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Kobane to Kirkuk

December 10th, 2014 No comments


New York- I have a an article in the November/December issue of the Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel publication titled The Battle for Kobani Comes to the Fore. Above is a clip  I put together from my field work in Kirkuk Governorate in August 2013. Though Kirkuk and Kobane are geographically disparate places, many Kurds consider these pivotal cities as key nodes in a singular struggle against Ba’Athism, salafism, Kemalism and any other form a ideology that they believe seeks to deprive Kurds of their collective rights as a nation.

Fourteen months after my trip to Kirkuk, I traveled to southern Şanlıurfa Province in southern Turkey to witness the siege of Kobane just inside Aleppo Governorate. Kurds gathered in solidarity there frustratingly expressed that the siege of Kobane was but the latest round in an persistent narrative of anti-Kurdish mass casualty violence that has gone on for decades.

Some in the hills of Mürşitpınar expressed that the sweeping attacks on the Kurdish-majority villages that once buffered urban Kobane were aimed at pushing back Kurdish nationalist aspirations. The fight against Kurdish autonomy may have gone from racist Ba’athism to predatory salafism but it was the same anti-Kurdish feeling expressed under another ideology according to a number of observers I spoke with.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 4.07.36 PMThose interviewed believe the Kobane crisis is firmly rooted in 20th century Arab Ba’athism, Turkish republicanism or Iranian chauvinism in which respective Kurdish minority populations were politically oppressed by ethnic majoritarian governments. They held that IS’s salafism has absorbed traits due in part of veteran Ba’athists who had joined its upper ranks.

From previous anti-Kurdish policies most epitomized by the al-Anfal scorched earth campaign in northern Iraq in 1987-1988 which killed an estimated 150,000, a feeling of communal vulnerability exists across Kurdistan that transcends post-colonial borders. This thinking extends into the global Kurdish diaspora in the West as well.

In the eyes of many watching nervously along the Turkish-Syrian border, the surrounding of Kobane by IS fighting trucks flying trademark black banners—and the ease with which this occurred— symbolizes not an intra-Islamic fight between radicals and those they deem less pious Sunnis but an ethnic contest between Arabs coupled with their foreign fighter acolytes and indigenous Kurds.

It also left an impression that Turkish authorities were so ardently anti-Kurdish particularly in the case of Rojava that Turkey in fact preferred to have IS jihadis facing its jandarma than the PYD’s YPG. Some Kurdish observers in Suruç and environs felt that Turkish passivity on the siege was an indicator that it actually actively supported the IS advance because Ankara would prefer to have dour salafists on its border as in the case of nearby Jarabulous or Tel Abyad than a sturdy, vibrant Kurdish autonomy movement.

While the Kurds have largely succeeded in their grand goal of consolidating Kirkuk and its oil wealth into Iraqi Kurdistan proper, the fight for Kobane continues to rage illustrating that though gains in one part of greater Kurdistan have been made, there is a long way to go yet still.

Categories: Iraq, Syria Tags: , ,

Destroying Existing State Systems to Build New Ones

August 20th, 2014 No comments
A lost opportunity? Abu Muhammad, a Free Syrian Army unit commander in Idlib, pleaded for the international community to implement a no-fly zone extending 5 kilometers from the Turkish border to create a cordon sanitaire for fleeing refugees and injured rebels. His call was never heeded. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

A lost opportunity? Abu Muhammad, a Free Syrian Army unit commander in Idlib, pleaded for the international community to implement a no-fly zone extending 5 kilometers from the Turkish border to create a cordon sanitaire for fleeing refugees and injured rebels. His call was never heeded. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- I have a new report out this week for IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London on my analysis of the Islamic State’s brutal campaign to establish a religio-politcal entity among several of the former Ottoman (the last recognized caliphate in existence) vilayats that now inhabit the governorates of Syria and Iraq where IS is working to consolidate territorial control.

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 4.21.19 PMThe conflict inside Syria morphed from minor protests that resulted in disproportionate regime reactions that in turn gave rise to an armed rebellion in 2011. That armed rebellion which I explored in early 2012 then became Islamized by both Islamist Sunni nationalists and later by salafist peer competitors. A cacophonous battlefield erupted over time where sectarian difference, religious difference and ethnic divides created perhaps the most highly complex internecine war of the post-modern era in terms of the sheet number of war fighting groups and conflicting agendas.

