In Syria, Pokemon Go With a Twist

The war in Syria doesn't factor in the popular new augmented reality game. It slogs on, taking the form also of aerial bombardments by U.S. forces.

A journalist looks at a montage by a Syrian activist, using the international frenzy over the Pokemon Go game to draw new attention to the battle-scarred country, in Beirut on July 22, 2016.
Joseph Eid, AFP

The Pokemon Go mania has not passed over Syria. But in contrast to the compulsive racing around city parks, streets and malls in other countries, the quest for Syria’s children who play the new mobile augmented reality game is a twist: They draw small placards on which they themselves seek saviors – “Pokemon, I’m in the village of Nabal, district of Idlib. Come save me,” said the words on one.

More and more such signs are proliferating, but no Pokemon is about to show up in Nabal to save the children. The war in Syria doesn’t factor in Pokemons, terrorism in Germany or coups in Turkey. It slogs on regardless, also taking the form  of aerial bombardments by U.S. forces like last week’s, in which dozens of civilians were killed in the city of Manbij, which is controlled by Islamic State, or ISIS.

Following the bombing of Manbij, the rebels were split fiercely over the question of whether the ISIS forces should continue to be attacked, or whether there should be a break in the aerial attacks for the sake of civilian lives. Kurdish forces in Syria, fighting in the framework of “Syrian democratic forces,” a militia set up by Washington, demand that the bombings continue, because any hiatus plays into ISIS’ hands. However, some of the militias would prefer a break in attacks because of the civilian casualties.

The U.S. administration knows this dilemma well, from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, and is worried that its bombing raids will damage America’s reputation. It is concerned about being perceived as a hostile entity – like the Russian forces that continue to kill civilians are perceived.

Meanwhile, elements among the rebel factions that oppose the bombardments have been disseminating pictures showing civilians who died from burns, ruined houses and children with warped limbs. Supporters of the raids claim the pictures to be staged.

That is just one of the disputes at this stage of the fighting. Another internal argument is within ISIS itself, between its foreign volunteers and its Iraqi fighters. This clash has deteriorated to the point of a violent confrontation in Mosul, where some of the foreign ISIS members have been killed by the organization's Iraqi members.

The tension stemmed from the latter members’ refusal to obey orders from foreigner commanders, inter alia because the foreigners (according to the locals) have been landing better jobs, whether in the civilian mechanisms (like the religious police and education system) or in top military command positions.

While such conflicts within ISIS are nothing new, they could bode well for the coalition and the Iraqi regular forces preparing to re-conquer Mosul.

The problem is that the force striking ISIS in Iraq is the Iraqi army, whose capabilities are rather doubtful. In recent weeks, the army has been trying to conquer villages south of Mosul, in laying the groundwork before focusing on the city.

Kurdish journalist Ayub Nuri witnessed the fighting and reported his experiences on the Kurdish website Rudaw (he edits its English website). Among other things, Nuri describes how an Iraqi commander, sitting on his plastic chair, shouted orders over the radio to fighters on the front line. “Go there right now or I’ll arrest you,” he yelled, prompting a young soldier to tell the journalist: “He is just loud noise.”

Less amusing were reports that Iraqi soldiers have been leaking information to ISIS about the location of the Iraqi forces, if only because in some cases, the ISIS and Iraqi fighters hail from the same village – or even family.

Internal conflicts are part of the day-to-day life among the fighting forces, but they are of deep concern to the strategic planners. It's true that Iraqi soldiers, with the help of armed Shiite militias, did reconquer Ramadi and Fallujah. But Mosul is a whole other, more complicated kettle of fish. The U.S. would prefer, therefore, to rely mainly on the Kurdish forces in Iraq.

To that end, a memorandum of understanding was signed by the Pentagon and the headquarters of the Kurdish Peshmurga forces 10 days ago, allocating $415 million to cover the salaries and to expand the ranks of the Kurdish forces fighting in Iraq.

Both sides, the Kurds and the Americans, deny that the MoU includes approval to build bases in Kurdistan. But the Iraqi government, which opposes the pact, refuses to believe the denials and suspects the Americans of taking aim at its sovereignty. However, that government wields no leverage when it comes to affecting American policy in any way, or to blocking the alliance between Washington and Erbil, capital of the Kurdish enclave.

The result is that, like in Afghanistan, Syria and at the start of the second Gulf War, the United States is bestowing official status on nongovernmental and local forces that can help to serve its main purpose – i.e., containing ISIS. However, at the same time, those same forces are becoming the masters of the areas they control, with American or international backing, and may thus be powerful enough to sabotage any political arrangement.