As Russian jets strike Syria for a third day, the information war about which groups Moscow is targeting and why fiercely continues.
Russia says it is bombing the Islamic State and various other "associated terrorist groups," which it declines to name. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked to explain who Moscow is referring to, he had this clarification Thursday: "If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it's a terrorist, right?"
The U.S. and its allies say the Russian airstrikes have hit American-backed rebel groups, and activists on the ground say they have killed civilians far from Islamic State-controlled territory.
Analysts, citizen journalists and media organizations have tried to verify the Russian accounts by comparing the locations of the airstrikes with the areas controlled by the different groups fighting in Syria. The maps show that Moscow has mostly hit rebel groups that are not aligned to the Islamic State, in areas where they are fighting the Syrian regime, apart from a few strikes on Islamic State-controlled Raqqa on Friday.
What accounts for the discrepancies?
Many news organizations trying to parse the competing claims use data from the Washington-based research group the Institute for Study of War to map Russian airstrikes and areas of regime and rebel control. The group has been closely tracking the war based on information from Syrian activists and state-run media, as well as Russian and Western officials, and updated its map of Russian airstrikes on Friday.
Other outlets, including the New York Times, are using data from the Carter Center, which has been mapping the conflict using information from activists and other on-the-ground contacts, as well as videos posted on social media.
Both organizations are widely respected. Even so, collecting data from the ground in Syria is dangerous, difficult and complicated by the myriad rebel groups fighting with the regime and sometimes one another, so slight discrepancies are bound to occur.
"The mapmakers have to sift through the boasts of various groups, often unreliable evidence from local activists and residents and data from news reporters on the ground, who are severely constrained by the extreme danger of the conflict," Berlin-based author Leonid Bershidsky writes in Bloomberg View.
Supporters of Russia's military action in Syria slammed the maps, as well as other critiques, as part of a "huge propaganda war" in Western countries against Russia.
Meanwhile, maps of Syria presented by Russian media organizations looked entirely different. One Russian outlet had a vastly different geography to most analysts, Washington Post reporter Liz Sly pointed out on Twitter. (Her tweet juxtaposing the two maps was re-tweeted by the official account of the U.S. embassy in Russia.)
The map, posted on Twitter by Moscow government-owned newspaper Argumenty i Fakty, included two color codes: dark orange for areas under Islamic State control and light orange for areas under Islamic State influence -- in which they included several areas that aren't under Islamic State control, including the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo.
In a second map published on the Argumenty i Fakty website, the outlet made a distinction between the "Islamic Group" (apparently a reference to the Islamic State) and "Islamist groups not falling within IG" (apparently a reference to all other rebel groups.) Another map, on state-owned Russian television channel Rossiya-1 included the same vague distinctions: Kurds, the Islamic State, and "other Islamic organizations."
This follows Moscow's official line on the Syrian rebels -- most rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad are with the Islamic State, and the U.S. and its allies are naive to think otherwise.
The weeks of rumors and Russian denials of a military build-up, followed by the surprise strikes and media blitz coming out of Moscow, may feel familiar to the citizens of Ukraine.
"War correspondents from state-owned media have deserted the conflict in eastern Ukraine in droves to resurface in Syria," he writes. "Some of those reports appear to marshal Russian public opinion, which broadly opposes military intervention, behind the strikes by convincing them of the threat ISIS poses to Russia -- as much as they warned of the “fascist” menace in Ukraine."
In fact, a group of Ukrainian software developers who founded mapping tool Liveuamap.com to crowdsource information during the February 2014 revolution and ensuing conflict in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, have now set their sights on the Syria campaign.
Liveuamap CEO Rodion Rozhkovsky told The WorldPost in an email that the team predicted an escalation of the Syrian conflict this summer and intensified work on their Syria map, which includes social media posts and news reports that are collected using a computer algorithm and are cross-verified by editors.
"Me and my team believe big data could prevent future conflicts, deaths, human rights violations," Rozhkovsky said. "Like the idea of the butterfly effect ... With social media we could gather all the "flapping of the butterfly wings" and say that there will be a "hurricane," he said.
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