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Syria: A Lost Revolution

January 29th, 2015 No comments
Syrian fighters in Idlib mimicking the hand gesture of Libyan revolutionaries who had overthrown Qaddafi the previous year with the help of Western air power. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

Syrian fighters in Idlib mimicking the hand gesture of Libyan revolutionaries who had overthrown Qaddafi the previous year with the help of Western air power. ©2011 Derek Henry Flood

New York- Three years ago today I trekked into northern Syria’s rebellious Idlib Governorate from Hatay Province in Turkey. I had to put immense trust in my fixer who was living in a Turkish Red Crescent camp at the time with his family after having fled the town of Binnish where he’d been a school teacher in peacetime. When I asked how many other journos he’d taken where we were headed, he said just one, the legendary Times correspondent Anthony Loyd. When I badgered about who else, he’d said Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director. Not bad company, I thought to myself.

These dudes were famous and if they trusted M_____d than I thought I could too. As with any of these situations though, there’s just an element of risk that cannot be subtracted. Besides the obvious dangers (and this was before Syria had become a beheading ground for the most unfortunate outsiders), there was the sheer physicality of it all. The mountain, the rain, the snow, the razor wire, the fear, the paranoia. Why was this worth doing? I was following a chain of events since early 2011 in which stultified regimes in the world’s most politically stagnant Arab-ruled states.

The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ involved far more than the ‘Arab Street’ of the early 2000s. Libya had its Tubu, Tuareg and Amazigh (Berbers), Syria had its Kurds and so forth. None of these places were ethnically homogenous. Plus there were the fleeing guest workers from Bangladesh and other forlorn states that had grown dependent on a remission economy as they bled out economic migrants. It was a broad movement that caught fire with local characteristics. Social media met kalashnikovs at  dizzying rate. There were notable exceptions of course, like Algeria where it was posited that the populace had tired of the bloody war from the 1990s thus not having the stomach for a prolonged clash with the Bouteflika regime.

Returning to the Syrian border in October 2014, I wouldn’t have dared to cross it. The country had transformed from a place that welcomed foreign journalists when it was once the least covered uprising to the most feared place to work in the world. Even little Bahrain was a more fashionable topic when Syria kicked off nearly four years ago. The uprising began the day I returned to Alexandria from Benghazi on March 15, 2011 and I recall it as a minor news item. By the time I reached Syria three years ago after much of my own work in 2011 was focused on Libya, the media was still referring to the war there as a ‘crackdown.’

At the risk of sounding ultimately naive, there seemed to be an innocence about the rebel fighters I met. They welcomed me with the hospitality I remembered upon first traveling the region as a backpacker in the late 1990s. They sought to overthrow the Assad dictatorship. Yes, they were Sunni men from the countryside but they didn’t frame their struggle as a religious one when I spoke with them. I feared it might turn into a sectarian conflict with the history of the scorched earth suppression of the Ikhwan in the late 1970s, culminating with the destruction of Hama in 1982. Just as the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996 had helped propel the Libyan war, Syria’s past would eventually come back to haunt it.

Syria’s war in 2015 is an intractable, fissiparous mess. It needn’t have been. But after decades of one man, one party style rule, even if the FSA rebels had coalesced under a properly hierarchical leadership, the country may have just morphed into a different version of chaos. We will never now. When the rebel commander asked me why the West wasn’t eager to assist his men as they had so willingly in Libya (as it appeared from a Syrian perspective), I made a cynical retort: “Look at the map. Libya borders places like Niger and Chad to its south that no one in the West gives a damn about save for energy interests. Your country borders Israel to its south (west). This makes assisting your people in an armed humanitarian intervention infinitely more complicated.”

This juxtaposition of Turkish soldiers nonchalantly watching the siege of Kobane speaks volumes about how the Syrian war was allowed to metastisize. The worst elements of global salafi-jihad were a given free reign whether by accident or intention. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

This juxtaposition of Turkish soldiers nonchalantly watching the siege of Kobane speaks volumes about how the Syrian war was allowed to metastisize. The worst elements of global salafi-jihad were a given free reign whether by accident or intention. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

An Overview of Syria’s Armed Revolution

April 23rd, 2012 No comments

The author's first trip to Syria in 2002. Umayyad masjid, Damascus. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have the cover story out today in the April issue of the CTC Sentinel, the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point’s monthly publication. This article is based on my most recent trip to northern Syria in January as well as my earlier travels in the country as pictured above. This piece was some time in the making and virtually nothing in Syria has improved in the interim in my view. Kofi Annan’s shuttle diplomacy is an utterly abject failure. UN soft power will do nothing to solve this painfully festering crisis.

The Free Syrian Army has suffered a series of territorial defeats since the beginning of 2012 including being routed from the position in Idlib I visited according to a colleague’s report in March. Despite these setbacks along with Turkey’s failure to act in any meaningful way (sorry conspiracy theorists who believe Erdogan is unequivocally aiding the FSA), the rebels don’t seem to be yielding their will even with their “tactical withdrawals” over the last few months. So far NATO has stuck to its guns of insisting Libya was not a “model” but a unique, one-off operation that will not be repeated any time in the near term.

Abaya (or chador)-clad women stroll through the brilliant grounds of the Umayyad masjid, considered the fourth holiest place in the Islamic world. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

I think most ordinary Syrians as well as rebels have long ago almost entirely given up on the idea of any sort of external intervention, military or otherwise, including even rather meek offshore balancing.  Saudi and Qatari talk of overtly arming the FSA seems to have gone nowhere. The rivalries within the GCC are intense, egotistical battles among some of the world’s most successful self-aggrandizers. That makes it near impossible for even two of the six member states to act in unison-the subjugation of Manama by Riyadh being the current exception. If the FSA is waiting for the GCC to get its act together on Syria, they may be waiting a long time.

