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Bloody Easter Sunday

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A woman prays at a Catholic shrine in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Pai- Seeing the news about the coordinated attacks in southwestern and eastern Sri Lanka has me back to thinking about the weeks I’ve just spent traveling the whole length of the once war-torn Indian Ocean island nation. It’s been a long decade since the 26-year long civil war ended between the SLAF and the LTTE. I got the feeling that this gorgeous country, while at peace, was a ticking time bomb of unresolved issues. Communal strains are barely beneath surface. After decades of war and terror, people I spoke with didn’t try terribly hard to mask their contempt for the other. Conflicting for me was how incredibly welcoming people were to me personally. From Unawatuna to Kandy to Jaffna, people were and are absolutely lovely to a curious outsider in their midst.

At the time of this brief posting, the death toll is reportedly 138 killed and hundreds injured. I can speculate on what group may have been behind this monstrous act of religious violence but need to hold off until more facts come in. Christians, and Catholics in particular, are a visible minority in Sri Lanka with plenty of churches dotting the landscape from south to north amidst dagobas (Buddhist temples), mosques, and Shaiva and Shakti Hindu temples. That a trio of churches and a trio of hotels were attacked on the holy day suggests a fairly intricate level of coordination across a sizable geography coupled with a relgio-political motive. Tragically, this is nothing we haven’t seen before in an era where for a highly motivated, radicalised fringe, the whole world is a battlefield. Nothing is sacred. At the time of this posting, there has not been a claim of responsibility.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 21st, 2019 at 2:09 am

At It Again: Haftar Redux in Libya

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Rebels outside the town of Gharyan-where fighting between the LNA and pro-GNA forces is ongoing at the time of this posting-photographed on 26 July 2011. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Jaffna- In Libya, the 75-year-old General Khalifa Haftar who leads the Libyan National Army (LNA) is back in the news cycle this week in a big way. Reportedly backed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in terms of war materiel, his forces are advancing close to Tripoli in what the nominally UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by  Head of the Presidential Council Fayez al-Sarraj is characterising as a coup attempt.

I thought it a good time to dredge up my deeply researched bio of Haftar I published with the Jamestown Foundation almost exactly eight years ago after he had initially returned to Benghazi from many years of exile in Virginia.

The following article was the subject of a Reuters story on 1 April 2011: Rebel army chief is veteran Gaddafi foe: think-tank and was mentioned in The Telegraph:Libya: rebels send trained forces to the front, telling youth to stay back

Taking Charge of Libya’s Rebels: An In-Depth Portrait of Colonel Khalifa Haftar

By Derek Henry Flood

Background

On March 14, 2011, Khalifa Haftar, a dissidentLibyan Army colonel and long time foe of Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, reappeared in Benghazi, the opposition’s supposedly temporary de facto administrative center, to lead Libya’ s chaotic rebellion (al-Jazeera, March 14). For many years Haftar has been the commander-in-exile of the Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA is the armed wing of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), a significant Libyan exile entity operating mostly outside of Libya’s borders for several decades. A rebel spokesman in Benghazi told a pan-Arab daily that Colonel Haftar’s arrival from the West on the ground in Libya’s Cyrenaica region was a significant boost to a movement that desperately needed a jolt of energy. “Col. Haftar has in fact returned and is now in eastern Libya. His return has boosted the morale of the young revolutionaries. Haftar has returned and we believe that this officers and soldiers have returned with him. All of them were training during the past six years. They rom Libya’s 1969 coup, he may stand asthe best liaison for the United States and allied NATO forces in dealing with Libya’s unruly rebels.

Though it is not clear at the time of this writing (back in 2011) how much actual control Haftar has over rebel soldiers and volunteers on the frontline, after his appointment as “Commander in Chief” of opposition forces callingthemselves the “Army of Free Libya,” he stated that he has entered the fight to avenge the injustices committed against the Libyan people by Qaddafi. Haftar stated thathe does not view the present fight against Tripoli as an opportunistic moment to settle a nearly quarter century old grudge against Qaddafi (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 19). Before Haftar’s return to Benghazi, the Interim National Transitional Council announced that former General Omar al-Hariri, who tried to overthrow al-Qaddafi in 1975, would be the head of military affairs for the rebel forces. General al-Hariri was imprisoned until 1990. He was then put under closely monitored house arrest, in place until the February 17 revolution commenced. Al-Hariri is listed on the Interim National Transitional Council’s website as being responsible for the opposition’s “military affairs.” The Council has not issued a similar press release in regard to Haftar’s status, and many frontline rebels are not clear on which of the two men is currently in charge. Colonel Haftar hails from the Farjani tribe (alternately known as Farjan) in the central coastal city of Sirte. He had been committed to Colonel al-Qaddafi when he seized power in the One September Revolution of 1969 which overthrew King Idris and the royal Sanussi order. Haftar was subsequently rewarded by being made a member of Qaddafi’s Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). [1]