 

On a related note, I returned home after a great day out with friends here in the city to check my twitter and learn of the execution of James Foley.  The reactions to the tragedy on twitter were sadly all too predictable. Many tweets sought to emphasize that the overwhelming majority if IS’s victims in Syria and Iraq are indigenous peoples who perish largely in silence and that the Foley case was overshadowing a grand scale human tragedy with the plight of a few Westerners being over played by the Western media.

Yet other tweets dwelled on the ethics of sharing such an awful product or even watching it at all. I recall these precise arguments from beheadings in the early years of the Iraq war and other incidents in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Aside from those, there is the talk of the predicament of what to do about the remaining hostages. Then arguments begin to become ballooned out to what Obama should or should not have done in Syria earlier on, how Benghazi affected the White House’s Syria policy or lack thereof and so forth. Much of this echoes the Iraq war to begin with. Hostages crises, myriad militant organizations, Ba’athism, Kurdish secessionism etc.

Obama has sought to improve America’s standing here in the EU and around the world as a whole which in theory is a commendable objective after years of disastrous neoconservative-inflected, poorly informed foreign policy decisions. But there is also a futility in this as an end goal. I recall talking to a Catalan woman I was rooming with in this neighborhood some years ago and-as is often the case as an American in the EU-she volunteered her views on U.S. foreign policy without me prompting her to. “I think Obama is a an actor. A very good actor” she said to me. Was she referring to his not closing down Guantanamo? It didn’t really matter. The initial euphoria over his election had long since waned and knee-jerk cynicism had set in.

I remember not long before that when people here were heralding the end of the Bush era and a new, hopefully healthier trans-Atlantic partnership. But of course latent anti-Americanism reared its head again in no time at all. Was his refusal to overtly (as opposed to covertly) act on Syria related to it being too evocative of Bush unilateralism that turned so much of global public opinion against American’s immensely tarnished image? Or was it the fact that Washington’s Israeli partners who occupy a swath of southern Syria hadn’t themselves decided on their own response to which D.C. could not act without their consent? As an outside observer one can only speculate on these matters. An observer is not one of history’s actors so to speak. An observer bears witness and records events but is not meant to influence them in the purest interpretation of observational ethics.

The rise of Baghdadi’s Islamic State and the brutal death of James Foley illustrate that whatever is being done with regard to Iraq and Syria by major and regional powers alike is an abject failure. There will simply be more air strikes, more hostage issues and increased radicalism should the present course continue unchallenged.

Categories: Iraq, Syria Tags:

Out the Window

July 23rd, 2014 No comments
Room with a view. In the comfort of the EU with mind adrift on other places. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Room with a view. In the comfort of the EU with my mind adrift in other places. Barcelona is obviously home to the age-old vociferous Catalan separatist movement but all in life is relative. In terms of veracity, when one looks at other realms of separatism in the east that invoke large-scale political violence and weave in acts of state-sponsoered terrorism, such movements in the heart of the West in Scotland, Flanders or here in Catalunya are quite tame. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- After an egregiously long sabbatical in the chunky, ‘polar vortex’ torn streets of NYC, I finally made it back across the Atlantic. I put plans for returning to Iraq’s Green Line and Ukraine’s chaotic Donbas region on hold for the time being to work on a couple of armchair pieces. As a perennial freelancer, sometimes a sure thing outpaces an unsafe bet and so I’m remaining in the West for the moment.

I brought loads of prints over to do some more photo walls as I had been doing the previous month in Long Island City. In my original idea conceived in 2000-2001, I had wanted to plaster prints up on either side of the Euro-Atlantic community to pique interest in the historical juncture of Central-South Asia in order to bring attention to that region’s political maelstrom by appealing to the public with its beauty. Such was not to be.

As I’ve alluded to in prior posts, those plans were imediately tosed out the window after 9/11 because it was going to involve obtaining an Islamic Emirate visa for Afghanistan which was immediately unrealistic despite my efforts of reaching out to members of the Taliban in Peshawar, Pakistan and Flushing, Queens just before the attacks.

Now well over a decade on, I hope to close that loop albeit under far different circumstances. Below I’ve posted snapshots of my final two projects in the U.S. Hope to do some new ones here very soon…

My final photo installation in Long Island City, Queens. These images were shot in Takhar, Badakhshan, Balkh and Kunduz Provinces, Afghanistan over the span of a month in November 2001. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

My final photo installation in Long Island City, Queens. These images were shot in Takhar, Badakhshan, Balkh and Kunduz Provinces, Afghanistan over the span of a month in November 2001. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

These prints were from an exhibit I did in the fall of 2008 on the stateless Rohingya crisis. I shot these on the Teknaf River that marks the Bangladesh-Burma border. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

