The War Diaries

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A City with Stories to Tell

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The KRG flag flying above the dilapidated houses inside Erbil’s famed citadel with red symbolising the spilt blood of the martyrs, the white standing for peace, the green for the verdant land with the sun at the centre standing for light the gives life.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Erbil- I arrived in the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from Beirut as yet another plot point in my journey toward Syria. I made it a point today to visit the city’s magnificent citadel just before it closes at sundown. The citadel is built atop a massive tell, or ancient, man-made mound dating back millennia. Known as Arbela in antiquity, claims have been made that Erbil is the oldest continually inhabited human settlement in existence. I don’t think most journos that pass through here give all that much thought to this town itself as it has played a role of transport and logistical hub for perilous, onward destinations. Erbil is stable, relatively secure, and quiet, lacking the appeal that the seductive chaos of nearby Mosul and Kirkuk tempt curious outsiders with. I too am mostly caught up in that vortex. But my early passion was and remains archaeology. The stone carved lore of the Near East (a dated term denoting this region’s geographic relationship with Europe as the world’s center) with its vaunted empires led by flamboyant warrior -kings puts today’s conflicts in perspective if one takes a moment to pause and reflect upon the grand narrative of civilisation as a whole.

I realised as the MEA flight was about to touch down that 2019 marks my tenth year working in and walking the streets of this city. I first turned up here trying to research a difficult story at the time on the Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê‎ (PJAK), an Iranian Kurdish insurgent group that were launching cross border attacks from the Qandil Mountains into northwestern Iran hitting the Pasdaran (IRGC) in Kordestan and West Azerbaijan provinces. After a lot of waiting around and a clandestine trip into the mountains, I was able to interview an Iraq-based PJAK commander called Agiri Rojhilat. Rojhilat, obviously a nom de guerre of the commander I spoke with a decade ago, means “eastern Kurdistan” in the same manner that the term Rojava in northern Syria signifies “western Kurdistan.” Since then I’ve been returning here to cover different angles of the wider struggle for Kurdish identity across the region. These days I’m focused more on Rojava. Unfortunately for Iran’s restless Kurds very little news seeps out of Rojhilat other than what is reported by state news agencies and culture-specific news outlets.

Now ten years on I will look into what Syria’s Kurds and their Arab allies will be doing as the security dynamic in north and east Syria shifts to the next phase of the war. I’ve seen some reporting as of late describing the war in the past tense in the wake of the Moscow and Tehran-backed regime’s massive territorial gains that came at great human cost. The regime is also allowing some Western journos into Damascus in an attempt to display a degree of normalcy. Syria is by no means on a path to peace. Even if the guns briefly appear to have gone quiet on the front(s), with so many players jockeying in the same contested, under-governed space, we are simply in a lull before the next phase of the conflict begins.

At least the citadel here in Erbil is still standing.

Written by derekhenryflood

February 20th, 2019 at 3:09 pm

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Stepping Into the Mosaic

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Walking around East Beirut looking for things familiar, I can attest that this 32-story Credit Libanais tower certainly wasn’t there during Israeli air raids in 2006. Note the car for sale in the bottom left with the California licence plate. Now that reminded me of the war when I realised it was a status symbol to be driving cars around that still had American plates. I remembered seeing a car in front of me on the way to Nabatiyeh once that still had a Michigan plate. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Beirut- It had been twelve and a half years since I’d last set foot into Lebanon’s cacophonous seaside capital. In July of 2006 I arrived here to cover the war that had suddenly erupted between a troika of war fighting groups-Hezbollah, Harakat Amal, and Hizb as-Suyu al-Lubnani (the Guevarist-leaning Lebanese Communist Party) battling the invading Israel Defence Forces following a Hezbollah provocation that resulted in a pair IDF conscripts being taken captive and three others killed. The war ravaged Lebanon’s infrastructure that was already tremendously enfeebled by the 1975-1990 factional civil war.

Although virtually no societies in ethnic Arab-majority nation-states are culturally monolithic, the Levant is often termed a mosaic society for its relgio-cultural complexity. The same can be said for Syria and many parts of Iraq. These three states are composed of troubled, pluralistic societies that tend to upend tired orientalist stereotypes rather than uphold them. Lebanon with its Mediterranean coast that faces EU member state Cyprus offshore is by far the most accessible with its relative openness and visa policy (well depending on one’s passport of course).

