Maps and the Middle East

In the beginning of the 20th century, when the US was entering the era of mass production, one of the problems it had to overcome was a workforce that was barely literate and of which a large segment didn’t speak English.  The assembly line system that eliminated the need for workers to communicate with each other solved part of the problem, but it was still necessary to make clear to them what they were expected to do on the assembly line.  That part of the problem was solved by Frank Bunker Gilbreth, who together with his wife Lillian developed an alphabet of human motions called ‘therbligs,’ an anagram of his name, with which he could visualize every move a worker had to make on the shopfloor.  I once had the pleasure of studying Gilbreth’s first draft of the therbligs in the special collections of Purdue University’s library, but with the rising educational level of the industrial workforce, and the ‘crisis of Fordism’ in the late 1960s and early 1970s that gradually made assembly line work obsolete in the industrialized world, there has been no need for therbligs any more in the last fifty years or so.

But there is still a need for visualization, and it appears that in our post-industrial information society it is stronger than ever.  In the US Vox Media and FiveThirtyEight, two new digital news organizations with a mastery of information technology, produce maps visualizing everything that’s relevant in the areas of politics, economics, sports, demographics and so on.  Still, to the best of my knowledge, neither has yet produced a comprehensive map of who is fighting whom in the Middle East, and if they had it would probably be obsolete the next day.  The design site ‘Information Is Beautiful’ has come the closest with an interactive map, but warns the user that it will be subject to change as political bonds break and forge. The main complexities are: the US and its allies are fighting ISIS in Iraq and support the ‘Free Syrian Army’ in Syria, which they also want to fight ISIS but that wants to fight the Assad-regime. The Assad-regime fights the Syrian opposition and sometimes ISIS.  Iraq fights ISIS, with the support of the US and Iran, which also supports the Assad-regime.  The Kurds fight ISIS but also Turkey, an US ally.

Things got more complicated when Vladimir Putin decided to step into this quagmire and support the Assad-regime, first with Russian air power and now also with ‘volunteer’ boots on the ground.  Putin’s stated goal is to help in the fight against ISIS, but the Russian military action in Syria so far appears to be mostly directed against the Syrian opposition, although by way of window dressing Russian planes will probably also here and there drop a bomb on ISIS.

In this situation, which was complicated enough before Russia joined the theater, Barack Obama has to re-assess the US strategy, which so far consisted of building and operating an anti-ISIS coalition.  He has no shortage at home of Republican know-it-alls like McCain and Rubio, who demand no-fly zones in Syria and better arms for the Syrian opposition and the Kurds.

Heeding all the calls of GOP warmongers would put the US on a collision course with Russia, but if NATO didn’t engage Russia over the Ukraine other than with sanctions, why risk a military confrontation in Syria?  Obama should take his time and think hard about that question.

Hugo Kijne


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