These prints were from an exhibit I did in the fall of 2008 on the stateless Rohingya crisis. I shot these on the Teknaf River that marks the Bangladesh-Burma border. I put these up near the entrance to the Queens-Midtown Tunnel. When a Triborough Bridge policeman asked me what the hell exactly was I doing, I reflexively responded that I was beautifying a blighted area. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Getting Up on the 4th of July

July 8th, 2014 No comments
Two images from Kunduz Province, Afghanistan, November 2001. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Two images from Kunduz Province, Afghanistan, November 2001. Top is of a pair of T-62 tanks that were supplied the Jamiat-e-Islami/Shura-e-Nazar by the Russians via their proxies in Dushanbe. Below is a cluster of martyr’s graves between Taloqan and Kunduz that were killed in clashes with the Taliban, Sipah-e-Sahaba and the 055 Brigades that autumn. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

New York- This past Friday evening while crowds were frantically swarming toward the rapidly developing Queens waterfront for the annual fireworks display celebrating American independence, I quietly maneuvered around the outer borough’s Long Island City neighborhood doing another photo installation. I pulled from my collection of old prints all of which are over a decade old.

My print of the Malwiyya tower of the Grand Mosque in Samarra, Iraq. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

My print of the Malwiyya tower of the Grand Mosque in Samarra, Iraq. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

I wanted to do a small gesture to note the events and geographies that are behind where the United States stands in the world today. These places and the images that denote them are also a part of who I am in regard to my own personal history.

From left to right: Darra Adam Khel, November 2000, Peshawar, November, 2000, Salalah, Oman, November, 2000. ©2014 Derek henry Flood

From left to right: Craig ‘Bones’ Martin, a wilding Australian adventurer firing a Kalashnikov for a few hundred rupee thrill, Darra Adam Khel, Pakistan, November 2000; sunset and moonrise, Peshawar, Pakistan, November 2000; men playing the ancient game of Hawalis (known as Bao in East Africa), Salalah, Oman, November 2000. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

My friend Charlie Rhyu jumping the waterfall-style fountain at the Jonas Salk Institute, La Jolla, California on July 4th, 2000. We had to do this shoot on the 4th as it was the only time we would not have been stopped by security.  ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

My friend Charlie Rhyu jumping the waterfall-style fountain at the [Jonas] Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California on July 4th, 2000. We had to do this shoot on the 4th as it was the only time we would not have been stopped by security. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Iraq Again and Always

June 25th, 2014 No comments
A man carries a painting of Imam Hussein during a procession commemorating Milad un Nabi (the birthday of Prophet Muhammed). ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

A man carries a painting of Imam Hussein during a procession commemorating Milad un Nabi (the birthday of Prophet Muhammed) in Najaf, Iraq. Immediately after Saddam Hussein was removed from power with violence, the iconography of Imam Hussein erupted from the streets of a decimated Iraq from one day to the next. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

New York- Since the fall of Mosul to ISIL and other Sunni Arab rebel movements, the legacy demons haunting Iraq’s tortured landscapes have reared their grotesque heads to dominate global headlines once again. Even after the Islamic State of Iraq tweaked its brand to become the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or al-Sham or Syria depending on media sources), the focus has been largely on Syria since American boots on the ground left Iraq behind on December 18, 2011. In darkness the last U.S. Army convoy departed Nasiriyya for the Khabari border crossing with Kuwait. Iraq became a non-newsworthy wasteland while Syria by contrast was a riveting drama where journalists were killed, disappeared or taken hostage on a fairly regular basis. In a sense, Syria became the new Iraq and Iraq became…well…a bit of a forgotten conflict.

President Barack Obama kept a campaign promise by ending the ‘bad war’ in Iraq but left vulnerable Iraqis in the lurch to fend for themselves amidst the ebb and flow of insurgent movements populating the country. Without the American footprint in its sands, highly particular political dynamics began to accelerate. The notion of an independent Kurdistan beyond mere de facto independence began to become an ever more real possibility. Economic ties, particularly energy ones--between the Erbil-based KRG and Ankara have only hardened. Maliki –the Dawa veteran and one-time Damascus resident–has become both dangerously autocratic and a lynchpin of Tehran’s foreign policy. Shia movements waxed and waned from kalashnikov-toting militia organizations to quietist legitimate political outfits operating at the forefront of the Iraqi polity and quickly reverting back to vocal militancy when threatened.

Above: A Peshmerga encampment on the lookout for ISIL and JRTN in 2013 well before this topic became suddenly fashionable a few weeks ago. 

