The War Diaries

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Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

The Coming Battle for Idlib

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A fighter in what was then known as the Free Syrian Army in Idlib governorate early on in the war. Thing have only steadily deteriorated since those early days. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

New York- Some six and half years ago I trekked from Hatay province in southern Turkey to a small rebel-controlled town in Idlib governorate in northeastern Syria. The fighters I met at the time were local Sunni Arabs and indigenous Sunni/Sufi Caucasians who were strictly interested in fighting the Ba’athist regime and proclaimed their desire for Western support as had happened in Libya the previous year. I spoke with CNN at the time after I returned to Turkey about what the FSA desired and how a Libya-NATO scenario was highly unlikely.

When an affable FSA commander asked me why the West hadn’t rushed to their aid, put on the spot I replied, “Libya borders Chad to its south, your country borders Israel. The calculus for the Obama administration is entirely different as the geopolitical stakes here [Syria] are considered far higher.”

So here we are in 2018: the regime with its Russian patrons and Iranian partners each with their own agenda seeks to purge the governorate of ‘terrorists’ meaning Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the rebranded Jabhat al-Nusra, Tanzim Hurras al-Deen, the Turkestan Islamic Party, and other salafi war-fighting groups. But Idlib along with nearby slices of Hama, Latakia, and Halab (Aleppo) governorates are home to millions of Syrian civilians–both local and displaced– who have had to interact with these fighters for many years now.

Idlib represents a great failure where a stark lack of diplomacy, social media-enhanced radicalisation, and the evolving agenda of illiberal powers converge to create an impending crisis. The governorate has already been shelled by regime artillery and Russian airstrikes but a ground offensive to dislodge said irhab’een (terrorists) has yet to begin in any serious measure. There are many more elements to be factored in. The TSK-Turkish army-is also present in the form of its ‘observation posts’ as well as the rebel fighters it backs. It all looks to be quite a mess.

Written by derekhenryflood

September 9th, 2018 at 3:20 pm

Posted in Syria

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Living at the Highest Level of Life

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A young YPJ fighter imagines soaring over the Euphrates River. A fleeting moment of serenity in a place unknown to the outside world. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

Aleppo Governorate- I spent a month working in northern Syria earlier this year. It was at once immensely trying and thrilling. Frustrating lack of access followed by huge breakthroughs. Working in such a fluid, semi-governed place runs an entire gamut of emotions. The Syrian conflict, whether one wants to categorise it as “civil” or “transnational” in nature, is a theatre of war and despair populated by real people, both ordinary and extraordinary.

Editors don’t seem to understand. Friends at home simply cannot. To be there and breathe in the smoke filled hotels is to exist within the thrust of history while firmly within its margins as a Western journo who needn’t actually be experiencing it at all. Simply getting in and then getting out is an accomplishment in and of itself. But no one appreciates that.

After the fire and brimstone from all the suicide car bombs and air strikes clears, there are vast fields of rubble. Ideas of martyrdom, virtue, sacrifice and glory are just decaying corpses and broken cement. Strewn about with plush children’s toys or vanquished caches of Armenian or Russian cigarettes quashed by a store’s collapsed ceiling. And yet life begins again. Those who’ve perished are buried by the living. The living reopen shops in the still intact first floor of a shopping arcade leveled courtesy of the American taxpayer.

A shop selling Turkish and Iranian foodstuffs reopened beneath a bombed out upper floor from the battle between the Manbij Military Council and YPG vs IS in the summer of 2016. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

To fluidly move between these worlds of wildly varying degrees of stability takes a great deal of mental agility. Particularly as someone with zero corporate backing of any kind. Corporate reporters have no idea nor firm recollection of what it is like to be a pure freelancer in a war zone much like married people who underwent a lengthy courtship period can no longer recall what life is like for single people. Taking public buses, doing interviews without a fixer. Someone you interviewed who fixed for you for free being shot twice in the chest by a sniper after he urged you to leave town. A US and UK soldier being assassinated by a mobile phone trigged mine at a roundabout you walked by for weeks.

American special operators on the ground deep into Syrian territory with YPG fighters and Asayîş members. Looked like an AKP conspiracy theory painted on canvas. But it was a moment I experienced. ©2018 Derek Henry Flood

There is nothing remotely normal nor mainstream about my existence. No 9-5 job with its attendant vacations and 3-day weekends a few times a year, not attending extravagant out-of-town weddings some place, nor taking offspring on playdates with others in my socio-economic cohort. There is no doting woman planning my future, no dog to walk at the same time every evening, no family greeting me at the airport. Just war all the time. The routine is orchestrated chaos.

Written by derekhenryflood

August 31st, 2018 at 1:26 pm

Posted in Syria

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