A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, December 9, 2016

Avner Cohen and William Burr Shed New Light on the Vela "Double Flash" Incident of 1979

I'm one of a small number of Middle East hands who continues to be fascinated by the 1979 incident in which a US Vela satellite detected the double flash typical of a nuclear detonation in sub-Antarctic waters off South Africa, where the South Atlantic and South Indian Oceans join. Although the CIA and other analysts thought it was likely a low-yield nuclear test, a White House scientific panel declared that was unlikely. Though subsequent hydrographic and atmospheric evidence of radiation was detected. The mystery has never been fully solved, though  growing consensus has evolved that the double flash was either Israeli, South African, or more probably a joint Israeli-South African test.

A Vela 5B satellite
Last year, I posted about the Vela mystery, when Leonard Weiss reviewed the incident in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Now there's some new material available.  While still not definitive, it adds to the clues that the test was real. Now Avner Cohen, the recognized open-source analyst on Israel's nuclear capabilities, and William Burr, Director of the Nuclea Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at Georgr Washington University, have some new documents, mostly drawn from the papers of Ambassador Gerard C. Smith, Jimmy Carter's Special Representative for Non-Proliferation Matters, and US Representative to the IAEA in the Carter years. The results are still inconclusive as all the intelligence reports remain classified.

For those with a casual interest in the subject, Cohen and Burr summarize the new material in today's Politico. For the seriously interested, they have posted, at the National Security Archives' "Nuclear Vault," an "Electronic Briefing Book," with more extensive background and a full set of links to relevant documents.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The End is Near, and it Will Be Bloody

Reportedly, Syrian regime forces now control at least 75% of eastern Aleppo, and their jihadist opponents appear determined to fight to the end unless the regime offers them an escape route, which no longer appears to be an option.

Fighting is raging in and around the ancient Citadel itself, now badly damaged. The regime and the jihadists bear shared responsibility, though the Russian and Syrian Air Forces have made it an uneven fight.

Though for obvious reasons, the US press does not like to draw comparisons between the Syrian regime and the situation developing right now in Mosul, since in Mosul the US is supporting the Iraqi forces against ISIS, despite the presence of sectarian militias and Iran as virtual allies. But the fight for Mosul has bogged down, and once again, a regime and jihadi forces confront each other, The tragedy deepens.

Remembering Philip Hitti's Role in US Middle East Studies

Back in 2012, I did a post about the role of the late Philip K. Hitti (1886-1978) in founding Middle Eastern/Arab studies in the United States. Though his famous History of the Arabs and many other works have now been largely superseded, he remains the US pioneer in the field.

Now, here's a post about Hitti's contribution that actually includes interesting selections from an unpublished Hitti memoir.
Philip K. Hitti at Princeton

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Changing Horses a Century Ago: Lloyd George Becomes Prime Minister

David Lloyd George
This particular 100th anniversary post notes an event which, while not directly related to the Middle East, would have enormous effects on he Middle East in the remaining two years of the First World War. On December 7, 1916, David Lloyd George replaced Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Internal Liberal Party politics, which I need not go into here, propelled Asquith to step down.

Lloyd George, a proud Welshman and veteran Liberal politician, had been serving as Minister of Munition until June, when Lord Kitchener went down with HMS Hampshire in the North Sea. and Lloyd George took over as Secretary of State for War.

Even before becoming Prime Minister, Lloyd George became a strong advocate for emphasizing the Eastern Theaters of the war, particularly Palestine, Greece, and the Balkans, and as Prime Minister continued this focus, echoing his younger (then still) Liberal Party colleague Winston Churchill. Though he never got War Cabinet approval toshift troops from the Western Front, he did preside over more aggressive efforts in Palestine and the Balkan Front.

The 1917 Overture (Punch cartoon)
An avid reader of the Bible who said he preferred the Old Testament over the New, he had a fascination with Biblical geography. (During the Paris Peace negotiations he reportedly asked Clemenceau to cede to Britain the Mandate over "Palestine from Dan to Beersheba," though the Biblical definition was less than the eventual Mandate.) Though the Balfour Declaration of 1917 bears the name of the Foreign Secretary, Alfred James Balfour, Lloyd George was at least its godfather. And in the 1919 peacemaking, Lloyd George was deeply involved in bringing Palestine and Mosul into Britain's sphere.

Herbert Asquith had been easily dominated by his Cabinet colleagues, with stronger men like Kitchener at the War Office and Churchill at the Admiralty (until Gallipoli). Lloyd George would be a very different sort of leader.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Anatolian, So No Reindeer: Happy Feast of St, Nicholas of Myra!

Today, December 6, is the Feast Day of the fourth-century Anatolian bishop Nicholas of Myra, marked in the Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox traditions on the same date. Born at Patara (near Gelemiş in today's Turkey) in southwestern Anatolia about AD 270, he rose to fame as Bishop of Myra (the ruins of which are outside Demre, Turkey). He attended the Council of Nicaea, defended Orthodoxy against the Arian heresy, was famed for generosity and gift-giving. He is a particularly popular saint in the Orthodox tradition, especially in the Russian Orthodox tradition. He is less venerated in the West as an actual historical figure, but is bette known under a distortion of his name: Santa Claus.

