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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.

In Darkness

January 24th, 2014 No comments
Murad Mazaev, right, in Birkiani, Georgia, August 2002. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Murad Mazaev, right, in on a dim , rainy evening in Birkiani, Georgia, August 2002. Murad died near Aleppo, Syria in late May of last year. I was shocked to learn someone I once knew perished apparently as a salafi shaheed in war not concerning his own people. Murad had been living in Sweden as a refugee but decided to leave his young family and seek martyrdom in the war against the Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- While concluding a nearly month-long research trip to the Republic of Georgia in October, on my final night in Tbilisi I met with an analyst from Georgia’s MFA to discuss current trends in Islamic militancy in the North Caucasus and how those trends are currently tied to the civil war in Syria. As we concluded our dinner at a traditional restaurant on Rustaveli Avenue, my contact informed me that a Chechen filmmaker called Murad Mazaev I once knew back in 2002 had died months earlier in northern Syria. I was taken aback and disturbed by this bit of information and sought to dig deeper once I returned to the United States.

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 9.31.22 PMMy Georgian contact pondered that Murad may have died trying to work as a documentarian but it began to seem more and more like he died as a jihadi perhaps fighting for Jaish al-Muhajireen wa’l-Ansar, a constituent movement of ISIL or ISIL proper. Who knows? When I tried to contact his former filmmaking partner in Canada about the circumstances under which Murad died, he replied “why are you asking me about this?” (I think they had had a falling out years previously) When I tried to contact a Chechen friend of Murad’s in Stockholm looking for answers about what motivated him to leave the cold comforts of Sweden, no reply.

As I began working on an article on the topic for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, I decided to weave Murad’s tragic tale of refuge, asylum and ultimately doomed salafi jihad, into my work. Murad never struck me as the type to pick up arms. Sure he was a die hard Chechen nationalist and devout Muslim, but a jihadi abandoning his young family to seek martyrdom in Syria? That was hard for me to digest.

Murad and I had last been in touch in the autumn of 2010 via email. In his very broken English he informed me that he was living in Sweden but was not then currently still pursuing his dreams of becoming an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. He struck me as being enamored of the mujahideen when we first met, but still an erudite kid from Grozny who wouldn’t be very effective marching through a battlefield with a Kalashnikov rather than a camera,

When Murad snuck me into the Pankisi Gorge 12 years ago, the first photos he let me shoot were of kids playing basketball at the main school in Duisi. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

When Murad snuck me into the Pankisi Gorge 12 years ago, the first photos he let me shoot were of kids playing basketball at the main school in Duisi. He was nervous if the wrong people found out he had smuggled a Western journalist into the territory that was out of the hands of then President Eduard Shevardnadze. I’ll never forget Murad putting a traditional Chechen cap on my head as we boarded a bus from Akhmeta to Duisi. I did my best to blend in when a Georgian soldier boarded the bus asking “dokumenta!” ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Over eleven years on I revisited the school in Duisi which had become the Roddy Scott Foundation.

Over eleven years on I revisited this school in Duisi which was now the home of the the Roddy Scott Foundation. Roddy was an English journalist who had known Murad and later traversed the Greater Caucasus range with a unit of Ruslan Gelayev’s mujahideen with Murad’s knowledge. He was then killed by a Russian sniper in the town of Galashki in the Republic of Ingushetia.

Murad’s proudest achievement was making the world’s first Chechen-language film…and with genuine mujahideen from Ruslan ‘Hamzat’ Gelayev’s Pankisi-based unit as extras no less. It was partly through meeting Murad in Tbilisi nearly a dozen years ago that I became fascinated by the struggle for Chechnya and the oppressed people of the Caucasus who suffered wildly under the Czars, Stalin all the way to Yeltsin and Putin. Murad acted as my fixer in meeting the Chechen refugees inhabiting the Pankisi Gorge when it was making headlines around the world but few journalists were actually venturing there.

At the school building in Duisi, then being run by a Norwegian NGO, a Chechen refugee boy stands beneath a Turkish-made poster of Aslan Maskhadov, the emblematic leader of Chechen national liberation movement. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

At the school building in Duisi, then being run by a Norwegian NGO, a Chechen refugee boy stands beneath a Turkish-made poster of Aslan Maskhadov, the emblematic leader of Chechnya’s national liberation movement. Maskhadov was killed by Russian federal forces in March 2005.  At the time, the Guardian labeled Maskhadov “Chechnya’s Arafat.”As nationalism waned, salafism became the dominant ideology ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

But in Chechnya as the war there has mercilessly ground on since it first began in the mid-1990s, the ideology powering the fight has transitioned from Sufi-inflected Chechen nationalism to destructive transnational salafism. No longer was merely an independent Chechen republic the goal, but the proclamation of an Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) spanning from the shores of the Caspian to the rocky beaches of the Black Sea.