In Sunni-majority areas of Iraq (formerly the “Sunni triangle” now the even more absurd “Sunnistan“) which overlap in parts with Turkmen, Yezidi Kurdish and Iraqi Christian communities in some places and Shia holy sites as in the case of Samarra picture below, militancy has come back full throttle. After the forcible dismantlement by Maliki’s security forces of the Hawija (Kirkuk Governorate) and Ramadi (Anbar Governorate) protest sites in 2013, for many activist Sunnis this was a couple of humiliations too many.

The ancient Grand Mosque of Samarra, once the seat of the Abassid Caliphate, as seen from the top of the conical Malwiya minaret. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

The ancient Grand Mosque of Samarra, once the seat of the Abassid Caliphate, as seen from the top of the conical Malwiya minaret. On the city’s horizon in the upper right is the golden dome of the al-Askariyya shrine/mosque complex where the 10th and 11th Shia imams are buried. Less than 3 years after I shot  this image the mosque’s  dome by blown up by  Zarqawi’s Jamaat al-Tawhid w’al Jihad (predecessor to ISI/ISIL). ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Neo-Ba’athists refer to Nouri al-Maliki and his cronies derisively as “Safavid criminals” (corrupt proxies acting on behalf of Iranian intertests) while ISIL and other salafi-jihadis refer to their largely Shia opponents with the sectarian trope “rafidites” (rejectors) perhaps because they did not recognize Abu Bakr and Umar as rightly guided caliphs in favor of their cherished Imam Ali.

The black banner reads: "The light of Imam al-Hussein, protective of the great Iraq." ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

The schism between Islam’s two primary sects was immediately evident in Iraq as the Shia asserted their religious identity in 2003. The dutiful veneration of Imam Hussein was and remains at the core of that identity. That same veneration incurs the bloodletting wrath of takfiri-salafis today. The black banner reads: “The light of Imam al-Hussein, protective of the great Iraq.” Thanks to Murad Shishani for assistance with the translation. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Kurdish peshmerga members loiter around their post at sunset in Dibis District, Kirkuk Governorate, Iraq. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Kurdish peshmerga members loiter around their post at sunset in Dibis District, Kirkuk Governorate, Iraq. These men told me they were ready and able to defend KRG lands along their interpretation of the Green Line from potential incursions by ISIL or JRTN or the Iraqi Army if it came down to it. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

So now Iraq appears to be imploding and militants and media alike are busy making Sykes-Picot references. When I visited Iraq last year, the Iraqis I met with were gravely concerned regarding the utter fragility of the security situation but no one in the West seemed to much care. I published some articles and photos but I certainly wouldn’t have been eligible for a Pulitzer or a Robert Capa gold medal or one of those things.

Iraq simply was a cold, dead story in 2013–which was part of the reason I went back there in the first place. The Iraq war Obama claimed-falsely in my view-to have ended, never in fact ended. It morphed into a mostly indigenous conflict that the outside world cared little about. In a way it sort of reminded me of my pre-9/11 fascination with this region. The Americans had gone cold turkey save for those protecting the embassy and so forth. Now I’m imagining my empty hotel in Erbil crawling with journos with attendant fixers milling around the lobby.

I may head back there in the coming days but I can only safely assume prices to work there–war journalism is a job where you have to pay lots of money to do credible work–have risen sharply. Perhaps it will look like I’m following the pack rather than having been ahead of the curve reporting on the tenuousness of this 10 months back. And nothing looks bright on the Iraqi horizon.

Categories: Iraq Tags: , , , ,

Between Propaganda and Reality in the Caucasus

March 26th, 2014 No comments
An elderly refugee from southern Chechnya's Itum-Kale district sits in the home of a Kist host family in Duisi, Georgia. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

An elderly refugee from southern Chechnya’s Itum-Kale district sits in the home of a Kist host family in Duisi, Georgia. I was struck by how incredibly hospitable these people relentlessly vilified by the FSB were. They told me of the horrors of Putin’s onslaught on their villages while offering endless cups of tea and bread me. I felt powerless, having nothing to givein return  but a sympathetic ear. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out in this month’s edition of the CTC Sentinel about the evolution over the last two decades of the fight for the North Caucasus which has morphed a great deal. In my view, Syria has been a game changer with regard to Chechens and other ethno-linguistic nationalities from that region fighting with abundant documentation outside their homeland. I first encountered members of the Chechen community in Georgia in 2002. The stories of their under reported struggle fascinated me.

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.20.21 PMPersonally, I was in an early career lull between 9/11 back here in NYC and covering the Afghan war yet before the Iraq would begin in 2003. I was roving around the Levant and the Caucasus in the summer of 2002 looking for original stories to cover on my own. Sure there were the mostly crude analogies to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan of a grass roots holy war being fought by righteous bearded guys against cruel, drunken Russian officers and their hapless young conscripts, but I wanted to meet ordinary people whose lives were gravely affected by the war that solidified Putin as the Russian Federation’s post-Yeltsin czar.

I’d wanted to meet Ruslan Gelayev (an infamous side-witching warlord present in northeastern Georgia at the time) and perhaps travel with his mujahideen unit onward to Ingushetia and Chechnya. I ultimately decided that the risk didn’t measure up to the reward, particularly in the case of being a freelancer with a story no one in the West much cared about anyway. I also wanted to make sure I was back in New York to document the one year anniversary of 9/11 which was of paramount importance at that time to me.

I settled for trekking around villages populated with refugees who had crossed from souther Chechnya in the autumn of 1999. I ended up staying in what I determined was basically a hostel for foreign volunteers heading northward through the ravines of the Greater Caucasus range to wage war against a dehumanized enemy.  Russian soldiers and officers from various federal organizations like the OMON were portrayed as soulless cannon fodder in muj propaganda videos produced in the GCC which were used to draw attention to the fight for Chechnya among Arab audiences. These videos–some of which I were shown by Chechens in Tbilisi–painted the conflict as a righteous cause. The whole situation was a mess and Georgia itself was in a state of contained chaos back then.

One of the major points I have tried to make in my new piece is that propaganda has–over time–become a kind of new reality. From the fantasies of the Lubyanka to the web forum hosts of the Gulf, Chechens are other North (and South) Caucasians are now really, undeniably fighting abroad. I remember being at a terrorism conference in Washington in the mid-2000s and a young Marine officer stood up during a Q & A session and spoke of his unit having fought ‘Chechens’ in Iraq. But when pressed, he had no method of verifying this. Of course there are Chechens who are semi-indigenous to Iraq from their expulsion to the Ottoman empire–though that nuance was rarely, if ever, mentioned. Then there were the stories of Chechens fighting ISAF troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Army encountering Chechens in various battles in the FATA. But not one of these assertions was ever proven with even a shred of evidence.

Ismail with his scruffy cat in the village of Birkiani. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Ismail with his scruffy cat in the village of Birkiani. He was a young refugee living in limbo like thousands of others. Though there was condemnation of all-out war in Chechnya at the time, there was no real action to back it up. Or should I say nothing ‘actionable’ was ever done. Challenging so-called tin pot regimes in weak states was acceptable and even fashionable for a time among liberal internationalist and neoconservative circles for a time but challenging Russian neo-imperialism directly has never been on the table. One could even draw a continuity between inaction on the Caucasus then and Crimea now. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Now, however, Chechens (many coming from the EU or those who were already present in the Arab world), Dagestanis, Azerbaijanis, Georgian Kists, Tatars and all sorts of other guys are indeed fighting in Syria. It is as if the FSB and GRU’s dream has come true…albeit over a decade too late. This situation serves several interested parties but in my view does a great disservice to the Chechens themselves. As a colleague and friend messaged me earlier this year: “[It is] sad what has happened to my people.”

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A peace plan forth by ChRI’s Ilyas Akhmadov which went essentially nowhere. By 2003, it was far too late.

When Chechen rebel officials were asking for the internationalization of the situation in their republic, they were ignored. When moderate Syrian rebels asked for a no-fly buffer zone along the Turkish border, they were ignored. Then when these places descend into nihilism, people condemn them devoid of context.

The Chechens were villains in poorly scripted Hollywood films and novels but the reality has always been they were mostly an embattled people consumed with the fight for their own homeland as a opposed to global salafi-jihad in general. A pillar of this sort of thing was the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (ie the Taliban) recognizing the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (the rebels).

This move of non-state diplomacy served to benefit neither party. The Taliban wanted to be recognized worldwide well beyond the just littoral states of the Arabian Sea and when their efforts were rebuffed, they recognized the ChRI government. Moreover, the late Aslan Maskhadov, who was then president of the ChRI, was less than thrilled with the Taliban recognition and apparently believed it to be a play by Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and Movladi Udugov to strengthen their position within a growing rebel schism.

The outside world’s contempt in the form of apathy for the horrors perpetrated in Chechnya with it relegated to an “internal affair” for Moscow to resolve struck me as simply sad. Interventionists patted themselves on the back for aleviating suffering the Balkans and lashed themselves (to a far lesser extent) for doing nothing in Rwanda,  while they let the internal affair in the Caucasus fester for years.

In other news, my CTC Sentinel article on Syria from 2012 was cited The War Report: 2012, edited by Stuart Casey-Maslen, published by Oxford University Press and an interview I did with a top former Afghan police official was cited in Policing Afghanistan: The Politics of the Lame Leviathan by Antonio Giustozzi and Mohammed Isaqzadeh by Columbia University Press.

I appeared on BBC Arabic on March 22 with presenter Rasha Qandeel and former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov to discuss Russian's foreign policy of protecting its external minorities.

I appeared on BBC Arabic on March 22 with presenter Rasha Qandeel and former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov to discuss Russian’s foreign policy of protecting its external minorities. I pointed out what I see as a staggering hypocrisy in Russian policy with regard to internal minorities within the Russian Federation and Moscow’s military adventures in the post-Soviet space.

Anbar-Insurgency Redux

February 25th, 2014 No comments
Once popularized by media outlets as the "Mother of All Battles" mosque ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Once popularized by media outlets as the “Mother of All Battles” mosque, the Umm al-Qura mosque complex sat in lush greenery save for the destroyed Soviet-era piece of armor that was likely hit in an airstrike in the “shock and awe days of mid-March a month before this image was taken. I remember trying to enter the mosque’s grounds with my Shia fixer and getting a less than warm reception from some men that I suppose were representing the Association of Muslim Scholars there. Umm a-Qura is situated in western Baghdad between the al-Adel and Ghazaliyah districts on the road to Fallujah. When the situation quickly became hostile, I put my camera down and we roared away in an old rattletrap of a car. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out now for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst on the eruption of violence in Iraq’s sprawling western al-Anbar Governorate that borders the relatively calm governorates of Ma’an, Amman, Mafraq, and the somewhat sketchier Zarqa in Jordan, the war ravaged governorates of Deir ez-Zor, and Homs in Syria and, lastly, Saudi Arabia’s Northern Border Region. Control of Anbar is a security issue for the entire region that surrounds it when considering the war in Syria that is attracting foreign fighters like moths to a flame and the transnational outlook of salafi-jihadi thought in a geographically contiguous KSA.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 4.14.49 PMAnbar became the symbol of anti-American resistance in Iraq so much so that the restive northern town of Hawija in Kirkuk Governorate was referred to as the “Anbar of the North” by the US military at one time. Anbar became almost a catchall term for a place that was difficult to pacify through traditional counterinsurgency doctrine much less purely by means of military hard power. Only through cooperation and co-opting was the Sunni Arab insurgency there quelled for a time with the raising of Sahwa militias.

In the now bloody aftermath of the American troop withdrawal that took place at the tail end of 2011 and was hailed by President Barack Obama as ‘ending’ the Iraq war, Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Da’wa Party die-hard prime minister, has done nothing to tamp down the collective ire of Sunni activists from Fallujah north to Hawija. Maliki’s moves have merely moved the Iraq war into a much more indigenous phase.

From accusing notable Sunni politcos of being involved in terrorism, a crime punishable by death in Iraq’s draconian penal code, to doing nothing to assuage the concerns of angry protestors, Maliki at least partly set the stage for the arrival of ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah fi Iraq w’al Sham, know locally by its acronym DAASH, and by its English acronym ISIL, into Fallujah’s city centre and sections of Ramadi and several villages in the respective surrounding areas at the outset of 2014.

The Iraqi elections are approaching quickly on the country’s troubled political horizon on April 30th. How ‘free and fair’ voting will be carried out under such circumstances is entirely unclear.

I’m illustrating this post with the following images because I personally feel much of what is going on in Iraq today can be traced directly back to the elaborately expensive yet incredibly poorly planned Bush/neo-conservative regime decapitation initiative called Operation Iraqi Freedom. That moniker seemed to me to say that 99.9% of all Iraqis were equally oppressed by Hussein’s dreadful Ba’ath Party policies.

By and large, yes, Iraqis were treated terribly by an anti-egalitarian strongman in a nation-state rife with deep tribal, sect, and ethnic division. But the late dictator could not have ruled for decades without a degree of genuine support fostered by patronage networks and adroit imbuing of his own ideology among at least a cadre of willing followers.

