The War Diaries

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

Syria after the caliphate: Manbij poised between conflicts

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Fighters from the US-backed (at least for now) Manbij Military Council at the al-Arimah front southwest of Manbij town where they face Russian-backed regime forces.

Manbij-I have a new piece out for Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor (subscription required) regarding the ongoing strategic deadlock over this modest city in northern Syria’s Aleppo governorate.

Manbij has been in the news as of late as the Turkish government has repeatedly threatened to invade it unless its American NATO partners/foes enforce Ankara’s bidding to have the YPG retreat east of the Euphrates. There’s one problem with this AKP logic: the YPG does not control or administer Manbij. Manbij is secured by the Manbij Military Council, a constituent force of the SDF in which the YPG and YPJ are fellow constituents that are theoretically, if no way in practice, equal armed components in the SDF’s egalitarian outline. Politically it is run by the Manbij Civil Council which, although operating under the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s TEV-DEM norms, is not simply a PYD outpost under a different name. The local administration does not count itself part of Rojava and many council members speak zero Kurdish.

Turkish claims are ultimately expressions of vague bellicosity. When that country’s president and his foreign minister reference Manbij, these statements have no bearing on ground realities in this mostly Arab urban centre.

Manbij’s Asayish gendarmerie is almost entirely Arab for example. What the AKP bigs may have been conflating however was that during the battle for olive-rich Afrin (if I’m to give them the benefit of the doubt), the YPG and YPJ were transiting via Manbij on what seemed to be like a nightly basis both to and fro embattled Afrin. So in that sense, yes, the Turkish leadership was correct that was a YPG presence there but the key nuance is that it was on the move to defend the PYD’s northwestern enclave from the Turkish military and the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (rebranded salafi-jihadis mostly).

Scrawled on the wall of what had been an Islamic State torture prison in Manbij, “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet. Stay in the Islamic State.” ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

The people of Manbij who were not able to flee north to Turkey and perhaps onward to the EU during the two year and seven month rule of IS there suffered immensely. After a siege in the spring and summer of 2016 in which the city was ultimately liberated, the place has been making a vibrant, remarkable comeback with seemingly no outside help unless you count Aleppan financiers as outsiders. Exploring the remnants of IS’s brutality there was utterly haunting. Some of the torture techniques that were described to me seemed as if they were straight out of a CIA playbook circa 2002.

Today, this town is thriving on the relative stability and freedom it provides IDPs, returnees, and those who never left, even as it faces a multitude of emerging threats with IS seemingly least among them.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 10th, 2018 at 2:56 am

A Never Ending Catastrophe

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A young Iraqi girl returns to school in Karbala after the American invasion of her country. Behind her is a mural of Muhammed al-Durah, a young boy killed by the Israeli defence forces in Gaza during the second intifada in Palestine. The Ba’athist regime sought to co-opt Palestine’s national liberation struggle with its own brutal security state to conflate them as part of a broader Arab nationalist agenda. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Pai- Fifteen years ago today the Ba’athist government of Iraq was wholly overthrown by the United States military along with its United Kingdom partners and a minute cabal of disconnected, diaspora Iraqis looking to implement various unrealistic political agendas in their home country. Today I have only images and memories left of that chaotic, strategic disaster that forever upended the Middle East’s calcified post-colonial nation-state order with little to no forethought of the dire consequences.

We as a world community would not be where we are today were it not for the invasion of Iraq.

I look back on this solemn image and wondered what happened to this girl. She was nervous returning to her primary school and froze in front of a mural of Muhammal-Durrah.  She would be in her twenties by now if she has managed to survive years and years of mechanized and suicidal violence. I can’t ever know I suppose.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 9th, 2018 at 5:57 am

Crossroads of a Global War

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Commander Heval (Comrade) Shiyar and his Manbij Military Council fighters at their position along the south bank of the Sajur River north of Manbij. These minimally armed men are at the centre of a global great game for control of Syria’s territory.©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Manbij- Along the Manbij Military Council’s mostly quiet frontline with the Turkish military and its Islamist Syrian Arab proxy militias, headlines have emanated from this mostly misunderstood crisis locus. One of the most crucial points which I personally found maddeningly frustrating was that Turkish president Erdoğan’s constantly parroted talking point that the Kurdish YPG militia must withdraw unconditionally west of the Euphrates River. This ultimatum is designed to meet Ankara’s narrow, localised geostrategic demands that what it deems the “terror corridor” of northern Syria must be cleared of “terrorists” on conditions dictated by the Turkish president and his obedient foreign minister.

This assertion was repeated by Western media outlets with global reach in such a blatantly unexamined manner. Some of that may have to do with outlets being risk averse when it comes to hiring freelancers in Syria specifically I would guess from the beheading episodes of 2014 though no one has ever actually told me this in writing, but it seems implied. One major US outlet told me they refused work from independent journalist working in Iraq and Syria in 2017 when I was covering the Raqqa offensive. At the time I presumed this because a freelancer they’d hired was kidnapped/captured though the editor I corresponded with then left me to make merely an educated guess. Thus an intensely complicated place like Manbij that requires immense nuance and time spent has not been aided by fleeting coverage in the mainstream media. This has helped advance the Turkish position on the matter–at least in terms of rhetoric-as-news-copy–coupled with the anti-intellectualism of a bumbling American leader repeatedly contradicting his own field commanders who partner with the Manbij Military Council. Thus I digress.

In an effort to examine battlefield nuance, I have an article in the April issue for Jane’s Intelligence Review (subscription required titled “Strategic Prize” as well as its companion online piece, “Diverse forces converge on Syria’s Manbij,” reporting from the frontlines of this incredibly complex threat environment.

Manbij and its rural hinterland are in fact defended by the Manbij Military Council, a mostly young Arab force helmed by veteran Kurdish commanders that in reality not simply a branch of the YPG. Like the YPG it is a constituent militia making up the SDF but it is a distinct force grouping with a high degree of operational autonomy.

The late Abu Amjad who led the MMC was in fact a Manbiji Arab. The MMC does not have female YPJ fighters along its frontline positions facing Ankara’s ‘Euphrates Shield’ forces or those areas where it is facing the Russian and Iranian-backed nizam (Syrian colloquial Arabic denoting the Assad regime). Manbij was a logistical resupply hub for Kurdish militias during the siege of Afrin to be sure but I never observed that they were responsible for this critical frontier city’s armed security.

Few independent journalists have actually visited Manbij and spent real time here but understandably so. Aside from a very brief dog-and-pony show with a not particularly articulate American general in early February, the coverage of this incredibly intricate battle space has been lacklustre at best. Though I also must emphasise just how difficult it has become to get not only into Syria but to get access to the core of the stories there. One must deal with the opaque decision making processes of not one but two internationally unrecognised governments whilst in a constant pursuit of freshly stamped permission papers with expiration dates. Having worked in Syria before in no way means working there the next time will be more easily facilitated either. Generally speaking, it doesn’t get easier.

The ethnic Arab frontline village of al-Dadat secured by the MMC, an area which the Turkish president claims is ruled by Kurdish “terrorists.” ©Derek Henry Flood

But then if things like this were easy and obvious I probably wouldn’t be pursuing them in the first place. In my entire career now spanning some 17 years I’ve yet to do an embed with a Western military and the possible self censorship such endeavours entail. I focus on the doings of indigenous non-state actors such as those of the Manbij Military Council pictured at the top of this post. People from the land they are striving to protect. To me that is and has always been the real engine of these stories. Occupation forces invade and inevitably withdraw in the Levant, even if that takes decades (think Syria and Israel in post-civil war Lebanon per example) but local fighters are fighting for and guarding their own territory which involves a completely different war fighting perspective.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 3rd, 2018 at 4:00 am

The Detritus of Pain: Iraq 15 Years On

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“All Donne [sic] Go Home” The feet still sit atop the plinth where the statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down on April 9 2003 in Firdows Square. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- Today marks fifteen years since the disastrous Anglo-American invasion of the Republic of Iraq. Eighteen months after the American intervention in the Afghan civil war became internationalised in response to 9/11, the next phase of what I refer to as the Terror Wars began as the Iraqi state was violently dismantled with  disproportionately expensive munitions.  This air campaign and concurrent ground war were quickly followed by a bumbling know-nothing former US ambassador to the Netherlands establishing an awkward neo-colonial ad administration in Baghdad that was more bent on disenfranchising Ba’athists that permanently repairing the power grid. The United States, along with its junior partner the United Kingdom did not have a clear vision of who their enemy was.

