The War Diaries

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Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

The Devastation of the Air War Upon Syria

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An IDP family existing in the only habitable part of a bombed out building in Manbij, Syria. This structure was ostensibly hit by an American air strike during the siege of Manbij in the spring and summer of 2016.  To destroy a society is relatively easy, to build or rebuild one is a long, labourious task.                                        ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

May 30th, 2018 at 1:35 pm

Syria after the caliphate: Manbij poised between conflicts

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Fighters from the US-backed (at least for now) Manbij Military Council at the al-Arimah front southwest of Manbij town where they face Russian-backed regime forces.

Manbij-I have a new piece out for Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor (subscription required) regarding the ongoing strategic deadlock over this modest city in northern Syria’s Aleppo governorate.

Manbij has been in the news as of late as the Turkish government has repeatedly threatened to invade it unless its American NATO partners/foes enforce Ankara’s bidding to have the YPG retreat east of the Euphrates. There’s one problem with this AKP logic: the YPG does not control or administer Manbij. Manbij is secured by the Manbij Military Council, a constituent force of the SDF in which the YPG and YPJ are fellow constituents that are theoretically, if no way in practice, equal armed components in the SDF’s egalitarian outline. Politically it is run by the Manbij Civil Council which, although operating under the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s TEV-DEM norms, is not simply a PYD outpost under a different name. The local administration does not count itself part of Rojava and many council members speak zero Kurdish.

Turkish claims are ultimately expressions of vague bellicosity. When that country’s president and his foreign minister reference Manbij, these statements have no bearing on ground realities in this mostly Arab urban centre.

Manbij’s Asayish gendarmerie is almost entirely Arab for example. What the AKP bigs may have been conflating however was that during the battle for olive-rich Afrin (if I’m to give them the benefit of the doubt), the YPG and YPJ were transiting via Manbij on what seemed to be like a nightly basis both to and fro embattled Afrin. So in that sense, yes, the Turkish leadership was correct that was a YPG presence there but the key nuance is that it was on the move to defend the PYD’s northwestern enclave from the Turkish military and the ‘Free Syrian Army’ (rebranded salafi-jihadis mostly).

Scrawled on the wall of what had been an Islamic State torture prison in Manbij, “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet. Stay in the Islamic State.” ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

The people of Manbij who were not able to flee north to Turkey and perhaps onward to the EU during the two year and seven month rule of IS there suffered immensely. After a siege in the spring and summer of 2016 in which the city was ultimately liberated, the place has been making a vibrant, remarkable comeback with seemingly no outside help unless you count Aleppan financiers as outsiders. Exploring the remnants of IS’s brutality there was utterly haunting. Some of the torture techniques that were described to me seemed as if they were straight out of a CIA playbook circa 2002.

Today, this town is thriving on the relative stability and freedom it provides IDPs, returnees, and those who never left, even as it faces a multitude of emerging threats with IS seemingly least among them.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 10th, 2018 at 2:56 am

Crossroads of a Global War

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Commander Heval (Comrade) Shiyar and his Manbij Military Council fighters at their position along the south bank of the Sajur River north of Manbij. These minimally armed men are at the centre of a global great game for control of Syria’s territory.©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Manbij- Along the Manbij Military Council’s mostly quiet frontline with the Turkish military and its Islamist Syrian Arab proxy militias, headlines have emanated from this mostly misunderstood crisis locus. One of the most crucial points which I personally found maddeningly frustrating was that Turkish president Erdoğan’s constantly parroted talking point that the Kurdish YPG militia must withdraw unconditionally west of the Euphrates River. This ultimatum is designed to meet Ankara’s narrow, localised geostrategic demands that what it deems the “terror corridor” of northern Syria must be cleared of “terrorists” on conditions dictated by the Turkish president and his obedient foreign minister.