Murad took me to meet this Kist woman in Duisi who was baking bread for the Chechen refugees that had sought safety there. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Murad took me to meet this Kist woman in Duisi who was baking flat bread for the Chechen refugees that had sought shelter there from relentless Russian aggression and the ensuing guerrilla warfare that attempted to counter it. He wanted the world to know of the suffering of his people. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Rustam Gelayev's aunt holds up a smartphone image of her late nephew who, like Murad, died in northern Syria in August 2012. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

When I revisited Pankisi again in 2013, it was not to learn about foreign militants traveling north to wage jihad in Chechnya, but to learn about who the next generation of Chechens were going in the opposite direction to fight and die in Syria. Rustam Gelayev’s aunt holds up a smartphone image of her late nephew who, like Murad, died in northern Syria at the age of 24 in August 2012. Above is a very different image of a slightly younger Rustam than the one that circulated on twitter of him holding a rifle presumably in Aleppo Governorate. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

When I was back in Pankisi in October to meet with members of the Gelayev family to find out their version of events surrounding the death of Ruslan’s son, Rustam in Syria in mid-August 2012, no one admitted to remembering Murad but when I mentioned Roddy their eyes lit up. Roddy’s parents, Robin and Stina Scott set up the Roddy Scott Foundation to teach English to the youth of Pankisi in their effusive son’s memory. Sadly, Murad sought to put Chechnya on the map in terms of global conscience but he was killed in Syria in what remain murky circumstances. From my canvassing of residents in Duisi, Jokolo and Birkiani, no one seemed to remember his contribution to collective Chechen culture.

What the deaths of Murad and Rustam do indicate is the significant fact that Chechens are now participants in a war outside the North Caucasus. For those of us who covered the wars on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq and war theaters elsewhere after 9/11 where Chechens were never proven to have fought, this feels like a sea change.

On another very grim note, I belatedly found out that someone whose work I really admired died in the Taverna du Liban attack in Kabul.

 Alexandros Petersen who was a colleague of my colleague Rafaello Pantucci was murdered in the recent attack on the Lebanese restaurant in Wazir Akbar Khan. Petersen was an analyst of big-think Eurasian geopolitics in the style of Sir Halford Mackinder and authored The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West which I’ve had in my Amazon queue for some time now and been meaning to read. Now I must. Though I never had the pleasure of meeting him, we wrote for the same D.C. think-tank where I once served as an editor and analyst a few years ago. We are now less one brilliant person who went to great lengths to understand and explain the geopolitical trends shaping today’s world. For shame.

When I first heard about the Taliban operation in the Afghan capital, I recalled spending a fun evening at the Levantine hangout with journalist Jason Motlagh and another guy based in Bangkok who talked about his mission of interviewing Viktor Bout multiple time in a Thai cell before Bout was extradited to the U.S. for prosecution. The latter guy-whose name I don’t remember five years later-and another journo and I walked from WAK all the way back to Shar-e-Nau at about 2 a.m. and I, in a sort of gallows humor, half joked, “we couldn’t do this in Baghdad” (i.e. walk home in the middle of the night). That was back in 2009. Things got worse as that year went on with the attack on the UN compound that September and suicide bomb walls going up around the Indian embassy and so forth.

Are things arguably worse now in 2014? It’s tough to say from sitting here in the West. But I can say this much-I may go back to the old school routine of donning a shalwar kameez and beard when I go back to Afghanistan. Kabul has often been considered a world apart from the rest of Afghanistan in terms of its comparative cosmopolitanism in relation to life in the provinces but it is still Afghanistan. The Taliban want to let the world know that they retain the ability to strike at will anytime, anywhere in the country.

In other news, I have a photo contribution in the new issue of The Washingtonian in the article titled This Is Danny Pearl’s Final Story by Asra Q. Nomani. My image is that of Nomani and Pearl’s home in Karachi’s tony Defence Housing Authority (DHA).

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

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The Road Somewhat Less Traveled As Seen Through an iPod.

August 10th, 2013 No comments
Crossing the Iraq-Turkey border involved no less than six different vehicles from taxis, the mini vans to full size buses. Each one came decked out with its own motif. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Crossing the Iraq-Turkey border involved no less than six different vehicles from taxis, the mini vans to full size buses. Each one came decked out with its own motif. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- In terms of collecting images from around the world as a photographer in the last 15 years, beyond the vast adjustment from analog to digital there has been the management of multiple devices that collect images digitally. Aside from having a professional grade camera to capture moments in war zones hither and yon, there becomes the question of how to manage  these other random images that collect on mobile phones. To add to the mess I have an iPod that takes photos and uploads them to my laptop with much more ease than my relatively ancient Blackberry. With some down time here in my most trusted EU port city with its own bitter linguistic separatism and autonomous region flag flying not that different than Iraqi Kurdistan in the most simple analogous terms, I’m posting some random road and air images that stacked up on the mobile devices that now line both my front pockets.

This driver gave me the full white knuckle experience taking curves as fast as possible while looking over at me-and apparent;y not on the road-and screaming "Kurdistan! Good?" He was getting on my nerves so much I repeatedly answered his rabid ethno-patriotism in Arabic. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

This driver gave me the full white knuckle experience taking curves as fast as possible while looking over at me-and apparently not on the road-and screaming “Kurdistan! Good?” He was getting on my nerves so much I repeatedly answered his rabid ethno-patriotism in Arabic. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Though Ankara has been against Kurdish nationalism since the birth of the modern Turkish republic, Turkish interests in a stable Kurdish administered northern Iraq seems appetizing when compared to the takfiri chaos in central Iraq. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Though Ankara has been against Kurdish nationalism since the birth of the modern Turkish republic, Turkish interests in a stable Kurdish administered northern Iraq seems appetizing when compared to the takfiri chaos in central Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan has become a serious market for Turkish corporations like Beko, the white goods powerhouse. In northern Iraq, Turkish pragmatism has prevailed in the name of huge profits. However, Ankara still seeks to stem the creation of a similar Kurdish self-governing region in neighboring Syria despite the success of the “Barzani model.”©2013 Derek Henry Flood

No unnecessarily arduous Middle Eastern road would be complete without lots of stops to talk to random guys like this. Everyone is working a hustle of some form or another to make it worth their while. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

No unnecessarily arduous Middle Eastern road trip would be complete without lots of stops to talk to random guys like this about God knows what. Everyone is working a hustle of some form or another to make it worth their while.  Simply ferrying passengers back and forth doesn’t cut it in this entire region. Marlboro Reds and tea are the smuggler’s choice items. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

China's Great Wall Motors is making a dent in what had traditionally been a Japanese-dominated truck market. These still aren't as common as Toyota but I did see a good many of them on Iraq's roadways. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

China’s Great Wall Motors is making a dent in what had traditionally been a Japanese-dominated truck market. These still aren’t as common as Toyota but I did see a good many of them on Iraq’s roadways. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A Turkish Jandarma (Gendarmerie) hard car and a host of lookie loos inspect a jackknifed Turkish big rig that was transporting bottled water to Iraq. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A Turkish Jandarma (Gendarmerie) hard car and a host of lookie loos inspect a jack-knifed Turkish big rig outside Silopi that was transporting bottled water to Iraq…and didn’t quite make it ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

It isn't just Turkish trucking enterprises making their way into Iraq. In the choked queue at Habur-Ibrahim Khalil I spotted a cluster of transporters from Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia and Bulgaria. Wherever there's money to be made...©2013 Derek Henry Flood

It isn’t just Turkish trucking enterprises making their way into Iraq. In the choked queue at Habur-Ibrahim Khalil I spotted a cluster of transporters from Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia and Bulgaria. Wherever there’s money to be made…©2013 Derek Henry Flood

"Don't call it Kurdistan! It is Turkey! Kurdistan is in Iraq!" Taking off from Mardin airport-which is really considered to be in Kiziltepe by locals-and soaring over long contested territory. As PKK-Ankar peace talks fail to come to an accord with the PKK leadership s hoped for time frame, renewed insurgency may be just around the corner in the land below. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

“Don’t call it Kurdistan! It is Turkey! Kurdistan is in Iraq!” Taking off from Mardin airport-which is really considered to be in Kiziltepe by locals-and soaring over long contested territory. As PKK-Ankara peace talks fail to come to an accord with the PKK leadership’s pressed for time frame, renewed insurgency may be just around the corner in the land below. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

At journey's end, Istanbul Atatürk Airport. For those curious about obscure passports and equally obscure airlines (from a Western perspective), this place can set the imagination alight. Here a sanctioned Iranian Mahan Air Airbus A300 taxis for takeoff back to the Islamic Republic. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

At journey’s end, Istanbul Atatürk Airport. For those curious about obscure passports and equally obscure airlines (from a Western perspective), this place can set the imagination alight. Here a sanctioned Iranian Mahan Air Airbus A300 taxis for takeoff back to the Islamic Republic. Originally made for the Lufthansa fleet in 1987, Mahan acquired this jet from Kyrgyz Airways in 2009. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Twenty Long Years

July 29th, 2013 No comments
An Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) rally in the square across from my hotel in Diyarbakir. The speakers expressed outrage at the putsch in Cairo that ended the short lived presidency of Mohammed Morsi and expressed solidarity with the suffering Muslims of S Syria, Iraq, Kashmir and Bahrain. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

An Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) rally in the square across from my hotel in Diyarbakir. The speakers expressed outrage at the putsch in Cairo that ended the short lived presidency of Mohammed Morsi and expressed solidarity with the suffering Muslims of Syria, Iraq, Kashmir and even the Shia of far away Bahrain. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Diyarbakir- Though I try not to get overly personal with TWD’s posts as it’s more of a news/analysis site, I’ve just arrived in southeastern Turkey (northern Kurdistan to some) and this marks twenty years of my travels in the Middle East. In the summer of 1993 I traveled to Israel/Palestine to be a volunteer worker on a grueling archaeological dig not too far south of the Lebanese border. Lo and behold A short, hot war broke out that summer two decades ago called either the Seven Day War or Operation Accountability depending on whom one asks (as is everything in this zone).

Here I am twenty long years later with both Syria and Iraq just to the south at war and the PKK resurgent in Turkey while in peace talks with the Erdogan government drag onat the same time. The eponymous province of which Diyarbakir is the administrative center is not without occasional political violence either.  In this area there is so much going on seemingly at all times whether in terms in broad brush geopolitics or furious insurgencies being clumsily batted back by traditional military institutions employing awful scorched earth tactics that it just keeps calling me back.

Importantly, at least to me, is that I feel privileged to be here at all after all this time. I’ve met journalists over the years who are no longer still alive to tell these stories. I still think about them.

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The Muslim Brotherhood had a post-Iftaar rally in the square across the street from my hotel. Speakers fired up the crowd about the unjust nature in which Mohammed Morsi was recently deposed in Cairo. This to me symbolizes how much Turkey has changed in the era of the AKP government ruling in Ankara. I couldn’t have imagined this in the 1990s when I first started coming here where it was all about Ataturk and the Ikhwan was spoken of in hushed tones. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Street scene, downtown Diyarbakir. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Street scene, downtown Diyarbakir. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

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Çorba (lentil soup) and Vişne Nektarı (Cherry nectar juice)-my two staples in Turkey. Lentil soup is to Turkey what Dal Makhani is to India-available everywhere, cheap, and nourishing. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

How Syria Has Changed

January 9th, 2013 No comments

New York- I have an article out this week in Asia Times Online based on my very different experiences in Syria from 2002-2012. Throughout the decade after 9/11, Syria–though absolutely central to the history and culture of the Arab realm–was viewed as a quiet backwater for both the West and it jihadi opponents. Syria’s mukhabarat intelligence services either facilitated or turned a blind eye to the transit of salafi fighters from North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula into a besieged Iraq.

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In the other direction, it acted as a very willing conduit for Iranian arms and treasure into tiny Lebanon on whom it holds in a geographical bear hug. But one of my key points is that Syrian intelligence officers made Syria itself one of the safest places in the world–unless one was a terrorism suspect extraordinarily rendered there or a member of the Brotherhood languishing in one of the country’s awful prisons. But what was remarkable at the time was that as hot wars raged on either side of it, Syria remained completely quiet internally until its revolution commenced in March 2011.

After Hama in 1982, Syrians were well aware of the regime’s potential for wrath. If jihadis had made attacks inside Syria, its borders would have been shut down overnight thus sealing off the vital jihadi pipeline to western Iraq.

Even though jihadis viewed the Assad regime as perhaps a caricature of apostasy on earth, they never directed their ire toward the near enemy. Instead they sought to attack the occupying forces of the far enemy stationed inside Iraq in the aorta of the ummah along with non-Sunni and non-Arab Iraqis (and Sunni Arabs who cooperated with the occupation forces).

While even Jordan suffered the horror of massive, coordinated suicide bombings in Amman in November 2005, Syria suffered no similar consequences during the core of the Iraq conflict.  It seemed that the Assad regime–steeped in its own post-colonial Arab nationalism and an historic enmity toward rival Iraqi Ba’athists–had found common cause with or at the very least sought to accommodate those traveling in the salafi-jihadi caravan.

Whatever we want to read in, Syria, which had done far more to crush Sunni Islamism in the past than Jordan’s famed GID, was not made a kinetic target of jihadis throughout the decade after 9/11. It certainly may have been an ideological target by Sunni exiles in London and elsewhere but the country did not suffer a suicide bombing until it was consumed by the current civil war.

Damascus simply didn’t withstand blowback as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, England and others had. Now Syria itself is the magnet for those who want to carve out a Sunni state in the heart of the Levant or any other piece of territory they believe they can hold and build.

Viewing Syria Through the Chechen Prism

December 11th, 2012 No comments

Syria, then. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have a piece in today’s edition of Asia Times Online about Russia, Chechnya and the Russian view of Syria. Russia, like it’s red-headed authoritarian stepchild China, constantly asserts an inviolable concept known as “national sovereignty” which is essentially a brutal policy used to suppress ethnic questions within present day borders.

Being schooled in the West, it is easy to believe that an empires had two distinct traits that defined them: they began with death defying, deep sea voyages that emanated from western and northern Europe and that after the immense devastation European societies incurred during the second world war, they had no choice but to abandon their colonies in Africa and Asia whose upkeep and administration was no longer viable as Europe’s shattered nation-states were forced to turn inward in order to rebuild themselves from the ground up.

Beginning with the Netherlands’s withdrawal from Indonesia in 1949 and Britain’s exit from Libya in 1951 and largely ending (at least in a formal sense) with the collapse of the recalcitrant Portuguese empire in 1975, Europe’s last remaining maritime colonial power, Americans and other Westerners have been under the impression that the Age of Empire is a dusty relic of a best forgotten time period that long predated the political correctness revolution that began in the early 1990s.

But what this unfortunate view of history largely obscures though is that broader Eurasia today remains a continent of present-day land-based empires who have very much yet to embrace “the end of history” as it were. Russia’s never-ending struggles to contain ethnic rebellion in the Caucasus and even ensure that a restless Republic of Tatarstan remains in the Kremlin’s fold and a China still very much wrestling with the Tibet question while trying to turn Xinjiang Province into some sort of a living cultural museum run by ethnic-Han migrants, indicates that the still subjugated populations in these regions often view Moscow and Beijing as colonial powers in the post-modern Oriental sense of things.

So sure, at points you will have people abroad advocating for human rights in these places in order to serve an anti-authoritarian agenda but the post-war Western powers with their own unaccounted for, sordid history of collective rape and colonization, combined with half-hearted diplomacy that is doomed to fail from the start and hampered by both conservative isolationists and anti-imperialists at home, means that there are no worthwhile mechanisms for resolving these conflicts.

So in essence, Chechnya and Tibet, Tatarstan and East Turkestan can have no realistic hope of achieving an independent statehood because the very IDEA that they are presently under the yoke of empire has been suppressed. When the British Foreign Office issues weak kneed statements like ”Tibet is part of China. Full stop” and when President Bill Clinton characterized the then ongoing ethnocide in Chechnya as an “internal affair” for the Russians alone to resolve, Whitehall, the White House and others abet expansionist authoritarianism with Eurasian characteristics.

Russia, and to a somewhat lesser extent China, have extended this hardened concept of non-interventionism to the unwilling inhabitants of Syria. Today, we the world have let the ancient, stunning city of Aleppo be transformed into another Grozny. When will it stop?

Syria’s Doomed Ceasefire

October 26th, 2012 No comments

New York-One of the myriad topics was what constitutes or defines intervention in Syria.  A high-ranking NATO official explained to me at 2 2012 security conference that the Alliance was emphatically not going to get involved militarily in Syria even if the so-called “red lines” set forth by individual member states were crossed time and again. When NATO became deeply involved in the Libyan war, it was under the auspices of protecting civilians as stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which outlined the multi-national mission that culminated in Operation Unified Protector.

Members of the Free Syrian Army take aim at a Syrian Army post across the valley in northwestern Idlib Governorate. @2012 Derek Henry Flood

I mentioned at that February conference that I had inadvertently run across a pair of intelligence operatives on atop a cliff on the outskirts of Nalut in western Libya’s Jebel Nafusa/Western Mountains region in August 2011. I presumed the men to be either Central Intelligence Agency officers or former ones who were now for-hire intelligence contractors. They were providing real-time battlefield intelligence while decisive air strikes were being carried out in the then (until 6pm that day to be specific) Qaddafist-controlled towns of Ghazayah and Takut on the stiflingly hot plains down below. With a satellite phone and military grade macro binoculars they were apparently relaying coordinates for air strikes and feedback about the accuracy of previous bombardments.

Libya’s NTC rebels rest in the shade after capturing the Qaddafist-held town of Takut with NATO and CIA assistance on July 28, 2011. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

When I confronted the NATO official about this, which to me appeared to be in direct violation of UNSC 1973 as an outside power was clearly taking sides with one of the conflict’s belligerents thereby nullifying the idea of any form of non-partisan negotiated solution with the Qaddafi regime, NATO’s man swiftly countered that member states within the Alliance had undertaken unilateral intelligence missions which were not part of NATO’s mandate nor had its official bureaucratic blessing. Oh, ok, well I guess that wraps my question up neatly, right?

BUT…how were the Libyans on the ground, both NTC rebels and Qaddafists, supposed to interpret these elite distinctions made in Brussels, Washington, Doha, London, Paris and Benghazi? For the Libyans, the CIA and NATO were one in the same, entirely conflated entities. Not to mention perfect fodder for those on the anti-imperialist left and conspiracy theorists in general who cynically assume the overthrow of Mu’ammar Qaddafi was planned long ago at a Bilderberg Group meeting or some such thing.

Destroying Takut in order to save it. NTC rebels rest in a smashed police checkpost at the entrance to the western Libyan town after wresting it from Qaddafist forces in concert with precision airstrikes, ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

So as the viewer’s comment pointed out NATO itself is nowhere in the vicinity of launching a large-scale military intervention in Syria but individual member states are indeed carrying out an intelligence war as unilateral, sovereign state actors outside the bounds of the trans-Atlantic security structure. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen had been adamant that Syria will not become another Libya stating an armed humanitarian intervention was ”not the right path.”

The conundrum escalated with the recent cross-border shelling by Syria when ordinance not only landed on Turkish soil but killed Turkish nationals which appears at least on the surface to have caused Rasmussen to change tack. An attack on one member state is theoretically an attack on the broader Alliance which the other members must then be obligated to defend if such action is deemed necessary. Now Secretary General Rasmussen has stated “We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary.”

I also want to quickly elaborate on the unraveling of the October 20, 1998 Adana Agreement which was essentially a peace treaty between Turkey and Syria to halt PKK attacks that were being mounted from safe havens on Syrian territory at the time in a vicious proxy dispute over water rights. Hafez al-Assad, near the end of his thirty year reign, sought to improve relations with Turkey and expelled Abdullah “Apo” Ocalan, the PKK’s cult-like leader. (Ocalan was captured in Kenya on the run in 1999 and extradited to Turkey where he remains holed up in an island prison today in the Sea of Marmara) Turkish-Syrian relations than greatly improved as Turkey tilted away politically from the European Union and began renewing ties, particularly economic ones, in the lands that constituted its former Ottoman realm (as well as warming relation with the clerical regime in Iran as part of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy).

Turkey nearly mounted an invasion of Syria in the late 1990s under the pretext of attacking the PKK. Turkey has also had a long time military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan and parliament in Ankara recently renewed Turkey’s standing hot pursuit mandate whereby Turkish ground forces can enter Iraq when giving chase to PKK fighters. So Turkish troops moving into Syria en masse is not so unthinkable in the present scenario.

The PKK has been stepping up attacks across southern Turkey in recent months and many Turks believe Bashar is playing his father’s old PKK card from the 1990s in an act of calculating strategic desperation. After all, what else does the already isolated Syria regime really have to lose at this point?  Even if the Assad government can somehow survive, relations with an AKP government in Turkey will not be put back together again. It is from this calculus that the Assad regime is basing its tragic strategic decisions and going with what is known as “the Hama solution” (code for scorched earth tactics in crushing any serious threat to their Ba’athist Alawi dynasty)