A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, October 9, 2015

Genesis of a Quagmire: The Debate Over Advancing to Baghdad, 1915: Part V: India Halts Nixon

This is Part V of a series of six.The first three parts of this current series on Britain's disastrous decision to advance to Baghdad in October 1915, which would lead to the siege and disastrous surrender at Kut, concentrated on introducing the players in Mesopotamia/Iraq (Part I), the Indian Government and High Command (Part II), and the divided coalition Government in London (Part III), particularly the India Office and War Office. Part IV traced the debate over occupying Baghdad from the beginning to the point where General Sir John Nixon ordered General Charles Townshend to advance from Kutn al-‘Amara to ‘Aziziya, despite having instructions not to advance beyond Kut without clearing it with the Government of India. Since in what follows you may not be able to tell the players without a scorecard, please read those if you haven't already. You'll also find photos of all the principal players  in Parts I-III.
Map 8, FJ. Moberly, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, Vol. II
On October 3, with Townshend already en route to  ‘Aziziya but encountering transport delays, Nixon telegraphed that he felt the retreating Turks were concentrating at the ruins of Ctesiphon, but that he could open the road to Baghdad and take the city with his existing forces, He conveyed his intention to concentrate at ‘Aziziya (which Townshend had already been ordered to do anyway).

Townshend had never been enthusiastic for the advance beyond Kut. Also on October 3, from aboard a steamer on the Tigris he signaled Nixon's headquarters at Kut that
"you will see . . . that there is no more chance of breaking up the retreating Turkish force . . . They have also probably been reinforced from Baghdad . . . If I may be allowed to express an opinion I should say that up to the battle of Kut our object has been the consolidation of the Basra vilayet and occupation of the strategic position of Kut . . .If Government does not consider that the occupation of Baghdad is yet politically advisable owing to doubt of the Dardanelles situation [Gallipoli] and consequent possibility of any small force we might put into Baghdad being driven out again by superior forces from Anatolia, and so obliged to retreat along an extremely long line of communications infested by hostile or semi-hostile, and o news of retreat actively hostile, Arabs,then we should on all military grounds occupy ourselves with consolidating our position at Kut. The plan of entering Baghdad on the heels of a retreating and disordered force was upset by the sudden fall of water rendering our progress in ships of great difficulty and toil and extremely slow. On the other hand, if Government were to desire to occupy Baghdad then I am of the opinion that methodical advance from Kut by road by two divisions or one army corps, or one division closely supported by another entire, exclusive of line of communication troops . . . is absolutely necessary unless great risk is to be incurred. It is absolutely impossible to send laden ships up river now.
The coming campaign would give rise to many questions about Townshend's military judgment, but it's hard to fault his reasoning here. The fall in the river was delaying his advance, and he recognized, as even Nixon did, the risks of occupying Baghdad with only a single division.

But by this time, Nixon was obsessed with the lure of Baghdad. He had his Chief of Staff send Townshend the following reply, as quoted in the official history [punctuation from the official history];
Your (telegram) . . . does not seem to take into account the appreciation of the situation in my (telegram) which I sent you last night [footnote: referring to Nixon's October 1 telegram  to India] . . . . The Turkish force there (i.e., at Ctesiphon) is inferior in numbers and moral [meaning morale] to the force you successfully defeated at Kut, and the position is not nearly as strong. It is the Army Commander's intention to open the way to Baghdad, as he understands another division will be sent here from France* and he would like to know your plan for effecting this object with the force you had at Kut plus maybe four squadrons and a R.H.A. [Royal Horse Artillery] battery.
 *The official history adds a footnote to the statement about a division from France, "Apparently he had received private information concerning this, as no official information to this effect by this date can be traced in the records." Though promises would be made in coming days the additional division seems to have been mostly something Nixon hoped for but had not been promised officially.

Townshend would later claim that he doubted a division from France could arrive in time, but that he felthe had done his best and been overruled by his superior officer. He later claimed that he remained unconvinced, but nevertheless in his response to Nixon he said:

My information I consider, points to a different estimate of the hostile force being concentrated at Ctesiphon . . . you did not mention the arrival of a division from France and that makes all he difference in your appreciation. I will wire my plan to-morrow morning as it requires some careful thought . . .
Meanwhile, Nixon's October 3 telegram announcing his decision to concentrate at ‘Aziziya and move on London set off alarm bells at the India Office in London. On October 4, before seeing the telegram, the Military Secretary, General Barrow (See Part III) wrote a minute urging caution about any advance to Baghdad without reinforcements. The Secretary of State for India, Austen Chamberlain, supported the suggestion of the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, to withdraw the Indian divisions from France and create a reserve in India. Hardinge, as we have seen, felt India had been stripped bare of troops and feared the Germans and Turks might succeed in efforts to persuade the Amir of Afghanistan to attack India.On the 4th Chamberlain wired Harding asking about Nixon's intentions, and emphasizing that "if, owing to navigation troubles, there is no probability of catching and smashing the retreating enemy, there is no object in continuing the pursuit."

On the same day, Nixon telegraphed asking if an additional division would be provided from France so that he could hold Baghdad once taken. Note that the day before he had assured Townshend such a division was on the way.

On October 5, Townshend reached ‘Aziziya.

Also on the 5th, Chamberlain cabled Hardinge that the Cabinet was appointing a committee to consider the advance.but warning "Kitchener can hold out no hope  of reinforcements from Europe or Egypt."

The same day, Sir Percy Lake, Chief of Staff, India, cabled n assessment that Turkish forces in India were estimated at 7500 infantry, 600 cavalry and 28 guns, and that while Nixon had earlier said he did not expect the Turks to be reinforced, developments in the Balkans and Gallipoli could allow the Turks to reinforce in Mesopotamia. Lake argued that unless Nixon could be assured that an additional division could be withdrawn from France by the end of October, Nixon would not be authorized to go further. This was approved by the Commander-in-Chief, India, Beauchamp Duff, and the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge. Nixon was ordered by Lake to stop his advance:
No reinforcements can at present be spared from India, so that unless the Secretary of State can arrange for the despatch of an Indian division from France you cannot advance to Baghdad. This being so, we see no advantage in an immediate forward concentration at Aziziya which can hold no advantage to us except as a step to Baghdad. Chief considers you should not advance in strength beyond Kut el Amara until it is certain that we may expect reinforcements from France which we consider very doubtful.
But Townshend was already arriving at ‘Aziziya.

On October 6, the Political Department of the India Office generated a two-page memo, "Advance to Baghdad: Political Considerations." Beginning by quoting a telegram from Percy Cox saying that in terms of influencing events in Persia and Afghanistan the fall of Baghdad would be second in importance only to the fall of Constantinople itself, it discussed all the political ramifications, but also recognized that an occupation of Baghdad followed by withdrawal might have a negative effect.