He was an Anatolian Greek (Turks did not arrive in Anatolia until after AD 1071), who is not known to have any association with the North Pole, and doubtless never saw a reindeer, let alone the flying kind.

No shortage of miracles came to be attributed to hem; he is often known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. Among many stories told were that he gave gifts secretly to those in need, including paying the dowries of three sisters who could not afford them. That presumably contributed to the gift-giving tradition. In the last days of pagan Rome, he was imprisoned in the persecution of Diocletian, but was freed under Constantine, and attended the Council of Nicaea as Bishop of Myra.

Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD, hence the day became his feast day. He was buried in a Cathedral named for him in Myra. But his remains did not rest in peace. After the Seljuq Turks took over Myra in the 1080s, the Italian cities of Bari and Venice sought to compete to move his relics (and their lucrative pilgrimage trade) to Italy. in 1087, merchants from Bari made off with St. Nick's bones.

(Stealing saints was actually not that uncommon. In 828 AD, Venetian merchants famously stole the relics of St. Mark the Evangelist, traditional Apostle of Egypt, and took them to Venice, where they reside in the great Cathedral of San Marco.)

With that note, I begin my Christmas blogging, since the Middle East has more dates for Christmas than he rest of the world.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Victorian Converts to Islam

Thus Al-Jazeera moved this story some months ago, I hadn't seen it before: "The Victorian Muslims of Britain,"  about British aristocratic types converting to Islam. (To quibble, some of these conversions were more Edwardian than Victorian. Among the examples is (Muhammad) Marmaduke Pickthall, whose translation of the Qur'an still circulates.

It also reminded me of the discovery of a letter from Winston Churchill's future sister-in-law expressing concern that Churchill might convert.
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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

End Game in Aleppo?

The sudden and unprecedented advance of Syrian regime forces into northeastern Aleppo in recent days seems to mark the collapse of the anti-Asad rebel groups that have been holding out there, especially Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra). A victory by the regime and its allies is likely to come at great cost; eastern Aleppo has already suffered horribly from bombing and the systematic targeting of hospitals. And while Syrian forces have been de facto cooperating with the Kurdish YPG and Turkish backed elements, he very different end games envisioned by those three elements may lead to new conflicts.

Once the regime recovers the ruins of this once great city, it will control the major cities of Syria, the "useful Syria" it considers sufficient to assure its survival. It will have recovered Aleppo through the unchallenged and unrestrained application of Syrian and Soviet air power. The chimaera of a no-fly zone is long since moot, rendered so by direct Russian intervention. There will be plenty of guilt to go around for the destruction of a great city; the West is hardly free of guilt, but the Asad regime and its Russian and other allies have the largest amount of blood on their hands.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Fidel Castro and the Middle East

With Nasser
Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, a critical juncture in the decolonization of the Third World, and had considerable success in portraying himself as a champion of decolonization efforts worldwide.

Castro was no romantic hero, but indeed a brutal dictator despite some beneficial reforms on the domestic front, and a man who committed Cuban troops to various adventures in Latin America and a bloody war in Angola. But he cultivated many admirers, and some emulators, in the Middle East.

Since 1959 is now nearly 60 years ago, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to recall the context. In 1955-56, Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal, accepted the Soviet offer to build the Aswan High Dam, and resisted the British-French-Israeli intervention in the Suez War.

Four years before the Cuban Revolution, in 1955, the Afro-Asiatic Conference at Bandung had laid the groundwork for what would come to be called the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). When the NAM was formed at Belgrade in 1961 Cuba, though increasingly aligned with the Soviet Bloc, was a charter member, as was Egypt.

In 1958, following US and British interventions in Lebanon and Jordan (to block unrestblamed by the West on Nasserist propaganda), Egypt and Syria united in the United Arab Republic, creating the alignments Malcolm Kerr branded "The Arab Cold War."

Also in 1958, four years into the Algerian War of Independence against France, French nationalist generals rebelled against the Fourth Republic; out of the crisis came the creation of the Fifth Republic under Charles de Gaulle.

It was in this context that Castro entered Havana on January 1, 1959. After he defeated the US-backed exile landings at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, he came to be seen as a Third World hero who had defied the United States, as Nasser had defied Britain and France.

With the rapid decolonization and independence of British, French, and Belgian colonies in Africa, in 1960-62, Castro and Che Guevara, like Nasser, saw Africa as a fertile ground for asserting influence, beginning with the Congo.

With Algeria's Bouteflika
With Algerian independence in 1962, Cuba offered training to the new Algerian Army, after supporting it in the independence struggle. Cuba also supported, via Egypt, the fight for independence for South Yemen, which would lead to the only Marxist-Leninist state in the Arab world. With the formation of the PLO, Cuba became an early supporter, providing training to Palestinian guerrillas.

With Qadhafi
With the Libyan Revolution in 1969, Cuba found a fellow apostle of Third World Revolution in Mu‘ammar Qadhafi, and he, like the Cubans, had a preoccupation with Sub-Saharan African movements.

Castro, with his long ties to Algeria, joined the Algerians in supporting the POLISARIO Front against Morocco in the Western Sahara.

