The War Diaries

"We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

A Ukrainian Night

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The National Opera House of Ukraine the other night. A superb edifice.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Kyiv- Spent a whirlwind less-than-24-hours in the much talked about of late Ukrainian capital the other night. Kyiv. or Kiev is you prefer the Russophone transliteration more common to Westerners, struck me as a magnificent city. Walking around town is like skipping through a vertical tableau of architectural styles ranging from Ukrainian baroque to dated Soviet futurism to the nouveau riche led-lit towers 21st century oligarchs are often fond of.

My reason for being there was primarily economic in nature as the country’s flag carrier was the cheapest way from Athens to New York. But I’d wanted to visit Ukraine (note: not “the Ukraine”) for ages. It is a bridge between Europe and Eurasia, between the mystical Orthodox realm and the earthly rites of Rome, a collision point of the greater Slavic world and the Latinate one.

For the last fifteen or so years Ukraine has become known primarily as point of conflict torn between the orbit of revanchist Muscovites owing fealty to Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin and those risking to join a greater European supranational project with an aspirationalist mandate loathed by the Kremlin. In 2004-2005 the world witnessed the ‘Orange Revolution’ followed less than a decade later by the 2013-2014 ‘Euromaidan Revolution.’ I simply wanted to stand in this place however briefly and absorb this history that I only witnessed via the internet as the more violent corners of the Levant and South-Central Asia consumed my career path as fascinated as I was by upheaval anywhere in the post-Soviet space.

Just the term maidan (“square” or “gathering place”) alone fascinated me as it was obviously derived from either Arabic (midan) or Turko-Iranian (meydan)-more likely the latter due to the proximity of Tatar culture with its Ottoman vassal Khanate. This idea first occurred to me in Tbilisi in 2002 when I realised the main square there was called Tavisuplebis Moedani and I sort of assumed ‘modedani’ must be related to midan/meydan somehow way back then. It is through language that the history of regions and empires can be interlinked in the mind. If delved into, words connect worlds that we mistake as discrete entities.

As I approached the square, I happened upon a monument to the Heavenly Hundred, a poignant dedication to the more than 100 protesters who were killed by state forces-either Ukrainians or purposefully dispatched Russian agitators-in February 2014 and whose martyrdom helped bring down the Viktor Yanukovych government in power at the time leading to the election of the other Viktor, Yuschenko. As I stood there looking at the image heavy display depicting the tumult just some five years ago, groups of teenagers danced and sang along to Russian-language rap music on the edges of the maidan. Death and life coexisted in the moment. A group of young Bangladeshi male economic migrants kicked a football and laughed in Bangla (Bengali). People milled about in the balmy autumn air on an ordinary night.

I ended up at a node of local nightlife where thrashed skateboards hung from the walls and videos from Barcelona and California played on the tvs. A Ukrainian hip hop anthem blasted away and everyone danced. I sat there only a few blocks from the maidan, grateful to be alive. I mustered as much Russian as I could until a group of youths embraced my curiosity and had me join them. I asked them if Krym (Crimea) would ever rejoin Ukraine. “No I don’t think so” one young skateboarder told me. “We are not strong enough to take it back from Russia. We have to let them (Crimeans) go.” Crimea was part of the ancient Greek world and as I’d just come from Greece I mentioned that. “Many cities in our country were founded by Greeks” one guy piped up. “That is why we have (or had in the case of Crimea) cities that end with [the suffix] -pol. I thought of Sevastopol, Simferopol, and Boryspil. The epochal reach of Greek civilisation never ceases to enthrall me.

“About Donbass?” I asked another referring to the pro-Moscow Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in the east. “Maybe these regions will gain some special autonomy. People are tired of war. Even Russians are tired.” So there was palpable, cautious optimism, at least among this group.

Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, campaigned on ending the war with pro-Russian separatists with peace talks ongoing. But what Ukraine will look like politically is entirely unknown. Kyiv wants to preserve Ukraine as a unitary state without amending its constitution but if the Donbass types have their way there could possibly be a federative treaty put forth to end the war. No one was talking about the Bidens, Trumps, or referring to their country as a synonym for an invented Beltway scandal. Ukraine has been at war for over five years for god’s sake.