Fields of ruin. Residents toured ruins of Hezbollah-controlled Haret Hreyk in Baabda district after the August cease fire began. ©2006 Derek Henry Flood

The global breadth of the Lebanese mercantilist diaspora amplifies this aspect from the West to West Africa helping this small, fractious state punch well above its weight in terms of cultural impact as well as business acumen. It is as if the distinct ancient groups that comprise this land are tesserae that piece together to form a mesmorising Roman-period mosaic. With each war, the tesserae chip and break and are looted. Emigration and cultural destruction have damaged the mosaic tremendously across the Levant, or Sham if you prefer. But still there is a head, then there is a heart, then emerges an outstretched hand.

Though the war was ostensibly a retaliation against Hezbollah in South Lebanon for its reckless provocation, bombings were hitting much further north including this bridge in Byblos, midway between Beirut and Tripoli. ©2006 Derek Henry Flood

The IDF launched a vicious campaign of collective punishment on Lebanese society as a whole. This ultimately strengthened Hezbollah’s position in the country’s domestic political polity. Its guerrilla push back of the IDF further cemented its self-created image as a ‘resistance’ organisation. After all, without the occasional foreign occupying force, what is there to resist? Without the necessity to resist what rationale is there to continually remain in the political sphere? The IDF played perfectly into their hands. As the war ground on and the air strikes widened, Lebanese from many different stripes heralded Hezbollah and the other temporarily allied militias efforts to defend the nation.

A rescue worker gazes at the ruins of south Beirut, destroyed by the Israelis in the hours before of the cease fire between Israel and Hezbollah. ©2006 Derek Henry Flood.

I’d always meant to return to Beirut in part to retrace my steps from that tumultuous summer but also to create new memories in a recovering urban landscape. But each year, new conflicts erupted in places near and far and I simply kept putting a return off. Now in 2019, as i journey incrementally back to Syria’s scorched battlefields, instead of going the usual route via Istanbul, I decided to take a different path this time around. On my agenda was to find my old apartment block from that terrifying time in the city’s Ghabi neighbourhood east of of the Phalangist stronghold of Sassine Square. After a fantastic vegan Armenian lunch in Bourj Hammoud with a couple of American aid workers I’d met who’d both previously been stationed in Iraq, I hiked up to Achrafieh and descended into the warren-like hills looking for a memory.

It wasn’t as easy to find as I’d envisioned partly due to the new structures that had cropped up in the area in the last decade. When I finally did find it, I was taken aback by this otherwise quite ordinary, dated Mediterranean style building. Not because if its banal architectural traits but because the intensity of the memory it held for me within. Racing out to the balcony at 3:30 am to see a fire ball erupting from another apartment block. Over and over.

Parts of Beirut are booming now, with large parts of the city being gentrified or wholly redeveloped. Hezbollah made a catastrophic mistake in challenging the military might of an Israeli state ready to swivel its posture from one of defence to offence with the slightest casus belli. The IDF should have known better than to invade Lebanon six years after it finally withdrew its forces. The belligerents battered each other, innocents were slaughtered, and illiberal political actors only further entrenched themselves in their respective Levantine echo chambers.

Finding this nondescript concrete apartment block evoked intense memories of a summer of terror and trauma. Moments before dark I spotted it overlooking the Pierre Gemayel roadway that separates the capital from the adjacent Mount Lebanon governorate that hugs the capital. The darkened sky above reminded me of the bombardments this city endured all those years ago. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

February 19th, 2019 at 2:59 pm

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A Stoic Island In the Middle

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A couple fish along Lanarca’s waterfront in February. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Larnaca- I spent three very tranquil days on the southern Cypriot coast where I didn’t do much other than walk around in the rain and sample savoury vegan cuisine as the hours rolled by. I’d longed for years to visit this outpost of Hellenic culture-both ancient and modern-anchored in the eastern Mediterranean. Zeno, the founder of stoicism, was born on Cyprus, as was the goddess Aphrodite if you believe in that sort of thing. I have the impression that mainland Greeks consider Cyprus its own separate deal with Arabic and Turkish linguistic influences fomenting a unique island dialect that might be abrasive to erudite Athenians as a hypothetical. The same may have been true for the Pontic Greeks from Abkhazia.

