A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, May 26, 2017

Ramadan Karim

A Blessed Ramadan to all my Muslim readers,

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

June 22-23.1967: Closing the Straits of Tiran


If there was a turning point in the tense weeks preceding the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, it was surely the closing of the Strait of Tiran on May 22-23, 1967. In 1956-57, at the end of the Suez War, Israel refused to withdraw its troops from Sinai unless Egypt guaranteed free passage of the Gulf of Aqaba (the only access to Israel’s port of Eilat) and that the border be guarded by the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). After Nasser ordered UNEF out of Sinai and Gaza, pressure increased to close the Strait.

Israel immediately made it clear that any closure of the Strait would violate the right of innocent passage under international law and would be considered an act of war. On May 23 much of the worlf realized that, intentionally or not, Nasser had provided Israel with the casus belli it needed to justify first strike.

Foreign Minister Abba Eban was on a series of peace missions to the UN and Western Europe. Some historians have suggested that Eban, in his effort to win support, may have underplayed Israel’s willingness to strike first, leading others to underestimate the urgency of the crisis.

Rhe US under Lyndon Johnson came up with a bright (?) idea of forming an intentional flotilla codenamed Operation Flotilla. It would take a while to assemble. There would not be time.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Lights are Going Out All Over the Levant

NASA nighttime photos, 2012 and 2017. Aleppo alone is stunning.






Sunday, May 21, 2017

Just Saying: This May Not be the Best Photo-Op When You've Been Talking About Witch Hunts

I'm just saying.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

May 1967: The Soviet Warning; Egypt Orders UNEF Out of Sinai

Part III of my posts on the origins of the ‘Aqaba campaign will appear soon, but along with the 100th anniversary of that campaign coincide with the 50th anniversary of an even more decisive moment in Middle Eastern history.

On May 13, 1967, Egyptian diplomats in the then Soviet Union communicated to Cairo stating that Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Semenov was warning Egypt (still officially known as the UAR), that the Soviets had detected a major Israeli buildup on the Syrian border, and that they expected Israel to launch a ground and air attack on Syria between May 17 and 21. While urging Egypt and Syria not to provoke Israel, there was one problem: there was no such buildup. Soon after the May 13 warning, Anwar Sadat (then Speaker of Parliament) visited Moscow with a Parliamentary delegation and received the same warning. Between May 15 and 19 Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko briefed all the Arab Ambassadors in Moscow with the same warning.

The question of what Moscow's motives were remains controversial, and I'll return to the question later. But what made the warning particularly incendiary was that it came at a particularly explosive moment.

And 50 years ago late on May 16, Gamal Abdel Nasser, sensitive to Syrian charges that he was "hiding" behind the United Nations Emergency Force in Sinai (UNEF), sent word to the UNEF Commander via the Egyptian Chief of Staff demanding that UNEF withdraw from Sinai and the Gaza Strip. The UNEF Commander referred the issue to Secretary General U Thant. Even before Thant could respond, Egyptian forces began moving into Sinai.

As with many wars in history, the seeds of the 1967 War lay in the settlement of the previous war, the Suez Conflict. To facilitate the withdrawal of British, French, and Israeli forces from Sinai and Gaza, UNEF was created. Intended to deploy on both sides of the 1949 ceasefire line (roughly today's international border). Israel refused to have UN peacekeepers on their side of the border. As a result, UNEF deployed only on the Egyptian side, and when withdrawn in 1967, there was no force to separate the two sides.

While UNEF provided security on the Egyptian and Gaza fronts, Israel continued to engage on the Syrian and Jordanian fronts (Jordan was still in control of the West Bank). Each side engaged in provocation of the other. Israel periodically tested its rights in the small demilitarized zones on the Syrian border, sending armored but unarmed tractors into the zone, where they were frequently met with shelling from Syrian artillery on the Golan Heights.

The Soviets began accusing Israel of plotting an attack in the Fall of 1966. On November 8, 1966, Egypt and Syria signed a joint defense pact. Five days later, in response to a land mine attack that killed three Israeli soldiers, Israel staged a border raid against the West Bank town of al-Samu, demolishing many houses there. This in turn led to riots against King Hussein, who in turn taunted Nasser for sheltering behind his UNEF protectors. Disputes over the waters of the Yarmuk and Upper Jordan were also intensifying.

On April 7, 1967, Israel began to cultivate three plots of land in the southern Demilitarized Zone near Kibbutz Ha'on. Israel had mobilized ground troops and alerted its Air Force, expecting to provoke a response. When two tractors began plowing and the Syrians predictably responded with artillery fire, IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin was authorized to launch air strikes. The strike aircraft broke off their attack when Syrian MiGs came up to meet them and were replaced with Israeli fighters. As the day wore on the largest air dogfight since Suez ensued; at the end at least six MiGs had been shot down.

In the wake of the dogfight, both Syria and Jordan escalated their criticisms of Egypt; Nasser, the self-proclaimed prophet of Arab unity, was vulnerable on this issue.

Israeli PM Levi Eshkol issued a stern warning to Syria against further provocations.

May 15 marked Israel's 19th independence day under the Western calendar, and a military parade was scheduled in the western (Israeli) side of Jerusalem. Since no country recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, that itself elicited outrage in the Arab world, Israel sought to defuse the situation (slightly) by not parading tanks or other heavy equipment.

And it was at this exact point that the Soviet warning threw a lit match into the explosive situation, provoking Nasser to order the UNEF withdrawal.

We'll look more closely at Soviet motives in a post coming soon.

Monday, May 15, 2017

April Longley Alley Revisits Yemen

April Longley Alley, the International Crisis Group's Senior Analyst for the Arabian Peninsula and a specialist on Yemen, has visited Sana‘a for the first time in two years. Her report is of interest to Americans who studiously ignore the war in Yemen: The Counter-productive Isolation of Proud and Hungry Sanaa

Origins of the ‘Aqaba Campaign, Part II


Newcombe
It has now been almost a week since my first post on the origins of the ‘Aqaba expedition in 1917.

After the occupation of the Red Sea coast port of Wejh by the Royal Navy and the Arab Revolt in January 1917, the gradual advance up the Red Sea Coast had been put on pause, while the main British force out of Egypt advanced across Sinai, extending both the railway and a freshwater pipeline as it moved. In the meantime the Arab Revolt troops, advised by British advisors Stewart Newcombe, P.F.Joyce, and a diminutive young intelligence officer from Cairo named T.E. Lawrence, had begun a series of raids against the Hejaz Railway, the main Ottoman supply link to its garrison in the holy city of Medina.

But David Lloyd George was impatient to speed up their advance into Palestine; and after the Second Battles of Gaza, between May and July 1917, the Arab Bedouin forces under Prince Faisal ibn al-Hussein would embark on a campaign which would capture the imagination of the world, even if its military significance was limited. This was the capture of the last Ottoman seaport town on the Red Sea, ‘Aqaba, at the southernmost tip of Palestine (Jordan today). ‘Aqaba was a small village — it would take multiple wars in Iraq to turn it into the giant shipping center it is today — Jordan's only seaport.

The idea of taking ‘Aqaba was self-evident. It would complete the Royal Navy's control of the Red Sea, allow closer supply by sea to the Arab Revolt, and cover the rear right flank of General Murray's (soon to be General Allenby's) campaign.  But who would take it?

The idea found an early advocate in France's military advisor to the Arab Revolt, Édouard Brémond, proposed landing French troops from British ships. Reginald Wingate in Egypt liked the idea, but Murray was fiercely opposed, saying it was premature. Sykes-Picot was already in existence, but the British, suspicious of French motives, wanted to protect their options in ‘Aqaba, which they considered a potential forward defense for the Suez Canal. They and their Arab allies also suspected France wanted to use ‘Aqaba as a means of blocking the Arab Revolt from expanding into Syria, where France had colonial ambitions.

So conflicting colonialisms were blocking a decision to take ‘Aqaba, though there was little military impediment to doing so. 

Prince Faisal also had ambitions toward ‘Aqaba. But he was suspicious of British and French intentions (justly so), while they did not want the Arab Revolt in‘Aqaba without them.

Late in 2017 British ships had put a landing party ashore at ‘Aqaba, and taken some prisoners, but they continued to resist occupation.

Meanwhile, Newcombe had devised a new strategy in lieu of occupying ‘Aqaba. The Bedouin Arab Army, working with Egyptian troops, would occupy a position along the Hejaz railway, near the Nabatean ruins at Mada'in Salih in what is now northwestern Saudi Arabia. Here, they could blockthe railway and cut Medina off from Syria, leaving it to be picked off.

Lawrence at Wejh, 1917
T.E. Lawrence opposed the idea. A short, physically unimpressive captain in military intelligence, he had met Faisal late in 1916 and Faisal had become depend on him for military advice.

Lawrence is surrounded by much mythology (for which he is partly but not exclusively responsible), but he was undeniably an innovative military thinker. He sought to apply military theory to traditional desert warfare. As a student hr had closely studied Crusader castles, and as an archaeologist/covert intelligence officer he had familiarized himself with many of the sites, including ‘Aqaba, where he would campaign.

Lawrence was convinced the Mada'in Salih campaign was misguided. The tribes and the Egyptians would not work well together; the force would be open to Turkish attacks from all four directions; and Lawrence was opposed to taking Medina outright, preferring to leave it in Turkish hands and bleed them through attrition, attacking and reducing their rail supply line without cutting it entirely. The Ottomans would not voluntarily give up the second holiest city in Islam, and it would cost little to keep them tied down.

But Lawrence could still not sell an ‘Aqaba alternative. On March 8 Gilbert Clayton, the intelligence chief in Cairo, explicitly ordered Lawrence and others that a move by Faisal on ‘Aqaba "was not desirable at this time."

But there were some who had other ideas. That will be Part III.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

May 9, 1917: Origins of the ‘Aqaba Campaign, Part I

A century ago today, on May 9, 1917, a small party of 45 Arab men and a single Englishman rode out of the Red Sea port of Wejh into the desert country to the north. The small raiding party was ostensibly going on a typical raiding expedition of the Arab Revolt. The overall Arab commander, Prince Faisal, knew where they were headed, but the Arab Army's British and French advisors did not. In fact, the one British officer accompanying them knew, but just two months before had been explicitly ordered against such a venture, an order not yet rescinded. The Englishman was T.E. Lawrence; the tactical commander of the raid was the most famous tribal warrior in northern Arabia and southern Syria, the Howeitat chieftain ‘Auda Abu Tayeh; and their goal was the last Red Sea port under Ottoman occupation, ‘Aqaba.

You've heard of ‘Aqaba, of course. Its capture is the centerpiece of the first half of David Lean's epic 1962 Lawrence of Arabia. As I've noted before, the film takes considerable liberties with historical fact and may be a better movie for it. Surely the six foot two inch Peter O'Toole is a more heroic cinematic presence than the five foot five inch Lawrence would have been, but the blond hair and blue eyes are right. And Anthony Quinn was no Arab and his real role is if anything shortchanged, but he's a memorable ‘Auda Abu Tayeh.

And I'm sure if you know anything about the fall of ‘Aqaba, it probably is derived from one of the great scenes in epic cinema, as the attackers charge down a long plain, ride through the Turkish guard post and the awakening camp, and then, with the theme song rising in the background, fan out through the village and ride down to the sea in triumph. it's a hell of a memorable scene. If you've never seen the movie (what's wrong with you?), here it is:

As cinema, it's magnificent. As history, not so much. Nothing remotely like the above actually took place. The actual battle took place many miles to the north at Abu al-Lissal, nowhere near the sea.. There were no fixed guns pointed out to sea that could not be turned (that was Singapore in 1942); in fact the Royal Navy routinely shelled ‘Aqaba and had even put a landing party ashore in late 1916 and taken prisoners, some of whom defected. And as shown, Lawrence was riding a camel and firing a pistol, but in reality he accidentally shot his mount in the head and was injured when it threw him.

The actual history is less cinematic, but worthy of telling. in Part II, I hope later today I'll begin the tale.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

May 1967: The Approach to War

Half a Century ago next month, the post-World War II Middle East was transformed, so much so that many of the assumptions made before June 5, 1967 had been turned topsy-turvy by June 10, 1967.

The Six-Day War has been examined in detail every year since this blog began in 2009, in one aspect or another, as it will this year as well. But the buildup to the June War had been building for the years since the 1956 Suez War, and tensions had been escalating for the past year, and especially in the months of April and May. Provocations were launched by both sides, though at the time Israel had considerable success at portraying itself a the primary victim.

But the weeks leading up to the war were an object lesson in how countries stumble into war. What Nasser saw as an opportunity to gain political prestige, Israel saw as an opportunity, perhaps a transitory one, to transform the balance of power.

One of my predecessors as Middle East Journal Editor, the late Ambassador Richard Parker, once wrote a book about the 1967 War called "The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East." It summarizes quite well he runup to the 1967 War, which I plan to be tracing in detail throughout the month of May.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Red Sunday at 102: Has the World Learned Anything?

On April 24, 1915, one day before the British  landings on the Gallipoli peninsula, Ottoman authorities under orders from the  Interior Minister, Talaat Pasha, rounded up Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople and deported them to the east. This event, which came to be known as "Red Sunday," has traditionally been seen as the beginning of the Armenian removals and subsequent massacres, and April 24 is now commemorated as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day,  a national holiday in Armenia, also marked in Lebanon, California, and elsewhere. Though numbers are still controversial, a number of 1.5 million dead is widely accepted.

The Armenian tragedy has had echoes throughout the 102 years since Red Sunday. In 1921, Talaat Pasha, with both British and Russian intelligence trying to locate him, was assassinated by an Armenian revolutionary. The following year, Djemal Pasha, a second member of the CUP triumvirate, who had been Governor of Syria, where most Armenians died, and had fled to Afghanistan, was sent to Tiflis in the Soviet Union (today Tbilisi in Georgia) to negotiate with the Bolsheviks. There, he too was assassinated by Armenian nationalists. In the course of 1920-1922, the Armenian revenge movement known as Operation Nemesis, assassinated seven former senior Ottoman officials.

One of the most notorious invocations of the Armenian Genocide is attributed to Adolf Hitler as war broke out  in Europe in 1939, on August 22, 10 days before attacking Poland, Hitler spoke to his Wehrmacht generals at a meeting in Obersalzburg. At Nuremberg, several variant transcripts were in evidence, but some contained the line, in urging his generals to treat Poland harshly in order to provide Lebensraum for Germany, "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" (Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier?)

Like almost everything about the Armenian tragedy,the quote itself has been challenged, but its implication that Hitler might have moved from the Vernichtung of the Armenians to the European Holocaust is frequently cited.

In the 102 years from April 24, 1915 to today, genocide has reared its head many times, from Cambodia to Rwanda, and massive population displacement has become commonplace. It seems humanity has learned little. On this Armenian Remembrance Day, Armenians worldwide will take note, but non-Armenians may wish to pause and reflect as well.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

April 17-19, 1917: The Second Battle of Gaza, First Use of Tanks and Poison Gas in Middle East

Of eight Mark I tanks at 2nd Gaza, Turkish fire destroyed three
The past three days mark the 100th anniversary of the Second Battle of Gaza, part of the Palestine Campaign in World War I. In an ironic echo of the present, it also marked the first use of poison gas in the Middle East campaign, as well as the first use of tanks.

As we saw in discussing the First Battle of Gaza in March (Part I and Part II), the British command in effect snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by ordering a retreat, despite the fact that ANZAC Mounted troops were already in the midst of Gaza town. They feared the arrival of Turkish reinforcements and the fall of darkness.

The overall commanders, Egyptian Expeditionary Force commander General Sir Archibald Murray, and Eastern Force Commander General Sir Charles Dobell began preparing for another attempt. Both minimized the first loss in their reports and predicted a successful second attack. Both men in effect were putting their reputations on the line.

After the first battle, the Ottoman forces had be reinforced. There were now three regiments defending Gaza proper, with additional regiments at Hareira (now Tel Haror in Israel)nd others at other points along the road between Gaza and Beersheba. The Ottomans and their German allies had fortified a series of trenches interspersed with strong defensive redoubts and enfilading fire. New German aircraft had arrived, making the air war component more equal. Both sides had discovered the advantages of aircraft in open desert reconnaissance.

Meanwhile, the British had been reinforced with two weapons already in use on the Western Front: a supply of poison gas shells, in this case containing a 50/50 blend of phosgene and chlorine gas; and eight Mark I tanks. The Mark I was the British first generation tank introduced in 1915. Though history would prove desert to be excellent tank country in future wars, the gullies and arroyos around Gaza and the Turkish trenches made it hard to pass; and the Mark I had a maximum speed of only six kilometers per hour and a tendency to break down. Of the eight tanks, two were knocked out in the opening attack and a third later. And though the Turks had no gas masks, the gas attack, when launched, reportedly dissipated in the desert air without significant effect.

Dobell favored a direct frontal attack, accompanied by a swing to the right around the main Gaza lines by the Desert Column. Desert Column Commander Sir Philip Chetwode and ANZAC Commander Harry Chauvel expressed doubts, favoring an attack on the coastal flank of the Turkish lines.

On April 17 and 18, the advance began with the British infantry advancing from the Wadi Ghuzze to engage the forward Turkish outposts. Turkish resistance was fierce and after two days of fighting, they were at their desired position but had captured only outlying outposts.
The fighting on the 19th was complex and need not be described in tactical detail. Resistance was fierce and casualties mounted. British and Empire forces succeeded in penetrating the Ottoman lines in several places, but each time they were met with counterattack which drove them back. The next morning, British positions were bombed by German aircraft, and Turkish cavalry was massing near Hareira. It was decided to withdraw. Losses were high, and the defeat more decisive than in the first battle.

Aftermath


With its manpower depleted, the EEF campaign to take Jerusalem was put on hold. Murray decided to make the Canadian Dobell the scapegoat. He was relieved of command and packed off to India. Chetwode, a better and more experienced general, replaced him ans head of Eastern Force; and Harry Chauvel, the ANZAC Light Horseman, took over the Desert Column. In August it would be renamed the Desert Mounted Force, and Chauvel, one of the last great cavalry commanders, would lead it in a series of charges at Beersheba, Megiddo, and into Jerusalem, Damascus, and Aleppo. The Light Horse would win fame for Australian arms, and Chauvel would become Australia's first full General.

Murray (Seven Pillars)
But not under Murray's command. Murray has been a patron of the Arab revolt, a sponsor of T.E. Lawrence (the David Lean film does him an injustice), and a victor over the Senussi (Sanusi) and in the Sinai. But the two defeats at Gaza in two months, after his confident predictions, was too much and he was recalled and given command of the Army training center at Aldershot. He continued to recive promotions, but held no more field commands.

Though the military high command continued to believe that victory would be won on the hemorrhaging Western Front, the man who had become Prime Minister the previous December, David Lloyd George, was an enthusiast for the Eastern Front, and particularly for taking Jerusalem. The Bible-quoting Lloyd George favored naming a "dashing" sort of commander for the Palestine Front.

Allenby (Seven Pillars)
The search for a new commander was not smooth.  General Jan Smuts, Commander of the South African Army and a member of the Imperial War Council, refused the assignment. In June, a former cavalry commander and Boer War veteran (though in that war he was the opposite side from Smuts), but who had been enjoying a rapid rise on the Western Front until suffering a setback. Still a believer that the West was the real war, he first considered it a joke, but accepted. His name: Edmund Allenby.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Turkey After Erdoğan's Referendum

Drastic changes to a constitutional system are not to be undertaken lightly. Many systems. like the US,  make amendments extremely difficult. Supermajorities are often necessary. Yet, despite suppressing the media and silencing the opposition, Recep Tayyicp Erdoğan's referendum squeaked through with a 51-49 "Yes" vote, losing in all the country's major cities hardly a resounding endorsement. Erdoğan's victory is being disputed over a decision to count ballots not properly stamped.

Some intelligent commentary: Yavuz Baydar at The Guardian,
"Erdoğan’s referendum victory spells the end of Turkey as we know it." On a similar theme, Steven A. Cook at Foreign Policy laments "RIP Turkey 1921-2017." Cook acknowledges that the Turkish Republic was far from a perfect democracy, but I feel he overstates the break between the Ottomans and the Republic (the Ottomans wrote constitutions in 1876 and 1909, and Westernization began with the Tanzimat). And while he acknowledges flaws in the Republic, I feel he understates the authoritarianism of the Kemalist era, not to mention the interludes of military rule.

The Erdoğan/AKP phenomenon is, as both authors recognize, a reaction to the excessive secularism of the Kemalist era, and part of a (global?) reaction of conservative, religious, rural and small town voters resentful of the urban secular elites who they feel have looked down on them for years. But their revenge may come at the price of Erdoğan's authoritarian ambitions.

Sham al-Nassim

For this Sham al-Nassim I'm repeating a blend of earlier posts. More to come later today..
Sham al-Nissim delicacies (Al Kahira-Cairo-LeCaire)

Unless you're Egyptian or Sudanese, or have hung out in one of those countries, or are an Arab who's watched a lot of Egyptian movies, you may not know about the holiday celebrated today. Yet arguably it may be the oldest holiday celebrated anywhere, and its name may preserve an ancient Egyptian name.

Sham al-Nassim is Arabic, and the words mean "smelling the air," or "smelling the breezes" if you prefer. Other than the specifically patriotic days, such as the National Day, Military Day, etc., it's the only Egyptian holiday celebrated with equal ardor by Muslims and Copts, and by Jews when Egypt's Jewish population was significant. For the past couple of thousand years, it has been celebrated on the Monday after Coptic Easter (which coincides with the general Eastern date for Easter), thus today.

Egyptians of all religious identities get the day off and picnic along the Nile, if they live near it, or go to parks if they don't, eat a dried fish called fassikh and several other traditional spring treats (though my memories of fassikh are not all that endearing: just dry, salty fish), and generally "smell the air" of spring. (According to this site, they also paint eggs. I don't recall seeing that, and perhaps it's a Western Easter import, or I just missed it.)

That's just for the past couple of millennia, though. Wikipedia's article notes the purported link to the ancient Egyptian feast of Shemu, "creation" or "new life," celebrated at the spring equinox, which has been documented (at least according to Wikipedia and its Egyptian source) to 2700 BC in the Third Dynasty. On the other hand, Wikipedia's separate "Shemu" article suggests it was a movable feast in the dry (low Nile) season. Presumably the feast shifted with the advent of Christianity to coincide closely with Coptic Easter, but remained essentially a spring equinoctial celebration. Since the Muslim calendar is purely lunar, the holiday stayed, like some others (including the Nile flood holiday), linked to the Coptic calendar. Somewhere I believe I've read that Plutarch even mentions the Egyptians eating dried fish at the equinox: if so, fassikh has been around a while. (On the other hand I tracked down a reference to this Plutarch statement, and it was Wikipedia citing the Egyptian State Information Service, and the State Information Service link just goes to the main page. So the scholarship here may be a little edgy. I'm no Egyptologist: I start with the Arab conquest and come down from there.) (Egyptology/Coptology/Late Antiquity Grad students: term paper subject? Send me your results.)

Like Easter itself, which in English at least combines a Christian feast central to Christian belief, but based on the date of Jewish Passover, with a Germanic word relating to fertility (compare "estrus"), Sham al-Nassim is a historical palimpsest, a syncretistic hodgepodge, that has — besides being a great spring holiday for Egyptians of all faiths or none — finally given me the rare opportunity to use "palimpsest," "syncretistic," and "hodgepodge" all in the same sentence. (Class, you may use your dictionaries.) The ancient Egyptian spring festival was first baptized by placing it on Coptic Easter Monday, then Islamized or at least Egyptized by being adopted as the spring holiday for everybody regardless of religion.

I think the only other ancient Egyptian feast that survives in the Egyptian calendar today may be the Wafa' al-Nil in August, celebrating the Nile flood and also retaining elements of pagan, Christian and Muslim eras, but fading a bit I think since the end of the annual flood with the building of the Aswan High Dam.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Easter Greetings, East and West

This is one of those years when the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity celebrate Easter on the same date. Easter greetings to all who celebrate.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Holiday Treat: Maamoul

As Easter approaches, NPR offers a hunger-inducing tribute to "Maamoul: An Ancient Cookie That Ushers In Easter And Eid In The Middle East."

The Use of the MOAB: Is It Really a Huge Escalation?

The use of a GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Gravity Bomb (MOAB) in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, today by the United States is being treated as a major news story and a potential escalation. It may prove to be both, but the sheer explosive power of the ordnance, while newsworthy, may not be as dramatic an escalation as some are portraying it.

Before I explain what I mean, let me clarify something: I am no enthusiast for the ongoing war in Afghanistan. After 16 years, the US is the latest power to find itself fighting a seemingly endless war in a land with a long track record of defeating invaders. I'm not defending either the war or the choice of aerial bombing as a weapon, merely commenting on a tactical decision.

While the GBU-43 is indeed the largest non-nuclear explosive in the current US arsenal, that may not equate to greater lethality. (And the Russians have a bigger one.) Other types of weapons, such as thermobaric or fuel-air explosives, can be extremely lethal. And while the 20,000+ pound bomb is he heaviest in the US arsenal. it is partly a successor to the 15,000 BLU-82 "Daisy Cutter" developed to clear jungle for helicopter landing zones, and later in Iraq for mine clearance.

The GBU-43 was originally developed for use in the 2003 Iraq War, but the war was fast-moving and the weapon is not appropriate for urban areas. Though the weapon was deployed during the Obama Administration and its use planned, the Trump Administration is now claiming credit.

Not every target is suitable for such a weapon; some are better suited to ten one-ton bombs than one ten-ton bomb. The total tonnage dropped in most modern wars is what matters, except for the psychological effort.

Afterthought: If this were purely aimed at collapsing the caves, why even announce the weapon used used? It's a tactical decision using a weapon in the known arsenal, so the decision to publicize was for effect.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Passover and Holy Week Greetings

Passover begins at Sundown tonight. Yesterday was Palm Sunday, and since this year both the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity celebrate Easter on the same date this year, Passover and Holy Week coincide closely, sadly punctuated by the horrific bombings in Tanta and Alexandria. Despite the horror, my holiday wishes to both Jewish and Christian readers.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Google Earth Airbase Confusion

Yesterday, writing about the US attack on Sha'irat airbase in Syria, I posted a Google Earth image of the base; that was indeed the base the US attacked. But if you zoom in, you will find the image is labeled, in Arabic, as Tiyas Military Airbase (image below):
But Sha'irat, which is in fact pictured, is not only a different base than Tiras, though, is a much larger base, also known as T-4, which lies astride the main road from Homs to Palmyra, and before the civil war would be seen by anyone en route to  Palmyra.

Google's labeler screwed up the label.

The tactical pilotage chart below shows he location of both bases: Sha'irat at far left and Tiras to the right.




Thursday, April 6, 2017

The US Strike on Syria


I doubt if anyone who read my Tuesday post will mistake me for an Asad apologist. I do feel that a multilateral international response was called for, and worried that tonight's unilateral cruise missile attack may have been a little precipitate, but if the intelligence that the chemical attacks were launched from the Sha'irat air base, then it seems to be a proportionate response. I would hope the intelligence and military briefers had time to game out potential responses and escalation scenarios. Is there a strategic plan, or was this just a don't-just-stand-there-do-something knee-jerk reaction?

Whether it justified the expense of 59 Tomahawks must wait for a daylight bomb damage assessment (BDA).


The deniers, who seem to believe the Syrian opposition gassed their own kids, should read this piece on the evidence.

I'll have more tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

War Crime at Khan Shaykhun

In certain circles, it has become almost fashionable to defend the Bashar al-Asad regime; oddly in the US the temptation seems to seduce not only the ideological right but also the ideological left. Outside of Syria's Russian, Iranian, and Hizbullah enablers, it is time for the scales to fall from their eyes. The chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province.

It is true that the Syrian regime denies it was behind the attack and claims it is a "false flag"operation by the opposition. Notwithstanding the fact that witnesses said the attack was delivered by a Sukhoi Su-22 with Arabic markings. The only air forces in Syria flying Su-22s are Syria's and Russia's, and I doubt the Russians would do the dirty work themselves.

The death toll is said to be somewhere in the 80s, including at least 25 children. Most accounts say the gas was Sarin, but those are preliminary reads, and chlorine, which Syria also has used.an have similar symptoms.

But wait! Didn't Syria agree in 2013 to surrender all its chemical weapons? Well, yes, it did.

The world has responded as usual, with massive denunciations. (Though the US Trump Administration said it was the result of President Obama's failure to carry through on his "red line" threats in 2013, which it characterized as weakness, but it offered no prospect of strong action now.

Six years of war in Syria has produced nearly five million external refugees and over six million internally displaced persons. This is a humanitarian disaster of historic proportions. The Asad regime is not solely responsible, but an internationally recognized government systematically gassing its own people deserves no international tolerance.

I am not advocating American boots on the ground, since that almost always backfires, but instead of Russia and some in this country defending Asad, it is time to brand this regime a pariah like North Korea, and treat it as the renegade it has become. If the world cannot find a way, or the will, to stop the atrocities, it should end any pretense of toleration. My language may offend, but the far greater offense is Asad's; this is fucking barbarism, and it is time to call it by its proper name.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The First Battle of Gaza, Part II: Snatching Defeat from Victory

It has been a week (because I was down with a bug and on deadline) since I published Part I on the First Battle of Gaza. If you haven't already read that post, I would urge you to do so today before reading this one.

The main events of the battle took place on March 26, 1916, with some final movements the next day so we're slightly past the 100th anniversary.

By the morning of the 26th, the British were deployed for attack. As noted in Part I, the British lines were extended along the coast as the rail and water lines advanced. This left their right flank hanging in the air and vulnerable to an attack from the Ottoman forces at Beersheba. To protect his flanks and secure his lines of communication General Sir Charles Dobell, Commander of the Eastern Force, kept significant forces around Rafa and elsewhere along the line. (For the dramatis personae, see Part I.)

The British plan of attack called for a frontal assault by infan try to seize Gaza before the Turkish garrison could withdraw, The frontal assault would be carried out by the 53rd (Welsh) Division  and one brigade from the 52nd (East Anglian) Division.Meanwhile the ANZAC Mounted Division and the Imperial Mounted Division would envelop the Turkish line and hold off any attempts to reinforce the garrison by Turkish troops from Beersheba or Jaffa. The Turkish defenders were already 4,000, while the British expected only 2,000.

The infantry attack met with stiff resistance; the Turks were well-dug in and the arid terrain provided open fields of fire. Adding to the British problems, a heavy fog set in before dawn, preventng visual reconnoitering of the Turkish lines.

The infantry attack, delayed by the fog and a generally slow start had as its initial objective the shrine of ‘Ali Muntar. But difficult communications between 53rd Division Commander Maj. Gen. A.G. Dallas and Desert Column Commander General Sir Philip Chetwode created much confusion, as did delays in bringing up the artillery and a failure to register the artillery on the Turkish lines.

bell and Chetwode sent Dallas his orders to launch his attack; orders were sent at 11, again at 11:30, and with increasing urgency at noon. Still without adequate artillery, Dallas finally attacked.n

The infantry assault did eventually make progress, reaching the Turkish defenses around ‘Ali Muntar.
They captured German and Austrian troops as  well as Ottoman.
Situation 2:00 PM
Meanwhile, Chetwode named Harry Chauvel of the ANZAC Mounted Division to command both it and the Imperial Mounted Division for the day. The Imperials were to patrol the approaches in the east to block reinforcements, while the ANZACs attacked Gaza from the north.

Dobell and Chetwode were increasingly worried, however, that Gaza would not be taken before dark due to the morning delays, and that the British right flank might be vulnerable to an attack in the darkness.

By 5:30 PM. the Infantry had finally taken ‘Ali Muntar, wile to the north, the ANZACs managed to actually enter the town of Gaza. By a bit after 6:00 PM. the British Empire forces seemed to be nearly victorious.
Situation 6;00 PM
Ottoman reinforcements had meanwhile arrived on the east in the afternoon, further raising concerns.

Sunset on March 26 was expected at 6:00 PM. Neither Dobell nor Chetwode yet knew that the infantry had taken ‘Ali Muntar.

At 6:10 PM, Chetwode, after consulting with Dobell, ordered the withdrawal of the mounted divisions. Even when he learned the British position was better than he realized, he did not change his position.

And thus, not for the first time, caution and bad intelligence managed to snatch defeat from the very jaws of victory.



Thursday, March 30, 2017

Yesterday's Arab Summit

Yesterday's Arab League Summit in Jordan, like most Arab Summits, was fairly unnewsworthy, reiterating its support for the Saudi peace plan. It did, however, begin with Lebanese President Michel ‘Aoun tripping and falling:

After that, this viral montage shows the exciting conference itself:

Monday, March 27, 2017

What Economic Crisis? Egypt Now Has an Indoor Ski Slope


When I first lived in Egypt 45 years ago, there was still at least a pretense of being an "Arab socialist" society, the legacy of the Nasser era.

That was then.  This month, though Egypt's per capita GDP hovers around $3000, Egypt became the first country in Africa to have an indoor ski slope.

It is also only the second indoor ski slope in the Middle East, after (where else?) Dubai. Of course there are real ski slopes in Lebanon and Morocco, but they aren't inside mega-malls.

The just opened Mall of Egypt, built and owned by a Dubai (surprised?) development group, is unlikely to attract ordinary, non-elite Egyptians. It is in 6 October City. a "satellite city" in the Western Desert edge of Greater Cairo, accessible mostly by private car.

See the website here.



Part II is Coming

I've been down with a bug; Part II of the post on the First Battle of Gaza will be up soon.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The First Battle of Gaza, 1917: Part I: Opening Moves

The next few days will see the 100th anniversary of the First Battle of Gaza, the opening clash of the Palestine Campaign in World War This will be a multi-part post.

We saw in January how the Sinai campaign ended with the Battle of Rafah and the retreat of the Ottomans behind their own frontier.

The advance across Sinai had been slow, as the British had to extend their railway line and a freshwater pipeline as they advanced. Initially, the British Commander in Egypt, Sir Archibald Murray, intended to proceed slowly, but after a meeting between the British and French, it was decided to advance on multiple fronts; Maude's advance on Baghdad was one; Murray was ordered to move on Gaza, while other advances were launched on the Western and Macedonian Fronts. The February Revolution in Russia had undercut the Eastern Front. By March, the rail line had reached Khan Yunis, and the Turks were entrenched south of Gaza.

Murray (Seven Pillars)
By advancing along the coast to Gaza, the British avoided the main Ottoman concentration around Beersheba (where the Turkish railway ran) and allowed for naval resupply. The plan was to seek to capture the Gaza garrison by a single stroke, using the mounted to envelop the town and screen against Turkish reinforcements.

Dobell
Murray entrusted command of the operation to the Commander of his Eastern Force, Sir Charles Dobell, a Canadian. Dobell in turn entrusted the main effort to the highly mobile Desert Column, consisting of the ANZAC Mounted Division, the Imperial Mounted Division, the Imperial Camel Corps, and the 53rd Welsh Division.

The plan was to advance the rail line to the Wadi Ghazzeh, which cuts as a deep ravine a few miles south of Gaza. A network of ravines around the wadi made the land difficult to pass and the open, barren country south of the town gave a lack of cover and a clear field of fire to the Turkish defenders in their trenches. (See the map at bottom.)

Chetwode
The Desert Column was commanded by General Sir Philip Chetwode.

The defending forces were under the command of General Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, the German Chief of Staff to Turkish Fourth Army Commander Djemal (Cemal) Pasha.

Kress von Kressenstein
As already noted, the main German concentrations were around Beersheba. In the advance on Gaza, Dobell estimated there were only 2,000 defenders in Gaza; the British had a total force of 22,000. In fact there were already 4,000 defenders, with reinforcements on the way.

In the open, arid country, both sides were able to use aircraft to good effect; the British made bombing raids on Beersheba and a rail junction through February and March, and both sides flew reconnaissance missions.
Bombing raid on Gaza..

The British appear, in retrospect, to have underestimated not just the Turkish numbers but also their morale. Unlike the advance across Sinai, Gaza was clearly Ottoman territory, and in both the First and Second Battles of Gaza, the British would fail, at least in part due to a precipitate retreat.

More to come.







Monday, March 20, 2017

Nowruz Mobarak

The Haft Sin
The Ancient Persian New Year, Nowruz, is not just an Iranian holiday marking the Spring Equinox, but one celebrated by a broad swath of countries from the Balkans to Central Asia. I have dealt with many aspects of the tradition in my previous posts through the years, so I will refer you to those posts for for details of the traditional feast.

Friday, March 17, 2017

If It's Saint Patrick's Day, It's Time for My Annual Post on the Links between Coptic Egypt and Early Irish Christianity


Coptic Wheel Cross
Every year since 2009, I have reposted or linked to my original 2009 post on the faint but apparently real links between the Coptic Church of Egypt, where monasticism was invented, and the early Irish church.
Celtic Wheel Cross

It's the sort of thing you do when you're a specialist on Egyptian history also named Michael Collins Dunn, but it's also been a popular post. Herewith, with some added illustrations, corrections and updates,  the original text:

Happy Saint Patrick's Day everyone, an appropriate wish here since the Irish Church Patrick founded seems to have been the religious and monastic daughter of the Church of Egypt (the Coptic Church).

Coptic Ankh Cross
Ah, you're thinking: he's really reaching this time, trying to find a way to work Saint Patrick's Day into a blog on the Middle East. My name is, after all, Michael Collins Dunn, and I'm therefore rarely assumed to have Greek or Japanese ancestry, but actually it's not a reach to find a reason for a Saint Patrick's Day post on the Middle East, since Irish Christianity has ancient, if somewhat hard to document, links to Egypt, and Saint Patrick himself may have studied alongside Egyptian monks. They say everyone's Irish on Saint Patrick's Day, but I'm going to explore how Egypt and Ireland have links dating back to the earliest days of Christianity in the West. And while some of the evidence is a bit hazy, none of this is crackpot theory. I warned you that I started out as a medievalist, and still have flashbacks sometimes. Forgive me if I can't footnote every statement here.

Irish Standing Wheel Cross
Anyone who has ever seen one of the standing crosses that are a familiar feature of medieval and post-classical Irish Christian sites will know what the Celtic Cross or "wheel cross" looks like; anyone who has ever set foot in a Coptic Church will know what a Coptic Cross looks like; unfortunately the illustrations at Wikipedia's Coptic Cross site don't include a precise example, but the wheel cross is common among Egyptian Copts as well, and can be seen on many churches in Egypt today. [Illustrations added after original post.] The wheel cross is not an obvious derivation of the Christian cross, and many think it is an adaptation of the ancient Egyptian Ankh symbol, so what is it doing on those Irish standing cross towers?

Sure, iconography can repeat itself: both Indians in India and Native Americans used the swastika long before Hitler did, and so on. But the Celtic Cross/Coptic Cross similarity is not the only link. There is pretty decent evidence that Christianity in Ireland, if not immediately derived from Egypt, was closely linked to the Egyptian Church. An ancient litany in the Book of Leinster prays for "the seven holy Egyptian monks, who lie in Desert Ulaidh." The place mentioned is somewhere in Ulster, with many placing it in Antrim: perhaps suggestively, "desert" or "disert" in Irish place names meant a place where monks lived apart from the world as anchorites, modeled on the Desert Fathers of Egypt and Syria. "Ulaidh" just means Ulster.Who these seven holy Egyptian monks were is unclear, but they died in Ulster and were sufficiently venerated to be remembered in a litany.

See also my post on "The Faddan More Psalter: More Evidence of the Coptic Links to Early Irish Christianity," posted about an Irish psalmbook with a cover stiffened with Egyptian papyrus.

St. Mena ampulla, the Louvre
It is often said (I haven't got a firm cite though) that holy water (or holy oil for anointing)  bottles found in Ireland carry the twin-camel emblem associated with the Shrine of Saint Menas (Mina) west of Alexandria. (Menas was one of the major patron saints of Egypt, his shrine a major pilgrimage center, and his cult extended far beyond Egypt.) If so, I don't think the Irish were using local camels as models. While I can't find the specifics on the Irish find, these ampullae of terracotta marked with the emblem of St. Menas have been found throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. The photo shows one in the Louvre.

 There are also said to be tombstones in old Irish ogham writing that refer to the burial of so-and-so "the Egyptian." The earliest Irish forms of monasticism included anchorite communities who withdrew from the world and venerated the tradition of Saint Anthony of Egypt; the early Irish church used an Eastern rather than a Western date for Easter; some aspects of ancient Celtic liturgy resemble eastern liturgies, and there are archaeological evidences (mostly probable Egyptian pottery in Ireland and British — Cornish? — tin in Egypt) of trade between Egypt and the British Isles. "Double" monasteries — where a monastery for monks and a convent for nuns were adjacent — first appeared in Egypt, and were common in Ireland. The evidence may be circumstantial, but there's a lot of it.

In the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin there is a pilgrimage guide to the Desert of Scetis, the Egyptian desert region of Coptic monasteries today known as the Wadi Natrun. That, along with the Saint Menas holy water bottles, suggests Irish monks made pilgrimages all the way to Egypt. And obviously those seven holy Egyptian monks in Ulster made the trip the other way.

But do these connections between Egypt and Ireland, tenuous as they may seem, really connect in any way with Saint Patrick, justifying this as a Saint Patrick's Day post? I'm glad you asked.

Saint Patrick's life has been much encrusted with mythology (the snakes, the Shamrock, etc.) and all we can really say for certain is what he himself told us in his autobiographical Confession: he was born somewhere on the western coast of Roman Britain (so the Apostle of Ireland was British, but before there was such a thing as an Englishman since the Angles and Saxons were not yet present: he probably spoke old British, an ancestor of Welsh), was kidnapped and enslaved in Ireland, later escaped and joined the church, and returned as the apostle of Ireland. But very ancient biographies (though not his own autobiographical account, one of the few vernacular Latin works to survive from the period) say that he studied for the priesthood at the Abbey of Lérins off the south coast of France. This was a Mediterranean island abbey much influenced by the church of Egypt and the rule of Saint Anthony of Egypt, and according to some accounts, many Coptic monks were present there. There's no certainty that Patrick ever studied there, but then, he studied somewhere, and this is the only place claimed by the early accounts. So Patrick himself may have had direct links to the Egyptian church. (And remember that until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD — by which time Patrick was already a bishop in Ireland, himself dying in 461 by most accounts — the Coptic Church and the rest of Christendom were still in full communion.)

There may be even more to it than this. A few linguists believe that the Celtic languages, though Indo-European in their basic structure, have a "substratum" of some previous linguistic element that is not found in other Indo-European languages, only in Celtic, but some aspects of which are also found in Afro-Asiatic languages, particularly Berber and Egyptian (of which Coptic, of course, is the late form). I'm certainly not qualified to judge such linguistically abstruse theories, and know neither Irish nor Coptic, and they seem to have little to do with the question of Egyptian-Irish Christian influences. But it helps remind us that the ancient world was more united by the sea than divided by it, and that the Roman Empire stretched from the British Isles to Mesopotamia.

While the links are tenuous, they appear to be real. Irish historians accept some level of Egyptian influence in the Christianization of Ireland, and Coptic historians love to dwell on the subject, since it lets them claim a link to the earliest high Christian art and culture of Western Europe. If Irish monasticism preserved the heritage of the ancient world and rebuilt the West after the barbarian invasions, and if the Irish church is a daughter of the Egyptian church, then the West owes more to Egypt than most would imagine.

I first heard a discussion of this in a presentation by the Coptic Church's bishop in charge of ecumenical outreach, Bishop Samweel, back in the early 1970s. I later ran across several references to it in British orientalist literature (Stanley Lane-Poole seems to have been particularly fond of it, and I think he places Desert Ulaidh near Carrickfergus), and continue to find it intriguing, if never quite clear enough to nail down precisely.

Bishop Samweel, mentioned above, met an unfortunate end by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, by the way. When Anwar Sadat deposed Coptic Pope Shenouda III in 1981, Sadat named Samweel — considered one of the Coptic church's leading figures after Shenouda — head of a council of bishops to run the church while the Patriarch was in exile. Due to this appointment, Bishop Samweel was seated on the reviewing stand behind Sadat on October 6, 1981, and died in the volley of fire which killed the President.

Like much of the earliest history of any culture or country, the links between Irish and Egyptian Christianity are fairly well-delineated but their precise origins are untraceable, but tantalizing. Since this is little known to most Westerners or even to Egyptians who aren't Copts, it seemed appropriate to mention it on Saint Patrick's Day.

Erin go bragh. Misr Umm al-Dunya

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Saudi Council for Girls Founded

You've probably seen this already, but here it is again:
  "Saudi Arabia launches girls' council - without any girls."

Ursula Lindsey on Egypt's "New Capital"

 I think I've been fairly clear (see here and here) that I'm pretty dubious, if not downright cynical, about Egypt's "new administrative capital," the waterless, public-transportless city supposed to sprout in the desert east of Cairo, where greenery and high rises will allow the government to function in splendid isolation without poverty, congestion, or poor people. In the two years since this new Xanadu was announced, its original Emirati patrons have bailed out, as has one of its two Chinese corporate rescuers.

I've quoted other doubters before, such as urban planner David Sims, and now we have a detailed, sustained indictment of this money pit/mirage from Ursula Lindsey, who lived in Cairo for years, including the revolutionary years, and is now living in Morocco. Her article, "The Anti-Cairo," the subtitle of which is "Egypt’s military regime is building a new capital city in the desert, where the “People’s Piazza” will be a pale shadow of Tahrir Square."

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Chaharshanbe Suri

Fire-jumping (Wikipedia)
Tonight is the eve of the Wednesday before Nowruz, known as Chaharshanbe Suri, "Red Wednesday," an ancient Iranian fire festival marking the waning days of the old year. Celebrated in the same broad areas historically influenced by Persian culture, from Turkey and Kurdistan to India and Central Asia. Celebrations include fire-jumping. Greetings to all who celebrate, as well as early Nowruz wishes a few days early.

Friday, March 10, 2017

March 10-11, 1917: General MaudeTakes Baghdad

Following the Second Battle of Kut, in February, the renewed British advance on Baghdad paused
Maude
only briefly. General Frederick Maude (who had been the last man off the beach at Gallipoli), continuing to show far more speed than his predecessors, advanced to ‘Aziziyya, paused there, and on March 5 began his final approach to Baghdad.

The British had been uncertain about the value of taking Baghdad due to its limited strategic value but eventually saw it as a symbolic goal; in addition it was seen as a way to close a pincer on the Turks with British advances from Baghdad and Russia pushing south from Mosul. That was not to be: at this same moment the February (March New Style) Revolution was under way in Petrograd.

Khalil Pasha
The defense of Baghdad was commanded by the hero of the 1916 victory at Kut, Khalil Pasha, who was the uncle of Ottoman Minister of War Enver Pasha and was both governor of Baghdad and Commander of the Ottoman Sixth Army. After the war he would take the surname Kut from his victory and be known under the Turkish Republic as Halil Kut. He had the Turkish XIII and XVIII Corps defending the Baghdad region.

Maude marched his main force up the east bank of the Tigris, arriving March 8 at the banks of its big tributary the Diyala. With the Turks defending the opposite banks of the Diyala, Maude moved most of his force downstream and crossed to the west bank of the Tigris. Detecting the movement (both sides had aircraft now with Germans flying for the Turks), Khalil moved most of his force to the west bank, leaving one regiment on the Diyala. The British soon pushed this aside, and Khalil, facing British advances on both banks, resolved on a retreat from Baghdad. By the evening of March 10, the Ottoman evacuation of Baghdad was under way, with no major battle having been fought.

On the next day, March 11, the British and Indian forces entered Baghdad. The northward advance would be put on hold after Baghdad as the war unfolded on other fronts. Photo of Maude entering Baghdad on March 11, 1917: