A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

When Raqqa was the Capital of a Real Caliph: Harun al-Rashid

The glories of Baghdad during the reign of the ‘Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid have been much celebrated and elaborated upon in the tales of the 1001 Nights, so his reign is generally identified with the great period of Baghdad's glories. Yet of the 23 solar years, 786-809 AD, of Harun's Caliphate, for 13 of those he reigned not from Baghdad, but from Raqqa on the Euphrates. Long before Raqqa served as the capital of ISIS' self-declared "Caliphate," it was the capital of the ‘Abbasids when they ruled most of the Islamic world (except Umayyad Spain).

With the announcement today that Raqqa has fallen to the Syrian Democratic Forces (mainly the Kurdish YPG), it may be worth remembering Raqqa's previous glories. The Islamic State most likely chose Raqqa as its capital because it was one of the few cities it controlled, but it was surely aware of its role as a onetime Caliphal capital.

Raqqa was an ancient foundation, known in classical times as Kallinikos. Harun was the fifth ‘Abbasid Caliph. His grandfather the second ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur (Harun's father and brother had reigned between the two), who was the real founder of Baghdad, noticed the attractive elements of Raqqa and founded a suburb he named al-Rafiqa ("the companion"). Though proud of his great new Round City of Baghdad, al-Mansur adopted Rafiqa as the ‘Abbasid summer capital. (For the nitpickers: I know Mansur did not found "Baghdad," the Persian name for the village on the Tigris which preceded Mansur's city, which was officially named Madinat al-Salam, the City of Peace. But everyone called it by the older name. Al-Mansur's Round City, until destroyed by the Mongols in 1258, lay where the al-Mansur neighborhood of modern Baghdad is today.)

In 796 AD, ten solar years into his Caliphate, Harun moved his administrative capital to Raqqa, though the state bureaucracy mostly remained in Baghdad. Many of the descriptions (mostly anachronistic) of the glories of Harun's Baghdad refer to Raqqa, where outside the view of the religious establishment and the Baghdad populace, Harun was more free to indulge his penchants for horse-racing, wine, and other pleasures. Some of the songs/poems in the Kitab al-Aghani refer to the pleasures of Harun's place at Raqqa.

Not much remains of ‘Abbasid-era Raqqa, even before ISIS and the fight to retake the city. Some ancient walls and the Baghdad Gate at left, less whatever damage ISIS and the air and artillery assaults on the city may have destroyed.



Monday, October 16, 2017

Iraqi Forces Enter Kirkuk

Iraqi Armed Forces entered Kirkuk today, pushing back Kurdish Peshmerga and lowering the Kurdish flag. Following a period of threats and symbolic gestures after the Kurdish independence referendum, the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government are now teetering on the brink of war, especially in Kirkuk, where ethnic Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen dispute control of the city at the heart of Iraq's northern oilfields.

The US, which in many ways has encouraged autonomous Kurdistan since the early 1990s and has supported the Peshmerga as a counterweight to ISIS, now finds two of its allies, the governments in Baghdad and Erbil, at daggers drawn. The Iraqi Army and its allies, the Shi‘ite militia the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi) seem determined to take all of Kirkuk, though some  Yezidi units in the PMF are said to have refused to fight the Peshmerga, since most Yezidis are ethnic Kurds.

As a sign of the dangers posed by the Iraqi-KRG clashes, ISIS reportedly took two villages north of Kirkuk from the Peshmerga.

Dumbarton Oaks Makes Irfan Shahid's Mastetpiece Available for Free Download

After Irfan Shahid died in 2016, I lamented the fact that his multi-volume life's work, Byzantium and the Arabs, and its "Prolegomenon," Rome and the Arabs, were in several cases out of print (and not inexpensive when available).

Well, there's great news for anyone interested in the Arabs in Late Antiquity or the pre-Islamic context of the rise of Islam (especially the Ghassanids): Dumbarton Oaks has made all seven of the volumes available for free download.

If you have any interest in the subject, download them all now.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Jalal Talabani, 1933-2017

Jalal Talabani, former President of Iraq and founder of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has died in Germany at the age of 83. One of the two historic leaders of Iraq's Kurds, along with the late Mullah Mustafa Barzani (father of Kurdish Regional Government President Mas‘oud Barzani), he was also President of Iraq (a position now constitutionally reserved for a Kurd) from 2005-2014. The impact of his passing barely a week after the referendum on Kurdish independence remains to be seen.

In 1961 Talabani joined in the Kurdish uprising, originally as a supporter of the elder Barzani and his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). He and his supporters, mostly based in eastern and southern Kurdistan around Suleimaniyya (now frequently known by the Kurdish form Sulaimani), and with support from leftists and intellectuals, were increasingly at odds with Barzani's KDP, which largely depended on tribal support from northern and western Kurdistan.

After the Kurdish revolt failed following a deal between Iran and Iraq in 1975, Talabani and his supporters founded the PUK. Though a rival of the KDP, the two major parties have shared power within the Kurdish Regional Government.

The PUK was, generally speaking, less enthusiastic than the KDP about the recent unilateral referendum on independence.

Talabani left the Presidency after a stroke in 2014 and went to Germany for treatment. His PUK co-founder Fuad Masum succeeded him as President. Talabani's son Qubad is Deputy Prime Minister in the Kurdish Regional Government.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Yom Kippur and ‘Ashura

This year, like last, both the Jewish and Muslim New Years coincided. And since each tradition marks the tenth day of the New Year, the observation of Yom Kippur and ‘Ashura also  coincide.

Though Sunni Muslims do acknowledge ‘Ashura as the tenth day of the new year, it is of central importance to Shi‘ite Muslims, marking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the Third Imam, at the Battle of Karbala'

Both observances began at sundown.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Kurdish Referendum is Tomorrow

The Iraqi Central Government has demanded that the Kurdistan Regional Government turn over border positions to the Central Government; Iran has suspended all flights to the KRG; Turkey is increasing its warnings to the Kurds. But despite last-minute efforts to cancel the Referendum, the Kurds seem determined to go ahead with it. The US and most Western countries have warned of the dangers of holding the Referendum. Every country in the region, except Israel, opposes the Referendum. Only Israel is supportive. (Russia is ambivalent.)

But President Barzani has so far refused every entreaty, and it now seems too late to postpone the Referendum. Whether Iraq's Kurds are engaged in a foolish gamble that could ignite a broader conflict, or are about to strike a blow for independence, depends on which side one asks. If the expulsion of ISIS from Mosul raised hope for stabilizing Iraq, the timing of the Referendum suggests Iraq's agony will be prolonged.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

L'Shona Tova

Rosh Hashanah greetings to all my Jewish readers.

Monday, September 18, 2017

"A Pub Crawl in Ottoman Cairo"

In an attempt to resume my past efforts to highlight the occasionally offbeat, here's a link to "A Pub Crawl in Ottoman Cairo," which uses a 1904 ultra-detailed insurance map of Cairo to highlight the numerous drinking establishments in and around the Ezbekiyya Gardens.

 While the choice of "Ottoman Cairo" is arguable (though technically correct) since 1904 was the later years of Lord Cromer's ascendancy and Ottoman suzerainty was merely theoretical, I won't quibble. The formal Ezbekiyya gardens had emerged in the 19th century around an earlier lake, and had become a center for elite European hotels (including the original Shepheard's and the Grand Continental) and polite society. (Ironically, Cairo's most notorious red light district lay just a few blocks to the north, where the modern European quarters blended with and abutted the more "traditional" quarters.)

As the detailed map, which can be found online via the Harvard library, shows, there was no shortage of places to drink. (At least a small number of these survived into the 1970s, when highway flyovers and a tunnel pretty thoroughly transformed the neighborhood.)

If you like Cairo, or old maps, or bars,or if, like me, all three, take a look.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

It's Edward William Lane's Birthday Again


On September 17, 1801, in Hereford, England, Edward William Lane was born. 146 years later, I was born. I believe I have noted this annually since 2009, when this blog began. If I must share my birthday, I could do far worse.

Generations of English-speaking Arabists have used Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon, an immense dictionary of the classical language based on the classical Arabic Qamus. He died while working on the letter qaf (someone I knew once joked he might have been working on the word qadr: only the Arabic-speakers will get it), and his nephew finished the eight-volume work, but it's much weaker after the qafs. At one time his translation of the Arabian Nights was widely read; it is more readable than Sir Richard Burton's, but Burton's has generally superseded it in popularity. (Burton, unlike Lane, kept the dirty parts in, but he wrote in a style that at times verges on the unreadably pretentious, and, being a late Victorian, made up his own dirty words to translate the Arabic ones, since the standard English ones couldn't be printed. Off the top of my head, I remember "futter" if you want an example. It helps if you know French.) Lane's Nights notes are a fantastic treasure of Arab daily life, while Burton's notes have a whole lot of detail on less savory aspects of the culture. Read both. Or read both their notes, and a modern translation of the text.

But Lane's first work is the one that will always endear him to me, and I think, to anyone who loves Egypt, umm al-dunya. This is The Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.
Lane was an "orientalist" before Edward Said taught us that that was a bad word, but he was also one of the earliest, and one of the best and most scrupulous in his scholarship.

Manners and Customs
is a great book: dated to be sure, after a century and three quarters; quaint at times in its attitudes and curious in its transliterations of Arabic, but still a gem of description of another culture by a man who managed to learn a great deal by living within it. It was first published in 1836, after years of gestation. I still have, and often refer to, the Everyman's Library edition I picked up in Beirut in 1972; the paper dust cover is even still intact. An earlier version of the Everyman's edition is available in full text on Google Books, as are some other editions, so you don't need to rely on a paper copy as I did. (Though if you want a paper copy, it's still in print.)
It is one of those books that cannot be excerpted with any utility: it's the small joys that make it so interesting, and it may be a complete wash for those who've never been in Egypt. It's the flashes of recognition of continuities and the clear evidence of change and evolution that make it interesting. I have favorite sections and passages, but can't find one that would represent the whole. But there are few, if any, other works of the period by Western orientalists that so neatly encapsulate a country and its culture. There are, certainly, plenty of descriptions of Damascus and Istanbul and other cities by diplomats and historians and linguists, but Lane was more of an anthropologist than anything else, although I don't think the word had been coined then, except perhaps for physical anthropology: this is cultural anthropology before the words existed. He captured Egypt in the later years of Muhammad ‘Ali's reign, but also provided descriptions of practices and habits that long predated his era, and many of which survive today. But he also captured a great deal that does not survive today, and that is part of the book's charm and importance. Most Arabic authors of the time were recording the events and institutions of the ruling classes; Lane was out there with the folks in the coffeehouses and local gathering places and mosques. He captured Egypt at the human level better than any Arabic author of the 19th century that I know of: probably better than any author prior to Naguib Mahfouz, who finally gave an Egyptian voice to ordinary Egyptians.
Lane also was part of a dynasty of sorts. His sister, Sophia Lane Poole, wrote a work on women in Egypt (some at least of which was provided by her brother, apparently), and his nephew, Stanley Lane-Poole (he added a hyphen apparently), an Arabic scholar in his own right, finished the Arabic-English Lexicon and wrote many popular historical and cultural works on the Middle East, some of which still have value, but none of which equal his uncle's contribution.
So happy 216th birthday, Edward William Lane, and thanks for Manners and Customs, and the indispensable Lexicon of course, and your version of the Nights. But it's Manners and Customs that makes me happiest to share your birthday.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

95 Years Ago: the Great Fire of Smyrna (İzmir) Begins

On September 13, 1922, fire broke out in the ancient city of Smyrna (İzmir), days after Turkish Army forces had entered the city, ending the Greek occupation of western Anatolia after World War I.

Greece, as part of the postwar occupation of Ottoman territory under the Treaty of Sèvres, had landed troops at Smyrna in 1919, and occupied parts of western Anatolia. Turkish forces under Mustafa Kemal challenged them in the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War, which effectively ended on September 9, 1922, when Turkish forces occupied the city. Four days later, the Great Fire broke out, burning until September 22.

By the time it was over, the Greek and Armenian quarters of the ancient city had been destroyed and Greek and Western ships evacuated tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of refugees, including a young Aristotle Onassis.

Beyond that, there is little agreement on anything. Estimates of Greek and Armenian deaths range from 10,000 to 50,000 or more, estimates of total refugees as high as 400,000. Greeks, Armenians, and most but not all Western historians blame the Turkish Army either for setting the fire or not extinguishing it once it began; most Turkish sources blame the Greeks and/or Armenians.

What is certain is that without Western military support, the quixotic Greek attempt to occupy Western Anatolia was probably doomed, and Smyrna's history as a Greek city ended in the flames of 1922.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Ticking Time Bomb: The Kurdish Referendum

Kurdistan Regional Government President Mas‘oud Barzani was in Kirkuk today, a reminder of the potential explosiveness of the September 25 Kurdish independence referendum, now less than two weeks away. For if the Kurdish independence referendum is a ticking time bomb that could provoke a broad regional conflict in a region already home to several, then Kirkuk is the likely detonator. The town, a mix of ethnic Turkmen, Kurds, and Arabs, located in the heart of the northern Iraqi oilfields, will participate in the referendum, though the Iraqi central government disputes the Kurdishness of Kirkuk (and also the right to declare independence). Barzani promised to respect the decision of Kirkuk voters.

Most neighboring states and some of the smaller Kurdish political parties have been urging postponement of the referendum, and a postponement may still happen. The major political parties have agreed to reconvene the suspended Kurdish Parliament on Thursday in anticipation of the referendum, and it is not impossible that a postponement will occur. But the two main parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, seem in agreement on holding it, and virtually all observers expect an overwhelming vote in favor of independence. What happens after that, we'll see.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Strange Expulsion of Moulay Hicham from Tunisia

Moulay Hicham
Morocco's so-called "Red Prince," Moulay Hicham, first cousin of King Mohammed VI, was arrested by Tunisian authorities on September 8 at the Movenpick Hotel in Tunis and put on an Air France flight to Paris. Moulay Hicham was in Tunis for a conference on governance and security in Morocco, Egypt, and Yemen.

Though neither Tunis nor Moulay Hicham commented on the reason, the move was unusual given Tunisia's reputation as the one functioning democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring. French and Arab media have speculated that because Hicham had been scheduled to attend a conference in Doha, Qatar, and that Saudi Arabia and/or the UAE brought pressure on Tunisia to expel the prince, who is known as an advocate of democratic reforms.

Moulay Hicham has a Saudi connection and is related to Prince al-Walid bin Talal, whose mother is a sister of Hicham's wife, Lalla Lamia Solh. Both are daughters of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Riad al-Solh.

Various reports in English, French, and Arabic are linked here.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Şerif Mardin (1927-2017)

I will start with the good news: I intend this post to mark the resumption of regular, possibly daily, blogging. I'm back.

The bad news is I must start with bad news: Şerif Mardin has died at the age of 90. The Turkish sociologist and public intellectual made a name for himself studying the social institutions of the late Ottoman Empire, and his work on he sociology of religion in Turkey has resonated in the debates of recent years. Mardin spent his career at a variety of institutions in Turkey, the US, Britain, and France.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

‘Eid Greetings

‘Eid Mubarak to my Muslim readers. My sporadic absences should be ending soon; my second cataract operation is next week, after which I hope to return to more frequent posting.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Remembering Peter Sluglett, 1943-2017

Peter Sluglett, historian of modern Iraq, has died. Most recently a professor at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore and until recently its Director. Prior to that he served as Director of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah, and from 1974-1984 he taught at the University of Durham in his native Britain.

He is perhaps best known for his Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship. with his late wife, Marion Farouk-Sluglett. and Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

120 Years of Egypt's Stella Beer

I have returned from vacation, and while as I explained previously, my posts will continue to be less frequent until my cataract surgery later this month, I expect it to be much more regular after that. Meanwhile, here's a site memorializing 120 years of Egypt's Stella beer. There are several photo collections (labels, breweries, history, etc) which deserve your attention, whether you know Stella from the state-owned (no quality control) years or the much improved post-privatization product.

Friday, July 21, 2017

A Word of Explanation and a Promise

I have neglected the blog lately, in part due to deadlines and in part due to health issues. I will be  on vacation next week and probably unable to post. I have been slowed by vision problems and in August will have cataract surgery which should eliminate the problem. At that point I hope to reume my old pace of blogging. Meanwhile, posts will be sporadic.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Remembering Jack Shaheen

Jack Shaheen died July 10 at the age of 81. Jack had a full career as Professor of Mass Communications at the University of Southern Illinois at Edwardsville, but his great accomplishment was his critique of Arab stereotypes in American media, especially film and television. Jack was the son of Lebanese Greek Catholic immigrants, but became a savvy interpreter of US media culture. His several books, including Reel Bad Arabs, about film stereotypes, and The TV Arab, were entertaining bit serious critiques, and Jack famously persuaded Disney to drop an offensive line from a song in the film Aladdin.

Jack was a superb raconteur with a great sense of humor.

I posted about Jack's career several years ago, and the post includes a film clip. We saw each other rarely, but I considered him a friend, and he will be missed.

Monday, July 10, 2017

July 1917: ‘Aqaba Falls to the Arab Revolt

Advancing on ‘Aqaba
Back in May, I wrote two parts of a post on the Arab Revolt's campaign to take the port of ‘Aqaba. 
Deadlines and a variety of ailments have kept me from blogging as much as I would have liked. I'm a little late  in returning to that narrative, since the battle occurred on July 6.

‘Auda in 1921
The small force of Prince Feisal's men who rode out of Wejh in May were supposed to raid to the north along the railroad. A key chief of the Howeitat tribe, ‘Auda Abu Tayeh. had joined the expedition atWejh  and suggested the idea of rallying the tribes and taking ‘Aqaba. T.E. Lawrence, the only British advisor with the force, enthusiastically backed the idea and was an avid admirer of ‘Auda. (In the 1962 film, Lawrence is the one who decides to attack ‘Aqaba, and ‘Auda, memorably portrayed by Anthony Quinn, is persuaded to join later. It's one of s litany of liberties taken in the film.)
‘Auda in Seven Pillars
After crossing the desert from Wejh, the raiders rallied support from ‘Auda's Howeitat and allied tribes. They raided the railroad as far north as Ma'an, while the Royal Navy, now aware of the operation, shelled ‘Aqaba (also absent in the movie).

Nor was‘Aqaba taken by a direct charge through a Turkish encampment, as portrayed in the movie;  but the real battle was fought many miles to the north, at a Turkish blockhouse at Abu al-Lissan, between ‘Aqaba and Ma'an (map at left).

Once that outpost was taken, the small Turkish detachment at ‘Aqaba fell easily. It was a small action, but it deprived Turkey of its last port on the Red Sea, gave Britain a new supply base to support the front in Palestine. And the Arab Revolt drew new attention in the West.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

June 1917: Enter Allenby

A century ago, at midnight on January 28-29 in Cairo, command of British forces in Egypt was transferred from Archibald Murray to a new commander, who had arrived three days before. It was a crucial moment for British military fortunes in the Middle East. Murray had been on the way out since April after his second failure to take Gaza. The replacement was Edmund Allenby, a cavalryman and veteran of the Boer War and he Western Front. Nicknamed "the Bull," he was known as an aggressive fighter.
Eric Kennington portrait
Allenby was a much-needed breath of fresh air. He streamlined the staff, cut paperwork, and would soon transfer his headquarters from Cairo to the Palestine Front. In the meantime he visited the Front near Gaza. The Eastern Force Commander, Sir Phillip Chetwode, had served with Allenby before.
Allenby was far more energetic and aggressive than Murray had been. Though when he learned of his Egyptian appointment he is said to have felt he was being demoted, until Prime Minister Lloyd
George persuaded him that the East was where real breakthroughs could be made.

At the end of July, Allenby learned that his only son had been killed on the Western Front. He responded by throwing himself into his work..

Friday, June 23, 2017

‘Eid al-Fitr Greetings

‘Eid al-Fitr begins this weekend. Greetings to my Muslim readers.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Apotheosis of Muhammad bin Salman

When I wrote my post last week on "The Splintering Gulf," I promised another post that would include the dramatic changes in Saudi policy, but illness and deadlines intruded, and now the architect of those policies has been named Crown Prince.

Though some are calling it a surprise move, few should be really surprised. Since his father ascended the throne two years  ago, he has steadily consolidated power, and now he has replaced his uncle,Muhammad bin Nayef, as heir to the throne. In a country long ruled by a gerontocracy, the Crown Prince is 31, half a century younger than the 81 year old King.

For most of the 20th century, Middle East analysts could take one thing for granted: Saudi policy would be cautious, conservative, and risk-averse. But no more. In Yemen, the Kingdom has been pursuing an aggressive war against a perceived enemy. And while the new Crown Prince, known as "MbS" to his Western admirers. is openly supportive of the US, he is also marked on an open challenge to a key US Ally, Qatar. Risk-averse Saudi Arabia is now risk-taking, and much can go wrong.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Splintering Gulf

The ostracism of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Yemen may be much more dangerous than the usual Middle Eastern feud. It has real potential to escalate into into military conflict or subversion and civil strife which could spread not just in the Gulf but beyond to the entire region. The rivalries and resentments that lie behind the dispute are of longstanding and hardly new.The Gulf has a long history of dynastic disputes, rivalries between and within ruling families, territorial disputes on land and sea, fierce rivalries over resources, and other issues. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), formed in 1981 partly in response to the Iranian Revolution and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, represented six countries which, despite their quarrels, had a great deal in common: all were conservative Arab monarchies; all were, to a greater or lesser degree, dependent on hydrocarbon resources; all were pro-Western; many were former British protectorates. Although several countries had Shi‘ite minorities and Bahrain a majority, all five had Sunni ruling elites. Oman, the odd man out, with its ‘Ibadi tradition and traditional ties with India and East Africa, would also pursue the most independent policies of the lot.

In the 37 years since the formation of the GCC, much has changed. Of the rulers of 1981, only Sultan Qabus is still on the throne. The upheavals we increasingly mislabel Arab Spring provoked rivalries and divisions among the GCC states, as did the increasing role of Iran in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

But I think two other enormous shifts (for now, let's leave the earthquake in US policy aside), were two major shifts which I will discuss at greater length tomorrow: the ever-cautious Seaudi Arabia's sudden assertiveness, even aggressiveness, and Israel's increasing strategic alliance with the Saudis and their allies. More tomorrow.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Operation Moked (Focus): The Fifth of June


I had hoped to write something substantive for the 50th anniversary of the war that changed the Middle East, but I'm ill and behind on work, so for now (it should read 67, not 07):















Tuesday, May 30, 2017

May 30,1967: King Hussein Goes to Cairo

As the tensions over the closing of the Strait of Tiran intensified at the end of May 1967, and international diplomacy was struggling to coax the sides back from the brink, suddenly on May 30, with no previous announcement, King Hussein of Jordan arrived at Al-Maza airfield in Cairo and was received by Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser. The two then signed a five year military pact, and Egyptian Chief of Staff Mohamed Fawzy was named commander of a Joint Arab Command.

The surprise move alarmed Israel, which had always maintained better relations with Jordan than with other Arab states. Syria was also caught by surprise.

Events were moving faster than the diplomats could control. Two days later, on June 1, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who had also held the Defense portfolio, resigned the Defense Ministry and named Moshe Dayan, military hero of the Sinai campaign of 1956, to the job. Dayan, who had joined David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres in political exile in the Rafi Party, was in fact visiting South Viet Nam with the US Marines when called home. At the same time Rafi and Menahem Begin's Gahal bloc (ancestor of Likud) agreed to join a National Unity Government under Eshkol. The war clouds were gathering faster than the efforts for peace could mobilize.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Ramadan Karim

A Blessed Ramadan to all my Muslim readers,

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

June 22-23.1967: Closing the Straits of Tiran


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

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

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

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Lights are Going Out All Over the Levant

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






Sunday, May 21, 2017

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

I'm just saying.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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