An American Humvee gunner holds a makeshift sign that reads "Go" in English and then Arabic at the entrance to a bridge over that Tigris River that has been partially destroyed by American munitions. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

An American Humvee gunner holds a makeshift sign that reads “Go” in English and then Arabic at the entrance to a bridge over that Tigris River that has been partially destroyed by American munitions.Note the boy staring in wonderment out of the blue minibus on the left. These wars don’t happen in a vacuum and children often abound. Some of them undoubtedly would grow up in the following years to become militants attacking coalition forces and Iraqi federal forces. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

But it should be noted that not all the Sunnis fighting the state right now are doing so under the black banners of salafi-jihad. Though those banners make for exciting headlines, there is a viable retro or neo-Ba’athist strain of rebellion going on. Though it had been primarily focused more on the Kurds and territorial issues pertaining to the Green Line in terms of strategy and tactics, the Jaish Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN) and Intifada Ahrar al-Iraq which has been described as a political front group for the JRTN–since gone operational, are kind of Ba’athist revivalist groups (or two parts of the same movement depending on perspective).These movements have sought to resuscitate Saddamist symbolism to garner the support of disaffected Iraqis tired of what they perceive as “Safavid” (Iranian)-influenced political primacy in Baghdad. Certainly DAASH/ISIL and JRTN have starkly different ideologies and objectives, but for now they have a common enemy in PM Maliki and those who defend and support him.

Forest of destruction. All that was left of the building after a "surgical strike" were its ornery pillars which refused to topple. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Forest of destruction. All that was left of this particular building after a “surgical strike” were its ornery pillars which refused to topple. Upon arrival in Baghdad, what immediately impressed upon me visually was how the American air campaign in Iraq differed from that I’d witnessed in Afghanistan after 9/11. American bombardments there struck mostly unremarkable hillsides as the Taliban had hardly any fixed concrete targets. Iraq was the polar opposite as swaths of brick and mortar cities were leveled in an instant as ignorant Fox television viewers looked on with a non-chalant curiosity. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Although the Americans wouldn't yet admit an insurrection against the US-led occupation was already underway from the war's inception, it was pretty obvious walking around Baghdad that things were going to get ugly. Here, I found the upside down chassis of a what appeared to be a car bomb. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Although the Americans wouldn’t yet admit an insurrection against the US-led occupation was already underway (we all remember Rumsfeld’s “dead enders”) from the war’s inception, it was pretty obvious walking around Baghdad that things were going to get ugly and fast. Here, I found the upside down chassis of a what appeared to be a car bomb. As I quietly photographed this wreckage atop a traffic median, there was an explosion off in the distance indicated by the rising black plume. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

I walked all over the Iraqi capital one day looking for a still intact mural of President Saddam Hussein that hadn't been trashed by the Americans or joyous opponents of his wing of the Ba'ath Party. I managed to find this one in a deserted lot littered with construction equipment. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

I walked all over the Iraqi capital one day looking for a still intact mural of President Saddam Hussein that hadn’t been trashed by the Americans or joyous opponents of his wing of the Ba’ath Party. I managed to find this one in a deserted lot littered with construction equipment. One thing that has always fascinated me about dictatorial regimes is the sheer level of ubiquitousness of ‘big man’ iconography. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Though at the time of this posting Fallujah remains under rebel control in a shaky truce mediated by the Anbar Provincial Council, in my view things aren’t likely to improve overnight in terms of Anbar’s overall security in the lead-up this spring’s election.

Categories: 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Uncategorized Tags: ,

The Levant in Flames

January 11th, 2014 No comments
Portraits of Ba'athist leader Bashar al-Assad gazing off in different directions at a market in Damascus two years after he succeeded his father. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Portraits of Ba’athist leader Bashar al-Assad gazing off in different directions at a market in Damascus two years after he succeeded his father. Despite some neoconservative sabre rattling toward Assad after the American invasion of Baghdad, it was otherwise unthinkable that his minoritarian Alawi regime would be genuinely threatened by an uprising-Salafist or otherwise-after the “Hama solution” precent set by his father in 1982. Now the inter-insurgency war pitting secular nationalists, salafi nationalists, Kurdish ethno-nationalists and salafi-jihadis against one another may give Assad a chance at partially saving his enfeebled Russian and Iranian-backed regime. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- There two major interconnected stories in the Levant this week: the internecine fighting between the salafist rebel factions vying for dominance in the northern Syrian war theatre and the Anbari uprising-cum-chaos in Ramadi, Fallujah and smaller villages west of Baghdad. I appeared in a live discussion on the Syrian issue with Samir Nashar of the Syrian National Council in Istanbul and Ahmad Abazed, an analyst on Syrian affairs in Amman. We talked about the battle between Ahrar al-Sham and its allies and ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyya fi Iraq w’al-Sham (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-ISIL) mostly in Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqah governorates.

