Punishing the truly guilty

I can’t look at this photo of what used to be. It’s just too painful now.

It took the Russians a few days to properly formulate a response to Turkey shooting down its Sukhoi Su-24 aircraft, but over the weekend they finally took vengeance on the real villains: Syrians who eat bread and drink water. I really do wish I was joking:

A reported Russian airstrike on Saturday in central Idlib province destroyed an aid dispensary containing a bakery that produced over 300,000 pounds of bread per month and a well providing safe-drinking water to an estimated 50,000 people, local activists tell Syria Direct.

As a result of the attacks “the well and bread ovens [in Maarat al-Numan] have completely stopped functioning and one of the dispensary’s drivers as well as the son of another driver were killed,” Zacharia al-Haraki, the director of al-Dura al-Khair charity that operates the dispensary, told Syria Direct.

Charred bags of grain lay beside a mangled water-truck in a video showing the strike’s aftermath posted by local pro-opposition media site AlMarra Today on Sunday.

“The strike was definitely Russian, although the regime and their Russian allies both target civilian sites such as ovens and schools,” said al-Haraki.

Not content with leaving the people of Maarat al-Numan without food and water, the Russians apparently decided to repeat the attack in nearby Saraqib on Sunday, this time being sure to strike a Turkish charity: Continue reading

A great argument for ending the Libyan civil war

It’s no secret that ISIS thrives on power vacuums. Its rise from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq was fueled by the chaos created by the actual Syrian civil war and the undeclared civil war between Iraqi Sunnis and the Maliki government. Its expansion abroad has similarly targeted places that are unstable or potentially unstable: Afghanistan, the Russian Caucasus, Yemen, Sinai, and Nigeria (though there it simply acquired the organization that had created the instability, Boko Haram). And Libya, of course, which is as unstable as any country on the planet at the moment and where ISIS appears to be focusing most of its attention outside of the Syria-Iraq core:

Even as foreign powers step up pressure against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the militant group has expanded in Libya and established a new base close to Europe where it can generate oil revenue and plot terror attacks.

Since announcing its presence in February in Sirte, the city on Libya’s Mediterranean coast has become the first that the militant group governs outside of Syria and Iraq. Its presence there has grown over the past year from 200 eager fighters to a roughly 5,000-strong contingent which includes administrators and financiers, according to estimates by Libyan intelligence officials, residents and activists in the area.

The group has exploited the deep divisions in Libya, which has two rival governments, to create this new stronghold of violent religious extremism just across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy. Along the way, they scored a string of victories—defeating one of the strongest fighting forces in the country and swiftly crushing a local popular revolt.

With Libya’s dueling governments busy fighting each other, nobody has enough interest or strength to divert to a fight against this growing ISIS presence in Sirte. ISIS’s central command has reportedly started sending Libyan fighters in Syria and Iraq back home to Libya, and is now telling potential foreign recruits to go to Sirte rather than to Raqqa. Continue reading

Al-Shabaab: the terror group that has Kenyan authorities terrorizing their own people

The University of Chicago is closed today, apart from its hospitals. I can tell you from personal experience that this is almost unprecedented. It took real-deal blizzards (and I mean “blizzard” by Chicago standards, which means “so much snow that it would shut DC down for a month”) to get that place to even consider cancelling classes when I was there. But it’s not weather that shut the place down today. Campus is closed because the FBI found a “credible threat” posted somewhere online that somebody is or was planning an act of gun violence on the university quad today. Hopefully nothing comes of it, or that they catch the person who made the threat without any loss of life.

I don’t in any way want to diminish what’s happening at the University of Chicago today, or the seriousness of the problem that the city of Chicago, and the United States in general, is having right now with respect to gun violence. But I do like to put things in context every now and then, and so I think this story about Chicago makes a helpful lead-in to talk about Kenya, Somalia, and the terror group al-Shabaab. Why? Well, consider what happened earlier today at Kenya’s Strathmore University:

A security drill at a Nairobi university has led to the death of a staff member after many panicked when security forces used what students thought was live ammunition to stage a pretend attack on the school.

Social media went into overdrive on Monday afternoon as security forces simulated an attack against Strathmore University’s Madaraka campus in the Kenyan capital – with many believing the incident was real.

The university confirmed to Al Jazeera that a 33-year-old staff member died “from severe head injuries”.

“Efforts to resuscitate her failed, and she succumbed to the injuries,” a university spokeswoman said.

It was not immediately what led to the staff member’s death, but local media reported that a number people jumped from the third storey of a building to flee “attackers”, while photographs showed others perched on the ledges of a building.

Strathmore wasn’t responding to a specific threat by holding this catastrophic drill. The threat of attacks on soft targets in Kenya isn’t specific, it’s general and omnipresent. And while you can blame officials at the university for not managing this simulation better, you can’t really blame them for holding one in the first place. It’s only been about 8 months, after all, since the Somali terror group al-Shabaab attacked Garissa University College, in eastern Kenya, and killed 147 people. It’s only been about 5 months since al-Shabaab struck a mining camp in northeastern Kenya, an attack that “only” killed 14 people but seems all the more frightening for the sheer randomness of the target. Before the Garissa attack, and aside from its innumerable atrocities inside Somalia, al-Shabaab was perhaps best known for its attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, an attack that lasted 4 days, killed around 70 people, and produced scenes like this: Continue reading

Today in European history: the Battle of Sinop (1853)

Apart from the Charge of the Light Brigade (the actual charge, but also the poem), the Crimean War (1853-1856) is perhaps best known (at least by some of us) as the first “modern” war, in that it was during the Crimean War when later military staples like rail, telegraphs, trenches, and rifled firearms and artillery first got tested on a major battlefield. Oh, and it also led to the development of modern professional nursing, triage, and anesthetics, but who’s counting? The 1853 Battle of Sinop is perhaps most noteworthy for the way it helped pioneer another development in military technology, although it’s also important in that it was the war’s first major battle, and Russia’s victory in this battle paved the way for it to eventually lose the war.

A Russian stamp commemorating the Battle of Sinop, issued in 2003 (Wikimedia)

The Battle of Sinop, named for the Black Sea port on the northern Anatolian coast where the battle was fought, was the result of years of Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe, of perennial British fears of all Russian expansionism, of new French Emperor Napoleon III’s desire to make France the leading European power as his (far more successful, as it turns out) uncle had done, and of Ottoman…well, of the fact that the Ottoman Empire was in pretty bad shape, barely hanging on financially and forced to field only a tiny military in response to the demands of its foreign creditors. The Ottomans were a belligerent in the war, to be sure, but really the Empire’s role was more as the object of the fighting than a participant in it. Should Russia be allowed to put the “Sick Man of Europe” (it was never that sick, but the Crimean War was definitely an ebb point) out of his misery and absorb his territory, or would that be so disruptive to the European political balance that it was incumbent upon the other European powers to step in and stop it? Russia answered that question one way, and France and Britain answered it the other way, and that difference of opinion meant war. Continue reading

Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Hama (903)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a fairly small, radical–apocalyptic, even–and highly militarized Islamic sect carves out a chunk of territory, including a sizable piece of Syria, in which to establish its own very wealthy political entity that could be described as revisionist, expansionist, and even irredentist. They specialize in hit-and-run attacks on their neighbors that maximize civilian casualties, attacks that would certainly meet most definitions of the term “terrorism.” Their targets are intended to shock ordinary people and to drive home the message of their esoteric interpretation of Islam–to that end, they deliberately seek to damage and destroy physical symbols of cultural and religious significance. The people unfortunate enough to find themselves captured by or otherwise living under the rule of these fanatics often find themselves enslaved. Recognized by almost none of its neighbors and opposed by nearly all of them, the emirate ruled by these fanatics nevertheless survives far longer than it probably should, and the fanatics themselves deal out considerable pain and suffering to those neighbors along the way.

I’m talking, of course, about the Qarmatians (or Qarmathians if you prefer; in Arabic they’re the Qaramitah), the Ismaʿili Shiʿa movement that ruled a big chunk of the Arabian peninsula, centered in Bahrayn (the historical term for eastern Arabia, which I’m calling “Bahrayn” to distinguish it from the modern island nation of Bahrain, even though in Arabic they’re the same word), from the tail end of the 9th century through the middle of the 11th century. It’s a good thing we don’t have to deal with anything like that nowadays, am I right?

Map - Islamic World, ca. 1000 a

The Qarmatians c. 1000. Since the Battle of Hama took place about a century earlier than this, you’ll need to imagine that the “Buyid” area is divided between the Abbasids and the Saffarids, and that the Egyptian and Syrian parts of the “Fatimid Caliphate” belong instead to the Tulunids

I don’t want to go too far down the Shiʿa trail here, but you need to know a little bit about the Qarmatians before we get to today’s topic, the Battle of Hama. Continue reading

Good history reading: the Battle of Ctesiphon (1915)

Earlier this week (November 22-25) was the 100th anniversary of World War I’s Battle of Ctesiphon, the point at which Britain’s 1915 campaign to take Baghdad went from a bad decision in theory to a bad decision in fact. That campaign, in short, consisted of the 6th (Poona) Division of the British Indian Army, under General Charles Townshend, hoofing it into central Iraq, stretching its supply line too thin in the process, and encountering much tougher than expected Ottoman resistance. With the Ottomans able to get reinforcements and supplies much easier than the Brits could, they had little trouble isolating and eventually crushing Townshend’s force.

Charles Townshend, British commander during the Mesopotamian Campaign. Townshend was captured at Kut and spent the rest of the war living in what sounds like a pretty luxurious captivity in Istanbul. (Wikimedia)

Ctesiphon was the first heavy engagement of the offensive, and it ended in a tactical stalemate, as both the British attacking force and the Ottoman defenders took heavy losses and ordered a retreat on the final day of the battle. But it turned into a strategic Ottoman victory when their commander, Nureddin Ibrahim Pasha, realized that the Brits were in even worse shape than his forces were (because of the supply line issue), and turned his army around to pursue them. Rather than retreating all the way back to Basra and safety, Townshend opted to hole up at Kut, a town about 100 miles south of Baghdad, and the resulting almost six month Siege of Kut ended in April 1916 in what is often described as the single greatest military defeat in the history of the British Empire–over 10,000 men of the 6th Division were taken captive, and many thousands more were killed in the fighting. The Brits finally took Baghdad in 1917, but only after the Ottoman capacity to wage war had been significantly weakened across the board.

The Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn put together a two-part series (that link will take you to part 2, which then has a link to part 1) on Ctesiphon this week, and if you’re interested in World War I and/or military history I highly recommend reading it. Last month Dunn did a six-part series (again, I’m linking to the last entry, which has links to all the others) on why the Brits made the ultimately disastrous decision to march on Baghdad in 1915 in the first place, and last summer he wrote a three-part series on the British surrender at Kut. I probably don’t cover as much World War I here as I should, except insofar as the fallout from that war has some bearing on contemporary events in the Middle East, so hopefully these will satisfy any WWI buffs out there.

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Today in Middle Eastern/European history: the Council of Clermont (1095)

The title of this post is a bit misleading. The Council of Clermont actually ran from November 18 through November 28, 1095, so November 27 commemorates neither its beginning nor its end. What it does commemorate, however, is the day on which Pope Urban II (d. 1099) got to the point. It was on November 27, the second to last day of the council, when Urban turned its focus onto the challenges facing the Byzantine Empire in the east in the aftermath of the Battle of Manzikert. Urban’s speech, calling for an army of Christian warriors to head east and drive the Turks out of Byzantine territory, kicked off the Crusades.

Urban II addressing the Council, an illumination from the 15th century text Passages d’outremer, which was illuminated by miniaturist Jean Colombe (Wikimedia)

The bulk of the council was actually taken up with internal Church matters, like instituting the Benedictine Reforms of monastic life and a decision to extend the excommunication of King Philip I of France for marrying (well, kind of) Bertrade de Montfort, despite the fact that both Philip and Bertrade were, uh, already married to other people at the time. That’s a little awkward.

In fact, part of Urban’s rationale in calling for a crusade to the east, aside from a desire to rescue his fellow Christians (schismatic, but still) from the Muslim menace (and thereby maybe bring the eastern Church into his fold), was the fact that the political/religious situation in Western Europe was pretty tense. Philip obviously didn’t care for Urban, but that actually wasn’t Urban’s biggest problem. He’d inherited the Investiture Controversy, his predecessor Gregory VII’s feud with the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, over whether the Pope or the Emperor had the right to appoint bishops and abbots in imperial territory. If you’re a good Catholic, then you probably know the story of Henry IV donning a hairshirt and walking barefoot over the Alps to Gregory’s palace at Canossa, where he knelt in the snow for three days waiting for an audience with the pope in order to beg forgiveness for his transgressions. That was in 1077. By 1080, a much stronger Henry appointed his own “pope,” who took the name “Clement III” and served as what’s (affectionately, I’m sure) known as an “antipope” until his death in 1100.

So Urban had a lot on his own plate, and he undoubtedly thought that this Crusade idea would unite Europe behind his leadership. That didn’t quite work out for him. Continue reading