Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Chaldiran (1514)

and that's the way it was

Today is the anniversary of a battle that had far-reaching implications for the Middle East, but that gets relatively little recognition if you’re not a specialist in either Ottoman or Safavid history. I happen to know a bit about both (though I wouldn’t call myself a specialist in, well, anything, come to think of it), so if you’ll indulge me I’d like to tell you a little about the Battle of Chaldiran, which took place on August 23, 1514.

We have to start our story in 1501 (hey, where are you going?), when control of Iran passed from the Turkic tribal confederation known as the Aqquyunlu (“White Sheep”) to the Safavids, who were a Sufi order-turned dynasty of “Turkicized Persian” (i.e., ethnically Iranic but culturally and linguistically Turkic) origins who came to power on the back of a zealously devoted band of Turkic warriors known as the Qizilbash (“red heads”)…

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Gaziantep’s repercussions

Although I’m on semi-hiatus for the rest of the month, Saturday’s terrorist strike on a wedding in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, which killed 54 people at last count, warrants at least a mention. Of those 54 killed, 22 were reportedly under the age of 14. ISIS is the obvious suspect, and the Turkish government seems to be working under the assumption that they were behind the bombing, but there’s been no claim of responsibility–which is ISIS’s standard operating procedure when it comes to attacks inside Turkey–and thus no confirmation. Although Ankara initially reported that the bomber himself was a teenager, aged 12-14, now they seem to be backing off of that claim:

On Monday, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, speaking to reporters in the capital of Ankara, said Turkey does not know who was behind the attack. He said it’s unclear at the present time whether the attacker was “a child or an adult.”

It is rumored that the attacker was a child, Yildirim said.

“The security forces are focusing on it and trying to find clues related to it,” the prime minister said.

It’s entirely possible that the bomber was a child–as CNN reports in that story, a 15 year old would-be ISIS suicide bomber was picked up in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Sunday–but Turkish authorities had said they were looking for one or two adults who were seen accompanying the child bomber to the target and then fleeing before the bomb detonated. If they’re no longer sure that the bomber was a child, I assume the story about the fleeing adults has also come into question.

The casualties appear to be mostly Kurdish. Gaziantep has a sizable Kurdish population, and one of the people getting married is reportedly a member of the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). So a number of other HDP members were in attendance. In this sense, the attack is reminiscent of suspected ISIS suicide bombings in Suruç last July and in Ankara last October, both of which targeted gatherings of mostly Kurds. Those attacks served to increase tensions between the Turkish government and the Kurds, particularly the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)–the Suruç bombing alone was effectively responsible for restarting hostilities between the two after a couple of years of attempted peace talks. This is, of course, ISIS’s goal in carrying out these attacks, and the Turkish government and the PKK have consistently been happy to help them achieve it. There’s no sign that the aftermath of this attack will be any different, as high-ranking Turkish political leaders continue to treat the PKK and ISIS (nowadays alongside the Fethullah Gülen “Terrorist Organization”) as all one thing (“terrorists”) despite the many differences between them.


Obama’s most unforced error


Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh (Wikimedia)

The story of America’s war the American-enabled war in Yemen took another twist yesterday, when former Yemeni president and current Houthi ally Ali Abdullah Saleh appeared to invite Russian intervention into the conflict:

A newly-formed governing council in Yemen could work with Russia to “fight terrorism” by allowing Moscow use of the war-torn country’s military bases, Yemen’s former president said on Sunday.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, a former counter-terrorism ally of the U.S. who was toppled by mass protests in 2011, told state-owned channel Russia 24 that Yemen was ready to grant Moscow access to air and naval bases.

“In the fight against terrorism we reach out and offer all facilities. Our airports, our ports… We are ready to provide this to the Russian Federation,” Saleh said in an interview in Sanaa.

Now, Saleh likely has no real authority to make this offer on his own, so either he’s talking out of school or he has the support of the Houthi rebel leadership behind him. Either way, it’s probably unlikely that Russia would get involved in Yemen right now and potentially risk a confrontation with the Saudis and, therefore, the United States. Moscow wouldn’t be able to use the justification it’s using to intervene in Syria–defending the country’s legitimate government against terrorists–because Saleh and the Houthis overthrew Yemen’s legitimate government in the process of their rebellion. Whatever else you may want to say about Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi or the uncontested election that confirmed his presidency in 2012, he is the internationally accepted head of the Yemeni state, and he’s at least as legitimate in that office as Saleh ever was. And no ad hoc Houthi “parliament” is really going to make anybody think otherwise, no matter how many displays of public support it might get (the Saudis, of course, promptly bombed that rally, no doubt part of their ongoing effort to minimize civilian casualties).

But if you’re looking to blame somebody for the fact that the door is even slightly ajar for the Russians to swoop in and complicate things in Yemen, you can lay that blame right on the front stoop of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC (though I’d clear it with the Secret Service first). Continue reading

Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Yarmouk (636)

and that's the way it was

This is another anniversary that regular readers will already know something about.

If you were inclined to rank the most important battles in world history, the Battle of Yarmouk should be pretty high on your list. It crushed, over the course of one 6-day battle, almost the entirety of the Byzantine Empire’s military presence south of the Taurus Mountains, leaving Syria and the rest of the Levant (with Egypt waiting beyond that, and then the rest of North Africa) open to Arab conquest. Along with the Battle of Qadisiyah, which was fought in November of the same year and essentially destroyed the Sasanian Persian Empire, Yarmouk established the Arab/Islamic caliphate and thus helped change the course of history in a major way.