Interpersonal Struggles

Haftar was the overall leading commander of Libyan troops in the 1980-1987 Libyan-Chadian conflict until he was captured by then Chadian President Hissène Habré’s forces. Upon his capture by the Habré regime, he betrayed Qaddafi and then set his sights on deposing his former comrades in the Free Unionist Officers movement ruling in Tripoli. Haftar set up the LNA on June 21, 1988 [2] with strong backing from the Central Intelligence Agency and according to some sources also received Saudi funding and Israeli training. The Libyan Army defectors comprising the LNA, sometimes referred to as the “Haftar Force,” were termed “Contras” in the Cold War parlance of the era denoting their outlook as counter-revolutionaries struggling against al-Qaddafi’s eternal revolutionary state. Haftar dismissed the Contra label as “meaningless,” stating that the LNA is a “Libyanorganization with Libyan interests and Libyan goals”(al-Hayat, December 19, 1991). He said that while the LNA was temporarily basing itself in the United States, with 400 members dispersed across 25 states, he stressed that most of his outfit’s original support was indeed Libyan and Arab (al-Hayat, December 18, 1991).

While Haftar and between 600-700 fellow defectings oldiers were bolstered and equipped by U.S. intelligence after the formation of LNA in late 1988, history was not on Haftar’s side until 2011. General Idriss Déby, former commander-in-chief of the Chadian Armed Forces for several years during the war with the legitimate LibyanArmy led by Haftar and Libyan-backed Chadian rebels in Chad’s troubled northern BET Region, turned on the Habré government. Déby was backed by Tripoli in this scenario which ultimately resulted in the American plans for Khalifa Haftar to infiltrate Libya to be shelved.

Colonel Haftar was no longer welcome in Chad following the December 1990 military coup by Idriss Déby that deposed President Habré. Relations between Habré and Déby soured irrevocably with Habré accusing Déby of conspiring against him. Déby ousted his former mentor with Sudanese backing (IRIN, April 19, 2006). Following Habré’s overthrow, a brief warming of relations between N’Djamena and Tripoli occurred as Déby pragmatically flirted with the Libyan regime in order to consolidate his rule over Chad’s vast territory. Haftar’s rebels were ejected from Chad in the process, dispersing them throughout Africa. Those that chose not to return to Libya under an amnesty offered by Qaddafi were eventually resettled in the United Stateswhen their security in Africa was in doubt. [3]

Many questions have arisen among Western analysts in regard to the precise ideological nature and religious leanings of Libya’s rebel Shabaab movement since the outbreak of internecine hostilities there on February 17, 2011. The movement, now led at least partly by Colonel Haftar, is an ad hoc revolutionary one that is not monolithic in terms of either long term strategy or ideology. Libyan opposition movements like the NFSL/LNA have existed for decades before the current war and have been led by men like Khalifa Haftar weaned on the Arab nationalism of the mid-twentieth century. Libya’s exiled opposition groups tended to mixmodernist secularism with traditional Arab and Bedouin Islamism partly in reaction to al-Qaddafi’s assault on Libyan Muslim identity. [4] The challenge before Colonel Haftar is whether he can graft his experience and know-how from wars and ideologies past onto a young movement already in disarray.

Khalifa Haftar has been on the run from the al-Qaddafi regime since his capture in Chad in March 1987 following Libya’s disastrous defeat at the battle of Ouadi Doum in northern Chad’s Borkou-Ennedi-Tibesti (BET) Region. Qaddafi, whom Haftar had considered a closeconfidant, was said to deny Haftar’s very existence while he languished in a Chadian POW camp for seven months. In reaction, an infuriated Haftar joined the LNSF at Habré’s behest and declared war against the Libyan state. [5] Hissène Habré, a staunch American ally in Africa in the context of the Cold War who Human Rights Watch now terms an “African Pinochet,” released Haftar from detention after the two pragmatically put aside their differences. The Reagan administration planned to utilize Khalifa Haftar to oust al-Qaddafi during his time in Chad. Haftar spent the next three years (1988-1991) in encampments surrounding N’Djamena training his soldiers for an eventual operation to overthrow al- Qaddafi. This plan was not to be as the geopolitical realities shifted in the Sahel/Sahara region before Haftar could be deployed into Libya proper. The entire covert project would be abruptly aborted.

Idriss Déby Moves In, Khalifa Haftar Moves On

As Idriss Déby’s Sudan-backed rebel movement gainedmomentum, Haftar knew his position in Chad would be jeopardized when Hissène Habré would inevitably fall. He devised a plan to mount an assault on French troops stationed outside the capital deployed as part of Opération Épervier. Épervier was a force dispatched by French President François Mitterrand to contain Libyan aggression in Chad. Haftar felt that France favoured Idriss Déby at the expense of the LNA and that he was threatened by Déby’s rebel advance toward the capital. Though France had been a long time supporter of Habré, he ultimately fell victim to the cooling of Franco-Chadian relations. The French remained, at least officially, neutral as Habré was quickly deposed. Colonel al-Qaddafi, sensing an opportunity with the changing of the guard in N’Djamena, relayed to Déby that he wanted the renegade Haftar repatriated to Tripoli, an act that might have meant certain death for Haftar.

Though General Déby did not comply with the Libyan request for the extradition of the dissident soldiers, Déby informed the United States that the Libyan rebels, many of whom he had personally fought, were no longer welcome in N’Djamena either and allowed them to be quietly shuttled out of the country. Déby’s unsympathetic position toward Haftar may be why Chad has yet to make any noise about aiding the rebels in the current war, as remaining bitterness between the two men is certainly not out of the question.

Déby tried to keep Habré at bay in Cameroon where he had fled after the coup d’état (AP, December 2, 1990). Chad’s new leader accurately sensed his people’s fatigue after years of unending conflict. He astutely opted out of fomenting further tension with al-Qaddafi at the time publicizing the American-supported LNA being evacuated from N’Djamena (Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1990) Déby was also much less interested in being an American proxy in Africa than his predecessor. The ascent of Idriss Déby greatly altered the trajectory of Haftar’s life. [6]

Flight

In a 1997 memoir by the late Smith Hempstone, the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya during the administration of George H.W. Bush, Hempstone describes what was unofficially referred to as “Operation Magic Carpet”, a clandestine effort to spirit Haftar’s followers out of Mobuto Sese Seko’s Zaire (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo) where they were potentially vulnerable to al-Qaddafi’s far reaching hit teams and possible entente between al-Qaddafi and Mobuto at the time. [7]

Haftar later fled N’Djamena following the Déby takeover and was flown on an American Hercules to Nigeria with much of the LNA. Circumstances in Nigeria did not permit them to stay in the country longer than 24 hours. American facilitators forwarded them to Zaire. Between 300-400 of Haftar’s roving, CIA-connected rebels had to flee Zaire after the U.S. Congress quashed a plan to funnel $5,000,000 to Mobutu’s regime to let the Libyans exist in his kleptocracy where they could regroup and plot against al-Qaddafi for another day. When the American plan to essentially pay off Mobutu was scrapped, Colonel a-Qaddafi funneled an undisclosed amount of money to Mobutu. For his part, al-Qaddafi demanded the return of the Zaire-based LNA fighters, particularly the leadership. Colonel Haftar called on his American connections to be brought directly to the U.S. from Zaire. The U.S. quickly obliged Haftar but the arrangement still left several hundred rebels behind in limbo. Haftar’s Libyan fighters then landed in President Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya where American officials hoped the Libyans would be welcomed, after a generous offer of cash to arap Moi’s debt burdened regime. [8] Though initially agreeing to receive funding from the U.S. ina quid pro quo for housing the Libyans, a month onNairobi had a change of heart after President arap Moi

All Was Not Quiet In the Interim

Haftar’s time in sub-Saharan African limbo at the outset of the 1990s was not his last gasp in wantingto overthrow al-Qaddafi. After the LNA and NFSL apparently drifted apart for several years, the Libyan exiles interest converged once again when, in the spring of 1996, Haftar reportedly instigated an insurrection in Cyrenaica’s historically defiant al-Jebel al-Akhdar region near the eastern city of Derna that raged at Haftar’s direction but was swiftly crushed (Reuters, March 26, 1996). [9] Reports at the time suggested that some of rebels in the al-Jebel al-Akhdar incident werethose fostered in Chad by the CIA prior to the 1990coup. [10] Nearly a decade after his defection, Haftar was linked to a failed coup attempt against al-Qaddafi (al-Majid [Amman], August 5, 1996) [11] Somewhat incongruously, a report citing unnamed Arab sources in Tripoli surfaced four years after the 1996 incidents that Haftar was considering returning to his nativeland. Haftar, through a spokesman, flatly refuted the speculation, suggesting it may have been disinformation spread by the Libyan intelligence services and noted: “We also have heard the reports of his intention toreturn. I spoke to him a short time ago and I can assureyou that Col. Haftar is in the United States and is notthinking about returning” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 16, 2000).

Conclusion

In a sense, Colonel Khalifa Haftar’s personal odyssey strings together a policy continuum of overt hostility between Washington and Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi. At the time of the United States’ most direct confrontation withColonel al-Qaddafi on April 15, 1986 with airstrikes onmilitary installations in Benghazi and Tripoli, Colonel Haftar was in good standing as one of the founding members of the RCC and was loyally commanding al-Qaddafi’s forces in the Libyan quagmire in Chad.Twenty-five years on, the American military alongside its NATO partners, is intervening in the 2011 Libyan civil war where Haftar has suddenly reemerged to build force structure amongst Libya’s chaotic rebels. It must be noted that in stark difference to the largely civil society led revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the war in Libya, as the odyssey of Khalifa Haftar’s life demonstrates, is as much, if not more tied to the African world as the Arab one. The Kalashnikov-powered revolution now being commanded on the front by Haftar has a very deep African dimension to it, owing to Libya’s modern military history and inescapable political geography. While Tunisia and Egyptian foreign policies correspond largely to the greater Mediterranean-Levant regions, Colonel al-Qaddafi’s efforts since 1969 have dragged Libya southward into sub-Saharan Africa.

While lawmakers and policy analysts in the West are repeatedly stating that they do not know just who Libya rebels are and to what degree they may be influenced by the transnational jihadism espoused by al-Qaeda, atthe helm of this movement is Colonel Khalifa Haftar, anold school secular Nasserist who has lived in the United States for twenty years. In a 1991 interview conducted in an LNA camp in rural Virginia, Haftar stated that he mostly closely identified himself with Omar al-Mukhtar, the legendary anti-colonial resistance leader hanged by Italian administrators in Libya in 1931. As al-Mukhtar challenged Benito Mussolini, an external tyrant, Haftar sees himself along a similar historical path in his lifelong battle with Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, the quintessential tyrant. Haftar, the former CIA confidant in Africa and now a veteran, hardline anti-Qaddafi activist, may prove to be the most apt conduit for the U.S./NATO and their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners.

Notes:

1. Colin Legum, Africa Research Ltd., AfricaContemporary Record: Annual Survey and Documents, Volume 26, (Teaneck, New Jersey: Holmes & Meier, 2002), p. B-543.

2. John Ruedy, Islamism and Secularism in NorthAfrica, (Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996), p.195.

3. Ronald Bruce St John, Historical Dictionary of Libya,(Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2006), p.149.

4. Ruedy, op. cit.

5. J. Millard Burr, Robert O. Collins, Darfur: The LongRoad to Disaster, (Princeton, New Jersey: Markus Wiener Publishers 2008) pp. 274; J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, Africa’s Thirty Years’ War: Libya, Chad and the Sudan 1963-1993, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), p.300.

6. Smith Hempstone, Rogue Ambassador: An African Memoir, (Sewanee, Tennessee: University of the South Press, 1997), pp.136-139.

7. Michael Clough, Free at Last?: U.S. Policy Toward Africa and the End of the Cold War, (New York: New York University Press, 1992), p.100.

8. Lucy Dean, The Middle East and North Africa 2004, Volume 50, (London: Europa Publications, 2003), p.788.

9. Clyde R. Mark, CRS Issue Brief for Congress-Libya, (Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 1996).

10. Clyde R. Mark, CRS Issue Brief for Congress-Libya, (Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2002), p.9.

11. Legum, op. cit.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 7th, 2019 at 6:08 am

Bodhisattva Vow

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Theravada monks look on as devotees place floral alms in Kandy’s sacred tooth relic complex. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Kandy- For years I’ve wanted to visit this city in central Sri Lanka and its nearly mythical Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic) where one of Siddhartha Gautama’s four canine teeth is stored for veneration by Buddhists here and those the world over. Buddhism here is very different than much of what was once popularised in the West by the Beastie Boys and other pop culture elites in the heyday of the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. There is no idolatry of the Dalai Lama here to be certain in the mode of Vajrayana . Like that in Thailand, Sri Lankans follow the ancient Theravada school of Buddhism.

The Sri Dalada Maligawa with its moat is a quiescent centre of calm in an otherwise bustling city. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Having grown up in a principally Irish Catholic milieu and having spent much of my adult life immersed in the political currents of Sunni and Shia Islam, my knowledge of the Buddhist world isn’t perhaps what it should be. My knowledge of Sri Lanka is, or was I should say, through the prism of the 26-year war between the state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE was made up of ethnic Tamils from the county’s north and east, were pioneers of suicide bombing and proto-terror state building. On 25 January, 1998 the LTTE’s ‘elite’ Black Tigers detonated a massive truck bomb in the temple complex that killed 17. The importance of this place in Sri Lanka’s history and politics cannot be overstated. It is thought that whoever controls the home of the tooth relic is who governs the state. So the 1998 LTTE attack was not just aimed at the Sinhala-speaking Buddhist identity of the Sri Lankan government and military, it was to symbolise that the nation-state’s grip on power was tenuous if it could not adequately secure this ancient syncretic material symbol melding spirituality and power.

As to how far Sri Lanka has come in terms of increasing state stability. nine years before the LTTE attack, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was waging a deadly insurgency and bombed the temple complex on 8 February 1989. This incident could not be attributed to religious difference or a bitter linguistic schism underwritten by the country’s 1972 constitution where upon Sinhala was enshrined as the official language as the country was transitioning from the Dominion of Ceylon to the Republic of Sri Lanka. No, the JYP insurrection was based along the overwhelmingly ethnic-Sinhala southern coast where I’ve just spent a week. It began in 1987 (with a history of political violence in a failed 1971 uprising) as a Marxist-Leninist militant outfit that sought the violent overthrow of the government in Colombo and was concomitant with the humiliating arrival of the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) in 1987. The posture of the IPKF stoked and angry form of nationalism among Sinhalese leftists who felt Colombo had forfeited the security integrity of the country by inviting a foreign military presence. Thus the Sri Lankan Armed Forces then had to deal with the LTTE and JVP insurgencies in deadly simultaneity. The Indian state was seen as at least somewhat complicit with the LTTE insurgency owing to its safe haven in Tamil Nadu and the vastly unpopular IPKF departed here by March 1990.

Buddhism has been a central tenet of Sri Lanka’s post-colonial identity with a clause in the constitution stating, “Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana.”
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

So this place of tranquility, of immense history, of the Buddha that so many admire, has seen serious turmoil. We are now (as of mid-May) ten years out from the end of the war with the LTTE and 30 years on from the JVP attack and Sri Lanka is certainly at peace aside from small, contained bouts of inter-communal violence. Society needs time to heal from the deep wound of decades-long polarising ethnic fragmentation.

Written by derekhenryflood

March 31st, 2019 at 12:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Syria After the Khilifah: Now Comes the Hard Part

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The canary SDF banner with accompanying YPG and YPJ flags in Hasakeh.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Unawatuna- Today the SDF finally declared the total clearing of Baghouz and with it the last patch of formal IS territorial control anywhere in Syria and Iraq. So today signifies the conclusion of the al-Jazeera Storm campaign which was launched September 2017 to clear Deir ez-Zor, Mayadeen, and Albu Kamal districts of IS control east of the Euphrates.

It was a grinding fight that was put on hold while the TSK (Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri-Turkish armed forces) invaded the then PYD-controlled Efrin region to tear apart an oasis of calm within Syria and crush Kurdish identity politics there and in the rest of what had been known as Rojava. So now that the SDF-controlled part of Deir ez-Zor governorate has been fully liberated, many questions immediately present themselves, such as: what will be the present and future purpose of the SDF without the khilifah (‘caliphate’) to fight against? How will the coalition’s presence and continued engagement in Syria be militarily & monetarily justified?

And those are just two of what could be a hundred critical questions about the future of the SDF and its relationship to its American partners as well as interactions amongst different factions inside the SDF that have different aims. In light of the Manbij restaurant bombing, US engagement may continue if IS insurgent attacks ramp up morphing into an all-out guerrilla war in quick fashion. Perhaps looks at Diyala governorate next door in Iraq…

While the end of the Khilifah is certainly a massive victory for the SDF in which it suffered a high casualty rate fighting a fearsome death/sex cult organisation, we don’t know what their next move will be vis-a-vis negotiating with the dreaded Syrian regime or with the Kremlin’s opaque interlocutors. Of course, it seems the regime doesn’t itself know its next move either. So many moving parts, a none of us knows in which direction this eight year-old war machine is moving.

Written by derekhenryflood

March 23rd, 2019 at 3:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Secure Place

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Dubai- After a somewhat tense month in Iraq and Syria, I popped down the the UAE for a few days before making my next move. So here I am for the moment in a spotlessly clean, efficient, authoritarian, stable monarchy. It is safe here but best experienced with a Western passport. One would very unlikely have the same experience with a Filipino or Bangladeshi passport. As I caught the flight from Iraq the other day, well to-do upper middle class Iraqis had to have their paper Emirati visas printed up and carefully sleeved in plastic to be presented to immigration here. Whereas I walk up to the officer seemingly without a care in the world. This week marks the 16th anniversary of the US & UK invasion of the Iraqi republic and Iraq today is still a place that is nowhere close to reaching its human potential. Through the prism of persistent regional chaos it’s easy to understand the appeal of the stability here.

As GCC nationals calmly stride through the airport including a special “niqab lane” for parochial woman draped in black to be able to show their faces safely apart from the gaze of strange males, Iraqis as citizens of an ostensible Gulf oil power must still be carefully vetted. Sure, of course that owes to the Hussein regime’s invasion of GCC member Kuwait in 1990 in an act of catastrophic hubris after eight years of war with Iran, but that Iraqis are still perceived this way in 2019 indicates what a colossal failure the 2003 ‘intervention’ was and remains. It also demonstrates the deep corruption within the Iraqi state that has undercut the aspiration of its citizens to move on from war. Just ask Basrawi protestors infuriated of the dearth of basic services including potable water in an area that should be luxurious owing to its immense hydrocarbons.

“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

From the view here in the UAE, Gulf monarchism is undoubtedly preferable to the world of militancy and militias to the north. Sure there is no freedom of speech or assembly but the electricity never cuts out, the wifi is constant, and the trains run on time. The UAE, and Dubai in particular, have put vast effort-dependent largely on South Asian male labourers -to create a post-oil infrastructure and subsequent economy to build a vibrant tourism sector attracting visitors from fellow ’emerging markets.’

Thus the choice in the wider Middle East seems to be between freedom of press or freedom from political and religious violence. And it is a stark one. Civil liberties can potentially be equated with civil violence whereas an ironclad monarchical system that brooks no dissent but ensures a rock solid security environment (not counting Bahrain 2011 and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province) as those who have experienced the former can attest to.

Taking a walk in Dubai’s quiet diplomatic quarter. I went to the consulate of a state that had recently announced a peace deal with three of its neighbours but was not quite ready for a random Westerner to ask for a tourist visa just yet. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

March 21st, 2019 at 12:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The River-Wading Into Syria’s Next Conflict

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An observation point for Deir ez-Zor Military Council fighters along the Euphrates river from where they can monitor regime movements on the west bank. And by “regime” they were referring to pro-regime Shia militias with Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief among them. Having been initially lured to Syria to defend the shrine of Sayyida Zainab and other Shia holy sites, Shia militias have since been firmly woven into the deadly fabric of the Syrian theatre.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Qamishlo/Erbil-Working in Syria is never a facile effort unless perhaps one brings many thousands of dollars/euros/pounds to insulate themselves from as many genuine interactions with Syrians as conceivable. I think I sometimes revel in the adversity. The Byzantium of offices and permission papers on either side of the border. The stoicism I’m forced to project while navigating this convoluted framework. Smile, Kurmanji, chai, sit, repeat. 

When I succeed without a fixer, based purely on linguistic and interpersonal skills, it’s that much more satisfying. In Deir ez-Zor governorate, I just jumped into total immersion with the eponymous Military Council, the local constituent war fighting group of the SDF. While everyone else was engaged in pack journalism further south, I got a feel for the area’s indigenous cultural dynamic and tribal endogamy rather than the now familiar though still poorly understood Apoism originating in Cold War-era Turkey being imported from the north. 

The tension over the control of the Wadi al-Furat (Euphrates river valley) is palpable throughout the governorate as the conventional frontline fight against IS winds/wound down. Within the SDF umbrella, each group has starkly different priorities. The YPG-YPJ is concerned about protecting its Rojava heartland, the MMC feels trapped in limbo between Turkey and its proxies and the regime and its backers. Whilst the Deiri fighters, far from the Turkish border, are worried about the regime, aka the enfeebled nationalist-named Syrian Arab Army in lopsided partnership with assorted Shia groups, pushing into their tribal lands they fought to push IS out of. In my new piece forJane’s Intelligence Review,I examine the current threat they face and how this looming danger may portend into something larger. 

A YPG=helmed, American-supplied Humvee- originally intended for Iraqi security forces-returns from the Baghouz frontline to the south in Albu Kamal district. The SDF’s hardware of American provenance was in use on the IS front, leaving the front with the regime virtually undefended. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

In terms of foreign reporting, so much of what is going on in Syria has been and continues to be based on constant repetition of talking points of seemingly scurrilous origin. How many times must we read “Kurdish-led” or “US-backed” without scrutinising them on the ground? The veracity of these depend heavily on the area one is observing. There are members of the SDF who receive little to no US military assistance depending on present utility of their force and position. And there are local units who are entirely Arab in make up. Yes, I know the aforementioned, oft repeated terms refer to Mazlum Kobane and the YPG but their copy-and-paste overuse obscures nuances within the war’s human geography. These nuances may seem unimportant now but they likely will be in the near term if there are seismic shifts in the battlefield’s principal orientation. For a rough analogy, just think of what occurred in Kirkuk in October 2017 less than two weeks after the liberation of al-Hawija.

I think most people either don’t care or don’t understand on a fundamental level what is taking place in SDF-controlled regions of Syria’s fractured governorates. I don’t claim to understand all of these nebulous political-military currents obviously, hardly any one could. But I’m certain there’s far more going on than what is repeated ad nauseam on the wires and in much of credible Anglophone and Francophone media. Some of my fellow Western reporters have even referred to the YPG-the West’s ostensible partners-as “Kurdish militants” which to me reads like unexamined AKP propagation coming directly from the defence ministry in Ankara. I guess maybe if you’re Istanbul-based or trying to curry favour with the Turkish government or just hoping not to get backlisted, you have to play ball. When the FTThe Independent,and Washington Post are using the same terminology as Anadolu and PressTV, well you get the idea…

There’s been somewhat of a ‘trending’ narrative of late that the war for Syria is nearing its conclusion or that the Syrian regime has regained its hold on much of the country. The Syrian war isn’t close to having concluded. And the regime has only been able to make said gains with the help of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation. However, the geopolitical aims of its regional middle and great power backers respectively should only be conflated at the West’s peril. Tehran and Moscow have decidedly differing aims in Syria. This competition may come to the fore sooner that we may expect. I would venture that the two are more competitors than collaborators in this sense.

While Syria is nowhere near as complex as it once was before IS consolidated its primacy in the salafiyya-jihaiyya realm and it seemed the country was overrun with rebel groups too numerous to count (save for certain Twitter personalities that made a cottage career industry out of it at the time), the place is still highly complex

Even with the territorial defeat of IS and with HTS primarily having been reduced to swaths of Idlib governorate, the IS insurgency is already underway while HTS has made inroads into western Aleppo governroate and northern Hama governorate. Then there is the massive question of what will be the role of the SDF as the conventional war against IS ends and regime elements jockey for space while Ankara re-calibrates its incursion strategy according to the diktats of a wildly unstable American leader.

It’s not over. No one can say when it will be.

Hiding in the open from an IS attack on a Asayish-manned roundabout up the road, my Qamishloki driver converses with a local driver outside the al-Tanak oil field while we nervously waited out a YPG counter attack. All my driver had was a dated pistol for our protection. Grateful for that YPG MRAP that sped past us.
©2019 Derek Henry Flood


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March 12th, 2019 at 6:39 am

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Other People’s Wars

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Ahmad and his heval (comrade) of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council patrolling the frontline with an-Nizam (“the regime”) southeast of Deir ez-Zor city. ©2019 Derek Henry Flood

Deir ez-Zor- I’ve spent so much of my adult life trying to unpack the intricacies of men fighting in societies other than my own. I make it my business to wade deep into the waters of armed conflicts that I so often feel are misunderstood or misinterpreted by the outside world, partly, because they, us, are simply not there. The civil-cum-transnational fight for Syria is particularly complex in this regard. For many in the West, the hallmark of this forlorn place was or still is the choreographed beheadings of foreign hostages in mid-2014. That gruesome episode is in no way representative of Syria or Syrians as a whole. It would be like if someone from the EU thought of the United States as one continuous school shooting episode from which it could never recover.

In that sense, the takfiri’een, those who appointed themselves the capacity to declare others apostates deserving execution, grossly misrepresent this shattered nation-state on the world stage. The worst of a minute minority of humanity was in effect able to define this war aided by big media. This occurred on our collective watch at the world’s peril. This goes for within major media outlets as well. In 2017 and 2018, I had editors I contacted–when I was long gone from this place in the safety of Dubai or Thailand– say they would not take freelance work from here because they have a foggy policy against such though in each case they are failed to articulate precisely why or obfuscated their reasoning. Some hinted that they had a blockade in effect narrowly on freelance work out of Syria because it could encourage other hopeful, perhaps naive correspondents to come here not being entirely aware of the risk or maybe because of the reckless allure risk can provide for some. But writing armchair pieces from the comfort of a Beirut or Istanbul cafe while Whatsapping sources here is just not the same as being here on the ground. Anecdotes cannot be a substitute for experience.

Friends here assume it was because of what happened in the summer and fall of 2014 ostensibly in ar-Raqqa governorate or perhaps the disappearance of Marine veteran Austin Tice in 2012. What was curious to me was even as the security paradigm in Syria had clearly shifted since the period of extraordinary risk in 2014-2015, media outlets back home hadn’t adapted their polices to reflect this sea change in security here. Maybe that’s all changed by 2019 but I’m not clear. Last week famed UK songstress Joss Stone performed in Deirik accompanied by legendary British cameraman Paul Conroy who was nearly killed in Homs city in 2012 his first return to Syrian territory since if that demonstrates anything.

Since Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001 I have thrown myself into one maelstrom after another in a bid to understand why other people fight one another with aged Soviet or Soviet-inspired weaponry. The West, the United States in particular, fails these people time and again yet they still fight, still hope, still live. From North Africa to South Asia, I travel, I risk, I try to understand. I’m not fascinated by violence by any means but by the push-pull factors of ethno-linguistic or religio-political dynamics that drive these rich, neglected societies. I’m here primarily for the conversation in any language or dialect.

Deir ez-Zor is one such place. It’s not quite ready for a stunning British pop star yet but it is accessible. So many players, so much about-to-be squandered opportunity. . Such lovely people.

Written by derekhenryflood

March 7th, 2019 at 4:46 am

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Days Like These

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With fighters from the Deir ez-Zor Military Council at their garrison in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. The kindness and generosity they showed me was unrivaled. These guys are facing a host of security challenges even before the final liberation of Baghouz and are not sure whether they can count on American military assistance to the SDF continue battling an IS insurgency that is already well underway. Photo by Abo Sima

Deir ez-Zor- I spent the weekend conducting field research in the eponymous district of Syria’s war ravaged eastern governorate to see what was going on beyond the headlines. I saw the press convoy leaving the temporary dormitory on the grounds of the SDF-controlled al-Omar oil field heading down to the battle of Baghouz and wanted no part of what appeared to be a dog-and-pony show as I much prefer to work alone in order to create more visceral human connections. I generally bristle at being told where I can point my camera and whom I can and cannot interact with.

My objective was to interview and embed with members of the indigenous war-fighting group the Deir ez-Zor Military Council. I wanted to get their take on the armed power struggle with an-nizam (“regime” or “system”). Rather than elevate despicable so-called “ISIS brides” to their 15 minutes of fame or cover the offensive being waged by non-indigenous forces, I had wanted to gain insight into the very localised political-military dynamics of the region that may ultimately decide its future. Great power politics are very much at play in Deir ez-Zor with presence of the armed forces of the United States and Russian Federation (“Russia”) along with a litany of other non-state or substate players helming from Lebanon to Pakistan. But I hold that the future of the security status quo in the governorate will ultimately be determined by the local tribes.

The commander I interviewed provided my driver and I with an armed escort from his garrison through the desert that served as both a short cut to the road north back to al-Hasakah governorate and a method to circumvent IS takfiri’een who have been launching attacks on insecure roadways. Article forthcoming…

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March 4th, 2019 at 12:08 pm

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