A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, September 15, 2014

In the Rush to Confront ISIS, Let's also Listen to the Doubters

I came of age and of draft age) in he Vietnam era. Like many of hat generation I tend to be cautious about military operations which have vaguely defined objectives, self-imposed limitations on meeting those objectives, an open-ended timeline and little exit strategy.

And a war the adversary welcomes. It's clear that the beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker were meant to bait us deeper into the conflict. They want us to fight them, and to do it on their choice of battlefield. It would be wise to reflect on why.

Don't get me wrong: ISIS is an appalling and barbaric mutation that cannot be negotiated with. Delenda est ISIS. But how to destroy them is a valid question.

The emerging strategy consists of a coalition whose exact members are undefined as yet, but include European allies and some Arab states who will join in airstrikes, but no one (least of all the US) is going to supply the ground forces. Those will come from the Iraqi Amy, which already collapsed once in the face of ISIS, the Peshmerga, and the various radical Shi‘ite militias and their Iranian Guards Corps advisers, who lifted the siege of Amerli with the help of American airstrikes even though we aren't cooperating with them in any way.

But with proper support and our continued ability to overlook the IRGC officers in Iraq, the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga might eventually overcome ISIS in Iraq, though it would be, to quote Wellington, "a near-run thing."

But who would provide the ground forces in Syria? The US will not work with the Asad regime (nor would I), not even in the look-the-other-way manner we may pretend not to notice the Iranian participation in Iraq. Jabhat al-Nusra is anathema due to its allegiance to al-Qa‘ida. The more moderate elements of the Free Syrian Army are not currently a cohesive fighting force.With a lot of training, money, arms, discipline, embedded advisers, special operations forces, more money, more arms, and Cinderella's fairy godmother, they could be turned into a fighting force, maybe. But it would be a long haul.

The deus ex machina many would like to see is the Turkish Army. A strong, well-armed and trained military force (and a NATO ally) in exactly the right place across northern Syria and Iraq, it's everyone's choice for the ideal savior.

Everyone's except Turkey's. If the Turkish Army were still calling the shots, it might happen. But the AKP government has long since brought he generals into line. The official reason for reluctance is the fate of the Turkish diplomats from the Mosul consulate, being held hostage by ISIS, but the West is also bothered by Turkey's links to al-Nusra. Turkey is about as likely right now to be the cavslry to the rescue as they are to be riding unicorns.

So we are embarking on an open-ended campaign of air power supported by ... somebody to be named later in Syria, and our present partners in Iraq.

What could possibly go wrong?

I'm also seeing doubts from a range of ideologically diverse but informed critics. Their rationales differ but we would be well-advised to listen to them. A selection:

Juan Cole, "Top 5 Contradictions in Obama’s Emerging ISIL Strategy."

Joshua Landis, "Why Syria is the Gordian knot of Obama’s anti-ISIL campaign."

Rami G. Khouri, "Why Obama Has Picked the Worst Allies for His War on ISIS."

Retired Col. Pat Lang, "Summoned to the Battle." 

Thomas Lippman, "A Coalition of Uncertainty."

And though he wasn't even addressing this century,  hear a caution from the Prussian Kriegsakademie's Carl von Clausewitz:
No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. The former is its political purpose; the latter its operational objective. This is the governing principle which will set its course, prescribe the scale of means and effort which is required, and make its influence felt throughout down to the smallest operational detail.
— Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Vom Kriege), Book VIII, Chapter 2
Trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 579
And finally, from earlier this summer:

A Canal's a Canal, Right?

Egypt has announced plans to expand the Suez Canal  by adding a channel. Details are still sparse, but the commemorative stamp suggests that it might resemble the Panama Canal. So much so as to have the same ships passing through it:
Yes, the photo on the right is of Panama. It has locks. That's a lock. The Suez Canal has no locks. I knew that. You probably knew that. Apparently the Egyptian Postal Service doesn't know that.

 Zeinobia also comments.

A Positive Sign in Egypt?

Hunger striking activist Alaa Abdel Fattah and two other activists imprisoned in the same case under Egypt's controversial protest law have been released from prison by a Cairo criminal court while their case is appealed. The three had become something of a cause celèbre as being among the most prominent secular activists jailed after the 2013 crackdown.

