Archive

Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

Kobane: from Indifference to Intervention

October 22nd, 2014 No comments

An Unnecessary Siege from Derek Flood on Vimeo.

Barcelona- I have a new article this week for Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Monitor concerning my observations on the siege of Kobane from October 10-15. I also have a short piece on the subject in the new issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review (subscription required). Kobane has lost traction in the media milieu because it has been going on for so long now. The siege is still very much going on with IS reportedly retaking Tel Shahir outside the city. As this AFP video shows, the air coalition is still very much invested in this ongoing battle. Media presence or no, the YPG and now their FSA partners continue to resist the area’s attempted takeover by IS.

It was a hectic, grating stint that I departed not because “media lost interest” as I saw a properly funded Washington Post correspondent judgmentally tweeted the other day, but because as a freelancer my financial risk-reward ratio had tipped too far into the risk category and I decided it was no longer feasible for me to stay in terms of cost. When the area was crawling with journos, it was labeled the “hill of shame,” (by someone who works for Rupert Murdoch) and when there were too few of us it is also mocked.

Shortly after I left there were the two big developments everyone was waiting for: the American air drop of KRG supplied weapons and aid and the Turks caving (though through a compromise of sorts that keeps the PKK isolated) whereby they will allow the KRG’s peshmerga into Kobane to reinforce the YPG/YPJ while not specifically allowing the PYD to send in its own people. The transfer of pehsmerga through Turkish territory still has not happened and the air drop was examined because some materiel fell into the hands of IS.

Click this image to read the full article.

Click this image to read the full article.

As the Turks have stayed steadily non-confrontational, the global Kurdish community has been politically mobilized over the plight of Kobane and the U.S. and most of the GCC states have intervened with air power in Syria in a broader anti-IS campaign (though Kobane has been almost an entirely American effort in terms of air strikes).

Errant mortars from IS positions land with some frequency on Turkish soil but for now, Ankara wouldn’t dare invoke NATO’s Article 5 protocol regarding an attack on a member state.

A mortar launched from inside Kobane lands in Mursitpinar, Turkey. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A mortar launched from inside Kobane lands in Mursitpinar, Turkey. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

There has been some chatter that the so-called peshmerga are in fact Iraqi Kurdish-trained Syrian nationals although this was quickly denied by Fuad Hussein, KRG President Massoud Barzani’s chief of staff, who made a press statement that those headed toward Kobane would include solely Iraqi nationals.

One recurring thought I had during my nights in dark, lonely Gaziantep which were only made bearable by ultra friendly hotel staff I could make furtive small talk with was how much the Syrian war has changed Turkey itself. Turkey has let itself become extremely vulnerable to the potential of salafi-jihadi mass casualty terror attacks. While Ankara’s focus is still on the threat posed by the PKK and the three decades of on and off asymmetrical warfare with rural insurgency coupled with urban terrorism, the difference between IS and the PKK is that the PKK is an inherently rational actor. If Apoists were not rational, there would be no ongoing peace process to speak of.

Some believe that the release of the 46 Turkish and 3 Iraqi hostages capturing during the IS raid on the Mosul consulate indicates that Davutoglu et al believe IS is a pragmatic movement to some degree that Turkey can interact with when necessary. For now Turkey is allowing a policy of containment but Kobane is challenging all that because it is visible for all the world to see. IS jihadis made an astute calculation that be waging a slaughter in a PYD-administered canton of Rojava defended by the YPG, that Turkey would not mind. And in a sense they turned out to be right.

A Turkish tank hugs a hillside in Mursitpinar as street fighting rages across the plain in Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A Turkish tank hugs a hillside in Mursitpinar as street fighting rages across the plain in Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

In the handful of interactions I had with Turkish security forces, they exasperating seemed more interested in curtailing the free movement of journalists and of course vocal Kurdish activists who had congregated on the border than with confronting IS in the slightest way. Turkish nationalists may say, “this is the Syrians’ war, let them fight it out so long as it doesn’t affect us.’ But that sentiment is entirely unrealistic. The IS poses a grave threat to Turkey itself. It is naive to think otherwise.

Walking around the grey warrens of Gaziantep at night scouring for a restaurant that would still be open after a long day on the border, it often crossed my mind that IS supporters, logisticians, and loosely affiliated Syrian and Turkish criminal networks surely abounded. The war inside Syria does not exist in a geographic vacuum. For its rear base are the provinces of southern Turkey. It’s not unthinkable that one could be bundled into a vehicle in some elaborate trap and smuggled into Syria.

Erdogan has made a strategic blunder of epic proportions in the last 3 years with his short-sighted Syria policy especially when considering how much Turkey depends on its thriving tourism industry. With Turkey’s budget flights and great bus system, if jihadi networks are active, even if in a relatively quietest fashion right now, in Gaziantep and Sanliurfa, who’s to say they might not be taking some R&R in Marmaris or Fethiye in the future, if not already?

You can mentally bifurcate Turkey into two halves let’s say: the western half is for foreign tourists while the eastern provinces bordering Iraq and Syria are where trouble is allowed to happen and where salafi-jihadi volunteers from across the world filter into Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqa governorates. But the reality however is far different. Turkey is really well interconnected.

In the heart of Marmaris’ waterfront tourist district you can buy bus tickets to Gaziantep, Sanaliurfa, Hatay and so forth. Turkey’s regions cannot be so neatly separated out. Neither does IS’s virulent ideology respect borders demarcated in the early 20th Century. Just the opposite: it claims it exists to eradicate them.

Categories: Middle East, Syria, Turkey Tags: ,

The Intervention

October 16th, 2014 No comments
Military interventions are not theoretical war games or 'surgical' in any way. They affect the lives of real people. Each scenario should be based on its merits, rather than merely on the oversimplified failures of the past. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Military interventions are not theoretical war games or ‘surgical’ in any way. They affect the lives of real people. Each scenario should be vetted on its own merits, rather than merely on the oversimplified failures of the past. Bombing is a horrific act but then IS is a horrific force. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Murşitpinar- Another quick blog entry with some images from Kobane and environs and recent days. The media narrative on the siege has shifted from predictions of the city’s imminent fall to IS being on the back foot in the battle thanks to a sharp uptick in coalition bombing. Although on the surface this is a fight between the harshest kind of Islamists engaged in offensive jihad to eradicate those they deem unbelievers–in this case the Kurds of the secular, leftist PYD-YPG/YPJ–the struggle for Kobane is primarily a battle of ethnic identity politics, at least as many Kurds I spoke with see it.

For lightly buried in the takfiri salafism of IS, particularly I suspect the older members with genuine military experience, is an Arab ethnocentrism despite the modicum of ethnic diversity of IS’s commanders. Then there are the Turkish troops and border gendarmes who are content to watch all this go on from a barely safe distance. Understandably Turkey does not want to be drawn in, at least not under conditions upon which Ankara is not the actor setting them.

There are those who are opposed to the very concept of military intervention in wars far from home based on their ideological principles or because they reflexively distrust the specific crowd that advocates for military solutions to humanitarian crises. What should have been done to rescue Kobane? The best policy may be that such cases be looked at individually rather than the flawed policies of those that came before. Part of why these situations are deemed failures is when people conduct post-mortems on them and find that once the world took its eyes off supporting state/institution-building and reconstruction, the place rapidly devolves into chaos. See: Libya.

What will happen in Syrian Kurdistan–if it is not overrun by IS–will be determined by the post-intervention steps that are far more difficult than demolishing concrete block structures from many thousands of feet in the air. But for now, the Kurds are cheering.

An errant mortar lands on Turkish soil in a battle between IS and the YPG. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

An errant mortar lands on Turkish soil in a battle between IS and the YPG. This shows just how much Turkey has taken a hands-off approach to the war at their doorstep. They refuse to be goaded into the war despite what some might consider provocations at there feet.  ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A coalition air strike hit western Kobane in the late afternoon of October 15. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A coalition air strike hit western Kobane in the late afternoon of October 15. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

After being repeatedly intimidated by Turkish security forces, journalists were forced to flee to safer ground. Here a TV reporter prepares for a live stand up far from the action. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

After being repeatedly intimidated by Turkish security forces, journalists were forced to flee to safer ground. Here a TV reporter prepares for a live stand up far from the action. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Ambulances are a far too common sight on these Orwellian road trips. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Ambulances are a far too common sight on these Orwellian road trips. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The Siege

October 14th, 2014 No comments
Turkish tank position on a hill overlooking Kobane, Syria. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Turkish tank position on a hill overlooking Kobane, Syria. On this day the air was filled with a thick haze but the pungent black plumes were still very much visible form the city’s embattled skyline. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Murşitpinar- Don’t have time to crunch out much text today as I’m firing off a few reports from the past few days for a client but I wanted to post some more images of the siege of Kobane. While it has fallen down the headline mast a bit what with people back home being enthralled by the Ebola drama that has breeched the West from West Africa, the war here is still ongoing.

The Islamic State is not letting up on their target of this now desolate Kurdish-majority town as the YPG/YPJ fighters hang on for dear life. US-led bombings continue but Turkey’s position toward the PYD’s militia has not fundamentally changed. Meanwhile there are competing narratives over the Incirlik basing use agreement as Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu insists Turkey has not made such an agreement, thereby contradicting an earlier statement by Susan Rice.

The predictions a week ago that the city would fall have so far not panned out as cynics warned. It may indeed fall but for IS their predictions of celebrating Eid in their hoped for killing fields of the YPG have fallen well short.

Suruç, once a quiet agricultural district famed for its pomegranate orchards, is now overwhelmed by the influx of civilians fleeing the siege of Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Suruç, once a quiet agricultural district famed for its pomegranate orchards, is now overwhelmed by the influx of civilians fleeing the siege of Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Refugee tents here are being erected by the dozen to cope with the crisis. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Refugee tents here are being erected by the dozen to cope with the crisis. There is something not right with the world when we know how to create such environments so quickly and efficiently. Too many wars. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The hastily made grave of a YPG guerrilla in Suruç, killed while defending the city from a much better armed Islamic State onslaught. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The hastily made grave of a YPG guerrilla in Suruç, killed while defending the city from a much better armed Islamic State onslaught. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Nothing to see here. Turkish security forces at times seemed like they were playing a cat and mouse game with journalists and civilian activists alike, dispersing us from one hilltop to the next. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Nothing to see here. Turkish security forces at times seemed like they were playing a cat and mouse game with journalists and civilian activists alike, dispersing us from one hilltop to the next. I’ve read that some people believe that Kobane is being over emphasized by the media at the expense at the rest of Syria’s civil war. They refer to this site as “the hill of shame.” Yet these same naysayers would say shame on the world if nobody at all came to cover it. Some people just like to take diametrically opposing positions for the sport of argumentation it sometimes seems to me. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The Border

October 13th, 2014 No comments
The foreign intervention in Kobane is very asymmetric. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

The foreign intervention in Kobane is very asymmetric without coordination from fighter jets and YPG commanders on the ground for targeting purposes (unless there is backchannel coordination we on the outside are somehow unaware of).. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Murşitpinar- Things have been hectic here in recent days and I don’t have time to write much text for TWD but wanted to put up a few images that might otherwise go unseen. The battle for Kobane is nothing short of brutal and it is happening in front of local and global media outlets which makes it that much more frustrating that the international community cannot stop something it can see in real time. Syria is the most dangerous place on earth for journalists and here in Turkey we have found a bit of a safe haven.

Much of what we see from the war is via youtube and after I went to Idlib Governorate in early 2012 I didn’t return once the hostage taking metastisized later that year. I nearly went to Rojava (PYD-controlled Syrian Kurdistan) last year but backed after I decided the risk wasn’t worth the reward in that particular crossing. Warfare so close to the relative security of Turkey has made for a kind of perverse theater but it has at least put the Islamic State in view of the public for the first time not through their own visual propaganda.

A photo from my twitter feed was picked up by BBC News

A Blackberry photo from my twitter feed was picked up by BBC News

Syrians discuss the aftermath of a coalition air attack on Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Syrians discuss the aftermath of a coalition air attack on Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Kurds from all over have descended upon southern Turkey's border with the PYD-YPG 'canton' of Kobane but can do nothing to aid in its defense. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Kurds from all over have descended upon southern Turkey’s border with the PYD-YPG ‘canton’ of Kobane but can do nothing to aid in its defense but only observe due to an ever-tightening Turkish blockade. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Turkish Tanks Moving Outside Siege of Kobane Syria from Derek Flood on Vimeo.

A Syrian man prays while explosions and air strikes rock neaby Kobane. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A Syrian man prays while explosions and air strikes rock neaby Kobane and Turkish tanks sit in the background. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Middle East, Syria, Turkey Tags:

Santoriniana

September 22nd, 2014 No comments
The 1980's-era Iranian-built shrine complex of Sayyida Ruqayya, Imam Hussein's daughter, north of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus' Old City. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

The 1980’s-era Iranian-built shrine complex of Sayyida Ruqayya, Imam Hussein’s daughter, north of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus’ Old City. While I hung out there Iranian pilgrims quietly milled around the site in awe. I dug this image up while mentioning Damascus in my writing today. So many places I’ve traveled to may be inaccessible now due to war or the ability of regimes to google journalists perhaps. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

“A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time”-Homer, The Odyssey

Thira- Back on Santorini after two months in Barcelona doing some long form writing and not near the bustle of any major city, although some of the drivers here think they’re racing to beat a red light in Athens. I’m keeping my head down from the constant news out of Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, West Africa or even Scotland or Catalunya.

My Magyar friend Patrik gave me an impromptu motivational talking to in Barcelona mid-summer. He’s off to Turkmenistan this week to see the Darvaza Crater a.k.a. the Door/Gate to Hell and view the absurdities of Ashgabat. When I was in Turkmenistan 13 years ago I didn’t dare take my camera out of the hotel due to the pervasive paranoid there. That’s one place, like Damascus pictured above, I’d very much like to return to.

I read yesterday that cruise ship traffic to this island is down because of “political instability in the eastern Mediterranean.” Santorini is nowhere near Syria. Are people worried about Achille Lauro redux? It kind of reminds me of being in Budapest in 1999 and the drop in tourism was credited to the NATO campaign in Kosovo. I understand people being risk averse. But sometimes boundless precautions are a bit over the top. I doubt IS is going to suddenly overwhelm Tartus and then begin a Somali pirate economy. But what do I know.

The shooting down of a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine may have seemed unlikely until it happened. Weird to think a place as tranquil as this is somehow affected by Syrian chaos in a butterfly effect for lack of a more original term.

On an unrelated note, my 2011 biography on Khalifa Haftar was cited in Libya: from Repression to Revolution: A Record of Armed Conflict and International Law Violations, 2011-2013 edited by M. Cherif Bassiouni, Emeritus Professor Law at DePaul University.  A 2012 article I authored from Mali for CNN was cited in Fragile Stabilität – stabile Fragilität (Fragile stability – stable Fragility) in a chapter written by Scott G. McNall, professor of sociology at the University of Kansas and George Basile, Professor of Practice, School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Very pleased to learn of these citations.

Poolside reading here in Karterados. Taking a break from news and social networks for a couple weeks to focus on my own writing rather than the constant drumbeat of political violence and trends in secessionism that dominant today's inescapable news cycle. of©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Poolside reading here in Karterados. Taking a break from news and social networks for a couple weeks to focus on my own writing rather than the constant drumbeat of political violence and trends in secessionism that dominant today’s inescapable news cycle. Sometimes one has to shut down and look into longer term trends.  of©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Categories: Europe, Syria Tags: , ,

Destroying Existing State Systems to Build New Ones

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Iraq, Syria Tags:

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.”

img089

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).