Lights go out as Syria war drags on

Over the four years that researcher Xi Li has watched Syria’s civil war unfold through nighttime satellite imagery, he has seen the pinpricks of light that dotted the north and east fade and the Mediterranean coast darken until 83% of the country’s lights have gone out.

From a vantage point that few people have seen, Li has produced a chilling measurement of a crisis that shows no sign of ending.

As the civil war moves into its fifth year, a global coalition of dozens of human rights and humanitarian groups released Li’s analysis and demanded a comprehensive effort to get aid to millions of Syrians.

“Satellite data never tell lies,” said Chinese-born Li, a visiting scholar at the University of Maryland’s Department of Geographic Sciences. “The night images are very unbelievable. The Syrian people need help.”

He has measured the levels of nighttime light across Syria since the conflict began in March 2011. His findings were published last year in the International Journal of Remote Sensing and came to the attention of the #WithSyria coalition after a friend who does similar work at Columbia University put them in touch.

In the images, the bright light of March 2011 in Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city, is almost entirely gone by February of this year. Even the government-controlled capital, Damascus, is 35% dimmer.

Raqqa, the new de facto capital of Islamic State (IS), is also almost in complete darkness, with 96% of its lights out, Li said.

He blamed the displacement of people as the main factor behind the darkening, as 3.8m people have fled the country. He also blamed power shortages and infrastructure damage.

In a conference call that also included the head of the International Rescue Committee and former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Li said the nighttime satellite images offer a rare chance to see the whole picture of the crisis at once.

He says he is now looking at the current conflict in Iraq through similar analysis of nighttime light.

The call also featured a Syrian dentist who, until last summer, was based in a besieged Damascus suburb that has been without electricity for almost three years. He spoke under a pseudonym for his safety.

“We have been living without electricity for 900 days,” he said. Imagine going a day without your daily cup of coffee, he said. And now imagine trying to keep schools and hospitals running.

In a separate report, 21 humanitarian groups gave the UN Security Council a failing grade, saying it has not implemented the three resolutions it passed last year aimed at getting aid to Syrians and protecting civilians.

The council has been blocked from taking strong action on the crisis by vetoes from permanent member Russia, Syria’s ally.

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