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An Unlikely Ally in Syria

November 20th, 2014 No comments
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The PYD’s co-chair Salih Muslim speaks to an audience in Harlem, New York via skype from Paris. Click to follow me on instagram. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out in the November edition of Middle East Insider edited by David Hartwell on my observations on the battle between the YPG and the IS in Kobane in October. It was one of the most abstract war scenarios I’ve yet to witness with uncoordinated or at best poorly coordinated American air strikes being launched from high above while the PKK-allied YPG fought it out in the streets as IS salafi-jihadis attempted to take Kobane’s prized northern gate to control another border crossing with post-Kemalist, AKP-ruled Turkey. Kobane has since fallen out of world headlines but

I went to a very interesting event called “Kobanê & the Rojava Revolution” in Harlem the other night at the City College of New York (where I took the instagram above). Salih Muslim spoke to the audience via skype at least in part because he was not given a visa to enter the United States by the State Department. The PYD leader having to phone it in highlights the awkward juxtaposition considering the U.S. Navy and Air Force are assisting the PYD’s armed wing, the YPG, in and around Kobane to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the IS but the movement’s erudite, intellectual leader was not easily allowed to visit an educational institution in the city that hosts the United Nations HQ.

The State Department still lists the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization in part to please its NATO ally in Ankara. Many are now positing that the PKK should be delisted as it is not anti-Western (though it is anti-capitalist which may roil Republicans on the Hill) and has demonstrated through its armed wing, the HPG, that it is a fairly effective bulwark against the incursion of the IS into Iraq Kurdistan while it has been at war with Islamists in Syria already for some time. Even though the State Department does not list the PYD or YPG on its bad guys list, their affiliation with the PKK-HPG is a form of guilt by association.

Although war often makes for strange bedfellows, the alliance between the US military and Syria’s revolutionary Kurds is a fascinating case the deserves closer inspection. The struggle for Kobane also confounds leftist, anti-neo-imperialist zero sum paradigms about whether any sort of military intervention is ever justified.

The PYD is after all a leftist organization that promotes gender equality and proselytizes “democratic socialism,” traits it may be hard for some to knee-jerk against upon reflection. None of this has scared CENTCOM officialdom away from helping stave off the fall of Kobane however. The Americans’ new allies in Syria may be temporary ones in comparatively quick decisions borne out of self-interested pragmatism in Washington–this remains to be be seen.

Even if the U.S.-PYD/YPG alliance turns out to be a purely temporary, tactical one, it is an undeniably real one.

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Categories: Syria, Turkey Tags:

Kobane: from Indifference to Intervention

October 22nd, 2014 No comments

An Unnecessary Siege from Derek Flood on Vimeo.

Barcelona- I have a new article this week for Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Monitor concerning my observations on the siege of Kobane from October 10-15. I also have a short piece on the subject in the new issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review (subscription required). Kobane has lost traction in the media milieu because it has been going on for so long now. The siege is still very much going on with IS reportedly retaking Tel Shahir outside the city. As this AFP video shows, the air coalition is still very much invested in this ongoing battle. Media presence or no, the YPG and now their FSA partners continue to resist the area’s attempted takeover by IS.

It was a hectic, grating stint that I departed not because “media lost interest” as I saw a properly funded Washington Post correspondent judgmentally tweeted the other day, but because as a freelancer my financial risk-reward ratio had tipped too far into the risk category and I decided it was no longer feasible for me to stay in terms of cost. When the area was crawling with journos, it was labeled the “hill of shame,” (by someone who works for Rupert Murdoch) and when there were too few of us it is also mocked.

Shortly after I left there were the two big developments everyone was waiting for: the American air drop of KRG supplied weapons and aid and the Turks caving (though through a compromise of sorts that keeps the PKK isolated) whereby they will allow the KRG’s peshmerga into Kobane to reinforce the YPG/YPJ while not specifically allowing the PYD to send in its own people. The transfer of pehsmerga through Turkish territory still has not happened and the air drop was examined because some materiel fell into the hands of IS.

Click this image to read the full article.

Click this image to read the full article.

As the Turks have stayed steadily non-confrontational, the global Kurdish community has been politically mobilized over the plight of Kobane and the U.S. and most of the GCC states have intervened with air power in Syria in a broader anti-IS campaign (though Kobane has been almost an entirely American effort in terms of air strikes).

Errant mortars from IS positions land with some frequency on Turkish soil but for now, Ankara wouldn’t dare invoke NATO’s Article 5 protocol regarding an attack on a member state.