New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia were attacked by al-Qaeda, a transnational salafi-jihadi organisation with a Saudi face but an Egyptian ideological backbone. The Taliban and al-Hizb ul-Ba’ath did not plot nor launch any such attack yet they morphed into the targets of the Terror Wars in terms of proportionality. That is not to say they were not despicable regimes, each were both deceptive and vile. The Taliban unrepentantly sheltered al-Qaeda leadership and allowed the travelers of its morose caravan safe passage. The minoritarian Ba’athists in Baghdad, who had worked to modernise the Iraqi state through repressive and often violent means, were secretive and paranoid regarding their Shia Iranian neighbours to the detriment of all other international relations.

But did either post a meaningful threat to America and the collective West more broadly?

The late Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, referred to in the American media almost exclusively as simply ‘Saddam’ (imagine how it would sound if Vladimir Putin was always referred to as just ‘Vladimir?’) having fought an eight year trench war against millenarian Shia revolutionaries in Iran was still concerned about his country falling into the hands of what he perceived as his true enemies, the ‘Safavids’ (a derisive term for Iranians in the Iraqi context). Saddam Hussein feared Iranian power–the near enemy– more than the United States–the far enemy–who had stopped short of dislodging him in 1991.

Fifteen years on the United States military is still operating in Iraq (as well as Afghanistan) albeit on a much smaller human scale. Would those avidly viewing “shock and awe” on Fox or Sky news fifteen years ago today have supported attacking this country had they the foresight it would last this long? One can suppose almost certainly not.

Many of al-Qaeda’s core leaders from the late 1980s and mid-1990s have been killed in drone strikes or in the occasional successful special operations raid. But AQ ideology, a strain of replicating salafism that relies on coercion and mass casualty religio-politcal violence to spread its self-appointed righteous messaging has dimmed. This occurred not in the face of the Terror Wars wins on a military scorecard or effective counter-terror efforts but because a more polished peer competitor, the so-called ‘Islamic State,’ came along with a slick millenial social media portfolio to oust AQ from its perch atop Sunni radical primacy.

Saddam Hussein was hastily executed at the end of 2006 while in stark contrast Mullah Mohammed Omar died in secret to all but his closest confidants in 2013–though this was not revealed until 2015. These men were detestable despots each of their respective forms  but it can be argued fairly easily that neither posed a direct threat to the hard security of the American mainland. AQ on the other did and does though it is currently competing with its splinter-cum-rival IS within the salafi conflict realm on several fronts.

Here we are with war in Iraq still grinding on in what is simply a new phase. Yet there is no end in sight to Iraqi suffering as the fitna (internecine Muslim warfare) that was borne out of the laboratory of the occupation that began a decade and a half ago continues with macabre zeal in the present day. I doubt few Americans are aware of this anniversary and those that do may not care all that much.

Iraq 10 years after the invasion, soldiers chat at a remote checkpoint in Kirkuk governorate that would soon fall to IS months after I shot this image. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Iraq is a half a world away from the United States buffeted by the (now also war-torn) Levant, Mediterranean, and the vast, deep, frigid Atlantic Ocean. Baghdad is seven hours ahead of the East Coast where many if not most of those neoconservative charlatans and self-described well meaning liberal interventionists still live and work.

Why anyone who advocated for regime change here, be it in the op-ed pages of major American newspapers or in the halls of congress still finds gainful employment is far beyond me. Their words and shoddily founded opinions were and are responsible for the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and some 4000 American servicemen. Before there was to be kinetic warfare there was a venomous lobbying war in Washington as well as London. Those talking heads who have issued a paltry few mea culpas in the last decade cannot truly atone for their intellectual sins. For they do not have to live in the hell they help foment.

The war in Iraq incubated the most loathsome of human behaviours that are now commonplace in this region. Beheadings and suicide bombings went from being the remote tactical exception to the norm, espeically in terms of militant propaganda. This society was traumatically brutalised by al-Hizb ul-Ba’ath for decades and that repressed legacy was allowed to come to the surface as globalist salafism spread in the context of the concomitant internet revolution. When I first arrived in Iraq in 2003, I had no way to check my email for weeks, only big money corporate journos who had imported satellite phones from Dubai or London had the ability to be online but even so social media was in its infancy.

Iraq today still burns with rage, as does now neighbouring Syria. Iraqi friends of spoken with from Kirkuk to Baghdad to Basra, assert that the legacy of ethno-sectarian politics entrenched since 2003 has left Iraq more dangerous and dilapidated in many places than it was under the collective punishment of 1990s era UN sanctions.

There is still no end in sight.

Written by derekhenryflood

March 20th, 2018 at 3:50 am

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

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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

Written by derekhenryflood

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

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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