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Satellite Image Analysis Offers New Insights to Syrian Conflict

On 9 August (left), large numbers of temporary structures are present near a roundabout in the Ayn at-Tal district. By 23 August (right), however, 84 of them have been replaced by marks consistent with burning (yellow arrows). Scorch marks are also present on the roofs of nearby buildings (red arrows), and probable craters have formed in the streets (green arrows).

[Left image © 2012 DigitalGlobe, Inc.; right image © 2012 GeoEye Inc.]

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An analysis of high-resolution satellite images of Aleppo, Syria, appears to reveal the deployment of heavy armored vehicles in civilian neighborhoods as well 117 instances of damage to buildings and infrastructure, AAAS has reported.

Two satellite images, captured 9 and 23 August, “largely corroborate on-the-ground reports of heavy-artillery assaults by the Syrian army moving through neighborhoods,” said Susan Wolfinbarger, a senior program associate for the Geospatial and Human Rights Project at AAAS. The images, taken during and shortly after news reports of a military push to seize control of the city, “appear to show tanks and armored vehicles on city streets, burned industrial buildings, roadblocks, and fortifications,” she added.

The analysis, completed independently by AAAS at the request of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA), also revealed what seem to be “recently constructed revetments, or probable mortar positions for small artillery pieces, heavy vehicle tracks on roadways, and a substantial increase in activity at a military base on the outskirts of the city,” AAAS reported.

Within and around the commercial hub of Aleppo, located in Syria’s northwestern region near the Turkish border, escalating clashes between government forces and rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad have been described by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as a civil war. Combatants are therefore subject to international humanitarian laws enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. Heavy fighting, shelling by tanks and artillery, and civilian casualties have been reported by news agencies such as Al Jazeera English.

A probable armored vehicle was sighted on 9 August in the Ard as-Sabbagh District, yet the vehicle was no longer present by 23 August, and most of a nearby building had been destroyed, AAAS found. In the northern district of Ayn at-Tal, 84 makeshift structures appeared to have been burned in the parking lot of an industrial facility. Scorch marks also were visible on buildings and craters had appeared in the streets.

By 23 August, AAAS noted, “many streets around the city had become littered with debris, and asphalt was blackened in many areas in a manner that resembled scorch marks from fire and explosions. Probable shell craters and debris consistent with artillery projectiles were also evident both in Salaheddine and elsewhere. Damage was also noted to structures.”

Between 9 and 23 August, the AAAS report concludes, “makeshift defensive positions have proliferated in Aleppo.” On August 9, image analysis pinpointed 72 fortifications across the city, increasing to 102 by August 23. During the intervening two weeks, some of the original 72 were dismantled while others were constructed.



An image from 9 August shows that revetments, apparently to protect small artillery, had recently been built in a field to the southeast of Aleppo, about 3.4 kilometers south of the city’s airport.
[©2012 DigitalGlobe Inc.] View a larger version of this image.

The AAAS analysis covered 182 square kilometers of Aleppo and surrounding regions. It was based on satellite images captured on 9 August by DigitalGlobe Inc.’s Quickbird-2 satellite and on 23 August by GeoEye Inc.’s IKONOS satellite, as well as information provided by AIUSA and media reports. A Google Earth image taken 5 October 2011 also was used to further investigate changes in the features of a particular military base.


AAAS emphasized that its image analysis was limited by the high-population density of Aleppo, home to more than 2 million people, and shadows cast by many tall buildings. In the Salaheddine neighborhood, for instance, smoke could be seen above an urban area too tightly packed to reveal street-level changes.

The Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project at AAAS, part of the association’s Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, has previously provided objective image analysis to help explain events in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Ossetia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and many other regions. Geospatial technologies include remote sensing, geographic information systems and Global Positioning Systems that allow for mapping and analysis of multiple layers of geo-referenced data.

The U.S. State Department has pledged $21 million to the United Nations World Food Program to help conflict-affected people inside Syria and support some of the estimated 240,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. On 9 August, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the international community should “bring more pressure to bear on the Assad regime [in Syria] to end the bloodshed and begin a political democratic transition.” Any new U.N. Security Council resolution for a Syrian transition plan should include consequences for noncompliance, she added.

The 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly is now underway in New York City. Russia and China have vetoed tough Security Council sanctions against Syria.


Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs

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