The third largest island in this sea saddled with a painful modern history just south of Turkey and west of Syria and Lebanon is a cultural and geopolitical outlier in several respects. It is part of the EU yet firmly outside the internally borderless Schengen area. I’d momentarily forgotten this when at the Vienna airport I wondered why i was going through an emigration queue to get my passport stamped despite that fact that I was boarding a domestic EU flight. Cyprus is in the eurozone (well the internationally recognised ethnically Greek republic anyway) but is more of Middle Eastern locale in terms of its proximity to the Levant than to, say, Brussels.

The island is locked in a frozen conflict with its Turkish minority inhabiting the unreognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the northern 36% of its territory. After the failure of the enosis movement in the mid-20th century in which ethnic-Greek Cypriots sought to be formally incorporated into the Hellenic Republic (i,e, Greece), a coup ensured followed by a Turkish invasion that has divided the island ever since. Cyprus effectively has four governance entities: the Greek-ruled south, the Turkish-administered north, the UK exclaves of Akrotiri and Dhekelia-the so-called Sovereign Base Areas-and of course the United Nations Buffer Zone in Cyprus, better known as the Green Line, under control of Bangladeshi-led UN peacekeepers. interestingly timely note: movement between the UK territory and the Republic of Cyprus of Britons and Cypriots alike is fluid as both are EU member states but no one has an idea what may happen to the movement of people and goods on the island post-Brexit.

Larnaca is an ideal jumping off point to Lebanon because besides being perhaps the shortest genuinely international flight possible at just under 25 minutes, there’s a Lebanese/Armenian community there whereby you can brush up on rusty colloquial Arabic before boarding. It was a good few quiet days on this clean, confounding island with its complex human and political geography.

Written by derekhenryflood

February 16th, 2019 at 5:18 pm

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A Freudian Slip

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A quick walk around Vienna’s quiet city centre reveals a panoply of architectural styles from authentic Baroque to neo-Baroque and from modernism to post-modernism. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Vienna- I went through the former multi-imperial capital at the crossroads of central Europe as part of this gradual journey eastward toward the orchestrated chaos playing out in the Levant. Part of why I chose to visit the Austrian capital was simply that I had never been there. When I first began traveling in the EU over 20 years ago, the airline industry here had only been formally deregulated the previous year. Thus traveling overland across the continent in the late 1990s was still both the economic and cultural norm.

As a university student you would travel on Eurolines buses or via train on a summer Eurail pass. As such, I traveled all over western, northern, and central Europe in a largely contiguous fashion until reaching the politically disjointed post-colonial Middle East. With the advent of Ryanair, Easy Jet, and the like, by the mid-2000s I began flying from point to point on uncomfortable low cost carriers which did away with observable overland gradual cultural and linguistic shifts. By 2005, I was in Barcelona and suddenly I was in Athens. Yes, these were both urban centres southern Europe but how were they connected in terms of a historical grand narrative? Rarely ever in train stations and ports of call today, it becomes more challenging to intellectually discern-by way of visual and audible minutiae-the linkages between civilisational entrepôts. Travel had been a way to absorb knowledge by the nature of its comparative inefficiencies. Today, internet-driven hyper connectivity has brought vast new opportunities for the denizens of this vast economic bloc but at a cost to cultural nuance, a boon to aspirant autocrats and vilifying populists.

As the EU has become more of a cohesive supranational geopolitical entity, some qualities have fallen by the wayside in the name of some of globalisation’s uniformity principles. I’d visited or at least passed through all of the states surrounding Austria save for tiny Lichtenstein in my early travels but stopped moving about in a spontaneous just-for-fun manner as the era of the Terror Wars was hastily ushered in immediately after 9/11. Austria is of course the republic’s Latinised exonym for Österreich, ‘eastern realm.’ (Thus the Aust in Austria is a Latin phonetic of Öst ‘east’ and unrelated the naming of Australia which is purely Latin in origin derived from Terra Australis, ‘southern land’ after New Holland was renamed.) The name to me intimates that it is the gateway to the beyond. It largely signals the periphery of the Germanic and Latinic world (with the exception of Latin outliers Romania and Moldova) abutting the Finno-Urgic ethno-linguistic exclave of Hungary and the western reaches of the vast Slavic realm.