Written by derekhenryflood

October 19th, 2019 at 1:24 pm

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The Heartbeat of the World

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Katerados village where I’ve been coming before or after many a war zone.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Thera- Having come to Greece, or the Hellenic Republic as it’s actually called in English or Hellas more colloquially, for over two decades, I have a deep attachment to the place. But my personal history and relationship is a very narrow one involving just Athens and the port town of Piraeus as they relate to going back and forth to the Cyclades island group. I always have the best of intentions of visiting other parts of the country but that rarely works out. Back in 2015 in the heady summer of refugees welcome, I had finally resolved to visit Thessaloniki (aka Salonika). After paying for an airbnb in the city centre up there, I didn’t realise there were no seats on either trains or buses as genuine refugees lumped in with political asylum seekers and throngs of economic migrants posing as either of the two former heading toward Macedonia (since renamed North Macedonia to appease Greek nationalists and thereby open the door to possible EU assimilation) in their collective exodus to reach Germany or Sweden . Then there were no flights from Athens as there was an election whereby people were going home to cast votes and see family. An extreme example to be sure, but alas I’m in my content, utterly familiar Cycladian rut.

The island I may be on at any given time is a signifier of age to some degree. For much of my youth, I traveled to Ios which is situated neatly midway between here and Naxos. The island was a notorious party place since perhaps the early 1980s and so by my arrival in the late 1990s its place as a rite of passage was well established. Its pin to the ancient world was that it is said to be the burial site of Homer. Homer, if one believes he was an actual individual person depending on what side of the Homeric question the reader falls on, was born in Ionic-era Smyrna (today’s Izmir in modern Turkey), lived on Chios in the North Aegean, and perished on the “insignificant island of Ios” according to the 1965 work of the late English classicist Geoffrey Stephen Kirk entitled Homer and the Epic: A Shortened Version of The Songs of Homer.

Ios never became as developed as some of the other islands here because it had no airport and was only promoted as a fairweather destination. It was the haunt of Australian backpackers and Irish seasonal workers as I remember it. But this little place known mostly for summertime debauchery was what lured me into Greece to begin with. At night, walking back from the Chora (town) to Mylopotas beach, I would hear the bells jingling around the necks of a goat flock in the nearby brush as I trundled down the donkey path toward wherever I had a bed for the night. Beyond the red bull-fueled (and brand new thing at the time) bacchanalia in the main square, I somehow felt connected to the ancients. The constellations shone above the shimmering blue sea to give the feel of an epic, uninterrupted continuum where history never ended.

The rugged beauty of Ios on the way to Manganari beach. How I loved this place.
©2005 Derek Henry Flood

This time around I ended up on an unplanned, extended stay on Naxos, the largest of the Cycladic islands. It doesn’t have the mass global tourism of here or Mykonos owing at least partly to that it doesn’t have an international airport nor a reputation as a bucket list destination around the world. A more provincial feeling place, the tourists there were entirely mainland Greeks or Westerners and the island only had a tiny handful of male Pakistani migrant workers. Here on Thera, primarily referred to as Santorini (Santa Irini-Saint Irene), it is back to a more bustling cosmopolitan reality with huge numbers of Chinese, and now Indian, tourists who come for short, busy, selfie-laden stays. There used to be large numbers of Russians as well until sanctions were set in place for the Russian president’s war in Ukraine in 2014 and the ruble plummeted in due course. Though only a 1-2 hour ferry journey apart, it is as if Thera and Naxos are on two different planets in terms of the numbers and national demographics of visitors.

As it sit and type this rather simple blog post, the Turkish military and its Syrian Arab and/or Türkmen epigones are reportedly beginning to attack northern Syria. I’m constantly flipping back and forth from WordPress to Twitter to keep up/see what I’m missing. But Thera, as the late British novelist Lawrence Durrell once wrote about Corfu, with the encompassing Ionian sea “being like the heartbeat of the world itself.” For me that is the Aegean and Thera is my 21st century Corfu.

Written by derekhenryflood

October 9th, 2019 at 7:13 am

The Very Uncertain Future of the SDF: Global Repercussions and Local Geopolitical Consequences

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Fighters from the Manbij Military Council at the al-Arimah front last year. The MMC have been a crucial constituent force of the SDF in its more geopolitically contested space.
. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Thera- In northern, and more recently eastern, Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) emerged as the critical indigenous force in the conventional battle to defeat the so-called Islamic State (IS). The SDF is an aggregate, underfunded outfit comprised of an assortment of war-fighting groups of varying ethno-linguistic composition with attendant local strategic aims. The constituent forces of the SDF, known as military councils or protection units, have agendas that concomitantly compliment and conflict with one another. 

The goal to defeat IS brought these armed groups of different provenance together under a unified, Pentagon-endorsed banner. The SDF, as it came to be known, employed both conventional and asymmetric tactics to defeat an army of absolutist salafi-jihadi militants who were holding vast Syrian territory by mid-2014. From its Syrian proto-state, IS temporarily dismembered neighboring Iraq. But presently in late 2019 with IS launching geographically dispersed asymmetric attacks while not holding population centers, the original mission of the SDF in Syria appears conflicted. With wildly mixed messaging from the White House about the United States’ own mission inside Syria where the SDF served as its partner, SDF commanders have been wary of the commitment of their Western backers.  Now as the US retreats, public SDF statements are rapidly veering toward outright hostile resentment.

