The limits of international bromance

It’s hard to find a lighter side to the civil war in Syria, but damned if Russia and Iran haven’t given it their best shot over the past couple of weeks. Last week, the Russian government announced that it was flying bombers out of an air base in Hamadan, Iran, against targets in Syria. This might seem like a relatively minor deal, akin to the US flying missions out of Turkey’s Incirlik base (which itself is not all that minor a deal, to be honest, but it isn’t the kind of thing that makes for a big public outcry–or, at least, it wasn’t before the failed coup attempt in Turkey), but actually it was a pretty major event from the standpoint of Iranian public policy. Iran’s constitution forbids, pretty explicitly, the establishment of any foreign military bases on Iranian soil, and while you could say that the Russians were simply using an Iranian base, that’s splitting hairs. It’s still allowing a foreign military presence within Iran’s borders, violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitution’s very clear prohibition, which is in place to preserve Iranian independence from any potentially encroaching foreign powers. Iran presumably decided to bend the rules either because circumstances in Syria dictated putting Russian bombers closer to the action or because Tehran wanted to do something nice for Moscow to strengthen their alliance.

Well, it took all of about a week after the Russians announced that they were using the Hamadan base before the Iranians yanked it out from under them. Why? Did Assad finally win the war? Well, no. According to Iran, it’s because Russia went and blabbed about the deal publicly:

But Iran’s minister of defense, Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, accused Russia of having publicized the deal excessively, calling the Kremlin’s behavior a “betrayal of trust” and “ungentlemanly.” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, told reporters in Tehran that the permission had been temporary and “it is finished, for now.”

Russia’s story was slightly different, and this is where it really started to get funny:

In response to the annulment, the Russian military issued a statement saying its planes had already completed their missions.

“The Russian military aircraft involved in launching airstrikes from the Iranian Hamadan base against terrorist sites in Syria successfully accomplished the tasks they had set out to complete,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement. “All aircraft involved in this operation are now on Russian territory.”


“Also, when I cut my finger in the kitchen yesterday, it was because I had too much blood inside of me and I needed to let some out. It was definitely a deliberate thing.”

I mean, come on guys. As propaganda goes, “you can’t fire me…I quit!” doesn’t even meet minimum basic competency standards. Do better.

The Iranian explanation actually holds some water here. Letting an outside power establish a base or use an existing base on your territory is a dicey thing that risks making it look like you’re the junior partner in your relationship, and that’s the kind of thing the Iranian government (and Iranian public) can really get chapped about. To make matters worse, as GMU Professor Mark Katz points out, while Iran and Russia are allies these days, these are two countries that have a really bad history with one another: Continue reading

Today in Middle Eastern/European history: the Battle of Manzikert (1071)

and that's the way it was

We’re in kind of a high season for major historical battles in the Middle East, like Yarmouk, Chaldiran, and Marj Dabiq (there’s another one coming next week). You could argue that Manzikert is the biggest of the bunch, because although it took another 400 years to finally come to fruition, Manzikert set in motion the eventual collapse of the Byzantine (AKA Roman) Empire.

After Yarmouk, the Byzantines retreated to the opposite side of the Taurus Mountains, which separate Anatolia from the Syrian plains to the south, and relied on those mountains, plus the Caucasus in the east, to protect them from further caliphal incursions. And for the most part, this strategy worked; caliphal armies made several campaigns into Anatolia and even besieged Constantinople on a few occasions during the caliphate’s first couple of centuries, but keeping an army supplied for an extended stay on the other side of…

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Turkey is shaking up the whole Syrian civil war right now

I’ll let you all in on a little secret: while I’ve been on “hiatus” this week I’ve actually been working anyway. I’ve been guest-editing LobeLog while the regular editor is on vacation, but mostly for the past few days I was working on a piece about recent events in Syria. Over the weekend, Assad’s air force struck YPG targets in the city of Hasakah, which is the first time that’s happened in the war (the YPG and pro-Assad militias in northeastern Syria have clashed before a handful of times, but it’s never escalated to air strikes, and for the most part the YPG and Assad’s forces have operated in an informal alliance of convenience with one another since 2012). Despite Assad’s obvious air superiority, though, the fighting in Hasakah ended with the Kurds reportedly controlling almost all of the city, which had previously been shared between the Kurds and forces more directly allied with Assad.

Then, yesterday, Turkey maybe changed the complexion of the entire war by invading northern Syria in what Ankara calls “Operation Euphrates Shield.” Turkish aircraft, tanks, and special forces crossed the border to aid a rebel force in capturing the city of Jarabulus, in northern Aleppo province, from ISIS. Of course, because this is Turkey we’re talking about here, capturing the city from ISIS was less the objective than making sure the YPG didn’t capture the city from ISIS. Now Turkey is in Syria and looks to be itching for a fight with the YPG, and the United States (specifically VP Joe Biden, while visiting Ankara) has apparently made it  clear to the YPG, with which it’s been working very closely as you know, that they need to skedaddle back over to the eastern side of the Euphrates River (which means abandoning plans to capture Jarabulus and to hold on to Manbij) or else they can expect a rethinking of all their American aid. Which is actually the first sign of life in the Turkish-US alliance that we’ve seen in months.

The question now is what Turkey plans on doing next. It seems eager for a fight with the YPG, but for the US to have come out so publicly about the YPG having to fall back over the Euphrates suggests that the US and Turkey have maybe reached a deal that as long as the YPG stays in its lane, so to speak, Turkey won’t press them too hard. The Turks could continue going after ISIS, but the number of ISIS targets remaining within shouting distance of the Turkish border is dwindling pretty fast. Or they could offer support to rebels fighting Assad, and this is where things get interesting. See, ever since the failed coup in July, Ankara has been making very nice with Russia and Iran, who are, of course, Assad’s best foreign pals.Ankara has also been making contradictory noises about maybe normalizing relations with Damascus, and there have even been reports of Turkish security officials holding meetings with Assad’s people in Damascus, though the Turkish government still insists that Assad has to go eventually (“eventually” is doing a lot of work in this sentence). It’s possible, though obviously this is speculation, that Ankara, amid its improving relations with Moscow and Tehran, has opted to soften its stance on Assad in return for support from Assad and his backers against the Kurds (Iran, of course, has its own reasons to want to partner with Turkey against the Kurds).

If this all seems very fluid and confusing, welcome to my world. My attempt to unpack it in more detail is available at LobeLog. Enjoy!


Attack on American University in Kabul kills at least 16 UPDATED x 2

It’s hard to get a bead on exactly what’s happening on the campus of the American University in Kabul right now, but reports from earlier in the day said that one or possibly two gunmen attacked the university after detonating a car bomb at its front gate. At least one civilian has reportedly been killed along with one attacker, though it seems that the situation is still developing as authorities are looking for a possible second attacker. So it’s likely too early to say exactly how high the casualty figures are or will be once everything is settled. Obviously this is still unfolding and I’ll try to keep updating as I learn more.

There are no shortage of suspects for any attack like this in Kabul, with the (Afghan) Taliban and ISIS topping the list. It’s worth noting that this attack comes in the wake of a new round of Taliban offensives over the past couple of weeks. Helmand province, one of the Taliban’s perennial targets, is in serious danger of falling to the Taliban, who have encircled the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. The situation is dire enough that it was announced on Monday that 100 US troops have been deployed to Lashkar Gah, and yesterday US special forces sergeant Matthew Thompson (who was apparently not part of the 100-person deployment) was killed in Helmand in fighting with the Taliban. Meanwhile, all the way over in northeastern Afghanistan, in Takhar province (quite a distance from Helmand, which is in the southwestern part of the country), the Khwaja-Ghar district reportedly fell into Taliban control on Monday, though the fighting there appears to be ongoing.

The sheer distance between Helmand and Takhar tells you that the Taliban remain quite capable of projecting force throughout Afghanistan, which is certainly not what you’d want to see if you were a fan of peace and stability in Afghanistan, or if you’d put money on the Afghan war finally coming to a close sometime this year (or, hell, next year). It’s obviously far too soon to say that this attack in Kabul was perpetrated by the Taliban, but even if it wasn’t they’re causing plenty of trouble for the Afghan government these days.

UPDATE: Police found and killed the second attacker, so it appears this situation is finally under control. As expected, the death toll has begun climbing now that the scene can be fully investigated; so far, 12 people are reported dead.

UPDATE 2: The count for now stands at 16 dead, 53 wounded, but there are still several victims who were critically wounded and may not survive. No claims of responsibility so far, which may mean nothing but may indicate that it wasn’t the Taliban, which could then mean a Taliban splinter group and/or ISIS. We know from Turkey that ISIS doesn’t claim responsibility when it sees a potential strategic advantage in uncertainty, and since the American University in Kabul seems to have fairly broad popular support, it’s not out of the question that a group hostile to the US, the Kabul government, and the Taliban might have carried out this attack, targeting an American symbol in Kabul, with the hopes that the Taliban would catch hell for it. Obviously that’s speculation, but if this was a Taliban attack then I’m not seeing the rationale for not claiming it.


Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Marj Dabiq (1516)

and that's the way it was

After 1514’s Battle of Chaldiran demonstrated clearly that a) the Safavids were no military threat to the Ottomans and b) the Ottomans couldn’t sustain an extended campaign deep inside Safavid territory, the Ottomans turned their focus to the third great Middle Eastern power, the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria. Not coincidentally, the Mamluks were at the same time getting ready for what looked like an inevitable war with the Ottomans. The two empires were direct competitors for east-west trade (the Mamluks controlled the Indian Ocean-Red Sea route while the Ottomans were the western terminus of the Silk Road)–plus, the Mamluks had something that the Ottomans coveted: control of Islam’s three holiest sites (Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem). Controlling those cities would be a huge boost to Ottoman legitimacy, something the forever-trying-to-justify-their-success Ottomans valued highly. With the Ottomans having decisively ended any Safavid threat to their control of Anatolia, the Mamluks knew…

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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.