In essence I made myself pass by the city of Sigmund Freud and the one-time monarchic seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire just for the sake of going somewhere I hadn’t been. To be somewhere unfamiliar. To see the wide boulevards that felt more Budapest than Berlin to me. I only wish I’d allotted more time to such a spectacular urban space.

Written by derekhenryflood

February 14th, 2019 at 2:49 pm

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Unfrozen

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An Azeri chai khana in central Georgia. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

An Azeri chaikhana (tea house)  in central Georgia. The South Caucasus region, despite its painfully deep divisions. remains inextricably linked by hard physical geography, and great power competition. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out for IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Monitor entitled “A dangerous thaw – Nagorno-Karabakh heats up” after the recent clashes in the most hotly disputed territory in the South Caucasus. Nagorno-Karabagh, a Russian-Turkic-Iranian word mash meaning (Nagorno or Nagorny) Mountainous (Kara) Black (Bakh or Bagh) Garden, is part of land internationally recognized as a constituent territory of Azerbaijan yet de facto ruled by ethnic Armenian separatists who term their unrecognized republic “Artsakh.” Karabakh had, for years, been lumped together with Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a so-called ‘frozen conflict’ impeding development and economic integration in the post-Soviet, South Caucasus.

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 11.12.04 PMWhen the term was in vogue, frozen was far more apt for pre-2008 Abkhazia and South Ossetia than Karabakh which has always been simmering with regular small arms exchanges as well as occasional mortars, known as “ceasefire violations” in diplomatic speak.

Karabakh is an oft overlooked conflict that rarely makes international headlines as the disputes origins are it little understood, its geography relegated to the obscure. It took the use of heavy artillery, drones, tanks, and so forth to elevate Karabakh to the center of attention if only for one brief weekend in early April. The fight over this heavily mined, gorgeous Mountainous Black Garden is perpetually framed by ultra competitive, irreconcilable narratives held tightly by Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

No party involved has either the mechanism nor the mindset to foster a lasting peace. Russia sells weaponry to both sides, the Americans are divided between a desire for Caspian hydrocarbon products that circumvent the Russian Federation and a vociferous, diaspora-powered Armenian lobby in Washington that tirelessly lobbies congress albeit with somewhat declining influence. Iran, though co-relgionists with the Shia majority in Azerbaijan, supports Armenia in part due to the paranoia of Azeri irredentism among ethnic Azeris in northwestern Iran. Turkey’s support for Baku’s position has been, for the most part, largely rhetorical in nature.

After three days of fighting in which Azerbaijani forces touted regaining two hilltops and one village and dozens of soldiers and Karabakhi militiamen were killed, Karabakh has faded back into the shadows as quickly as it temporarily emerged. Yet it is only more explosive as both Armenia and Azerbaijan have acquired more advanced armaments primarily from Russian vendors. The threat of violence can only temporarily subside in this tragically intransigent morass.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 25th, 2016 at 8:41 pm

The Walls Have Ears

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My view of Gauhati, capital of the troubled Indian state of Assam. ©2007 Derek Henry Flood

My view of Gauhati, capital of the troubled Indian state of Assam. ©2007 Derek Henry Flood

It’s the middle of winter here in NYC and I’m staying busy cleaning out my laptop and here I happened upon another unpublished story from my archives that I later used as the background for an article “Motivations and Methods of India’s United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)” for The Jamestown Foundation down in DC.

Gauhati- I’d come to Assam a few days ahead of India’s Republic day celebrations.  Tightly sandwiched between the Kingdom of Bhutan and Bangladesh, Assam is the bottle necked gateway to the “Seven Sisters,” the seven states that used to make up the Northeast Frontier Province during the British colonial era.  Deep in the shadows of the Iraq dominated headlines, an under rported insurgency raged there.  Delhi is rapidly beefing up its troop presence in the region in a quest to smash “the terrorists” as they are referred to in the Indian media.  The terrorists in this case are ULFA , a Maoist inspired group fighting a people’s war against the Indian state and the Hindi speaking migrant labourers and economic migrants from Bangladesh.

During 2007, ULFA was being blamed for the killings of dozens of migrants in a bid to send them packing back from whence they came. Along with some of the other ethno-linguistic based communist outfits here, they have also been employing Iraq-esque IEDs to discourage Indian units from patrolling villages considered ULFA strongholds in Upper Assam.  The crisis has taken a steep escalation since the start of the New Year with a combination of executions and randomly placed explosives in busy marketplaces. The central government in Delhi, which locally is simply referred to as “The Centre” has responded by ramping up a counterinsurgency campaign in the rural areas backed up by truckloads of paramilitary forces brought into the Northeast from all over India.