A mortar launched from inside Kobane lands in Mursitpinar, Turkey. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A mortar launched from inside Kobane lands in Mursitpinar, Turkey. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

There has been some chatter that the so-called peshmerga are in fact Iraqi Kurdish-trained Syrian nationals although this was quickly denied by Fuad Hussein, KRG President Massoud Barzani’s chief of staff, who made a press statement that those headed toward Kobane would include solely Iraqi nationals.

One recurring thought I had during my nights in dark, lonely Gaziantep which were only made bearable by ultra friendly hotel staff I could make furtive small talk with was how much the Syrian war has changed Turkey itself. Turkey has let itself become extremely vulnerable to the potential of salafi-jihadi mass casualty terror attacks. While Ankara’s focus is still on the threat posed by the PKK and the three decades of on and off asymmetrical warfare with rural insurgency coupled with urban terrorism, the difference between IS and the PKK is that the PKK is an inherently rational actor. If Apoists were not rational, there would be no ongoing peace process to speak of.

Some believe that the release of the 46 Turkish and 3 Iraqi hostages capturing during the IS raid on the Mosul consulate indicates that Davutoglu et al believe IS is a pragmatic movement to some degree that Turkey can interact with when necessary. For now Turkey is allowing a policy of containment but Kobane is challenging all that because it is visible for all the world to see. IS jihadis made an astute calculation that be waging a slaughter in a PYD-administered canton of Rojava defended by the YPG, that Turkey would not mind. And in a sense they turned out to be right.

A Turkish tank hugs a hillside in Mursitpinar as street fighting rages across the plain in Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A Turkish tank hugs a hillside in Mursitpinar as street fighting rages across the plain in Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

In the handful of interactions I had with Turkish security forces, they exasperating seemed more interested in curtailing the free movement of journalists and of course vocal Kurdish activists who had congregated on the border than with confronting IS in the slightest way. Turkish nationalists may say, “this is the Syrians’ war, let them fight it out so long as it doesn’t affect us.’ But that sentiment is entirely unrealistic. The IS poses a grave threat to Turkey itself. It is naive to think otherwise.

Walking around the grey warrens of Gaziantep at night scouring for a restaurant that would still be open after a long day on the border, it often crossed my mind that IS supporters, logisticians, and loosely affiliated Syrian and Turkish criminal networks surely abounded. The war inside Syria does not exist in a geographic vacuum. For its rear base are the provinces of southern Turkey. It’s not unthinkable that one could be bundled into a vehicle in some elaborate trap and smuggled into Syria.

Erdogan has made a strategic blunder of epic proportions in the last 3 years with his short-sighted Syria policy especially when considering how much Turkey depends on its thriving tourism industry. With Turkey’s budget flights and great bus system, if jihadi networks are active, even if in a relatively quietest fashion right now, in Gaziantep and Sanliurfa, who’s to say they might not be taking some R&R in Marmaris or Fethiye in the future, if not already?

You can mentally bifurcate Turkey into two halves let’s say: the western half is for foreign tourists while the eastern provinces bordering Iraq and Syria are where trouble is allowed to happen and where salafi-jihadi volunteers from across the world filter into Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqa governorates. But the reality however is far different. Turkey is really well interconnected.

In the heart of Marmaris’ waterfront tourist district you can buy bus tickets to Gaziantep, Sanaliurfa, Hatay and so forth. Turkey’s regions cannot be so neatly separated out. Neither does IS’s virulent ideology respect borders demarcated in the early 20th Century. Just the opposite: it claims it exists to eradicate them.

Categories: Middle East, Syria, Turkey Tags: ,

Politics is Not a Zero Sum Game

October 20th, 2014 No comments

Georgia’s Forgotten Frozen War from Derek Flood on Vimeo.

Barcelona- In the new issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review, (subscription required) I have an interview out with Ambassador Kaha Imnadze who represents the Republic of Georgia at the United Nations along the banks of New York’s East River . We spoke in early September on the heels of the NATO summit in Newport, Wales. We had a lot to discuss relating the Georgia’s signing of the EU Association Agreement earlier in the summer which acted as a veneer of raison d’étre for Russian’s invasion of Ukraine.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 2.42.22 PMWith Georgia already having two occupied regions where the overt presence of both Russian troops and intelligence agencies act as a shadowy reminder that this frozen conflict can reheat should Russian policy dictate so or a resurgent Georgian nationalism stumble into another fight that it cannot win on the battlefield.

Georgia occupies a unique place in the world in terms of both cartography as a mountainous land bridge between the Muslim and Orthodox worlds in broadest terms and geopolitically where it could potentially act as a robust diplomatic conduit between Iran and the West. Straddling vital energy routes, Georgia maintains amicable relations stretching from Washington to Tehran as if a fusion of its warm hospitality and realpolitik.

When asked how such a small nation can skillfully exploit its underappreciated diplomatic potential, Imnadze mentioned Georgia’s ancient history in relation to how it has lasted mostly intact for centuries.

Despite marauding powers hailing from Slavic, Turkic, Persian and other empires vying for power in a wider South Caucasus which acts as a natural land bridge between the Caspian and Black Sea regions as well as between the Middle East, Iranian plateau and Russia, for Georgians to have survived for so long in this contested environment, they seem to have in inherent diplomacy “in their DNA” as Imnadze put it to me.

Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations, Kaha Imnadze, photographed in his New York office on July 9. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Georgia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kaha Imnadze, photographed in his New York office on July 9. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

One thing to remember is that Georgia’s democracy is very much a still evolving one. It’s just transformed from a presidential system to a parliamentary style democracy. The ex-president is running around Williamsburg for some reason. The parliament that was relocated out to Kutaisi is being at least partly moved back to its home in Tbilisi.

And though Moscow has pursued two largely different policies with regard to South Ossetia and Abkhazia–the former being a lightly populated space which has a thin veneer as a republic but is thought of a more of a glorified Russian base-building project while the latter has more palpable politics. Abkhazia is also possible to actually visit as an outsider on a tourist visa while what transpires in Tskhinvali is cloaked in mystery.

Despite Georgia’s challenges, it is comparatively a beacon of light when compared to its neighbors, Azerbaijan, Armenia, not to mention the violent republics of the North Caucasus to the north.

Categories: Caucasus, Georgia Tags: , ,

The Intervention

October 16th, 2014 No comments
Military interventions are not theoretical war games or 'surgical' in any way. They affect the lives of real people. Each scenario should be based on its merits, rather than merely on the oversimplified failures of the past. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Military interventions are not theoretical war games or ‘surgical’ in any way. They affect the lives of real people. Each scenario should be vetted on its own merits, rather than merely on the oversimplified failures of the past. Bombing is a horrific act but then IS is a horrific force. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Murşitpinar- Another quick blog entry with some images from Kobane and environs and recent days. The media narrative on the siege has shifted from predictions of the city’s imminent fall to IS being on the back foot in the battle thanks to a sharp uptick in coalition bombing. Although on the surface this is a fight between the harshest kind of Islamists engaged in offensive jihad to eradicate those they deem unbelievers–in this case the Kurds of the secular, leftist PYD-YPG/YPJ–the struggle for Kobane is primarily a battle of ethnic identity politics, at least as many Kurds I spoke with see it.

For lightly buried in the takfiri salafism of IS, particularly I suspect the older members with genuine military experience, is an Arab ethnocentrism despite the modicum of ethnic diversity of IS’s commanders. Then there are the Turkish troops and border gendarmes who are content to watch all this go on from a barely safe distance. Understandably Turkey does not want to be drawn in, at least not under conditions upon which Ankara is not the actor setting them.

There are those who are opposed to the very concept of military intervention in wars far from home based on their ideological principles or because they reflexively distrust the specific crowd that advocates for military solutions to humanitarian crises. What should have been done to rescue Kobane? The best policy may be that such cases be looked at individually rather than the flawed policies of those that came before. Part of why these situations are deemed failures is when people conduct post-mortems on them and find that once the world took its eyes off supporting state/institution-building and reconstruction, the place rapidly devolves into chaos. See: Libya.

What will happen in Syrian Kurdistan–if it is not overrun by IS–will be determined by the post-intervention steps that are far more difficult than demolishing concrete block structures from many thousands of feet in the air. But for now, the Kurds are cheering.

An errant mortar lands on Turkish soil in a battle between IS and the YPG. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

An errant mortar lands on Turkish soil in a battle between IS and the YPG. This shows just how much Turkey has taken a hands-off approach to the war at their doorstep. They refuse to be goaded into the war despite what some might consider provocations at there feet.  ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A coalition air strike hit western Kobane in the late afternoon of October 15. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A coalition air strike hit western Kobane in the late afternoon of October 15. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

After being repeatedly intimidated by Turkish security forces, journalists were forced to flee to safer ground. Here a TV reporter prepares for a live stand up far from the action. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

After being repeatedly intimidated by Turkish security forces, journalists were forced to flee to safer ground. Here a TV reporter prepares for a live stand up far from the action. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Ambulances are a far too common sight on these Orwellian road trips. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Ambulances are a far too common sight on these Orwellian road trips. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The Siege

October 14th, 2014 No comments
Turkish tank position on a hill overlooking Kobane, Syria. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Turkish tank position on a hill overlooking Kobane, Syria. On this day the air was filled with a thick haze but the pungent black plumes were still very much visible form the city’s embattled skyline. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Murşitpinar- Don’t have time to crunch out much text today as I’m firing off a few reports from the past few days for a client but I wanted to post some more images of the siege of Kobane. While it has fallen down the headline mast a bit what with people back home being enthralled by the Ebola drama that has breeched the West from West Africa, the war here is still ongoing.

The Islamic State is not letting up on their target of this now desolate Kurdish-majority town as the YPG/YPJ fighters hang on for dear life. US-led bombings continue but Turkey’s position toward the PYD’s militia has not fundamentally changed. Meanwhile there are competing narratives over the Incirlik basing use agreement as Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu insists Turkey has not made such an agreement, thereby contradicting an earlier statement by Susan Rice.

The predictions a week ago that the city would fall have so far not panned out as cynics warned. It may indeed fall but for IS their predictions of celebrating Eid in their hoped for killing fields of the YPG have fallen well short.

Suruç, once a quiet agricultural district famed for its pomegranate orchards, is now overwhelmed by the influx of civilians fleeing the siege of Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Suruç, once a quiet agricultural district famed for its pomegranate orchards, is now overwhelmed by the influx of civilians fleeing the siege of Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Refugee tents here are being erected by the dozen to cope with the crisis. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Refugee tents here are being erected by the dozen to cope with the crisis. There is something not right with the world when we know how to create such environments so quickly and efficiently. Too many wars. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The hastily made grave of a YPG guerrilla in Suruç, killed while defending the city from a much better armed Islamic State onslaught. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The hastily made grave of a YPG guerrilla in Suruç, killed while defending the city from a much better armed Islamic State onslaught. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Nothing to see here. Turkish security forces at times seemed like they were playing a cat and mouse game with journalists and civilian activists alike, dispersing us from one hilltop to the next. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Nothing to see here. Turkish security forces at times seemed like they were playing a cat and mouse game with journalists and civilian activists alike, dispersing us from one hilltop to the next. I’ve read that some people believe that Kobane is being over emphasized by the media at the expense at the rest of Syria’s civil war. They refer to this site as “the hill of shame.” Yet these same naysayers would say shame on the world if nobody at all came to cover it. Some people just like to take diametrically opposing positions for the sport of argumentation it sometimes seems to me. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The Border

October 13th, 2014 No comments
The foreign intervention in Kobane is very asymmetric. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The foreign intervention in Kobane is very asymmetric without coordination from fighter jets and YPG commanders on the ground for targeting purposes (unless there is backchannel coordination we on the outside are somehow unaware of).. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Murşitpinar- Things have been hectic here in recent days and I don’t have time to write much text for TWD but wanted to put up a few images that might otherwise go unseen. The battle for Kobane is nothing short of brutal and it is happening in front of local and global media outlets which makes it that much more frustrating that the international community cannot stop something it can see in real time. Syria is the most dangerous place on earth for journalists and here in Turkey we have found a bit of a safe haven.

Much of what we see from the war is via youtube and after I went to Idlib Governorate in early 2012 I didn’t return once the hostage taking metastisized later that year. I nearly went to Rojava (PYD-controlled Syrian Kurdistan) last year but backed after I decided the risk wasn’t worth the reward in that particular crossing. Warfare so close to the relative security of Turkey has made for a kind of perverse theater but it has at least put the Islamic State in view of the public for the first time not through their own visual propaganda.

A photo from my twitter feed was picked up by BBC News

A Blackberry photo from my twitter feed was picked up by BBC News

Syrians discuss the aftermath of a coalition air attack on Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Syrians discuss the aftermath of a coalition air attack on Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Kurds from all over have descended upon southern Turkey's border with the PYD-YPG 'canton' of Kobane but can do nothing to aid in its defense. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Kurds from all over have descended upon southern Turkey’s border with the PYD-YPG ‘canton’ of Kobane but can do nothing to aid in its defense but only observe due to an ever-tightening Turkish blockade. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Turkish Tanks Moving Outside Siege of Kobane Syria from Derek Flood on Vimeo.

A Syrian man prays while explosions and air strikes rock neaby Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A Syrian man prays while explosions and air strikes rock neaby Kobane and Turkish tanks sit in the background. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Middle East, Syria, Turkey Tags:

From Gaziantep

October 9th, 2014 No comments
The Sirvani mosque near Gaziantep's castle. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The Sirvani mosque dating back to the Mamluk dynasty lights up at dusk near Gaziantep’s hilltop castle. A moment where I realize why I fell in love with this region to begin with. It’s deep history is far more enriching that the day to day politics that often consume us. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Gaziantep- It is being reported that four people have been killed in clashes between Turkish ethno-nationalists and Kurds here tonight according to CNN Turk. I was just outside the main government hospital while going to an all-night bakery and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. It’s shameful that the civil war in Syria is awakening ethnic tensions here. Earlier today I was talking to the receptionist at the hotel about how luckily there wasn’t a curfew here as had been imposed in other cities this week. That could change.

I arrived in Gaziantep in the middle of the night to make my way to the somewhat Orwellian media circus adjacent the siege of Kobane. I assumed most journos are basing themselves in Sanliurfa though I met a French TV correspondent that was on my flight telling me she and her crew are staying here. The Kobane crisis is pathetic on so many levels. The YPG, the PYD’s military wing has their backs against the wall with the wall being a barbed wire border fence backed by Turkish tanks. Turkey refuses to step in a rescue the PKK-aligned YPG (or Syrian wing of the PKK if you prefer) because that would save a sister organization that the Turkish forces have formally been at war with on and off since 1984.

After 30 years of guerrilla war in southeastern Anatolia, Ankara may prefer to let IS come right up to its border rather than help the enemy it knows. To the Turks, both movements are unpalatable and the only options were complicated highly politicized ones that suit their agenda for which those under siege in Kobane do not have time. Even if American aerial bombardments can stave off the IS advance as it purportedly brings in reinforcements from Raqqa, there is for the time being no way, at least that I know of, for the YPG to be resupplied with munitions, not to mention food and potable water.

A world away from touristed western Turkey, Gazaintep's streets are eerily quiet after sundown. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A world away from touristed western Turkey, Gazaintep’s streets are eerily quiet after sundown. Last night I got chased by a pack of feral dogs at 3am as soon as I stepped out of the hotel looking for food. No such vibe in the seaside town of Marmaris where I’d just come from. This is not a party town. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The Kemalism is first became acquainted with here in Turkey in the 1990s just feels as if its in overall decline in the Erdogan AKP era of today. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The Kemalism is first became acquainted with here in Turkey in the 1990s just feels as if its in overall decline in the Erdogan AKP era of today. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Turkey Tags: ,

Sunsets of Fire

October 1st, 2014 No comments
A typical sunset as seen from Oia. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A typical sunset as seen from Oia. A cliché to be sure, but undeniably timeless. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Thira- I’ve been existing in my news vacuum here for just about two weeks. I wanted to see if I could go 14 days without ingesting any news. Taking a break from breaking news on beheading videos, leading from behind the curve Obama speeches, people ranting about Putin and Putin not caring whatsoever etc. I’ve been doing some personal projects here with photo installations, writing, catching up on some old books I never finished in NYC over the years, and simply socializing. No one talks about world events here as if nothing is happening.

When I was here a few years ago and anti-austerity protests in Athens had a causal effect on the island with sanitation, airport and ferry strikes being instigated in solidarity here, we talked about Greek politics as it was unavoidable in the context of that time. My achilles heal however was my new hobby Instagram account. I was following a journalism power couple who work for opposing news outlets and when I noticed they were both on the same story at the same time next door in Turkey, I knew I was missing something big.

Otherwise I’ve had no inkling of what’s going on beyond the island save for a snippet I saw of a Greek news broadcast in a mini market talking about the crisis spilling over into arch rival Turkey. People are here to do yoga retreats and party. It’s fairly simple.

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I put images of my guerrilla art gallery on Buzzfeed just to get the project out there. For years and years, I’ve had a drawer of old prints sitting around from the turn of this century that have never seen the light of day and I finally decided it was time to do something with them that I had envisioned at that time.

I did another installation in an unfinished hotel near Monolithos Beach. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

I did another installation in an unfinished hotel near Monolithos Beach. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

In other news, I very belatedly saw that I was quoted in early 2013 on PBS NewsHour/Council on Foreign Relations titled What Is Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)?. In no way a new development but I only now noticed it. More recently my work from Kirkuk in 2013 was cited by Stanford’s Mapping Militant Organizations project in its entry on JRTN.

Down the backstreets of Pyrgos. Quietude. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Down the backstreets of Pyrgos. Quietude. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood