A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Still "Not a Coup," But Now a National Holiday

June 30, 2013, three years ago today, was the first anniversary of Mohammad Morsi's election as President of Egypt. It was also the day massive popular demonstrations were called to demand the Muslim Brotherhood government accept new elections. The result was a military ultimatum that Morsi comply or face military action. On July 3, the military moved.

It still isn't a coup
The mythology promoted by President Sisi and his supporters has continued to deny that the intervention on July 3 was a coup, portraying it instead as a logical outcome of the "June 30th Revolution, which has superseded the "January 25 Revolution" of 2011 in prestige. It's still taboo to call it a coup.

In keeping with the emphasis on June 30 over July 3, Egypt celebrated today, which has become a national holiday.

I mean, is this how you celebrate a coup?

On the Lighter Side of Brexit, Karl Sharro . . .

Yesterday I posted some links about Brexit's impact on the Middle East. Those were serious assessments, whether one agrees with them or not. On the other hand, there's Karl Sharro.

Satirist Karl Sharro has been on the case, beginning last week with his piece for The Atlantic, "Brexit: A Tale of ‘Ancient Ethnic Hatreds’: What if columnists wrote about the U.K. the way they do about the Middle East?"

He traces it all  to the age-old conflict between Normans and Anglo-Saxons, of course. After interviewing the inevitable taxi driver.

Separately, he came up with this explanatory graphic;
And finally, here's a last word:

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Brexit and the Middle East

In the wake of Britain's "Brexit" vote, it's hardly surprising that the move's implications for the Middle East. Here are a few links:

Friday, June 24, 2016

Arab Authors on Brexit

From the Arabic Literature (in English) log, a useful collection of "Arab Authors on Brexit," including the inimitable Karl Sharro:

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

June 1916: Outbreak of the Great Arab Revolt

First let me say I'm recovering from my surgery, and let me thank the many kind wishes I received in the comments.

Sharif Hussein in 1916
Between my health and the Journal's deadlines, it's been a while since I dealt with the centennial of the First World War in the Middle East. But June marks a century since the outbreak of the Arab Revolt led by Sharif Hussein of Mecca, or the Great Arab Revolt as it is sometimes known.

We've talked about the Hussein-McMahon correspondence and the genesis of the idea on more than one occasion, Interpretations of the significance (or peripheral nature) of the Revolt have differed widely, with what might be called the British and Hashemite view of history playing up its importance. The role of T.E. Lawrence has enhanced the mythology surrounding the Revolt, and added to the emphasis on the tribal and guerrilla aspects of the Revolt, at the expense of the regular Sharifian Army. There will be plenty of time to debate the myths versus the realities; let's begin with the outbreak.

On May 28, 1916, Ronald Storrs, Oriental Secretary, left Cairo, accompanied by Lt. Cdr. D.G.Hogarth, archaeologist and intelligence agent, and Captain Kinahan Cornwallis, the latter two attached to the Arab Bureau. With them was £10,000 destined for Amir ‘Abdullah, son of Sharif Hussein and their main interlocutor with him at this time. They were also authorized to promise another £50,000 to the Sharif after the actual outbreak of the promised revolt.

Reaching Jidda on June 5 they did not find  ‘Abdullah as expected (who was in fact preparing for the revolt), but rather a message saying his youngest brother Zayd was coming instead. Zayd arrived with a message promising simultaneous attacks at Mecca, Medina, Ta'if, and Jidda. Indeed, on June 5, Hussein's sons ‘Ali and Faisal made an initial attack against Medina, and on June 6 Zayd met with Storrs and informed him of this. The main revolt had been moved up from June 16 to June 10.

But Medina was a very different target than Mecca would prove to be. A strong Ottoman garrison of 10,000 under Fakhri Pasha defended it, and it was the railhead of the Hejaz Railway, which allowed easy resupply from Damascus.

Ironically, the very same day as the attempt on Medina, far away in the North Sea north of Scotland, HMS Hampshire, en route to Russia, was torpedoed and sunk with all hands. One passenger was far more famous than the others: the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, former virtual ruler of Egypt and Storrs' former boss. A failed tribal raid on an Ottoman provincial capital would garner no headlines in London.

Kitchener was a national hero. Liberator of Khartoum, master of Egypt and, since the outbreak of war, the most famous recruiting poster. Though disliked by his subordinate officers and the rest of the Cabinet, he was idolized by the public and by Tommy Atkins in the trenches,and his death was a national shock. Egypt, where Kitchener was still known just as "the Lord" (al-Lurd) as Cromer had been before him, was also in shock.

Meanwhile, on June 10, Sharif Hussein proclaimed revolt in Mecca, declared the Young Turk regime had betrayed Islam, proclaimed an Arab Caliphate, and attacked the Turkish garrison in the Holy City. After a short siege, Mecca mostly was  under control by June 13, though resistance continued until July 9. 

On June 10 also, ‘Abdullah attacked Ta'if. The town was soon taken but the garrison hunkered down in the fort.

The port of Jidda was critical as a means of supplying Mecca and the rebels. The Royal Navy moved an aging, obsolete warship, HMS Fox, and a seaplane tender, HMS Ben-My-Chree, a converted Manx packet steamer.

HMS Ben-My-Chree (note hangars)
The rebels attacked Jidda with support from Fox's guns and air cover from Ben-My-Chree's seaplanes, and the garrison surrendered on June 16.,

Once Jidda was taken, the British began creating a series of ports along the coast controlled by the Royal Navy, provided Hussein with artillery from the Egyptian Army, and began assembling a regular Sharifian Army from Arab officers and men of the Ottoman Army assembled from POWs and deserters.The Arab Revolt had begun.


Egyptian Court Annuls Tiran/Sanafir Agreement

An Egyptian Administrative Court has annulled the April agreement with Saudi Arabia transferring the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi sovereignty.

The agreement had provoked widespread demonstrations and charges that the government was selling Egyptian sovereign territory to Saudi Arabia. As I noted in April, the history of the islands is complex, and further complicated by the fact that they are part of Area C in the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty.

The government has already said it will appeal to the Supreme Administrative Court, which will have the final say. Although President al-Sisi has said that there are documents proving the islands are rightfully Saudi, no such documents were reportedly introduced at the trial.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Another Round of Surgery

As I posted before, I spent Memorial Day weekend in the hospital due to foot surgery. The infection has persisted, accounting for my sparse blogging, and tomorrow I will go in for another surgery to remove the infected toe and adjacent bone. I hope to resume regular blogging soon.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Thoughts on Orlando

The horrible slaughter in Orlando has tragically become entangled with the US Presidential campaign. The perpetrator proclaimed his allegiance to ISIS, but had previously expressed support for Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS' bitter rivals. Anti-gay animus is clearly another motive, and the massacre has also reignited the gun debate.

It can never be repeated too many times: the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, and ISIS also seeks to promote a war between the West and Islam, and apparently some in the West are eager to accommodate them. But ISIS is losing on the battlefield: at Falluja in Iraq, Manbij in Syria, and Sirte in Libya, it is on the ropes, so it is seeking to encourage civilian attacks by sympathizers and fellow travelers.

Obviously we must continue to guard against these kinds of horrific domestic terror attacks, but without sacrificing our ability to lead normal lives or sacrificing the values ISIS seeks to undermine.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Israeli Sociologist Prof. Michael Feige Died in Sarona Market Attack

Michael Feige
One of the four Israelis killed in yesterday's attack on the Sarona  Market in Tel Aviv was a noted scholar of Israeli society, the sociologist and anthropologist Professor Michael Feige of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. I only knew him by reputation, but it is a reminder that attacks on civilians (by either side) leave everyone vulnerable.

BGU has posted a tribute to Prof. Feige here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

How Involved is the US in the Manbij Campaign?

Since the first of June the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) have made major advances into the so-calleed Manbij Pocket along the Syrian-Turkish border, occupying hundreds of square kilometers west of the Euphrates and threatening to cut off one of the Islamic State's remaining outlets to the Turkish border.

Though the Manbij campaign has received less attention than the advance on Falluja i,n Iraq, it is a major success for US-backed forces. In fact there is reason to believe that US Special Forces are embedded with and possibly directing the advance.

Although about 60% of the SDF consist of YPG fighters. the US has sought to emphasize the Arab components in the SDF, in order to persuade Turkey that it is not primarily a Kurdish force advancing along its border. The SDF also includes Arab groups as well as Assyrian, Turkmen, Circassian and other minority groups. It's been reported that the YPG is leading the advance and capturing territory, and then handing control over to non-Kurdish forces.

The SDF says it is refraining from entering Manbij city to avoid civilian casualties,  but appears intent on cutting the routes from Manbij to the Turkish border.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Muhammad Ali and the Middle East

With Nasser, 1964
The late Muhammad Ali, who died this weekend, was often described in his heyday as the most famous man on earth. It may well have been true, especially in the Third World, where his embrace of Islam, his willingness to give up his title rather than support the Vietnam War, his staging championship bouts in Kinshasa and Manila, all added to his global fame.

When he announced his conversion to Islam, it was to the extremely unorthodox Nation of Islam, which many Muslims did not accept as Islamic. Later, in 1975, he converted to mainstream Sunni Islam. In 2005, he announced himself an adherent of the Universal Sufism movement led by Inayat Khan.

Praying at Hussein mosque, Cairo
Throughout his career, he made many visits to the Middle East, beginning with a visit to Egypt in 1964, where he met with Nasser and visited the High Dam under construction at Aswan. It should be remembered at the time meeting with Nasser was itself cause for controversial, as was his meeting with Mu‘ammar Qadhafi in Libya. It added to his reputation as a rebel.

At the Kaaba
In 1972, Ali famously made the hajj. He would thereafter speak of how moving he found the experience.

He would make many other visits to the Middle East. He was decorated by heads of state from Morocco to the Gulf, He generally drew crowds wherever he went. In 1982, having retired from the ring, he held two exhibition fights in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

In 1986 he visited Egypt for the second time, posing at the pyramids.

This is only a partial catalog of Ali's love affair with the Middle East, which was very much mutual.
Receiving a decoration from King Hasan II of Morocco

Ramadan Karim!

Wishing a blessed Ramadan to all my Muslim readers!

Friday, June 3, 2016

On Eve of Ramadan, ISIS Declares Ramadan :"Month of Conquest"

With Ramadan only a couple of days away, ISIS has called for stepped-up attacks in the West, calling Ramadan 'the month of conquest and jihad," In recent years, violence has marked the holy month. So, it may be time for a rerun of my post from last year on the history of fighting during Ramadan, going back to the Prophet's Battle at Badr. Here's that post:

 God  gave you victory at Badr when you were weak; fear God and perhaps you will be grateful.

  When you said to the Believers, "Is it not enough that God reinforced you with three thousand angels sent down?
           —Holy Qur'an, Sura 3 (Al ‘Imran), 123

It is proving to be another violent Ramadan, with violent jihadi attacks in Kuwait and Sousse and Grenoble, and today's assassination in Cairo. Ramadan is meant to be a month of peace and reconciliation, and warring Muslim states have sometimes held cease-fires during Ramadan, but in  fact there is no outright prohibition on fighting during Ramadan, a fact jihadists use to step up violence in what they see as a holy war against those they see as enemies, even their fellow Muslims.

The precedent lay in the very earliest years of Islam, just two years after the Prophet's hijra from Mecca to Medina. In AH 2 (AD 634), the Prophet Muhammad and his small Muslim forces fought against the more powerful Meccans in their first great battle, at Badr. It is one of the few battles mentioned by name in the Qur'an (above), which attributes the victory to Divine intervention. The traditional date of Badr is the 17th of Ramadan, AH 2.

Nor was Badr that unusual. Saladin's defeat of the Crusaders at Hattin in 1187 was also in Ramadan, and in Muslim tradition is said to have taken place the morning after the Laylat al-Qadr. (See the link for explanation.)

Less than a century later in 1260, the Mamluks finally stopped the Mongol invasion of the Middle East at another Battle in Galilee, at ‘Ain Jalut, fought in Ramadan.

On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria launched the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The crossing of the Suez Canal may be remembered for taking place on Yom Kippur, but it was also the 10th of Ramadan. A code name for the Canal crossing was, in fact, Operation Badr. One of Egypt's satellite cities near Cairo is named 10th of Ramadan.

And during the Iran-Iraq War Iran even named an offensive which it launched in Ramadan the Ramadan Offensive.

Most Muslims would prefer not to fight in Ramadan, but there are numerous precedents, and in recent years jihadist terror violence has often spiked in Ramadan.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Erdoğan's Anti-Birth Control Campaign

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a few days ago delivered a speech, or perhaps I should say a sermon, on birth control. He's against it.

Saying that no Muslim family can accept birth control, Erdoğan urged Turkish women to have many children in order to increase Turkey's population, a topic he has addressed before.

If his argument is that Turks should reproduce to increase population, that is one thing, but if he means that Islam forbids contraception, he is well outside the religious consensus. While there are conservative scholars who oppose all contraception, most Islamic legal schools  accept artificial contraception as long as it is reversible (not vasectomy or tubal ligation), and all oppose abortion. This is not a modernist issue: several hadith indicate that the Prophet Muhammad himself was aware of, and did not express disapproval of, the withdrawal method (‘azl in Arabic, coitus interruptus), the main form available in his day, unless it was done without the wife's permission. Other reversible methods are also generally accepted, and many governments actively promote family planning. Even the most theocratic regime, Iran's, actively promotes family planning and has seen a plunge in birthrates. Iran's program was directly authorized in a fatwa by Imam Khomeini himself, which in the eyes of the regime gives it the highest authority.

So Erdoğan, however much he may believe "no Muslim family" may practice contraception, is well outside the pale of mainstream Islamic jurisprudence.

Bassem Youssef on Trusting Your Muslim Neighbors

The brilliant Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef has been banned from Egyptian TV,  but apparently we're going to see more of him over here, starting with this:

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Bernard Lewis is 100 Today

The scholar and academic (and sometimes polemicist) Bernard Lewis is 100 years old today. That is a notable birthday for anyone. The remarkable size of his output, scholarly and popular, is also remarkable. Especially in the past 20 years, he has become a political lightning rod in Middle East policy studies.

I won't criticize a man on his birthday, especially such a landmark one. In person he has always seemed an eloquent English gentleman. I will note that if Lewis' academic output had ended at, say age 70 or 75, his legacy would be less controversial. Works like The Emergence of Modern Turkey stand as major contributions. (Though that book was not without controversy when later editions softened the language on the Armenian massacres.) Lewis always had his opponents: Jewish and a lifelong Zionist, he was an outspoken supporter of Israel when that was rare in a field dominated by Arabists, though he had a full command of that language.

When Edward Said, in Orientalism, painted Lewis as a prime example of Orientalist discourse, Lewis welcomed the title and debated Said in print and in person. More recently, some of his works on Islam have been increasingly controversial, and he was often seen as the favorite public intellectual of the neocon movement, and seen as a supporter of invading Iraq (though he has denied he supported the war).

There will be time to assess the man and his legacy. Meanwhile, Happy Birthday.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Why I've been Absent

On Friday I underwent emergency surgery for an infected toe. I am still in the hospital undergoing inter venous antibiotic treatment to try to clear the infection. While I have a recovery ahead of me I hope to go home tonight (today's a US holiday anyway) and to resume blogging soon.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

ECFR: A Guide to Libya's Main Players

The European Council on Foreign Relations has published A Guide to Libya's Main Players
 with sections by several experts, which you may find useful. Downloadable PDF here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

More Sykes-Picot: The Unraveling, 1917

Continuing my argument that the Sykes-Picot agreement was never really implemented, let's begin by looking at the gradual unraveling. One has to begin even before it was signed, with the promises made by Sir Henry McMahon to Sharif Hussein in their correspondence, especially in the "borders" letter of October 24, 1915. Whatever  interpretation one places on the contentious text, it is hard to reconcile the promise of an independent Arab state (a Caliphate) with the spheres of influence and direct rule carved out by Sykes-Picot, which, of course, was secret and unknown to Hussein.

Then on November 2, 1917, Arthur James Balfour wrote his letter to Lord Rothschild:
His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
The vague wording of the Balfour Declaration might be compatible with Sykes-Picot's international regime for Palestine. But the agreement was secret, and unknown to the Zionists, who presumed Britain was free to make promises. (UPDATE: Martin Kramer notes in a comment that the Zionists knew about it from a leak, and links to his article.)

  Then it all started to come apart. Only six days after the Balfour Declaration, this happened:
Russia had already left the war after the March (Old Style February) 1917 Revolution, but with the Bolshevik takeover on November 8 (Old Style October 26), they began publishing the text of Sykes-Picot and other secret treaties.

On November 23, both Pravda and Izvestia published Sykes-Picot. Three days later, The Manchester Guardian followed suit.

The cat was out of the bag. Britain denied it, but not very convincingly. Things were starting to unravel.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Moshe Ya'alon, Former General, Replaced as Israel Defense Minister by Avigdor Lieberman, Former Bouncer and Non-Veteran. Does Israel Feel More Secure Now?

Please forgive the multi-tiered headline, but I couldn't resist. You probably already know that in order to expand his coalition, Binyamin Netanyahu replaced his Defense Minister, retired General Moshe Ya'alon, of his own Likud Party, with Yisrael Beitenu's Avigdor Lieberman, who indeed was once a bouncer who did not serve in the IDF. Netanyahu had been trying to enlarge his fragile coalition and had been making overtures to Zionist Union (Labor) leader Isaac Herzog. Bringing the Opposition leader into the coalition would have tilted the coalition, now the most right-wing in Israel's history, a bit to the center-right. Bringing in Lieberman instead, moves it even farther right.

But reaction has been harshly critical beginning with Ya'alon himself, who chose not to go gentle into that good night. Instead of attending Lieberman's swearing-in on Sunday, he resigned effective Friday afternoon, and went out with several blasts at Netanyahu for abandoning him and defending hisown behavior. No dove himself, h criticized Israel's rightward drift.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak warned that the government was sowing the "seeds of fascism," while former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, once a Likud stalwart, wrote in a column in Ha'aretz, (paywalled) in which he said:
The coalition representation in the Knesset will increase to 67 from 61. But the price Likud’s leaders paid for these six extra votes is a heavy one for both the country and Likud far heavier than they seem to realize. Their simple-minded explanation that a stable government is good for Israel and therefore replacing Ya’alon with Lieberman must be good for Israel is not likely to be accepted by most Israelis.
The defense minister is not just another of Israel’s many government ministers. He is by far the most important minister, shouldering direct responsibility for Israel’s security, the personal security of Israel’s citizens, and the lives of their children serving in the Israel Defense Forces.
Defenders of the murky deal to oust an xcellent defense minister offer an explanation: that in addition to the defense minister, many others are involved in taking decisions on defense matters which presumably means that it’s not so important who the defense minister is. This shows an abject ignorance of the workings of the defense establishment.
All Israelis were lucky to have Ya’alon as defense chief these last few years, and this luck now seems to have run out. Choosing between an excellent defense minister serving in a narrow coalition and firing an excellent defense minister and obtaining a few more coalition votes should have been easy. But Benjamin Netanyahu made the wrong choice.
Tensions between the IDF command and the security services on the one hand and Netanyahu on the other hand have been bad for years due to disagreements over Iran and other issues, but the Ya'alon dismissal seems to have exacerbated the problem.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Sykes-Picot: Others are Making the Same Point

I'll be returning to my series on Sykes-Picot and how it was only one piece in the complex mix that was the postwar settlement, but I thought I should note that while the anniversary was marked, as I'd predicted, by far too many articles about how Sykes and Picot drew the borders of the modern Middle East, there were also a number of voices who took the more realistic view. few of them:
More on this subject soon.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Yemen Bans Qat in Aden on Weekdays. Does Anyone Expect This to Work?

Authorities in South Yemen (the areas controlled by President Al-Hadi rather than the Houthis) have decided to ban the importation of qat into the city of Aden on weekdays. Qat, of course, is the mildly narcotic leaf chewed daily by many Yemenis, and there is no question that its use reduces efficiency and productivity.

The Hadi government, while claiming to be the internationally recognized government, recaptured Aden only with the help of Saudi and GCC troops. does it really feel confident that it can break a national habit quickly? Or is this perhaps an outburst of Saudi-influenced puritanism?

While wishing them luck, count me as a skeptic until I see it working.

Latin Leaders of Arab Origin

Now that the new interim President of Brazil is of Lebanese origin, The Washington Post surveys the success of Latin American politicians pf Arab origin.

Which reminds me of a brilliant remark I saw somewhere on social media, though I must apologize to the author for forgetting who said it:  Brazil now has a Lebanese President, while Lebanon still doesn't.

The Lebanese Presidency has been vacant since 2014.

Update: a commenter credits Karl Sharro and it certainly sounds like him, though I can't locate the original.

Update II: Apparently a lot of people had the same thought.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Clovis Maksoud, 1926-2016

Source: American University
Clovis Maksoud, diplomat, writer, intellectual, professor, and a familiar figure in Washington since the 1970s, has passed away at the age of 90.

He served for many years as a Representative of the Arab League, and was sent as a Special Representative of the League to the US during the oil crisis of 1974. From 1979-1990 he was the Arab League's Ambassador to the US and the UN. Maksoud, a proponent of Arab unity, resigned that post over the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He was also a frequent spokesman for Palestinian issues.

At earlier periods in his career he had served as a writer and editor, and continued to write newspaper columns and articles for many years, as well as books. In recent years he served as Director of the Center for the Global South at The American University in Washington.

Ambassador Maksoud and his late wife Hala were prominent figures around the Washington diplomatic, Arab, and Lebanese communities for decades. He was always friendly, accessible, and outspoken, a highly visible voice for Lebanon, for Palestine, and for the Arab World as a whole.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Did the First Black Aviator Fly for Turkey in WWI?

Aviation buffs, especially those interested in early aviation and World War I, may know the name of Eugene Bullard, a black American who flew for France during World War I as a member of the Lafayette Flying Corps (a broader grouping than the elite Lafayette Escadrille).

Eugene Bullard is generally agreed to be the first African-American combat pilot, but he served in the French Foreign Legion until wounded at Verdun in 1916, and only took up flying late that year.

But by 1916, a military pilot of African descent was already flying: Ahmet Ali Çelikten.

This is a reminder that bloggers can learn from their readers. Back in April I posted about the centennial of a British air raid on Constantinople in 1916 and one of the comments on that post noted this:
Did you know that the first black air force pilot was Turkish? Can't remember his name, but he was the son of slaves that had to follow their Muslim owners when they had to leave Crete. His family, like many of the Afro-Turks, settled in the Izmir area especially after extracting themselves from agricultural work on the cotton farms. He got an education and made his way into the military school and the rest was history.
I'd offer thanks except the cementer was anonymous; I told him/her I'd give credit if she/he could self-identify, but heard nothing. And the details may not all be accurate  but the basic story is.

Çelikten's biographical details are a bit hazy. English profiles at Wikipedia, at BlackPast, and at other sites essentially replicating these. Turkish Wikipedia is fuller for those who read the language, as is another Turkish source here. He was indeed born in İzmir of African slave ancestry, but most accounts do not mention the Crete connection. His dates are given as 1883-1969. It is usually said his grandmother, or at least an ancestor, originated in the Emirate of Bornu in what is now now northeastern Nigeria and northwestern Chad.

Whatever the ancestry, he was African, trained as a Naval Aviator and then flew for the Ottoman Air Force beginning in 1914. He was almost certainly the first military aviator of African descent.

"Don't Go to Iran"

A clever little three minute effort at making a point:

Thursday, May 12, 2016

More on Sykes-Picot: The Agreement as Written

As I noted in my first post on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was concluded a century ago this month, "Sykes-Picot" has become a convenient shorthand for the entire constellation of agreements and understandings that contributed to the postwar settlement, agreements spread out from as early as 1915 to as late as 1939, or even later if we include the partition of Palestine. In coming days I'll be dealing with the actual agreements, but first let's look at the real Asia Minor Agreement negotiated between Sir Mark Sykes and M. François Georges-Picot in 1916 and what borders it actually envisioned.

Britain and France began discussions of a post-Ottoman settlement on November 23, 1915, with Georges-Picot negotiating with Sir Arthur Nicolson, soon replaced by Sir Mark Sykes,. At that time efforts by David Lloyd George and Herbert Samuel to promote a Jewish state in Palestine were already under way, and Sir Henry McMahon in Egypt was already committing Britain to support an independent Arab state in correspondence with Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Another round of negotiations took place in December, and in February 1916 Sykes visited Petrograd to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Segey Sazonov. Negotiations with the Zionists and the commitments to Sharif Hussein were known to Sykes.

Sir Mark Sykes
F. Georges-Picot
The basic text was ready by May. On May 9, French Ambassador to London Paul Cambon transmitted it in a letter to British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, who returned it  with approval on May 16. Signed May 19 and with a formal exchange of notes May 23, the precise date that should be "celebrated" as the centenary is a little slippery.

The agreement's text is below after the map. Although the agreement gives lip service to the idea of an "independent" Arab stste, it would be subordinate to British and French zones of influence, and both had zones in which they claimed direct control. Britain and France made a umber of guarantees to each other (Palestine would be under international control but with Britain controlling Haifa, Acre, a railway to Egypt and a future railway to Iraq.)

Both parties seemed to recognize that the agreement had potential conflicts, but it was a secret agreement, and intended to remain so. As I've tried to make clear, I'm not defending Sykes-Picot, which was imperialist arrogance at its worst; I'm simply saying that, except for a general role for France in Syria (but then including Mosul) and Britain in Iraq, the borders are not today's.. The status of Mosul and Palestine would be among the first things to change, and of course the whole disposition of Anatolia would change.

One thing that would speed the unraveling of the details of  Sykes-Picot was its sudden revelation by the Bolsheviks in November 1917, which we'll discuss in Part 3.

Text of Sykes-Picot Agreement

It is accordingly understood between the French and British governments:
That France and Great Britain are prepared to recognize and protect an independent Arab states or a confederation of Arab states (a) and (b) marked on the annexed map, under the suzerainty of an Arab chief.
That in area (a) France, and in area (b) great Britain, shall have priority of right of enterprise and local loans. That in area (a) France, and in area (b) great Britain, shall alone supply advisers or foreign functionaries at the request of the Arab state or confederation of Arab states.
That in the blue area France, and in the red area great Britain, shall be allowed to establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they desire and as they may think fit to arrange with the Arab state or confederation of Arab states.
That in the brown area there shall be established an international administration, the form of which is to be decided upon after consultation with Russia, and subsequently in consultation with the other allies, and the representatives of the Shariff of Mecca.
That great Britain be accorded (1) the ports of Haifa and Acre, (2) guarantee of a given supply of water from the Tigris and Euphrates in area (a) for area (b). His majesty's government, on their part, undertake that they will at no time enter into negotiations for the cession of Cyprus to any third power without the previous consent of the French government.
That Alexandretta shall be a free port as regards the trade of the British empire, and that there shall be no discrimination in port charges or facilities as regards British shipping and British goods; that there shall be freedom of transit for British goods through Alexandretta and by railway through the blue area, or (b) area, or area (a); and there shall be no discrimination, direct or indirect, against British goods on any railway or against British goods or ships at any port serving the areas mentioned.
That Haifa shall be a free port as regards the trade of France, her dominions and protectorates, and there shall be no discrimination in port charges or facilities as regards French shipping and French goods. There shall be freedom of transit for French goods through Haifa and by the British railway through the brown area, whether those goods are intended for or originate in the blue area, area (a), or area (b), and there shall be no discrimination, direct or indirect, against french goods on any railway, or against French goods or ships at any port serving the areas mentioned.
That in area (a) the Baghdad railway shall not be extended southwards beyond Mosul, and in area (b) northwards beyond Samarra, until a railway connecting Baghdad and Aleppo via the Euphrates valley has been completed, and then only with the concurrence of the two governments.
That Great Britain has the right to build, administer, and be sole owner of a railway connecting Haifa with area (b), and shall have a perpetual right to transport troops along such a line at all times. It is to be understood by both governments that this railway is to facilitate the connection of Baghdad with Haifa by rail, and it is further understood that, if the engineering difficulties and expense entailed by keeping this connecting line in the brown area only make the project unfeasible, that the French government shall be prepared to consider that the line in question may also traverse the Polygon Banias Keis Marib Salkhad Tell Otsda Mesmie before reaching area (b).
For a period of twenty years the existing Turkish customs tariff shall remain in force throughout the whole of the blue and red areas, as well as in areas (a) and (b), and no increase in the rates of duty or conversions from ad valorem to specific rates shall be made except by agreement between the two powers.
There shall be no interior customs barriers between any of the above mentioned areas. The customs duties leviable on goods destined for the interior shall be collected at the port of entry and handed over to the administration of the area of destination.
It shall be agreed that the french government will at no time enter into any negotiations for the cession of their rights and will not cede such rights in the blue area to any third power, except the Arab state or confederation of Arab states, without the previous agreement of his majesty's government, who, on their part, will give a similar undertaking to the french government regarding the red area.
The British and French government, as the protectors of the Arab state, shall agree that they will not themselves acquire and will not consent to a third power acquiring territorial possessions in the Arabian peninsula, nor consent to a third power installing a naval base either on the east coast, or on the islands, of the Red Sea. This, however, shall not prevent such adjustment of the Aden frontier as may be necessary in consequence of recent Turkish aggression.
The negotiations with the Arabs as to the boundaries of the Arab states shall be continued through the same channel as heretofore on behalf of the two powers.

It is agreed that measures to control the importation of arms into the Arab territories will be considered by the two governments.