With Saddam
With the death of Nasser, Egypt's tilt to the West, and the decline of leftist liberation movements and the rise of Islamist ones, not to mention Cuban military over-commitments in Central America and Angola, Cuban influence in the Middle East  was much reduced. Castro even criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba's foreign adventures were much reduced, and limited to supporting Latin American leftists like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Castro opposed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

In the Middle East of today, with ISIS and similar movements long having replaced revolutionaries of the left, the 1960s seem a long time ago. But Algeria, one of Cuba's early allies and one still led by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had known Castro since the early sixties, has declared eight days of mourning for the Cuban leader.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Rising Tide of Islamophobia in the US and Europe

It's hard to know where to start a consideration of the rising tide of racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, nativism, and anti-immigrant sentiment that has spread across Eastern and Western Europe and the US in the past year or two. The anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric of the US Presidential campaign has unleashed some of the darker angels of American nativism, and since the results, some of the nastier attitudes that usually stay hidden under the rocks of the national psyche (the Klan, white supremacists, neo-Nazis) have felt emboldened.

But this is not just an American problem, though various watchdog groups report stepped-up instances of attacks on Hispanics, Muslims, and immigrants since the election. The same thing happened in Britain after the Brexit vote, in France and Belgium after the Paris and Brussels attacks,and in Eastern Europe during the Syrian refugee waves. No single politician or political party incited this, though many cheered it on through dog-whistle language.  And to the new demonology of Muslims, immigrants, and nonwhites generally, is raised the old demon of anti-Semitism as well, not to mention misogyny.

Again, this has multi-national facets; it's not just an American problem. But every time a Westerner insults a woman in a hijab, burns a mosque or scrawls an obscenity on an Islamic center, they help jihadist recruiters and spread fear in the overwhelming majority of ordinary believers. Even such near-farcical measures as the "burkini bans"  of last summer, made more farcical by their imposition in Cannes and Nice, two towns that pioneered topless sunbathing, were a clear way to make conservative Muslim sunbathers feel like the unwelcome, alien Other, even though they were not objecting to the less modest dress around them. It is true that the immigrant communities in Europe are far less assimilated than those in America, but US Muslims are feeling fearful, and many non-Muslims are offering support and even escorts.

I don't have any rousing rhetorical conclusions here: things are getting bad, and may well get worse.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Digitizing the Qarawiyyin Library

The political news both here and in the Middle East is depressing, so I will post something hopeful: the Library of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, described in the article as the oldest library in the world, is having its great collection digitized.

The story contains an Al Jazeera video which I have not been able to embed successfully, so you should watch it at the link. I'm not sure it's the world's oldest library, but among its many treasures is a manuscript of Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddima said to be written in his own hand, What historian could resist that?

For those of you who have never had the pleasure of wandering the Medina of the old city of Fez, or Fas al-Bali, you must try to get there, as it is one of the best preserved Arab cities, with many of its industries, particularly its famous tanneries producing Moroccan leather. (Those with sensitive noses might not want to tour the tanneries, though.) For centuries, Fez was Morocco's capital.

The city was founded in 789 AD by Idris I on the west bank of the Jawhar River; in 808 his son and successor Idris II founded a rival town on the east bank; they eventually merged. In the ninth centuries two groups of Arab immigrants arrived in Fez. One set, from Muslim Spain (al-Andalus), settled on the west bank, while the other group, from Kairouan (Qayrawan) in Tunisia, settled on the east bank. The two banks came to be known by the names of the two great Friday mosques, that of the Andalusians (al-Andalusiyyin) and that of those from Kairouan (al-Qarawiyyin). The mosque of Al-Qarawiyyin became a university mosque, still functioning. For the rest of the story, see the link above.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trump and the Middle East: First Thoughts

Trying to figure out what to say about the implications of Donald Trump's election on US policy in the Middle East, I am reminded of an old line sometimes applied to the region: in the Middle East a pessimist is someone who says, "things are so bad they can't possibly get any worse," while an optimist says, "don't worry, of course they can."

With ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria,Yemen, and Libya; with the US directly engaged in he first two and holding the coats for and arming its GCC allies in the latter two, it would seem hard to make things worse.  But the incoming President's total lack of foreign policy experience (aside from building hotels and golf courses), and his reliance during the campaign on advisors such as John Bolton and Walid Phares suggests he may get interventionist advice. His pledge to scrap the Iran nuclear deal has been highly publicized, though how to do that unilaterally in an agreement with seven signatories including Britain, France, and Germany, has not been explained. On the other hand, and despite the rhetoric on ISIS, Trump has been critical of greater intervention in Syria,

Field Marshal Sisi has said he was the first foreign head of State to congratulate Trump; the Saudis and Netanyahu were close behind.You may draw your own conclusions.

I am willing to wait and see; perhaps the inflammatory rhetoric was just empty words. Certainly US policy since at least 2003 has made things increasingly more dangerous. But like the "optimist" in the quip above, I'm pretty confident that things could still get worse.

