitor the fields, collect data and provide imagery that is useful for calculating vegetation indices. The datasets are compatible with the Landsat series.

While the crisis is Syria does not seem to be ending anytime soon, what has ended is the need for risk-taking reporters and overzealous monitoring organizations to be present on the ground to ascertain the magnitude of damage caused by the bloody conflict.

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