Getting our car searched for weapons in Tinsukia in upper Assam with the insurgency raging at the time. ©2007 Derek Henry Flood

Getting our car searched for weapons in Tinsukia in upper Assam with the insurgency raging at the time. ©2007 Derek Henry Flood

All of this certainly does not bode well for the over hyped “Rise of India” too often touted by Anglo-American intelligentsia in the 2000s.  For the Centre, ULFA is just one of the issues to tackle.  There are literally dozens of Maoist and Marxist-Leninist insurgencies not only in the troubled Northeast, but also in West Bengal, Jharkand, Orissa, Bihar and so on.  In a recent attack in the newly created Jharkand state, an obscure revolutionary group managed to kill 14 Indian policeman with an IED buried in the road reminiscent more of Ramadi or Nuristan than the buzzing call centers of Bangalore that were so in vogue at the time.

2007 was the 60th year of India’s independence from the British Crown, Indian elites seems to have two primary goals: to promote foreign and domestic investment, particularly in the economic services sector, and to demonstrate it’s robustness as a state.  The latter would be the reasoning behind India’s refusal of direct government-to-government aid after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that smashed the coastline of Tamil Nadu.

In Assam, Indian authorities put on a show of strength far from the eyes of any media observers, international or local.  The national press here puts far more emphasis on the latest cricket crisis or the Bollywood scandal de jour than it does for the casualties taken by its own troops fighting homegrown leftist militants in the bush. The total lack of media there was almost bizarre as if there was a veritable information blackout. But then India is a vast country with a multitude of issues occurring with vexing simultaneity. The Assamese conflict garnered a short fit of attention when the country’s then bespectacled Sikh Prime Minister Manmohan Singh trekked out to Assam for a photo op with families of the dead migrants.

Walking around Gauhati at night was desolate. All the shops were shuttered and only the odd food stall remains open. Many of the migrants had fled back to their villages and cities in the state of Bihar.  I went searching, foolishly I suppose, for an internet café that would still be open to post this story at the time. I met a local man named Amitsabh who told me there would be nothing open except for a darkened pub where he and his friends where taking some Fosters and cheap whiskey.  He invited me to join them when I told him I was looking for a decent place for dinner.

Inside the pub was black as the night sky with a constellation of dimly lit Beatles posters for minimal décor. I plunked down in a booth with a group of Amitabhs friends for food, drink, and to get their take on the conflict here.  The troubles here, they said, stemmed from land rights and linguistic chauvinism, but were primarily based on the fundamental economic inequalities of the state and the curse of oil.  Many of the Assamese, they told me, resented the Centre’s exploitation of their resources while the local population saw virtually nothing in return.  To then invite outsiders to work and benefit from this exploitation is to add insult to injury.  After over three post-independence decades of this cycle, some in the Assamese community were angry enough to take up an armed struggle against the Centre beginning in 1979.

I wanted to get more into their impressions of ULFAs motivations and more of the actual specifics of the fighting.  “These are sensitive topics” one them warned me.  “As they say, in a place like Assam, the walls have ears.”

“Let us go out of here”.  We paid our tab and got into a Suzuki the size of a suitcase, whizzing around the empty streets with the stereo blasting Punjabi Bhangra Beat music.  “We need to be careful of police checkpoints” one said to the driver.  “What do I care, I am not militant. I have nothing to hide!” And we sped off into the night.

Indian troops in their finery for Republic Day celebrations in Gauhati. ©2007 Derek Henry Flood

Indian troops in their finery for Republic Day celebrations in Gauhati. ©2007 Derek Henry Flood

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February 6th, 2016 at 6:06 pm

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#ParisAttacks Heavy gunfire in Saint-Denis

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New York- A hail of bullets can be hear in the video during an anti-terror police operation in the northern commune of Saint-Denis approximately 12 kilometers from central Paris. Here is a map of the precise location according to Youtube user trystero19Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 12.26.32 AM

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November 17th, 2015 at 10:27 pm

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The Intervention

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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

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October 16th, 2014 at 2:06 pm