As the Foreign Policy and National Security appointments are made, I'm pretty sure I'll have a lot more to say.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Maybe the Admiral Kuznetzov is Not the Russian Ship We Should Be Watching

The European and Russian media have been tracking Russia's only carrier, the Admiral Kuznetzov, from the Baltic, through the English Channel and the Strait of Gibraltar, and currently steaming eastward across the Mediterranean. The theme is generally presented as Russia's dispatching its flagship, its only true aircraft carrier, to reinforce its forces prior to the final assault on eastern Aleppo. In terms of timing, it is obviously meant to signal increased Russia's military profile off Syria. But its propaganda influence is likely to be far more effective than its military impact.

Admiral Kuznetzov
In the first place, the Kuznetzov has had a checkered history. Originally named the Riga, it was renamed the Leonid Brezhnev as the Soviet Union began to come apart, then the Tbilisi, and finally the Admiral Kuznetzov. Its sister ship, unfinished when the USSR collapsed, was taken over by the Ukraine and eventually sold to China. So the Kuznetzov is the only true carrier in the Russian fleet (though officially classed as an heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser) and its flagship, but it must travel with a repair tender because it breaks down so frequently.

But those making the assumption that the carrier will contribute to a final bombing campaign to retake East Aleppo, are likely to be disappointed. The carrier's air complement is only about half that of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, also on station off Syria, and its Su-33s are air superiority fighters, of no use for bombing. It's MiG-29s are multi-role, but mainly intended for combat air patrol.

The Kuznetzov and its accompanying cruiser Peter the Great may merely be showing the flag, but the frigate Admiral Grigorovich, which exited the Black Sea quietly while the Kuznetzov battle group was getting all the attention. Only commissioned in March, Admiral Grigorovich is the lead ship of a new class of heavy cruise-missile frigates.

Admiral Grigorovich
It is equipped with vertically-launched Kalibr cruise missiles, which have a supersonic terminal velocity. The Kalibr has been extensively used in Syria, launched from vessels in the Caspian and Black Seas, or a submarine in the Mediterranean, but positioning a Kalibr-equipped frigate directly off the Syrian coast will greatly intensify Russian firepower around Aleppo. There also reports that three Russian cruise missile submarines have recently joined at least one already in the Med.

Cruise missiles of course avoid risk to Russian (or Syrian) pilots, but can deliver considerable destruction on the ground

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Photos I Never Thought I'd See, But Then It's Lebanon

Hizbullah and Lebanese Forces flags flying together. Ecumenism? Opportunism? Cynicism? Or, hey, it's Lebanon?

Monday, October 31, 2016

Trick or Treat? After Two and a Half Years, Lebanon Elects a President — on Halloween

As expected, its Michel ‘Aoun.

Afterthought for British readers: or an early Guy Fawkes Day.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Think the US Presidential Election is Strange? Consider Lebanon After the ‘Aoun-Hariri Deal

Imagine if you will a world in which Donald Trump chose Elizabeth Warren as his running mate, or Hillary Clinton chose, say, David Duke, and these were considered breakthroughs. You have stepped through a gate into another dimension, a dimension known as (theme music) the Lebanon Zone.

Hariri (left) and ‘Aoun
Anyone who has followed the roller-coaster ride of Lebanese politics since the end of the civil war  and somehow retained their sanity will be familiar with the fact that over the decades the factional leaders (zu‘ama) rarely change, except when one dies, and even then the last name stays the same. But the factions shift alliances every few years. In 1990-91 General Michel ‘Aoun was the sworn enemy of Syria; when he returned after years in exile he was Syria's friend, and is now Hizbullah's favorite Maronite. While his chameleon-like shifts are nowhere near as volatile and frequent as Walid Jumblatt's, he has frequently realigned himself.

The recent announcement by Sa‘d Hariri, the former Prime Minister whose late father's assassination has been blamed on Hizbullah, announced that he was endorsing ‘Aoun for the Lebanese Presidency, which has been vacant since 2014, during which time public services such as trash collection have collapsed.  Soon after, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah endorsed the strange bedfellows alliance. ‘Aoun, a Maronite, would become President, and Hariri, a Sunni, would be Prime Minister, since those jobs are reserved for those confessional groups.

Joyce Karam in an op/ed sees it as a Hariri concession.  It may well break the deadlock and see a President elected in coming days (Parliament chooses the President), but all the faces will be old familiar ones.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Iraqi Parliament, Having No Other Pressing Problems, Decides to Ban Alcohol

 Iraq's Parliament, having defeated ISIS (oh, wait), ended sectarian tensions (oh, wait), negotiated all territorial and oil issues with the Kurds (oh, never mind), has had the time, in its wisdom and with all of Iraq's other problems presumably behind them, to vote to ban alcohol.

I've only been to Iraq once, in the Saddam era. The war with Iran had just ended; the Baghdad Sheraton still had instructions on what to do in case of missile attack. The security forces were omnipresent, and even friends with the US and UK Embassies were nervous about security patrols despite their immunity. All in all, about the only slightly redeeming factor was the ready availability of alcohol. (I realize this falls into the "But Hitler loved dogs" level of justification, of trying to find a silver lining in the darkest of dark clouds.)