This assertion was repeated by Western media outlets with global reach in such a blatantly unexamined manner. Some of that may have to do with outlets being risk averse when it comes to hiring freelancers in Syria specifically I would guess from the beheading episodes of 2014 though no one has ever actually told me this in writing, but it seems implied. One major US outlet told me they refused work from independent journalist working in Iraq and Syria in 2017 when I was covering the Raqqa offensive. At the time I presumed this because a freelancer they’d hired was kidnapped/captured though the editor I corresponded with then left me to make merely an educated guess. Thus an intensely complicated place like Manbij that requires immense nuance and time spent has not been aided by fleeting coverage in the mainstream media. This has helped advance the Turkish position on the matter–at least in terms of rhetoric-as-news-copy–coupled with the anti-intellectualism of a bumbling American leader repeatedly contradicting his own field commanders who partner with the Manbij Military Council. Thus I digress.

In an effort to examine battlefield nuance, I have an article in the April issue for Jane’s Intelligence Review (subscription required titled “Strategic Prize” as well as its companion online piece, “Diverse forces converge on Syria’s Manbij,” reporting from the frontlines of this incredibly complex threat environment.

Manbij and its rural hinterland are in fact defended by the Manbij Military Council, a mostly young Arab force helmed by veteran Kurdish commanders that in reality not simply a branch of the YPG. Like the YPG it is a constituent militia making up the SDF but it is a distinct force grouping with a high degree of operational autonomy.

The late Abu Amjad who led the MMC was in fact a Manbiji Arab. The MMC does not have female YPJ fighters along its frontline positions facing Ankara’s ‘Euphrates Shield’ forces or those areas where it is facing the Russian and Iranian-backed nizam (Syrian colloquial Arabic denoting the Assad regime). Manbij was a logistical resupply hub for Kurdish militias during the siege of Afrin to be sure but I never observed that they were responsible for this critical frontier city’s armed security.

Few independent journalists have actually visited Manbij and spent real time here but understandably so. Aside from a very brief dog-and-pony show with a not particularly articulate American general in early February, the coverage of this incredibly intricate battle space has been lacklustre at best. Though I also must emphasise just how difficult it has become to get not only into Syria but to get access to the core of the stories there. One must deal with the opaque decision making processes of not one but two internationally unrecognised governments whilst in a constant pursuit of freshly stamped permission papers with expiration dates. Having worked in Syria before in no way means working there the next time will be more easily facilitated either. Generally speaking, it doesn’t get easier.

The ethnic Arab frontline village of al-Dadat secured by the MMC, an area which the Turkish president claims is ruled by Kurdish “terrorists.” ©Derek Henry Flood

But then if things like this were easy and obvious I probably wouldn’t be pursuing them in the first place. In my entire career now spanning some 17 years I’ve yet to do an embed with a Western military and the possible self censorship such endeavours entail. I focus on the doings of indigenous non-state actors such as those of the Manbij Military Council pictured at the top of this post. People from the land they are striving to protect. To me that is and has always been the real engine of these stories. Occupation forces invade and inevitably withdraw in the Levant, even if that takes decades (think Syria and Israel in post-civil war Lebanon per example) but local fighters are fighting for and guarding their own territory which involves a completely different war fighting perspective.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 3rd, 2018 at 4:00 am

Syria after IS

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SDF fighters throw up victory gestures in the final phase of the battle against IS in central ar-Raqqa. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Barcelona- I have a new article out with Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre about the risks faced by the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces following their final defeat against the so-called Islamic State. My piece assesses what the armed landscape will look like in the near term following the territorial demise of kalashnikov-toting adherents of salafiyya-jihadiyya ideology who sought to erase the physical history of the Ba’athist, post-colonial, and ancient edifices on which the peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys draw their culture in order to create a macabre, social media-fueled vision of utopia.

As militants from as far afield as Trinidad and Turkmenistan are killed or attempt to flee, this will force several awkward realignments of both state and non-state actors. The United States military has no coherent policy on an end game for its Syria strategy, stating it is solely focused of defeating IS with its SDF partners. But as the battle is all but entirely finished save for a small pocket of eastern Deir ez-Zor, this narrow, soda straw view of the war there does not factor the next phase of which it is on the precipice.

The air force of the Russian Federation is pummeling rebel enclaves that continue to resist the al-Assad regime in faltering scorched earth policy reminiscent of the shelling of Grozny in the 1990s. Moscow insists it only has advisors in the context of the Syrian Arab Army’s ground war but that doesn’t include Russian and other CIS citizens who are fighting on behalf of the opaque doings of private military companies supporting the regime in the name of hard currency.

And this is only to name but a few looming factors as the calcified regime in Damascus tries to hold and consolidate its gains with Russian and Iranian support. The regime may try to evict the various factions that comprise the SDF from ar-Raqqa and environs lest another player joins the action space (read:Turkey).

Written by derekhenryflood

November 24th, 2017 at 7:41 am

The Devastation

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An SDF fighter from the Manbij Military Council scouts for IS in the ruins of ar-Raqqa in northern central Syria. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Ar-Raqqa- I have a new article out in the October edition of Jane’s Intelligence Review back in the UK based on my frontline observations and analysis in ar-Raqqa before IS would completely withdrew from the city exactly two weeks on. The destruction I witnessed was astounding in terms of sheer totality. I can’t recall seeing a single structure that was unscathed as the SDF and IS fought it out in those last weeks of waning salafi occupation.

It was a ‘things will get worse before they get better’ scenario writ large as the entire breadth of the city was shattered while IS snipers fired pot shots from their veiled positions and American fighters circled overhead smashing them with GPS coordinates provided by the SDF ground spotters.

Driving around the city’s cratered intersections evoked a mid-1990s Grozny in terms of such a modest sized city withstood scorched earth. Ar-Raqqa was littered with corpses and almost wholly depopulated at the time of my visit. Unexploded ordinance and booby trapped dwellings made the zone uninhabitable for all but the men of the MMC and YPG in the SDF units I encountered.

When I interviewed a commander at the YPG media house about who would govern and secure ar-Raqqa after the battle concluded, his responses were vague at best. The conclusion of each battle in the transnationally inflected Syrian civil war meant that each end begat a new conflict erupting within weeks if not days in the battlespace.

Written by derekhenryflood

October 3rd, 2017 at 10:50 am

Posted in Non-state warfare,Syria

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Amidst Western Squabbling, Wither Mosul and ar-Raqqa

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Watching Kobane burn. Much of the anti-IS campaign has been slow burn to roll back the group's once lightening fast expansion. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Watching Kobane burn. Much of the anti-IS campaign has been slow burn to roll back the group’s once lightening fast expansion. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

New York- With the highly distracting ‘Brexit’ debate-arguably the most distasteful neologism since ‘Grexit,’ and the buffoonery of the coming US presidential election, the war(s) in Iraq and Syria painfully grind on in the ramadan heat. The recapture of Fallujah-which has not been fully consolidated-is hoped to be a prelude for regaining Mosul to the northeast. Various anti-IS forces have inched toward Mosul in 2016 by capturing villages in its rural hinterlands but there does not appear to be any coordinated effort to retake Iraq’s 2nd most significant urban centre amongst fighting groups with allegiances of widely varying stripes. PM al-Abadi has vowed to retake Mosul at an unspecified time later in 2016 although Mosul has a far more complex ethnic and religious matrix than Sunni Arab Fallujah. But there are other important smaller cities and towns that must be confronted before Mosul such as Hawija and al-Qaim which are still in the clutches of the IS evildoers to employ throwback neocon-ism.


Then there’s the perhaps more difficult idea of taking ar-Raqqa, from IS control, which, if occurred, would turn the offensive salafi-jihadi movement back toward its asymmetrical insurgent roots from which is spawned in mid-2000s Iraq. But the FSA and YPG are not getting along perfectly to say the least around the fight for Aleppo. Kurdish-Arab cooperation has worked to some degree in the SDF context in al-Hasakah governorate to the east. On another side of the equation, the SAA and their Russian backers are not fairing terribly either. IS claims to have killed three Russian servicemen with an IED on the  Ithiriya-Raqqa road. Meanwhile Russian air strikes in the city centre killed between 18-32 civilians depending on reports.


Though the Fallujah offensive has been successful to a degree, one must ask at what cost? And can PM al-Abadi survive the Sadrist turmoil that has breached the Green Zone? The only ground forces capable of taking ar-Raqqa are the YPG but they don’t appear to have a post-conflict plan for ruling the primarily Arab city nor have they expressed a palpable desire beyond rhetoric. Many questions remain beyond the cinders fluttering above al-Anbar governorate’s commercial capital.

Written by derekhenryflood

June 22nd, 2016 at 3:05 pm

Posted in Iraq,Syria

Troubled Waters

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The monument of the "Unknown Migrant" in Naples, Italy. ©2015 Derek Henry Flood

The monument of the “Unknown Migrant” in Naples, Italy. The migrant crisis has consumed global media this summer as it not only continues unabated but escalates. ©2015 Derek Henry Flood

Paros- Sitting in here in a quiet village on a quiet island in the heart of the Cyclades, the drama seems to churn all around. The Dodecanese islands just off the coast of western Turkey and mainland Greece have been in the media spotlight for months with the massive influx of people being smuggled into the EU. It has been labeled the ‘migrant crisis’ though some would argue it should be repackaged as the ‘refugee crisis.’ Public Radio International referred to it as “the story of the summer.” Part of the problem is that the dynamic is largely driven by entirely opportunistic people smuggling networks that have existed here in the Mediterranean long before the summer of 2015 and the Syrian civil war that sparked in March 2011.

In the fall of 2009 on the island of Samos at 6am, I observed a boat of migrants and refugees all mixed together on a overloaded dinghy while I waited fro my ferry to Turkey. They were being pulled in by the Greek Coast Guard and the dock was being monitored by FRONTEX, the EU’s border agency. The frightened boat people were then frog marched through town to a holding center where they hoped to be registered so they could eventually make their way to Athens and on towards northern Europe or the UK in all likelihood. These smuggling networks from the edge of Turkey are in no way a new phenomenon that was an outgrowth of the Arab Spring or anything of the like. They are simply part of a long existing economic underground that has grown enormously this summer. 

There seems to be a lot of confusion on what the crisis is about and who the migrants are or what a so-called economic migrant is. A family fleeing the Syrian civil war is not in the same migration category as throngs of young men from Bangladesh who are entering an already deeply ensconced economic migration pattern to be able to wire money home back to, say, Sylhet Division where almost all Bangladeshis in the UK originate from, for example (and much of the community in Queens, NYC). In short there is no war inside Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a deeply corrupt, incredibly impoverished state but it has not produced genuine refugees on a large scale since its liberation war of 1971 when it broke away from Pakistan. Nor is there armed conflict in the State of Eritrea where thousands are claiming to be fleeing mandatory military service to a harsh regime with no end in sight. Miserable to be sure, but the situation inside Eritrea is not comparable to that in Syria.

It's macabre to think that people are perishing on a regular basis in these very same waters people associate with holiday-making and trade routes. ©2015 Derek Henry Flood

It’s macabre to think that people are perishing on a regular basis in these very same waters people associate with holiday-making and trade routes. Excruciating deaths and happy lives are sharing these seas which don’t differentiate. ©2015 Derek Henry Flood

Pakistan does have bouts of armed conflict along its poorly demarcated western periphery with Afghanistan but that isn’t where the bulk of Pakistani men attempting to get to the EU are coming from. In other words, these men are not Pashto or Baluchi speakers. They most often hail from rural communities not far from the eastern border with India. Though politically tense at times, it is not a war zone by any means.

When I was in transit for a day in piping hot Naples, I happened upon this poignant migrant monument erected by the Fondazione Mediterraneo and the Italian Coast Guard earlier this year. Not far from it, perhaps a few hundred feet, there were South Asian and sub-Saharan African men selling cheap hats and ‘selfie sticks’ to tourists along the city’s waterfront. No one seemed to care where they came from or how they got to Naples, only that they sold things at the right price. But when I turned my camera toward them they uniformly turned their faces, hiding in broad daylight.

The Schengen Agreement and the Dublin Agreement appear to be in tatters. Somewhat like the Euro crisis, the worst case scenarios for EU integration were never fully thought out. This integration was theorized to help prevent a third world war in Europe and domination by any one hegemonic European land power (eh hmm.. Germany). But massive external factors applying great pressure from outside the EU/Schengen Area were not sufficiently gamed out.

Now here we are. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is busy building a massive fence and Germany has just announced it is imposing border checks with Austria. Are we going to go from the United States of Europe back to how things were?

Written by derekhenryflood

September 12th, 2015 at 3:55 pm

The Imperiled Fate of Historic Sites in Iraq

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An American soldier passes by the hulking ziggurat of Ur near Nasiriyyah in southern Iraq. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

An American soldier passes by the hulking ziggurat of Ur near Nasiriyyah in southern Iraq. The tiered wedding cake of brown cuneiiform-inscribed brick erupts from the desert floor like a Mesopotamian pyramid. The structure in honor of the moon god Nannar was begun by Ur-Nammu who ruled the Ur III dynasty from 2112 b.c-2096 b.c.  This ancient architectural masterwork survived both the 1991 and 2003 invasions of Iraq. Now it may be relatively secure for the fact that it is well ensconced deep within a Shia-majority region of Iraq. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

New York- With each coming day lately there is a new tragedy being announced by the takfiri evangelists who refer to themselves as ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah (the Islamic State). With a campaign noted for executions believed to be taking place in ar-Raqqah Governorate and sieges upon the bastions of religious minorities or anyone is simple doesn’t adhere to takfir practices, IS risked the global public becoming inured to their atrocities. So their latest meme is destroying artifacts and smashing some of the Levant’s most prized ancient sites in parts of Ninewa Governorate under their control.

My interest in the Middle East began not with its intermittent warfare but with its rich archaeological history. My first trip to the region was to help excavate King Herod’s palace in Caesarea Maritima, not to cover an adrenaline-fueled war. As is my luck, war broke out during that dig between the IDF and Hezbollah. Suddenly digging around the biblical building blocks of the ancients felt somewhat irrelevant.

What they are doing is not complete foreign in contemporary Islam as the state-orchestrated destruction of sites in Saudi Arabia is in keeping with Wahabi ideology that forbids the worshipping of ancestry lest it be deemed a form of shirk (idolatry) that runs counter to the narrowest interpretation of tawhid (monotheism) and is at least partly intended to marginalize Shia religious practices within the boundaries of the Kingdom.

Little to no global outcry has slowed the demolition of holy sites in both Mecca and Medina. The Saudi monarchy has been obliterating history in accordance with its state-sanctioned ideology since the mid-1920s under the auspices of purifying the Arabian Peninsula. Many holy places in Mecca have been simply bulldozed to make way for mass market capitalism. Profit has replaced the physical history of the prophet. In a sense IS is continuing this policy writ large against Muslim, non-Muslim and pre-Islamic sites alike.

In March 2001 when when a Taliban set out to demolish the Hellenist-inflected Buddhas of Bamyan  in central Afghanistan’s Shia-majority Hazarajat region, it was speculated that the Deobandi Islamists did so to thumb their nose at the world that isolated their largely unrecognized regime while collectively punishing the Hazara minority who they’d fought to bitterly in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997-1998. The comparisons to the crime in Bamyan were inevitable. The reported razing of Hatra is but the latest of atrocities against Iraqi, and well pre-Islamic civilizational history of all mankind, following the demolishing of statues inside the unguarded Mosul museum, and destruction at the Assyrian capital of Nimrud and Ninevah.

A defaced tile  mural of Saddam Hussein outside Karbala. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

A defaced tile mural of Saddam Hussein outside Karbala. When American soldiers entered Iraq in March 2003, they began trashing the iconography of Saddam’s carefully cultivated personalty cult. Iraqi civilians then finished the job. Iraq has been trapped in a self replicating cycle of historic destruction–both post-modern and ancient–for many, many years now. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

One of Iraq’s greatest Islamic monuments from the height of the Absassid caliphate is the spiral minaret known as the Malwiyya in Samarra. Along the banks of the Tigris, Samarra sits about midway between Balad and Tikrit–where a large scale offensive is currently under way–in a hotly contested area between the Iraqi state and its allied Iranian-backed Shia militia movements versus IS.

Ostensibly the Malwiyya would not be slated for IS destruction as it represents a pillar of Sunni religio-cultural history, is in no way idolatrous, and does not depict graven imagery. But I’m being far too logical in my assessment I suppose. In its wedding cake-like tiers, it is somewhat evocative of, if not inspired by, a ziggurat.

The massive spiral minaret, known as the Malwiyya, adjacent the the Great Mosque of Samarra. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

The 9th century massive spiral minaret, known as the Malwiyya, adjacent the the Great Mosque of Samarra. The complex in Samarra in the tumultuous Salah-ad-Din Govenorate was once the largest mosque in the world. ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

When the U.S. military barged into Iraq in March 2003, vandalizing Iraq’s Ba’athist history, namely the iconography of Saddam Hussein’s carefully crafted personality cult, seemed to be part of official Pentagon policy. Iraq had been vilified ever since the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the ensuing Gulf War in 1991 that sent Iraqi troops retreating along the “highway of death”where stifled images showed the cruelty of such a precision air war.

Although Iraq, and to a lesser extent neighboring Syria, are thought of as the ‘cradle of civilization,’ this geography has known little other than war and deep, violent internal repression for decades. Iraq’s culture coupled with the civilizational landmarks that remain within its present day geographical boundaries have not been incentivized to be respected. Aside from the well publicized destruction such as that which occurred in the Mosul museum, there has been widespread looting of sites for years to fund criminal enterprises and now outright salafi-jihad. The destruction gets the attention, the looting nets the income.

Thus the IS assault on the country’s treasures in Ninewa comes as no shock. There is also a knee jerk response in social media that if one emotes a deep, genuine sadness for such an immeasurable loss, that one is somehow lessening the ongoing loss of human life in these places. It is as if the intertwined plights of history and humanity are inherently mutually exclusive. This makes advocating for these treasures appear to be a possibly insensitive act.

The destruction of the iconography of the Saddam Hussein regime was part of a clumsily calculated play by the Pentagon to bulldoze through decades of modern Iraqi history in the name of 'regime change.' ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

The destruction of the iconography of the Saddam Hussein regime was part of a clumsily calculated play by the Pentagon to bulldoze through decades of modern Iraqi history in the name of ‘regime change.’ ©2003 Derek Henry Flood

Preserving Iraq’s vulnerable heritage was never explicitly part of the occupational mandate of U.S. forces in the 8 1/2 years they served in Iraq. Though it would seem Washington has the power, the military power, to stop this vast crime spree, it is not considered to be of paramount importance in the national security interest. Plain and unfortunately simple. Though there are initiatives like the State Department funded Syrian Heritage Initiative,  the overall large scale political will is just not there. Iraq is too mired in intractable sectarian and ethnic fissures to do much to save its treasures while the Assad government in Damascus is concerned with solely with regime preservation.

The future of the past indeed looks bleak for the time being.

Written by derekhenryflood

March 8th, 2015 at 3:15 pm

Posted in America,Iraq,Syria

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