Category Archives: Syria

Food Insecurity

This report indicates there are 108 million people facing extreme food insecurity. Famine is possible in North (Muslim) Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen. Security issues are driving hunger in Iraq and Syria. Less familiar to me are the troubles in Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Somalia’s troubles are due to persistent drought and there is similar news for Malawi. Zimbabwe, the perpetual poster child for poor governance, also has drought driven food troubles. Rapidly developing South Africa declared drought disaster in five of its nine provinces two years ago.

People do things when they don’t get enough to eat, as we saw in the Maghreb in 2010. The link between water, food, and conflict is one that appears here fairly often. We noted that Syrian Wheat Becomes Strategic back in 2013 and Lebanon’s Record Drought appeared in 2014.

The Mideast and North Africa are full of fragile states, places where too many humans have too little water.

The grim (but necessary) calculus of Functional Triage is still a forbidden topic; we can’t admit that boundless growth in our sealed environment of a single planet is a bad idea, and with that fundamental ideological barrier, we are cut off from discussing everything else that flows from that simple, objective fact.

I don’t hate any of the 400 million people in North Africa, nor and of the similar number of folks in the Mideast. But we are at a place where we must stop pretending and start dealing with reality. This is a troubling paragraph to write, because the areas where there will be trouble happen to align with … Trump’s laptop travel ban.



Functional Triage

If you’re going to read this post, you’ll need to discard some dichotomies:

  • Democrat vs. Republican
  • Left vs. Right
  • Rich vs. Poor

Those are the common divisors used to define political polarization. Let’s get under that, let’s turn the clock back ten years, to when peak oil discussions were themselves peaking. Let’s instead consider some inescapable drivers in the world today:

  • climate change
  • peak oil predicted effects, oil/food bilateral trade
  • financial system breakdown due to conceptual error

One of the key concepts that used to come up was triage. I have argued before that we’re in a massive population overshoot, see Dead Gods Of Atacama. We’ve had two centuries of overshoot, fueled first by fossil nitrates in the Atacama Desert, and then by the Haber-Bosch process. Thanks to our oil economy we can move goods … like food … globally. But what happens where there isn’t enough to go around? Or when there are places that simply aren’t going to be habitable?

2016 Fragile States

2016 Fragile States

If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime. But if you’re in a half loaded lifeboat a thousand yards away from the Titanic, you keep rowing the other way, because there aren’t enough life boats and you’ll be swamped if you try to fill your remaining seats. That might sound cruel, but it’s precisely what happened back in 1912 and I think that maybe we’re doing this to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula now.

I’ve worried over Yemen for a long time, in particular their food/water security issues. Things came to a head in 2016 and the dynamic is very different than Syria. Where are those people going to go? Saudi Arabia’s border isn’t porous like Iraq, Lebanon, or Turkey. They can’t very well motor through the Suez like Syrians crossing the 10km to Lesbos. Yemen is a famine trap today the way Somalia was twenty five years ago, with the added excitement of being a Shia/Sunni conflict.


There were conversations about an end to American democracy, with a development oriented authoritarian government evolving from our current system. I thought this was likely but expected it to be environmental oriented populism, not this race and religion mess that has emerged. Trump is talking about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. That’s silly, based on what we know about our special relationship with Mexico – the unprecedented cyclical migration of labor has few parallels.

But what happens over the long haul? Mexico is agriculturally rich … for the moment. What does another 50ppm of CO2 do?  Will our southern border look like the interface between Syria and Turkey? Perhaps.


We are in a post-factual world with Trump in office, but these underlying forces are inescapable. We might have a superstitious world view – the denial of climate change – but the race based politics are having the same effect as a clear eyed triage would. Don’t imagine for a minute that it pleases me to notice this, or to report that this is the case, it is what it is.

Muslim Ban? Fragile States?


Here’s Trump’s list of banned Muslim countries in red, and the ones where he has business interests are in gold. The unlabeled one at the uper right is Azerbaijan.

Trump's Muslim Ban Countries

Trump’s Muslim Ban Countries

And here’s a fragile states index for the region.

Fragile States Worst

Fragile States Worst

The banned countries are places where the governments have basically collapsed. People are complaining about the relationship between Trump businesses and the presence or absence of a ban. I’m not justifying, nor am I criticizing, I’m just noting that here is some data that hasn’t commonly appeared in conjunction with the coverage of the issue.

This map originally appeared in Fragile States Index 2016.

Distract, Deceive, Destroy: Putin At War In Syria

Putin Addressing The U.N.

Putin Addressing The U.N.

Distract, Deceive, Destroy: Putin At War In Syria is a 32 page publication I originally found on the Atlantic Council’s web site. This is the part that got me reading, the focus on employing OSINT methods, as well as it being about my new favorite topic, Russia.

We have used the power of digital forensics to expose the details of Russia’s aerial and ground attacks in Syria using information entirely from open sources, available to be viewed and verified by anyone. Such an approach empowers individuals not only to discover information about Putin’s war in Syria, but also to verify the information themselves. Such an approach is the polar opposite of Russia’s opaque disinformation campaign, which relies on ideological narratives over verifiable facts.

A bit later in the paper it introduces an acronym that is new to me:  open source and social media intelligence (OSSMINT). I’ve never NOT thought of social media as an open source suitable for inclusion under the older OSINT definition so I’m curious to see where this concept first arose and what (if any) differences there are in the definition.


The paper offered a couple of interesting observations on the diplomacy ahead of the Russian campaign in Syria.

Russian propaganda uses a 4D approach: Dismiss the critic, distort the facts, distract from the key point, and dismay the audience.

Thus, the style and content of the Syrian campaign fit more closely with the Kremlin’s tactic of aggressive disinformation, rather than with an attempt at persuasive diplomacy.

It appears far more likely that Putin wanted to launch air strikes to back Assad, and to distract from this unpopular position, he claimed to be targeting ISIS instead.


And here the Russians are caught in lies thanks to OSSMINT srouces.

From the first day of Russian air strikes, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) began publishing video footage of the strikes on its official YouTube channel.23 The videos generally contained information describing the location and target of the attack, but right from the start, OSSMINT analysts, including Russian expert Ruslan Leviev and the Bellingcat group of investigative journalists demonstrated that the Ministry was providing false information about the targets and locations of the air strikes.

Between September 30 and October 12, the Russian Ministry of Defense published videos of forty- three air strikes. Using the crowdsourced analysis techniques described above, the Bellingcat group and its collaborators identified the exact location of thirty-six of these strikes, then overlaid the locations onto the MoD’s own map, identifying which armed groups controlled what parts of the country. The result revealed inaccuracy on a grand scale: Russian o cials described thirty of these videos as air strikes on ISIS positions, but in only one example was the area struck, in fact under the control of ISIS, even according to the Russian MoD’s own map.


The Kremlin’s policy in Syria appears to have served three purposes: Distract attention from its actions in Ukraine and its military buildup in Syria; deceive the international community about the nature of its targets; and destroy the forces that presented the greatest threat to the Kremlin’s client, Assad, especially those forces most closely linked to the United States.

The paper closes with a page and a half of realpolitik and this sentence jumped out at me.

There are no good options in Syria.

I’ve been saying things like that about Syria … Yemen … Gaza … and it’s unusual to see in a document from serious minded foundation fellows. The best thing the world could do in Syria is sealing up it crumbling Cold War era water handling systems, which are currently losing some 40% of the water they carry. That would have been a fine thing to do prior to things going off the rails in 2011. Now we have to wait for the shooting to die before this vital infrastructure fix.

Just Because It’s Not Happening Here

This is well done … in the same way that The Day After and Threads were when I was in high school. I already wasn’t sleeping, this is not helping, but I have no idea what to do.


Fragile States Index 2016

The Fragile States Index 2016 was just mentioned on beBee and I saw a nice dataset to visualize in Tableau. Here is the original high resolution image:


And here is the image that resulted from my very simple import of the data into a Tableau workbook:


The states of the Mideast, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa have been an interest of mine for the past several years. Here’s a nit with Tableau, but it’s probably a deficit on my part – the only way I could make Syria visible would be to suppress the appearance of Lebanon. Tableau also treats Western Sahara as Terra Nullius, when it’s an ongoing problem between Morocco which administers it and Algeria which hosts many refugees.


Here are the grimmest of the grim, seven states with fragility scores in excess of 110. Iraq is one bad summer away from joining them.


I’ve made a copy of the Fragile States 2016 workbook available. I really should start pulling in other data, but what I want here would be food and water security information, and that’s often scattered and dated.

Lebanon’s Record Drought

Lebanon faces water crisis after record winter drought contains grim details about water supplies in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s meteorological service says the country has had just 431 mm (17 inches) of precipitation since September, less than half last year’s 905.8 mm and far below the yearly average of 812 mm.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR warned in February that the presence of more than a million Syrian refugees alongside four million Lebanese would seriously deplete the country’s renewable water resources.

What does half the normal rain and a 25% population increase due to refugees mean in a country that remains stable only due to a delicate balancing act among the various ethnic and sectarian groups?

Lebanon Ethnic & Religious Groups

Lebanon Ethnic & Religious Groups

Stepping back just a bit, Lebanon and the Syrian coastal region are the same patchwork, a record of thousands of years of invasion and migration through a strategic region.

Syrian Alawite Area & Lebanon Ethnic Groups

Syrian Alawite Area & Lebanon Ethnic Groups

Prior to 1943 Lebanon was Syria, or more correctly they were both part of the French Syrian Mandate, an artifact of the partition of the dying Ottoman Empire by England and France after World War I.

French Syrian Mandate Territory Losses

French Syrian Mandate Territory Losses

Syria itself is facing a ruinous drought in the northeast. Eighteen months ago I published Syrian Wheat Outlook and Syrian Wheat Becomes Strategic eleven months ago. A drought in the northeast is the worst possible case … because that is where the bulk of the production occurs.

Syria Wheat 2012

Like the French Syrian Mandate, Syria itself isn’t coherent any more. Consider the map promoted by the Islamic State of Iraq and ash Sham, the de facto government of a large swath of Syria and Iraq.

Islamic State of Iraq & ash Sham

Islamic State of Iraq & ash Sham

Syria has broken along ethnic and sectarian lines. Who got the food production?

Kurdistan With Population By Country

Kurdistan With Population By Country

Can you predict what is going to happen next here? Wheat is a staple and it makes a pretty good proxy for overall food security if you don’t have the resources to track a more inclusive market basket. Wheat got scarce in 2010 thanks directly to Russian fires and indirectly due to Pakistani floods nipping their summer production of other grains. Six months later Arab Spring started in Tunisia and roiled the whole region.

Arab Spring

Arab Spring

Arab Spring was about reform – at a very fundamental level an adjustment of misallocation of resources for society. If those resources become more scarce reforms might still help. If someone could crack the whip in Lebanon and get the whole country moving on their irrigation infrastructure reducing the 50% now lost would make a tremendous difference. Syria’s infrastructure was almost as leaky prior to the civil war and now what would be difficult in Lebanon is an impossible task in their war torn neighbor until the shooting stops. Given the sectarian divides and geographic distribution of natural resources that might not happen until there are a lot less people competing for those resources.

Africa is subject to periodic famine, but the rest of the world, with the exception of central planning disasters during the Cold War, is not familiar with population corrections. What are the political consequences if the five million people crowded into Lebanon are on a patch of land that is only going to carry two million? We can’t know the specifics but we can sum it up easily: grim.