Who first invented beer and wine is debatable, but Mesopotamia and Egypt both seem to have known
alcohol before they acquired writing. In the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid the sybaritic poet Abu Nawas was known for his enjoyment of wine, and Omar Khayyam's loaf of bread, jug of wine and thou beside me needs little introduction. Until the fall of Saddam, alcohol was common in Iraq for centuries. Local breweries produced beer; northern Iraq produced wines, some of it from Christian monasteries. Arak, the anise-flavored liquor similar to Turkish raki and Greek ouzo, was widely available, and so was its home-brewed version. Alcohol production in Kurdistan is apparently flourishing.

After Saddam fell, alcohol remained legal, but various Islamist groups, including al-Qa‘ida in the Land of the Two Rivers and its successor/heir ISIS, and Shi‘ite fundamentalists as well, attacked and even fire-bombed bars and liquor stores. Alcohol consumption in public faded for a while, and of course was taboo in ISIS-controlled territory.

But beer, wine, and arak are deeply ingrained in Iraqi society, in a way it never was in, say, Saudi Arabia. With Christians fleeing Iraq n large numbers, remaining wine-producing monasteries will see this as a new threat. And the Kurdish Regional Government, which has only the most tenuous theoretical loyalty to the Baghdad government, will likely ignore the ban.

So, I suspect, will many other Iraqis.




Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad, former Ruler of Qatar, Dies at 84

Former Qatari Emir Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, who ruled from 1972 until overthrown by his son in 1995, has died at he age of 84. His grandson Sheikh Tamim is the current Emir.

Born in 1932, he was already Heir Apparent and Deputy Ruler when he deposed his cousin and took the throne. He presided over the huge increase of wealth following the oil price rise of the 1970s. He gave more and more of his day-to-day responsibilities to his son and spent long periods in Europe. In 1995 he was deposed in turn by his son Hamad, while Khalifa was vacationing in Geneva. He lived in exile in France and the UAE. In 2004 he was allowed to return to Qatar.

In 2013 Sheikh Hamad abdicated in favor of his son Sheikh Tamim, the current ruler, who is the late Sheikh Khalifa's grandson. For the past three years Qatar has had three living former or sitting Rulers, until Sheikh Khalifa's passing.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Now that Dabiq Has Fallen, Will ISIS Change the Name of its Magazine?

What with the launching of the campaign against Mosul and the US preoccupation with the election, many may have overlooked the loss by ISIS of a tiny town in northern Syria with only a few thousand inhabitants. But it did get some attention, because the town was Dabiq.

It looks as if the end times may be postponed for a while. You may recall that two years ago I did a post discussing the role pf Dabiq in Islamic apocalyptic thought, and quoted at length a hadith attributed to the Prophet to the effect that in the last days a great final battle between the Muslims and "the Romans" (that is, the Byzantines), which would lead to a Muslim victory the fall of Constantinople and the onset of the last days.

Yes, Islam conquered Constantinople back in 1453, but in the centuries of struggle preceding that, the boundary between Byzantium and Islam frequently ran roughly along the present Turkish border; as, later, did the boundary between the Ottomans and Mamluk Syria. Over the centuries two battles were fought at Marj Dabiq (the Meadow of Dabiq) near the town: one in 717 AD between the Umayyads and the Byzantines, and the other in 1516 in which the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks and opened their conquest of Syria and Egypt. Dabiq was in the sort of location where battles have occurred several times. rather like the hill and pass at Megiddo in Palestine has been the scene of battles from ancient times to World War I. Just as the biblical Book of Revelation places the final battle at Armageddon (Greek for har-Megiddo), so some Islamic traditions place a similar battle at Dabiq.

And of course, ISIS named its English-language magazine Dabiq.

Unlike Aleppo or Mosul, the loss of Dabiq by ISIS to the Sultan Murad militia (a Syrian Turkmen militia backed by Turkey) has little effect on the military situation, but it clearly undercuts ISIS' claim to be bringing the apocalypse.

For more on the subject, ISIS expert at Brookings Will McCants has a good piece at Jihadica, "Apocalypse Delayed,"  (also available from the Brookings website).

Bassam Haddad: Syria Debate has Reached a Dead End

The debate over the rights and wrongs of the war in Syria and what the policy of the US and other powers should be has sometimes seemed as endless as the war itself. Let me commend to you an incisive, if sobering, analysis by Bassam Haddad at The Nation: "The Debate Over Syria Has Reached a Dead End."


Friday, October 14, 2016

A Few Still Relevant Words from the Latest Nobel Prize Winner

In 50 years, the human rights struggles and wars have shifted their turf, but are still not blown away. For Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and the US election.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Missiles of October: Are the Houthis Trying to Bring the US Into the Yemen War?

The forgotten, ignored war in Yemen is suddenly drawing the attention of the US, which has supplied aircraft and ordnance to Saudi Arabia.

Wednesday, for the second time in four days, two cruise missiles were fired at the USS Mason in the Red Sea north of the Strait of Bab al-Mandab. For the second time the US destroyer was unharmed and responded with countermeasures, so far not detailed. but with reports that one salvo of the response appeared to down one of the missiles. The missiles appeared to originate near Mocha. Early today the US struck back, hitting three coastal radar sites.

On Sunday, in the midst of a three-day Columbus Day/Indigenous People's Day holiday in the US, the Mason had earlier came under fnedire from two missiles, while on patrol near the USS Ponce amphibious dock (AFSB(I)-15). The Mason in that case fired one Evolved Seasparrow air defense missile and two Standard Missile 2  (SM- 2) missiles.

In both cases the incoming missiles mat have been Iranian-backed Noor missiles, an Iranian-designed version of the Chinese C-802.

A week before the first attack on the Mason the UAE-leased catamaran HSV-2 Swift was sunk by missiles fired by small boats in the same general area. Here is the alleged video of that attack:

There is little doubt that these attacks were launched by the Houthi side in the Yemen civil war. Are these attacks merely a Houthi lashing out after the brutal and bloody GCC coalition attack, probably conducted by Saudi Arabia, on a funeral in Sana‘a'? The first Mason attack followed on the heels of the funeral attack, which killed 150 or more. (Since it was carried out with US supplied aircraft and ordnance, it may have been meant as retribution, though the difference in power seems enormously asymmetric).  But the UAE sinking was prior to the funeral attack.

Back in early 2015, I posted about people who were alarmed that the Houthis might close the Strait of Bab al-Mandab. I stand by my argument that the Houthis cannot dominate the strait. I'll talk more in coming days.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Last Great Battle of the War Galleys: Lepanto, 545 Years Ago Today

On October 7, 1571, 545 years ago today, one of the critical naval battles of history took place off the west coast of Greece: Lepanto. The confrontation between the Holy League, a Christian alliance led by Spain and  Austria and supported by the Pope and Venice, and the powerful Ottoman Navy was one of the bloodiest sea battles on record. The Christian victory was deemed a miracle, stopping the advance of the previously undefeated Ottoman fleet into the western Mediterranean.

16th Century Maltese War Galley
From Ancient Greece (even from the Catalog of Ships jn the Iliad) through Rome and the Byzantines,  Venice and Genoa and the rise of Spain, naval warfare in the Mediterranean meant the clash of war galleys, long, low to the water warships powered by oars (though usually with a sail as auxiliary) and manned by slaves or prisoners. The age of sail had already dawned but in the Mediterranean/the galley still ruled supreme. Though galleys would linger as coastal patrols and anti-pirate missions, the last great clash of war galleys in line of battle was Lepanto.

Don Juan (John) of Austria
Lepanto would become the great symbol of Catholic Europe blocking Islamic expansion; (in the Catholic calendar today is still marked as the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, who was credited with the victory), and remains a more powerful symbol among Catholic countries than Protestant, since the Admiral in charge of the Christian fleet, Don Juan of Austria (who was Spanish, not Austrian, but the Hapsburgs got around). Don Juan was the illegitimate son of the Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, defender of the Catholic faith against Protestantism; that made Don Juan a half brother of Phillip II of Spain, future creator of the Armada; Charles was a nephew of Catherine of Aragon, whose divorce from Henry VIII provoked the English Reformation, so the Hapsburg victory at Lepanto was never a big deal in Protestant countries. An exception was the English Catholic author G.K. Chesterton, whose "Battle of Lepanto" is an expression of Catholic triumphalism and contains insulting language about the Ottomans and even Islam itself, but has a catchy power:
Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young,
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war . . .
 Before I discuss the battle itself let me note two historical asides:
  1. Lepanto, in the Ionian Sea and the Gulf of Patras, is extremely close to another decisive naval battle fought in these waters on the western coast of Greece: Actium, in 31 BC between Octavian (soon to be Augustus) versus Antony and Cleopatra, was fought nearby.
  2. On one of the Spanish galleys, Marquesa, was a young, 20-something  Spanish naval infantry (Marine) infantryman who had been ill but insisted on remaining on deck through the battle. Of the nearly 70,000 soldiers and sailors on the Christian side, he may have been among the least known. His name was Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. He would write a book known as Don Quixote.
The battle itself was enormous, probably the largest naval battle up to that time, and the bloodiest. The forces were roughly equivalent; for convenience I'll use Wikipedia: on the Holy League side 212 ships, 206 galleys and six galleasses with 28,500 soldiers and 40,000 sailors and oarsmen; the Ottomans with 251 ships, 206 galleys and 45 galliots, with 31,490 soldiers and 50,000 sailors and oarsmen.

The Catholic view of the battle uses the slightly larger Ottoman numbers as proof of a miracle, but the Holy League had 1,815 guns, versus 750 on the Ottoman side. The huge cannons the Ottomans had used in land battles were not on their naval vessels; the Western small arms, arquebuses and muskets, were superior to those of the Ottomans, though the latter had excellent bowmen.

The Holy League forces were commanded by Don John, and the Turks under Muezzinzade Ali Pasha, fought hard, but the battle results were one-sided. Again using Wikipedia, the Holy League lost 7,500 men and 17 ships, while the Ottomans lost 20,000 dead, wounded or captured, 137 ships captured, 50 ships sunk, and 12,000 Christian galley slaves freed.
Ali Pasha
Ali Pasha himself, and his two subordinate commanders were killed in the battle. Don Juan came to be seen as the savior of Europe.










Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Ruhi Ramazani: We Have Lost One of the Giants

Ruhi Ramazani
R.K. Ramazani, the undisputed Dean of Iranian Foreign Policy Studies in the US, passed away earlier today. The Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia trained generations of Iran specialists and other Middle East experts over his more than 60 years at UVA.