I appeared on BBC Arabic's Newnight present by Fidah Bassil with Ahmad Abazed (l) Samir Nashar (r) on the January 8th broadcast.

I appeared on BBC Arabic’s Newnight present by Fidah Bassil with Ahmad Abazed (l) Samir Nashar (r) on the January 8th broadcast.

As Syria’s conflict becomes ever more confounding, peer competition among insurgent movements appears steadily on the rise. The confounding bit is that while at war with one another in some governorates, Ahrar al-Sham, ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra are reportedly still working together against the Kurdish PYD’s YPG militias in al-Hassakah Governorate and the relationship between those two groups is murky. The fact that so many journalists have disappeared in Syria certainly doesn’t help matters.

I stated that I believe this battle is partly a Darwinian battle for primacy that we have seen in many civil wars and revolutionary movements from 1979 Iran to Sri Lanka in the early 1980s. Often one group needs to push its one-time allies aside, often violently, so that its ideological strain becomes the dominant, and then sole one in the war theater. In doing so, the regimes these movements are fighting can no longer say they are fighting small bands of revolutionaries they can then divide and co-opt. A singular voice is more adept at creating a revolutionary or separatist state.

Part of why things in Syria have evolved in such a way is because the world failed to label the crisis there as a revolution. Instead, it was repeatedly labeled a “crackdown” against protestors like the failed Shia uprising in Bahrain. When external powers finally did decide to act in Syria, they did so without harmony and according to each’s self interest by aiding the rebel groups of their choice. This only heightened peer competition among rebel factions vying for influence. With no unified policy on how to aid Syria’s rebel movements, the pendulum will continue to swing between ISIL and its adversaries in cities like Aleppo and Raqqa. 

I’ve been closely following the uprising in Anbar, with federal forces being pushed out of Fallujah and the governorate’s capital Ramadi. I’m interested in how this Anbar situation relates to Syria and also how it relates to the events of 2003-2004. ISIL has been strengthened by the war in Syria undoubtedly but the events in Anbar are also part of the larger atmosphere of Sunni discontent in Maliki’s Iraq.

I don’t think ISIL’s agenda has broad-based popular support by any means, but it couldn’t exist with zero sympathy for at least some of its sectarian aims either.  ISIL will not be welcomed in the larger population centers for long as locals will not have forgotten the group’s brutal legacy of takfiri hellfire. And though the tribal militia’s certainly have a tense relationship with federal forces in the post-American era, the two may have more in common in the meantime in fighting to eject ISIL in villages outside Ramadi. At the time of this post fighting in Ramadi proper is still ongoing with tribal fighters and Iraqi state forces reportedly working together against ISIL.

So now we see ISIL fighting on two disparate fronts in Anbar and Raqqa et al both of which now appear just as much aimed at fighting fellow Sunnis as well as the largely non-Sunni regimes in Baghdad and Damascus that, for each’s respective strategic interests, are in league with Tehran.

What level of coordination–if any–exists between these wings of ISIL is not really concretely known to my knowledge. What is known is that the longer the relevant external actors don’t have a cohesive foreign policy toward Syria, the longer the Levant will continue to burn unabated.

An American military intelligence officer photographs a sticker of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim near Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, April 2003. As a "unilateral" (non-embedded) journalist I guess I did not have the required permission to take such a photo. ©2003 Derek henry Flood

An American military intelligence officer photographs a sticker of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim near Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, April 2003. Hakim was the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). As a “unilateral” (non-embedded) journalist I guess I did not have the required permission to take such a photo. Hakim was assassinated by a massive car bomb in Najaf a few short months later on August 29, 2003 outside the shrine of Imam Ali. It seemed as if the American military higher ups couldn’t quite decide who their enemies were. After shooting this photo, my fixer an I drove onto the campus of the university nearby and two young GIs pointed M-16s at our heads. When I told them in loud American English I was a journalist, they told me they couldn’t be sure my hilarious fixer wasn’t a secretive suicide bomber.  ©2003 Derek henry Flood 

The ripple effects of the Pentagon's aggressive de-Ba'athification agenda can be felt in Iraq today, well over a decade after the invasion/intervention/occupation/quagmire. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

The ripple effects of the Pentagon’s aggressive de-Ba’athification agenda can be felt in Iraq today, well over a decade after the invasion/intervention/occupation/quagmire. De-Ba’athification for many was code for Sunni Arab marginalization that partly underlies the Sunni protest camps from Hawija to Ramadi. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Iraq, Syria Tags: