As the director of the Carter Center’s Conflict Resolution Program, Lebanese-born Hrair Balian had a problem at the onset of the war in Syria in 2011.
“There really was a shortage of reliable information of developments on the ground,” he told VOA in an interview at the Atlanta headquarters of the Carter Center. “All we were seeing was propaganda.”
The widely used quote, “The first casualty when war comes is truth,” is evident today in Syria, where journalists have been killed and others forced or frightened out of the country.
Despite a gap in media coverage, however, a then-enterprising intern discovered reliable information was available, hiding in plain sight, due largely to the fact the Syrian conflict unfolded in a part of the world where many are connected, digitally.
“Syrians, and people in the Middle East in general, are two to four times more likely to share information about politics, and religious views online,” said that former intern, Christopher McNaboe, citing a Pew Research Center study on social media habits of those living in the Middle East.
“In the case of Syria, there’s just too much. Videos, Facebook posts, tweets, blogs, photos, you name it…Syrians are very active and passionate about getting information out,” he said.
“One of the first things we started seeing online was the announcement of defections. As the conflict turned violent, people started defecting from the Syrian security forces. And they did so online.”
McNaboe began documenting where those defections occurred in Syria, who the defectors aligned with, and who was joining them. It was information that started to give Balian a better understanding of the growing complexities of the conflict.
“Through this process, we’ve been able to document the formation of over 7,000 opposition armed groups in Syria. Not all of them remain active to this day.”
From a laptop computer, McNaboe demonstrates how he has compiled and charted the information, using different colored dots on an interactive map to show the positions of a variety of groups engaged in the conflict, over different periods of time. This interactive map allows users to watch the evolution of the conflict and the changing front lines of the war. Almost all of the information that helps illustrate the map is culled from the volume of material publicly available on social media.
“The information available online ranges anywhere from political statements, and defections, and armed group formations, to footage of the actual fighting, and humanitarian relief efforts; you name it,” says McNaboe.
“I think the Syrian conflict represents a major paradigm shift, a major change in the way in which conflict plays out,” he adds. “Previous conflicts did not take place in connected environments like Syria. There wasn’t YouTube. There wasn’t Twitter.”
Watching and documenting the information in that connected environment is now McNaboe’s full-time job as director of the Syria Conflict Mapping Project at the Carter Center, which former President Jimmy Carter says has been particularly useful for humanitarian organizations.
“So when the United Nations needs to find the best avenue to take in relief supplies, we can tell them which way to go,” he told VOA in a recent, exclusive interview.
The Carter Center also shares some of its Syria maps and reports publicly, making them available to non-profit organizations, governments and the news media.
“We give the same information to The New York Times, and to The Economist magazine, and other notable news media, so they can be accurate when they describe the location of folks inside Syria,” Carter says.
Accuracy was part of Carter’s motivation to share the information with Russian President Vladimir Putin when his forces entered Syria in 2015.
“When he got ready to join in, and bomb, factions within Syria, I wanted to make sure he would bomb the right ones or at least he knew what he was bombing,” Carter said. “So I sent him a message through his embassy and told him we have this capability within Syria to tell you where people are located; do you want to have that? So the next day I got a response from him, ‘Yes, I would like to have your maps.’ So we sent our maps, on a current basis, to President Putin.”
McNaboe says the intention was to engage in “direct and frank contact with the Russian government” and put the Russians on notice the Carter Center could monitor their targets in Syria; but, he stresses there is limited military value in the information the center compiles and shares.
“If you were analyzing exactly where an armed group were announcing themselves, maybe you could act upon it, but it’s unlikely that it would be timely enough for actual military action,” he says. “What we report on publicly, things like front lines, are widely known; but, we analyze and structure the data in ways so that we can get insights to the bigger trends in the conflict.”
McNaboe says the information the Carter Center gathers is based on material publicly available to anyone with the means to compile and understand it.
“Any participant in the Syrian conflict, almost everybody has engaged online,” he says.
“It happens that with these kinds of transmissions, the people are very eager to identify themselves,” Carter told VOA.
Despite any perceived military or intelligence value of the information, McNaboe says the Carter Center doesn’t share information they believe would put people at risk.
“If you are a combatant in the conflict and you don’t know where the front lines are, our information is not going to help you too much,” McNaboe says. “So we are careful about what we make totally public. We want our effort to pursue peace and support peace efforts, and do everything it can to reduce the risk to any civilian or participant in the conflict.”
A conflict now entering its seventh year, at a time when more U.S. military forces are joining the fight on the ground, engaged in a war with no clear end in sight.