A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Saudis Tighten Security on Eve of Hajj

With Saudi Arabia actively participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, security is reportedly extremely high as this year's hajj is set to begin tomorrow. With 1.3 million visas already granted, total pilgrimage numbers may approach 2 million, though reportedly Saudi security has already blocked 100,000 prospective pilgrims. Concerns are high that sympathizers of ISIS or other radical groups might cause trouble.

In the years after the Iranian Revolution, Iranian pilgrims frequently chanted slogans during the hajj, and in 1987 this erupted into full-scale violence, leaving hundreds dead according to Iran. Saudi Arabia disputed those numbers. Clearly the Saudis are eager to avoid a repetition of the 1987 events.

More on this year's hajj as it proceeds. You can watch live streaming of the hajj here.

Two Utterly Divergent Approaches on Syria

Here are two prescriptions for Syrian policy, both by veteran Middle East analysts who know the turf, but arriving at vastly different conclusions.

Longtime Beirut-based journalist Michael Young, writing at the Now website, offers "Toward a Syrian endgame? The anti-ISIS campaign may lead to an Assad exit."

On the other hand, Graham E. Fuller, writing at The Huffington Post, argues that "Embracing Assad Is a Better Strategy for the U.S. Than Supporting the Least Bad Jihadis."

On the Lighter Side ...

Via Karl Sharro, some Middle East historical humor:

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Asad Cousin Now in Belarus

Hafez Makhlouf, cousin of Bashar al-Asad and until recently head of the General Security Directorate's Damascus branch, has now been reported as having moved to Belarus. Besides being a maternal cousin of the President, he is also the brother of Rami Makhlouf, who, as I mentioned the other day, is the richest man in Syria and the moneyman for the regime.

Earlier this month, after reports that Hafez Makhlouf had been fired from his security job circulated, regime sources reported that he had not been fired but promoted from colonel to general, and was in line for a new job. The move to Belarus would suggest that was not the case. Is there dissent within the extended Asad/Makhlouf families?

As Turkey Tilts Towards Intervention, the Tomb of Suleyman Shah Becomes an Issue

Turkey's standoffish approach to the coalition campaign against ISIS appears to be rapidly eroding as the fighting increasingly engages direct Turkish security interests.  The Turkish government has asked the Grand National Assembly (Parliament) to approve possible intervention in both Iraq and Syria, and the government has indicated this could include opening Turkish bases to foreign troops or aircraft; in recent days Turkey has increased troop levels along the border and has deployed tanks on a hill on the border overlooking the ongoing battle at Kobanê, where a huge flow of refugees have already poured into Turkey. Parliament, which is dominated by the ruling AKP, will debate the issue Thursday. But since the reluctant party in Turkey has been the AKP itself, it seems likely that Turkey will take some action, perhaps creating a much-discussed "buffer zone" inside Syria and Iraq.

But there is another issue looming that could not be resolved by a limited buffer zone: ISIS in Syria is said to be approaching the tomb of Suleyman Shah (Süleyman Şah in Turkish).

I wrote about this anomalous shrine back in 2012, when the Syrian Civil War threatened it and then Prime Minister (now President)  Erdoğan identified it as a Turkish interest that Turkey would definitely defend. It is an enclave of sovereign Turkish territory deep within Syria; it flies the Turkish flag and is guarded by a Turkish honor guard. In 2012, Erdoğan said that an attack on the tomb would be treated as n attack on Turkish sovereign territory and thus as an attack on NATO. Given ISIS' propensity for blowing up tomb-shrines (which it considers idolatrous), there is little reason to think they would spare the tomb of Suleyman Shah.

Location of the Tomb
But Suleyman Shah was the grandfather of Osman I, eponymous founder of the Ottoman dynasty. The 1921 Treaty of Ankara between the Turkish government (soon to be the Turkish Republic) and France (the Mandatory Power in Syria, recognized it as sovereign Turkish soil. When the Tabqa Dam threatened in 1973 threatened to drown the tomb under Lake Asad, both the tomb and the Turkish sovereignty were moved north to a site on higher ground.

Given Erdoğan's so-called "neo-Ottoman" policies, his threats in 2012 to defend the tiny enclave (geographers actually call it an "exclave" of Turkey; it's an "enclave" within Syria) were unsurprising.

Turkish Soldiers at Tomb (Wikipedia)

The tomb was not actually threatened in 2012, but with ISIS said to be moving toward it today, and with their track record of blowing up tomb-shrines, the threat is clearly one more factor pushing Turkey towards intervention.

Monday, September 29, 2014

This is Not a Tableau at Madame Tussaud's, though that Might Look More Lifelike

This is one of the official photos from the opening of the Fourth Caspian Sea Summit in Astrakhan.

Wax figures? Action figures for international affairs wonks? Or just a bunch of guys who are really, really, uncomfortable with each other?

Aliyev of Azerbaijan (left), Putin, and Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan (2nd from right) look particularly unrealistic. Has Putin hired as his makeup man the guy who used to freshen up the Lenin tomb? He's stiff enough.

Rouhani and Turkmen President Gurbanguly almost look human by comparison.

Hisham Melhem's Gloomy Prognosis on the State of Arab Civilization

My very old friend Hisham Melhem  ("very old" in the sense of friends for a very long time, since graduate school, not in the geriatric sense, since he's a couple of years younger than I am), the Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Arabiya, is a veteran Arab journalist in Washington; in fact, the very first post on this blog dealt with his interview with President Obama just days after his first inauguration, the first granted to an Arab journalist.

