The War Nerd: A Glorious Victory, For Once!
You’ve probably heard by now that the Syrian Kurds have taken Tal Abyad, the key border town due north of Islamic State’s capital, Raqqa.
It’s a huge loss for Islamic State, and a big boost for the Kurds. But it’s something more than that: a glorious victory. That’s not something I get to write very often.
Most war stories are the dead opposite of glorious. You start out, as a war-nerdy kid, believing that Gettysburg is the norm—a good clean fight between brave, simple soldiers, ferocious against each other but sparing non-combatants. There was exactly one civilian death at Gettysburg, and that was from a stray bullet.
Then you get serious about warfare and realize that massacre is the norm, genocide is more common than anyone wants to realize, and most conflicts are bad vs. bad, or bad vs. even worse.
But not this time. The war between the Syrian Kurds and Islamic State is as close to good vs. evil as you’ll ever meet in the grown-up world. The YPG/J are radical feminists, with women fighting on the front lines and even commanding whole fronts; Islamic State takes misogyny to a new level, actually boasting in their glossy magazine Dabiq about the righteousness of selling captured women as sex slaves.
I’d be wary of believing that the YPG/J are as good as they seem, except that I lived among Kurds. They really are heroic people. No doubt there are bad Kurds, and there have certainly been evil things done by Kurdish people, like serving as enforcers for the Turks during the Armenian Genocide.
But Kurds are working very hard, and fighting heroically, to change themselves and their world; for starters, they’re still the only participants in the Armenian Genocide who’ve acknowledged their role. And the rate of social change, especially in the role of women, in Kurdish culture is approaching light speed.
Islamic State, meanwhile, represents the most extreme reactionary position in the Middle East. Even the way the latest campaign between Islamic State and the YPG/J developed shows just how friggin’ evil Islamic State is. After being humiliated at Kobane, IS’s leaders wanted a cheap, quick victory to erase the shameful memory. After all, those Qatari, Saudi, and Kuwaiti billionaires aren’t going to keep funding your jihad if you keep getting shown up, especially when it’s mere women doing the showing-up.
So IS decided to do what it does best: Wipe out a minority sect. And they chose the Assyrian Christian villages that cluster to the west of the provincial capital, Hasakah, as a perfect target. The Assyrians have been targeted in sectarian pogroms for centuries; they’re a peaceful, quiet people, just like the Yazidii minority that IS destroyed in Iraq. Just the kind of kaffirs that IS loves to massacre and enslave.
IS fled Kobane at the end of January 2015, and by the end of February, IS had shifted men and weapons to the front west of Hasakah, planning to overrun the strip of Assyrian-Christian villages along the Khabour River. (By the way, if you want to see what happened via carefully sequenced battle-maps, go to the excellent site “Agathocle de Syracuse” and click on “Hasakah Western Front.”)
The geography is a little complicated here. As you can see on this excellent map (also courtesy of “Agothocle de Syracuse”), the Syrian Kurds control three enclaves or “cantons,” all along the Turkish border: Afrin in the northwest, up against Hatay Province (Hatay is a story in itself, one I’ve written about before); Kobane in the center; and Hasakah in the east. Hasakah is the biggest Kurdish enclave, and the most important, since it joins the KRG region controlled by the Iraqi Kurds. Those Iraqi Kurds are much more conservative than the young women and men of the YPG/J, but there’s still some solidarity there, and some quiet resupply going on.
Islamic State holds the center of the country, along the Euphrates River, and the border area due west of Iraq’s Nineveh Province, south of the Kurdish enclave in Hasakah. So, by attacking along the Khabour, IS was punching up, like a good leftist (bitter Hebdo joke; never mind)—that is, attacking due north.
IS is media-savvy as all Hell; it runs on victory videos. A campaign against a helpless minority like the Assyrians would mean lots of good video, plenty of loot, and thousands of new slave girls to sell.
They might even have thought that the Kurds of the YPG/J wouldn’t fight too hard to defend mere non-Kurdish, non-Muslim neighbors. Few communities in that part of the world put themselves at risk to help neighbors of a different ethnic group or religion.