I have further the honor to state that, in order to make the agreement complete, his majesty's government are proposing to the Russian government to exchange notes analogous to those exchanged by the latter and your excellency's government on the 26th April last. Copies of these notes will be communicated to your excellency as soon as exchanged. I would also venture to remind your excellency that the conclusion of the present agreement raises, for practical consideration, the question of claims of Italy to a share in any partition or rearrangement of Turkey in Asia, as formulated in Article 9 of the agreement of the 26th April, 1915, between Italy and the allies.
His Majesty's Government further consider that the Japanese government should be informed of the arrangements now concluded.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Rant: The Next Week will be Full of Op-Eds about Sykes-Picot: Almost All of them Will Get it Wrong

May 19th will mark the 100th anniversary of the "Asia Minor Agreement," or as it is universally known today, the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Brace yourself.

They're going to tell you that Sykes-Picot created the modern borders of the Middle East (only a few of them), that it is being overturned by ISIS (even less so), that it was ever really implemented /imposed (only in a limited sense),  and that all the problems of the Middle East stem from it (a bit more arguable), not to mention that the whole reason that the Middle East is such a clusterfu mess today is because of Sykes-Picot (even more arguable).

Not because I approve of British and French diplomats carving up the Middle East while a) not asking the locals what they wanted and b) in the British case, promising the Promised Land to themselves, Jews, and Arabs at the same time. The fact is, though, that Sykes-Picot is not what you think it is because, as I've ranted before, and in fact more than once, Sykes-Picot, deplorable as it may have been, was never implemented as written.

Look at the map above. Does it look like today's Middle East? In addition to the British and French (pink and blue) zones, Zones A and B are areas of their influence. France controls Mosul, Kirkuk, and northern Iraq. Britain gets the rest of Iraq, plus southern Palestine, while northern Palestine and Jerusalem are internationalized. Russia controls Constantinople and the Straits, and Armenia. Italy gets its own pound of flesh. But that is not the postwar map of the Middle East.

The reason is simple: "Sykes-Picot" has become a convenient shorthand for "the entire postwar settlement of the Ottoman territories," not the original agreement.

My readers who have studied the history know this: even before the agreement the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, and soon after,the Balfour Declaration,  the Paris Peace Talks, the Treaty of Sèvres, the San Remo Conference, the Treaty of Lausanne, and other agreements.

I will be discussing the whole postwar settlement package in coming days. My goal is not to exonerate Sir Mark Sykes and M. Picot, but to place their colonial enterprise in broader context.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Thoughts on the Latest Saudi Reshuffle

The latest Saudi Cabinet reshuffle over the weekend included  the replacement of powerful Petroleum Minister‘Ali al-Na‘imi, and the realignment of several other ministries, and serves as a reminder of just how much things have changed under the ascendancy of Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. The 80-year-old Na‘imi had had disagreements with Muhammad in Salman (or MbS as he's sometimes referred to) and had held the position for 20 years. The oil experts can debate what the change means for energy policies, but the change underscores just how unusual a change in the Oil Ministry has been: in the 54 years from 1962 (a decade before the rise in oil prices) until last Saturday, Saudi Arabia had six Kings (Sa‘ud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd, ‘Abdullah, Salman), but only three Oil Ministers (Shaikh Ahmad Zaki Yamani, 1962-1986, Hisham Nazer, 1986-1995, and ‘Ali Na‘imi, 1995-2016). The selection of Aramco President and CEO Khalid A. Al-Falih is no surprise, since that's the classic route to the Oil Minister's job, but it's indicative of how rare such changes are.

Khalid al-Falih
In fact, those of us who have followed the KSA for years have gotten used to the fact that barring death or serious illness, key posts in Saudi Arabia rarely change.  The late Foreign Minister Sa‘ud al-Faisal served from 1975 until 2015, a full 40 years, and when he stepped down for health reasons only a few weeks before his death, he was the world's longest-serving Foreign Minister. The late Prince Sultan, though admittedly a senior prince and full brother of King Fahd, held the Defense Ministry from 1963 until his death in 2011; Prince Nayef was Interior Minister from 1975-2012; the late King ‘Abdullah, before taking the throne, headed the National Guard from 1962 to 2010 and passed command to his son. Traditionally, "Cabinet reshuffle" in Saudi Arabia either meant changing the Deputy Minister of some obscure ministry or replacing somebody who died.

The rise of 30-year-old Muhammad bin Salman has turned much of the usual way of doing business in the KSA leadership on its head, and whether that's good or bad remains an open question.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Beirut in the "Golden Age" Before the Civil War

A little Friday night nostalgia: I first saw Beirut in 1972, three years before the civil war began. For those who never saw the Lebanese capital in its glory days, or for those who want to recall it as it once was, here is a collection of photos from the 1960s.