He has had a series of rather gloomy columns of late at Al-Arabiya, including one that has drawn US attention because it appeared at Politico: "The Barbarians within Our Gates: Arab civilization has collapsed. It won't recover in my lifetime."

It's a grim prognosis and I hope he's wrong but fear he's right. He calls himself a Cassandra, but of course, Cassandra turned out to be right. He's addressing the Arab world from within. I urge you to read the article, but here's a capsule version from an MSNBC interview.

Headline of the Weekend: "Internationally Acclaimed barrister marries an actor"

For the win, from Business Woman Media:
The lead:
Amal Alamuddin, a London-based dual-qualified English barrister and New York litigation attorney who has long been a high-profile figure in international refugee and human rights law, has gone against the trend for professional women in her field and married… an actor. Amal, 36, is an educated and successful career woman we’ve long admired. The high-flying barrister has notched up many career highs, including representing the controversial WikiLeaks whistleblower Julian Assange, and also has multilingual fluency in English, French and Arabic.
 She is also, of course, of Lebanese Druze origin.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Family Connection Between the Man Who Closed the Dardanelles in 1914 and a Major Figure of WWII

Erich Paul Weber (Weber Pasha)
As I noted in my earlier post today, Turkey's closing of the Dardanelles on September 27, 1914 was not actually a decision made by the Turkish government, but initially by the German commander of the fortifications on the east (Asian) Side of the Strait, Erich Paul Weber (1860-1933), an Oberst (colonel) of engineers and later General, commanding the XV Pioneer Army Corps at Kum Kale. he had been in charge of the fortifications along the Asian side of the Dardanelles and, apparently entirely on his own initiative and without consulting the Ottoman Government, Weber Pasha (as he was known in Ottoman service) closed and mined the Dardanelles.

But there is a historical footnote to the tale of Weber Pasha. Having been sent to Turkey before the war, his family had been allowed to accompany him, including his daughter Ingeborg, a nurse. After the Goeben  and Breslau arrived (and became the Yavuz Sultan and Medilli), Ingeborg became acquainted with a young (born 1891) naval Leutnant zur See or acting sub-lieutenant) on the Breslau. After receiving the approval of the Navy authorities she married him on May 27, 1916 in Istanbul, by which time the young officer had been promoted to Oberleutnant.

The young naval lieutenant was named Karl Dönitz.

Breslau's officers don the fez: Dönitz in front row
Yes: the same Karl Dönitz who would command the German submarine forces in World War II, later becoming Grand Admiral and Navy Commander, and named by Hitler as his successor as President of Germany (but not Führer, the title of Chancellor going to Goebbels, but he committed suicide). During the last days of World War II Dönitz was the last Chief of State of the Third Reich and the man who signed the surrender.

Dönitz holding dog, said to be taken aboard Goeben
This link between the World Wars is hardly unique; most of the general and flag officers of the Second World War were young officers in the First.

The Nuremburg Tribunal sentenced Dönitz to 10 years in Spandau Prison. Released in 1956 he lived quietly in Germany until his death in 1980. Ingeborg (born 1894) had died in 1962. They are shown together in the photo at left.

A Century Ago: Turkey Closes the Straits, Declares Shatt al-‘Arab Inland Waters

In July and August, I posted a lengthy series of posts dealing with the seizure of Turkish dreadnoughts by the Royal Navy on the eve of the European war in 1914 (see here), the flight of the German battle cruiser and cruiser Goeben and Breslau to Constantinople and their incorporation in the Turkish fleet, and the secret German Treaty of Alliance between the Ottoman Empire and the German Reich (Part I; Part I; Part III; and Part IV). Even at the end of all that, Turkey maintained its officially neutral status, despite its Navy now being under German officers. Throughout September, as Turkey mobilized, the Western powers continued to believe that Turkey's allegiance was still undetermined. No one was eager to force the issue, since the Turkish Straits were Russia's lifeline.

Early in September, Constantinople announced that it was unilaterally terminating the system of Capitulations, under which Western consulates exercised extraterritorial rights over their own citizens in Ottoman territory. This was strongly protested by all the European powers, Germany and Austria included.

German (now Turkish) Admiral Souchon, whom we met in my earlier postings, was chafing at the bit, eager to sail against the Russian Black Sea Fleet, but the Turkish Cabinet remained divided, Grand Vizier Said Halim Pasha still trying to cut a deal with the Entente Powers, and War Minister Enver Pasha enthusiastically backing Germany. During this period, Germany reinforced its presence in Turkey by sending military men in civilian clothing by train or by boat down the Danube through still-neutral Romania and Bulgaria.

A century ago this weekend, Turkey would take another major step towards Ottoman belligerency, moving to close the Dardanelles to the shipping of the Allied (Entente) Powers, and also declaring the Shatt al-‘Arab between Ottoman Iraq and Qajar Iran as home waters closed to foreign shipping. Of these moves, (along with the closure of the waters around Smyrna/Izmir), the closure of the Dardanelles was the most provocative by far, being in direct violation of treaties and yet another violation (after the Goeben and Breslau) of Turkey's officially proclaimed neutrality.

But I misspeak. Turkey did not close the Strait. A local (German) commander did so.

Rear Admiral Carden
Late on September 26 or early on September 27 a Turkish warship armed with torpedoes, called a destroyer in some accounts and a torpedo boat in others (but with the ability to sink other ships either way), passed out of the Dardanelles into the Aegean. The British flotilla that had pursued the Goeben and Breslau remained in the Mediterranean to prevent their escape and was now under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Sackville Carden, who had replaced Admiral Milne after the escape of the Germans.

