The War Diaries

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Archive for the ‘SDF’ tag

A Death in Raqqa

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SDF fighter and my guide through the ruins, Ismail Khalil photographed in Raqqa on 19 September 2017. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Pai- Recently, I discovered via Twitter that a man I briefly knew in Syria some two years ago was killed, and killed quite some time ago. I was doing frontline analysis for Jane’s Intelligence Review that resulted in my piece entitled CBC reporter Adrienne Arsenault did a story about Ismail’s death in August 2018-though he was killed by an IED in January but perhaps the dots weren’t connected until much later. For some algorithmic reason I only saw this Twitter thread earlier in 2019. Indicative, I suppose, of the nature of social media and how our world works today.

His name was Ismail Khalil, a Raqqawi who had joined the SDF and desperately wanted IS pushed out of his city. According to my friend Mahmoud, he was the victim of a booby trap left behind by IS as they rigged the city with explosives knowing their state-building effort was doomed. Ismail was assigned to me by Mustafa Bali, the SDF spokesman who you may have read quoted on a daily basis during the recent Baghouz operation that ended in March with a decisive SDF victory.

After sleeping at what was then sort of the media base in Ayn Issa and waking up a dawn at the very end of a hot, violent Levantine summer, Bali explained that an SDF fighter who knew the streets of Raqqa intimately had to ride along in my dusty Korean-built van as my driver and fixer were Kurds from Amuda along the Turkish border not terribly familiar with central Syria. The day was hot and hellish as you might imagine.

To produce stories such as these, I take enormous risks from time to time in places experience spectacular violence. But the people who help me along the way take far greater risks because they cannot or do not simply cross an international border to safety once a narrow goal has been accomplished. They are living in wartime. Inhabiting a geography of terror. The work I do isn’t created in a vacuum. It is the product of a thousand human interactions. Discerning linguistic nuance, observing local cultural norms, tight focus on survival.

Ismail taking advantage of the wifi while I interview a YPG commander called Heval Kane. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

I often think about fixers, drivers, or friendly guys with guns who’ve helped me in wars past. Wars where Twitter wasn’t a thing or at least I hadn’t joined the online echo chamber yet. I think about Sadeq in Karbala, Kamal in South Governorate, Faisal in Benghazi. All I have is an old photo, a faded business card, a number that no longer works. Are they still alive? When conflicts reignite in certain places, I sometimes contemplate the fate of these guys. Today with the interconnectedness of our rapidly decentralising world, we have the ability to find out things we may wish to have never been updated on. I would much prefer to still wonder if Ismail was rebuilding his business in Raqqa rather than know with certainty he only lived for a few more months after the city’s liberation from IS.

As I tracked Ismail through the shattered warrens of Raqqa, we encountered SDF fighters doing all sorts of tasks that sound mundane like delivering bottled water or jerry rigging radios with makeshift batteries except, well, Raqqa. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

In the case of this man, the story has a horrific ending. The kind of closure your imagination never desires when mulling over the past.

Ismail riding in the back of the van next to all my stuff. He would only live for four more months. ©2017 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

May 1st, 2019 at 11:22 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