A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

End Game in Aleppo?

The sudden and unprecedented advance of Syrian regime forces into northeastern Aleppo in recent days seems to mark the collapse of the anti-Asad rebel groups that have been holding out there, especially Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra). A victory by the regime and its allies is likely to come at great cost; eastern Aleppo has already suffered horribly from bombing and the systematic targeting of hospitals. And while Syrian forces have been de facto cooperating with the Kurdish YPG and Turkish backed elements, he very different end games envisioned by those three elements may lead to new conflicts.

Once the regime recovers the ruins of this once great city, it will control the major cities of Syria, the "useful Syria" it considers sufficient to assure its survival. It will have recovered Aleppo through the unchallenged and unrestrained application of Syrian and Soviet air power. The chimaera of a no-fly zone is long since moot, rendered so by direct Russian intervention. There will be plenty of guilt to go around for the destruction of a great city; the West is hardly free of guilt, but the Asad regime and its Russian and other allies have the largest amount of blood on their hands.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Fidel Castro and the Middle East

With Nasser
Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, a critical juncture in the decolonization of the Third World, and had considerable success in portraying himself as a champion of decolonization efforts worldwide.

Castro was no romantic hero, but indeed a brutal dictator despite some beneficial reforms on the domestic front, and a man who committed Cuban troops to various adventures in Latin America and a bloody war in Angola. But he cultivated many admirers, and some emulators, in the Middle East.

Since 1959 is now nearly 60 years ago, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to recall the context. In 1955-56, Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal, accepted the Soviet offer to build the Aswan High Dam, and resisted the British-French-Israeli intervention in the Suez War.

Four years before the Cuban Revolution, in 1955, the Afro-Asiatic Conference at Bandung had laid the groundwork for what would come to be called the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). When the NAM was formed at Belgrade in 1961 Cuba, though increasingly aligned with the Soviet Bloc, was a charter member, as was Egypt.

In 1958, following US and British interventions in Lebanon and Jordan (to block unrestblamed by the West on Nasserist propaganda), Egypt and Syria united in the United Arab Republic, creating the alignments Malcolm Kerr branded "The Arab Cold War."

Also in 1958, four years into the Algerian War of Independence against France, French nationalist generals rebelled against the Fourth Republic; out of the crisis came the creation of the Fifth Republic under Charles de Gaulle.

It was in this context that Castro entered Havana on January 1, 1959. After he defeated the US-backed exile landings at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, he came to be seen as a Third World hero who had defied the United States, as Nasser had defied Britain and France.

With the rapid decolonization and independence of British, French, and Belgian colonies in Africa, in 1960-62, Castro and Che Guevara, like Nasser, saw Africa as a fertile ground for asserting influence, beginning with the Congo.

With Algeria's Bouteflika
With Algerian independence in 1962, Cuba offered training to the new Algerian Army, after supporting it in the independence struggle. Cuba also supported, via Egypt, the fight for independence for South Yemen, which would lead to the only Marxist-Leninist state in the Arab world. With the formation of the PLO, Cuba became an early supporter, providing training to Palestinian guerrillas.

With Qadhafi
With the Libyan Revolution in 1969, Cuba found a fellow apostle of Third World Revolution in Mu‘ammar Qadhafi, and he, like the Cubans, had a preoccupation with Sub-Saharan African movements.

Castro, with his long ties to Algeria, joined the Algerians in supporting the POLISARIO Front against Morocco in the Western Sahara.

With Saddam
With the death of Nasser, Egypt's tilt to the West, and the decline of leftist liberation movements and the rise of Islamist ones, not to mention Cuban military over-commitments in Central America and Angola, Cuban influence in the Middle East  was much reduced. Castro even criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba's foreign adventures were much reduced, and limited to supporting Latin American leftists like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Castro opposed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.

In the Middle East of today, with ISIS and similar movements long having replaced revolutionaries of the left, the 1960s seem a long time ago. But Algeria, one of Cuba's early allies and one still led by Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had known Castro since the early sixties, has declared eight days of mourning for the Cuban leader.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Rising Tide of Islamophobia in the US and Europe

It's hard to know where to start a consideration of the rising tide of racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, nativism, and anti-immigrant sentiment that has spread across Eastern and Western Europe and the US in the past year or two. The anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric of the US Presidential campaign has unleashed some of the darker angels of American nativism, and since the results, some of the nastier attitudes that usually stay hidden under the rocks of the national psyche (the Klan, white supremacists, neo-Nazis) have felt emboldened.

But this is not just an American problem, though various watchdog groups report stepped-up instances of attacks on Hispanics, Muslims, and immigrants since the election. The same thing happened in Britain after the Brexit vote, in France and Belgium after the Paris and Brussels attacks,and in Eastern Europe during the Syrian refugee waves. No single politician or political party incited this, though many cheered it on through dog-whistle language.  And to the new demonology of Muslims, immigrants, and nonwhites generally, is raised the old demon of anti-Semitism as well, not to mention misogyny.

Again, this has multi-national facets; it's not just an American problem. But every time a Westerner insults a woman in a hijab, burns a mosque or scrawls an obscenity on an Islamic center, they help jihadist recruiters and spread fear in the overwhelming majority of ordinary believers. Even such near-farcical measures as the "burkini bans"  of last summer, made more farcical by their imposition in Cannes and Nice, two towns that pioneered topless sunbathing, were a clear way to make conservative Muslim sunbathers feel like the unwelcome, alien Other, even though they were not objecting to the less modest dress around them. It is true that the immigrant communities in Europe are far less assimilated than those in America, but US Muslims are feeling fearful, and many non-Muslims are offering support and even escorts.

I don't have any rousing rhetorical conclusions here: things are getting bad, and may well get worse.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Digitizing the Qarawiyyin Library

The political news both here and in the Middle East is depressing, so I will post something hopeful: the Library of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, described in the article as the oldest library in the world, is having its great collection digitized.

The story contains an Al Jazeera video which I have not been able to embed successfully, so you should watch it at the link. I'm not sure it's the world's oldest library, but among its many treasures is a manuscript of Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddima said to be written in his own hand, What historian could resist that?

For those of you who have never had the pleasure of wandering the Medina of the old city of Fez, or Fas al-Bali, you must try to get there, as it is one of the best preserved Arab cities, with many of its industries, particularly its famous tanneries producing Moroccan leather. (Those with sensitive noses might not want to tour the tanneries, though.) For centuries, Fez was Morocco's capital.

The city was founded in 789 AD by Idris I on the west bank of the Jawhar River; in 808 his son and successor Idris II founded a rival town on the east bank; they eventually merged. In the ninth centuries two groups of Arab immigrants arrived in Fez. One set, from Muslim Spain (al-Andalus), settled on the west bank, while the other group, from Kairouan (Qayrawan) in Tunisia, settled on the east bank. The two banks came to be known by the names of the two great Friday mosques, that of the Andalusians (al-Andalusiyyin) and that of those from Kairouan (al-Qarawiyyin). The mosque of Al-Qarawiyyin became a university mosque, still functioning. For the rest of the story, see the link above.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trump and the Middle East: First Thoughts

Trying to figure out what to say about the implications of Donald Trump's election on US policy in the Middle East, I am reminded of an old line sometimes applied to the region: in the Middle East a pessimist is someone who says, "things are so bad they can't possibly get any worse," while an optimist says, "don't worry, of course they can."

With ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria,Yemen, and Libya; with the US directly engaged in he first two and holding the coats for and arming its GCC allies in the latter two, it would seem hard to make things worse.  But the incoming President's total lack of foreign policy experience (aside from building hotels and golf courses), and his reliance during the campaign on advisors such as John Bolton and Walid Phares suggests he may get interventionist advice. His pledge to scrap the Iran nuclear deal has been highly publicized, though how to do that unilaterally in an agreement with seven signatories including Britain, France, and Germany, has not been explained. On the other hand, and despite the rhetoric on ISIS, Trump has been critical of greater intervention in Syria,

Field Marshal Sisi has said he was the first foreign head of State to congratulate Trump; the Saudis and Netanyahu were close behind.You may draw your own conclusions.

I am willing to wait and see; perhaps the inflammatory rhetoric was just empty words. Certainly US policy since at least 2003 has made things increasingly more dangerous. But like the "optimist" in the quip above, I'm pretty confident that things could still get worse.

As the Foreign Policy and National Security appointments are made, I'm pretty sure I'll have a lot more to say.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Maybe the Admiral Kuznetzov is Not the Russian Ship We Should Be Watching

The European and Russian media have been tracking Russia's only carrier, the Admiral Kuznetzov, from the Baltic, through the English Channel and the Strait of Gibraltar, and currently steaming eastward across the Mediterranean. The theme is generally presented as Russia's dispatching its flagship, its only true aircraft carrier, to reinforce its forces prior to the final assault on eastern Aleppo. In terms of timing, it is obviously meant to signal increased Russia's military profile off Syria. But its propaganda influence is likely to be far more effective than its military impact.

Admiral Kuznetzov
In the first place, the Kuznetzov has had a checkered history. Originally named the Riga, it was renamed the Leonid Brezhnev as the Soviet Union began to come apart, then the Tbilisi, and finally the Admiral Kuznetzov. Its sister ship, unfinished when the USSR collapsed, was taken over by the Ukraine and eventually sold to China. So the Kuznetzov is the only true carrier in the Russian fleet (though officially classed as an heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser) and its flagship, but it must travel with a repair tender because it breaks down so frequently.

But those making the assumption that the carrier will contribute to a final bombing campaign to retake East Aleppo, are likely to be disappointed. The carrier's air complement is only about half that of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, also on station off Syria, and its Su-33s are air superiority fighters, of no use for bombing. It's MiG-29s are multi-role, but mainly intended for combat air patrol.

The Kuznetzov and its accompanying cruiser Peter the Great may merely be showing the flag, but the frigate Admiral Grigorovich, which exited the Black Sea quietly while the Kuznetzov battle group was getting all the attention. Only commissioned in March, Admiral Grigorovich is the lead ship of a new class of heavy cruise-missile frigates.

Admiral Grigorovich
It is equipped with vertically-launched Kalibr cruise missiles, which have a supersonic terminal velocity. The Kalibr has been extensively used in Syria, launched from vessels in the Caspian and Black Seas, or a submarine in the Mediterranean, but positioning a Kalibr-equipped frigate directly off the Syrian coast will greatly intensify Russian firepower around Aleppo. There also reports that three Russian cruise missile submarines have recently joined at least one already in the Med.

Cruise missiles of course avoid risk to Russian (or Syrian) pilots, but can deliver considerable destruction on the ground

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Photos I Never Thought I'd See, But Then It's Lebanon

Hizbullah and Lebanese Forces flags flying together. Ecumenism? Opportunism? Cynicism? Or, hey, it's Lebanon?