Carden's squadron intercepted the Turkish vessel and discovered German sailors on board. They were determined not to let sailors of  belligerent pass, branded it  violation of Turkish neutrality, and required the vessel to return to Turkish waters. Carden apparently had the approval of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, but not of the British Foreign Office.

Erich Paul Weber (Weber Pasha)
The move would certainly not be well-received in Constantinople, but it didn't matter: the German commander of the fortifications on the Asian (the term at the time was "Asiatic") side of the Strait, Erich Paul Weber (1860-1933), was an Oberst (colonel) of engineers and later General, commanding the XV Pioneer Army Corps at Kum Kale. he had been in charge of the fortifications along the Asian side of the Dardanelles and, apparently entirely on his own initiative and without consulting the Ottoman Government, Weber Pasha (as he was known in Ottoman service) closed and mined the Dardanelles.

(There is an intriguing historical family connection of Weber Pasha, which I'll blog about later today.)

Already the Strait had been lined with mines and international shipping had been required to request a Turkish pilot boat to lead them through the minefields. Now the entire channel was mined, signs erected on the coasts, and the guns in the fortifications authorized to be prepared to defend the passage. Russia was cut off from warm-water access to its allies. And neither for the first nor last time in this autumn of 1914, a German officer was determining the policy of the Ottoman Empire.

The Entente protested of course, especially Britain. The Grand Vizier played it down, told the British Ambassador that he personally favored reopening the Straits, that perhaps if the British Squadron could withdraw a bit further into the Aegean, not so close to Turkish waters ...

The British were also noticing other signs of Ottoman drift towards the Central Powers. Egypt, under British de facto control since 1882, was still nominally an Ottoman territory, and the British had detected  Ottoman patrols that appeared to be probing the defenses of the Suez Canal.

As the Turks ratified Oberst Weber's closure of the Straits, only the Grand Vizier's conciliatory talk allowed the British to retain their hope that Turkey could be wooed away from its German suitors. But at the opposite end of the Ottoman Empire, similar calculations were at work.

British India was of course the "Jewel in the Crown" of the Empire, and it was no secret the Germans hoped to spark a revolt there; an alliance with the Turkish Sultan might alienate Muslims throughout the Raj. German naval vessels were known to be headed toward the Indian Ocean. And with the Royal Navy converting from coal to oil, the oil concessions of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company at Abadan were increasingly important.

The Abadan oilfields are on an island that lies between the waterway (itself formed by the juncture of the Tigris and Euphrates) known in Arabic as the Shatt al-‘Arab (roughly, coastline of the Arabs) and in Persian as the Arvand Rud, and a channel from the Karun River to the Gulf. This waterway is one of the most contentious border disputes in history, throughout Ottoman-Iranian history and including the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. But that's a post for another day.

In 1914 the Ottomans had an arguable claim (probably voided by a recent treaty with Persia/Iran) to Abadan island. Qajar Iran had the better claim under treaties, but both were pretty theoretical since the island was controlled by the local Sheikh of Muhammara (today Khorramshahr: this is in Iran's largely ethnically Arab Khuzistan), and he had cut a deal with the British and was under British protection.

Though the British Government was was already charting out an occupation of Basra if Turkey entered the war, it tread gingerly at first, occupying Abadan island, which was not recognized generally as Ottoman territory. West of the island in the Shatt/Arvand, it placed a warship, HMS Odin, respecting Turkish neutrality.

The day after Turkey (or Col. Weber) closed the Dardanelles, the Ottoman Vali of Basra informed the British that the Shatt was now considered Turkey's inland waters and that foreign vessels must depart.

HMS Odin left soon thereafter. A British Indian Division would land in November, but only after the Ottomans were formal belligerents.

The status of the Shatt is debatable. The Turkish Straits are the subject of international treaties. Yet despite this, Turkey would remain officially neutral for another month.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sisi in New York: All is Forgiven?

Egyptian President Sisi's visit to New York for the General Assembly has seen him openly supporting the anti-ISIS colition (though has anyone noticed that ISIS spelled backwards is ...oh, never mind). And despite continuing anti-American conspiracy theories in Egyptian media, the US and Egypt seem to be one big happy family again:

Embedded image permalink
And apparently, General Sisi may be covering bases for possible once and future Administrations as well:

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Friends Like These: Asad Regime Paper Cheers US On

The Syrian newspaper al-Watan is not a "state-owned " newspaper but is officially privately owned.  But its private owner is Rami Makhlouf, multi-billionaire, richest man in Syria, and not at all coincidentally the maternal first cousin of Bashar al-Asad. It is, so to speak, not state-owned, but privately owned by the family that owns (what's left of) the state. And it is robustly cheerleading the US and coalition airstrikes against ISIS, claiming Syria is more or less an ally.
"Washington and its Allies are in One Ditch (or Trench) with the Syrian Army Fighting Terrorism." And the subhead above even claims "Damascus reveals prior coordination and cooperation against ISIS and Nusra and the terrorists."

Truth as usual being the first casualty in war, and the Asad regime's tame media never having been trustworthy anyway, I wouldn't put much faith in the coordination claim. Though you never know. You can find the whole text here.

That was the Tuesday issue. And today's edition (full text here), continuing to back the bombing of ISIS and noting that Syria considers this policy the "Correct Direction":

UAE's First Woman Pilot was Squadron Leader for Syrian Airstrikes

It may be a public relations gesture, but it's the kind that gets media attention: The UAE's first female combat pilot flew as a team leader in the airstrikes against Syria.