According to the historical sources, Yarmouk’s result can be attributed to two factors that worked against the Byzantines despite their larger numbers and better equipment: intelligence (the military…

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Dog days

Hey, so, it was like pulling teeth for me to even write the little bit I wrote just now, which is a pretty good sign that it’s time for me to stop writing for a little while. I’m backed up on a lot of non-blog things and am kicking around a new idea that needs some time and attention. My daughter’s summer program ends soon which means I’ll be getting to spend time with her before school starts. Plus I’d like to play with my dog, which is not a euphemism, I actually do have a dog.


This is April

All of this adds up to one inescapable fact: I, and consequently this blog, are taking a break through the end of the month. That doesn’t mean no posting at all, but it probably means much less posting. I’ll be back to regular programming in September, but meanwhile please keep stopping by for the occasional new content and/or to dig through the archives–there’s some nice stuff in there if you ask me. Also tell your friends! Or your enemies, as the case may be! I’m always trying to make the pie higher around this place, and new visitors/views help.

Thanks for reading and have a lovely rest of August!


Treating the symptom while the disease festers

My latest at LobeLog is an extended interview with former State Department official Wayne White, talking about the big failure of the war against ISIS. Although ISIS itself is being driven back on almost every front, the underlying condition that facilitated its rise, the disenfranchisement felt by large numbers of Sunni Arabs in both Syria and Iraq, still remains with little hope of improvement:

LobeLog: Talk about why it’s important, even as IS is losing ground, that Sunni Arab resentment be addressed, and whether it can/will be addressed if and when IS is defeated.

Wayne White: Sunni Arab grievances against both the non-Sunni-dominated Syrian and Iraqi regimes, left unaddressed, will lead—whether under Syrian regime, Syrian Kurdish, Iraqi Kurdish, or Iraqi regime occupation—to further outbreaks of violence. Provocations in Syria relate to prolonged subordination to an Alawite-dominated regime and now likely occupation by a regime angered by years of bloody Sunni Arab resistance. Brutal Syrian treatment of real or suspected rebels or dissidents is well-documented. Likewise in Iraq: Shi‘a, who comprise not only the bulk of the Iraqi Army, but also of the notoriously abusive Shi‘a militias that are once again on the front lines, will likely mistreat Sunni Arabs under occupation. Atrocities will occur.

Moreover, in Syria especially, largely Sunni Arab cities and towns have been devastated in the fighting—repeatedly fought over and bombed indiscriminately. In Iraqi cities already badly damaged by fighting during the Sunni Arab insurgency of 2003-2009, as well as the ongoing aerial bombardment by the anti-IS coalition (especially given the Obama administration’s decision in April to relax the rules of engagement relating to air strikes), final re-conquest will mean, as in Syria, yet more destruction. In both Iraq and Syria, then, large infusions of funds and resources from Damascus and Baghdad would be needed to restore even a modicum of normalcy, but neither the two governments nor the Iraqi Kurds have such resources and are notoriously corrupt. So, judging from the past in Iraq particularly, Sunni Arabs can expect precious little assistance. This will breed deep resentment, unrest, and the emergence of at least some terrorism in one form or another.

Without sufficient context, the media has been characterizing anti-Shi‘a and anti-government terrorist bombings in Baghdad as the doings of IS. In fact, such terrorism is merely a seamless continuation of identical al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorism ongoing since 2003-2004. In terms of intensity, the volume of such attacks was worse during Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s abuses against Sunni Arabs in the pre-IS era. This form of murky retaliatory terrorism could emerge once again from an undercurrent of Sunni Arab anger.

Complicating this state of affairs, Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar province is currently embroiled in its own political crisis as the dominant Iraqi Islamic Party is challenged by the Sunni Endowment, the agency responsible for managing Sunni places of worship, among other things. This political dysfunction within Iraq’s Sunni community is going to make it harder for that community to work peacefully to secure Sunni rights and privileges in Baghdad.


What we say affects what we do

On Saturday, a man in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens ambushed an imam from a nearby mosque, who was walking with a companion, and executed both of them with gunshots to the back of the head. Police have arrested a suspect, but his motive remains unknown as yet.

But we can hazard a guess.

On Friday, a Lebanese-American man in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was shot and killed by his neighbor, a man known to frequently use anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slurs, a man of whom the victim’s family said they “lived in fear.” The motive here also remains unknown.

But, I mean, come on.

Meanwhile, in stories that are undoubtedly related, New York’s JFK airport was gripped by panic Sunday night over a “terrorist attack” that turned out to be…people loudly celebrating Usain Bolt’s victory in the 100 meter dash in Rio. That same night, in the French town of Juan-les-Pins, 41 people were injured when a crowd panicked and rushed to escape what turned out to be…firecrackers.

In fear of being killed in a terrorist attack, an outcome the odds of which are infinitesimal, people are beginning to come unglued. Nobody, of course, has come more unglued than the Republican nominee for President of the United States, Donald Trump, whose adoption of pure Islamophobia as one of the core principles of his candidacy is both feeding off of and feeding in to the fears of the people who support him. if you think his anti-Muslim rhetoric isn’t helping to fuel attacks against Muslims in the United States, you’re fooling yourself: Continue reading