With major powers wary of putting boots on the ground in the Middle East, there’s a new push for high-tech solutions to monitor the world’s most volatile combat zone.
Can the wizards of Silicon Valley develop a set of killer apps to monitor the fragile Syria cease-fire without putting foreign boots on the ground in one of the world’s most dangerous countries?
They’re certainly going to try. The “cessation of hostilities” in Syria brokered by the United States and Russia last month has sharply reduced the levels of violence in the war-torn country and sparked a rare burst of optimism that it could lead to a broader cease-fire. But if the two sides lay down their weapons, the international community will face the challenge of monitoring the battlefield to ensure compliance without deploying peacekeepers or foreign troops. The emerging solution: using crowdsourcing, drones, satellite imaging, and other high-tech tools.
The high-level interest in finding a technological solution to the monitoring challenge was on full display last month at a closed-door meeting convened by the White House that brought together U.N. officials, diplomats, digital cartographers, and representatives of Google, DigitalGlobe, and other technology companies. Their assignment was to brainstorm ways of using high-tech tools to keep track of any future cease-fires from Syria to Libya and Yemen.
The off-the-record event came as the United States, the U.N., and other key powers struggle to find ways of enforcing cease-fires from Syria at a time when there is little political will to run the risk of sending foreign forces or monitors to such dangerous places. The United States has turned to high-tech weapons like armed drones as weapons of war; it now wants to use similar systems to help enforce peace.
Take the Syria Conflict Mapping Project, a geomapping program developed by the Atlanta-based Carter Center, a nonprofit founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, to resolve conflict and promote human rights. The project has developed an interactive digital map that tracks military formations by government forces, Islamist extremists, and more moderate armed rebels in virtually every disputed Syrian town. It is now updating its technology to monitor cease-fires.
The project began in January 2012 because of a single 25-year-old intern, Christopher McNaboe. McNaboe realized it was possible to track the state of the conflict by compiling disparate strands of publicly available information — including the shelling and aerial bombardment of towns and rebel positions — from YouTube, Twitter, and other social media sites. It has since developed a mapping program using software provided by Palantir Technologies, a Palo Alto-based big data company that does contract work for U.S. intelligence and defense agencies, from the CIA to the FBI.
Before the latest cease-fire, the Syria mapping project was tracking about 3,000 incidents per month, from barrel bombings to armed skirmishes involving an array of combatants, tagging each with geographic information and plotting the data points on its map. The center also meets with rebel commanders along the Syrian border with Turkey and representatives of the Syrian government in Damascus, as part of its Syria Transition Dialogue Initiative. It has had no direct meetings with the Islamic State or al-Nusra Front, but it has been in contact with people who are close to the movements.
McNaboe said his group feeds its data to humanitarian aid organizations and various U.N. agencies, including the office of Syria special envoy Staffan de Mistura, when it detects important developments like an increase in fighting in heavily populated areas or the use of barrel bombs in a new location.
McNaboe said the mapping project — which employs five full-time researchers and three part-time employees — is planning to scale up its operations with about double the staff to be able to monitor key aspects of the cease-fire. They are also testing a number of technological tools to help them respond in a more timely way to cease-fire violations.
“We have been approached by different parties to lend a hand in monitoring the cease-fire,” McNaboe said. “What we are doing is tweaking to highlight things that could be a violation of the cessation of hostilities.”
They’re not alone. For the time being, Russia and the United States are taking the lead in monitoring the 3-week-old cessation of hostilities in Syria, furnishing the satellite imagery needed to verify that both sides are abiding by their agreement to at least temporarily lay down their weapons. The cessation of hostilities has largely held, though there have been allegations of breaches. But there have also been signs of strain between the two key guarantors of peace, with Russia recently threatening to use force to administer the truce unless the United States agrees to its rules for jointly monitoring the cease-fire.
Much of the effort is fairly low-tech. Shortly after the cessation of hostilities went into effect, the U.S. State Department set up a telephone hotline where Syrians could report violations. But they initially failed to staff the line with fluent Arabic speakers.
The U.N. has already established a fairly extensive network of contacts through its political and humanitarian work in Syria’s disputed towns and cities. The effort mostly involves connecting with activists and ordinary civilians using cell phones, Skype, or WhatsApp.
De Mistura has said those tools aren’t enough. He has flagged the need for “real-time access to satellite and observational materials, use of camera, sensor and remote monitoring platforms,” according to an internal paper produced by his office and obtained by Foreign Policy.
“This may be augmented by data-driven options such as crowdsourcing, data harvesting from social media and other open source initiatives,” the envoy’s office noted.
