12:27 p.m. May 8, 2013

War Nerd: Our Ringers vs. Your Ringers

The war in Syria has been picked over from nearly every angle except the most obvious one — simple tactics: who’s doing what, and how. There’s something like class snobbery in the way people cover this war. Print and TV focus on geopolitics or the inhumanity; but there’s a whole youtube industry of Syrian videos, which, if you watch enough of them carefully enough, can give you a good sense of what’s happening in the thousand tiny streetfights that make up this war.

When you look at this war strictly as a military struggle, you notice something weird: over two years of fighting, the lines are almost totally static. The Alawites, Assad’s Shi’ia-ish people, have withdrawn from most of inland Syria — the flat, dry country where the Sunni dominate. But Assad’s troops and militias are still fighting for Aleppo, the biggest city in the Sunni inland region, and they’re holding on strong in their coastal home region. The Kurds have assumed control of their enclaves in the north and northeast with some help from their PKK friends in Turkey. Roughly speaking, the Alawites, who always looked like sure losers, have held their own and even pushed back, despite being only about 10% of the population, and having a tradition of being considered weird hicks by other Syrians.

If you look at a map of sectarian demographics in Syria, and superimpose it on a map showing areas of Assad control and rebel-held regions, you’ll see that the two maps are almost identical. And the front lines haven’t changed much since the Sunni grabbed control of their neighborhoods two years ago. Syria makes the Western Front of WWI look like the Paris-Dakar Rally by comparison. The lines held by the Sunni, Shi’ia and Kurds barely move.

And by the way, I’m going to talk about Sunni, Alawite, Shi’ia, and Kurds, because that’s what matters in Syria. This is a sectarian war, and pretending it isn’t is just pious nonsense. As long as you keep in mind that in the Levant, "sect" means an ethnic group as much as a religion. And if that seems weird, try thinking of a classic Levantine sectarian outpost you may have heard of, the one called "Israel." Are Israeli Jews a religion or an ethnic group, a people? Both, more or less -- a very sloppy, leaky Venn diagram. Religion works as an ethnic marker for most groups in the Levant, not just the Israelis. And the fact that there are always outliers, people too noble or crazy or sophisticated to be defined by their sect, doesn’t change the fact that for most people, the sect is what defines you.

Once you see how deeply this sectarian identity works, you can start to understand why this war is so static. In urban sectarian warfare, most fights are about the neighborhood, keeping the neighborhood in your sect’s hands, away from the heretics two streets over. You grow up fighting the kids from over there, first with words, then with rocks, then with whatever firearms you can borrow from your cousins. For Anglos, the paradigm for this kind of war is Belfast and Derry. The war there started with neighborhood defenders in places like the Short Strand trying to hold their little block of row houses against the other sect.

Americans have a hard time imagining how tiny this kind of war can be. In this country you can drive for 14 hours and pull over to the same intersection, with exactly the same McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Day’s Inn, Starbucks, Super 8 and Motel 6. The accents’d be the same, the burgers’d be the same, the price of gas’d might change by a penny or two.

In a place like Aleppo (or Belfast), every street takes a side. The name of the street tells you which side it’s on (which is why those whiny choir boys, U2, came up with the song about a wonderful place "where the streets have no name"). It’s not just the streets, either; the birds in Beirut or Belfast chirp "Death to heretics!" Blindfold somebody from a city like that, walk them around a few times, and when you let them look, they could tell you in a second which (sectarian) side of town they’re on.

This encourages people to "think local." Which means they’re very good when they fight to hold their neighborhoods, but useless in big offensives. Even raw irregulars can do very well fighting on their own turf. But they’re useless when you try to get them to organize into an offensive army. Why risk the neighborhood’s crop of young men on somebody else’s neighborhood? Not only could you lose half your cousins, but while you and the cuzzies are out there grandstanding, somebody could be invading your neighborhood. You just don’t leave your neighborhood unmanned in a sectarian war, ever. Not if you have living female relatives. In ugly wars like this, you’re not afraid of what the enemy will do to you but to your kin —the really sick people are encouraged to get creative in horrible ways; merely murdering your neighbor gets old fast.

So most of the locals in this war only want to hold their block of houses, basically as far as kin and sectarian ties hold. Ask them to form up and move out for bigger operations, and they’ll fade away. Lots of promises — and then the quiet skedaddle.

This is why Aleppo is still a divided city. Aleppo should have been in Sunni hands two years ago. It’s ridiculous, in conventional military terms, that the Alawite army still holds half of it. Aleppo is 80% Sunni, and most of the other 20% is Christian. The only Alawites in town are the occupiers, Assad’s officer corps and bureaucrats.

But in two years of fighting, the Sunni still can’t take the airport. It’s not that the Sunni militias are cowardly or incompetent. They’re not; they’re just locals. I wrote about what you can learn from the home videos these militias make, and if you want to get a really good look at how a neighborhood-defense militia group thinks and fights, watch the whole of this French documentary I discussed in that article, "One Week with the FSA."

The title of the documentary tells you a lot about what’s wrong with the way we report on Syria, because if you watch this thing it’s obvious these fighters aren’t the FSA, or "Free Syrian Army." They’re the neighborhood, and they think in terms of corners and streets. Their military horizon is the effective range of a Dragunov — about half a kilometer. They’re good guys, seems like, but they have zero interest in leaving their homes to go expel the heretics from other towns. With neighborhoods like this walling themselves off in every Syrian town, you get something that’s not really one war but hundreds of neighborhood stalemates. If Syria was in a world of its own, the war might freeze like that, into a thousand Free Derrys.

But that’s not going to happen because the Syrian sectarian war fits into a bigger Sunni-Shi’ia fight in a way that the war in Belfast never did. Belfast never made sense to the bigger Euro-Western world that was watching it. Europe dropped religion, after OD’ing on it for about 1,500 years, in favor of dance music and small cars. Nobody in DC or Paris cared which sect won, give or take a bar or two in Boston and the people who invited Ian Paisley to Bob Jones University.

The Muslim world hasn’t dropped religion, to put it mildly. You are living through a Muslim revival that may turn out to be what they teach the kiddies about the early 21st century, a hundred years from now. Even states like Turkey, founded on secularism, are aggressively Islamic now. The big-money Gulf monarchies were never anything but Islamic, and Wahhabi at that. So what happens in Syria matters to a whole lot of places with a big footprint in the current Sunni revival: Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia.

And it matters even more to the one powerful Shi’ia state, Iran. Iran has been on a winning streak lately, taking most of Iraq without sacrificing a single soldier (well, officially anyway) and tweaking the Hell out of Israel via Hezbollah and the long striptease called "Haz We Got Nukes?"

So the neighborhood wars are taking place as a fractal of a much bigger sectarian fight.

There’s an interesting point of comparison here: petty sectarian feuds that ended up setting off a continent-wide slaughter by a religion-obsessed civilization. It was called the Thirty Years War, and it was pretty unpleasant for all concerned. I don’t actually think 21st-century Muslims are anywhere near as crazy, warlike and lethal as 17th-century Europeans, but there’s something old-time Catholic about the Shi’ia, and sort of Lutheran about those rule-bound, legalistic Sunni. Could get interesting, like way too interesting.

At the moment, most of the bigger Shi’a and Sunni powers are contributing money, intel and volunteers. That’s where multi-national fighting forces become so important in the Syrian war. If most of your troop strength consists of local men, fighters tied to one neighborhood, then you’re going to be very weak offensively — which the Sunni have shown themselves to be in this war.

To go back to the Thirty Years War: one of the reasons the Swedes were so scary and effective in Germany was that they were marching over alien territory, so they had no attachment to any part of the Central European theater. Without local loyalties to obsess on, and without vulnerable families in the war zone, they went where they were needed. And they killed, tortured and burned whatever they found. That made them much more flexible and effective than the hundreds of local militias that were tied to home turf, or the mercenary companies, weak and disloyal.