They aren't free, but the court also questioned the prosecution's introduction of a private videotape as improper. It seems to be a positive sign, if a small one.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Souag: Why Levantine is Arabic, Not Aramaic

It's Friday! After a work week, let's sit back and relax with some comparative Semitic linguistics! Lameen Souag at Jabal al-Lughat responds to a claim that spoken Levantine (Shami) dialect is actually closer to Aramaic than to standard Arabic. He dissects the claim and dismantles it in terms of comparative linguistics in a three-part posing: "Why 'Levantine' is Arabic, Not Aramaic," Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Senior Administration Official: "Saudi Arabia has an extensive border with Syria"

Oh God. We're really screwed over if the intelligence community can't afford a map when laying out a "strategy" (really more a package of tactics, but that's another post.) From a White House Press Release called "Background Conference Call on the President's Address to the Nation" 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I guess I would just add one thing on the coalition question -- and I think this is important to really focus on, which is to say, in discussions with governments in the region, notably the Saudis and the Jordanians, what is clear is that we have a very common view of this threat.  And this is really quite unusual. 
ISIL has been I think a galvanizing threat around the Sunni partners in the region.  They view it as an existential threat to them.  Saudi Arabia has an extensive border with Syria.  The Jordanians are experiencing a destabilizing impact of over a million refugees from the Syrian conflict, and are profoundly concerned that ISIL, who has stated that their ambitions are not confined to Iraq and Syria, but rather to expand to the broader region.
Let's run that by again: Saudi Arabia has an extensive border with Syria.  

It does?
Oh please oh please oh please let this "Senior Administration Official" have to explain to the King of Jordan what he or she meant as they erased Jordan from the map. Please tell me it's not really this bad.

"Death of Arabic" Issue Gets a Lecture at Brown by a Fellow Skeptic

I can't resist plugging this, since the recurring meme "the Death of Arabic" has been a frequent topic on this blog (most recently two weeks ago). Professor Elias Muhanna at Brown University (he of the Qifa Nabki blog) is as skeptical as I am but is actually a specialist in Arabic literature and knows whereof he speaks, and will be giving a lecture at Brown October 8 entitled "The Death of Arabic is Greatly Exaggerated: Notes on the Future of a World Language."

The abstract;
Is Arabic dying? Across the Middle East, calls to forestall the language’s demise have taken the form of public advocacy campaigns, school curriculum reform, and a great deal of hand-wringing over the future of one of the great world languages. But just how dire is the crisis facing Arabic? Is it in danger of becoming merely a language of religious ritual, as some have wondered, or is it, conversely, becoming something it has not been in many centuries: a living language?
Any of you within commuting distance of Providence might want to take note. I don't qualify but I hope they post online video or a podcast or a transcript or something, or Elias does. (I promise to share it.) Here's the announcement:

Nusra Frees Captured Fijian UNDOF Peacekepers

The United Nations has confirmed the release of 45 Fijian UNDOF peacekeepers captured in the Golan on August 28. (Earlier stories here and here.) They had been held by the Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra.

Libyan Parliament at Sea. No, I Mean Literally

The Libyan Parliament elected in June fled Tripoli in early August after losing control of the capital, and, with the second city of Benghazi partly under hostile control, is now ensconced at the eastern port of Tobruk. A nearby hotel is used for parliamentary sessions, and the deputies are themselves are quartered aboard a Greek car ferry, the Elyros.

Thus the Libyan ship of state is now literally a ship.

At least if they have to move again, they have their own transportation. But if the situation continues to deteriorate, one could envision the Parliament becoming a sort of legislative Flying Dutchman, forever doomed to sail he seven seas without making port.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Quick Take on Obama's ISIS Speech

A few off-the-cuff reactions to Obama's speech:

I like the emphasis on allies in the region having to bear the brunt of the ground war, since ISIS will try to make it a David vs. Goliath one-on-one with the US to win more recruits (which may be why they deliberately provoked the US by killing US journalists. If the US is too much in front here, we may just be helping their recruiting efforts and prestige among jihadis,

There was a lot of talk about a broad coalition of allies, including the Arab world, though only the Iraqi government (and the Kurds) were named. I well understand the sensitivities here, but I keep hearing the Arab world and our NATO allies spoken of.

A pop quiz for you all: 1) is there a NATO Ally which 2) happens to have a strong army, and 3) borders with both Syria and Iraq which are 4) adjacent to or near ISIS-controlled areas, and which borders happen to be 5) the very ones through which foreign recruits are reaching ISIS?

Very good, class. I knew you could get it!

I understand why the President and diplomats don't talk openly about Turkey. Turkey has no love for ISIS but it is suspicious of the Kurds (and vice versa), has supported more radical groups in the Syrian opposition than the West has, and has quarrels with much of the Arab world except Qatar. Anti-Americanism is running high.

And, given the recent transfer of power, it's quite possible that newly-elected President Erdoğan and newly-installed Prime Minister Davutoğlu, after less than two weeks in their new jobs, are sorting things out about who gets to do what. (Or is it one of those Vladimir Putin/Dmitri Medvedev things, where the power resides with whichever one is named Putin?)

Till, I'm sure this was discussed at the recent NATO meetings, since bringing down ISIS without Turkey could be difficult, as revealed by looking at comparative orders of battle or, well, even just a map.

Muzaffar al-Din Shah in Europe, 1900-1905: Earliest Film and Audio of a Middle Eastern Ruler?

Muzaffar al-Din Shah Qajar
Just under a year ago I wrote about the several visits of the late 19th century Iranian ruler Nasser al-Din Shah to Europe ("Friday Nostalgia for Rouhani's Visit: Nasser al-Din Shah's European Tours").

But Nasser al-Din Shah was not the last Qajar Shah of Iran to frequent European capitals. After he was assassinated in 1896, his son and successor Muzaffar al-Din Shah (1853-1907, Shah 1896-1907) also did so. Though today remembered mostly for his extravagant mustaches and for driving the country into debt that led to the Constitutional Revolution, he also was fascinated by technology.

More importantly, Thomas Edison had intervened. The Shah was fascinated with the cinematographe, and brought the technology back to Iran. More to the point, the first videos of the Shah on his European tour must be among the earliest videos of any Middle Eastern Ruler, unless there are earlier of the Ottoman Sultan. And the invention of early audio recording had also occurred, so there is even a recording of the Shah's own voice (in Persian, of course.)

This post at iroon.com explains what you are about to see:
Massoume Price writes: I think you would like this short documentary on Mozzafar ed-Din Shah's travels to Europe. All photos, most never seen before are from the private collection of Joachim Waibel in Vancouver BC. They even include newspaper drawings on attempt to assassinate him in Europe. Needs to be published more widely.
Below is a commentary from a friend with relevant information Dr.Tissaphern Mirfakhraii:
Excellent rare photos and films from Mozaffareddin Shah's travels in Europe. He visited Karlsbad, Ostend, Contrexeville, London, Paris, and Berlin. His host in London was Prince Arthur, Duke of Kent. Among his entourage photographed were Ataabak Amin os-Soltaan, Sa'd od-Dole, Shams ol-Molk, Vakil od-Dole, Hakim ol-Molk, and Moxber os-Saltane. There was also an assassination attempt on the Shah's life, shown in some of the photos.
The still photos are interspersed with extremely early moving pictures, cartoons and headlines of the day, and in the last minute plus you will actually hear a voice recording of the Shah himself.

If you know of earlier video of a Middle Eastern leader (not camels in the desert) please post in the comments.

This is the first I've ever seen of most of this.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lynch on the Anti-ISIS Coalition, Syrian Options

Marc Lynch was one of the pioneers of Middle East blogging with his "Abu Aardvark" blog. He retired it when he started blogging for Foreign Policy, then shifted to editing their "Middle East Channel." and is now writing for The Washington Post's "The Monkey Cage"  site.

But the blogging bug has never died and he has recently resuscitated Abu Aardvark. True to his old form, his first two regular posts are both worth reading:
But there's just one point I want to throw out there now, because it doesn't seem to be getting much play: when Arab regimes set out to fight "terrorism" they almost always use it as pretext for political repression. When I hear an Arab leader talking with the United States about confronting terrorism these days, what I see is the journalist Mohammad Fahmy and the dedicated activists Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Ahmed Maher and Mahienor al-Masry rotting in an Egyptian prison on trumped up charges while Secretary of State John Kerry opines on Cairo's path to democracy.
Welcome back to the blogosphere, Marc Twitter doesn't leave room for nuance.
But there's just one point I want to throw out there now, because it doesn't seem to be getting much play: when Arab regimes set out to fight "terrorism" they almost always use it as pretext for political repression. When I hear an Arab leader talking with the United States about confronting terrorism these days, what I see is the journalist Mohammad Fahmy and the dedicated activists Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Ahmed Maher and Mahienor al-Masry rotting in an Egyptian prison on trumped up charges while Secretary of State John Kerry opines on Cairo's path to democracy. - See more at: http://abuaardvark.typepad.com/abuaardvark/2014/09/when-arab-regimes-confront-terrorism.html#sthash.4Ihx0wub.dpuf

Excess Meets Excess: Lady Gaga Arrives in Dubai on Mideast Tour

Lady Gaga has arrived in Dubai for her first concert. The world has not ended, and in fact she has reportedly said she will dress modestly out of respect for local sensibilities..

Confirming that celebrities are not in fact bound by the same rules as the rest of us, Israeli press reports say she will fly directly from Dubai to her next gig in Tel Aviv. I thought only John Kerry got to do that.

Cole Cautions on New Iraqi Government

The Iraqi parliament has finally approved the new government of Haydar al-‘Abadi, which which will allow President Obama to claim some progress when he spells out his Iraq strategy.

But Juan Cole offers some words of caution  about reading too much into it: "New Iraqi Government: Less than Meets the Eye?"

Monday, September 8, 2014

Unnoticed in the Chaos, Tunisia Opens Candidate Registration for Presidential Elections

The place where "Arab Spring" began is about the only place where the flowers are still blooming. Almost ignored among the disasters in Libya, Syria, and Iraq and the new authoritarianism in Egypt, Tunisia today opened registration for candidates in the Presidential elections scheduled of November 23. Registration remains open until September 22. Oh, and:
The electoral law approved on May 1, 2014 states the eligibility requirements of candidates as follows:
To be registered as voter in voter lists
To be a holder of Tunisian citizenship since birth
To be a Muslim
To be at least 35 years of age when filing for candidacy
To have the support of ten members of the National Constituent Assembly or ten thousand voters.
That sounds like, well, like democracy. (You have to be Tunisian by birth and 35, but the same is true in the US. Nothing here about having to be male, just Muslim.)

Why isn't this on the evening news?

The New York Post Can't Tell its Asquiths Apart

The New York Post has a piece by Amir Taheri called "Lesson of the 'Mad Mullah,' the original beheading jihadist."

It is referring to the Somali religious and resistance leader Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, who led a war against the British and eventually against the Ethiopians and Italians as well in the early 20th century, and who was dubbed by the British at the time "the Mad Mullah of Somaliland." As an early anti-Western Salafi, comparing him to contemporary movements is not necessarily far-fetched. But then I saw this:
Is President Obama repeating the mistake of Britain’s liberal Prime Minister Anthony Asquith in dealing with jihadists a century ago?
This has been up for a day and is still uncorrected. I don't know if the error was Taheri's or was introduced by an editor, but it suggests we Yanks can't tell our Asquiths from a hole in the ground.
Herbert, not Anthony

Anthony Asquith (1902-1968) was a British film director. It was his father, Herbert Asquith (1852-1928), who served as British Prime Minister 1908-1916.

Just in case they spot the error and fix it, here's a screencap for posterity:

More Questions About UNDOF Captures in Golan

The seizure recently of over 40 Fijian troops in the UN Disengagement Observer Force on Golan (UNDOF) continues to reverberate. Jabhat al-Nusra, which is holding them,at first said they were being held for their own protection, but subsequently threatened to put them on trial if it conditions were not met.

The UN has denied reports that the Fijians were ordered to surrender their arms by the UN.Filipino peacekeepers who were at one point surrounded refused to surrender and were freed with the help of Irish UNDOF forces.

Meanwhile, The Irish Independent has reported that Israeli forces helped prevent the capture of the Irish contingent:
Senior sources said that there would "almost certainly" have been UN casualties or deaths if it wasn't for the help given by the Israeli military, which has posts on high ground overlooking the UN observer bases in Quneitra. The Israeli assistance was described as "decisive" in the success of the mission.
The Israelis were able to guide the Irish-led rescue troops and help it avoid concentrations of the more heavily armed al-Nusra force. There are also unconfirmed reports that the Israelis directed fire at the Islamists to stop them from attacking the Filipino and Irish soldiers.

enior sources said that there would "almost certainly" have been UN casualties or deaths if it wasn't for the help given by the Israeli military, which has posts on high ground overlooking the UN observer bases in Quneitra. The Israeli assistance was described as "decisive" in the success of the mission.
The Israelis were able to guide the Irish-led rescue troops and help it avoid concentrations of the more heavily armed al-Nusra force. There are also unconfirmed reports that the Israelis directed fire at the Islamists to stop them from attacking the Filipino and Irish soldiers.
- See more at:

Friday, September 5, 2014

Memo to the International Society for Iranian Studies

Tonight on Facebook I was momentarily taken aback by a post of "photos of the 2014 ISIS Conference." Had I accepted the wrong friend request? Was the FBI going to be knocking at my door? Should I watch out for drones?

It turns out they were photos of last month's meeting of the International Society for Iranian Studies.

I'm not a member, but a suggestion: You know, you might think about becoming, I don't know, the International Iranian Studies Society instead? (There might be confusion with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, but you could live with that.) Or really, really working to get us to say "IS" instead of "ISIS"?

Plane Full of Americans Forced to Land in Iran; Soon Leaves Again after Filing Flight Plan. Also: Dog Does Not Bark in Night-time

It may be worth noting that on a day when there were reports that Iran's Supreme Leader had authorized contacts with the US over military cooperation against ISIS (though the story was quickly denied by both the US and Iran), a chartered flight carrying 100 American military contractors from Afghanistan to Dubai was forced to land at Bandar Abbas in Iran as it was not following a declared flight plan.

Then the pilot filed a new flight plan and it was allowed to leave. The end.

Despite lots of 24/7 news channels' "breaking news" reporting, a routine bureaucratic glitch was corrected. End of Story. Nothing to do with ISIS or Iraq, just normal routine.

'Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?'
'To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.'
'The dog did nothing in the night-time.'
'That was the curious incident,' remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Silver Blaze

Some Are Raising Doubts About Details in Reports that ISIS is Funding Itself by Looting and Smuggling Antiquities

Just days ago The New York Times became the latest newspaper to report that ISIS is in part funding itself through looting and smuggling antiquities for sale abroad (those it does not blow to bits, at least). In this it followed earlier and similar reports in The Guardian, in National Geographic, London's Sunday Times, and even Buzzfeed. Many of these are based on statements by Iraqi government officials and archaeologists and antiquities experts abroad, and some of the numbers are staggering.

There are some who are raising words of caution, or at least reminding journalists to check their facts. No one denies that there has been an outflow of antiquities due to the wars in Syria and Iraq, or that ISIS is complicit in some of this. But is it as extensive and lucrative as implied? (Nothing of course justifies the looting of even a single artifact by anyone, let alone ISIS' undoubted destruction of priceless sites.)

But there are questions. After he Sunday Times report in July, Paul Barford of Portable Antique Collecting and Heritage Issues that a stele used to illustrate the article had first appeared on the market in 2000, when Saddam Hussein was still in power, and was seen again in 2010, still before the creation of ISIS Conflict Antiquities' Sam Hardy also noted "Mistake after mistake" in the Sunday Times piece, including citing a UNESCO spokesmen for something she subsequently said she had not told the reporter.

In the wake of the recent NYT piece, both Hardy at Conflict Antiquities and Barford have weighed in. I recommend reading these critiques and the links they contain.

The issue is not whether looting is going on, but wheher it is being carried out systematically by ISIS, or whether ISIS is merely taxing the gains of the looters. Both blogs also question some of the numbers cited as to the reported scale of the profits.

No one denies that both Syria and Iraq are losing irreplaceable elements of their heritage, or that ISIS plays a role in this. But i's still important to keep the facts straight.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

An Example of Ottoman Multiculturalism

From the @worldbulletin Twitter feed, a 1911 Ottoman calendar page from a multinational Empire:

A Few (I Hope Rational) Thoughts About Dealing with ISIS

I thought I'd weigh in with a few thoughts of my own about dealing with the Islamic State that will continue to be known as ISIS for now on this blog.

Since President Obama's remark the other day about not yet having a strategy has provoked a debate in the US, it may be worth keeping a few points in mind. I agree the strategy remark was ill-chosen, but any attempt to design a strategy for dealing with the Syrian side of ISIS needs to recognize a few realities often ignored in the heat of political debate.

1. A noble-sounding strategy that cannot be implemented tactically and operationally given the forces on the ground and the will of the participating governments is no strategy at all. It may be policy or empty theory, but there is no political will in the US for re-committing ground troops. That means a coalition, and coalitions take time. Remember it took six months after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to assemble the coalition that took it back in 1991.

2. The US airstrikes in Iraq are coordinated with allied ground forces. The successes against ISIS in Jabal Sinjar, Amerli, the Mosul Dam, and around Erbil all involve Iraqi Security Forces and KRG Peshmegas, albeit with some of their allies that we may not find to our liking (Shi‘ite militias, the PKK, Iranian "advisers"). All those elements, largely motivated by their own survival, are managing to cooperate.

3. Nothing comparable exists on the ground in Syria. The Asad regime, the Free Syrian Army and its allies, and Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies, are all fighting ISIS but they are also all fighting each other. The US is unlikely to find a coordinated ground force to support with its airstrikes. We might tolerate a role for the regime forces if they were as discreet as Iran's forces in Iraq have been, but they won't be likely to play that game. The FSA is not yet well-enough armed or trained to turn the tide with US airstrikes alone, and if the US is already skittish about being on the same side as the IRGC, the Badr Army, the ‘Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq, and the PKK, there is no way it could align with Jabhat al-Nusra (and vice versa) since the latter openly identifies with al-Qa‘ida.

4. US airstrikes without ground support would be of limited effect. In combination with special operations forces on the ground they might have some effect, but air power, alone, does not win wars without someone taking territory.

5. Everybody in the neighborhood is scared of ISIS.  Coalition-building is not impossible. Longtime enemies/rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran are showing signs of rapprochement. While Turkey has plenty of quarrels with its neighbors, it has a strong army in exactly the right place. The UAE has shown the sophisticated reach of its modern air force by bombing Libya. And even Jordan has a highly competent special operations capability.

6. Don't underestimate ISIS, but don't overstate their capabilities either. ISIS has strategic and tactical skill, sophisticated captured equipment, financial resources, sophisticated propaganda and recruiting tools, and controls territory: no other jihadist movement has approached it in terms of threat level. All this is undeniable. It is also utterly ruthless in its murderousness. Its mass beheadings are horrific, its ethnic cleaning of minorities genocidal in scope. Comparison to Hitler or historical figures like Tamerlane or Vlad the Impaler are, for once, not excessive. But it still controls limited territory, and is still challenged in some of that. Many of the maps used are somewhat misleading, such as this one:

A moment's reflection and a look at a map ought to make the problem clear: much of this territory is empty desert. The tribes inhabiting it are mostly Sunni and may loosely support some of ISIS' goals, or may not. Much of the area outside the river valleys is very thinly settled.

A realistic map might be closer to this one from The Economist, showing the long and at times vulnerable (especially to air attack) logistical lines of ISIS' campaign.

ISIS is a threat to the region and the world, but it is vulnerable if the region and the world proceed carefully to build a coalition against it.

Was Iran's General Suleimani at Amerli?

General Suleimani
Just Tuesday I noted that there was evidence of considerable Iranian involvement in lifting the siege of the Iraqi town of Amerli. Now there are reports that the commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' (IRGC's) al-Quds Force, its elite unit supporting allies abroad,  General Qasim Suleimani, was actually present at Amerli.

This could of course be propaganda or disinfomation, but earlier reports have aid Gen. Suleimani was in Iraq, organizing the defenses of Baghdad. If true, it suggests Iran is determined to stem the spread of ISIS, even if that means de facto cooperation (via Iraqi and Kurdish intermediaries) with the US.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Archaeology in Post-Revolutionary Iran

At ASORblog. the blog of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Abbas Alizadeh of the Oriental institute of the University of Chicago has an interesting piece, "The Challenges of Rebuilding an Archaeological Program in Post-Revolutionary Iran." 

He provides an overall summary of archaeological work in Iran down to the Revolution of 1979, and the disruptions that followed

Excerpt: Even more than 30 years after the Revolution,
While it is expected that a country that experience violent political revolution would be charged politically in almost every aspect of even daily life, Iran has yet to come out of that phase. This has major consequences for foreign archaeologists who wish to have long-term, at least three to five years, research programs that are so vital to archaeological research. The problem is that even when the ICHHTO approves a proposal and signs a 3 or 5-year contract, there is no guarantee that the Foreign Ministry will grant visas to the applicants. Almost all joint expeditions in Iran have experienced this problem. This has resulted in modest proposals and a rush to work as if there is no tomorrow, which negatively affects data retrieval and attention to details. The uncertainty of obtaining visas with an approved proposal not only has frustrated many archaeologists in the field, but also has discouraged some to the point that many have shifted their focus on regions such as Central Asia, Iraqi Kurdestan, and Turkey.
Things are not that rosy for the Iranian archaeologists either. Several attempts were made by the government in 2008-10, supported even by the then chief of the ICHHTO, to dismantle the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research (ICAR). First this was done by relocating it to Persepolis and Shiraz, with hardly any office space, library, and so on–many refused to relocate, and then by giving them a “choice” either to retire or stay employed, but work at home! This scheme did not work and several years ago the ICAR was re-established in Tehran. This time, a new problem arose. The ICHHTO decided that it no longer would cover the cost of its own archaeological expeditions and that any archaeologist who wishes to work will have to apply to the province where the target site or region is located. The provinces, not having the budget or unwilling to allocate any financial support for archaeology, baulked. When they did support an expedition, the priority was given to their native archaeologists regardless of whether they were or were not qualified.

Gause Updates on ISIS and "New Cold War"

Earlier this summer, Greg Gause (who recently moved from the University of Vermont to Texas A&M) published a paper through Brookings Doha which I linked to at the time,  called "Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War,"

Last week, to take into account the growing threat of ISIS, he provided an update: "ISIS and the new Middle East Cold War."

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Unacknowledged Alliance?: How Direct a Role Did Iran Play in Lifting the Siege of Amerli?

Officially, the two month siege of the Shi‘a Turkmen town of Amerli was lifted due to  joint operation involving US airstrikes supporting Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga. The US acknowledges that Iraqi Shi‘ite militia also played a role in Amerli,

And some of those militias are groups that had been "disbanded" until earlier this summer, when then-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called on thm for help against ISIS. including some that the US considered hostile when it was in Iraq, such as the Badr Army and the ‘Asaib Ahl al-Haq. These militias are allied with and presumably funded and trained by Iran.

But as Scott Lucas notes, Iran's role may be more direct than that. A Reuters report yesterday describing the relief of Amerli and the nearby town of Suleiman Beg:
The scenes in Amerli and the surrounding area of Suleiman Beg offered a window into the teamwork among Kurdish fighters, the Iraqi army and Shi'ite militias and into Iran's role in directly assisting their campaign against Islamic State (IS) forces
An Iranian adviser to Iraqi police was spotted on the road near Amerli and Kurdish officers spoke of Iranians advising Iraqi fighters on targeting the Islamists . . 
The influence of Iran was evident in Suleiman Beg. With Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which is funded by Iran and recognizes Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as its spiritual guide, were two men who spoke Farsi and dressed in beige uniforms different from their colleagues' green camouflage.
Asked if he was Iranian, one of the Farsi speakers said: "We are liberating Suleiman Beg.
Asked if the Iraqis' could have made their recent gains without Iranian support, he answered: "No."
By a convoy of armored police vehicles, a man speaking Farsi described himself as coming from Iran and said he was there to help with training police.
A peshmerga commander in Suleiman Beg acknowledged the part played by Iranians in the assault on Islamic State positions. "The Iranians had a role in this. They supplied weapons and helped with the military planning," he said on condition of anonymity.
"They trained the Shi'ite forces. There are Iranians here in another base: three or four of them. They are guiding the peshmerga in firing heavy artillery. They don't speak Kurdish - they have a translator."
On Saturday, a senior member of the Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, told Reuters the Iraqi military, Kurds and Iranian advisers had joint operation centers.
Earlier, Iran had acknowledged sending some troops across the border temporarily in Diyala Province, with some reports suggesting this included M-60 tanks. The Kurdistan Regional Government has acknowledged receiving arms from Iran without specifying the naure, and there are several unconfirmed reports of direct clashes between Iranian Pasdaran and ISIS, though officially only the presence of "advisers" is confirmed.

In July, London's International Institute of Strategic studies reported that Iraq's newly-delivered Su-25 ground attack aircraft still carried Iranian tail codes.

War always makes for strange bedfellows; and it is unsurprising that neither the US nor Iran wants to publicize any coordination (even if carried out through Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish intermediaries), but the idea of US airstrikes providing ground support for Iranian advisors or actual troops is still a reminder of how much the threat of  ISIS is transforming regional alignments. Iran and Saudi Arabia are mellowing their feud, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has offered to visit the Kingdom. 

And last week we noted that the US is also underplaying the role played by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), The Kurdish rebels in Turkey, in the relief of the Yazidis on Jabql Sinjar, presumably because the PKK is still on the US terrorist list.

But it is also unlikely that these quiet instances of cooperation will be openly acknowledged, and if the US does expand its airstrikes to Syria, no cooperation with regime forces is likely to be acknowledged.

A Busy and Dangerous Three-Day Weekend

The US three-day Labor Day weekend was a busy one. Iraqi (and maybe some Iranian) forces, supported by US air attacks, relieved the siege of the Iraqi Shi‘a Turkmen town of Amerli; a Libyan Militia took over all or part of the US Embassy and held a swim party; David Cameron proposed new anti-terror measures against ISIS; ISIS keeps beheading, well, most people they meet; oh, and Russia and Ukraine are on the brink of war, if  "on the brink of war'" means "you've invaded our country and occupy about a third of it and if you don't back down pretty soon we might get really angry."

A wild weekend.

Last night's overnight CNN website headline:

Keep those priorities straight, media. You won't get on "Entertainment Tonight" with a bummer story about severed heads, ethnic genocide, and similar bummers.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day Holiday; Also September 1, 75 Years On From 1939, So I Leave You with Auden

Today is the Labor Day holiday in the USA, so I won't be blogging. But it is also September 1, 2014, the 75th anniversary of the day in 1939 when Europe dissolved into the greatest war in history.  Ironically the anniversary comes less than a month after the 100th anniversary of the lamps going out all over Europe for the first time, and as I felt then, there are clear resonances for our own day and particularly the region my readers and I are concerned with.  (And if the Middle East seems to be descending into hell, it's worth remembering it happened twice in Europe in the past century.)

I could pontificate, but it's a holiday, and I could never match what Auden said at the time for relevance and power:

September 1, 1939
W. H. Auden, 1907 - 1973

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Friday, August 29, 2014

An "Informal" Area in Cairo's Upscale Doqqi: A Surrouded Village

To leave you for the weekend, and especially for the Cairo hands, here's an interesting piece on an "informal" area (usually meaning a slum or illegal squatter settlement, but in this case one that long precedes the urbanization of the area): one of a number of "surrounded villages" on the West Bank of the Nile. It's  useful to see these examples (there are others) of onetime villages swallowed up by urbanization but still essentially separate.

David Sims and other students of Cairene urbaniztion have studied these places, but this is a rather thorough post on one I hadn't known about..

The Underreported Role of Turkey's PKK and the Syrian PYD in the Kurdish Fight Against ISIS

Promoting Kurdish Unity: Kurdish Leaders from Several Countries
KRG Flag
Because most Western reporting on the Kurdish fight against the Islamic State (which I still prefer to call "ISIS" rather than "IS") are reporting from Erbil or occasionally Suleimaniyya, it is easy to come away with the impression that when reports say that Kurdish Peshmerga have taken a town, it refers to the formal armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which in turn combine the militias of KRG President Mas‘oud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). (In the poster above, Barzani is third from left, Talabani second from right.) They are surely the best armed and best trained (and Iran is now supplying arms and perhaps advisers), but there has been much less emphasis on the role of Peshmerga forces from Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and its Syrian Kurdish allies, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The fact that the US still lists the PKK as a terrorist organization may be one reason its role has not been emphasized (though it has engaged in an on-and-off peace process dialogue with Turkey in recent years, though its leader, Abdullah Öcalan is still in a Turkish prison. (He is at far left in poster above, though in a very old picture),

The PKK Flag
In fact much of the front-line fighting against ISIS around Jabal Sinjar and inside Syria has apparently been led by the PKK, which seems to be gaining prestige in Kurdish parts of Iraq and Syria. Its Syrian allies in the PYD, whose leader Salih Muslim is the man with mustache, white shirt, and tie, fifth from left above, have also reportedly been active.

Syria's PYD Emblem
If my impression that the PKK in particular has been particularly aggressive against ISIS is correct, the PKK will have some claim to a say in Iraqi Kurdistan, especially if it declares independence, It may also enhance its strength in Turkey's Kurdish region.

There is an irony here: ISIS claims to be abolishing colonial boundaries and proclaiming "the end of Sykes-Picot," but one boundary it may have succeeded in erasing may prove to be that dividing Kurdish groups in various countries.

After Seizure of UNDOF Fijian Troops Yesterday, Now a Filipino Detachment is Surrounded by Nusra Fighters

UNDOF Disengagement Zone
UPDATE; Apparently the rebels are now claiming the peacekeepers were detained "for their own protection."

A day after capturing 43 United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) troops from Fiji, Syrian rebels now reportedly have surrounded another 81 Filipino UNDOF peacekeepers. Earlier, Syrian rebels, including Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, had occupied the Quneitra crossing near the town of Quneitra.

The 43 Fijian troops were in the vicinity of Quneitra crossing, the one authorized crossing point across the Golan disengagement zone. It is normally used to allow local Druze villagers to cross for family reasons and to export apples grown by Druze in the Israeli-occupied sector.

Current UNDOF Deployments (UN)
The Filipinos who are surrounded are deployed in the al-Ruwayhina and Burayqa areas. See the second map for current UNDOF deployments. They lie just to the south of Quneitra.

The 1,223 UNDOF peacekeepers are armed only with light weapons, which they are authorized to use in self defense, but only "in extreme circumstances."

The current UNDOF deployment includes detachments from Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal, Netherlands, and the Philippines, though the last has announced its intention to withdraw its troops.  

Though the Fijian Army consists of only six infantry battalions, two are normally stationed abroad as peacekeepers; the first battalion is now with UNDOF, though it has served with UNIFIL in Lebanon as well, and the second battalion is with the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai. 

I have two comments to make. First, it is a reminder that the Blue Helmets really do run risks, specially in situations like South Lebanon and now, the Golan. (Austria, Croatia, and Japan have pulled their troops out of UNDOF, and as mentioned, the Philippines is about to do the same.)

Second, I wonder: Jabhat al-Nusra does realize that UNDOF is the only thing standing between them and the Israeli Army, doesn't it? Of course this may be a deliberate attempt to provoke Israel and allow Nusra to claim that they, not the Asad regime, are fighting for the Golan. But that could prove to be risky business.