The War Nerd: Syria's Fractal War, Playing Out On Every Scale
The war in Syria keeps grinding along, full of massacres, alliances and betrayals, but not much in the way of set-piece battles. That makes it a normal war. A lot of war buffs forget that. They call this “primitive war,” and you can hear the snobbery dripping in that name. They want everything to be Gettysburg, Waterloo or Stalingrad, but those were freak shows, oddities from a brief period of history. Most wars down the ages go just like Syria is going now, with the focus on ethnic cleansing and killing civilians, avoiding battle if possible.
The only unusual thing about Syria is that the fighting gets played out on every scale, from neighborhood to planetary. At ground level, this is a neighborhood war all the way. But the reactions come in from all over the planet. In fact, you can tell whose neighbors got killed by which part of the world reacts to the killing. Yesterday a mortar shell slammed into a school near Damascus and killed some kids.
The Alawites in Bashar Assad’s regime howled and so did their allies, the Russians. Which means, even though the press carefully avoided saying what religion the dead students were, you can bet they were Alawite. If they’d been Sunni, the people howling would be the Sunni and their backers: the Saudis, the Turks, and the Arab League. Every neighborhood firefight in Syria echoes around the world.
And the longer the war goes on, the more fractal it gets, because Syria has never been a one-on-one struggle of Alawites vs. Sunni. There are a lot of little ethno-religious enclaves in Syria, and sooner or later, whether they want to or not, every one of them is going to have to get involved.
Sometimes group identity is pretty straightforward, providing you with both identities: religious and ethnic. But not in Syria. It’s 90% Arab, ethnically, but those Arabs are divided into the Sunni majority in the north and east, the Alawites and Druze in the coastal hills and Damascus, and the Christians, mostly scattered along the coast. So the two biggest gangs in the country at the moment, Alawite and Sunni, both consider themselves Arabs; for them, it’s officially a “religious” war, not an ethnic fight.
But people get the wrong idea when you say it’s a religious war, as if two kids from the same house join up in different churches and start fighting. It doesn’t happen like that. You’re born into a religion—if that’s not what does it, the world sure is full of weird coincidences, because Sunni families have a lot of Sunni kids, Baptist families have a lot of Baptist kids, and Unitarian families… well, I’m not sure there are Unitarian families but if there are, I suspect they have a lot of cats, instead of kids. Rescue cats.
So your religious identity, especially in a place like Syria where the different religions each have their ghettos, is not just about church, it’s the neighborhood, the family, the songs you learn when you grow up, the massacres you’re trained to remember and resent, the grudges it’s a sin to forget, the whole landscape and history. What matters is where you split from the others, not the fact that you look alike or speak the same language as the heathen over the hill in the next village.
Identity like this gets real, real important when it’s a matter of extermination, which it is in Syria. If you live in a condo in Seattle, you can take your parents’ church or leave it at home with your old bike. But if you live in a Syrian neighborhood where the people a few miles away really do consider you kaffirs and really do want to wipe you out, that’s not an option. You either stick to the group or desert in the face of the enemy.
So right now, all kinds of Alawite Syrians who used to hate Assad, for clan reasons or just for being such a lunkhead fascist, are coming back into the fold like the lost sheep churchy people love to sing about, because it’s a matter of loyalty—and besides, it’s just not safe declaring yourself a Unitarian in an environment like that. If the Sunni win, they’re going to shoot Alawites, and it won’t do any good to tell them, “I’m one of the broadminded ones.” In fact, that sort of attitude gets you shot faster than anything in most war zones. It’s like prison: if you try to make a point by sitting at the wrong table—the white table if you’re black, the black table if you’re white, the nortenos if you’re sureno or vice versa--they’ll make a point of you in a way you won’t like.
And that’s not just because they’re bad people. This kind of war is about what military bureaucrats call “unit cohesion.” In a sectarian war, the whole group is a military unit. And if it don’t cohere, it may not be around very long.