On the 6th as well, the Government of India wired the India Office in London notifying them that Nixon had been ordered to halt but emphasizing the advantage of taking Baghdad and the dangers if it were taken and then abandoned, urging that one or both Indian divisions be withdrawn from France, and increasing the estimate of Turkish infantry available from 7,500 to 8,500.

Still on October 6, Nixon sent another telegram arguing for an advance. In keeping with his tone of optimism, he continued to push for an advance, but one phrase he included would lead to a major misapprehension in London:
Navigation difficulties have been overcome by lightening ships and utilising them for towing laden barges and by marching troops with land transport . . . Enemy appears to be no longer retreating but has occupied Ctesiphon position and thereby constitutes a threat to us. Our information is that his troops, especially those locally recruited, are so demoralised by defeat at Kut al Amara in a position which they considered impregnable.They are now so near Baghdad that Nur-ud-Din will have difficulty making a determined stand with men who are close to their homes and wish to desert. I consider that there is every probability of catching and smashing the enemy at Ctesiphon as soon as 6th Division has fully concentrated at Aziziya and reinforced by drafts and cavalry now on their way from Basra. If on the other hand we retire from Aziziya to Kut the enemy and whole tribes will place their own construction on such a movement.
 He went on to argue that the enemy was weakened and vulnerable and that the opportunity  to take Baghdad should not be missed. It was typical Nixon: dubious intelligence, underestimating Nureddin's morale, and special pleading. But in the next stage of the ongoing debate between Nixon, India, and London, those far from the scene would seize on that one line near the beginning, "Navigation difficulties have been overcome."

The subsequent qualifying phrases indicate that Nixon meant that the navigation difficulties had been temporarily overcome during Townshend's advance to ‘Aziziya.by the expedients of using land transport for the troops (slower and more difficult than river transports) and towed barges.Nixon continued and would continue to complain of the lack of shallow-draft boats.

But in the debate between Nixon, the various ministries in London, and the Indian Government in Simla, "Navigation difficulties have been overcome" was read as meaning just that, and the focus would shift to the question of finding sufficient troops. Despite continuing reluctance on the side of the Indian Government, the weight of the debate was about to shift, in part due to the political arguments rather thn the military caution, toward the "On to Baghdad" side of the scales.

We are beginning a three-day holiday weekend in the US, after which the tale will continue in Part VI.

"The Haifa Wehbe Defense"

The next part of my "On to Baghdad" series is coming later tonight. Meanwhile: Amid the worsening situation in Syria it may be worth offering a lighter topic. You may recall that last summer Egypt arrested and jailed two belly dancers for "inciting debauchery."

Well, now CairoScene reports, the two dancers, sentenced to six months, have had their sentence s reduced from six months to three months, using for their appeal videos of Lebanese singer/actress/diva/superstar Haifa Wehbe. The appeal was successful.

This was apparently one of the Haifa Wehbe videos. Apparently the court was persuaded by "the Haifa Wehbe defense." Judge for yourself. I don't get the space imagery, either. But I must hand it to her, as Lebanese grandmothers go (and she now is), Haifa does it better than the tacky dancers who were jailed for nothing more than dubious taste.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Genesis of a Quagmire: The Debate Over Advancing to Baghdad, 1915: Part IV: "Mission Creep," 1915 Style

The first three parts of this current series on Britain's disastrous decision to advance to Baghdad in October 1915, which would lead to the siege and disastrous surrender at Kut, concentrated on introducing the players in Mesopotamia/Iraq (Part I), the Indian Government and High Command (Part II), and the divided coalition Government in London (Part III), particularly the India Office and War Office. Since in what follows you may not be able to tell the players without a scorecard, please read those if you haven't already. You'll also find photos of all the principal players.

Origins: The Lure of Baghdad

Even before Britain declared war on Turkey on November 5, 1914, it had moved Indian Expeditionary Force D to the Persian Gulf to protect the Iranian oilfields around Abadan, with orders to occupy Basra once war broke out. And indeed, as early as November of 1914 there was some discussion of a campaign to take Baghdad. At the time, the British position was far too weak to consider such a plan militarily. The Indian Army was already being dispatched to France, Egypt, Mesopotamia and East Africa. In peacetime the Indian Army consisted of a strength of seven infantry divisions and five cavalry brigades, but in the first six months had mobilized 10 infantry divisions and seven cavalry brigades, now deployed elsewhere in the Empire. The Government of India felt stretched thin, and potentially vulnerable to internal dissidence or outside aggression in the Subcontinent itself, given the activity of German agents operating in Iran. It was believed that the Turks and Germans had sent a joint mission to the Amir of Afghanistan to persuade him to attack India. Though Turkish hopes of an uprising by Indian Muslims were never realized, a new Afghan war against an India stripped of troops was a serious concern.  For this reason and others, the Government of India and the India Office in London would prove reluctant to approve overly ambitious plans.

But after the Ottoman flanking attack aimed at Basra in April 1915, repulsed at the Battle of Shaiba, it became clear that the defense of Basra might require occupying more territory beyond the initial forward lines around Qurna. In June of 1915, General Townshend's force had advanced to ‘Amarna. In a case of "mission creep" before that term existed, each new advance required a further advance to protect what was already held. Adding to this was the fact that each time the Turkish forces fell back, they retreated as much as 90 miles, thus offering the British an opportunity to take more ground.

The political and military leaders of the era were products of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, when the Lane, Payne, and Burton translations of the 1001 Nights were bestsellers. At least some of the exchanges in the debate to follow suggest they had in mind the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid, not the Ottoman provincial capital of 1915. At leat one appreciation (by the British Political Agent in the Gulf, Sir Percy Cox) suggested that the importance of the fall of Baghdad would be second only in terms of prestige in the Muslim world to the fall of Constantinople, which by the Fall of 1915 the British had realized was unlikely.

Even the military men in the debate to follow acknowledged that Baghdad had little military significance.

But in addition to a limited number of reinforcements from a stretched-thin Indian Army, a problem that had plagued the expedition was a shortage of shallow-draft river transport. (There were few adequate roads and no railroad south of Baghdad.) The Royal Navy dominated the Gulf as a British lake, but once over the bar at Fao, only river steamers could carry food at troops. Once into he Tigris or Euphrates above the marshes, in he dry season, only very shallow-draft steamers could operate, and the Turks had armed gunboats on the rivers. The shortage was constantly complained about by the generals in command, but the demands of other fronts and a shortage of proper vessels meant the problem was not really solved until early in 1916, by which time Townshend had already been besieged at Kut.

The Debate Begins

When Sir John Nixon had arrived to take command in April of 1915, his instructions contained  a directive to report on the feasibilty of an advance to Baghdad and to provide a plan.. He did not immediately do so. Though Nixon seems to have favored advancing on Baghdad the campaign was suspended while Townshend was on sick leave in India, where he apparently discussed te issue with the Commander-in-Chief, India, Sir Beauchamp Duff.

