The War Diaries

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

In the Disputed Zone

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Commander Khosrat of the KDP faction of the Peshmerga in the agrarian area of Kandenawa, within the so-called ‘Disputed Territories’, watches the road warily with Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries not all that far away. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Kirkuk-I have a new piece out with Jane’s Intelligence Review (subscription required) in the UK on my latest findings in troubled Kirkuk governorate and the Disputed Territories. Following the now notorious events of 16 October last year in which the PUK Peshmerga and Asayish made a highly controversial retreat from the oil rich city and eponymous governorate of Kirkuk thereby ceding power to the Iraqi central government and its plethora of Iranian-sponsored Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary forces.

In what’s come to be known in Erbil and throughout the KRG as the ’16 October crisis,’ Iraq’s Kurdish political elites took an immense gamble in holding the disastrous 25 September independence referendum with lots of hyperbole but not concrete plan or even an outline to secede from republican Iraq. As Kurdish security forces took advantage of the security vacuum when ISF abandoned Kirkuk during an IS advance in 2014, the al-Abadi government took advantage if intra-KRG and even intra-PUK bickering–with the help of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani–to take Kirkuk back from Kurdish control in a big win for central authority and a huge loss of the Kurds ‘Jerusalem.’

Having last been to the city when it was under PUK-dominated KRG control, the contrast was stark in returning in February. As soon as I got to the city centre and began shooting photos, I was immediately questioned by Federal Police and asked to delete my photos. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was walking around freely last August.

Baghdad has visibly put Iraq’s Kurds on notice that the game has changed. The lucrative oil fields are now back under the control of ISF and Hashd units and hydrocarbons may now be heading for Iran rather than Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

IDPs return to Kirkuk from the KRG. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

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March 2nd, 2018 at 10:57 am

Posted in Iraq,Kurdistan

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Back to Iraq 6.0

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A headless statue of the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad 15 years ago. If the neoconservative war planners’ goal was “regime decapitation,” in this case it was interpreted literally by beheading a statue atop its shiny plinth. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- I arrived back in Iraq for the sixth time since the American-led invasion that commenced fifteen years ago (a month from now give or take). On 20 March 2003 Baghdad time, the ground forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Poland, along the royal navy of the Kingdom of Denmark (with possibly a small contingent of special operations forces). This country has been in some form of chaos ever since. While many areas are comparatively stable as here in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s administrative seat, or the oil port of Basra far to the south, even these areas are built upon a shaky political modus vivendi that guarantees no future stability without some for of genuine communal reconciliation.

We are now living in the era of the so-called ‘terror wars,’ a time of perpetual terror and spreading instability. Though our world is oft said to be in a steady decline of conventional warfare since the conclusion of the second world war in terms of both breadth and the geographic distribution of conflict, that academic sentiment holds little if any water to the people of this region. From Operation Desert Shield to Desert Storm to Desert Fox to Iraqi Freedom to New Dawn to Inherent Resolve,* much of what Iraqis (and now Syrians) know about American power is through the blunt force of orchestrated, highly mechanized violence.

*Note: Coalition partner code names may, and often do, differ.

Here we are in early 2018 and it has been reported that American troops in Iraq are to begin a gradual force drawdown after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-abadi declared a total victory over IS…in terms of territoriality anyway. But note that a drawdown is not a withdrawal and that it may purportedly, quietly signal a troop build up in Afghanistan where the Taliban are gaining territorial control replete with shadow governance. And unlike October 2001, IS has a serious presence there now presenting themselves as a more fundamental movement in terms of Sunni salafi jurisprudence as opposed to the traditional Deobandi strain of Taliban ideology with its local South Asian characteristics. In short, the fight in Afghanistan has intensified in terms of its non-state actor complexity.

Iraq is as fractious and fluid as a nation-state can be. In the wake of the IS defeat in Ninewa, al-Anbar, and Kirkuk governorates in particular, nothing in terms of the country’s territorial integrity has been resolved nor has the insurgency been completely defeated by any means. There are still IS remnants in and around the Hamrin mountain range and there is talk, albeit somewhat unsubstantiated at the time of this writing, of a group of disgruntled Kurdish nationalists calling themselves the ‘White Flags’ or ‘White Banners’ operating on the outskirts of Tuz Khurmatu in perennially troubled Salah ad-Din governorate south of here.

Kurdistan Democratic Party-aligned Peshmerga in one of the ‘Disputed Territories,’ Dibis district, Kirkuk governorate, five years back. While facing off a multitude of Sunni and nominally Sufi insurgents, they were also facing off the forces of the central government. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

In Iraq, and now neighbouring Syria, the end of one war merely often only signifies the start of the next. This is due in large part to indigenous political elites pandering only to their power base while never genuinely mediating, much less resolving, core ethno-sectarian fissures coupled with Western policy makers having only a primordial understanding of.

The terror wars expand and contract but they do not end. There is no end game, no coherent strategy. And there never was.

The Iraqi flag flowing in Erbil fifteen years after the latest stage in the war here began (and then morphed). ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

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February 14th, 2018 at 11:23 am

Along the Bosphorus

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A cold, quiet evening in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Istanbul- I realised upon arriving in Turkey’s commercial capital tonight this visit marks twenty years of my coming here. I first came to Turkey in the middle of a EU to MENA backpacking trip in 1998 between semesters. I’ve been back virtually every year ever since for very different reasons each time.

Turkey is the cultural and transport naval of my world. Bordering Greece, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Georgia etc, Turkey is essential. It is also a comparatively functional place in highly dysfunctional region. All connective air transport is routed through Istanbul, rather than  Ankara, the centralised political capitol in the Anatolian heartland. As volatile is this area often is, regional airports open and close whether due to geopolitical feuding or kinetic political violence, there are plenty of long overland routes to reach forlorn land borders where chai and marlboros are smuggled as an integral cog in the local cross border economy.

Taking the ferry from Kadikoy to Eminönü last year. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Walking in the frosty warrens along the Bosphorus tonight, I reflected upon two decades of change in Anatolia, the Caucasus, and the Levant. In 1998, as a young but not entirely naive university student, the Turkish military was on the brink of invading Syria over its southern neighbour’s support of the PKK. The Assad regime had supported ethno-nationalist Kurdish irredentists owing to its own regime-held irredentism over Turkey’s Hatay province (formerly the  Sanjak of Alexandretta) and humiliation over Turkey’s damming of of the Euphrates (Firat in Turkish, al-Furat in Syrian Arabic) river so crucial to Syrian industry and agriculture.

That war in the summer of 1998 never came to be after negotiations led to the Adana Agreement in October of that year which saw PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan expelled from his Damascene sanctuary and the Assad regime ceasing its support for Kurdish rebels. Yet here we are in 2018 and Turkey finally has invaded Syria, this time to crush the Kurdish enclave of Afrin (or Efrin as Syrian Kurds prefer). When I checked into my hotel room tonight the first thing I see is live broadcast from Hatay regarding Turkey’s troop movements  in Syria.

Diplomacy seemed to work to at least some degree back in the 1990s. No more.

Turkish current events commentators discussing developments in their military’s war on the Kurdish canton of Afrin.

Written by derekhenryflood

February 12th, 2018 at 4:33 pm

Posted in Turkey

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Syria after IS

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SDF fighters throw up victory gestures in the final phase of the battle against IS in central ar-Raqqa. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- I have a new article out with Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre about the risks faced by the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces following their final defeat against the so-called Islamic State. My piece assesses what the armed landscape will look like in the near term following the territorial demise of kalashnikov-toting adherents of salafiyya-jihadiyya ideology who sought to erase the physical history of the Ba’athist, post-colonial, and ancient edifices on which the peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys draw their culture in order to create a macabre, social media-fueled vision of utopia.

As militants from as far afield as Trinidad and Turkmenistan are killed or attempt to flee, this will force several awkward realignments of both state and non-state actors. The United States military has no coherent policy on an end game for its Syria strategy, stating it is solely focused of defeating IS with its SDF partners. But as the battle is all but entirely finished save for a small pocket of eastern Deir ez-Zor, this narrow, soda straw view of the war there does not factor the next phase of which it is on the precipice.

The air force of the Russian Federation is pummeling rebel enclaves that continue to resist the al-Assad regime in faltering scorched earth policy reminiscent of the shelling of Grozny in the 1990s. Moscow insists it only has advisors in the context of the Syrian Arab Army’s ground war but that doesn’t include Russian and other CIS citizens who are fighting on behalf of the opaque doings of private military companies supporting the regime in the name of hard currency.

And this is only to name but a few looming factors as the calcified regime in Damascus tries to hold and consolidate its gains with Russian and Iranian support. The regime may try to evict the various factions that comprise the SDF from ar-Raqqa and environs lest another player joins the action space (read:Turkey).

Written by derekhenryflood

November 24th, 2017 at 7:41 am

Hawija Finally Collapses but for How Long?

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KDP-affiliated Peshmerga fighters look on toward then IS-held territory in Dibis district, Kirkuk governorate which is disputed between Iraq’s central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- I have an article out in the October issue of the CTC Sentinel entitled “The Hawija Offensive: A Liberation Exposes Faultlines,” based on my fieldwork in Kirkuk governorate in August and September. I began this work before the offensive to retake the IS-held, so-called “Hawija pocket” kicked off in late September, just days before the Kurdish referendum on independence was going to be held. During my visits, the frontline was effectively stalemated because Kurdish forces could not agree on who would control the neighbouring district of Hawija with Iraqi security forces and the Shia militias known in Iraq as Hashd al-Shaabi.

Both sides were equally wary of each other’s intentions. In the end, Iraqi state forces and heavily armed Shia factions chased IS out of Hawija where they had been entrenched longer than Mosul or ar-Raqqa in terms of firm territorial control. Hawija was the quintessential building block of the aspiring ‘khilifah’ (‘caliphate’).

Ultimately Shia-dominated forces stormed into the long-held Sunni salafi enclave and evicted IS who ended up surrendering en masse as the khilifah was in its final stage of collapse as a military and administrative entity.

Little known to the world outside Iraq, Hawija is hugely symbolic in terms of Sunni grievances. A disastrous raid by then PM Nouri al-Maliki’s security forces in April 2013 acted as a catalyst for an IS takeover of the eponymous district a mere eight months on. In Iraq, Hawija is synonymous with Sunni Arab resentment of Shia power politics and armed insurgency.

It won’t be long before we begin to hear about IS regrouping in small numbers of “sleeper cells” around Hawija for that geography and the rage within it is part of what enabled IS to begin its territorial quasi state-building project in the first place.

PUK-affiliated Peshmerga along the frontline northwest of Tuz Khurmatu. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

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October 18th, 2017 at 8:41 am

The Devastation

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An SDF fighter from the Manbij Military Council scouts for IS in the ruins of ar-Raqqa in northern central Syria. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Ar-Raqqa- I have a new article out in the October edition of Jane’s Intelligence Review back in the UK based on my frontline observations and analysis in ar-Raqqa before IS would completely withdrew from the city exactly two weeks on. The destruction I witnessed was astounding in terms of sheer totality. I can’t recall seeing a single structure that was unscathed as the SDF and IS fought it out in those last weeks of waning salafi occupation.

It was a ‘things will get worse before they get better’ scenario writ large as the entire breadth of the city was shattered while IS snipers fired pot shots from their veiled positions and American fighters circled overhead smashing them with GPS coordinates provided by the SDF ground spotters.

Driving around the city’s cratered intersections evoked a mid-1990s Grozny in terms of such a modest sized city withstood scorched earth. Ar-Raqqa was littered with corpses and almost wholly depopulated at the time of my visit. Unexploded ordinance and booby trapped dwellings made the zone uninhabitable for all but the men of the MMC and YPG in the SDF units I encountered.

When I interviewed a commander at the YPG media house about who would govern and secure ar-Raqqa after the battle concluded, his responses were vague at best. The conclusion of each battle in the transnationally inflected Syrian civil war meant that each end begat a new conflict erupting within weeks if not days in the battlespace.

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October 3rd, 2017 at 10:50 am

Posted in Non-state warfare,Syria

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When in Kirkuk

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Frontline fighters were disciplined in waiting for their commander’s instructions while they occasionally took in IDP families and withstood IS salvos meant to harass their position in Dibis district. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Paros-I have a piece out this week for Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre on the findings from my field research in late August and early September in the troubled, multi-ethnic Kirkuk and Salah ad-Din governorates. These contentious regions act as a kind of security buffer between the mostly quiescent KRG that abuts northeastern Syria, Turkey and northwestern Iran and the schismatic Arab heartland of central Iraq.

But with the Kurdish desire to maintain control over Kirkuk after it was abandoned by state security forces, Baghdad wanting to reassert control over Kirkuk with Iranian-backing, and let’s not leave out the minority Turkmen who consider Kirkuk their cultural capital within the Iraqi milieu. Thus Kirkuk, and to a lesser degree Tuz Khurmatu, the seat of Salah ad-Din, will pull in all these players with oil-fueled centripetal force that will make its contested status an issue immediately after the IS territorial decline is certain.

While the focus is on eradicating the salafi-jihadis encircled by Kurdish, ISF, and Hashd al-Shaabi  units, once the Hawija pocket is subsumed back into state control, the likelihood of Kurdish and Shia fighters turning on one another is assured.

Written by derekhenryflood

September 26th, 2017 at 4:26 am

Posted in Iraq

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The Festering Bastion

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A Peshmerga commander in Dibis district points toward IS controlled villages some five kilometers away on the baking hot horizon. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- I have a new article out for Jane’s Intelligence Review on the forces arrayed around what has come to be known as the ‘Hawija pocket’ in southwestern Kirkuk governorate. The traditionally Sunni Arab town of Hawija, a restive northern bastion of insurgency from 2004 forward, and its hinterlands acted as an accelerator of Sunni grievances when Iraqi security forces stormed a protest camp there in late April of 2013.

The Peshmerga and their battlefield peer competitors in the Hashd al-Shaabi have been stuck in operational limbo as there has been no agreement on who would govern a post-IS Hawija once the smoke has cleared. The ethnic Turkmen stationed outside the town of Bashir (alt. Basheer) from the local brigade of the Badr Organisation withstood IS sniper fire at the time of my visit which they promptly answered with a Zu-23 anti-aircraft gun mounted atop a BTR-50 tucked safely behind a berm.

Knocking IS out of Hawija will be more like Tal Afar than Mosul or ar-Raqqa. The armed groups surrounding the pocket just haven’t been able to come to terms on a battle plan. That should change very soon. Hawija simply isn’t valuable enough for IS to continue to hold onto till the last man. It is more likely planning a salafi version of taqiyya (dissimulation) into the local population while it decides to regroup in the nearby Hamrin mountains.



Written by derekhenryflood

September 20th, 2017 at 9:08 am