1:24 p.m. August 8, 2013

Syria: How to Open A Kurdish Front

The Syrian war is metastasizing remarkably quickly. This is unusual. Most wars since 1945 have failed to combust completely. The most important military event of the last half-century was a non-event—the no-show of the nuclear exchange nearly everyone predicted. This era in conventional warfare will be remembered for caution above all.

But this war, or rather these several wars, in Syria, are expanding as quickly and lethally as anyone could have expected, drawing in every possible participant whether they like it or not. The latest unwilling players are Syria’s Kurds.

The Kurds, who know too much already about the cost of being dragged into other people’s wars, tried to play it safe at first. They’ve been dealt a very bad hand in Syria. Their territory is along the northern and north-eastern borders, and that northern border is controlled by the Turkish Army, which has been doing a pitilessly effective job of crushing Kurdish insurgencies for almost a hundred years. To the northeast, the Kurdish zone in Syria overlaps with the majority-Kurdish part of Northern Iraq. That ought to be good news for the Kurds, but there’s a problem there too: Mosul. Mosul, at the southern edge of Iraqi Kurdistan, was where Saddam settled his officer corps, the fiercest Sunni Arab Iraqis of all. Right now, Kurds and Sunni Arabs are fighting for previously nameless villages in northwestern Iraq to see who’ll have the upper hand in supplying their allies to the west, in Syria.

If you’re a fan of machine translation, you can piece together some idea of what’s happening by reading the highly unreliable communiques from Kurdish and Arab sites, if only by finding the villages they mention on the map to get a better idea of where they’re fighting at the moment.

When the Syrian Civil War started, the Alawite army abandoned the northern and northeastern areas completely, without a fight. It was an interesting move. Was it simply a proof of Assad’s weakness? That’s how I took it at the time, but on reflection it might have been something a little smarter. Assad’s strength was always internal security and intelligence. His planners must have known that, in the vacuum left behind by the total withdrawal of the regime’s forces, there would sooner or later be a struggle between the Arab and Kurdish populations that are scattered along the Turkish border.

Both sides can call on help from beyond Syria’s borders, too—ensuring that the conflict between Kurds and Arabs would metastasize very nicely, from the Alawite point of view, drawing a huge amount of energy away from the key struggle for the west. The Syrian Kurds have powerful friends across the border in Turkey—the PKK, the Turkish Kurds’ hardcore, bloodied but unbeaten guerrilla army. And if they somehow manage to cross the hostile Mosul region, Iraq’s Kurdish militias—the biggest, YPG, is usually considered an auxiliary of the PKK--can help too.

On the Arab side, the tribes in northern Syria have their own long-standing militias, but like the local Kurds, those tribal leaders weren’t stupid enough to start an ethnic war as soon as Assad’s troops left. They, like the Kurds, have too much to lose and too little to gain. They weren’t that stupid.

And that’s where the jihadis come in. These foreign fighters, mostly unemployable surplus male Sunni guys from all over the world, are more than stupid enough to ignite another theatre of the Syrian war. The two main jihadi factions, ISIS (largely Iraqi Sunni Arab) and Jabhat al Nusra (a more international group, including a Chechen platoon) have no stake in maintaining the peace in Northern Syria, no interest in going easy on local Kurd/Arab tensions, and a long history of pissing off nearly everybody they come across. They’ve been much more efficient than the homegrown Syrian Sunni resistance, in part because they don’t have the sort of local ties that make for caution.

That’s good, if you’re a Sunni commander looking for shock troops. That’s bad, if you’re an Arab Sheikh in northern Syria, trying to stop your neighborhood from falling into an ethnic war, Arab vs. Kurd. The jihadis are pro-war prima facie—that’s what the word means—and they didn’t pay those airfares to drink tea with village elders. They want a fight, and they managed to get one going very soon after arriving in the mixed Kurdish/Arab region of the north.

On July 30, someone killed Isa Huso, a respected Syrian Kurdish politician.

It was a car bomb outside his house, a classic ISIS technique. The Kurds were already less than pleased about having to be ostensible allies of the Arab jihadis, and this convinced many of them that these lunatics were enemies, not allies.

Kurds are more phlegmatic, grim, quiet people than the average Wahhabi. I remember a great story from the early stages of the war, about a Kurdish fighter and an Arab jihadi sharing a position in a skirmish against Assad’s troops. The jihadi would yell, “Allahu Akbar!” every time he fired a shot, and the Kurd would wearily repeat, “They can’t hear you, you know.” It’s a real difference in style, in tone, born of the Kurds’ nightmarish recent history.

Isa Huso, the murdered man, is a classic example of that history. He’d been tossed in prison, tortured, seen relatives killed by Assad’s regime, only to be killed by foreign hotheads. He had taken out life insurance, in the form preferred by leaders of persecuted tribes: He had ten children at the time of his death, ensuring that his murder will never be forgotten or forgiven.

One of the more interesting aspects of this particular facet of the Syrian cancer is that there’s no sectarian split involved. The Kurds accepted Sunni Islam long ago, but that hasn’t stopped the Arab jihadis in ISIS and the International Brigade in Jabhat al Nusra from attacking them, because “jihadi” means all kinds of things, depending on context—and those things often have very little to do with advancing the cause of Sunni Islam.