That’s easier said than done. The Syrian government has harbored deep suspicion in the past about the use of high-tech monitoring equipment and, in January 2012, blocked Arab monitors from importing some of the high-tech communications gear, including satellite telephones. Instead, the monitors were only allowed to bring in 10 satellite phones and had to borrow walkie-talkies from the Chinese Embassy in Damascus. Early last year, the U.N. Peacekeeping Department sought to acquire unarmed drones and satellite imagery for the blue helmets monitoring a 42-year truce between Israel and Syria along the Golan Heights. It never happened.
“I think it’s unrealistic to think the Syrian government is going to allow sophisticated monitoring network into their country, especially anything to do with drones,” said Lars Bromley, the head of mapping with the U.N.’s in-house satellite imagery analysis outfit, known by its acronym of UNOSAT.
There are other challenges. There is often a great deal of optimism about the prospects for new tools — including social media and crowdsourcing — to solve problems in conflict zones. But the reality on the ground looks nothing like Silicon Valley.
“It’s not really smart or realistic to think you are going to ask citizens to monitor the cease-fire in a very open way,” said Bromley, who attended the White House conference. “If you are a private citizen and you photograph a Syrian tank, what do you think those guys are going to do to you? They will kill you.”
There are other constraints, some natural and others bureaucratic or political.
Clouds gather above Syria throughout much of the winter, making it difficult to capture photos. If images are available, it can often take weeks for the U.N.’s satellite imagery analysts to get their hands on them.
A bigger problem, according to Bromley, is commercial satellite images have grown increasingly difficult to obtain during the past year-and-a-half — a period that coincides with the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria. He couldn’t give an exact reason but noted that the United States sometimes signs licensing agreements with the main American satellite companies to purchase large quantities of imagery, which are then kept off the market for several months.
“It used to be that we had more imagery than we knew what to do with,” Bromley said. Since the strikes began, he added, “images of Syria became a lot more sparse.”
Still, Washington and its allies seem committed to finding high-tech ways of keeping an eye on the battlefield.
Walter Dorn, an expert on technology in U.N. peace operations who attended the White House event, said he had promoted what he calls a “coalition of the connected.”
The U.N. or other outside powers could start by tracking social media sites, including Twitter and YouTube, for reports of possible cease-fire violations. That information could then be verified by “seeded crowdsourcing” — that is, reaching out to networks of known advocates on the ground — and technological monitoring through satellite imagery or drones.
Matthew McNabb, the founder of First Mile Geo, a start-up which develops geolocation technology that can be used to gather data in conflict zones, has another idea. McNabb, who also attended the White House event, believes “on-demand” technologies like SurveyMonkey, which provides users a form to create their own surveys, can be applied in conflict zones to collect data on cease-fire violations.
His company’s mapping software has already been used by Caerus Associates, a data research consultancy founded by David Kilcullen, a former Australian officer who served as a counterinsurgency advisor to retired Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, to analyze data in conflict areas for humanitarian agencies and the defense industry. As part of a research project to measure humanitarian needs of civilians in Aleppo, Caerus gathered information on such things as the price of bread and the movement of armed groups, plotting each checkpoint and the armed faction that controls it. For instance, the group tracked the rise of the Islamic State, which claimed 12 of 56 neighborhoods by the end of December 2013. The outfit sends micropayments through Western Union or PayPal to its network of data collectors that it trained in Turkey.
A typical request might ask: “Do you want to make five bucks to go to a school, take a picture, and answer the following questions?” McNabb said. “What we have developed is an end-to-end system that allows you to collect, visualize, and analyze data in the field in real time.”
The technology could potentially also be used to help keep the peace, with Syrians being paid to collect basic information about conditions on the ground and to report any violations. McNabb acknowledged two major risks: ensuring the accuracy of their data and keeping those who gather information safe. The work “potentially puts your data collectors at risk because you’re advertising to world that someone is going to collect this data,” he said. “If an armed group regards that as being a threat, you’re advertising for someone to get hurt.”
Bromley, the U.N. intelligence official, believes commercially available satellite imagery can verify uncorroborated reports of cease-fire violations — like the shelling of rebel territory by Syrian forces — by finding signs of crater holes or damaged buildings. He said the imagery could also verify whether the two sides have retreated to their respective strongholds or something similar. Bromley also said that satellite imagery has worked effectively in South Sudan to verify cease-fire violations in remote and dangerous places that were beyond the reach of U.N. peacekeepers.
Still, human rights activists cautioned that it was important to remember that technology is a tool, not a solution.
“There are some opportunities in terms of deploying technology as long as everyone is realistic that technology can only do so much,” said Christoph Koettl, who uses technology to monitor human rights abuses for Amnesty International.
Photo credit: VALERY SHARIFULIN/TASS via Getty Images