A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Nusra, ISIS Push Back in Aleppo and Deir al-Zor

Although the pro-Asad alliance have declared completing the encirclement of Aleppo and the lifting of the siege of the garrison at Deir al-Zor as its primary military objectives, in the past few days Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies counterattacked in Aleppo and set off a tunnel bomb under several regime controlled buildings, a tactic the the rebels have used previously, having bombed Air Force Intelligence in Aleppo in March 2015 using a tunnel bomb; some accounts suggest this bomb was under or near the ruins of that building.

Meanwhile, in the east, ISIS sought to expand its control in Deir al-Zor by pushing back the regime defenders there; ISIS presumably hopes to gain control of Deir al-Zor airfield, which has been essential to Syrian regime and Russian resupply of the besieged garrison.

Although regime reports suggest that both offensives has been pushed back, today's announcement that the partial troop has been extended to Aleppo mat be a sign that the offensives had some effect. Regime and Russian news reports that were touting both the Aleppo and Deir al-Zor advances seem more muted.

Below is a pro0-regime video of drone footage purporting to show the latest tunnel bomb damage.




Monday, May 2, 2016

Sham al-Nassim

Sham al-Nissim delicacies (Al Kahira-Cairo-LeCaire)
Greetings to Egyptian (and Sudanese) readers on Sham al-Nassim, the national spring holiday for "smelling the breeze"," when locals travel or picnic along the Nile, marked by traditional foods (above) and celebrated on Coptic Easter Monday, though it is celebrated equally by Muslims and Christians, and formerly, by Jews.

Said to be a survival of the Ancient Egyptian spring feast Shemu, which would make it, with Wafa' al-Nil, the Nile Flood holiday in August, one of two holidays surviving from Ancient Egypt.

Relax and enjoy the long weekend if you've had off since Friday.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Easter Greetings

Easter Greetings to all who celebrate according to the Orthodox and other Eastern Christian traditions that celebrate today.

Friday, April 29, 2016

April 1916: The Easter Rising and its Echoes in Egyptian, Indian, and Zionist Nationalist Thought, Part III: Zionism

Briscoe as Lord Mayor of Dublin
The late, great baseball catcher and folk philosopher Yogi Berra, who sadly died last year, is credited with many quotes, some of which he may actually have said. One goes like this: when Yogi was told in the 1950s that the visiting Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, was Jewish, Yogi responded, "only in America."

Robert Briscoe was not only the first Jewish Lord Mayor of Dublin (his son later held the same job): he was a veteran of the original IRA, a gun-runner in the War of Irish independence, but also a fervent Zionist and a friend of Revisionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky. When Jabotinsky visited Ireland as part of a European tour in 1938, Briscoe introduced him to Prime Minister Éamon de Valera, and reportedly advised Jabotinsky on how to fight the British.

Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog
Briscoe is just one example of the intersection of Irish nationalism and the Zionist movement. Briscoe during his Irish political career was a member of the Fianna Fáil party, after its split with Sinn Féin, but the Chief Rabbi of Ireland from 1919 to 1936, and before that Rabbi of Dublin, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog,  supported the Irish war of independence, spoke the Irish language fluently, and was both an avid Irish republican and committed Zionist. He came to be nicknamed "the Sinn Féin rebbe." When the Free State won independence his appointment as Chief Rabbi was formalized.In 1936 he moved to Palestine, became Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Palestine, and later the first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel. One of his sons, Chaim Herzog, became a general, Ambassador to the United Nations, and the xisth Preaident of Israel, while a grandson, Yitzhak or Isaac Herzog, is head of the Labor party/Zionist Union and current Leader of the Opposition in the Knesset.

As World War II approached, the mainstream Zionist movement, including the Haganah, agreed to support British war aims for the duration. The Revisionists and their armed wings, Irgun or the IZL and Lehi or the Stern Gang, continued to resist British rule during the war.Thy were able to point to the Easter Rising of 1916 as a model, since the rebels fought Britain while it was at war with Germany.Avraham Stern, founder of LEHI, arranged to have P.S. O'Hegerty's The Victory of Sinn Féin translated into Hebrew. IZL and Lehi both drew inspiration from the guerilla war in Ireland between 1919 and 1921 and the tactics of Michael Collins, and LEHI underground operative Yitzhak Yezernitsky, who would eventually become Israel's seventh Prime Minister as Yitzhak Samir, adopted the nom de guerre "Michael" after Collins. (Another underground pseudonym was "Rabbi Shamir," from which the would take his Hebrew name.)

There are other  parallels. Irish republican and Land reformer Michael Davitt, mentioned in Part II as an inspiration for Gandhi's nonviolence, famously published an investigation of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 (then in Russia but today Chisinau in Moldova), and subsequently expessed his sympathies for Zionism. Davitt is said to have been the first to apply the English word  "pale," originally used to refer to the area reserved for English settlement in Ireland, to the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia.

Not all parallels apply. Arthur James Balfour became a hero to the Zionists for the Balfour Declaration, but as Secretary for Ireland had been a staunch opponent of Home Rule, but as I hope these three posts have shown, the events of Easter 1916 an the war of independence that followed inspired national movements elsewhere; the list could be longer.

April 29, 1916: Surrenders in Dublin and Kut

Part III of my series on the Middle Eastern echoes of the Easter Rising will be up later today but  I thought I should note an important anniversary today: on April 29, 1916, the very same day the last of the Dublin rebels surrendered to the British, in Iraq another British general was surrendering a British and Indian force in the largest surrender of British forces in history up to that time. It would only be exeeded by Singapore in 1942. After a months-long siege marked by four failed relief expeditions and even a blatant attempt at bribing the Turkish commanders (under the guise of a "ransom"), in which T.E. Lawrence and Aubrey Herbert were negotiators. General Charles Townshend, a military incompetent even by British World War I standards, surrendered more men than Cornwallis had at Yorktown.

In 2014 I ran three posts on the siege and surrender of Kut (Part I; Part II; Part III); because I told the story then I have not noted the centennials of each of the failed British attempts to lift the siege. But it marked a disaster for British arms compared to which Gallipoli, that other disaster in the war with the Turks, seems almost successful in that the troops were successfully withdrawn.

In the end. Townshend surrendered unconditionally. In the campaign Britain had lost between 23,000 and 30,000 killed and wounded (the relief expeditions lost more men than were in the besieged garrison at Kut) and surrendered some 12,000. Townshend and other British officers were given comfortable quarters in detention; the largely Indian rank and file were sent to turkis prisons in the east from which few survived the war. For more, see my earlier posts.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

April 1916: The Easter Rising and its Echoes in Egyptian, Indian, and Zionist Nationalist Thought, Part II: India


Irish Stamps Honoring Gandhi
Yesterday we looked at echoes of the Easter Rising of 1916 on Egyptian nationalism.Today we'll look at influences in Indian nationalism and Zionism.

India and Ireland
It is easy to forget today that many supporters of Irish Home Rule were Protestants rather than Catholic, from rebel leader Wolfe Tone to Parliamentarian Charles Parnell. Yesterday we mentioned W.B.Yeats, Lady Gregory, and G.B Shaw, all Protestants from the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. Anglo-Irishmen had long been involved in the British Army (including Wellington, though he didn't identify with Irish causes (he notoriously responded to being called Irish by saying being born in a stable did not make him a horse), and the Administration of the Raj,

But not all the Irish in India were defenders of the status quo. Alfred John Webb (1834-1908), a Dublin Quaker and supporter of Irish Home Rule, in 1894 in Madras became the third non-Indian presiding officer of the Indian National Congress, which led the independence movement. Margaret Gillespie Cousins (1878-1954), a Protestant from Boyle in County Roscommon, was a supporter of Home Rule  and women's suffrage who had founded the Irish Women's Franchise League before moving to India, where she co-founded the Women's Indian Association. In 1922 she became the first female magistrate in India. She is credited with writing the tune of the Indian National Anthem Jana Gana Mana (the words are by the poet Tagore).

But the Irish in India were not the only influences of the Irish on India. Michael Davitt (1846-1906) was an Irish republican and agrarian reformer, founder of the Irish National Land League, who was an early advocate of nonviolent resistance; Gandhi would explicitly cite him as an inspiration for his own movement.

Gandhi supported the movement for Irish independence but predictably deplored the violence of the war of independence. Many Indian nationalists saw parallels between the massacre on Bloody Sunday at Croke Park in Dublin on November 21, 1920, when Black & Tans killed 14 civilians at a Gaelic football game, and the far bloodier Amritsar massacre of 1919, when hundreds were killed. Ironically, the perpetrator of Amritsar, Col. Reginald Dyer, was himself of Irish background.

This article cites a number of Gandhi's speeches and writings referring to Ireland.

As this is running late, I'll deal with Zionism in a Part III tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

April 1916: The Easter Rising and its Echoes in Egyptian, Indian, and Zionist Nationalist Thought, Part I

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse--
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
—W.B. Yeats, Easter 1916

This week marks a century since Easter Monday, 1916,  when Irish nationalists seized the control of the General Post Office in Dublin and other key sites and proclaimed the Provisional Government of an Irish Republic.  The Easter Rising, which was put down on April 29, is part of the creation myth of Ireland today, complete with its list of martyrs shot by the British. Though the Irish Republic celebrated the centenary on Easter weekend, the 24th to the 29th, this week, is the actual anniversary.

But Yeats' "terrible beauty" influenced (if not "changed utterly") events far beyond those regions "wherever green is worn." As the First World War ended, the Irish events influenced nationalist movements worldwide. I'll deal here only with the resonances in the broader Middle East. Long-established links between Egyptian and Irish nationalists were invigorated and reinforced. In India, Mahatma Gandhi, while deploring the resort to arms, often drew parallels between the Irish and Indian struggles. And in the coming years the Irish model would influence the Zionist movement, most profoundly its rightwing "Revisionist" wing. The underground operative who eventually became Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir took his Hebrew name from his nom de guerre Rabbi Shamir, but his earlier revolutionary pseudonym was "Michael," after Irish guerrilla commander Michael Collins.

Ireland and Egypt

Long before 1916, there were many critics of British colonial policies who recognized parallels  between Irish and Egyptian nationalism. Augusta, Lady Gregory, the Anglo-Irish dramatist and folklorist who was a co-founder with Yeats of the Abbey Theater, wrote her first non-fiction essay on Arabi and his Household, an 1882 defense of Col. Ahmad ‘Urabi's revolt, which had been put down by Britain's intervention in Egypt. ‘Urabi's most vocal English critic, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, who also knew Gregory, was also a strong supporter of Irish Home Rule, as well. His 1907 The Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt  was a staunch defense of ‘Urabi and a critique of British policy.

Another Anglo-Irish advocate of Irish Home Rule, who made the parallels between the Irish and Egyptian cases explicit, was George Bernard Shaw, who in the "Preface for Politicians" to his 1911 Irish play John Bull's Other Island wrote a defense of Irish Home Rule to which he appended a denunciation of what he called "The Denshawai Horror," referring to the 1906 "Denshawai incident" in which several Egyptian peasants were hanged by the British after defending their village against British soldiers who had been shooting the town's pigeons.

So there were parallels between Irish and Egyptian Nationalism even before the 1916 Rising. Another irony linking the two: a figure we have already met in his role as General Officer Commanding, British Troops in Egypt: General Sir John Maxwell. On April 28, 1916, Maxwell was named Military Governor of Ireland with plenary powers under Martial Law. After the Rising was crushed he held a series of field court martials under Martial Law, which involved trial in secret and did not permit defense counsel. Ninety were condemned to death, though after 1 had been shot by firing squads, the remaining sentences were commuted to life after public outrage in England.

The subsequent history of the Irish independence movement would also have echoes in the Egyptian and other nationalist movements. In the elections of 1918 for the British Parliament, 73 members of the Sinn Féin independence movement won election to Westminster, but refused to go to London and instead proclaimed themselves the Parliament of the Irish Republic, Dáil Éireann. By creating a self-proclaimed provisional government, Irish nationalists created a model much used in other anti-colonialist movements, including the Egyptian move to name a Wafd or delegation to the Paris Peace Talks in 1919. Though the British exiled Sa‘ad Zaghloul, his Wafd became Egypt's nationalist party. In 1919 Egypt's Revolution of 1919 broke out (called by the British an uprising). That same year the Irish war of independence began (called by the British terrorism). In 1920 Britain began talks in Egypt on semi-independence. In 1921 they negotiated a limited independence for all but the northern six counties of Ireland. In 1922 both the Kingdom of Egypt and the Irish Free State came into being.

Tomorrow, we'll look at the echoes in India and Revisionist Zionism.

A 1930s Travelogue of Cairo that Touches Just about Every British Colonial/Orientalist Stereotype

Hat tip to Sarah Carr for this: a 1930s travelogue of Cairo that touches all the bases of Orientalist and British colonial stereotypes, starting with Shepheard's and ending with the pyramids. Not to mention the music.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

An MEI/MEJ Connection to Tonight's Maryland Primary

Tonight's Maryland Democratic primary result has a connection to both the Middle East Institute and to The Middle East Journal. The Democratic nomination for Senate, to replace the long-serving Sen. Barbara Mikulski, was won by Congressman Chris Van Hollen, a rising star in the Democratic leadership. Since Maryland Democrats have a two-to-one registration advantage in Maryland, he is likely to win in November.

Van Hollen is the son of Ambassador Chris Van Hollen, Senior, onetime Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East and South Asia, and a career diplomat. (The younger Van Hollen was born in Karachi.)

Ambassador Van Hollen
As I noted after the elder Van Hollen's passing at age 90 in 2013, after retiring from the Foreign Service, Ambassador Van Hollen served as Vice President of the Middle East Institute from 1988-1992, and concurrently as Editor of The Middle East Journal (and thus a predecessor of mine) in 1991-1992.

Back in the 1990s, long before I was myself at MEI, I remember a conversation with Ambassador Van Hollen in which he told me his son had been elected to the Maryland State Legislature, saying, "someday he may be better known than I was."

Indeed.

Souag on Arabic Colloquial Folk Etymologies

 Scholars routinely lament the lack of a really good, scholarly, dictionary of etymology for Classical and Modern Standard Arabic. Even more wanting are decent studies of etymology for the spoken colloquials; there are many dictionaries, but few that are very helpful for etymology of distinctive dialectal terms. Instead there are many websites that offer assumptions with no sourcing cited, and many of these are popular folk etymologies. Linguistics blogger Lameen Souag has a very interesting post at Jabal al-Lughat on this theme: "Arabic Substrate Etymologies as Urban Legends."

As he notes:
In Arabic as in English, social networks have a constantly flowing undercurrent of poorly sourced, manipulative stories being shared and reshared by people who vaguely think they sound right. Over the past, say, five years, I've noticed the emergence of a linguistically interesting new subgenre within this miasma of lies and half-truths: etymological tables purporting to prove the massive contribution of Berber, or Syriac, or (more rarely) Coptic, or perhaps some other pre-Arab substrate to the local Arabic dialect. These tables, in my experience, never cite an academic source, and rarely cite anything at all; closer examination generally reveals a farrago of correct etymologies and bad guesses. 
He links (included in the post, and all in Arabic) to social media posts for Berber, Coptic, and Syriac, and then examines some of the assertions, finding some of them valid, others unsubstantiated, or just plain wrong, concluding:
The optimistic take on this is that it shows that there's a real public demand in the Arabic-speaking world for information on etymology and on substrate influence. The pessimistic take is that people just want "information" confirming what they want to believe - in this case, that they're not really that Arab after all. (The converse case also exists, of course - recall Othmane Saadi - but I haven't seen as much of it circulating on social media, though that may just reflect my own bubble.) The reality is probably somewhere in the middle.
But read the whole thing, especially the case studies. I should note that Dr. Souag himself started a blog on the historical origins of Algerian colloquial (الأصول التاريخية للدارجة الجزائرية), but there have been no posts since last year.

Frederic Hof on Syria in Oslo

The Atlantic Council has posted the transcript of an address by Atlantic Council Resident Senior Fellow Ambassador Frederic C. Hof opening the Aspen Ministers' Forum in Oslo, addressing the Syrian peace process and refugee issues. It's a concise and incisive analysis and I recommend you read it. As I have noted previously for full disclosure, I have known Fred since undergraduate days and consider him extremely well-informed on Syrian (and Lebanese) issues, so I acknowledge a certain bias.

France24 English Documentary on YPG Victory in Shaddadi

The Kurdish YPG and its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces recovered the northeastern city of al-Shaddadi from ISIS at the end of February. France24 English has broadcast this week a documentary by its journalists accompanying the YPG. There are clearly Western special forces accompanying the Kurds.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Holy Week Greetings to Orthodox and Other Eastern Christian Readers

Bethlehem: Palm Sunday at the Church of the Nativity yesterday
Greetings for Holy Week to readers in the Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Church of the Est and other Christians who celebrate Easter according to the Eastern tradition. This year, the two dates of Easter fall a full month apart (the maximum).

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Regeni Case Refuses to Go Away

Although Egypt has offered various attempts to explain the disappearance of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, including blaming it on a criminal gang (all conveniently now dead), Italy has remained openly dissatisfied with the explanations, summoning its Ambassador home for consultations and expressing anger when Egypt refused to supply requested information from mobile phone tower data, which  Egypt claims would violate privacy rights. For all its efforts, the suspicions will not go away.

Regeni, of course, is not the only "disappeared" victim found dead in mysterious circumstances, but he s one with a major European trading partner of Egypt pressing his case. Yesterday, Reuters broke a major story citing three intelligence and three police sources:
All six intelligence and police sources told Reuters that Regeni was picked up by plainclothes police near the Gamal Abdel Nasser metro station in Cairo on the evening of Jan. 25. Security had been heightened that day because it was the anniversary of the beginning of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
An Egyptian man was picked up at the same time. Three sources gave his name but Reuters was unable to verify the man's identity. His connection to Regeni, if any, is unclear. 
It is also unclear why the men were picked up, though all the sources said the two had not been specifically targeted but were detained as part of a general security sweep. 
One of the intelligence officials said the two men were taken to the Izbakiya police station, a fortress-like compound located beneath a flyover near downtown Cairo.
"They were transported in a white minibus with police licence plates," he said.

The three police sources said officers on patrol in the area that night confirmed to them that Regeni had been taken to Izbakiya.
"We were told that an Italian was arrested and he was taken to Izbakiya police station," said one of the police officers, who confirmed the detainee was Regeni. 
A senior police official in the Izbakiya station told Reuters that he recalled an Italian being brought in and said he would check the records to confirm the name. He subsequently declined to comment.
"I don't know anything about it," he said. "I checked the books. Regeni's name was not there. 
One of the intelligence sources said that Regeni was held at Izbakiya for 30 minutes before he was transferred to Lazoughli, a state security compound run by Egyptian Homeland Security. 
The sources did not say what happened to the Italian after that. Reuters was unable to obtain information on the whereabouts of the Egyptian.
A few glosses: I assume by Homeland Security Reuters means National Security, the former State Security. Gamal Abdel Nasser station is located near the High Court at Tal‘at Harb Street and 26th of July Streets. Izbakiya refers to the neighborhood also spelled Ezbekiyya.

Now, the US State Department, asked about the Reuters report, called for resolution "through an impartial and a comprehensive inquiry."

The Reuters report, dismissed offhandedly by Egyptian officials, was quickly cited by Egyptian opposition websites and went viral on social media. Th Regeni case will not go away.

Passover Greetings

Best wishes to my Jewish readers for Passover, which begins at sundown, More posts coming later.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Newly Available Details on JFK and Israel's Nuclear Program

I have periodically cited pieces by Avner Cohen here since Avner is the go-to expert on the Israeli nuclear program, and last year I noted the inauguration of the National Security Archive's collection of documents on the program, which Cohen edits. Their latest release of documents is "Concerned About Nuclear Weapons Potential, John F. Kennedy Pushed for Inspection of Israel Nuclear Facilities." 

Given Israel's well-known cone of silence around its nuclear program, these accounts with their supporting documents from declassified US sources are often the best documentation we have; Haaretz has a report here (paywalled).

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

April 19, 1916: The Death of Von der Goltz (Goltz Pasha): Was He Murdered?

Prussians: Count von Zeppelin, Baron von der Golst, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Helmuth von Moltke

A century ago today, the Prussian officer commanding Ottoman operations against the British in Mesopotamia, Field Marshal Colmar Freiherr (Baron) von der Goltz, died in Baghdad at the age of 72, reputedly of typhus.

We have met von der Goltz before. In 2014 I ran three posts on the siege and surrender of Kut (Part I; Part II; Part III); because I told the story then I have not noted the centennials of each of the failed British attempts to lift the siege. I'll return to the story soon to mark the surrender anniversary.

Field Marshal von der Goltz
Born in East Prussia in 1843, he followed his father into the Prussian Army and fought in the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian wars. After the victory and German unification he served at the military school in Potsdam and the Historical Section of the General Staff. There he wrote a number of works on the history and theory of warfare, some quite influential.

After the Ottoman defeat in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, he was sent to train the Ottoman Army, serving as head of the German Military Mission in Constantinople. He held the position for 12 years, learning Turkish and training a generation of young Ottoman officers, many of whom would form the core of the Young Turk Revolution. Before returning to Germany in 1895 he had achieved the title of Pasha and the Ottoman rank of Müşir (Field Marshal).

He held various commands in the German Army and wrote on Ottoman affairs, welcomed the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, and in 1911 retired from the Army with the rank of Generalfeldmarschal.

Retirement proved short-lived, however. Recalled to active service at the outbreak of war in 1914, he became Military Governor of Belgium, where he became notorious for reprisals against civilians.

He was soon sent to Constantinople as a Military Adviser to the Sultan, a meaningless position. There was personal friction between von der Goltz, the original head of the German Military Mission decades earlier, and the current incumbent of that post, Otto Liman von Sanders. War Minister Enver Pasha also wanted Goltz Pasha out of Constantinople. The friction was resolved by transferring Goltz to the command of the Sixth Army in Mesopotamia, where he took over as the siege of Kut was under way.

Goltz Pasha oversaw the campaign but did not survive to witness the surrender. He took ill and died in Baghdad on April 19, 10 days before Townshend surrendered on April 29.Goltz was replaced as Sixth Army Commander by Baghdad Governor Khalil Pasha (known after the war as Halil Kut), who had been in command at Kut and accepted the surrender.

The official cause of Goltz's death was typhus, though cholera and typhoid were sometimes mentioned. But almost immediately there were rumors that Baron von der Goltz had been poisoned, purportedly by a cabal of Young Turk officers. This rumor seems to have been spread among Germans; no evidence was ever forthcoming, but suspicions persist nonetheless.

The Funeral in Baghdad
Oddly enough, British General Frederick Maude, who eventually took Baghdad in 1917, came down with cholera on a later campaign and died in November 1917, in the very same house in Baghdad where Goltz had died.

The Tomb
A funeral was held in Baghdad (above left), and then von der Goltz was transported with an escort, to Constantinople, where in accordance with his will, he was buried on he grounds of the German consulate in Tarabya, overlooking the Bosporus.

There's a final irony to the Goltz story. When Field Marshal von Schliefen retired as Chief of the German General Staff in 1906, one of the candidates to replace him was von der Goltz, but the job went instead to Helmuth von Moltke (at right in the photo at top). The "Younger Moltke," namesake but not equal in skill to his uncle the "elder Moltke," genius of the Franco-Prussian War. The younger Moltke was replaced after the Battle of the Marne by Erich von Falkenhayn. Given a desk job in Berlin, his health began to deteriorate.  On June 18, 1916, just two months after Goltz's death in Baghdad, Moltke was attending a memorial service for von der Goltz in Potsdam, when the 68-year-old Moltke collapsed and died.



Monday, April 18, 2016

April 1916: British Air Raid on Constantinople

Lts. Savory and Dickenson on Mudros with one of the B.E. 2c bombers
I haven't been noting every centennial date for the First World War in the Middle East, but one event which marked its anniversary a few days ago deserves note: on the stormy night of April 14-15, 1916, three aircraft of the British Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) bombed Constantinople and Adrianople.
Operating from Mudros, two aircraft of C Flight attacked the Zeitunlik powder mills and the Demirkhan gun factory, while a third aircraft bombed the railway station at Adrianople (Edirne). The bombers were the B.E. 2-c.

Smyth-Piggott
Leading the raid was Squadron-Commander Joseph Ruscombe Wadham Smyth-Piggott (left), the other fliers on the raid were Flight Lieutenant Kenneth Stevens Savory, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Richard Sebastian Willoughby Dickinson (the two shown above), and Flight Sub-Lieutenant I.H.W. "Jacky" Barnato, a Jewish airman.

There had been other air raids against Smyrna and Gallipoli from Mudros and elsewhere in the Aegean, but this raid was a rund rip of 300 miles and drew attention at the time, though it would be overshadowed by another raid in 1917.  While doing little damage at the time, it reportedly alarmed the population of he Ottoman capital.

Later in the war, the RNAS was merged with the Royal Flying Corps, ancestor of the RAF.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

April 13, 1975: The Lebanese Civil War Begins, 41 Years Ago Today

The Bus
Forty-one years ago today, a series of violent incidents in the mostly Christian and Druze Beirut suburb of ‘Ayn al-Rummaneh (عين الرمانة) between Phalangists and Palestinians would come to be seen as the opening shots of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

Of course, this was no more the first sectarian violence in Lebanon, any more than 1990 was the last. But it is conventionally seen as he outbreak of the war.

Like so much else in the war, the narratives of the incidents as preserved among the mostly Maronite Phalangists (Kata'ib) and the Palestinians and their allies. An initial clash in the morning between Phalangist militiamen of the Kata'ib Regulatory Forces (later known as the Lebanese Forces Militia) and Palestinians led to a second clash an hour or two later, both outside a church; in the second several were killed in a Palestinian reprisal. Later the same day, a bus full of Palestinians passing through en route to the Sabra refugee camp was attacked by Phalangists under Bashir Gemayel, son of the Phalangist leader Pierre Gemayel.

The Bus as Memorial
About 30 were killed, and over several ensuing days the Phalangists and their Chamounist Christian allies traded reprisals with Palestinians and their Lebanese allies. In later narrative, Phalangists saw it as an attack on Pierre Gemayel himself; Palestinians as a Phalangist attack on themselves. Still in the future were Syrian intervention, Israeli and Western intervention, and countless shifts in allegiance, but the die was cast and Lebanon had crossed its Rubicon.

Why Is Syrian Regime Shifting Priorities Back to Aleppo?

 Institute for the Study of War
Last month, after regime forces captured Palmyra from ISIS, I speculated that the regime forces would proceed from there to lift the siege of Deir al-Zor, which could cut ISIS communications between its capital at Raqqa and its territories in Iraq.

Another option could be to move directly on Raqqa from the north and south, coordinating between regime and YPG forces. The Wilson Center's Henri Barkey made the case for the US and its allies targeting Raqqa ahead of the campaign against Mosul.

But it now seems clear that the Asad government and its allies, which now include Special Forces units of the Regular Iranian Army (Artesh) in addition to the long-present IRGC, have decided on a different priority: completing the encirclement of Aleppo and recapturing the city. An assessment here.

Asad's Prime Minister, Wa'el al-Halaqi, has explicitly said that the regime and the Russian Air Force  are now determined to complete he encirclement of Aleppo. Many of the elite Syrian and Iranian forces that spearheaded the recapture of Palmyra have now been moved to southern Aleppo province, and the Syrian Army's elite Tiger Forces and its commander, Maj. Gen. Suheil al-Hasan, have reportedly been assigned the task of closing the ring around Aleppo.

Retaking Syria's most populous city (as it was before the civil war) would be a great symbolic victory for the Asad regime, but the intermingling of armed groups in the Aleppo fight makes a campaign there much more dangerous, with the potential of undermining the remaining elements of the cessation of hostilities, in place since February, with the new round of Geneva talks due this week. In Palmyra the only enemy was ISIS, which is not covered by the truce, but in Aleppo Jabhat al-Nusra, also not covered, is closely intertwined with Free Syrian Army forces, which are. So the Aleppo campaign could risk the fragile truce.

But it is worth noting that the capture of Aleppo is unlikely to be as simple as the capture of Palmyra. The Russian Air Force already faces criticism for striking civilian targets, and if Aleppo is completely cut off (there is currently only one road open), mass starvation could be a possibility. So there are clear dangers: of failure, of increased humanitarian suffering, of undermining the peace talks. There is a real possibility that, instead of following up its success at Palmyra with rapid further progress against ISIS, the rebimeand its patrons are choosing a potentially costly gamble they might well lose.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Israel Gives Green Light to Saudi-Egyptian Islands Deal

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and other senior Israelis have said Israel was informed in advance and is not concerned about the transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, since the Saudis are committed to maintaining the guarantees of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Saudi Arabia has said that this does not mean normalization with Israel, but it appears to be another instance of the growing commonality of interest between Israel and the conservative Sunni Gulf states.

Within Egypt there is growing criticism for the deal, with many charging that President Sisi "sold" Egyptian territory to the Saudis in exchange for aid.


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Monday, April 11, 2016

Transferring Tiran and Sanafir: The Legal and Sovereignty Issues

Announcements during King Salman's visit to Egypt that the two countries are planning to build a bridge from Saudi Arabia to Sinai connecting their territories, and that Egypt was recognizing the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, in the Straits of Tiran, as Saudi territory, have raised some eyebrows, especially the latter.

The bridge,which would  bypass Jordanian and Israeli territory to connect KSA with Egypt directly, raises questions over a number of environmental issues, but the transfer of the islands is even more controversial, and has long claimed the islands, which are part of its Ras Muhammad National Park and which are often visited by tourists in Sharm al-Sheikh.

Besides being unpopular with the Egyptian public, the transfer of the islands (which still must be approved by Parliament), the islands are also part of Area C under the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, the area to be demilitarized.  Saudi Arabia is not a party to the treaty.

The islands have been in dispute since he British and Ottoman eras, and the Saudis had possession until 1950 when they allowed Egypt to occupy them to prevent possible Israeli occupation.Under Nasser, Egypt claimed them as its own territory. When Nasser closed the Strait in 1967, provoking the 1967 war, its blockade was made possible by Egypt's control of the islands. Israel occupied them along with Sinai. When it evacuated the last parts of Sinai in 1982, it returned them to Egypt, but Saudi Arabia reasserted its claims. At that time Israel indicated it would consider any transfer of the islands to be a violation of the Peace Treaty.

Is that still the case? Perhaps not, since the emerging tacit Israeli cooperation with the Gulf States over Iran may mean Israel was kept in the loop, but issues involving the treaty could resurface, though some reports say the status quo will remain undisturbed despite the transfer of sovereignty.

Egypt claims that the transfer is in keeping with a 1990 Mubarak-era decree on Egypt's territorial seas, but many Egyptians see the transfer as payment for continuing Saudi financial support for Egypt.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Syria Claims to Have Retaken al-‘Eis After Several Days, Loss of Aircraft

Syrian regime reports say that they have now recovered the strategic town of al-‘Eis several days after it was taken by Jabhat al-Nusra. Nusra launched a major offensive south of Aleppo as fighting has intensified and the cessation of hostilities has been unraveling. Al-‘Eis, about 12 miles south of Aleppo, and its adjacent hill are well positioned to control the M5 highway just to the west, the main motorway connecting Aleppo to Damascus via Hama and Homs, and thus the urban spine of Syria. The M5 is still in rebel hands in several places.

Pro-regime media say the town and hill were retaken after heavy fighting, by Syrian Army troops and the 65th Iranian Special Forces Brigade with support from National Defense Forces militia, Hizbullah, and elements of the Iraqi al-Nujaba' Shi‘ite militia.

Do the Rebels have Shoulder-Launched SAMs?

Assuming the reports of the recovery of al-‘Eis are confirmed, it was recovered in about three days after heavy fighting, according to both sides. Yesterday (April 5) both sides confirmed (and multiple videos documented) the downing of a Syrian Air Force Su-22 fighter-bomber over al-‘Eis. Although Nusra said it was shot down by anti-aircraft fire, but the Syrian Government said it was a missile. Shoulder-launched SAMs have not been confirmed to be in rebel hands, particularly jihadi groups like al-Nusra. If confirmed it could represent a significant escalation.

The pilot elected (video below) and is now held by al-Nusra.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Italy Appears to Be Losing Patience in the Regeni Case

The Italian Government and media appear to be losing patience with Egypt's failure to provide a satisfactory explanation of the bating death, with signs of torture, of Graduate student Giulio Regeni. After Italy rejected the "it was a criminal gang and they're all dead now. Case closed" explanation, Egypt. Now Italy appears to be upping the ante:
The foreign minister of Italy said Tuesday that his government would take “immediate and proportional” measures against Egypt if it failed to help uncover the truth behind the death of an Italian graduate student in Cairo two months ago.
“We will stop only when we will find the truth, the real one,” Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told Parliament, adding that he would not accept any “fabrication.”

Egypt delayed one delegation to Italy, and even the Editor of state-owned  Al-Ahram dared to suggest that the case could have the kind of effect the death of Khaled Said ha on the Mubarak regime.

There are reports that Egypt would admit to having investigated Regeni.

Meanwhile the Association for Italian Tourism said it was suspending all package tours to Egypt.

The Regeni case, due to its international dimension, is also being increasingly embraced by the Egyptian opposition as a means of mobilizing foreign support in aneriod of increasing repression.

Assessing the Damage at Palmyra after a Week

A week after the recapture of Palmyra from the Islamic State, considerably more information is emerging about the degree of damage to the antiquities in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. My initial assessment last week seems to still hold true: the destruction is not complete, but it's bad enough.

ASOR, the American Schools of Oriental Research, today released their detailed assessment, based on journalists' reports, the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM),  and military sources. In addition to the videos I posted last week, there are links to many more by Russian and Syrian media and an AFP photographer. You can read the ASOR report online here, or download the PDF here. This is probably the best overview I've seen to date,

You can also find extensive photographs at the DGAM web page, including photos of the damage to the ruins  (English; Arabic here) and to the museum (English; Arabic here); a more recent report here. (Arabic here).

DGAM also posted a Tribute to Khaled Assad, the octogenarian archaeologist  and Director of the site, who was executed last year by ISIS.

The Gates of Nineveh website also has a good survey with links, photos, and videos.

Not all sites have been fully investigated as mines are still being cleared.

Here's an overview video among many:

The museum was extensively damaged; however some reports say that many key exhibits were moved to Damascus and replaced by casts before the fall to ISIS.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Erdoğan's Washington Misadventure

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's trip to Washington last week was supposed to go better than it did. The trip, coinciding with the Nuclear Security Summit, was supposed to help enhance his image in the West but, as my MEI colleague Gonul Tol notes, it did the reverse. Not only did Erdoğan and the Obama Administration snipe at each other over the Syrian PYD and the issue of press freedom in Turkey, but an embarrassing series of confrontations outside the Brookings Institution between Erdoğan's security detail and protesters, and their attempt to exclude certain Turkish journalists from the event, merely reinforced the impression of Erdoğan as an increasingly autocratic "Sultan."

The trip compounds Erdoğan's recent missteps, such as his summoning the German Ambassador to protest a satirical video about him on German TV, which backfired badly by driving online viewing to over four million views, in a classic example of the so-called "Streisand effect." in which an attempt to suppress information backfires and leads to its being more widely publicized.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Two Posts on Diglossia in Algeria

A common theme here has long been diglossia, the problems created by the dichotomy between the spoken Arabics learned at one's mother's knee, and Modern Standard Arabic, the "Classical" or literary language used for writing and formal speech.

This is deadline week for our Spring issue, so in my own absence let me link to two more on that familiar subject from Algerian linguist Lameen Souag:

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

After Palmyra: What Next?

Now that Syrian forces have recovered Palmyra, where do they go from here? The campaign to retake Palmyra benefited from the inactivity on other fronts as a result of the ongoing cessation of hostilities (which excludes operations against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra), and certainly the Syrian government and Russia are claiming a significant victory. The Institute for the Study of War has an analysis of the Palmyra campaign as well as a useful map:
But once control of Palmyra is consolidated, where does the war against ISIS go from here? Syrian pro-government media are pointing in two directions from Palmyra: toward Qaryatayn to the southwest, and toward reopening the road to Deir al-Zor to the northeast in an effort to lift the ISIS siege of the Syrian Army garrison there.

Syrian forces were already pushing toward Qaryatayn from the west; a column from Palmyra could provide additional pressure.


But Syrian reports also say that forces from Palmyra are advancing in the direction of Sukhna, which would suggest an effort to clear the road to Deir al-Zor. It is also claimed that the besieged forces in Deir al-Zor are pushing westward.
If Syrian forces could clear the motorway to Deir al-Zor, they would end the siege, and open a route to the Euphrates, and also find themselves 140 kilometers downriver from the IS capital at Raqqa. Raqqa would then be vulnerable from the expanding area of regime control around eastern Aleppo, the YPG forces already threatening Raqqa from the northeast, and a potential column advancing upriver from Deir al-Zor.

That will not be accomplished overnight. The distances are substantial, though mostly across open desert. The Palmyra campaign relied heavily on elite Syrian Army forces, Hizbullah allies, and Russian air cover. (As part of the Palmyra campaign, Syria has recovered the Tadmur Air Force base, giving Syrian and Russian aircraft a forward operating base.)

As an aside they have presumably also recovered the notorious Tadmur Prison, once the regime's most notorious.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Palmyra Destruction is Not Complete, But Bad Enough

Now that the Islamic State has been driven out of Palmyra, there have been some reports suggesting that the damage to the ancient site is not as bad as had been feared.

Insofar as it proves to be true, that's good news, of course, but let's not sound too optimistic. We know the once beautifully well-preserved Temple of Bel was razed:
Temple of Bel (my photo, 1972)
And we know little was left:
 

Triumphal Arch (My photo, 1972)
We also know that the Temple of Baalshamin and the Great Triumphal Arch (above) were also turned to rubble.  ISIS also destroyed several tower tombs which, like the temples, they considered idolatrous. But the amphitheater received little damage, though it reportedly was used for executions, and while some exhibits in the museum were smashed, others are said to be intact.

Russia has released drone footage showing the site from the air. The first version, from RT, is in English without commentary; the second has fuller commentary in Russian, which I don't speak but some readers will.

Finally, I add an ASOR aerial shot of the site before ISIS for comparison.





Friday, March 25, 2016

Egyptian Police Say Regeni Killing Was Done by a "Criminal Gang" Disguised as Police, But the Gang is All Dead Now, So, Case Closed?

From the time Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni was found tortured and killed, the police have offered several explanations, but most have been dismissed or denied by prosecutors investigating the case.

The latest explanation goes like this: Regeni was kidnapped by a gang who dressed as policemen to abduct and rob foreigners. (Are other foreigners missing?) The police raided the gang's hideout and found Regeni's passport and other belongings. Conveniently the gang were all killed in the resulting firefight. Therefore, case closed, right?

The fact that the police have produced Regeni's passport could, of course, be just as easily explained if, as many suspect, they were responsible for his death. The Ministry of the Interior, which supervises the police, has given confused accounts of whether the gang was responsible. Blogger Zeinobia raises some of the obvious questions.

Nor is Italy satisfied. The whole thing seems too convenient, and now the Interior Ministry says the investigation is ongoing.

I don't think this case is closed, however much the police may want it to be.