In the case of ISIS, “jihad” means Sunni Arab supremacy over other peoples in Syria and Iraq, like the Shi’ites of the South and the Kurds in the north. There’s a great deal of sheer Arab chauvinism in many of the jihadist surges across the region, the most shameful example being Sudanese Arabs’ genocidal war against ‘blacks,” where Islamist rhetoric barely even tried to disguise pure racial/ethnic hatred. The men who run ISIS saw their people—the Sunni minority that was used to running everything—kicked out, humiliated, and terrorized by Shi’ites they consider weird, perverted heretics, and they’re not in the mood to talk calmly with Kurds whom they see as “communist” kafirs controlled by the PKK. They want to carve out their own Sunni Arab state in western Iraq and eastern Syria, and the only way they know how to do that is by killing their enemies.

The Sunni Arabs’ biggest potential ally here is Turkey. The Turks have come a long way from Ataturk’s secularism and frank disdain for the Arabs. Sunni Arabs, after all, are wealthier, more numerous, and more powerful than they ever were in his time; it was inevitable that the Turks’ attitude toward their co-religionists would become more enthusiastic and respectful, as it has.

Most important, from the Turks’ view, is the fact that whereas the Kurds are always making trouble within Turkey, pushing for autonomy in the south and east—right where the Kurdish/Arab fighting is happening now—the Arabs have no designs on any part of Turkey. That means that Turkey will always side with Arabs against Kurds. As the Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds all know to their terrible cost, you do not even think about messing with the ethno-national integrity of Turkey, even if that integrity is pure myth.

Turkish support might tilt the balance toward the Arabs, but the Kurds have a very powerful weapon on their side: The sheer stupidity of ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra. The notion of jihadi diplomacy, jihadi moderation and negotiation, doesn’t really track, especially for the guys who’ve come from Iraq or Chechnya. So a week ago, jihadis took several hundred Kurds hostage near Aleppo.

Then somebody posted a video of alleged jihadis allegedly burning Kurdish fighters alive. The hostage-taking was real; the video, God knows. The video showing it comes from an Iranian TV network, but it looks horrible enough to be real, and the Syrian war has spawned worse things.

You’ll notice I haven’t had much cause to mention the other side, Assad’s Alawites, in this story so far. If you’re Assad, that’s good news. His people have been waiting for a Kurdish/Arab war the way Soviets waited for a second front, and it looks like they’re going to get one. In fact, there are the inevitable conspiracy theories that say Isa Huso’s murder, and the hostage-taking, and the burning-Kurds video, are actually the work of Assad’s agents. Some of them might be; as I said, that kind of skullduggery was always his regime’s strong side.

But it’s just as likely that most of the reported atrocities inflicted by jihadists against the Syrian Kurds are real, and committed by sincere jihadists. All civil wars, even our own sacred war betwixt the states, get uglier as they age, and this one started out ugly. The men in charge of ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra have come out of no-rules wars all over the world, and they couldn’t change now if they wanted to. Now the Kurds’ Russian and Iranian allies are claiming that jihadis massacred 450 Kurds in Northern Syria. No confirmation yet, but the sad truth is these guys are capable of it, and whether it turns out to be true or not, it’ll force the Kurds into reacting, making this an inescapable ethnic war—the one form of perpetual motion machine ever invented by humans that actually works as advertised.

The next stage, of course, will be dragging in Kurds from beyond Iraq and Syria. So, naturally, on August 5, an Iranian Kurdish organization announced plans to send volunteers to Syria to fight with their fellow Kurds against the jihadists.

That will allow the jihadis to paint the Kurds’ fight as a big Iranian/Shia plot—which is laughable, because most Iranian Kurds are Sunni, just like their kin in Iraq and Syria. In fact, in one of the two million bitter ironies you get in Kurdish history, Iranian Kurds have had a lot of trouble being Sunni in the Middle East’s only Shia-dominated state (well, before we made Iraq into one, that is).

You might think that the Sunni identity they share with the Kurds would mean more to the jihadis than it does. But if you look at contemporary Sunni movements going by the name “Islamist” or “jihadist,” you find those terms can mean many different things. Most movements using those names have much more to do with ethnic/racial identity than religious doctrine. And above all, Islamist/Jihadist movements cherish the idea of universality, sameness--unity under a single caliphate, dominated by Arab language and culture. Some jihadist movements, like the West African “Movement for Oneness/Unity and Jihad,” incorporate the idea of sameness in their names. As the world’s biggest stateless ethnic group, the Kurds have a lot of momentum behind their drive to be separate, distinct, apart—but good luck explaining that to ISIS or JaN. The localism of the Kurds, their vexatious passivity toward the dream of the caliphate, their secular tilt and non-sacred ethnic identiy, is more than enough to make them enemies no matter how Sunni they are.

So where does this leave Assad and the Alawites? At this moment, Sunni Arab fighters are shelling Assad’s home town, Qarhada, and boasting they’ll take it any day now. Of course they were saying the same thing months ago, with Gulf news agencies like Al Arabiya repeating their claims that Assad was digging in to fight to the “last bullet.”

So it makes sense to squint hard and doubtfully at this latest FSA claim. But it is clear that Sunni forces have pushed into Assad’s coastal homeland and gotten close enough to his hometown to shell it, if not take it.

And this time, Hezbollah doesn’t seem to be as ready to feed infantry into Assad’s lines like they did when Qusayr was at stake. That means Assad needs help again, and this time it will have to come from the east, not from Lebanon.

Which is why, in starting an unstoppable war between Kurds and Arabs in the northeast, the hotheads in ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra may be the saviors who end up giving Assad the second front he’s been praying for.