After the SDF’s liberation of the hamlet of Baghouz in the southernmost reaches of Deir ez-Zor governorate along the border with western Iraq in March 2019, the future of the anti-IS umbrella group has remained highly uncertain. Under immense pressure from both regional and extra-regional actors—both state and non-state—the SDF feel utterly abandoned and exploited. They currently face threats from a pre-meditated IS insurgency, the Syrian government and its allies, and now most prominently, the Turkish state and its jingoistic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

Though media outlets oft describe the SDF as ‘Kurdish-led’ and its core constituent YPG and YPJ militias as “Kurdish militants,’ such wording imposes a degree of oversimplification in terms of ethnic and religious dynamics on the ground. While ethnic Kurds certainly make up the backbone of the SDF in terms of manpower, the American allocation of war materiel, and its upper ranks, it is not an ethnic chauvinist movement bent on forming a separatist state centered on intransigent identity norms.

As the war against IS evolved while expanding further west and south, more diverse factions including former ethnic-Arab Free Syrian Army fighters were absorbed into the SDF. It can be argued that the ideological foundations of the Rojava canton system may have started out as thinly veiled Kurdish-majority institution-building project but, even if only out of sheer pragmatism, this is no longer the ground reality. 

This terming emphasising the SDF’s Kurdishness also fuels Ankara’s vociferous concerns that the SDF is a threat to the security of its southern border that necessitated the need for a proposed ‘safe zone’ intended to assuage Turkish security concerns. In the view of the Turkish state, there is zero discernable difference between the PKK’s armed HPG wing and the YPG. An open-ended Turkish presence will provide its armed forces further hard power strategic depth in Syria’s north well beyond that already existing with the Turkish observation posts in Idlib governorate, Operation Olive Branch in forces in Efrin, and Euphrates Shield forces in Jarabulus, and al-Bab. 

The constant bellicosity emanating from figures in Ankara has had the SDF’s principal constituent, the YPG, turning its focus away from the IS insurgency as its principal priority and instead preparing for a possible insurgency of its own in northeastern Syria which now appears extremely imminent.  Following the bitter loss of the canton of Efrin (Afrin) in northwestern Aleppo governorate to theTürk Silahlı Kuvvetleri (Turkish Armed Forces-TSK) and their local Arab proxies in March 2018, YPG and YPJ veterans fear a repeat of this action writ large. As the YPG and YPJ fought outside of the SDF’s anti-IS framework and under the rubric of ethnic nationalism albeit with Syrian characteristics, a potential future splintering of the SDF was already exposed. The YPG was forced to divert forces away from the front in Deir ez-Zor in what became a futile attempt to protect an isolated pocket of its Rojava canton project. 

Meanwhile, in Deir ez-Zor governorate, the SDF’s local constituent there, the Deir ez-Zor Military Council, has been primarily concerned with keeping the forces of the al-Assad government along with Lebanese Hezbollah, Russian military police, Iranian Qods Force detachments, and various Iraqi and other transnational Shia militiamen contained west of the Euphrates. To Deiri fighters, the threat from ‘an-Nizam’ (‘the regime’) is the immediate threat rather than far-off Turkey. Along the length of the Euphrates river, priorities distinctly differ owing to the specificity of localised threat environments.    

In the face of a TSK invasion, can the SDF can be sustained as a relatively coherent military force in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the segments of the disputed governornates it currently secures, in the near to medium term?

Will the SDF umbrella ultimately splinter as the military involvement of great power nations lessens i.e. the United States that looks to be rapidly withdrawing and the Russian Federation, and nearby middle power nations Turkey and Iran continue to meddle applying pressure from all sides? Individual SDF commanders promote the idea of force and ideological cohesion while outlining inconsistent strategic priorities along the frontline with the government and its allies. If the TSK comes in full force in the coming days or weeks-short of some policy reversal miracle-this will likely prove to test the SDF’s mettle against a state actor with an air force while they will not be able to call upon American air power to defend population centres against its NATO ally .

Kurdish and Arab views within the SDF on negotiating with Damascus have until now been divergent and may suddenly be irrelevant as Syrian government forces may create new facts on the ground in Manbij and environs while the SDF orients northward. Can the SDF move forward under a new organizing principle that promotes further unity beyond the fight against IS while being gravely threatened by the Turkish state? 

The SDF and its political wing the Syrian Democratic Council  (SDC) espouse a federal, decentralized Syria while the al-Assad government insists on restoring the territorial integrity of a unitary, pre-war Ba’athist state that does not allow for political or ethnic pluralism. Washington had been backing the SDF militarily but not the SDC politically while Moscow does both for al-Assad.

How can these two massively disparate visions of a post-conflict Syria possibly be reconciled in the near term that will not result in the SDF being either dismantled or absorbed by the Syrian state? Keep in mind that both the SDF and Syrian Arab Army (SAA) may be at war with the TSK and its local proxy forces in an all-out worst case scenario. A Turkish occupation well beyond the limits 1998 Adana agreement may foment a battlefield-inspired Syrian nationalism whereby the SDF and SAA are pushed together.

With the SDC, and hence the SDF, not being represented in negotiations on Syria’s future outside the country such as the Astana process or the UN’s recently announced Turkish-endorsed Syrian Constitutional Committee, under what circumstances could their autonomous rule gain legitimacy for leverage in talks with Damascus? Of course unless a full-blown TSK invasion is averted, my questions may all be moot.

The issue of Kurdish ethno-nationalism in Syria today differs significantly from contemporaneous issues of armed Kurdish actors in Turkey such as the HPG, the PJAK in Iran, and the KDP and PUK Peshmerga factions in Iraq. The YPG and HPG undoubtedly have a degree of human overlap with Syrian Kurds in the ranks of the HPG in clashes with the Turkish state and Turkish Kurds within the YPG. But the arc of the YPG evolved even further than the mandate of the HPG with the announcement of the SDF’s creation. Despite their shared adherence to Apoism and a some human and materiel crossover, Kurdish fighters in Turkey and Syria are in fact waging different conflicts at the time of this writing. A major unintended effect of a prolonged Turkish operation might that the two war-fighting groups do indeed become one in the same in some form of guerrilla war of attrition against Turkish forces on either side of the border.

While each protection unit or military council retains its on logo and distinct identity, the yellow SDF banner invites a degree of assimilation as a fighting force greater than the sum of its parts. Therefor the YPG as it currently stands gained an even more distinctly Syrian outlook as it formally partnered with non-Kurdish militias. Pivoting from a mostly defensive posture with a fitful modus vivendi with the Syrian government in the two principal cities of Hasakeh governorate, the YPG moved toward an offensive one in the battles for Manbij, and ar-Raqqa backed by American air power.

TSK battle tanks take positions not to defend against IS as they besiegedPerha the YPG across the border but to disperse Kurdish activists and discourage foreign journalists during the siege of Kobane in mid-October 2014. Perhaps most importantly, the tanks showed the YPG that they were most unwelcome to retreat into Turkish territory in the most dire of circumstances. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The threat of IS created a ground level realpolitik dynamic whereby Syria’s Kurds had to partner with ethnic Arabs, Turkmen, Syriacs, Assyrians, and various Caucasian minorities to form a much geographically broader, ethnically inclusive fighting force. While the YPG and YPJ actively promote the concept of Apoism, the ideology of Abdullah “Apo” Ocalan, they do not seek to simply impose it by coercion on other non-Kurdish comrades under the SDF umbrella. Thus contrary to a narrative promoted by the Turkish government, the SDF is not entirely synonymous with the YPG.

Syrian territory in governorate districts that were controlled by IS was used to organize and export religio-political violence in the immediate region, multiple capitals of core European Union member states, the United States and elsewhere. The uncertain future of the SDF’s narrative has far ranging implications not just for Syria and it neighbors but for the world as a whole where technology has enabled militancy to metastasize at light speed outpacing policy makers to become a global phenomenon. The SDF as a military entity may not be sustainable in the long term but until now they have been robustly holding the line in relative geopolitical isolation. 

As US special operators have abruptly pulled back from posts on the Turkish border after convincing the SDF to destroy their own fortifications, the West’s core ally against IS in Syria is left to twist in the wind.

Written by derekhenryflood

October 7th, 2019 at 7:37 am

The Island of the Unfinished Temple

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Doorway to heaven. The lintel gate to the unfinished temple of Apollo on an islet in Naxos harbour. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Naxos- I’ve just spent the last ten days on an island in the heart of the Cyclades that for decades I’d either passed by or stopped briefly to change ferries. I hadn’t intended on visiting this splendid place at all but a bus and ferry strike called by angry Athenian unions coupled with a bargain last minute flight brought me here. I had planned on returning to Paros and Antiparos but Naxos was exactly what I was looking for. It has history, quietude, and unbridled sunshine with occasional aeolian gusts.

