6:27 a.m. May 15, 2013

I Heart Syria

If, like me, you spend your days lurking in the darker neighborhoods of YouTube, you’ve probably already seen the video: A Sunni rebel chieftain carving a dead SAA soldier open — not very well, either — and pulling out his heart, then taking a stagey-looking bite out of it.

If you haven’t, you probably should, if only so you understand why all of your Twitter friends are making bad jokes with “heart” in them. Those in the know have already downloaded the video, watched it about 85 times, cursing the blurring over the chest cavity, and then tweeted about how appalled they were. It’s a new phenomenon, the instant global “Tsk.” Time magazine claimed that videos like this are “fueling Syria’s Descent into Madness.”

That’s an interesting verb they picked: “fueling.” It doesn’t quite say that these videos are causing the atrocities, but more that they couldn’t happen without them, the way a car can’t run without fuel. And that’s crap, of course. People have been thinking up interesting ways to kill each other, and desecrate each other’s corpses, as long as the species has existed. No human has ever needed any tech help to think up horrible things to do to some other human. We’ve all got nerve endings, and it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that if hitting your fingertip with a hammer hurts you, tying an enemy down and doing it to him about a thousand times in a row is gonna hurt him a lot worse.

We’re all born geniuses at this kind of thing. Boiling, impalement, flaying — the list could go on and on, and most of the items on it would be both torture and desecration, because most religions are very picky about what has to happen to a corpse if it’s going to have a decent afterlife. Having your pelt nailed to the city gates, for example, is not the path to Elysium.

The people who read Time magazine don’t know or care about history, of course. For them, death porn like this doubles the fun by getting them all excited with free S&M, while letting them feel smug, safe and superior to the Syrians.

What it meant in Syria is a more complicated issue. The man who had himself filmed eating the heart of this dead Alawite soldier goes by the name of Abu Sakkar. He’s the leader of a 60-man rebel “brigade” named after Omar al-Farouk, an Al Qaeda vet. The name tells you that this “brigade” wants to stand out as more hardcore than other rebel units; the fact that it only has 60 men in it tells you that, so far, it hasn’t done that well. And the fact that there even are such things as 60-man “brigades” — brigades not much bigger than a conventional platoon — tells you a lot about what’s wrong with the Syrian Sunni militias. Like I said in my last article, the Sunni rebellion in Syria has no unified command (the FSA is a joke) and consists mostly of neighborhood defense groups that gain or lose men based on their reputation, their ability to pay, and their supply of weapons.

This kind of chaos is terrible for the overall cause, the struggle against Assad’s army — but it has some benefits for the individual soldier, who can pick and choose which so-called brigade he’s going to join. And that’s where this video comes in: I suspect it was a recruiting device. Like I always say, to understand war, remember your high school phys ed class. That was the last time you were probably thrown in with a large group of unselected young males. Remember those jerks? Now, how many of them would’ve loved this video and jumped on the first bus to join Abu Sakkar and his merry Aztec priests? I’m not suggesting you would join. You and I, my friend, are far too refined, too noble — and, more to the point, too freaking old — to go for this kind of thing. But try hard to remember the typical 17-year-old in that phys ed class and you’ll start to understand why this could work big time as a recruiting device.

It turns out that Abu Sakkar’s little group of improv. cardiologists have been trying to make a name for themselves as hardcore dudes for a while now. They were the ones who tried to start a wider war by shelling Shi’ite villages over the border in Lebanon on April 14, 2013, but until Abu Sakkar posted his cardio-sushi video, nobody noticed, because we were all so busy deciding that Hezbollah was at fault.

So in one way, this video is simple and obvious, a way to draw more adolescent psychos, bolster your pitifully tiny little “brigade,” become the next Genghis Khan — totally normal wartime ambition, in other words. Already, Sunni volunteers are sneaking off from the more “moderate” Sunni brigades to join the hardcore jihadi Al Nusra Front — they have so many applicants they have a big religious/moral entrance exam, and turn away most wannabes. That means there’s a pool of hardcore but kinda-too-crazy guys looking for a new outfit, and that’s where the Bloody Valentine vid comes in.

But was it a good idea? Well, again, you have to ask, “For who?” For Abu Sakkar and his Hungry Men diners, it probably was. But for the Sunni, as a group? Hell no. The West had just about decided (stupidly) that they were the good guys in this fight, when up pops this video. And guess who’s distributing it everywhere they can? Assad’s PR team. It feeds right into their narrative of a small and relatively civilized community menaced by inland zombies.

If you look at the early frames of the video, you’ll notice the English-language brand name, “Syrian Truth,” along with a logo featuring green stars. Those stars are Assad icons, and the Arabic text describes how a “cannibal” is devouring the heart of a “Syrian soldier.”

It’s an interesting proof of what I said a long time ago about Syria: This is a fractal war, operating on every scale from the neighborhood to the planet.

This video works at one level of magnification — as a recruiting device for a particular little Sunni outfit desperate for new men. But it’s a disaster for the bigger cause, the Sunni rebellion as a whole, which is exactly why their blood enemies, Assad’s Alawites, are promoting it like one of those “belly fat” ads.