A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, June 30, 2014

Declaring a Caliphate Doesn't Make One a Caliph

Hussein of Hijaz
So Ibrahim al-Badri, AKA Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, thinks he's Commander of the Faithful of a new Islamic Caliphate? Not so fast.There are abundant reasons to fear the murderous Baghdadi and his ISIS (or now apparently just "The Islamic State"),  but fear of the world's Muslims rallying behind a new Caliphate seems misplaced. Juan Cole made the point yesterday in his "The Debacle of the Caliphates: Why al-Baghdadi’s Grandiosity doesn’t Matter," gave the basic argument, but I'd like to elaborate on some of his points.

In 1924, two days after the Turkish Grand National Assembly abolished the Ottoman claim to the Caliphate, the Hashemite King Hussein of the Hijaz, the same Sharif Hussein who had raised the Arab revolt, proclaimed himself Caliph. He met with little enthusiasm, though his sons,  now Amir of Transjordan and King of Iraq, were no doubt polite about it.

Later that year Hussein was driven out of his Kingdom by the Saudis,nd lived out his last years in Amman.

When the Turkish claim to the Caliphate ended (and it had never been taken very seriously outside Ottoman territory, except to a limited extent among some Indian Muslims; the Ottomans were not from Quraysh or even Arab), various other leaders considered following suit. The Saudis did not: they believed (as had been the rule in the Classical era) that Caliphs must come from the tribe of Quraysh, which Hussein did but the Saudis did not.The Ottomans weren't from Quraysh either. King Fuad I of Egypt, though of Turco-Albanian ancestry, reportedly hired genealogist to find him  a suitable Qurayshi ancestor.

In 1924, the newly, at least nominally, independent Arab monarchs were not ready to recognize anyone else as a real Caliph. Scholars still argued that the Caliphate was a necessity; when Egyptian scholar ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Razzaq argued it was no longer necessary, he was rebuked by his superiors at al-Azhar.

But as Cole notes, the Caliphate as a real center of authority ended with the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in AD 1258.

But even before that, it had been weak; the later ‘Abbasid Caliphs depended on a sequence of warlords of Persian or Turkish origin, and a distinction arose between the religious authority of the Caliph and the military/political power of the "Sultan," a word which means simply "power."

From 945-1055 AD Baghdad was under the authority of the Buyids, a Persian dynasty of 12er Shi‘ites who nonetheless accepted the authority of the Sunni ‘Abbasid Caliphs. Soon after their rise to power came the Fatimid Dynasty, who called themselves a Caliphate but were Isma‘ili Shi‘ites, and controlled Egypt and North Africa and contested Syria. Though the Sunni Caliphate survived, much of the real power was in the hands of Shi‘ites. The emergence of Sunni warlords such as the Zangids in Syria, the Ayyubids in Egypt, and eventually the Seljuq Turks, restored Sunni dominance, but only occasionally could the late ‘Abbasids exert any real authority, and then usually only around Baghdad. In 1258 the last Caliph of Baghdad died and the Mongols extinguished the Caliphate.

Tombs of the ‘Abbasid Caliphs of Cairo
Though not quite. In Cairo's great southern cemetery, in the rear of the great shrine-tomb of Sayyida Nafisa, one of Cairo's patron saints, is a much smaller structure, domed, and with a number of cenotaphs. This is the tomb of the "shadow caliphs," the ‘Abbasid Caliphs of Cairo.

A few members of the ‘Abbasid family escaped the fall of Baghdad. The Mamluk Sultans in Egypt, who would eventually stop the Mongol advance in Palestine, gave refuge to a claimant who "ruled," without any real power or broad acknowledgement, outside of the Mamluk realms, and only a token recognition even there. Unlike the popular shrine of Sayyida Nafisa next door, the tomb attracts few other than students of Islamic architecture.

In all there were 18 ‘Abbasid Caliphs in Cairo (one counts twice as he was deposed and restored). At the time of the Ottoman conquest of Mamluk Egypt in 1517, the last of these, al-Mutawakkil III, was carried off to Constantinople; he later returned to Cairo where he died.

In theory, the Ottoman claim to the Caliphate was based on the idea that the title was transferred to them after their conquest of Egypt, though as early as Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror a century earlier, some Sultans flirted with claiming the title.

But the Ottomans, whatever latent claim they might assert, did not seriously emphasize the Caliphate until Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909), who sought to claim a role beyond the Ottoman dominions. During World War I, though the Sultan of that era was a figurehead of the Young Turks, he proclaimed a Jihad in hopes of provoking risings by Muslims in British India. When Turkey was declared a republic in 1923, an Ottoman relative, Abdülmecid II, remained Caliph but not Sultan until the abolition in 1924.

But again, if the ‘Abbasid Caliphs of Cairo were shadows, the Ottoman Caliphate was a phantom, only really asserted from the late 19th century.

Not everyone agrees whether a Caliph has to be from Quraysh, but he does need the consensus of the Muslim umma, needs to be a just ruler with religious knowledge (he is the khalifa or successor of the Prophet , though not to his prophethood, merely his political and religious authority), and of all the potential candidates, I rather doubt that Baghdadi will sway most believers. I suspect, like King Hussein of Hijaz, proclaiming himself Caliph will not make him one.

Have I mentioned I'm the Lost Dauphin of France?

Photos of Ottoman Troops in WWI

I'm working on Part 3 of my post about the surrender of Kut, but in the meantime let me note that last Friday, to mark the anniversary of Sarajevo, Hurriyet Daily News published a slideshow of photos from the Turkish General Staff Archives of Ottoman troops during World War I.

The general caption describes the troops as "defending Anatolia," but a variety of locales seem to be included, including many in snow (the Caucasus front?), but also a number with Arab troops, Arab dignitaries, and camel transport.

I have previously noted that the modern narratives of both Turkish nationalists and Arab nationalists have tended to ignore the large number from the Arab province who served in the Ottoman Army, including the fact that two of the three regiments that served under Mustafa Kemal at Gallipoli had been recruited in Syria.

The total of photos in the slideshow is 45; those that look most like the Middle Eastern fronts are in the last 10 or so.

ISIS and Mosul's Antiquities

ISIS, which has now rebranded itself as just "The Islamic State," and has declared a Caliphate, continues to try to entrench its position. Juan Cole reminds us that declaring a Caliphate does not a Caliph make, But that does not mean that great damage is not being done: ISIS is reportedly destroying statues and some ancient tombs, and has removed ancient manuscripts from display in Mosul,

The Syrian civil war has already had a devastating effect on antiquities. Now Mosul's past may also be disappearing. The deaths and destruction of any war threaten the country's future, but this threatens to rob Iraqis of their past as well.

On the "Caliphate" issue, see also this discussion at Syria Deeply.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Ramadan Karim

Ramadan begins at sundown today. May I wish my Muslim readers a Blessed Ramadan.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Surrender at Kut, 1916, Part II: Townshend Advances, Retreats, and is Besieged

This is Part II of my post on the British military disaster at Kut in Iraq in 1916. Part I, introducing the various British and Ottoman officers in the Mesopotamia campaign, appeared on Wednesday.

The maps in this post are from the West Point historical series via Wikimedia Commons. For photos and profiles of the participants, see Part I.

Britain had occupied Basra and its oilfields with Indian Army troops in December 1914, after Turkey had entered the war in late October. After taking Basra and Qurna, the British settled in for a while, but after defeating an Ottoman assault at Shaiba on April 12-15, the British became overconfident. Sir John Nixon was named overall commander, while on the Turkish side Nureddin Bey took over after his predecessor killed himself following defeat at Shaiba, (For Nixon and Nureddin, see part I.) Note that the victory at Shaiba was in April 1915. Ten days after it, British and ANZAC forces landed at Gallipoli.

