Category Archives: Syria

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.

Methamphetamines Funding The Syrian Insurgency

Six months ago in Funding The Syrian Insurgency I noted the conflict in northeast Syria regarding control of the oil fields. Those wishing to understand the importance of the connection between insurgency and the illicit networks that fund them should look at Paul Collier & Anke Hoeffler’s Greed & Grievance in Civil Wars (pdf).

Today I noticed Insight: War turns Syria into major amphetamines producer, consumer, which reveals an interesting set of interlocking issues. The trade itself is apparently producing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, providing income for both the government and rebel forces, as well as fueling the duration and intensity of street battles.

I have more digging to do before I can make any sort of sensible characterization of what is happening. This post is going to be an inventory of what I believe to be relevant, and it will likely be rather disjoint.

Five months ago I wrote Yemen’s Food & Water Crisis. Residents of the Horn of Africa and the Saudi Peninsula use khat, a mild stimulant that is consumed by chewing the fresh green leaves of the plant. Khat is a thirsty but profitable crop, being grown at the expense of food production in Yemen.

Khat’s active ingredient, cathionone, breaks down within about 48 hours after harvest, so the leaves must be chewed when fresh. The methylated form of this naturally occurring compound has similar effects to methamphetamine and it is a small but dangerous component of the overall stimulant abuse problem in the rural U.S. The Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula have a cultural norm of consuming a stimulant somewhat stronger than coffee, an entry point for more dangerous substances, such as methamphetamine dressed up to look like the milder Captagon, or phenethylline, a popular drug in the region.

Bulk methamphetamine production requires the availability of ammonia, the world’s most common industrial chemical. We make around 140 million tons a year globally, 30% with hydrogen from natural gas, mostly in the west, and 70% using hydrogen from coal. This is a value added product produced using stranded gas pools, notably in Trinidad in this hemisphere, formerly in Punta Arenas, and U.S. ammonia plants have been shut down, packed up, and reassembled in natural gas rich Qatar. Ammonia is easier to transport than compressed or liquified natural gas.

Syria has two large nitrogen production facilities located at the same geographic location, near Homs. Although the link providing the coordinates is about sulphuric acid production, other sources indicate this is also an ammonia production facility. Ammonia is a precursor for ammonium sulfate and a plant that first extracted sulfur from petroleum coke, then gasified it to make hydrogen would be a normal setup near an oil refinery. The nearby water source is also consistent – ammonia plants produce large volumes of low grade heat that is discarded via water fed cooling towers.

General Fertilizer Company Plant, Homs, Syria

General Fertilizer Company Plant, Homs, Syria

General Fertilizer Company, Homs, Syria

General Fertilizer Company, Homs, Syria

The United States banned ammonium nitrate sales after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. This chemical is still our most common fertilizer, but it’s delivered as a solution known as UAN, urea/ammonium nitrate, which is not usable as a component of explosives. The other delivery methods are as anhydrous ammonia, a cryogenic liquid and as urea alone, a water activated solid. Lesser amounts of ammonium phosphate and ammonium sulfate are used when soils need these elements as well as nitrogen.

The link between ammonium nitrate, agriculture, and insurgency produced explosives is a fairly intractable problem. Smallholders in developing countries don’t have the infrastructure to handle liquid UAN, let alone a cryogenic gas. They need nitrogen fertilizer in a bagged form. Urea is a solid, but it has to be applied just before or during rain in order for it to work. This doesn’t work in relatively arid places, so ammonium nitrate is still the solid fertilizer of choice. Producers have attempted to address this issue by making calcium ammonium nitrate, but recovering ammonium nitrate from it is a fairly simple chemical reaction.

That is what I think I know, here are some “known unknowns” that would help sharpen the overall analysis if they can be resolved.

  • Is Homs indeed the site of Syria’s in-country nitrogen production?
  • Who controls the plant? The Homs area? Who is in a position to divert ammonia?
  • Based on the Reuters article, global Captagon consumption is 21 tons. A tiny ammonia plant will produce a hundred tons a day.
  • How much, if any, of the plant’s output is ammonium nitrate?

The last point is important. There are many reports of Syrian regime helicopters dropping ‘barrel bombs’. These are 55 gallon drums, old water heaters, or lengths of iron pipe. The first video shows a string of devices employing parachutes to retard their fall. This is sometimes employed to permit a low flying aircraft to escape a large blast, but I believe this might be a strategy to reduce the failure rate of these hastily constructed IEDs, which use improvised impact fuses.

The second video shows a large blast that begins with a rolling cloud of flame and smoke. Hollywood dramatizes action sequences by using incendiary charges in place of actual high explosives, which often look like this, but high explosives don’t cause effects like this unless they hit something that has a liquid fuel supply. If the regime is making ammonium nitrate/fuel oil bombs and they’re adjusting the mixture for incendiary as well as blast effects, the use of incendiaries against civilian populations is a war crime.

Syria’s civil war has been understood in the west as conflict between the following:

  • Alawite/Shiite versus Sunni
  • Assad regime versus the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
  • Former Soviet client state versus western friendly nations

While those three are all somewhat true, the missing component is the haves versus the have nots. People who are treated unfairly protest, if they’re starved as well they will engage in open revolt against the administration that is failing to meet their minimum needs.

Syrian Wheat Outlook on 12/8/2012 was my first inspection of agriculture in the country. Seven months later the New York Times provided information that led to Syrian Wheat Becomes Strategic. Food security in the country is a complex issue, but if you can only watch a single metric, wheat availability, price, and quality are a good proxy.

Attempting to stop thousands of foreign fighters by direct attack is the most destructive strategy of all for Syria. Stopping the flow of arms and explosives into the country, as well as interdicting the repurposing of domestic fertilizer into explosives attacks the problem at a lower level.

If the region’s entire Captagon habit were supplanted by methamphetamine it would only require one tenth of the daily production from a tiny ammonia plant to fill the requirement. If the diversion of ammonia is happening and it can be pinched off at the source this defunds a portion of the conflict.

The most likely entity that could protect an ammonia production source and divert a portion of it to drug production is … the Assad regime. If it were a rebel facility and pair of helicopters dropping a string of those parachute bombs would easily disable it.

It is functionally impossible to separate the production of food and the making of IEDs in arid regions where production depends on smallholders using bagged fertilizer. Ponder that concept while I go off and dig deeper into Syrian agriculture.