On August 30, 1915, a month before the Battle of Es-Sinn and the occupation of Kut, General Nixon wrote a "Memorandum on an advance to Baghdad," which was still not the "plan" mentioned in his instructions.  It was an argument for the political considerations of advantages to  be gained by the fall of Baghdad, and it suggested that if Townshend could take Kut in a decisive battle, the Turks might retreat the whole 100 miles to Baghdad. He favored a quick advance to Baghdad and argued that a delay would allow the Turks to reinforce. (Remember this was a month before Kut fell.)

The August 30 memorandum for some reason did not reach Duff until September 9, though most communications were by cable. On September 6, Duff had written Nixon with instructions not to advance beyond Kut without first referring to India.  Nixon would later claim to the investigating commission that he did not know the Government did not want him to advance, but besides the September 6 warning, after reading the Nixon memorandum, Duff responded, "Unless we get back troops from France, Egypt or elsewhere, I fear that Baghdad, invaluable as its capture may be is ourt of the question."

Also in September, before Kut was yet in British hands, the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, had similarly communicated with the India office that while he recognized the political value of Baghdad he could not support a campaign without withdrawing one or both of the Indian divisions from France. This was to become a persistent theme: even Nixon would say that while he could take Baghdad with one division he could not hold it without two.

Advance to ‘Aziziya: Fait Accompli?

Despite what appeared to be fairly clear orders not to advance beyond Kut without explicit approval, from India, Nixon did just that, at least in effect by ordering Townshend to pursue the withdrawing Turkish forces After the victory at Es-Sinn on September 28 and the occupation of Kut on September 29, Nixon ordered Townshend to pursue the defeated Turks While this was technically a pursuit rather than an advance, it seemed to go against the intentions of the Government of India that he receive permission before advancing beyond Kut.

Nureddin Pasha was withdrawing to already prepared defenses at the ruins of Ctesiphon, south of Baghdad. Townshend's advance hampered by the usual river transport problems, put him a good 48 hours behind Nureddin, so overtaking him was unlikely. But without conferring with Simla or London, Nixon authorized Townshend to proceed to ‘Aziziya, some 60 miles by land (more by water), and more than halfway between Kut and Baghdad. See map below.) As Townshend struggled upriver, reaching ‘Aziziya October 5 with some difficulty, Nixon meanwhile was cabling his hopes of taking Baghdad, increasingly obseseed with the idea, creating increasing alarm (verging on panic) in Simla and the India Office in London.

That will be the subject of Part V.
Map 8, FJ. Moberly, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, Vol. II


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Genesis of a Quagmire: The Debate Over Advancing to Baghdad, 1915: Part III: A Divided Government in London

This ongoing series on the British decision to advance to Baghdad a century ago leadng to the siege and surrender at Kut, began with a discussion of the situation on both sides in the Mesopotamia campaign in September/October 1915, and continued yesterday by introducing the key political and military players in the government of British India which had overall responsibility for the campaign,

Today's Part III introduces the politically divided players in London. Tomorrow we will look at the decision itself.

The Coalition

Herbert Asquith
Earlier in 1915 the general configuration of the wartime British Government which we have met in earlier installments on the outbreak of war and Gallipoli, had changed substantially. The Liberal Party Government of Herbert Asquith had been in office since 1908. Though he would remain Prime Minister until ousted by his fellow Liberal David Lloyd George in 1916, a range of political and military controversies had forced him to form a coalition government in may 1915, bringing Conservatives and Labour into the Government. This led to several key changes.

Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty and champion of the Gallipoli campaign (and who, it is easy to forget given his later career in the Conservative Party, was a Liberal MP during World War I) gave up the Admiralty and was given the relatively powerless job of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He remained on the Dardanelles Committee for the time being, however, though in November he would resign from the government to rejoin the Army. Replacing Churchill at the Admiralty was Arthur James Balfour, a Tory former Prime Minister (and future Foreign Secretary, as Middle East hands will be aware).

The reshuffle also brought Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law join the Cabinet as Secretary of State for the Colonies, and saw a Ministry of Munitions created under David Lloyd George, taking that task away from the War Office, which remained under Lord Kitchener. Sir Edward Grey retained the Foreign Office.

Perhaps most importantly, by bringing the Tories into the Cabinet, the coalition increased the likelihood that counsels would be split on certain controversial issues.

For the issues being considered in this series, the major divisions would be between the India Office and the War Office. Let's meet the players there.

The India Office in London

Austen Chamberlain
In addition to the Government of India, there was also the India Office in London, to which the Government in Simla reported. Though part of the British Government, it was also the primary channel of communication between the Cabinet, through His Majesty's Secretary of State for India, and the Indian Administration in Delhi and Simla. The India Office was the primary liaison between the Cabinet, through His Majesty's Secretary of State for India, with the Indian Administration in Delhi and Simla.

Since the Tories entered the coalition in May of 1915, the Secretary of State for India had been Austen Chamberlain. He was the son of Joseph Chamberlain, a onetime major figure in the Liberal Party who split with the Liberals over his opposition to Irish Home Rule, and joined the Tories. Austen was also the older half-brother of future Prime Minister of Munich notoriety, Neville Chamberlain.

Sir Edmund Barrow
Another figure who will enter into our story in the coming days is the Military Secretary to the India Office, a post responsible for recruiting British officers for the Indian Army. At the time of these vents, this was General Sir Edmund Barrow. Barrow was a veteran of colonial wars dating back to the 1870s, and will play a role in our narrative.

The War Office: Kitchener
At the outbreak of the war in August 1914, the British Agent and Consul-General in Egypt, Lord Kitchener, who was on home leave when the war broke out, was kept in Britain and made His Majesty's Secretary of State for War, in charge of the War Office. The victor of Khartoum had governed Egypt, been Army Commander in India and Chief of Staff during the Boer War.

Kitchener was, without question, Britain's most famous living soldier. He was popular with the public, and the use of his image in recruiting (right), later famously copied in the US with Uncle Sam wanting YOU, reflected this.

Kitchener's public popularity was not generally shared among his fellow Cabinet ministers, who found him difficult to deal with, or with his military subordinates, who found the imperial hero imperious and intimidating in manner. In normal times, the Secretary of State for War worked closely with the senior military command, headed by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) and the General Staff. Between the outbreak of war in August 1914 and the end of 1915 four different men held the CIGS position. With the Field Marshal and Hero of Khartoum as their boss they found the job frustrating.

In October 1915, the period we are discussing, the CIGS was the third of these four, Sir Archibald Murray who served only from September to December. A veteran soldier, he would later say that the only time he was able to freely report his views  to the Cabinet was when Kitchener was away visiting the Dardanelles. We'll meet Murray again, as in January 1916 he was named Commander in Egypt, where he would oversee the beginnings of the Arab Revolt. (Which he supported; discard the image of Murray in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia; in the real world he and Lawrence admired each other)

Kitchener had seen his powers reduced under the coalition. After the so-called "Shell Crisis" earlier in 1915, involving a reported shortage of artillery shells, Asquith had created a separate Ministry of Munitions under David Lloyd George. He was increasingly criticized for embarking on military adventures without consulting the General Staff, but he would again ignore divided counsels in the decision to go on to Baghdad.

Second Turkish Airspace Incident Raises New Questions: Are Russian and Syrian Aircraft Concealing their Markings?

For the second time in recent days, Turkey has reportedly intercepted Russian or Syrian aircraft in or near its airspace. NATO has rejected a Russian explanation that the first incident involving a Russian Su-30 over Turkey's Hatay region October 3-4 was an accident. The Turks have said that the Russian intruder locked its radar on a Turkish F-16 for a full five minutes. That is often read by combat pilots as a sign of hostile intent. If true the explosive potential is great as a pilot seeing that a potential adversary has locked on him as a target might well fire in self-defense.

The second incident October 5 raises other questions. Initial Turkish reports identified the intruder as a MiG-29 of unidentified nationality and say it also locked its radar on at least one of a flight of eight Turkish F-16s performing combat air patrol along the border. The radar lock lasted for and a half minutes. Again, a radar lock suggests the Turkish aircraft is a potential target.

Western reports of Russia's buildup have not reported that Russia has deployed any MiG-29s to Syria, but the Syrian Air Force flies them. There are superficial resemblances between the Su-30 and the MiG-29, and a misidentification is possible, but why should the nationality be unidentified?

One report in the aviation press a few days ago noted that a video circulated by Russia Today (much as I dislike quoting Russia Today) seems to show Russian aircraft at Latakia air base with the prominent Red Star on the tail painted over. Why, since the Russians acknowledge they are flying bombing missions? Is it to create uncertainty over whether Russian or Syrian aircraft are responsible for specific missions? (Syria's Air Force is Soviet or Russian-built.) In any event, unidentified aircraft violating airspace in a combat zone and radar locking on Turkish aircraft is a recipe for an explosive situation.

October 6, 1973 and Today: Triumphant Photos and a Sad One

Having been posting on October 6 since 2009  I am running out of new things to say.

On October 6, 1973, Egypt crossed the Suez Canal, took the Bar-Lev Line and despite the military setbacks that followed regained enough prestige to move towards peace with Israel. In four years, Sadat was in Jerusalem.

But on October 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat was assassinated at a Military Day parade.

But on October 6, 1984, at an Egyptian Military Day reception, at the Officer's club at Fort Myer, Virginia, I met my future wife.

So as they say on Facebook, "It's complicated."

After nearly seven years rehashing the October War is pointless, Some photos of the exubernce of the time, followed by a sad one on where we are today:

Moving on from the triumphal first moments of Egyptians setting foot on Sinai for the first time in six plus years I want to look at a less pleasant photo of Egypt's military prowess:

This photo of an unexploded bomb in the ground in Syria, is being circulated by Syrian opposition forces in social media. Assuming it is a real photo, neither Photoshopped nor shown out of context (an assumption I cannot verify), it is clearly of Egyptian manufacture.

The logo (perhaps suspiciously clear in the photo?) is clearly that of the Arab Organization for Industrialization, a major component of the Egyptian defense industries, (Right,)

But today the Sisi  regime in Egypt is generally anti-Asad but has given some support to the Russian intervention, perhaps a result of its major funding sources in Saudi Arabia, and the UAE being virulently anti-Asad while Egypt is buying arms from Russia. The AOI has been around for decades and even if the photo and its provenance are real, it could have been purchased over a long period. But it reminds us how the bipolar Middle East of the 1970s has become a kaleidoscope of shifting allegiances.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Genesis of a Quagmire: The Debate Over Advancing to Baghdad, 1915: Part II: The Indian Government's Role

In Part I of this series on Friday, I introduced the debate, after the first occupation of Kut in Iraq at the end of September 1915, over whether to go on and take Baghdad. Despite divided counsels, the decision to try was made and eventually led to the surrender of a besieged force at Kut in 1916, a major British defeat. This series revisits the argument and the contending views.

In Part I we met the dramatis personae on the ground in Iraq, or Mesopotamia as it was called by the British: General Sir John Nixon, commanding the overall Mesopotamian  font, and General Sir Charles Townshend, commanding the 6th (Poona) Indian  Division, and their Ottoman counterpart, Nureddin Pasha, commanding what was called the Iraq Area Command of the Ottoman Sixth Army.

Field Marshal von der Goltz
At the time the decision was made in the early days of October to go for Baghdad, the British Chain of Command was complicated by the conflicting chains of command of the Indian Army on the one hand, and the War Office and Cabinet in London on the other. Nureddin's chain of command was not so complicated but was changing: General Feldmarschall Colmar Freiherr (Baron) von der Goltz, a Prussian officer in his 70s recalled to duty when the war began, who had trained the Ottoman Army before the war, had been dispatched to Baghdad. Baron von der Goltz took over the Sixth Army in Baghdad in the middle of October 1915. (Neither the War Minister, Enver Pasha,  nor the head of the German Military Mission, Liman von Sanders, liked the old Baron and reportedly sent him to Baghdad in part to get him out of Constantinople.) He would be Nureddin's immediate superior for the first part of the campaign, later to be replaced due to illness by Governor of Baghdad Khalil (Halil) Pasha, who after the war would take his victory as a surname: Halil Kut. (All photos from Wikipedia.)

But the British Indian force under Nixon and Townshend faced a far more complicated  chain of command in India and in London, divided in counsel, and fll of personal and political rivalries, especially in London. Earlier this year, I noted the complicated command chin for the British Intelligence Section in Cairo, but Cairo didn't have to involve the Government of India as well. Today I want to deal with the players in India; tomorrow we will look at the deeply  divided counsels in London.

In India: the High Command

Nixon and Townshend were British officers in the Indian Army, and wile ultimately responsible to the War Office in London, their direct chain of command ran directly to the indian Army High Command. Though Delhi was the official capital of the Raj, Indian Governments since Victoria's day had spent the warmer months in the "summer" capital at Simla in the northern mountains just south of Kashmir. Though we are discussing events in October 1915, the exchanges were with Simla.

The Viceroy, Lord Hardinge
At the pinnacle of the Indian Government was the Viceroy of India. Holding that post in October 1915, and having occupied it since 1910, was Lord Harding (Charles Hardinge, First Baron Hardinge of Penhurst) a veteran diplomat whose grandfather had also held the post (then called Governor-General). His eldest son died on the Western Front early in the War. The Viceroy was the British King-Emperor's representative in India. Keep in mind that since 1877, when Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India, the British monarch (now George V) was also Emperor of India. The Viceroy of India had more real administrative authority in India, however, than the King did in Britain. He (they were all male) was not a constitutional monarch, but the effective ruler of India.

The overall chief of all the Armed Forces in India, including those deployed in the Middle East and East Africa during World War I, was the Commander-in-Chief, India. In October 1915, this was General Sir Beauchamp Duff, a Scots-born officer who had risen through Indian Army service.  When named to the post in 1914 it was unusual as the post usually went to an officer from the Regular British Army rather than the Indian Army, but he had served under Lord Kitchener, which helped his rapid rise. (I'm not certain in his specific case, but the British, in their insistence on pronouncing French any way they please, normally pronounce the old Norman name "Beauchamp" as "Beecham.")

General Sir Beauchamp Duff
Duff was a skeptic about Mesopotamia from the beginning, as will be seen. When the war broke out, Hardinge asked for advice about the Mesopotamian expedition and Duff opposed it. By the time the adventure played out in the surrender at Kut the next year, Duff became the scapegoat for the so-called Mesopotamia Committee investigating the debacle. (Townshend and his officers were by then in a Turkish prison and could not be publicly blamed; Nixon had been replaced.) Though Duff had correctly seen the unwisdom of the whole enterprise, it ruined his career, and in early 1918 he committed suicide.

Lt.-Gen. Sir Percy Lake
Second in command under the Commander-in-Chief, India, was the Chief of General Staff, India. The post was not merely a deputy to the Commander-in-Chief, but also the effective head of the Indian Army (while the C-in-C ran all the Indian Armed Forces). At the time we are dealing with this was Lieutenant-General Sir Percy Lake, a veteran of Afghanistan and Sudan, and Chief of Staff since 1912. In January of 1916, after Townshend became besieged, he would replace Nixon as the commander in Mesopotamia.

All of these reported to the India Office in London, to His Majesty's Secretary of State for India, with the War Office, Foreign Office, Admiralty and other Cabinet offices helping (?) to stir the pot in a complicated and difficult coalition government. Those players will be introduced tomorrow. By Wednesday I may actually be able to start telling the story, but you need to know the players first.

Monday Morning Flashback: Salman and the Late Shah, 1970s

Remember the "twin pillars of stability?" Now King (then Prince) Salman of Saudi Arabia does a sword dance for the last Shah of Iran (1970s):

Friday, October 2, 2015

Genesis of a Quagmire: The Debate Over Advancing to Baghdad, 1915: Part I

It has been some time since we looked at the British campaign in Mesopotamia (Iraq) a century ago. But in the last days of September and first days of October 1915, or a century ago right now, the British government in London, the British government of India in its summer capital in Simla, and some of the commanders on the ground (not all) made a hasty decision that, over the six months that would follow, would lead to the surrender of a British Empire army. Even as Britain was realizing its failure at Gallipoli and preparing to withdraw its Australian, New Zealand, and British troops from that particular disaster, it was creating another along the Tigris. Gallipoli wasted lives and accomplished little, but the British were able to withdraw and evacuate in late 1915 and early 1916. But in Mesopotamia, or "Mespot" as the soldiers named it, they would blunder into a months-long siege and ultimately surrender an Army at Kut. In this current series I want to look at how the fateful decision to take Baghdad was made, largely on political grounds rather than military (in fact, the plan was to take Baghdad and then withdraw). I will leave it to your own conclusions what parallels might be drawn with later foreign decision making in Mesopotamia.

First we should review some of the background so far. Even before the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers, Britain had determined to use Indian Army troops to protect the oilfields and refinery around Abadan in Iraq, and to do so, determined to take the port city of Basra in Ottoman territory.

For those wishing to refresh their memories, past blogposts on the beginnings of the campaign:

October 1914: Anglo-Ottoman Maneuvering in the Gulf, Part I

1914: Pre-War Maneuvering in the Gulf, Part II:Contesting the Shatt and the Dispatch of Force "D"

First Fights on the Road to Basra, November 6-12, 1914

The British Take Basra, November 21-23, 1914

The Battle of Shaiba, Iraq, April 12-14, 1915 

After each stage the British would test Ottoman defenses and move forward up the Tigris. further securing their Basra operational base. After Shaiba, the Ottoman leadership did not try to recapture Basra: the bulk of the Turkish fleet (and some German and Austrian vessels, were concentrated in the Mediterranean defending the Straits, or in the Black Sea against the Russians. British naval supremacy in the Gulf remained unchallenged. But as the British moved upriver, the big Royal Navy combatants could not follow, only riverboats. The original goal of securing Basra soon faded under the lure of Baghdad. (Remember the 1,001 Nights were widely read in 19th and early 20th century Britain.)

Dramatis Personae
Gen. Sir John Nixon, upstaged by his hat
In April of 1915, General Sir John Nixon had taken over as overall commander of the Mesopotamian campaign. An Indian Army officer and veteran of the small colonial wars of the Victorian era, Nixon was considered experienced, but not in wars against a major power.

The Ottoman commander on the Iraq front at this time was Nureddin Pasha (Nurettin Paşa). A member of the Committeeon Union and Progress (the Young Turks) and a veteran of the occupation of Yemen and the Balkan Wars, he also took up his Iraq in April 1915 after his predecessor committed suicide.

Nureddin Pasha
Mesopotamia, particularly southern Mesopotamia, were not a priority for the Ottoman Minister of War, Enver Pasha. Constantinople itself was threatened by the Allied Forces at Gallipoli, and Russian troops were on Turkish soil on the Caucasus Front. Nureddin, who would later play a major role in the Turkish war of independence, was a fighter but the priority given to other fronts meant he lacked resources, particularly the farther he was from Baghdad.

General Nixon was the overall theater commander, but the commander of the army column advancing upriver was Major General Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend, Commander of the 6th Indian Division, a veteran of war in Sudan (decorated at Omdurman), in India, and in the Boer War. In June his column had reached ‘Amara. In September the advance had been resumed.
 On September 28 1925 at Es-Sinn near Kut al-‘Amara on the Tigris, the British Indian Army defeated an Ottoman force and occupied Kut. I won't go into the tactical details of the battle here, which Wikipedia handles fairly well; on September 29, the expedition occupied Kut, a place that will forever be linked (and not in a good way), with Townshend's name.
The fall of Kut was not an unalloyed success. Though Nureddin had lost, he was able to retreat safely upriver to the ruins of Ctesiphon. Indian Army casualties had been higher than anticipated, supply lines from Basra were now stretched thin, as was medical support. But there was another temptation before Nixon and Townshend: Kut was only 100 miles downriver from Baghdad.

The Bulgarian Factor
In the debate about advancing further to Baghdad that was to follow, British and Indian government officials had to take into account some broader geopolitical and strategic factors.

After the failure of the Suvla landings and the August offensive in Gallipoli to make any progress off the beaches, it was obvious to most that the forces would eventually have to be evacuated. A Western success, even a limited one, against the Ottomans might redeem a bit of the failure of Gallipoli. But there was a major strategic shift in the making.

Even only a year into the Great War, it was probably easy to forget that the war had begun over the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Austria's demand for revenge against Serbia. Austria had been kept quite busy dealing with Russia in the east and, from earlier in 1815, with Italy, which had entered the war on the Allied side. But it had also fought on the Serbian front and the Serbian Army was in serious trouble.

Bulgaria had been neutral in the war. It had pan-Slavic sympathies with Russia, but had lost territory to Serbia in the Second Balkan War. But by the Fall of 1915 the Central Powers had successfully wooed Bulgaria with temptations of recovering lost territory from Serbia Romania (which would soon enter the war on Russia's side), and Greece. Bulgaria's Tsar Ferdinand cut a deal and at the time we are discussing, was poised to enter the war and invade a weakened Serbia from the south as Austria-Hungary pushed in from the north.

1915 German or Austrian postcard
But there was a big implication for the Ottomans. A pro-Central Powers Bulgaria and a defeated Serbia could mean unimpeded rail connections between Berlin and Vienna and Constantinople. German assistance could flow directly overland, and that would be a boon to the Ottomans. The German-language "Bulgarien mit uns!" postcard, while a bit of a step down from the Hohenzollern motto "Gott mit uns," reflects this. Bulgaria's entry would eventually bring Romania and Greece unto the fight, and tie down an Allied landing force at Thessalonika.

So in the debate over the "On to Baghdad" question, the impending entry of Bulgaria on the other side was also a factor in the Anglo-Indian calculus.

In Part II, we'll look at the debate itself.

A Fifth of Syria's Population Have Now Left the Country

I've published similar maps, but this map and link (paywall) to Le Monde  Diplomatique emphasizes the scale: one fifth of Syria's population are now outside the country.

Just In Time for "Banned Books Week," Al-Azhar Yanks a Book from Bookstores

This week now ending happens to be the American Library Association's annual "Banned Books Week," when the ALA and numerous anti-censorship groups seek to call attention to efforts to ban books in American schools and public libraries. Of course, it's an American thing, and most Middle Eastern countries ban books not just from schools or libraries but from all distribution. Still, there is some irony that it is during Banned books Week (Hat Tip to M. Lynx Qualey of the Arabic Literature (in English blog, though it wasn't posted there) that Al-Azhar, Egypt's watchdog of Islamic Orthodoxy, and the State's Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) ordered one of Egypt's most prominent bookstore chains to remove the book from its flagship downtown store and elsewhere. The Book is called "Blasphemy in Egypt" (ازدراء الأديان في مصر).
From the statement by The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI):
Middle East Freedom Forum (the book’s publisher) has issued a statement concerning the incident, and it was posted by the forum’s executive director, Magdi Khalil, on his Facebook account. The statement reads: “Some individuals affiliated to religious institutions in Egypt represented in Al-Azhar Institution and Egyptian Endowment Ministry have visited Madbouly Bookstore in Talaat Harb Square, Downtown, and demanded the removal of “Blasphemy in Egypt”- by Hamdi El-Assuiti and Magdi Khalil- with no delay, as it abuses Islam, according to them. They posed threats to the bookstore in case of not removing the copies. Therefore, we had withdrawn the copies from the bookstore upon their request, and in order not to cause any problems for them.”
Hamdi El-Assuiti [Arabic title page suggests this should be Assiuti], a co-writer of the book, in his statements to Tahrir newspaper, said: “The book discloses, in its documentation and introduction, the trespasses are taking place in religious institutions, along with their restrictions on the freedom of thought and expression.” He added: “I was expecting the confiscation transpires immediately upon its publication, but they probably were late to read it.”
 “The incident is not based on the law, whereas Endowment Ministry and Al-Azhar Institution have no power over the book’s removal, or distribution ban. The Constitution, in its Article 67, determined one reason for that is to resort to the public prosecution, which is authorized to investigate the book content. Furthermore, what is consistent with the democratic form is to respond to the different opinion, without resorting to ways of threats and confiscation,” ANHRI said.
So strictly speaking, the move didn't follow the law. As an Editor and Publisher, I oppose censorship on principle and government attempts  to protect its institutions from criticism most of all. The late Lenny Bruce had a well-known aphorism on that subject. (Link Not Safe for Work of course; it's Lenny Bruce.)

Most of us probably can't get hold of a copy of this particular banned book, but it might be an appropriate response to go out and read something from the ALA's banned books list. And F**k censorship. [Asterisks to make the point, not for censorship. The word appears here when appropriate: see below.]

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Several Takes on the Current Situation

The present mess in the region is drawing a lot of commentary from the think tanks and elsewhere. My blog pace should resume soon but for now, a few selections from several viewpoints:

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Russia Strikes in Syria: First Thoughts

Blogging has been light lately due to deadlines but I'm starting to emerge from that.

Russia's airstrikes in Syria are already a bone of contention, with Russia saying it flew about 20 sorties against at least eight Islamic State targets, but the West and the Free Syrian Army claiming that they struck civilians and areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army or other non-Islamic State groups.

Assuming Russia's primary goal is to defend the Asad regime, reports that its targets were in the Homs and Hama regions could confirm this because the regime forces are mainly facing the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other forces there rather than IS. While the US can hardly object to  attacks on Nusra, an al-Qa‘ida affiliate attacks on the FSA could be another matter. And several FSA geoups and allies have claimed they were hit. The map below, from the Institute for the Study of War, shows all the attacks as being well to the west of area controlled by the Islamic State, as do the analysis at ISW's website and an early assessment by Fabrice Balanche at The Washington Institute. If these readings are correct (and with so many competing factions in Syria, the Fog of War is even foggier than usual), then it would seem regime defense is the real motivator in target selections.

I will save editorializing until the facts are a bit clearer, but it seems at first glance that Russia's initial strikes are aimed at preventing the further collapse of the regime-controlled zone, which suggests Russia knows exactly what it seeks to accomplish. What is clear is that the situation is transformed and the Russian Bear is in the game.

But FSA and other anti-Asad sources are reporting numerous civilian casualties, and one aviation site is suggesting that videos (see below) released by the Russians suggest that the initial strikes may have been with non-guided munitions and may have missed their targets. It would be interesting to know the Russians' own bomb damage assessment (BDA) of the results of day one.

The third video below purportedly shows Russian aircraft over a Tajammu‘ al-‘Izza (Gathering of Honor) (FSA-aligned) position. I think the aircraft are Su-24s?

Monday, September 28, 2015

No, I'm Pretty Sure China's Only Aircraft Carrier is Not in Tartus

A few days ago I noted some doubts about some of the alarmist reporting about the Russian military buildup in Syria, but the hysterical reactions have not only not abated, they've become more shrill. Something close to an apotheosis of paranoid reporting may have been reached. On Saturday, the Israeli "defense and intelligence" (note the quote marks) website DEBKAFile  reported "A Chinese aircraft carrier docks at Tartus to support Russian-Iranian military buildup."
As US President Barack Obama welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to the White House on Friday, Sept. 25, and spoke of the friendship between the two countries, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning-CV-16 docked at the Syrian port of Tartus, accompanied by a guided missile cruiser. This is revealed exclusively by DEBKAfile.
PLA Navy Liaoning CV-16
Now, anyone who has read it even sporadically knows that DEBKAFile has a solid track record of being sensationally wrong; I don't generally cite them here, though I did when they assured us in September 2011 that Qadhafi was still solidly in control in Libya the month before he died in a culvert by the side of a road. It's that kind of a track record. They like to imply they have access to Israeli intelligence, but if so they're being fed disinformation.

I have no access to any current classified intelligence, naval intelligence, or overhead image intelligence, so I must fall back on another form of intelligence: analyzing claims in the context of known facts. As John Adams put it, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

Let's start with some stubborn facts:
  1. Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) Liaoning (CV-16) is not "A Chinese aircraft carrier"; it is China's only aircraft carrier (though a second is being built).
  2. Laid down by the Soviet Navy as the Riga in 1988, renamed Varyag after Latvian independence and taken over by Ukraine with the fall of the Soviet Union, she was towed without operating engines to China and refitted.
  3. Its home port is Qingdao in eastern China, though there has been speculation she will be used to enforce Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
  4. To reach Tartus she would have to pass through the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, and the Suez Canal (or take the long way through the Strait of Gibraltar). This cannot be done unnoticed, even by civilian observers.
  5. With the US expressing concern about four Russian Su-30 aircraft and 200 Russian Marines, it could neglect to note China's only carrier deployed to the Med?
  6. When China itself defines the South China Sea territorial dispute as its primary naval power projection issue?
Now it's true there have been other reports that China might join Russia in supporting Syria, and a website that seems pro-Syrian-regime has reported that a "Chinese warship" transited the Suez Canal and Chinese military advisers are en route to Syria, but a "Chinese warship" (some of which have been showing up in odd places like the Bering Strait) is not the same as "China's only aircraft carrier."

If only DEBKAFile alone had reported this I'd have ignored it completely. But other media, especially on the political right, are picking up on it. Maybe there is a Chinese ship at Tartus, but if it's the Liaoning, I'll believe in teleportation.  Cue Twilight Zone theme: the "Philadelphia Experiment," anyone?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Mina Disaster

Today's catastrophic stampede near the Jamarat pillars at Mina during one of the culminating rituals of the hajj has killed at least 717 pilgrims in one of the worst in a string of periodic mass stampedes accompanying the pilgrimage. There are already recriminations and accusations, with Iran (which had over 40 nationals killed) blaming, through its media, the Saudi government. Coming less than two weeks after the crane disaster at the Grand Mosque, it's a blow to Saudi Arabia in its role as protector of the hajj, and I'm sure the Iranian accusation will not be the last. (And some Saudi media have blamed "Africans," so the rush to judgment is not all one-sided.)

Let's mourn and bury the dead and hold off the blame wars until more is understood.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

‘Eid al-‘Adha Greetings

Greetings to my Muslim readers for ‘Eid al-‘Adha. ‘Eid Mubarak!

Egypt and Arabia, Last Night, from the ISS

Egypt and the Red Sea area from the International Space Station last night, posted by Astronaut Scott Kelly on Facebook.  No doubt that Egypt is still the Gift of the Nile as it has been since Herodotus, but look at how bright Mecca and Jidda are on the first full night if hajj.

And how dark Syria is, compared with Israel and Lebanon.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

When Refugees Fled TO Syria, Rather than FROM It

A hat tip to Juan Cole's website for this one, which is self-explanatory:

Are the Su-30s in Latakia a Threat to Western Aircraft Over Syria?

Sukhoi Su-30
The US State Department has expressed concern that some elements of the current Russian military buildup in Syria are inconsistent with Russia's stated goals of defending the regime and attacking ISIS. The main concern appears to be the presence of Su-30 fighter aircraft, a modern multirole fighter that carries air-to-air missiles. This, plus the presence of surface-to-air missile systems, raises questions about what requirement there is for air defense capabilities, given that none of the Syrian opposition groups have operable aircraft. This suggests the air-to-air capability might be a threat to US, Turkish, and Allied aircraft operating over Syria. The Russians have reportedly sought to reassure the US, as well as Israel during  Binyamin  Netanyahu's Moscow visit, that they aren't seeking direct confrontation.

The last count I saw, however, indicated that only four Su-30s were present, along with 12 Su-24s and 12 Su-25s, all photographed at a Syrian Naval Aviation base adjacent to Basil al-Asad [officially spelled Bassel Al-Assad in English] International Airport in Latakia. It is not known if all will be deployed there or moved elsewhere, but the Su-24s and Su-25s clearly are ground attack and interdiction fighters, used by the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Russians in Chechnya, and thus appropriate for fighting ISIS, as are the Syrian helicopters normally based there. (Though helicopters have notoriously been used for barrel-bombing civilians).

I'm not an expert on Russian air defense doctrine, but I doubt if Russia, undertaking its biggest military buildup since Afghanistan outside former Soviet space, would build what is starting to look like a military base at Latakia and a major expansion of its Navy facility at Tartus without providing perimeter defense of its own forces (the SAMs, tanks, and ground forces it is moving in as well). A lot depends on what the mission of the four Su-30s are, since they have both ground attack and air superiority capabilities.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not defending Russia's jumping in to the Syrian civil war or their attempts to rescue the Asad regime, which they no doubt saw as on the ropes. But until we see exactly where this is going, it could still be seen as a Russian rescue effort for Asad, creating a Russian-protected area in the Asad heartland, and not necessarily a direct challenge to the US and coalition air campaign. It mostly depends on what those Su-30s are intended for.

Live-Streaming the Hajj ...

As previously noted, all the Abrahamic religions have a busy week. The Meccan hajj began today and the ‘Eid comes later this week; Yom Kippur starts at sundown, and Pope Francis just landed here in Washington to begin his US tour.

As always, Meccan TV is live-streaming the hajj via YouTube. These will probably not work once the hajj ends, but for now here are two channels:

Best Wishes for Yom Kippur

Greetings to my Jewish readers on the occasion of Yom Kippur. An easy fast. My recent pace of posting has been slow due to deadline, but should improve soon.

Monday, September 21, 2015

How Egypt and Mexico Reprted the Tourist Killings

The recent incident in which Egyptian police and security forces mistakenly attacked a party of Mexican tourists and their Egyptian guides, killing 12, drew sharp protest from Mexico. MadaMasr has an interesting comparison of the very different media coverage the incident received in the two countries' respective media outlets: "Timeline: How Egypt and Mexico communicated the Tourist killings."

You may draw your own conclusions.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

2.5 Million Syrian Refugees in Saudi Arabia? A Question

I'm very busy with our Fall issue but want to address one question I haven't seen discussed very much.

There has been a lot of discussion about the fact (or factoid) that the GCC states have not accepted Syrian refugees, unlike other Arab neighbors. Some of the criticism has been fair, and some unfair, such as posting photos of the Saudi tent city for Hajj pilgrims and saying these tents are standing empty. Since the Hajj is next week I'm sure they're filling up fast.

Several days ago (on September 11 to be exact), the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted that not only was it hosting Syrian refugees, but that it was hosting no fewer than 2.5 million. The statement, posted by the Saudi Embassy in Washington, can be found here.

Part of it reads:
  1. The Kingdom has received around 2.5 million Syrians since the beginning of the conflict. In order to ensure their dignity and safety, the Kingdom adopted the policy not to treat them as refugees or place them in refugee camps. They have been given the freedom to move about the country, and those who wish to remain in Saudi Arabia (some hundreds of thousands) have been given legal residency status like the remaining residents. Their residency comes with the rights to receive free medical care, to join the labor market and to attend schools and universities. This was contained in a royal decree in 2012 that instructed public schools to accept Syrian students. According to government statistics, the public school system has accepted more than 100,000 Syrian students.
Pro-Saudi apologists have touted this and critics of the Kingdom have expressed questions, but hardly anyone has raised an issue of who, exactly, these Syrians may be.

Northwestern Saudi Arabia is still a largely tribal area, with significant portions of the non-urban population either true nomads or transhumants who shift their livestock between summer and winter pasture.  These tribes are trans-national and sometimes have dual nationality if their winter and summer camps are on opposite sides of the boundary lines drawn with a straightedge ruler at the end of World War I. Unless there is a suspicion of a security threat, the nation-states rarely interfere with the semi-nomadic lifestyle that has persisted since ancient times.

One of the best known of these is the large tribal confederation of the Shammar, who may number as many as four million and are found in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. The Arabian branch of the Shammar, under the Rashid ruling family, were once the main rivals to the House of Saud.

Other big tribes that transcend borders are the ‘Anayza confederation, with multiple large subtribes including the important Ruwalla in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia,

The true nomadic and seasonal transhumant elements among these tribes have routinely crossed map boundaries with near impunity. So my question is: what proportion of the Syrian refugees in Saudi Arabia are Bedouin who simply moved across the border to escape the war in Syria by joining their tribal kin in Saudi Arabia, or perhaps even migrating to their seasonal grazing pastures?

I'm not sure it matters, and bravo to the Saudis for accepting them, but most of the responses to the Saudi statement haven't noted this aspect.

Edward William Lane's 214th Birthday

Edward William Lane
The great pioneer anthropologist and lexicographer Edward William Lane was born on this day in 1801, as I believe I have noted every year since I started blogging.

Lane's works, cited fully in the link above, give us a superb description of Egypt in the Muhammad  ‘Ali era, while his Arabic-English Lexicon remains unmatched in English for Classical Arabic. I annually note his birthday for those reasons and because I share the date, though I am rather younger than he.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Nearly a Quarter of a Million Syrian Refugees Are in Iraq. How Desperate Must You Be to Consider IRAQ a Refuge?

For those critical of the refugee influx in Europe this is a reminder that the bulk are still in camps in the Middle East. I continue to be astounded that nearly a quarter of a million Syrians have fled to IRAQ.

Attention: all those Western journalists on the Serbian-Hungarian border: does it only become a story at an EU Frontier?

When Calendars Collide

I thought I'd note an interesting fact about next week. At sunset on Tuesday, September 22, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, will begin. Just 24 hours later, at sundown September 23, the Muslim ‘Eid al-‘Adha begins, the Feast of Sacrifice culminating the Meccan Hajj.. Though both the Jewish and Muslim calendars are basically lunar, the Hebrew calendar periodically adds an intercalary (extra-calendrical) month to bring the lunar calendar closer to the solar, while the Islamic calendar expressly forbids this and is purely lunar. So this near juxtaposition of two of their major holy days is purely a coincidence, but I suspect security services will be on alert in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and around the world.

There are no major Christian feasts next week, but it happens that just a few hours before Yom Kippur begins in the Eastern United States, at 4 pm Eastern Daylight Time next Tuesday, Pope Francis will land in Washington for his first visit to the US, visiting DC, New York, and Philadelphia. It will be a busy week for all the Abrahamic faiths.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Deadline; Light Blogging

I'm deep into our Fall issue and blogging will be light this week. More soon.

Monday, September 14, 2015

First Vanunu, Now This: Revisiting the 1979 Vela "Double Flash"

Perhaps because of the Iranian nuclear agreement, there seems to be increased discussion of Israel's nuclear arsenal. Eyebrows were certainly raised when Mordechai Vanunu, long imprisoned and then forbidden to speak publicly for revealing details of Israel's deterrent, was interviewed on Israeli television on Septmber 4 and allowed to speak freely. That raised the question of whether the Israeli security establishment is prepared to be more open about its capabilities.

Now, Leonard Weiss revisits another old debate in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: "Flash from the past: Why an Apparent Israeli Nuclear Test in 1979 Matters Today."

For those who came in late, on September 22, 1979, a US intelligence satellite tasked to look for evidence of atmospheric nuclear testing, Vela 6911, detected a double flash where the Indian Ocean and Atlantic come together off South Africa. The double flash was characteristic of a nuclear explosion. It was speculated that it was either a South African test with Israeli assistance, or an Israeli test from a South African ship. (They were known to be cooperating at the time.) The US National Laboratories and the US Intelligence Community were convinced that it was indeed a nuclear test, but a scientific panel appointed by the government eventually declared the results inconclusive. Those familiar with the intelligence largely remained convinced it was real but the public perception was that it had been inconclusive.

Weiss's article revives the debate and reviews the evidence, allegations, and rumors. It's worth reading whether you're new to the debate or already familiar with it.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Rosh Hashanah Greetings

Greetings to my Jewish readers for Rosh Hashanah, which began at sundown.

Friday, September 11, 2015

9/11+14 Years

It seems commentators feel compelled to note each anniversary of the September 11 attacks, even if there is little new to say. Certainly no one who was in New York or Washington that day will forget it; I was driving to work, already aware of the two planes that hit New York, when I saw the black plume of dense smoke rising above the Pentagon a couple of miles ahead, tried to call home and could not get a signal, and turned around to rejoin my wife and daughter. (Ironically, I am old enough to have seen black smoke rising over Washington twice: the other was as an undergraduate at Georgetown in April 1968, from the fires of the rioting following Martin Luther King's assassination.)

But while the memories will endure, it is also disturbing to realize how much the violence of that day 14 years ago still echoes. Afghanistan still struggles; Iraq, which had no ties to 9/11 but which we invaded anyway, may be destroyed, and the regional chaos has devastated Syria and crippled Libya and Yemen. Not all those events stem from the 9/11 attacks directly, but neither are they unrelated. As we remember, it remains important to discern that in some cases we may have learned the wrong lessons from that dark day.