I remember seeing this poster for George Clooney for the Italian eyewear brand Police and thinking that an a-list star of his ilk would never pitch such a product back home. Perhaps Clooney should have put his efforts into Syria rather than Sudan. I recall seeing his visage in several places in Damascus that summer a decade ago. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

There has been a lot of discussion about the emergence of so-called black banners in the Syrian conflict (which is a much more significant issue in Mali/Azawad at the moment). Of the cross section of Syrians I interviewed at the beginning of this year, everyone-even those moderately sympathetic to an Ikhwan agenda-eschewed the idea of their Syria becoming one more star in the constellation of global jihad. The fighters on the ground were certainly Sunnis drawn from the conservative milieu present in Syria’s northern governorates, but those obvious circumstances do not a jihadi make.

One of the more absurd “points’ in Annan’s UN-Arab League plan was to twist Assad’s arm into letting international journalists in with what I suppose should be unrestricted access. Not bloody likely. Judging by the tragic fate of France-2 cameraman Gilles Jacquier who was killed on a dog-and-pony show tour of Homs in January, I don’t have much confidence that journos would be any more safe if legally admitted to the country than if not. You have a vain, materialistic regime armed to the teeth that is suppressing all forms of dissent and shows no sign of letting up.

The war in Syria has ultimately become a contest of wills. The FSA, many international players, and the non-violent opposition all believe Assad is doomed to fall and it is all a matter of when, not if. But as the unceasing violence drags on, it is clear the Assad and those in his inner circle believe he can ride this one out. And it is to this point where I think the rash, extra-judicial killing of Qaddafi did immense damage to the quarters of the Arab world still in the bitter throes of revolution. It became very clear to Bashar al-Assad et al that the end of a regime did not necessarily mean quiet exile. It could end in death. This gives Assad that much more impetus to keep fighting-which he is clearly doing.

Since enough time has gone by I decided to finally upload a short film I made (which is part of the background for the CTC article shown above) onto Youtube because…well…otherwise it will never get seen. It’s my (very) rough first person account of my trek to northern Syria’s Idlib Governorate in late January after much networking in Antakya, Turkey.

TWD Inside Free Syria

January 31st, 2012 No comments

Man vs War. I was so ill prepared for this trek. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Antakya- I have a new article out in today’s edition of Asia Times Online on my journey into rebel-held northern Syria. In over a decade of jihads, war zones and civil unrest, I think this was the most difficult thing I have ever accomplished in terms of logistics. My entire body is shot and at one point repelling down a muddy mountainside I slipped into a coil of concertina wire that my amazing fixer and smuggler had to rescue me from. Then while attempting to sprint through an Assadist free fire zone, I got trapped in mud so thick it might as well have been quicksand. On the way back I had to trek through pitch black forest that we lit with cell phones to try and find our way. For some reason we hiked back to Turkey a different way than we came in which was totally disorienting. We linked arms and forded a very fast moving icy river that was nearly waist deep lit by the moon while screaming “takbir” and the corresponding “allahu akbar” to steel our resolve.

At that point my mind went into a trance-like state bent on pure survival. Then when I got back to the comfort of my hotel room in Antakya and collapsed on my bed, I stared at the ceiling and thought that I did this for one day and the rebels of Free Syrian Army live this way everyday. Hard to contemplate. I’ll be going back to the West in a couple of days (where I will be speaking at the Interallied Confederation of Reserve Officers Winter Seminar outside Köln) and there is no way anyone can relate to what I’ve just experienced.

In other news, TWD was quoted in a Global Post article titled “African Union Looks East” about the inauguration of China’s gaudy new African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia which I reported on last year. Even that relatively innocent story ended up in a violent encounter when a paranoid Chinese government foreman ordered a hulking Ethiopian security guard to grab my camera and delete the contents of my flash card. They were unsuccessful due to my cunning.

Living to Fight

January 30th, 2012 No comments

This is Yassin. He is a local area commander for a Free Syrian Army group in the besieged hamlet of Ain al-Baida. Woefully underarmed compared to their opponents, Yassin and his men are determined to fight the Syrian regime's forces till victory or martyrdom. ©2012 Derek Henry Flood

Ain al-Baida- Made an incredibly arduous trek into Syria’s war-torn Idlib Governorate yesterday. Working on my first article on the hardscrabble conditions of the Free Syrian Army. I was missing driving in the relative comfort of a late model Toyota on Libya’s desert highways about a 1/3 of the way into this hardcore journey. In order to keep going I kept telling myself that worthwhile outcomes do not come easily in this life. Sometimes you have to literally scale mountains in order to get a story out. No dog-and-pony show here. I never get tired of entering crumbling mukhabarat states without a visa. Throwing this image up as a teaser. More soon.

Tough Times for the Free Syrian Army

January 15th, 2012 No comments

New York- A couple of notable videos came online today which I gleaned from the Syrian Youth Movement site. In the first, a German filmmaker snuck into Homs at great risk and links up with FSA rebels in Baba Amr. It aired on CNN this weekend. The second, a Zeina Kohdr segment from AJE reports from a village in northern Lebanon where FSA members have sought refuge. Since it will be a short while before I return to this Middle East, I figured I might as well post some interesting work by others.

One of the more interesting aspects for me in the two reports is how the geographically disparate rebel groupings can work toward a cohesive military goal other than the over simplified notion of ousting al-Assad. They face enormous obstacles without an internationalist intervention of some sort. If it weren’t for such action in Libya, that war would assuredly be dragging on. The obvious difference between the two scenarios is the Israel-Iran factor in relation to Syria. Intervening in Libya was much less complicated in that sense. Chad and Niger aren’t Israel.