But at the same time, there are all these levels of identity that don’t come into play, like the fact that both Alawite and Sunni officially consider themselves Arabs. In that case, religion beats ethnic identity as something to fight over. It’s not always that way, though — sometimes ethnic identity trumps religious identity. And that’s where the next big fault line is going to open up in Syria: The Kurds.
Kurds are about 10% of the population in Syria, and like every other group in the country they’ve got their own patch of turf — in two blobs along the northern border. The Syrian Kurds are regular Sunni Muslims, totally in agreement on all that stuff with the Sunni Arabs who are fighting Assad’s Alawite heretics.
But Kurds are not Arabs. Very, very not-Arabs. Kurds and Arabs have a long history, and though there are some bright spots (Saladin was a Kurd), it hasn’t been a very sweet little story of “harmony in diversity” or any of that crap. We’re talking about the Middle East here, and they see diversity the way we see fungal infections: you just can’t get rid of the damn thing, but you sure keep trying.
Kurdish territory includes South East Turkey, Northern Iraq, and North West Iran as well as Northern Syria, and the Kurds have been stomped by all their neighbors — with the occasional mirage of reconciliation. Saddam’s kin got so sick of dealing with the rebellious Kurds in northern Iraq that in 1988, back when we were friends with Saddam and he felt like he had a long leash, he gave the nod to a chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja. You’ve probably seen the pictures that came out of that attack, some pretty sickening stuff—mothers holding their babies, dead in their tracks, cellars full of dead people and so on.
Funny thing is, Halabja made people so sick it eventually led to the “no-fly zone” over the Kurdish part of North Iraq, which is when the Iraqi Kurds started to recover. Now they’re the one stable, peaceful part of Iraq. Northern Iraq is de facto independent, the first Kurdish state in history unless you count a few early 20th-century abortions that lasted about as long as those elements way down the Periodic Table that need a collider or two to exist at all.
Lately, the world champion Kurd-bashers are the Turks, who’ve been fighting a war of quasi-extermination against the Kurds on Turkish territory for decades. The main Kurdish party in Turkey is the PKK, one of those classic ethnic-liberation parties that started out commie, when commie was cool, and veered right to become a straight ethnic ticket. The PKK is still doing “armed struggle” in SE Turkey, and the Turks are reacting in their usual way, dragging suspects behind APCs for a few miles over bumpy roads until they’re more inclined to discuss their acquaintances.
Of all the people on this planet, Turks are the least in favor of diversity. They took Woodrow Wilson seriously in 1918, when he pretty much told Europe it had to be broken up into ethnic enclaves. The Turkish officers’ response was like “OK, we don’t get to be this big polyglot Ottoman Empire? Fine, Woody, we’re gonna be Turkey, a unitary ethnic state, only we’re gonna take it to eleven, you Presbyterian pickle-faced Sunday-School dupe! We’re gonna declare everybody on Turkish territory a Turk, and everybody else is welcome to get the Hell out!”
That’s what you might call “the birth of modern Turkey” in 100 words or less, and as you can guess it was more bad news for the Kurds. Ataturk officially declared that they weren’t Kurds at all, anyway; they were “mountain Turks,” like the Yeti version of a real Turk. He also made it illegal to speak Kurdish anywhere in public, and as for anything more militant than that…well, the Turkish Army has lots of APCs, and plenty of tow ropes, so if you felt like proclaiming your Kurdish identity, you were sure of a free ride, like the one Hector’s corpse got behind Achilles’ chariot.
That crackdown made the survivors more militant, like most crackdowns do. You kill one Kurd, you make his brothers and cousins soldiers of the PKK for life. Which was OK with the Turkish Army, because fighting Kurds was a nice safe way to rise through the ranks. (CI wars are popular with a lot of officer corps for the same reason.) The guerrilla war in SE Turkey has been burning like a peat fire, slow and underground, for fifty years and doesn’t look like stopping any time soon.
And like most guerrilla wars, the war between Turkey and the PKK doesn't stop at the border. The PKK operates inside Iraq—in fact, the Turkish air force has bombed PKK installations in Iraq—and PKK territory slops over into the Kurdish villages of Northern Syria, too. Naturally, the PKK has invented a local false-flag political party for itself inside Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). You have to get used to a lot of three-letter parties in the guerrilla warfare game, but most of them don’t matter much. It comes down to the real power, and that’s still the PKK.
For a big irredentist party like the PKK, the breakdown in Syria is a godsend. It’s not easy fighting the Turkish Army. They play very, very rough—lots of torture, lots of assassinations. It’s a lot easier to move in on a crumbling regime like Assad’s, right over the border. So PKK fighters have moved in big numbers to villages like Ras Al-Ain, where they fought one of their first battles with Syrian Sunni rebels a couple of weeks ago.
The Kurds in Syria have no reason to love Assad’s regime, but they have a lot less reason to love the Muslim Brotherhood, which is running the show for the Syrian rebels. Sure, the Kurds are officially Sunni, but they’ve had nothing but grief from their “co-religionists” down the centuries. At ground level, Muslim Brotherhood is not just a Sunni movement, it’s an Arab movement, one that draws its footsoldiers from the farmers in northeastern Syria, especially around Aleppo. And those guys see their Arab culture as being pretty much the same thing as proper orthodox Islam.
The Kurds, on the other hand, just want a chance to be Kurdish without getting killed for it. It’s a nice little example of the way identity works: two groups who officially have the same religion breaking on ethnic lines anyway.
And the break is already happening. The leader of the PYD, Saleh Muslim, wasn’t even invited to the talks that came up with a front group for the Syrian Opposition a few weeks ago. And he’s not happy about it, to the point that he basically called the opposition a Muslim Brotherhood front group:
"They're making the same mistakes as the Syrian National Council. They're one colour, a cleric is the ruler. More than 60 percent of the SNC were from the Muslim Brotherhood and the religious groups, and they've made the same mistake with this coalition," Muslim told Reuters in London. "It (the opposition coalition) has not emerged from obedience to Turkey and Qatar," he said, adding that the Kurds included in the group were not representative of Syria's Kurds and were handpicked by Turkey to follow its agenda.
You hear that emphasis on Turkey? Well naturally, a guy who’s from the PKK, who’s probably had relatives tortured to death by the Turkish Army, is not gonna be thrilled that the main backers of the Sunni coalition are Turkey, the Kurds’ current public enemy #1, and Qatar, a little Gulf Arab state with more money than brains and more Wahhabis than money. The Kurds' version of Sunni Islam is roughly, “Yes, we’re Sunni already, now leave us alone”... whereas the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) take is: “The Sunni-er, the better.”
That’s the fractal side of Syria, ethnic and religious feuds all mixed up. Turkey is Sunni but not Arab; the Kurds are Sunni but not Arab and very definitely not-Turkish, either. Qatar is Arab and Sunni to a fault. And the Ikhwan is militantly Sunni, de facto Arab, and determined to align all of Syria with the new, rising Sunni bloc.
Then there are the other players aligned with Assad: Iran, which is Shia (and Alawites are Shia, with a dash of Christianity), but Shia-not-Araba; Russia, with a lot of intel invested in Assad’s people; and the newest player of all: the Kurdish state in Northern Iraq.
That’s going to make this even more fractal: the new Kurdish state. For the first time in history, the Kurdish insurgents in Northern Syria will have a safe haven over the border in Kurdish Iraq when they start fighting bigtime with the Arab/Sunni faction. A haven like that is a huge asset to an irregular force. It means that the PKK (under whatever name it’s using) can resupply from Kurdish Iraq, retreat there if there’s serious pressure from the Ikhwan, and establish safe training camps outside the range of any forces inside Syria.
That doesn’t mean the Kurds will take over Syria. I doubt they even want to. What it means is that they have the chance to carve their own little bit of the place, in the north and east. And since the northeastern part of Syria is also considered home territory by the Ikhwan, you can be sure that things are going to be real fractal up there, with lots of inconclusive firefights used the way dogs use pissing—to mark your territory, not to win battles.
As those pesky Unitarians would say while wringing their hands and petting their cats, “We seem to focus on our differences rather than our similarities.” In other words, standard human behavior.