After four years of conflict, Syria is ‘entering the dark ages’

Scientists who analyzed satellite images taken of Syria at night between March 2011 and last month estimate that 83% of the country's lights have gone out since its conflict began.
(#withSyria, L.A. Times Graphics)

More than 80% of the lights in Syria have been extinguished in the last four years, according to humanitarian agencies that say the country’s devastating civil war is pushing its people into the dark ages – literally and figuratively.

Scientists based at Wuhan University in China analyzed satellite images that showed the number of lights visible at night over Syria from March 2011 to last month. They estimate that 83% are gone, evidence of the massive destruction and displacement caused by the war.

As the conflict enters its fifth year this month, the death toll stands at more than 200,000, according to figures cited by #withSyria, a coalition of 130 human rights and aid agencies that released the satellite images.




An earlier version of this article said that scientists analyzed satellite images that showed the number of lights visible over Syria between March 2011 and February 2014. The study continued until last month.


Nearly 11 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands trapped in combat zones with little access to food, shelter or medical care. More than 3 million have sought shelter in neighboring countries, whose governments say they are struggling to cope.

Life expectancy has dropped by 20 years, from 75 in 2010 to 55 last year, the Syrian Center for Policy Research said in a U.N.-backed report issued this week.

“What is happening on the ground in Syria is a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe of the first order,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who chairs the National Democratic Institute, told reporters Wednesday. “I believe it is the single most important issue in the Middle East today, yet it sometimes feels as though the world has forgotten about it.”

Aid agencies chastised the United Nations Security Council for failing to implement three resolutions passed last year to increase access by humanitarian workers to victims of the conflict. About 4.8 million Syrians live in areas defined by the U.N. as hard to reach, more than double the figure in 2013, according to another report issued by 21 groups, including Oxfam and Save the Children.

The rise of the extremist group Islamic State, which seized large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq last summer, has complicated relief efforts. But some humanitarian workers argue that too much emphasis has been placed on the military campaign against the militants.


David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who heads the International Rescue Committee, lamented the lack of attention given to efforts to achieve a comprehensive political solution.

“The fact that the hard work of the U.N. envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has now been reduced to seeking a temporary truce in one city in Syria [Aleppo] says it all,” Miliband told reporters. “Notwithstanding the many priorities that exist for diplomats and politicians around the world, whether it be the Iran nuclear program or Ukraine crisis … the world can’t afford to turn away from the search to bring the war in Syria to an end.”

The satellite imagery puts the conflict’s effect on civilians into sharp relief. In images from 2011, the region of Aleppo glows brightly near Syria’s northern border with Turkey. By last month, 97% of the lights were gone in the province that includes the heavily contested city, said Xi Li, who led the analysis.

The loss of light is less widespread in areas partly or wholly controlled by the government of President Bashar Assad. Damascus, the capital, lost about 33%, he said.


“Syria is entering the dark ages, literally and metaphorically,” Miliband said. “The use of barrel bombs, torture, targeting of aid workers and doctors rolls back centuries of progress, not just in … peacemaking but in the conduct of war.”

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