But the Kurds…I’m telling you, the Kurds are something special. I saw it myself. In Suli, my students would say, “I have Christian (Assyrian) friends!” or “I have Shia (Arab, refugee from Southern Iraq) friends!”
When I told people back in America about those remarks, they had a hard time seeing anything very radical or impressive about them. People shrugged, as if it was banal or fake.
It’s hard to get some people to realize that not every place is America. In Iraq, calling someone from a different sect/ethnic group a “friend” is heroic. And not something you see, in other parts of the Middle East.
The Kurds are trying very hard to change, to get out of the sectarian nightmare. So when Islamic State attacked those vulnerable Assyrian villages around the town of Tal Hamer, they fought for the Assyrians.
It must have been a surprise for the sectarian scum of IS. People like that tend to judge everyone by themselves. And the history around there is pretty grimly sectarian, right down the centuries. “Tal,” the first word of most town names in the region, means “man-made hill,” or “old fort.” (“Tel Aviv” comes from the same Semitic root.) You build your town on a defensive mound, and you kill your neighbors of the wrong language/religion when you can.
Not the Kurds, though. Not this time. They fought for the Assyrians, and helped the “fledging” (i.e. “pretty well useless”) Assyrian militias. Assyrian civilians had been evacuated to the provincial capital in advance, so IS captured few women to sell or men to behead. They had to settle for blowing up the church in the Assyrian village of Tal Nasri (“hill-mound of the Christians”).
IS advanced slowly through March and April, and almost had the town of Tal Tamer cut off. The YPG/J allowed the bulge to develop, then hit back hard at the beginning of May 2015, slicing in from the northwest, cutting IS’s main supply line and leaving hundreds of IS isolated in a pocket around Tal Tamer.
I haven’t been able to find out what happened to those IS fighters in the pocket, but it’s a fair bet that their beards have finally stopped growing.
By attacking the Assyrian villages along the Khabour, IS had let its sectarian hatred blind it to basic strategic rules. Islamic State’s top priority should have been to defend and extend its link to Turkey, which runs north from Raqqa through Tal Abyad via Highway 6, and prevent the Syrian Kurds from linking up their “cantons” along the Syrian/Turkish border. If Schlieffen had been an Islamic State strategist, he would’ve said, “Keep the northeastern front strong” on his deathbed.
Instead, Islamic State had shifted men and vehicles south, to the Tal Tamer front, leaving the northern flank, along the Turkish border, weakened.
And that’s how the YPG/J was able to take Tal Abyad this week. Once IS’s attack to the south was contained, YPG/J rolled west along the border zone relatively easily. IS has a rep for fighting to the death, but they seem to have lost the will to fight lately, especially when up against YPG/J.
And thanks to their earlier victory in Kobane, YPG/J was able to close in on Tal Abyad from the west, at the same time as its Hasakah forces were advancing along the border from the east. Kobane may have vanished from the headlines, but the young women and men who liberated it never stopped fighting, advancing west, south, and east from Kobane.
With Kurdish forces pushing east along the border from Kobane and west from Hasakah, Islamic State was barely holding on to a Polish-Corridor style strip of territory around Tal Abyad, by the end of May 2015.
On June 11, YPG/J and its FSA allies overran the town of Suluk, a few kilometers southeast of Tal Abyad. By this point, Islamic State was acting like a defeated force, blowing up bridges to stall the advance of YPG/J and trying to corral fleeing civilians back into Tal Abyad.
And yesterday, June 15, 2015, a day that will live in the opposite of infamy (“famy”?), the YPG/J took full control of Tal Abyad, finally uniting the Kurdish enclaves of Kobane and Hasakah (“Jazira”) and destroying the jihadi corridor from Turkey to Raqqa.
Now, IS will have a much harder time keeping the flow of gullible cannon fodder coming in from Turkey.
All the right people are cheering, and all the wrong ones are crying, from Erdogan’s hick reactionaries in Ankara to the fat money men in the Gulf. This is the rarest thing in all of warfare, a truly glorious victory. The good guys do win, now and then.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]