Ruhi, as he was universally known ("Ruhollah was Khomeini's name; I don't use it anymore") was a Persian gentleman of the old school, who came to the US in 1952 and has been a fixture at UVA  ever since. And Mr. Jefferson's University left its stamp on him: he also wrote frequently about Jeffersonian principles, and he was on the Board at Monticello.

Ruhi had a long and loyal association with both the Middle East Institute and The Middle East Journal, serving at various times on MEI's Board of Governors and on the Journal's Board of Advisory Editors. He published his first article in MEJ in Spring of 1958, and his most recent in Autumn 2004. Many of those articles were collected in his book Independence without Freedom: Iran's Foreign Policy, published in 2013 by (of course) UVA Press. He also came to our Annual Conference until age and failing health made the drive from Charlottesville impossible. He continued to donate to the Journal annually.

My condolences to Nesta and the children and grandchildren.

Ruhi himself deserves the last word: UVA did this interview in 2007:


R.K. Ramazani, Interview, UVA Today from R.K. Ramazani on Vimeo.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Iraqi Transport Minister: Sumerians Built First Airport 7,000 Years Ago; Went to Pluto

The headline is not an exaggeration. At a press conference in Dhi Qar, Iraqi Transport Minister Kazem Finjan announced that Dhi Qar was the site of the world's first airport, which he dated to 7000 years ago, and that they had discovered Pluto, and, he seems to imply, had visited it. See the story here. If you know Arabic, watch the video at the link, which I can't embed. (Even if you don't, you mat want to watch the expression of the man in the light jacket at right as the reacts as the Minister goes off the rails.

Iraq's Transport Minister Kazem Finjan has claimed that ancient Sumerians in Iraq invented space travel.

Finjan made the outlandish claim during a press conference in the southern Iraqi province of Dhi Qar.

In a speech, he said that the ancient civilisation had built the world's first airport in the area around 5,000 BC.

Finjan went on to claim that the airport had served as a hub for space exploration, and that the Sumerians discovered Pluto falsely claiming it to be the solar system's "twelfth planet" and discovered by NASA.

In front of a beleaguered audience Finjan sought to back up his claims asking sceptics to study the works of Sumerian experts such as Russian professor Samuel Kramer.
He specifically cited Kramer's History Begins at Sumer, a familiar popular introduction. Apparently the copy on my shelf is a different edition from the Minister's, since it doesn't mention airports or space travel, and uses the standard dating in which Sumer rose around 3000 years BC, or 5,000 years ago, not 7000. (Did he confuse 5000 Before the Present with 5000 BC?) True, he mentions the Sumerians as pioneers in astronomy, but with no mention of Pluto  (which used to be the ninth planet, not the twelfth, until it was demoted). And it was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, long before NASA existed. I think the Minister may have confused Kramer with something he saw on Ancient Aliens.

Or perhaps he's made the biggest discovery by an Arab official since the Egyptian Army discovered a cure for both AIDS and hepatitis C without blood tests.  I wonder how that worked out.


Sunday, October 2, 2016

Happy New Year to Muslims and Jews Both: in a Rare Year Where AH 1 Muharram 1438 and AM 1 Tishrei 5777 Coincide

Shana Tova to Jewish readers on this first day of Rosh Hashonah,  which began at sundown. But also Happy New Year to Muslim readers in an extremely rare occasion when Jewish New Year coincides with Ra's al-Sana al-Hijriyya, the Muslim New Year. (And of course,  Rosh Hashonah and Ra's al-Sana are cognate, and both mean "Head of the Year.")  But the calendars are quite different, with Muslim lunar dates moving around through the solar year, and this kind of coincidence is purely that. But Happy New Year whether you're welcoming in 1438 or 5777.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Nasser Died 46 Years Ago Today

On September 28, 1970, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had just concluded a high tension Arab Summit in Cairo aimed at resolving the "Black September" conflict between Jordan and the PLO. On September 27, Jordan and the PLO signed an accord which essentially treated them as equal parties to the dispute. Nasser spent the morning of the 28th seeing his Arab VIP guests off at Cairo airport. Soon after leaving, he suffered a massive heart attack. He was taken ro his home, where he died later that afternoon.

Though only 52, Nasser was a heavy chain smoker and a diabetic with a family history of heart disease, and the stress of Black September and the Cairo Summit had taken their toll.

The juxtaposition of Nasser's death and the September crisis (which had included threats of US, and Israeli intervention in Jordan and Soviet intervention in Syria) led to shock throughout the region   and an outpouring of grief in Egypt. Five million people attended the funeral.






The Last of the Founders: Shimon Peres (1923-2016)

One of the last survivors of Israel's founding generation, Shimon Peres has died at age 93, two weeks after suffering a massive stroke. Peres held almost every senior position imaginable in a life that paralleled the life of Israel: Defense Minister, Finance Minister, Foreign Minister, Prime Minister (twice, or three times if you count a brief stint as Acting PM in 1977) and finally the most politically outspoken holder of the usual ceremonial post of President, a job he held until 2014. Born in 1923 in what was then Poland and is now Belarus, he was likely one of the last senior Israeli figures born in pre-WWII Eastern Europe.