Nixon felt that the ineffective Ottoman resistance might make it possible to advance up the rivers, and turned to General Charles Townshend and his 6th Indian (Poona) Division, ordering him to advance to Kut or, if possible, even to Baghdad.

Townshend set out and on June 3 took ‘Amara; he reached Kut (also known as Kut al-‘Amara) on September 24 and captured it on September 28.

Townshend referred to remain at Kut. But things were not going so well on the Eastern Fronts.The Gallipoli campaign was stalled; in the Balkans Austria had defeated Serbia, and Bulgaria had entered the war on the side of the Central Powers; the Turks had overland links to their allies. German Field Marshal von der Goltz (See Part I) was en route to take over the Mesopotamian campaign but had not yet arrived. Townshend was ordered to advance the less than 100 miles or so to Baghdad; even if after taking it, he had to withdraw, it would be a symbolic demonstration.

Townshend had one Indian Division advancing up the Tigris with some naval and logistical support; Nureddin had four divisions, but under strength (about 18,000 total to Townshend's 12,000-13,000). Two of Nureddin's divisions were recruited in the Arab provinces, and two were ethnically Turkish.

Turkey had belatedly realized the Anglo-Indian threat in Mesopotamia. Not only was von der Goltz dispatched to the theater, but reinforcements were on the way and on October 5, the Turkish 6th Army was constituted in Mesopotamia.

In the meantime, Townshend's push up the Tigris had continued. Near the town of Salman Pak and some 40 miles upriver from Kut, lay the ruins of the ancient Parthian and Sassanian Persian capital at Ctesiphon, al-Mada'in ("the cities") in Arabic. Only 20 miles or so from the outskirts of Baghdad, it was there that Nureddin chose to make his stand. Within a fortified line within a loop of the Tigris, with well-positioned artillery and his freshest division across his front, Nureddin was in a strong defensive position..
The Arch at Ctesiphon
The two-day battle, known to the British as the Battle of Ctesiphon and to the Turks as the Battle of Salman-i-Pak, was tactically indecisive but strategically a defeat for the British. Though Turkish casualties were higher, Townshend lost roughly 40% of his effective fighting strength (4,600 men) in killed, wounded, or captured, and decided to retreat. The wounded were gathered at the great Arch of Ctesiphon, the Taq Kisra or Arch of Chosroes.

On November 24, Townshend, too weakened to continue to Baghdad, withdrew towards Kut.

The Battle of Ctesiphon, though militarily a draw, was a strategic victory for the Turks. British soldiers, puzzled at how to pronounce "Ctesiphon," reportedly nicknamed it "Pistupon."

Townshend reached Kut December 3. Nureddin, and the by now real commander Field Marshal von der Goltz, arrived December 7.

Kut lay in a loop of the Tigris and appeared to be an eminently defensible position (the literal meaning of "Kut" is "fort"), since the British had thus far controlled river access. Townshend decided to await relief there and make a stand.

It was a mistake. Logistics were already an issue, the Ottoman forces were reinforcing, and the campaign was now under the command of a veteran German field marshal and military historian fully at home with Ottoman troops, and Townshend was soon fully encircled by the Turkish Sixth Army, with the river blocked by artillery positions and mines.

Part 3 will address the multiple failed relief expeditions, the failed attempt by British intelligence (represented by T.E. Lawrence and Aubrey Herbert) to bribe the Turkish commander to release Townshend, and finally the surrender itself and the subsequent imprisonment of the garrison.

Turkish 6th Army entrenchments during the Siege of Kut, 1916: 

Algerians, Other Arabs Celebrate World Cup Advance Across Europe

While Americans are enthusiastic about the fact that the USA team in the World Cup is advancing to the next stage, Algeria on the same day tied Russia to also advance, after a previous rout of South Korea 4-2, reportedly the first time an Arab team has scored four goals in a World Cup game. That was Algeria's first World Cup win since 1982, and the first by an Arab country in 16 years. See this article at the FIFA website.

The celebrations have not just been limited to Algeria; much of the Arab World has joined in. And the huge Algerian population in France have too, and have clashed with riot police in Paris and other French cities:

Speaking of the Great War: 100 Years Ago Tomorrow, "Some Damned Foolish Thing in the Balkans"

Europe today is a powder keg and the leaders are like men smoking in an arsenal … A single spark will set off an explosion that will consume us all … I cannot tell you when that explosion will occur, but I can tell you where … Some damned foolish thing in the Balkans will set it off.
—Otto von Bismarck at the Congress of Berlin in 1878
The second post on Kut is coming later this evening. Meanwhile I thought it worth noting another World War I connection: that tomorrow marks the centenary of the "some damned foolish thing in the Balkans" that the Iron Chancellor had prophesied in 1878, the assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie. In a little over a month, much of Europe was at war.

Though Turkey did not formally join the war until October, its tilt towards Germany was already under way in that summer of 1914.

Note too in the famous photo of the Archduke and wife leaving Sarajevo's city hall on the day of the assassination, we see reminders (fezzes, clerical turbans) that it was only in that same Congress of Berlin that witnessed Bismarck's comment in 1878, that Bosnia and Herzegovina had ceased to be Ottoman territory and fell under Austrian control.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Iraq's Assyrian Christians Under (and Near) ISIS

It's well known that Iraq's Christians suffered heavily during the sectarian wars of the past decade, and that large numbers have fled the country. Now, with ISIS in control of Nineveh province, the heartland of Assyrian and Chaldean Christians in Iraq, the news is even worse. Jamie Dettmer at The Daily Beast visits Bartilla, which ISIS hasn't yet reached and is under Kurdish control, but with ISIS a 10-minute drive away, the Christians are getting nervous.

Edessa (now Şanlıurfa just over the Syrian border) was one of the first cities in Upper Mesopotamia to convert to Christianity, and the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, still the Eucharistic liturgy of the Assyrian Church of the East, is considered by liturgical experts to be the oldest Christian liturgy still in use. Because the Church of the East flourished in the lands of the Persian rather than the Roman Empire, and were dismissed as "Nestorians" and heretical by the Western churches, this very ancient history is largely forgotten. Sadly, its modern adherents (and their Chaldean Catholic neighbors) may be feeling forgotten as well.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Could the Return of ‘Izzat Ibrahim Be Somehow a Good Thing?

I'm wrapping up our summer issue; Part II of the post on Kut will be posted tomorrow with luck.

I previously posted on the odd alliance between Saddam's old number two, ‘Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the Naqshbandi Sufi order, and ISIS, which have few common interests other than all being Sunni.

Now Michael Knights at The New Republic tries to find something positive in this grotesque Hitler-Stalin Pact style Hobson's choice: "Saddam Hussein's Faithful Friend, the King of Clubs, Might Be the Key to Saving Iraq: Assuming, that is, the mysterious Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri is even still alive." 

Eek! If Saddam's old henchman is the "key to saving Iraq" things are even worse than I feared. My previous allusion to the Hitler-Stalin Pact stands.

It reminds me of the old joke about the Pole who is asked, "if you're invaded by Germany and Russia at the same time, who do you fight first?" [Which actually happened in 1939.] To which the Pole responds, "Germany, of course. Business before pleasure."

It also reminds me of the story of the boy who was such an optimist that a psychiatrist introduced him to a room full of horse manure. The boy was overjoyed and started digging. When asked why he wasn't repulsed, he replied, "Isn't it obvious? With all this horseshit, there has to be a pony in here somewhere." It takes that level of optimism to find a silver lining in the return of a butcher like ‘Izzat Ibrahim, though the fact that ISIS' successes include allies with very different goals may undercut their prospects over time.

Despite these doubts, Knights' article is worth your time.

Remembering "Mespot" and an Earlier Military Disaster in Iraq: The Surrender of Kut, 1916, Part I

Note: This is Part I of what will be (at least) a three part post.

Those who do not remember history, it is said, are condemned to repeat it. With Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, and various Kagans telling us why we need boots on the ground, many seem to assume Americans have severe short-term memory loss. One of the big mistakes in the Iraq war was the lack of understanding of Iraq's history. In early 2003, I spoke to a senior Pentagon planner and remarked that if we went in, I hope we didn't make the kind of mistakes that Britain made in 1920. This senior Pentagon official, just weeks before the war started, asked me what had happened in 1920.

I suppose he found out eventually: a widespread insurgency against the occupier, just like happened to us, and in many of the same places.

But 1920 was not Britain's worst moment in the Middle East. Kut was. It was to remain the largest surrender of British Empire troops in history, 12,000, until the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. (For US readers: Cornwallis had 9,000 at Yorktown.) And it was the Ottoman Army, long derided as corrupt and untrained, representing the "Sick Man of Europe," that took their surrender. (Though earlier in 1915, those perceptions began to change, at least to those British and Anzac troops stuck in Gallipoli.)

The whole Mesopotamian Theater of Operations acquired the soldiers' nickname "Mespot," pronounced "mess pot," and a reminder of the usual perceptiveness of the ordinary infantryman.

There is a frequently quoted (though variously attributed) story of a dialogue by German or other generals about the British: "The British soldiers fight like lions." "Yes, but they are lions led by donkeys." When it comes to British generalship in Mesopotamia in 1915-16, that is a slur on a determined and reliable beast of burden. The main British general in question, Major General Sir Charles Townshend, managed to get his force totally surrounded and cut off, and a succession of other generals, one after the other, failed to relieve him. The story is largely forgotten, but the surrender was a huge defeat, and though Townshend himself would sit out the war in a nice Turkish villa and his officers were also well attended to in captivity, the Indian enlisted men died in huge numbers in less well-appointed Turkish prisons, often of starvation.There are even some celebrity cameos, including T.E. Lawrence (not yet a celebrity and not yet "of Arabia"), as "the Negotiator."

Dramatis Personae

Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend came from a military and political family; his great-great-grandfather, George, First Marquess Townshend, had served in the Seven Years' War, was third under Wolfe at Quebec, and after Wolfe's death and Monckton's wounding, took command. He rose to the rank of Field Marshal. Apparently the Field Marshal gene didn't pass down. The younger Townshend's memoir of the war is even more divorced from other accounts than most generals' memoirs, which are always self-serving, but more about that anon.

When Turkey entered the war, the India Office felt that it would be wise to seize the oilfields north of Basra for the war effort. Led by the British Indian Army combined with the Royal Navy's dominance in Gulf and Indian waters, Britain moved to seize Basra and its oil-laden hinterland. It was, to use a term from a later era, a cakewalk.

Basra was taken in November 1914, less than a month after Turkey formally became a belligerent and six months before Gallipoli, and the largely absent Ottoman resistance led to overconfidence and, in time, what a future generation would call "mission creep."

Overlooking the fact that the Royal Navy could hardly operate in force on the Tigris and Euphrates, it was decided to use the Army to take Baghdad. It could have worked; British and Indian troops in the overall theater greatly outnumbered Ottoman; Turkey was preoccupied in Gallipoli, the Caucasus front with Russia, and Sinai-Palestine. But the Turks had interior lines of communication, some decent commanders and experienced troops, and, in this theater, General Feldmarschall Colmar Freiherr [Baron] von der Goltz (Goltz Pasha) of the German Army. Von der Goltz, who had trained the Ottoman Army since the 1870s, had been recalled from retirement at the beginning of the war, and sent to his old Ottoman turf. But he did not get on well with the head of Germany's Military Mission in Turkey, Gen. Liman von Sanders, and also was not a favorite of the Minister of War, Enver Pasha. Von der Goltz was accordingly stuck in what looked initially to be  backwater theater of the war, Mesopotamia.

Field Marshal von der Goltz
But whatever his flaws, Goltz was a Prussian Field Marshal who had joined the Prussian Army in 1861 (over 50 years before), served against Austria in 1866 and in the Franco-Prussian War, taught military history in the Prussian and later Imperial German military academy, and trained the Turkish Army during and after the Russo-Turkish war. And whatever Enver or Liman von Sanders may have thought of this 70-year-old man, a Prussian Field Marshal of the old school was still a Prussian Field Marshal of the old school.

Nureddin Pasha
From April 1915 the Ottoman military commander had been Nureddin Ibrahim Pasha (known as Nurettin Paşa in modern Turkish orthography), who took command of the Iraq Area Command when his predecessor committed suicide. A member of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, the "Young Turks") and a multilingual figure with experience in the Arab provinces and a command of Arabic, he was the commander when Townshend began his advance.

Khalil Pasha
Nureddin Pasha's superior in Baghdad, and later successor at the front, was Khalil Pasha (later known as Halil Kut in modern Turkish, since he took his greatest victory as a surname).

An uncle of Enver Pasha, Khalil Pasha has also long been accused in complicity and active involvement in both the Armenian and Assyrian massacres. As governor of Baghdad Province and from April of 1916 commander of the Ottoman Sixth Army, he would be the man to accept Townshend's surrender. He would lead an interesting life in Moscow and Berlin until returning to Turkey after the Republic in 1923; he lived until 1957.

Gen. Sir John Nixon, upstaged by his hat
These were the frontline commanders. But Townshend's superiors were hardly Marlboroughs or Wellingtons either. Lieutenant General Sir John Eccles Nixon, Commander-in-Chief of the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force, had gained most of his military experience in the Second Afghan War and other British Indian conflicts around the periphery of the Raj. His experience seems to be all colonial Indian, except for a cavalry command in the Second Boer War. He was not a match for a Prussian Field Marshal van der Goltz, even if Goltz was 70.

Nixon's first effort to relieve Townshend would be led by Sir Fenton John Aylmer, 13th Baronet of Donadea.

He had won the Victoria Cross in a local campaign in India and, as a baronet, obviously had clout in society. He was less impressive in he field, and was soon turned back by the Turks. (The details will be recounted in the future parts of this post.)
Lt. Gen Sir Percy Lake
After Aylmer's failure, Nixon himself was replaced with Lt. Gen. Sir Percy Lake, who had mostly colonial experience and had served as Chief of the Canadian General Staff, though not Canadian. His knighthood dated from early 1916 as he was being posted to save Townshend.

When Lake took command, he tried another relief mission: General George Gorringe replaced Aylmer, and had slightly more military success, but still failed to relieve Townshend. Gorringe may have been a better general, but he still fell short.

In the end, Townshend surrendered, and all these British generals were sacked, kicked upstairs, or otherwise shunted aside. General Maude, who both succeeded to authority and succeeded in the field, is a story for another day.

But while I've introduced the dramatis personae, I still need to tell the tale. Please stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mohsen Milani on Iran's Goals in Iraq

Moshen Milani, writing at Foreign Affairs (free registration required), offers his views on Iran's likely strategy on Iraq while aiming not to be openly sectarian:  "Tehran Doubles Down:Iran's Plan to Win Iraq's Sectarian War." It's worth a read; we don't see as much discussion of Iran's calculations.

While such geopolitical strategy is left to Iran's Supreme Leader and perhaps the President and the military and IRGC, Iran's Parliament was meanwhile engaged in a crucial debate over whether women's leggings count as pants. After due deliberation, complete with slideshow, they ruled they do not.

Al Jazeera Convictions Outrage World: Congratulations to Egypt for Diverting Attention from Iraq

Egypt's conviction of the Al Jazeera journalists is drawing worldwide denunciation. Though Al Jazeera was clearly tilted towards the (formerly in power, now outlawed) Muslim Brotherhood, the "terrorism" charges against the reporters made little sense and the evidence  was meager.

Those, including me, who hoped that if convicted, the reporters would receive a Presidential pardon, seem to have been disappointed: Sisi says he will not interfere in the court's decision.

And the silencing of diverse voices proceeds: novelist and commentator Alaa Al-Aswany is giving up weekly column in Al-Masry al-Youm. Because, he says, "criticism and difference of opinion  is no longer allowed."

And just as the world's eyes had been focused on Iraq, Egypt propels itself back onto the world's front pages, and not in a good way. And just after John Kerry's visit with Sisi.

Language Questions: ISIS or ISIL? And is Peshmerga One Word or Two, Capitalized or Not?

When things develop rapidly, the news media does not always know how to handle it. During the Vietnam war, South Viet Nam spelled the country's name with two words,  North Vietnam with one. That spelling dispute was also settled on the battlefield. A couple of questions about English renderings in the present Iraq Crisis have arisen:


الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-‘Iraq wa'l-Sham,  literally means "The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham," and that is how this blog has been translating it when we use the full form. "Al-Sham" is the traditional Arabic word for "Greater Syria," Syria/Lebanon/Palestine/Jordan, roughly equivalent to the French-English term "Levant." Some therefore translate as "The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant," while others gloss the explanation as "The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria." Since both the "al-Sham" and "Syria" versions yield "ISIS" as an acronym, while "Levant" yields "ISIL," both have been used by various media outlets in English. ISIS seems to be dominating at the moment (since it can stand for two of the three possible translations), but President Obama has used ISIL. I prefer ISIS because "al-Sham" is the actual place name used, and "ISIS" is easy to pronounce, sounding like the Egyptian goddess, while ISIL, at least to me, sounds like some kind of medicine. I opt for ISIS for this blog.

The Washington Post, commenting on this, notes, "In any case, neither ISIS nor ISIL are as accurate as 'DAIISH,' the Arabic shorthand for the group that no one in the English-language press seems to use."  Technically true, but not gonna happen. Andrew Sullivan has also weighed in, and opted for ISIS for many of the reasons I do,

Peshmerga, peshmerga, Pesh Merga, or pesh merga?

This question is purely orthographic in English and thus not one of translation.  The linguists at Language Log have raised the issue about the many ways of spelling (in English) the name of the Kurdish armed fighters, whose name everyone agrees means "those who confront death."

To some extent, it's a matter of preference. Like all languages written in versions of Arabic/Persian script, Kurdish has no capital letters. The Kurdish spelling is:

The peculiarities of Kurdish vowel marking make this look to an Arabic or Persian speaker like the division is Peshme Rga, but I'm sure that's not how Kurds see it. (I know no Kurdish.)

However, the Kurdistan Regional Government has a Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs:

and the KRG's English website always spells it Peshmerga. Henceforth, at least, that will the style I use here.

There may be other linguistic issues to emerge from current events. Already I am hearing the military acronym "Charlie Foxtrot" used more frequently. (Hint: it does not stand for "Coalition Forces.")

Monday, June 23, 2014

Another Incisive Piece by William R. Polk

William R. Polk has another incisive piece about the present mess, this time at The Atlantic: "William R. Polk on American Grand Strategy for Iraq, Syria, and the Region."

Only a few days ago, I noted another piece by Bill Polk, who has been making sense for over 50 years now. This one is unsparing in its critique.

Juan Cole reminds us of the Zangids

The medieval historian in me is delighted to see Juan Cole evoking the Zangids to discuss Iraq and Syria: ‘"Neo-Zangid State erases Syria-Iraq Border, cuts Hizbullah off from Iran."

He particularly notes that during the rule of ‘Imad al-Din Zangi (d. 1146 AD), who controlled northern Syria and Iraq but never held Damascus or Baghdad. (His son Nur al-Din took Damascus, but eventually was supplanted by Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin).

Fouad Ajami, 1945-2014: Neocon Yes, But His Shi‘ite Background May Have Been More Relevant

Hoover Institution
Fouad Ajami died yesterday of cancer, at the age of 68.

Ajami's career and work was long controversial, and in recent years, polarizing, in large part due to his enthusiastic support of the Iraq war and his adoption, along with Bernard Lewis, as the neocons' favorite Arabist.

Until his move to the Hoover Institution in 2011, Ajami was also a neighbor of ours at MEI: Director of Middle East Studies and holder of the Majid Khadduri Chair at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), which is directly across the back alley from us. Through the years, we crossed paths a number of times. I recall when Majid Khadduri himself died in 2007, Ajami complained about not being invited to speak at the memorial held by SAIS, where a wide range of Middle East hands spoke (including yours truly, both as a former student of Khadduri's and to acknowledge his many contributions to MEI and MEJ). but the holder of the Khadduri Chair had not been asked to do so. (The choices of eulogists were made by the Khadduri family, I believe, not by SAIS.) He did speak from the floor after the eulogies.

Early in his career, Ajami had been a strong supporter of Palestinian rights (see the ancient video at the end of this post), but from his first book, The Arab Predicament (1981) and through his The Dream Palace of the Arabs (1998), he presented a critique of the contemporary Arab political landscape that alienated much of the Arab World, and led to his virtual excommunication from Arab intellectual circles. That, in turn, may have accelerated his rightward drift.

Though often denounced in the Arab World as an American and Zionist fellow-traveler, my sense is that only the first accusation has some merit: he supported US engagement in the Arab World.

If anything, the fact that he was an Arab criticizing Arabs may have done more to anathematize him in the Arab World than even Bernard Lewis, who as a British and Jewish scholar who still takes pride in the label Orientalist was at least an obvious target. Fouad was one of their own.

But not entirely. If I had to choose one word to define his ideological leanings it would certainly not be "Zionist," and only latterly "neocon." It is a particular irony that he died at this particular moment in Middle Eastern history, because I think the most important factor in creating his worldview may have been a different word: Shi‘ism.

I have no idea if Fouad was religious, but sectarianism is not always a function of piety: how many IRA or Protestant figures in the Irish Troubles were churchgoers?

He was born in Arnoun in South Lebanon, of a family of Iranian origin who had migrated from Tabriz a century earlier. The word ‘ajami in Arabic can mean "foreigner" in general (the root is linked to deafness, as in "not understanding Arabic"), but its original meaning is "Persian."

In my personal opinion perhaps the best of his many books is today largely forgotten, and undeniably his most "Shi‘ite" book: The Vanished Imam: Musa Al-Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon (1986), about the charismatic Lebanese Shi‘ite leader (also southern Lebanese with Iranian links) who disappeared in Libya in 1978.

At least one part of Ajami's longstanding critique of Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism (though those movements had many Arab Christian adherents) is that they were essentially covers for Sunni domination. I suspect much of his enthusiasm for the Iraq War was a desire to see the Sunni domination of the Saddam era fall and the majority Shi‘ite population given power under American tutelage.

These, at least, are my personal readings. His work may have been divisive, but it did challenge one to debate, not just denounce. And, while I disagreed with many of his positions, de mortuis nil nisi bonum: he always seemed to me to be a serious scholar, an elegant writer, a witty raconteur, and a nice guy.

Three years ago, thanks to a tip by Joshua Teitelbaum, I discovered this amazing 1978 debate on Palestinian rights by a very full-bearded Fouad Ajami and a young American-Israeli identified as "Ben Nitay" who, if you don't immediately recognize him with more hair, you'll know the moment he speaks: it's a 28-year-old Binyamin Netanyahu.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Jack Shaheen Remembers Casey Kasem

Jack Shaheen, who has written and taught extensively on Arab stereotypes in American pop culture and media (The TV Arab, Reel Bad Arabs about the movies, etc.: see my 2011 posting on Jack), has written a short piece, "Remembering Casey Kasem," about the recently deceased disc jockey, music historian, and longtime American Top 40 radio host. (As a father I also had to watch a lot of Scooby Doo cartoons, and through much of its classic era. Casey was the voice of Shaggy.)

Jack notes what I already knew but many fans of Casey may not have: Kasem's long involvement in Arab-American activism and in combating stereotypes (Jack's specialty). Born Kemal Amin Kasem in Detroit of Lebanese Druze background, Kasem took his Arab background seriously and in his own Hollywood way did a great deal to shatter those stereotypes.

All the Good Stuff is Written, the World is Going to Hell, and it Already Was 3400 Years Ago: According to Khakheperraseneb

The XVIIIth Dynasty of Egypt (1543-1292 BC) ws one of the best-known New Kingdom dynasties, boasting such celebrities as Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Tutankhamen, and Hatshepsut. And apparently, writers were already lamenting that all the good stuff has already been written and the world is going to hell in a handbasket and it isn't like the good old days . . .

In other words, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

This blogpost led me to the British Museum's website notes on a tablet containing the words of a priest-scribe of Heliopolis called Seni’s son Khakheperreseneb, called Ankhu."

Khakheperreseneb didn't much like his times, sometime according to the BM in the early to mid part of Dynasty XVIII.

He already makes the classic writer's typical complaint, "All the good stuff has already been written" (in the British Museum's translation):
r.1 The collection of words, the gathering of verses,
the seeking of utterances with heart-searching,
made by the priest of Heliopolis,
Seni’s son Khakheperreseneb,
called Ankhu.
He says, `If only I had unknown utterances
and extraordinary verses,
in a new language that does not pass away,
free from repetition,
without a verse of worn-out speech
spoken by the ancestors!
I shall wring my body for what is in it,
- a release of all my speech.
For what is already said can only be repeated;
what is said once has been said;
this is no vain boast of the ancients’ speech
that those who are later should find it good.

The old values are challenged and the world is going to hell in a handbasket;and it's not like the good old days anymore:
I am meditating on what has happened,
the state of things that have happened throughout the land;
changes are happening - it is not like last year.
Each year is more burdensome than its fellow.
The land is in uproar, has become what destroys me,
has been made into what rests in peace.
Truth is put outside,
Chaos within the council.
The counsels of the Gods are thrown into tumult,
and Their directives are neglected.
The land is <in> calamity,
mourning in every place,
towns and districts in woe,
and everyone alike is wronged.
The back is turned on reverence;
the Lords of Silence are violated;
morning still happens every day,
but the face shrinks from what happens.
And we're all pretty much screwed:
I am meditating on what has happened:
misery has appeared today -
a morning when strangers have not passed away;
everyone is silent about it;
the whole land is in an extreme state.
There is no person free from wrong,
and everyone alike is doing it;
breasts are saddened;
he who commands is as he who is commanded,
and yet the hearts of both of them are calm.
Each day one must wake to it.
Hearts cannot put it aside;
yesterday’s share of it is like today’s,
because the many imitate it, because of harshness.
There is no one clever enough to understand;
there is no one angry enough to give voice.
Every day one wakes to suffering.
Long and heavy is my anguish.
The pauper has no strength
to <save himself> from the more powerful man.
Silence against what is heard is a disease,
v.5 but to answer the ignorant is sorrow,
to oppose an utterance now creates enmity.
The heart cannot accept Truth.
They have had no patience with the reply to a speech;
all a man loves is his own phrase;
everyone is based on crookedness,
and honest speech is abandoned.
I speak to you, my heart, so that you shall answer me.
A heart which is touched cannot be silent.
Look, the servant’s lot is like the lord’s,and many things are burdensome because of you.

Khakheperreseneb must have really been a downer at parties.

More Worthy Reads

Amid all the uninformed debate, a few more must-reads:

Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Reminder that Even in an Age of Sectarian Division . . .

. . . there are mixed families with a sense of humor:

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

More Solid Reading on Iraq

The other day I posted my "Readings on Iraq by People Who Know Something About Iraq."  James Fallows does something similar in The Atlantic, which has a lot more readers than I do: "What's Worth Reading About Iraq."

As it happens, our links are different, except for the same piece by Graham Fuller, so do read his as well. One of particular note is his link to a piece by William R. Polk with an introduction by Franklin C. Spinney. Bill Polk has been getting the Middle East mostly right since the 1950s. When I mentioned to my staff last year that I'd seen Polk during one of his occasional visits to DC (he lives in the French countryside, and is in his 80s), one of my younger staff members said, "I read his work as an undergraduate." To which I replied to someone some 40 years my junior, "Hell, I read his work as an undergraduate." He's written widely on US policy generally (he was involved with the Policy Planning Staff during the Cuban missile crisis) and on many aspects of the Arab world. But he's also a Harvard-trained historian whose first Middle East book, The Opening of South Lebanon 1788-1840: A Study of the Impact of the West on the Middle East (1963) is still a classic.

Oh, and don't miss this:

Sisi and His Cabinet: A Quick Take

Sisi swore in his first Cabinet today, mostly the old one; of the changes former Ambassador to the US Sameh Shoukri replacing Nabil Fahmy (also a longtime envoy to Washington) as Foreign Minister is the biggest news, which I'll analyze separately. A fuller analysis for now, here.

Just some quick comments, not a drill-down analysis: Sisi kept Ibrehim Mehleb (to Sisi's right, viewer's left), and most of his Cabinet. As I have noted, Mehleb is as fallul as they come. To Sisi's left, in the only uniform, is Defense Minister Sidqi Subhi, a longtime ally of Sisi's. To his left is Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim. Note that both he and Sisi are standing at military attention despite business suits: they are the invisible uniforms in the picture.

Four women: not bad in the Arab world. Only one in  hijab, and she in a stylish, colorful one. One cleric in clerical garb for religious affairs.

That Proposed Angelina Jolie as Gertrude Bell Movie Could Be Timely Right About Now . . .

Back in 2011 I noted that Angelina Jolie not only wanted to produce a film about Gertrude Bell, but also wanted to play the role herself. I'm all for a film about Gertrude Bell, which would be wildly timely since she pretty much cobbled Iraq together, but at the time I was pretty snarky, due to the "female Lawrence of Arabia" hype and the seemingly dubious casting:
Angelina Jolie
Gertrude Bell
I even compared it to the infamous casting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. But even a bad movie about Gertrude Bell could do real well right this minute. Angelina, I hope it wasn't my snark three years ago that killed this project, because you could have been a millionaire and an enormous celebrity. (Oh, wait you already are, aren't you? Never mind then.)

Still, an un-romanticized, play-it-straight film about Gertrude Bell . . .

UPDATE: Apparently another film is now filming in Jordan starring the (equally un-Bell-like) Nicole Kidman.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Is ISIS Overextended?

A look at any of the news media maps showing areas under ISIS control looks appalling, but the speed and extent of its initial success may also be an indicator of its vulnerability. Consider: in under a week it seized much of the north of Iraq, though it has not fully conquered every town along the way. Its predecessor, Al-Qa‘ida in the Land of the Two Rivers, also found itself overextended and also challenged within the Sunni community. With a logistical tail extending back into Syria and its forward positions outside Baghdad to both the north and west, it's a thin, long line to maintain. Now that Shi‘ite resistance is firming up and hardening, its momentum is dwindling.

And along much of its long, exposed left flank lies another potential challenge: the Kurdish peshmerga. Hammer, meet anvil.

ISIS doesn't fight like a conventional military force and conventional military considerations may not apply, but if I were ISIS, I might worry.

UPDATE: Try this map for instance. Feeling surrounded yet?

Some Readings on Iraq by People Who Know Something About Iraq

Amid all the uninformed debate on the news channels, a few refreshing oases of actual information and analysis, from varying perspectives (some require registration):

Monday, June 16, 2014

Thoughts on the Iraq Blame Game

Oh, my, it's come to this: the media has dug up Paul Bremer and asked him what to do in Iraq. Since I try to limit the use of four-letter words here to discussions of linguistics or quotes from others, and since any discussion of this would consist of a prolonged spewing of profanities, I shall refrain.

All of the neocons, it seems, are coming out of the woodwork and, like the Bourbons in the phrase usually attributed to Talleyrand., they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Bill Kristol was just on CNN; Max Boot and various Kagans are writing op-eds, and I don't even watch Fox News. Has Dick Cheney checked in yet? The neocons, of course, say ISIS' successes in Iraq is all Obama's fault, since he didn't leave a residual force. (I have this odd memory that we tried but that the Maliki government wouldn't negotiate a status of forces agreement. I guess I hallucinated that.)

Those who don't blame Obama blame George W. Bush. Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn Rule" ("If you break it, you've bought it") is enjoying a revival. And certainly if the US had never gone into Iraq, or stayed so long, things might have evolved very differently.

But ultimate causation is an endless issue. Maybe it's all Saddam's fault, or the Iran-Iraq war. Maybe it was the Baath in general, or the 1958 Revolution, or Nuri's adherence to the Baghdad Pact. Maybe it was the British favoritism of Sunnis under the mandate, or the population bombing campaign in 1920 or of course, the usual suspects, Sykes and Picot. Ottoman policies could be responsible, or the Mongols' destruction of Baghdad and the irrigation system in 1258, or ... well, you get the point. You could play the blame game back to Sargon of Akkad, or the Sumerians.

I'm not exonerating Bush or Obama, by the way. (And as always, opinions on this blog are my own and do not reflect the views of The Middle East Institute, which does not take institutional positions on Middle Eastern controversies.)  Everyone who has touched Iraq played a role in this. And though you wouldn't know it from some of the US political debate. Nuri al-Maliki has alienated the Sunni allies he once had; Iran, the war in Syria, and the meddling of the Gulf States and Turkey are also contributors.

But while US policies since 2003 (or 1991) are clearly complicit, the debate over which political party deserves the blame and how exactly America should "fix" Iraq is typical American domestic politics. I would never hold myself out as an Iraq expert (I've spent a total of five days there, but have studied its politics and history), I'm amazed at the self-acknowledged Iraq experts turning up on TV. Nobody like Phebe Marr, or Charles Tripp, or Peter Sluglett, or Adeed Dawisha, or Toby Dodge, or Amatzia Baram, mind you, though Reidar Visser has given an interview or two. Washington think-tankers have some people who at least know the subject, and while I often disagree with Ken Pollack or Mike Eisenstadt, I respect their genuine knowledge of the background. But many commentators on both sides are just grinding political axes. Majid Khadduri and Hanna Batatu (two very different men, but both profoundly understood Iraq) must be restless in their graves. I particularly wish Batatu were available for comment.

The current American blame game reminds me as nothing so much as the debate among former Confederate Generals after the US Civil War over responsibility for the loss at Gettysburg. Although Robert E. Lee blamed himself ("It is all my fault") and George Pickett of Pickett's charge blamed Lee for the destruction of his division, Lee's death in 1870 meant he was beyond criticism. Ex-Confederates then engaged in vigorous debates in journals such as Confederate Veteran and Southern Historical Society Papers for years about responsibility for Gettysburg. Many blamed Jeb Stuart, the absence of whose cavalry left Lee without crucial intelligence; Stuart died in the war but guerrilla John S. Mosby became his defender. After Lee's apotheosis (and therefore immunity from criticism), some blamed Richard Ewell and Jubal Early for failing to take the high ground on the first day. Early himself then became the most vigorous advocate for blaming James Longstreet, who doubted the plan to assault the Union lines frontally and was accused of acting slowly as a result. (The fact that Longstreet became a Republican while U.S. Grant was President fueled the hostility.)

The whole ex-Confederate debate almost never noted the fact that at Gettysburg there were also some 75,000 Union troops on the battlefield, superior in numbers and occupying a secure position on higher ground, and that this just might have played a role in the Confederate loss.

Just as I feel both Maliki and ISIS may bear at least some of the responsibility for events in Iraq.

I'm Betting This Will Be Ignored: Salafi Says Not to Watch World Cup

 Egypt failed to qualify for the World Cup this year, but nevertheless I don't think this will fly: via Egypt Independent,  "Salafi leader Borhamy forbids Watching World Cup matches." 
Vice-Chief of the Salafi Dawa Yasser Borhamy has issued a religious edict, saying that Muslims are forbidden from watching football matches in the World Cup as it could be seen as admiring disbelievers.
In his edict posted on Ana Salafi, the official website of the Salafi Dawa, Borhamy said, “the World Cup matches distract Muslims from performing their [religious] duties. They include forbidden things that could break the fast in Ramadan as well as others forbidden in Islam like intolerance and wasting time. Football lovers like disbelievers of foreign teams’ players and others, which is rejected.”
Borhamy also called on football lovers to focus on their religion and stay away from such forbidden things.
This is the Deputy Chief of the Salafi Da‘wa Movement, the organization behind the Nour Party.

The Daily Star on Hans Wehr, Followed by Me on Hans Wehr

Beirut's Daily Star recently ran a piece called, "Wehr Next: On the joys of Reading Arabic Dictionaries," which should be appreciated by any English speaker who has studied or is studying Arabic, or who uses it regularly.  Hans Wehr's Arabic-English Dictionary: The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic is the vademecum of English speakers working on or in Arabic, as its German original is (I presume) for German speakers.

Daily Star's illustration, not mine
The Daily Star article is pretty good, but with some observations that will seem simplistic for veteran Arabists:
"One paper is called the “idha’a tijariyya.” So I’m trying to translate that and all that comes to mind is that Lebanese radio station jingle – ‘Idha’a al-sharq ... in Beyrouth.’
Hans Wehr isn’t of much use because, quite honestly, I have no f?ing clue what the jidhr [root] of  “idha’a” is. According to Google Translate, “idha’a tijariyya” means “commercial radio,” which is confusing, as I thought I worked for a social development consulting firm, not a radio station.
“Consulting with a native Arabic-speaker,” Dushku says, “I learned ‘idha’a tijariyya’ is the ‘commercial broadcast announcement’ – as in the announcement of your registration as a commercial company. Who knew?”
Excuse me? "I have no f?ing clue what the jidhr [root] of “idha’a” is." (More properly idha‘a by the way.) Beyond the unusual choice of a "?" to euphemize an expletive, if you have "no f?ing clue" about how to determine an Arabic root, why are you being so "f?ing" pretentious as to use the term "jidhr"?   Dictionaries are organized by roots and you need enough knowledge of grammar to figure out the root, and that's how Arabic dictionaries work. No big deal. And the root is ذ ع ى.

Next complaint:
Heidelberg University Arabist Ines Weinrich says Wehr is the dictionary she uses most often, “although it is not well-equipped for texts from the seventh century.”
If there’s vocabulary in that seventh-century Arabic text of yours that really needs translating, she elaborates, “you may refer to some Latin or French [dictionaries], and, of course, the Arabic-English Lexicon of E.W. Lane.”
Well, duh. What part of "the Modern Written Language" don't you understand? Would you go to Webster for seventh-century Anglo-Saxon? (To be fair, Arabic has changed far less, but even Arabs need commentaries for Qur'anic Arabic. This isn't what Wehr is trying to do. When I work medieval texts, I use Lane, Kazimirski, Dozy, and the Lisan al-‘Arab, though I might check Wehr first, just in case.

Other issues raised are alphabetization versus root-based order, and utility in understanding spoken Arabic, an odd intrusion in discussion of  dictionary of "Modern Written Arabic."There are many colloquial dictionaries, but Wehr isn't one of them.

Hans Wehr (1909-1981) was a German Arabic scholar who created what has become the standard dictionary of Modern Written Arabic into German. In 1961 it was translated into English and edited by J Milton Cowan (no period after the "J": Cowan, whom I met once long ago, really did have just "J" as his first name.) and became the essential Arabic-English dictionary. Some English-speaking students of Arabic before that time had to own the German version as well as a German-English dictionary.

My first Wehr was a hard-cover purchased at ridiculously high cost in Cairo in 1972. The bulk of it survives, though the hard back cover is long gone and so are some pages, perhaps a whole binding signature, of parts of ha plus waw and ya. Once it came out in paperback, I acquired that, and two or three copies of the second and third editions are somewhere in this house, buried under other books. The fourth edition paperback is just to my left as I write, and a hardcover sits on my desk at work. I'm actually surprised that in five years of blogging, I haven't posted specifically on Wehr before this.

The first edition was published in German in 1952, but Wehr noted in early editions that most of the work was set in type during World War II. Wehr's exact relations with the Nazi regime are a bit fuzzy, though he was apparently a party member. I've seen it suggested the work was commissioned in order to facilitate translating Mein Kampf into Arabic, but that makes no sense as it's an Arabic-German dictionary, not the other way around, and besides, Mein Kampf had already appeared in Arabic in 1937. As the Daily Star article notes:
“Yes he was an NSDAP [National Socialist German Workers' Party] member (joined in 1940),” Hanssen notes, “but defenders point to his efforts to save his Jewish dictionary assistant, Hedwig Klein, from the Gestapo, ultimately unsuccessfully. His ‘defenders’ in the Orientalist guild downplay his critique of Zionism and support of Arab nationalism.”
And the dictionary has continued to be updated and revised since Wehr's death. It remains the essential work.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Fight for Samarra: did ISIS Use a Helicopter?

The Iraqi city of Samarra is shaping up as the point where the Maliki regime and its Shi‘ite militia allies are standing and resisting the ISIS onslaught. Reports today indicate that an ISIS helicopter bobed or strafed Samarra today (above), the same day Prime Minister al-Maliki reportedly met with snior generals at a military base in the city. If the helicopter story is true, it raises many questions; Its known helicopters were captured in Mosul,  but it is unclear how they could be flying them, unless Iraqi pilots have also defected to them.

I would urge caution about the photo, though. It shows a high-flying attack helicopter, probably either an Mi-28 or an Mi-35. It has been reported that Iraq has been using both types in a ground attack role  around Samarra, and given the lack of context in the picture (from Twitter), I think this might show an Iraqi government helicopter operating against ISIS. ISIS has made at least three attempts to take Samarra in the past few days, and given the street-to-street close-order fighting I would not rule out the possibility that, if a helicopter did bomb an Iraqi base, it might have been a friendly fire mistake. If ISIS really does have operational helicopters, the question of who is piloting them needs to be answered.

Many accounts say that the core of the resistance to ISIS in Samarra may no longer be the Iraqi Army but the remobilized Shi‘ite militia groups rushed to the scene.
Although Samarra is today a mostly Sunni city, it is of profound symbolic importance to Shi‘ites, as it is the final resting place of two of the Twelve Imams of Shi‘ism, as well as the site of the disappearance or occlusion) of he Twelfth Imam. The Al-‘Askari or ‘Askariyya mosque/shrine (right, in better days) contains the final resting place of the 10th Imam, ‘Ali al-Hadi, and his son the 11th Imam, Hasan al-‘Askari. Shi‘ites believe the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, went into occlusion in an adjacent site, becoming the Hidden Imam or Imam Mahdi, who will someday make himself manifest again.The shrine was bombed on February 2006, destroying the golden dome, and again on Jun 13, 2007, destroying the two minarets. It has since been restored, but there are reports ISIS has threatened to destroy if if the city does not surrender peacefully, which has not happened. The Shi‘ite fighters appear determined to fight to protect it.

The downside may be if so much effort is being expended to defend Samarra, who's watching the back door, namely the western approaches to Baghdad via ISIS held Falluja and Ramadi>

Samara was founded in 836 AD by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutasim, who moved the capital of the Caliphate to his new city, which he named Surra man ra', "he rejoices who sees it," but this was soon shortened to Samarra. It remained the capital until 892, when the Caliph al-Mu‘tadid returned it to Baghdad.

Samarra shrank in importance, but the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 means there are almost no intact ‘Abbasid sites still standing in Baghdad, while a number, including the Great Mosque with its spiral, ziggurat-like minaret (left).

Strange Bedfellows: ‘Izzat Ibrahim, the Naqshbandi Order, and ISIS

‘Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri
I think I may be beginning to understand how the world must have felt when it learned of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 (not to mention how Poland must have felt.) Two blood-stained totalitarians with utterly incompatible ideologies suddenly became best friends (for less than two years). Think Sauron and Darth Vader if you will.

Over the past several days, multiple press reports have said that ‘Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the longtime number two man to Saddam Hussein and the only senior Ba‘athist of the ancien regime still alive, free, and active, is not just allied with ISIS but may be serving as an operational commander with their current offensive. Now ‘Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri is a longtime Ba‘athist with a commitment (presumably) to pan-Arab secular nationalists.

Complicating the picture still further is the fact that Ibrahim, who was somewhat more religious than other senior Saddam officials, and is an adherent of the large and influential Naqshbandi order of Sufism. He is frequently identified as leader of both the New Ba‘ath Party and of another Sunni militant group based on his al-Duri Clan and the Naqshbandi Order called the "Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order" (Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandiyya, or JRTN from its Arab acronym).

ISIS flag
Now, to the radical jihadis of ISIS there are few things more evil than secularist pan-Arab Ba‘athists, though Sufis like the Naqshbandis are certainly a nearly equal enemy. The only thing jihadis think worse than secularists and Sufis may be Shi‘ites; Ibrahim and his ilk despise jihadists but seek revenge against the regime that displaced them. Hitler and Stalin were Best Friends Forever until they had digested Poland and the Baltics, but were soon engaged in the most lethal front of World War II. If it reaches the point where the JRTN and ISIS have devoured the Maliki regime (something Iran is unlikely to stand aside for),they would doubtless turn on each other.

Yesterday I noted that the seizure of Kirkuk by Kurdish peshmerga might mean they were there to stay; if Iraq collapses the KRG, which already enjoys near-de facto independence,might simply opt for de jure. Also yesterday I noted Maliki's call for re-mobilization of the armed Shi‘ite militias of the civil war era, and reports that Iranian force were also engaged. The circle seems to be closing.

A hat tip to retired Colonel Pat Lang,  US Defense Intelligence Officer during Desert Storm, for calling my attention to this.

I have never believed that Iraq's dissolution into Sunni, Shi‘ite and Kurdish regions was inevitable. But I don't think I ever said it was impossible. The way it seems to be happening is appalling and alarming, and not just for Iraq.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
— William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A (Sadly Only Slightly) Cynical Question

According to Wikipedia, on the US Embassy in Baghdad:
At 440,000 square meters, it is the largest and most expensive embassy in the world and is nearly as large as Vatican City. It employs 15,000 people and cost $750 million to build.
Sorry to be a bit snarky under the circumstances, but how many helicopters can land on the roof at at a time? (Young folks who don't recognize the picture, ask your elders.)

It Gets Worse: Maliki Calls for Help from the "Disbanded" Shi‘ite Militias

And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
—Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III. Scene 1
Desperate to find a way to stop the ISIS juggernaut, Prime Minister al-Maliki has called on Iraqi  Shi‘ite militias from the sectarian civil war, most of which had disbanded by 2010, to mobilize and take the field. It may be a practical response to a situation spending out of control, but it exacerbates the polarization along Sunni-Shi‘ite lines in Iraq, already encouraged by the Iraqi government's mistreatment and suppression of Sunni groups such as the Sahwa ("awakening") forces, who had worked with US troops before their departure.

Amid separate reports by The Wall Street Journal that Iranian Al-Quds Force Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are not merely in Iran but that two battalions are fighting to retake Tikrit, comes Maliki's call to the various Shi‘ite armed groups that had been dormant since the winding down of the sectarian civil war of the mid-2000s.

According to The New York Times,
Shiite militia leaders said that at least four brigades, each with 2,500 to 3,000 fighters, had been hastily assembled and equipped in recent weeks by the Shiite political parties to protect Baghdad and the political process in Iraq. They identified the outfits as the Kataibe Brigade, the Assaib Brigade, the Imam al-Sadr Brigade and the armed wing of the Badr Organization.
The first two names likely refer to the ‘Assa'ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous People) and the Kata'ib Hizbullah (Hizbullah Brigades, not organically linked to the Lebanese group); these, plus the Imam al-Sadr brigades, were originally offshoots of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army which emerged as separate forces during the war; the Badr Organization, which originally was the military wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.  All enjoyed Iranian support.

Kurdish Peshmerga "Fully Control" Kirkuk: Are They There to Stay?

The fighting in Iraq is confused. but it seems clear that ISIS forces, while pursuing the Iraqi Army, are avoiding a direct assault on the peshmerga fighters of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). After some initial ISIS clashes with peshmerga in the Kirkuk area, the peshmerga now say they are "fully in control" in Kirkuk. And that raises some intriguing questions.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the status of Kirkuk has been a matter of dispute, with Kurds returning to the city from which Saddam had removed m them in a program of Arbitration; the Iraqi Constitution left the issue for future agreement, and the City Council is carefully balanced ethnically. But the KRG sees it as a rightfully Kurdish city.

Now the KRG, officially acting as allies of the Maliki government, has driven ISIS out. (They have also said that they could have defended Mosul if asked. Baghdad is also saying it will work with the peshmerga to retake Mosul.

That may be. But it has long been the dream of the KRG to control Kirkuk, and now they say they do. Now that the peshmerga control Kirkuk, will Baghdad (if it regains control somehow) ever be able to persuade them to leave? [UPDATE: Apparently they're having the same thoughts: "Kurdistan's Peshmerga: We will not withdraw from any Kurdish areas under our control."

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Historical Context: The Mosul Question Revisited

The fall of Mosul to ISIS, which controls territory in both Syria and Iraq, will probably engender another round of op-eds with titles like "The End of Sykes-Picot," which many mean as shorthand for "the end of the post-World War I border settlement in the Middle East." There are many problems with the phrase, not least of which is that the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement gave Mosul to France.

Or, a bit more precisely, it included Mosul in Area "A," the area under indirect French protection as opposed to direct rule. In fact, the fate of Mosul would be disputed continuously well into the 1920s. Mosul's fate was not settled by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, nor by the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920, nor by the San Remo conference that year, nor even by the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, which resolved most other issues. It took an investigating commission from the League of Nations, and was only resolved after a Frontier Treaty between Turkey, Britain, and the Kingdom of Iraq in 1926, under which Britain promised to provide Turkey with 10% of Mosul's oil revenues for 25 years. Even after 1926, Turkish leaders have continued to occasionally threaten to revive the claim.

Why was Mosul such a thorny issue? Some background: Under the Ottomans, the Vilayet of Mosul consisted of the Sanjaks of Mosul, Kirkuk, and Suleimaniyya, roughly coinciding with the four northernmost provinces of Iraq today. Then as now, it was a multi-ethnic region, with Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Armenians, and several Christian, Yazidi, and until the 1950s Jewish populations. It was far from exclusively Arab, the Turks argued; Arabs noted that it was not overwhelmingly Turkish; Kurdish nationalists saw it as part of an independent Kurdistan.

Oh, did I mention the oil yet? The oilfields around Kirkuk were seen by the British as critical to the survival of the fledgling Kingdom of Iraq. Although the Kirkuk fields did not enter production until the 1920s, British oil interests and the Armenian entrepreneur Calouste Gulbenkian had secured oil concessions in the region even before the war.

Finally, the Turks were determined to recover Mosul because of the oil, of course, but also because the British had occupied it after the armistice. 

On October 30, 1918, at Mudros on the island of Lemnos, Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire signed the Mudros Armistice. It called for an end to hostilities on both sides. On November 2, three days later, Lieutenant General Sir William Marshall, British Commander in Mesopotamia, ordered British troops into the Vilayet of Mosul to secure the oilfields. Both the Ottomans and later the Turkish Republic saw this as a violation of the Armistice, and the treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne left the control of Mosul unresolved, though at Lausanne Turkey accepted League of Nations Arbitration.

Meanwhile, as I noted above, the Sykes-Picot Agreement had included Mosul in the French zone. This problem was easier to deal with than the Turkish claim.  During the Paris peace talks, on Sunday, December 1, 1918 during a meeting at the French Embassy in London, by David Lloyd George's own account, Georges Clemenceau asked him what he wanted, and Lloyd George immediately replied, "Mosul." Clemenceau then said "You shall have it. Anything else?" To which Lloyd George responded "Palestine from Dan to Beersheba," (or in another version, "Jerusalem.") (Much of Palestine was supposd to be under international control under Sykes-Picot.) Clemenceau, who wanted British support for French claims in the Rhineland, quickly agreed. Even Lloyd George seemed surprised it had been that easy, and French diplomats reportedly were annoyed that Clemenceau had given so much away for nothing concrete in return.

As I have noted, Mosul remained unsettled until the League of Nations, with Turkey's agreement at Lausanne, sent an investigative commission. That in turn awarded Mosul to Britain and Iraq, which Turkey initially rejected. Only in 1926 was the Frontier Treaty signed.