The National
Major Mariam Al Mansouri, who is an F-16 Squadron Leader, has been the focus of media attention before, including in 2008 when the first women pilots graduated from the Air Force Academy, and earlier this year in a profile in Abu Dhabi's The National, when she was profiled as the first woman operational F-16 pilot.

Its good PR for an increasingly assertive UAE Air Force. They're too polite to say it, but I'm sure I'm not the only one to think, "In Saudi Arabia women still can't drive; in the UAE they drive F-16E/F Block 60s to bomb ISIS."

Rosh Hashanah Wishes

שָׁנָה טוֹבָה
Rosh Hashanah greetings to Jewish readers.

"When You See the Black Banners Advancing from Khurasan": Apocalyptic Imagery (Unscheduled) Part III

When I first heard that the US was bombing an al-Qa‘ida subgroup called "Khorasan," I wondered if here was some mistake, since Khorasan historically extends from northeastern Iran up into Central Asia, a long way from northwestern Syria. But as you might expect, this resonates with our recent posts on apocalyptic end times imagery in ISIS and similar movements. I had planned only Part I on Dabiq and Part II on Sufyani, etc. But here's another of them, as I gradually remembered where my onetime focus on early ‘Abbasid history overlaps with modern jihadi imagery: the black banners advancing from Khurasan (the Arabic spelling; Khorasan in Persian).

Most immediately, the name Khorasan or Khurasan seems to come from the fact that several of the leaders of the group in Syria were chosen by al-Qa‘ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri from leaders of the movement who had been inside Iran (only sometimes tolerated by the Shi‘ite regime) or in Afghanistan and the Pakistani borderlands. They had links to al-Qa‘ida's council for affairs in the Afghan region, the Shura of al-Qa‘ida in the land of Khurasan or the Khurasan Shura. But the choice of "Khurasan" has a deeper resonance.

There is a hadith or tradition of the Prophet Muhammad which most hadith commentators consider weak and probably fabricated,that with some variations usually is cited as something like this:
If you see the black banners coming from the direction of Khurasan, then go to them, even if you have to crawl, because among them will be Allah’s Caliph the Mahdi.
Indeed, as I said, most commentators do not accept this as a real tradition of the Prophet, and many commentators and historians assume it was created to garner support for the ‘Abbasid Revolution which overthrew the Umayyad dynasty in AH 132/AD 750, and which started in Khurasan with a revolt led by a somewhat mysterious figure named Abu Muslim, and whose emblem was indeed a black banner. Some versions of the hadith even include phrases like "they are the sons of al-‘Abbas."  The third ‘Abbasid Caliph (and the father of Harun al-Rashid) took the name al-Mahdi.

Jabhat al-Nusra Flsg
Even if the hadith was a fabrication of the ‘Abbasid propaganda machine, it is ostensibly a prophecy of the end times, and has become popular in jihadist circles. For al-Qa‘ida, jihad begins in the east, Afghanistan and Pakistan, historically part of a sort of Greater Khurasan with a bit of geographical stretching. And jihadism is now seeking to establish itself in the core Arab lands of Iraq and Syria, advancing westward, and, of course, carrying black flags.

ISIS flag
So for al-Qa‘ida Central, moving leaders from the Shura Khurasan to Syria powerfully evokes the image of the black banners advancing from Khurasan to conquer the heartland from the periphery.

And as an aside, some versions of the hadith suggest that the individual fighters in the armies advancing under those black banners will be known not by their given names but by a kunya (the "Father of" name) followed by the nisba name formed from their home town or country. Hence the standard form of the jihadi nom de guerre: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, Abu Mus‘ab al-Suri, Abu Anas al-Libi, and so on.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Apocalypse Now? Part II: Rafidi, Safavi, Sufyani

In Part I of this post, we discussed the growing use of end-times imagery by both sides in the conclict between ISIS and its adversaries, particularly Shi‘ites, and looked in some detail at the term Dabiq, chsen as the name of ISIS' English propaganda magazine. In Part II I want to discuss other terms on both sides of the debate.

And I should note that I'm only discussing historical and eschatological terms here, not conspiracy theories, though there are plenty of those. (ISIS was created by the US according to some, or by (inevitably) Israel ("Caliph Ibrahim" is secretly Jewish, naturally). That's an entirely different sort of fixation.

ISIS, like many jihadi movements before it and some Sunni Islamists, routinely uses Rafidi, a Sunni disparaging term for Shi‘ites. It means "Refuser," as in those who refuse to acknowledge Abu Bakr as the successor to the Prophet, and by extension, the dynasties of Caliphs recognized by Sunnis. In Part I I said they refused to acknowledge the Rightly-Guided Caliphs (Rashidun). A commenter took me to task, noting that ‘Ali is one of the four Rashidun. This is true of course, but in Sunnism he is the fourth Caliph, elected after three successors; in Shi‘ism he is the First Imam,  and the other three Rashidun are seen as usurpers.

Another common slur used by Sunnis (Arabs in particular) is Safawi (Persian Safavi.), after the Iranian dynasty usually known in English as the Safavids. Iran was only partially and sporadically Shi‘ite until the Safavids in the 16th Century AD made it Iran's official religion. The Sunni Ottomans fought a series of wars with the Shi‘ite Safavids, and so when used against Shi‘ites, particularly against Arab Shi‘ites, the term also has the connotation of "Persian," and hence foreign, alien, non-Arab.