There's little point in retracing all the details of a long and very politically active life. Everyone will be doing that today. Let me touch on the salient points. A key protégé of David Ben-Gurion, he followed the "old man" out of the Mapai (later Labor) Party to found Rafi, and returned when BG did.

He would be the rare Israeli Defense Ministers never to have served on the IDF or one of the pre-state military organizations. Like a later exception to the rule, Moshe Arens, he made his name in the civilian side of the defense establishment. In Peres' case, he created it. As Director-General of the Defense Ministry in the 1950s, the post in charge of defense production, he was the architect of Israel's defense relations with France, and the father of Israel's domestic defense industrial sector, today one of the most robust in the world. In the same period, he also served as the father of Israel's nuclear program.

1994 Nobel Peace Prize
Peres' terms as Prime Minister (1984-1986 in rotation with Yitzhak Shamir and 1995-1996 after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin) were in neither case elections in his own right. In the 1990s, as Foreign Minister under Rabin, he was involved in negotiating the Oslo Accords and shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Yasir ‘Arafat.

In his last decades Peres was a strong supporter of a two-state solution and what he referred to as a "New Middle East": he would not live to see it. But he made the usually ceremonially role of President an advocate for peace, despite inevitable friction with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I think he will be missed.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

September 22, 1916: The Ta'if Garrison Surrenders to the Arab Revolt

Sharifian Troops in Ta'if after the Surrender
Back in June, in discussing the centenary of the outbreak of the Arab Revolt, I noted that after the Revolt was proclaimed by Sharif Hussein at Mecca, the Sharifian forces soon occupied Mecca and, with British assistance, Jidda was also taken. Hussein's sons ‘Ali and Feisal attacked Medina and ‘Abdullah attacked Ta'if, the mountain resort town near Mecca.

The Sharifians were repulsed from Medina, where the Turks had a garrison of 10,000 and which, as railhead of the Hejaz Railway could easily be resupplied.
Ta'if in 1917 (H. St.John B. Philby)


‘Abdullah
At Ta'if, ‘Abdullah's troops quickly occupied the outskirts, while the Turkish garrison retreated into its garrison and the town fortifications. Lacking artillery, ‘Abdullah's forces decided on a siege rather than a full attack.

Meanwhile the British began transporting artillery through mountain roads to Ta'if. The artillery would be manned by Egyptian gunners, despite Egypt remaining nominally neutral. Sharifian sympathizers reportedly provided artillery spotters.

Ali Galip Pasinler
The siege eventually dragged on for three months, from June 10 to September 22.The Ottoman garrison was under Gen. Ali Galip Bey (later known as Ali Galip Pasinler). Finally, on September 22, Galip surrendered with his whole garrison. He had moved his headquarters several times after his original bunker was hit by artillery.

‘Abdullah remembered his conversation with Galip thus in his Memoirs:
 I found him in the large hall at Shubra Palace, the only general among seventy-five junior officers.
He seemed pleased to see me, and after several moments he said, “This is a great catastrophe . . . we were brothers and now we are enemies” I felt bolder in his presence now that our positions were reversed, but said as gently as I could, “The master has become the master again and is freed from slavery and the yoke of him whom he enlightened.”
His face became as white as a sheet, but he recovered himself and said, “I know that the Arab nation would separate from us one day, but I never thought that it would happen so quickly.” “You are right, “ I replied, “for speed was in our interest. If you had retained the absolute authority of the Caliphate, we would never have risen against you, but your party became despotic and dictated not only to your people but to the Sultan as well . . . However, recriminations now will do no good. Please come in to dinner. I hope you will enjoy that I have prepared for you after the rigors of the siege”
Ruins of Sharif Hussein's Palace in Ta'if after the siege (Philby)
Below is a postwar Turkish  map showing the siege of Ta'if:




More Geographically Challenged US Political Leaders

In the wake of the "What is Aleppo?" controversy one would hope that US politicians would spend a little time with a map before speaking in public. In the midst of the Senate debate over an arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which was opposed by critics of the Saudi air campaign in Yemen, two Republican senators who really ought to know better seem to have confused the Strait of Bab al-Mandab with the Strait of Hormuz. Senator John McCain of Arizona, former Presidential candidate and a specialist in national security issues, and Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, defended the Saudi campaign by arguing that if the Houthis had been allowed to occupy all of Yemen, they could have posed a threat to shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.

The Strait of Hormuz, of course, runs between Iran on one side and Oman and the UAE  on the other; no part of Yemen comes anywhere near it. (And don't get me started on the notion that the Houthis are Iranian stooges, because, um, the Saudis say they are. I'm no fan of the Houthi movement, but it's a home-grown Yemeni Zaydi movement.)

Monday, September 19, 2016

On the Eve of Jordan's Vote

Jordan is far from being an ideal democracy, but it does have political parties and competitive elections, even if Parliament's power is circumscribed. Tomorrow, Jordan goes to the polls to elect a new Parliament. Curtis Ryan offers an overview at The Washington Post, and also POMEPS has a podcast with Ryan on the same subject. They provide a useful briefing before the vote.