Naxos’ trademark visual feature is the massive marble portara (portal). intended for a temple of Apollo that was never completed on an islet in its azure harbour. It juts up from the earth as if a gate to the ancient beyond. That the temple itself was never fully realised by Lygdamis, the island’s ancient oligarchic tyrant makes it all the more intriguing. Meant to be a massive Ionian-style monument of god-like proportions, Lygdamis purportedly fell from power by way of the Spartans in the early phase of construction before his gargantuan stone ode to Apollo could be finished. Thus the megalomania was relatively short-lived but has nevertheless stood the test of time for some 2500 years.

The island is comparatively large and docile in the off season. Quiet enough to have some genuine Ellinika (Modern Greek language) interactions at the supermarket or the bakery, of what little I’ve retained over the years. Most of my days were spent brushing up my CV in anticipation of the coming year and lazing on an utterly silent cove beach with middle class German families windsurfing on one end, tourists plodding on horseback on the other, and the desolate middle all to myself where I read a yellowed paperback edition of the now very politically incorrect, yet totally entertaining Balkan Ghosts under the late afternoon Aegean sun. As I’ve been known to say about early Seinfeld episodes, you couldn’t create that work in today’s hypersensitive millennial polity.

Greece is many things. It is southern Europe to some, the Balkan peninsula to others, a satellite member of the EU yet from where the word Europe originates (remember the ‘Grexit’ hysteria some years back where Greece was going to exit the eurozone?). Greece is a Mediterranean nation, a NATO member, but judging by music, cuisine, climate, and animated body language, modern Greece feels firmly placed in the Orient rather than an accidental geographic exclave of the West. To the Arabs it is Yunan, to the Turks, Yunanistan, and officially the Hellenic Republic.

From the names of the philosophers we heard about in grade school to the twentieth-century military juntas few in the West know anything about, Greece confounds. It excites. It is eternal.

Greek antiquity fires the imagination while the present day, stultifying politics of post-modern Greece lead one down the path to cynicism. A cauldron of ideas and history, Greece is all of these things at once. Its simultaneity of chaos and classicism is what makes the place appealing to me.

Naxians are generally a relaxed lot, save for when they’re zipping around the island’s mostly sidewalk-less roads. I barely had a single unpleasant interaction. I will assuredly return. I first set foot in the Cyclades in July 1998 as a young university student enthralled with the ancient world and pre-internet global backpacker culture. One day back then, I said to myself on Ios’ Mylopotas beach that I would return to this desert-like island group for the rest of my days. So far this has held true.

Written by derekhenryflood

October 4th, 2019 at 9:12 am

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Salafist Technologists: How I Discovered an Internal IS Map App

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A billboard in Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Bintang neighbourhood advertising consumer-grade unmanned aerial vehicles manufactured by the Shenzhen-based DJI corporation Though the adverts portray perfectly innocent tourism applications for these machines, they were adapted for deeply nefarious purposes such as makeshift bombers and creating maps of enemy positions for the world’s most technologically advanced non-state terrorist outfit. Chinese-made drones such as these were regularly smuggled into IS-controlled parts of Syria.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

New York- A couple of months ago I was riding in a van along a rough hewn piste in Deir ez-Zor governorate’s al-Jazeera region east of the Euphrates river when i was shown a map app that IS had used against its enemies be they an-Nizam (“regime” or “ruler” meaning the al-Assad government), the Quwaat Suria al-Dimuqratia (ie the SDF), Jabhat al-Nusra, or local tribes. From this almost chance technological encounter, I have a report for Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in the UK titled “Captured Islamic State map files underscore technological capabilities and priorities for state building.”

Though IS certainly did not architect the app itself, that was done by mysterious, apparently French developers calling themselves Pysberia.net, they innovated well within its boundaries in order to crush their battlefield opponents and thus gain more territory befitting their expansionist worldview. Despite that I’ve been covering the IS beat since it was still ISI and largely confined to central and northern Iraq, this discovery made me more viscerally cognizant of the group’s tech capabilities in a first-hand sense.

My escort from the Deir ez-Zor Military Council was using the captured map files to help guide me safely back from their barracks in al-Kasrah near the river to a road leading up to al-Hasakah toward relative security. This was toward the end of the battle of al-Baghouz further south and IS guerrilla attacks were focused far more on busier, sealed roads than out in the bush. In essence we were doing our best to circumvent a possible insurgent attack by using the maps and routes of the insurgents themselves dating to their proto state-building efforts.

Heading from al-Kasrah toward frontline positions with an-Nizam in Deir ez-Zor governorate back in March. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Neither the SDF constituent militias nor an-Nizam have such savvy tech skills or hyper adaptability even in the wake of IS’s territorial collpase. Part of the war in Syria, and Iraq for that matter, is one armed actor constantly playing catchup with the next in terms of technological exploitation and capability. Much as I hate to admit, IS was seemingly light years ahead during the peak khilifah (caliphate) period than any other nearby armed actor. The SDF, Iraqi security forces and others had always been at least two steps behind on the tech front. But as the khilfah steadily shrank from late 2016 onward with concerted effort of external force air strikes, ground forces were able to vacuum up heaps of intelligence that lay in the wake of dead or retreating militants. Reading the work of colleagues or competitors on a topic like this isn’t quite the same as experiencing this phenomenon on one’s own. I had to confront how complex the workings were of an organisation I loathe immensely was. I then put immense effort into unpacking this utterly sophisticated intelligence for which there was a significant learning curve as someone who doesn’t work in tech and is often in war zones with gear that’s at least 3 years old. These globalist génocidaires really did have the upper hand in this region for a while and that is not an easy thing to accept on the most base ethnical level.

Local forces gathered information on how exactly IS governed. As they did, the picture became clearer on just how they enforced a writ that was simultaneously medievally brutal and hi-tech in the most 21st century sense. From Silicon Valley to Guangdong province, technology companies often market themselves as rather benign entities that either will help to further democratise societies (the former) or keep consumers entertained in undemocratic states that eschew the most basic freedoms (the latter). But as my work demonstrates, software and hardware is only as innocent as the intentions of its users. So this ostensibly French-developed app meant to guide hikers through, say, parts of the Pyrenees or the Rockies where mobile service is spotty or scant, was adapted to help guide suicide vehicle bombers toward their targets on either side of the Sykes-Picot line they sought to dissolve. It also says something about the potential for cruelty in our collective human psyche. Breakthroughs in coding and computing can enable a genocidal cult just as much as they could accelerate positive change in traditionally underserved, marginalised communities.

These are screen captures of customised IS maps of Deir ez-Zor governoate in eastern Syria where the city has been renamed “al-Kheir” (roughly “the good”) by the khilifah’s online cartographers. They renamed cities and whole regions to demonstrate their disdain for places names it considered insufficiently Islamic. Deir means ‘church’ in the Syrian context.

Just as there is no unified approach to combatting IS on either side of the Syria-Iraq border between the SDF and the ISF-Hashd al-Shaabi which have vastly different local geopolitical aims in their role as anti-IS war fighting groups, there is no commonly accepted agenda amongst the world’s inflated tech industry titans on how to balance free speech with the global spread of varying forms of political violence their platforms help inflame. I’m of course not suggesting technology is a cause but rather a conduit as violent acts become increasingly transnational from Syria to Iraq and from Australia to New Zealand.

Written by derekhenryflood

May 30th, 2019 at 2:29 pm

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The Tearing Pearl

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Though Sri Lanka’s Christians make up only approximately 7% of the country’s population, Christian places of worship such as this Catholic cathedral in Jaffna are numerous and visually prominent with the island’s urban centres. @2019 Derek Henry Flood  

Fremantle- I have a report out this week for Jane’s Intelligence Review from my recent travels in troubled Sri Lanka. I spent a few weeks on the island finishing up work from Syria and simultaneously conducting some field work before the Easter bombings which killed 253 and injured some 500.

I traveled by bus through 5 of the country’s 9 provinces canvasing attitudes of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims who hold themselves to be a distinct ethnic group while overwhelmingly Tamil-speaking at home. To me, the polity seemed as fractious as it was when I lasted visited in March 2007 while the eastern offensive to take Batticaloa was underway (government forces ousted the LTTE from there that July). The country’s central government had not worked in the decade since the war ended to reconcile long-held animosity between communal groups that tend to identify with the armed actors in the conflict.

Sure, Sri Lanka is technically at peace as there is not presently an armed conflict but that should not be mistaken for any kind of healing between Sinhalese and Tamils. Neither side has worked in any significant manner for a post-war harmony. I left with the impression that people get along out of sheer pragmatism rather than any sort of newfound love between north and south. I some of the language people used to describe the other during my visit, it was clear that the Western concept of political correctness had yet to arrive in the pearl of the Indian Ocean.

Once I was in what became the relative safety of northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, terror struck Sri Lanka again. But this time around it was group of acutely radicalised local Sunnis which posthumously portrayed themselves as acting in league with, or in honour of, IS following its territorial demise in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zor governorate. Rather than attacking the government directly or its attendant security forces, a team of 9 suicide bombers attacked an array of Catholic sites which straddle the ethnic divide and upscale hotels. Neither of these target selections sync with traditional patterns of of either ethno-linguistic or religio-political violence in Sri Lanka. And that may have been just the point. The salafi-jihadis (often referred to as “Wahabbi” in the press though people rarely self identify with a term) struck out at targets where security was lax, were highly symbolic, would likely produce a high casualty rate necessary for a mass casualty attack, and perhaps most significantly fit neatly within the post-modern narrative arc of globalised Sunni radicalism that pits ‘the Muslims’ in an epic battle with ‘Rome’ ie Christendom. Sri Lanka had no significant history of communal violence between Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Catholics. There was, however, a long history of LTTE-Muslim violence before the LTTE’s demise precisely 10 years ago this week, overwhelmingly the former brutalising the latter during the 26-year-long war. And much more recently episodic bouts of of Sinhalese-Buddhist-Muslim confrontations in Kandy district etc.

Part of why commentators claim to have been shocked by Sri Lanka being the target for a complex, bi-coastal ‘martyrdom operation’ as suicide attacks are known among salafi’een, is because no one gave a damn about the South Asian island nation. With all eyes on current conflicts in Syria, Iraq and other similar theatres of formalised warfare as well as a deep analytic emphasis on attacks in Western cities (Barcelona, NYC, Nice, Paris), no one was paying much attention to a place once more romantically known as Ceylon. People generally don’t care about places where wars have ended, the flame of the news cycle has long been extinguished. But that was also Afghanistan. Then we had 9/11. People simply weren’t paying attention to that country aside from some Iranian clerics, Pakistani intelligence officers, and women’s rights campaigners in the West at the time.

The decades long war off the southern tip of India didn’t stoke much interest even at its height. Ten years ago this week I contacted an editor at Tina Brown’s Daily Beast just as the war was coming to a bloody conclusion and the LTTE were facing their ultimate defeat about writing an armchair piece from Los Angeles about the last battle and the significance of the death of Vellupilai Prabhkaran, the LTTE’s cult-like ‘supremo’ (leader). The editor, an effete British woman at the time, sent me a delayed reply that she was unsure that the fall of the world’s most technically sophisticated terror group that pioneered much of modern suicide bombing was timely or relevant to their audience. I recall reading the email and thinking to myself, “wow, nothing has changed in the media machine since 9/11. No lesson was learned. It’s still all about ascribed relevance in the myopic minds of gatekeepers.” Timely? The war was ending that week!

So here we are in 2019. Some lessons still not learned by governments, large media organisations, militaries, and so forth. We now live in a world of borderless terrorism. Daunting as it is to state, everything and everywhere must be paid attention to. Ignore at our peril.

A lesson that should be learned from Sri Lanka is that there are serious limitations to predictive terrorism analysis which has become quite the cottage industry for some in the past 18 years. Something about the genie not going back in the bottle, humpty dumpty not going back together, or Pottery Barn’s damaged product policy. Much of that thinking exists inside the box so to speak. But in the grand asymmetry of the phenomenon that is global terrorism, there is no a hard box. Attacks don’t need to recognise borders. We must accept that sometimes we will fail to explain push and pull factors before it’s far too late in a faraway society that seems mostly ok from a facile, removed analysis.

I was in Dubai after leaving Iraq and Syria and made a spontaneous decision to revisit Sri Lanka 12 years on to see what had changed, if anything, beyond the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity. When I left I had a vague, sinking feeling something nasty was going to happen, particularly after a specific, foreboding warning from a contact I’d made in Unawatuna that militant Islam had gained a small but indelible footprint on the island since the war ended. Then Easter morning happened.

Written by derekhenryflood

May 12th, 2019 at 12:50 am

Book Review: War On Peace

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The UK paperback edition I purchased in Dubai after leaving Iraq.

Pai- I’ve recently finished reading Ronan Farrow’s death of American diplomacy narrative War On Peace. I picked up the UK paperback edition at Kunokiniya Books at the Dubai Mall–meaning it had finally passed the UAE’s thought censors to be able to be sold. This process can take many months I’ve been told. I needed something to read while traveling across Sri Lanka and this looked like a good companion.

It is sort of two books in one volume. The first an homage of sorts with necessary criticism of the late Richard Holbrooke. The second half is a series of vignettes of high risk foreign policy successes and blunders through the prism of the Department of State. Having once worked as an editor in Washington, I read reflexively with a critical eye perhaps more than is necessary. I was put off within minutes when on the first page Abdoun is described as a neighborhood of Jordan rather than its capital Amman. Countries don’t have neighbourhoods, cities do, in geographic semantics. I put that aside an delved in to what is overall a quite enjoyable read about what is in reality a depressing subject-the decline of American influence in the world and the militarisation of US foreign policy.

Part of why I found Farrow’s work entertaining was quite personal. I’d intersected with nearly every character in the book in some circumstantial way. The time I encountered Holbrooke, along with Madeline Albright, while working a temp job at the Council on Foreign Relations over a decade ago. The time Stan McChrystal’s Italian carbinieri bodyguards nearly knocked me of while trying to photograph him. The time I waited at Abdul Rashid Dostum’s house in Kabul when he returned from an exile episode. When I went to dinner with General Michael Hayden at a posh midtown Manhattan university club where tipping the staff was forbidden. When I drove through Jowjan province on the way to Turkmenistan exactly as the massacre of Taliban prisoners was taking place in Dasht-i-Leili. This book appealed to me in part because of all the memories it brought back. At the very end one of the last people mentioned in the acknowledgments, a former Obama era foreign policy wunderkind, is the sister of someone who follows me on Instagram. It’s a string of degrees of separation.

ISAF Commander General Stanley McChyrstal hurries past reporters to asses the damage and casualties in front of his office after this morning suicide attack believed to be carried out by the Afghan Taliban.©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Much of what is described in the book is a litany of lost or squandered opportunities where good ideas were put forth that were undercut by a lack of political will or foresight or in the case of Holbrooke, death. There’s one really glaring error where in page 61 he describes Moqtada al-Sadr as an al-Qaeda lader, which could not be more wrong. Al-Sadr was the leader of the eschatological Shia sectarian Jaish al-Mahdi, about as opposite ideologically as AQ as you can get. How that made it through fact checking I’ll never understand. There were some other minor editing issues but this was the only really egregious factual error that I can recall.

Overall, I found War On Peace thoroughly relatable and entertaining, a good travel read. I’ll be leaving it behind in the used book pile at my hotel here in Thailand hoping someone else will pick it up and enjoy it equally.

Written by derekhenryflood

May 2nd, 2019 at 4:28 am

A Death in Raqqa

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SDF fighter and my guide through the ruins, Ismail Khalil photographed in Raqqa on 19 September 2017. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Pai- Recently, I discovered via Twitter that a man I briefly knew in Syria some two years ago was killed, and killed quite some time ago. I was doing frontline analysis for Jane’s Intelligence Review that resulted in my piece entitled CBC reporter Adrienne Arsenault did a story about Ismail’s death in August 2018-though he was killed by an IED in January but perhaps the dots weren’t connected until much later. For some algorithmic reason I only saw this Twitter thread earlier in 2019. Indicative, I suppose, of the nature of social media and how our world works today.

His name was Ismail Khalil, a Raqqawi who had joined the SDF and desperately wanted IS pushed out of his city. According to my friend Mahmoud, he was the victim of a booby trap left behind by IS as they rigged the city with explosives knowing their state-building effort was doomed. Ismail was assigned to me by Mustafa Bali, the SDF spokesman who you may have read quoted on a daily basis during the recent Baghouz operation that ended in March with a decisive SDF victory.

After sleeping at what was then sort of the media base in Ayn Issa and waking up a dawn at the very end of a hot, violent Levantine summer, Bali explained that an SDF fighter who knew the streets of Raqqa intimately had to ride along in my dusty Korean-built van as my driver and fixer were Kurds from Amuda along the Turkish border not terribly familiar with central Syria. The day was hot and hellish as you might imagine.

To produce stories such as these, I take enormous risks from time to time in places experience spectacular violence. But the people who help me along the way take far greater risks because they cannot or do not simply cross an international border to safety once a narrow goal has been accomplished. They are living in wartime. Inhabiting a geography of terror. The work I do isn’t created in a vacuum. It is the product of a thousand human interactions. Discerning linguistic nuance, observing local cultural norms, tight focus on survival.

Ismail taking advantage of the wifi while I interview a YPG commander called Heval Kane. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

I often think about fixers, drivers, or friendly guys with guns who’ve helped me in wars past. Wars where Twitter wasn’t a thing or at least I hadn’t joined the online echo chamber yet. I think about Sadeq in Karbala, Kamal in South Governorate, Faisal in Benghazi. All I have is an old photo, a faded business card, a number that no longer works. Are they still alive? When conflicts reignite in certain places, I sometimes contemplate the fate of these guys. Today with the interconnectedness of our rapidly decentralising world, we have the ability to find out things we may wish to have never been updated on. I would much prefer to still wonder if Ismail was rebuilding his business in Raqqa rather than know with certainty he only lived for a few more months after the city’s liberation from IS.

As I tracked Ismail through the shattered warrens of Raqqa, we encountered SDF fighters doing all sorts of tasks that sound mundane like delivering bottled water or jerry rigging radios with makeshift batteries except, well, Raqqa. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

In the case of this man, the story has a horrific ending. The kind of closure your imagination never desires when mulling over the past.

Ismail riding in the back of the van next to all my stuff. He would only live for four more months. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

May 1st, 2019 at 11:22 am