Though many Sunni Arabs forget or don't know it, Shi‘ism was Arab long before it put down roots in Iran. Of the 12 Imams, only one is buried in Iran, ‘Ali al-Rida (‘Ali Reza) in Mashhad. Four Imams are buried in Saudi Arabia all in Medina), and six in Iraq (‘Ali in Najaf, Hussein in Karbala, two in Kazimiyya in Baghdad, and two in Samarra.) The 12th, of course, is in occlusion, but he disappeared in Samarra.

Other, stronger disparaging terms may be used against Shi‘ites, or more commonly against more heterodox or esoteric movements like the ‘Alawites, Yazidis and others whose Islamic identities are denied, such as Murtadd (apostate).

But if all the terms used so far have been used by Sunni Islamists, some Shi‘ites with an eschatological bent (and Shi‘ism with its expectation of the return of the Twelfth Imam has a strong eschatological predilection), have applied to ISIS or explicitly to its "Caliph Ibrahim," another term, discussing whether he might be the expected Sufyani,

The Umayyad Caliph who presided over the martyrdom of the Third Imam Hussein ibn ‘Ali was Yazid ibn Mu‘awiya ibn Abi Sufyan. Yazid is the greatest villain in the Shi‘ite narrative, and the entire Umayyad dynasty, and particularly the descendants of Abu Sufyan (who until his conversion was the Prophet's greatest adversary) are excoriated in the Shi‘ite tradition. Shi‘ites never use the name Yazid or Sufyan, except as curses.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that Shi‘ite eschatology evolved the idea of a descendent of Yazid
id who would appear (in Syria!) in the end times to fight against Imam Mahdi, the Sufyani. He is distinct from the Dajjal, and is generally believed to be a direct literal descendant of Yazid.

"Caliph Ibrahim" has declared his descent from the tribe of Quraysh, and many Shi‘ites are wondering
if he is the Sufyani. Shiachat has a forum topic on whether ISIS or al-Baghdadi is the Sufyani; this strange Nostradamus/Prophecy site picks upon the theme; and other s appear to be vetting Baghdadi's Qurayshi line.

Obviously, if people on both sides think they're living in the end times, it can mean trouble. I'm not trying to be alarmist, but I thought the growing evidence of these themes deserved attention.

Arabic Diglossia Again (and Again, and Again)

People keep rediscovering what we all know: a SOAS Ph.D. candidate enlightens Slate on a subject we've talked about extensively: "Is Arabic Just One Language?"

Since this will be the 43rd blogpost here with the tag "diglossia," it won't be that big a piece of news to most of you. It's mostly well-enough informed (we can all find quibbles) and perhaps some will learn from it.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Huthis, Zaydis, and Trying to Get the Yemen Story Right

Though overshadowed by events elsewhere, major developments have taken place in Yemen. The Houthi or Huthi movement, after years of resistance to the Transitional Government in Sana‘a', has signed a peace agreement, and now seem to have fully occupied the Yemen capital.

For general background, see my MEI Colleague Charles Schmitz' "The Huthi Asccnt to Power," which covers the basics. But I also want to revisit a point I made over five years ago in a post about the Huthis and Zaydism in August 2009: If you insist on interpreting Yemen in dualist Sunni/Shi‘ite terms, you're going to mislead. For years media analysis interpreted the struggle between the Huthis and President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih's regime in precisely those terms, though like the Huthis, Dalih was a Zaydi. He was a republican Zaydi but a Zaydi nonetheless.

And Zaydis are Shi‘ites in the sense that traditional Zaydis insist on rule by the Sada, the descendants of the Prophet (they are called "Fiver" Shi‘ites by some, but generslly do not restrict the Imamate to a single line), but they are not Twelver Shi‘ites like Iranians, Iraqis, and Lebanese and Bahrainis. I'm not a Yemen specialist and have never even set foot in the country, but the tendency to identify the Huthi struggle as a simple Sunni versus Shi‘ite dichotomy is just wrong. Saudi Arabia has long had a somewhat excessive focus on Yemen, and separately and for different reasons on Twelver Shi‘ism, and I suspect the Saudi perspective has influenced much of the media commentary.

Now that the Huthis seem to have taken over the capital, we'll see what comes next, but Yemen is a mix of Zaydi revivalists (the Huthis), Zaydi traditionalists, Sunni Salafis, Sunni secular republicans, and even jihadis like AQAP. It doesn't resolve itself into neat sectarian dichotomies.

Refugee Tsunami and Mysteries of Hostage Release Focus World Attenrtion on Turkish Border

The huge tide of over 130,000 Syrian refugees crossing the Turkish border, combined with other rapidly shifting developments, is focusing the world's attention on the Turkish border, Where the US and other Western countries are also seeking to stem the flow of arms and recruits to ISIS and other radical groups, with the bulk of such recruits believed to be entering via Turkey.

Adding to the sheer size of the refugee flow is the fact that most of the refugees are Syrian Kurds, with longstanding ties to the Turkish PKK and thus seen by Turkey as a potential threat, while at the same time there have been clashes with PKK supporters seeking to enter Syria to relieve the siege of Kobanê.

Despite Western pressure, Turkey's government remains aloof from the US-led coalition, for a variety of reasons, well-stated by Henri Barkey at Foreign Policy in "How the Islamic State Took Turkey Hostage."

One bit of mystery was the sudden freeing of the 49 hostages (43 Turks and three Iraqis) held by ISIS since the fall of Mosul in June. When released a few days ago, the Turkish government credited a "rescue operation" conceived by Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT), with some ill-defined "diplomatic" role and a staunch denial that any ransom had been paid. A lot of eyebrows were justifiably raised. The Turkish military also claimed  role.