Syria — stuck in local, defensive warfare — is prime territory for that sort of ruthless ’n’ rootless foreign contingent. And both sides have brought their ringers into the fight. On the Sunni side, most of the foreign volunteers have joined Jabhat al Nusra, a foreign legion mostly recruited from surviving members of Al Quaeda in Iraq. Al Nusra, with only about 5,000 fighters, has taken the lead in most offensive operations, but at the same time, it’s a huge liability for the "Free Syrian Army" umbrella group that’s busy trying to look all Western and moderate so as to get offensive weapons from the CIA. So the front men of the FSA have been trying to pat the jihadis with one hand and dissociate themselves from jihadism with the other. It’s been like watching a lab experiment in the relative value of combat effectiveness vs. good PR. And the results came down in favor of pure combat effectiveness; the FSA decided not to disown Al Nusra, even after al Nusra’s leader publicly declared allegiance to Al Quaeda. This was kind of a relief for fans of actual war; it proved that what’s happening in Syria is, after all, a war, not a pity contest. You could actually do a great version of Kipling’s poem, "Tommy," about the FSA attitude to Al Nusra:

O it’s ‘Quaeda this’ and ‘Wahhab that’ and ‘But you’re so extreme!’

But it’s ‘Shukran, Mister Salafist’ when the Sukhois start to scream.

The Sukhois start to scream, Habib, the Sukhois start to scream;

It’s ‘Ya Allah Ybarek,’ when the Sukhois start to scream.

The Alawites don’t have as many sympathizers scattered around the world as the Sunni, but the two friends they do have, Iran and Hezbollah, are much more focused on Syria, and way more hardcore. Nasrallah, the nerdy genius-Mullah who runs Hezbollah, said as much when he told Hezbollah’s TV station that Syria, meaning the Alawite regime, has "real friends…who will not let it fall" to the Americans or Sunni jihadis. That crack about "real friends" meant, among other things, "Not fake friends like the Gulf Arabs, who talk big but never deliver."

Iran provides Assad with money, intel, and a steady supply of military technicians. Hezbollah’s responsibility is raw military power, providing a growing share of the fighters on the ground. And as Assad’s troops weaken, Hezbollah’s been providing. It was thanks to an infusion of Hezbollah troops, the best light infantry in the Middle East, that Assad’s forces retook Qusayr, on the road to Homs, in April.

Pundits keep talking about Hezbollah’s supply of rockets, but Hezbollah’s strength is men, tough light infantry. Even the IDF admits, after getting its ass kicked by Nasrullah’s fighters in 2006, that Hezbollah trains the best guerrillas in the world. Rockets won’t turn the tide in Syria, but a sudden infusion of tough infantry can, and did, in Qusayr. Hezbollah seems to have decided sometime in April that with Assad’s troops running out of planes and tanks, and too chicken to engage the enemy on foot, it was time to stop drip-feeding fighters to the Alawites and go in hard.

It worked so well that the Israelis got scared enough to attack any weapons dump they thought Hezbollah could access in Damascus. There’s been a lot of blather about what the Israeli airstrikes in Syria "really mean," with talk about sending a message to Iran or supporting the Sunni. It’s much simpler: The strikes mean Israel is frightened of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah is strong enough to win in Syria. But Nasrullah has always been a very smart, cautious commander. He must know it’s not that good a look for Hezbollah, playing O-line for Assad’s creepy Shabiha death squads to cleanse the coast of Sunni. That’s not going to play well at all in Lebanese politics, where Nasrullah has been doing his Great Uniter routine.

So Hezbollah’s not going to sweep across Syria. It will carve out a viable statelet for the Alawites and let the Sunni have Aleppo and the dry zone. The Kurds will carve out another statelet of their own in the north, with some weird co-rule deal with the PKK in Turkey and the two big clans in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In fact, Syria is going to end up looking exactly like that five-part division the French gave it almost a century ago.