MESOP : The Political Geography of Syria’s War: An Interview with Fabrice Balanche

JOSHUA LANDIS : “Fabrice’s work on Syria is been excellent. More than almost any other analyst, he has been correct about the course of the Syrian revolution. Congratulations to him. Clearly, he is someone who knows Syria well.”

As one of the leading French experts on Syria, Fabrice Balanche has an unusual focus. His field of study is political geography, chronicling the interplay between power, community, and territory. As an assistant professor of geography at the Université Lyon 2 and the director of its Groupe de Recherches et d’Etudes sur la Méditerranée et le Moyen-Orient, or GREMMO, he frequently appears in French media, where his early opposition to the idea that Syria could have a peaceful transition or that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was about to fall raised some hackles.

His research is increasingly finding its way into English, but most of it is in French—so francophone readers are encouraged to have a look at his recent work and to follow him on Twitter. Today, Fabrice Balanche has kindly agreed to be interviewed by Syria in Crisis to explain his methods of mapping the Syrian war and to present his views of the situation.

Please tell us a few words about how you got involved with Syria.

I began working on Syria in 1990, when I was writing my master’s thesis. Between 1992 and 2000 I worked on a long study of the relations between the Alawite community and the authorities in Syria, as part of a doctoral thesis on political geography. It was published in 2006 as La région alaouite et le pouvoir syrien. During this period, I lived in Syria for six years. I described the sect-based clientelism that structured Syrian society, and my conclusion was that at the time of former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s death in June 2000, Syria found itself in the same situation as Yugoslavia at the death of its president, Josip Broz Tito, and that it was therefore at risk of suffering the same fate.

In the December 2011 edition of Outre-Terre, a French geopolitical journal, you wrote an article entitled “Géographie de la révolte syrienne.” It described a Syrian conflict predetermined by social and sectarian factors, with an armed opposition almost entirely rooted in the Sunni Arab majority population—particularly among disaffected social groups such as the rural poor—whereas minority and upper- and middle-class areas either remained passive or actively supported the president. It was one of the first comprehensive studies of the sectarian and socioeconomic dimensions of the conflict, published long before such arguments became commonplace in the media, at a time when both sides were still in complete denial about Syria’s sectarian problem. How did you arrive at these conclusions?

I wasn’t surprised by the outbreak of crisis in Syria. Rather, I found it surprising that the country hadn’t exploded a few years earlier, given that its socioeconomic indicators were all in the red. There were social tensions related to poverty, territorial tension between the center and the periphery, and sectarian tension—and they all overlapped.

The 1991 Infitah, or economic opening, and the accelerated liberalizing reforms under President Bashar al-Assad created a social inequality that proved impossible to manage for Syria’s rigid bureaucracy, while simultaneously increasing sectarian frustrations, notably against the Alawites. The old Baathist system had by then been exhausted. Syria’s economy was in urgent need of some breathing space, but the young president could not turn Syria into a “tiger economy.” It would have challenged the entire system of power that had been methodically constructed by his father.

We therefore moved into a civil war that would quickly shatter Syria’s fragile sectarian coexistence, which had in the preceding years relied more and more on repression and less and less on the redistribution of Syria’s national wealth.

But why didn’t the mainstream media and political debate in the West pick up on these problems until much later?

The media refused to see the Syrian revolt as anything other than the continuation of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, at a time of enthusiasm over the Arab Spring. Journalists didn’t understand the sectarian subtleties in Syria, or perhaps they didn’t want to understand; I was censored many times.

Syrian intellectuals in the opposition, many of whom had been in exile for decades, had a discourse similar to that of the Iraqi opposition during the U.S. invasion of 2003. Some of them honestly confused their own hopes for a nonsectarian society with reality, but others—such as the Muslim Brotherhood—tried to obfuscate reality in order to gain the support of Western countries.

In 2011–2012, we suffered a type of intellectual McCarthyism on the Syrian question: if you said that Assad was not about to fall within three months, you would be suspected of being paid by the Syrian regime. Members of the exile opposition’s Syrian National Council went on TV, one after the other, to assure us that the rare sectarian mishaps were all the work of Assad’s intelligence services, that the situation was under control, and that the Syrian National Council had a plan that would avert any risk of civil war. And with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs having taken up the cause of the Syrian opposition, it would have been in bad taste to contradict its communiqués. As Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot note in their new book, Les chemins de Damas: “it’s better to be as wrong as everyone else than to be right alone.”

Was the Syrian conflict influenced by sectarianism from the beginning or did the sectarian issues emerge later?

From the beginning, the Syrian conflict was sectarian, social, and political. These three factors were interrelated, because sectarian divides are everywhere in Syria. The revolt started in an attempt to get rid of Assad, the state bureaucracy, the Baath Party, the intelligence services, and the general staff of the Syrian Arab Army. But all of these bodies are packed with Alawites, over 90 percent of whom work for the state.

You could follow the sectarian patterns across the map. In mixed Alawite-Sunni areas, the protests only took place in the Sunni areas. In Latakia, Banias, and Homs, the demonstrators clashed with Alawite counterdemonstrators. This pro-Assad mobilization was not simply organized by the government. Rather, it was part of the phenomenon of urban asabiyya (communal solidarity) that has been so well described by Michel Seurat in the case of Tripoli. In the Daraa Province, the population is almost exclusively Sunni and the demonstrations naturally spread—but they stopped right at the border of the Druze-populated Sweida Province, which did not sympathize with them at all. In Aleppo, the divisions were mainly social, between the well-to-do and poorer people, and between indigenous city dwellers and new arrivals from the countryside who lived in the slums. But the sectarian factor was present in Aleppo too, with Christians remaining staunchly pro-regime and the Kurds playing their own game, as we have seen with the autonomous cantons in Afrin, Ein al-Arab (Kobane), and Qamishli.

In the end, sectarianism began to overshadow the other parameters of the Syrian crisis.

In the October 2013 issue of the French online journal OrientXXI, you published an essay on how the divided political space of Syria is being represented on maps: “L’insurrection syrienne et la guerre des cartes.” There, you provided rough estimates for the share of Syria’s territory and population held by each of the major politico-military camps. At the time, you had calculated that 50–60 percent of the population inside Syria—but somewhat less of the physical territory—remained under the control of Assad and his allies, while the various Sunni Arab insurgent groups controlled 15–20 of the population and the Kurds had perhaps 5–10 percent. The remainder consisted of people residing in contested areas. Could you please briefly explain how you arrived at these figures?

From the start of my time in Syria, I was struck by the absence of reliable statistical and cartographic sources. Researchers and experts would simply extrapolate from local case studies or from generalized province-level data. So I began by giving myself the task of constructing a geographic information system based on Syrian censuses and topographic maps.

Now, I have a database of population statistics in 6,000 Syrian localities, as well as neighborhood-level databases for the ten major cities. This allows me to quantify the percentage of the population that is under the control of the rebels, the Kurds, and the government, although it will be in the form of rough estimates, because we have so little information on the geographic origin of refugees and internally displaced persons.

The Orient XXI figures were based on the military situation in early summer 2013 and much has happened since. Could you give us your best estimates of how much territory and population is under the control of the different parties today?

First of all, there has been a great refugee exodus out of Syria. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) currently puts the number of Syrian refugees at around 3.7 million, but we can probably add one million others who have not been listed as refugees, because they’re wealthy enough to avoid it or because they have crossed the border clandestinely.

In Syria, there now remain around 18 million inhabitants who have not perished in the war or fled the country. They are distributed thus: 3–6 million in rebel-held areas, 10–13 million in government-held areas, and 1–2 million in the Kurdish region.

The disparity is related to internal displacement. Internally displaced persons now number at least 6.5 million according to UNHCR, although we know that this figure is underestimated by all sides for the purpose of obtaining more humanitarian aid. The origins of refugees outside Syria is easier to determine, because they are registered by UNHCR, but it is difficult with the internally displaced. However, it seems clear that most of the population movement inside the country is headed away from insecure and impoverished rebel-held territory toward more stable and economically functioning government-controlled areas.

It is easier to give a percentage figure for the amount of territory held by the different camps, but note that this doesn’t give a good understanding of military realities, because a vast rural area is less strategically relevant than the major cities or the principal axes of communication.

The Syrian government currently controls around 50 percent of the territory, but it rules between 55 and 72 percent of the population left inside Syria. The rebels control 45 percent of the territory and 17–34 percent of the population, while the Kurds control no more than 5 percent of the territory with 5–10 percent of the population.

Because both UNHCR reports and other data show that a large majority of refugees and internally displaced persons come from the rebel-held zones, we may refine our figures a bit and conclude that more than two-thirds of the Syrian population still left in the country resides in government-held territory and less than one-quarter in the rebel-held zone. But it is difficult to be any more exact than that.

If we take a closer look at those 45 percent of Syria’s territory and 17–34 percent of the population under Sunni rebel control, we know that there are hundreds of different groups operating in these areas. Could you provide some detail on this? For example, the so-called Islamic State is now at war with most of the rest of the rebellion and it has emerged as an entirely separate fighting force. So how much of Syria does the Islamic State actually control?

It is difficult to know which territories are controlled by rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham, the Nusra Front, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), or other such factions. The Islamic State is easier, because it is the sole group in its territory. It currently controls around 30 percent of Syria’s territory, although this includes vast desert areas. The population under the Islamic State’s rule can be estimated at between 2 million and 3.5 million people, which translates into something like 10–20 percent of Syria’s current population.

By adding up groups like Ahrar al-Sham, the Nusra Front, the Islam Army, and the various FSA factions, we arrive at perhaps 15 percent of the territory and between 1 million and 2.5 million people, although political control remains divided among or shared by many different groups. Again, the population density differs considerably between different areas. For example, the Islam Army controls a very small territory in the East Ghouta region outside Damascus, which represents less than 0.1 percent of Syria’s surface territory. But this area is densely inhabited and contains perhaps 350,000–500,000 people, meaning that the Islam Army controls 2–3 percent of the Syrian population.