An article at Al-Monitor by Metin Turcan, "How and Why were 46 Turkish Hostages Freed?"  I obviously cant testify to its accuracy, but among the assertions is this:
Three plans were developed for the rescue of the hostages: a military operation, persuasion through contacts with IS or paying ransom. Turkish intelligence officials were in close contact with IS in Mosul, with the Army of Naqshbandi dominated by former Baath cadres and with the Council of Mosul Tribes. The plan for a military operation was shelved after establishing close contacts with influential Sunni Arab tribes in Mosul who have been friendly to Turkey for many years. Turkey’s close liaison with the Mosul tribes was never a secret.
On the curious alliance between ex-Baathists, the Naqshbandi Order, and ISIS, see my earlier post, "Strange Bedfellows: ‘Izzat Ibrahim, the Naqshbandi Order, and ISIS." I have no idea how accurate the report is, but clearly it's these sort of links between Turkey and rather sketchy elements inside Syria and that bothers many in the West.

Wagemakers on Jihadist Criticisms of ISIS Beheadings

Joas Wagemaker at Jihadica notes that two prominent radical Jihadist thinkers are criticizing ISIS for its public beheadings of journalists and aid workers; Abu Qatada al-Filastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, both prominent theorists of Jihadism, have been weighing in.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Souag Beats Dead Horse, Kicks it Over Goal Posts

Or hits it out of the park. Lameen Souag is a linguist I quote from time to time, as I did a week ago tonight, on whether spoken Levantine is closer to Arabic or Aramaic. His latest,
Zombie hypotheses and the Zeitgeist, is more common sense.

I do hope that as a linguist he gives  points for my utterly inappropriate sports metaphors and hyperbole, especially in the title, even though as an Algerian educated in London and working in Paris he may have no clue what they mean.

The Threat to Kobanê: Will Air Strikes Expand into Syria?

This piece at Al-Monitor about how Yazidis, Christians, and other minorities in northern Iraqi are asking to be armed and trained to fight ISIS may be particularly timely, since ISIS is currently threatening to take the city of Kobanê, a mixed town of Kurds, Turkmen, Armenians and Syriac Christians. Rather like Amerli, which was besieged by ISIS until US airstikes nd Iraqi ground roop lifted the siege, there are fears of a massacre of the minorities if  Kobanê, (which is also spelled Kobani and is known by the Arabic name of ‘Ayn al-‘Arab), falls to ISIS.

There is one big problem:  Kobanê is in Syria, not Iraq, and no one is yet bombing targets in Syria. The town has been under the control of the People's Protection Units (YPG), Kurdish Syrian Peshmerga. ISIS is reportedly using armored vehicles in attacking the town, forces the YPG cannot possibly match.

KRG President Barzani is calling on the world to prevent a massacre, and Turkey's PKK is also calling for support for the besieged town.

The danger to the town and threat of a massacre seems certain to increase pressure on the US to expand its air strikes into Syria.

France Joins in Bombing ISIS

The French, who previously had been carrying out reconnaissance missions, have now begun carrying out air strikes against ISIS in northern Iraq by striking a depot.

The aircraft were French Rafales.  France has a base with Rafales at the al-Dhafra air base in Abu Dhabi.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Kurds and the Scots: Everybody's Op-ed Today?

I thought it would be worth a comparison but apparently every op-ed editor on earth thought so, too. I guess it was inevitable for everyone from Kurds to Scots to Middle East analysts to draw the obvious parallels today

Robin Wright at the WSJ blog: "Will Scotland, and Kurdistan, Break Away?"

NYT: "From Kurdistan to Texas, Scots Spur Separatists."

Kurdish news site Rudaw: "World Kurds and Catalans Look to Scotland for Success."

Think Scotland: "Kurdistan: Are there lessons for Scottish identity?"

Hurriyet Daily News:"Turks, Kurds in Scotland eagerly awaiting independence referendum"

So I guess it's been done

Does UNDOF have a Future?

With the withdrawal of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force from the Disengagement Zone and behind the Israeli line of control earlier this week, what happens next? For 40 years UNDOF watched over a quasi-border that was normally quiet, and provided a crossing point for Golan Druze to visit relatives on the Syrian side of the disengagement lines.

Current UNDOF Deployments (UN)
But now, the 1,250 peacekeepers are concentrated in Camp Ziouani just west of Line A, the forward line of Israeli control (see map at right). Prospects of restoring its peacekeeping mission seem dim so long as the Syrian civil war is raging just to the east, and Israelis are speculating that this could mark the end of UNDOF. (And they're noting the likelihood of an eventual Israeli withdrawal from Golan just became more remote.)

Though ISIS is getting all the attention, I think the end of a peacekeeping force in place since 1974 (if this is the end) is another ominous sign of the momentous changes the region is going through.

Brief Note to my Scots Readers: Either Way You Go, Alba gu bràth

There's Scots and "Scotch-Irish" in my DNA, and I like to think about Bannockburn and Culloden, Wallace and the Bruce and Bonnie Prince Charlie, but romanticism has its limits in the age of the EU.

I have no vote in this, but think I'd vote "no" if I did, and in any event I plan to raise a glass (I think there's a dust-covered bottle of Laphroaig in the basement somewhere, though I rarely touch the hard stuff these days) and toast Alba gu bràth (Scotland forever, for the Saxons among you, and cognate for you Irish ti Eireinn go bragh).

In the British Empire's high period the Highland regiments were the elite vanguards of Empire, though themselves no longer independent, a memory with a Middle Eastern theme in the pipe tune, "The Barren Rocks of Aden"

And the haunting, Lallans Scots tune, "the 51st highland Regiment's Farewell to Sicily," AKA "Banks of Sicily," here sung by Ewan MacColl:

Proof that Lallans (Lowland Scots)  is related to English but at times mutually incomprehensible.

And finally, an early rendition of the Corries' modern song Flower of Scotland, already the unofficial national anthem st sporting events, and sure to be heard a lot whichever way the vote goes:

I dearly love the lines "That stood against him/Proud Edward's Army/And Sent them homeward/tae think again."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Apocalypse Now? Dabiq, Rafidi, Safavi, Sufyani: The First Century AH Returns With a Vengeance, Part I: Dabiq

At times the growing chaos in the Middle East must seem almost apocalyptic, and it's hardly surprising that some fundamentalist evangelical Christians are seeing signs of Armageddon, though hardly for the first time. Outside the Islamic world, many may have overlooked the growing apocalyptic discourse among radical Sunni and radical Shi‘ite theorists who are also playing the apocalypse game.

Hardline Shi‘ites since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 have been talking about the imminent return of Imam Mahdi, and Ayatollah Khamene'i  has sometimes endorsed the idea that the return of the Twelfth Imam was imminent. Sunnism has been less end-times oriented, at least since 1979, which corresponded to 1400 AH, and led to a self-proclaimed Sunni Mahdi seizing the Haram in Mecca.

But hey, the end times are back with a vengeance. Now that "the Caliphate" claims to have been "restored" by people the Caliphs would probably have executed quickly, the apocalypse has also made a comeback. Others have noted this already (see for example here and here). There's some danger in putting too much emphasis on this, and it's hard to be certain how seriously those using this language genuinely believe it and to what extent they're using it to rally the base. I thought it worth some comment, however.

There are moments when an education in early Islamic history and a modern career in defense and policy issues suddenly converge. Back during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s I was working full-time on Middle Eastern defense issues and simultaneously teaching a course in the Theology Department at Georgetown on the Development of Islamic Religious Thought. When someone would suggest that the combination of military matters and theology didn't mesh well, I would note that you wouldn't understand the war communiques without understanding the first century of Islam. Iraq called its campaign "Saddam's Qadisiyya" after the Arab defeat of Sassanian Persia, while Iran named many of its campaigns "Karbala'' after the martyrdom (in Iraq) of the Third Imam. In short, Saddam used First Century AH imagery to portray it as an Arab-Persian War, while Iran was seeking to portray it as a Shi‘ite-Sunni War. Neither, however, at the time, except from some extreme Shi‘ites eventually disavowed by Khomeini, explicitly saw it as an end-times war. I suspect ISIS, too, is using the jargon like an Evangelical preacher warning the End is Nigh, or as a recruiting tactic than a doctrine. But what the recruits believe may be another matter.

There is also a longstanding practice among jihadis of this sort of anachronistic terminology, such as the frequent use of "Crusaders" (Salibiyyin) to describe the Western presence in the Middle East.

Today, we find ISIS calling its English-language magazine Dabiq, after a battle expected in the last days between "the Romans" and the believers. and thus a sort of Sunni version of Armageddon; they and other jihadis routinely refer to Shi‘ites as either Rafidi, (those who reject, as in rejecting the authority of Abu Bakr and the Rightly-Guided Caliphs), or (especially for the Iraqi government and army), Safawi, after the Safavid dynasty that made Iran officially Shi‘ite in the 16th century and thus equivalent to calling Iraqi Shi‘ites "Persians").

Not to be outdone or out-apocalypsed,  there has been some debate in Shi‘ite religious forums about whether Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ("Caliph Ibrahim") might be the Sufyani, sort of Sunni antichrist figure in Shi‘ite end-times tradition who will appear before the coming of Imam Mahdi.

Except for Safawi, all these terms derive their meanings or implications from events in the first century of the Hijra. Let's talk a bit about each. Today's Part I will deal with Dabiq.


Dabiq, ISIS' magazine, is a professional-looking, well-edited magazine, well laid out with color photos, like a glossy travel magazine (except for beheadings).

It has been compared (usually favorably) to Al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula's similarly slick Inspire. You can even find issue 1 at Internet Archive. Issue two, with the suitably apocalyptic Noah's Flood on the cover, doesn't seem to be at internet Archive but can be found on many sites, such as here, though jihadi website browsing may attract questions.

But why Dabiq? Students of Islamic history may assume it has something to do with the locality known as Marj Dabiq (the Meadow of Dabiq), which took its name from the nearby Syrian town of Dabiq,  near the Turkish border 44 km northwest of Aleppo, and played a major role twice in Islamic history. First, in AD 717, it was the site where the Umayyad Army under Maslama b, ‘Abd al-Malik, brother of the Caliph Sulayman, prior to invading the Byzantine Empire by land and sea and threatening Constantinople. Secondly, it was the site of the Battle of Marj Dabiq in 1516, when the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks and brought Egypt and the Levant under Ottoman control.

While the usage refers to the Syrian town of Dabiq, it does not directly relate to the events of 717 or 1516, though both reflect the towns role as a border region, just as today it is near the Turkish-Syrian border.  Rather it refers to a tradition of the Prophet concerning the last days, of which this version from the Sahih Muslim hadith collection offers a fairly full account:
Abu Huraira reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The Last Hour would not come until the Romans would land at al-A'maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them). When they will arrange themselves in ranks, the Romans would say: Do not stand between us and those (Muslims) who took prisoners from amongst us. Let us fight with them; and the Muslims would say: Nay, by Allah, we would never get aside from you and from our brethren that you may fight them. They will then fight and a third (part) of the army would run away, whom Allah will never forgive. A third (part of the army). which would be constituted of excellent martyrs in Allah's eye, would be killed and the third who would never be put to trial would win and they would be conquerors of Constantinople. And as they would be busy in distributing the spoils of war (amongst themselves) after hanging their swords by the olive trees, the Satan would cry: The Dajjal has taken your place among your family. They would then come out, but it would be of no avail. And when they would come to Syria, he would come out while they would be still preparing themselves for battle drawing up the ranks. Certainly, the time of prayer shall come and then Jesus (peace be upon him) son of Mary would descend and would lead them in prayer. When the enemy of Allah would see him, it would (disappear) just as the salt dissolves itself in water and if he (Jesus) were not to confront them at all, even then it would dissolve completely, but Allah would kill them by his hand and he would show them their blood on his lance (the lance of Jesus Christ).  Sahih Muslim 6924
So there you have it: the original hadith (there are multiple versions) seems to assume the Romans (that is, the Byzantines) will still control Constantinople down to the end times, at which point Dabiq or perhaps  al-A‘maq (which the geographer Yaqut in his Mu‘jam al-Buldan says is nearby), there will be a great battle between the Romans and the Muslims, complete with the Dajjal (the Antichrist figure in Muslim eschatology) and the return of the Prophet Jesus. In some versions, the (Sunni) Mahdi also plays a role.

It is, in short, the equivalent of the biblical Battle of Armageddon in he Book of Revelation.

Happy 213th Birthday to Edward William Lane

Longtime readers will recall that every year on September 17,  I note the birthday of Edward William Lane (1801-1876), the author of The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon, a translation of the Arabian Nights, and Cairo 50 Years Ago (edited by his nephew, Stanley Lane-Poole). Manners and Customs remains an essential description of daily life in Egypt in the age of Muhammad ‘Ali, and the Lexicon is unique in English. Lane, his sister Sophia Lane Poole and nephew Stanley Lane-Poole (with a hyphen unlike his mother) formed a sort of dynasty of British writers on Egypt, Arabic, and Islam.

As an old Cairo hand, I am privileged to share a birthday with Lane, so I always make note of his. Unlike him, I am not (yet) 213.

I believe all of Lane's works are now available online through Google Books, Internet Archive, etc., and earlier posts have linked to most. may not previously have linked to his nephew Stanley's Life of Edward William Lane, so  I add that this year.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

After 40 Years, UNDOF Withdraws Behind Line "A" in Golan: Nusra Now Occupies Disengagement Zone

Yesterday the United Nations announced:
The situation in UNDOF on the Syrian side and the area of separation has deteriorated severely over the last several days.
Armed groups have made advances in the area of UNDOF positions, posing a direct threat to the safety and security of the UN Peacekeepers along the “Bravo” line and in Camp Faouar.
All the UN personnel in these positions have thus been relocated to the “Alpha” side.
UNDOF continues to use all available assets to carry out its mandated tasks in this exceptionally challenging environment.
Deciphered from opaque UN-ese (which is probably why this has been little commented upon in the Western media), this means that UNDOF has completely withdrawn from the Golan disengagement force zone it has held since 1974 and into Israeli-controlled territory. There is nothing between the Israel Defense Forces and Jabhat al-Nusra, though UNDOF  says it will "carry out its mandated tasks."

Put that way, it sounds a bit more dangerous, doesn't it?  Line A is the line east of which Israeli forces are prohibited; line B the line west of which Syrian forces are (or were) prohibited; UNDOF controlled the territory between the two. Now, it appears Jabhat al-Nusra does.

And Syria's Ambassador to the UN Bashar Jaafari is claiming:
"The terrorists are now using United Nations cars, which hold the emblem of the United Nations forces in the Golan. They are using the uniform of the UNDOF, the weapons of UNDOF, the positions of UNDOF to shell on the Syrian army as well as on the civilians in villages," Jaafari told reporters.
Other reports seem to support this.

The Buffer is Gone
While the Israeli media has been on this for obvious reasons, I suspect that the UN statement about "Line Bravo" and "Line Alpha" meant little to most reporters. But a disengagement line created in 1974 (40 years ago) just effectively disappeared.

All this follows the recent release of the Fijian UNDOF peacekeepers captured by Nusra, and amid reports originating with Asharq al-Awsat quoting Syrian opposition sources as claiming Qatar paid a $20 million or more ransom to free the Fijians. (Given the current rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Saudi claims about Qatar may include disinformation; Fiji says it knows nothing about any ransom.)

The withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from a longstanding disengagement zone after 40 years would normally be considered a major crisis (threat level: holy shit!), but with the front porch on fire and all eyes on ISIS, no one was watching the back.

Well, Israel is of course, but whether that's reassuring or part of the danger remains to be seen.

Belatedly Noting Coptic New Year 1731

This year I failed to note Coptic New Year (Neyrouz) on September 11, though I have done so in previous years, so belatedly I'll refer you to this story: "Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities celebrates New Coptic Year." 

The year just begun is AM (Year of the Martyrs) 1731. The calendar is Julian and dates from the persecution of Diocletian in AD 284.

It's also the New Year for Ethiopians and Eritreans, though the years are computed differently. Ahram Online added this graphic of the Ancient Egyptian calendar, from which the Coptic derives: