Today in European history: the Battle of the Kalka River (1223)

The astute reader might remember this battle from such blog posts as “Today in European history: the Mongols sack Kiev (1240).”

Or not, I wouldn’t blame you.

The 1240 siege of Kiev occurred on the Mongols’ second incursion into the eastern European steppe, the one that was intended to conquer territory. The first incursion amounted to a raid, but holy mackerel, what a raid. By 1221 the Mongols’ first invasion to their west, to obliterate the Khwarazmian Empire in Central Asia/eastern Iran, was over, although straggling remnants of the Khwarazmian polity would survive for another decade. Instead of turning around and heading home, however, as most of the Mongol army was doing, two generals–Jebe and Subutai–asked for permission from Genghis Khan to take 20,000 men on an extended (1-2 year) expedition further west. The intent, again, was not to take and hold new territory but simply to scout out these western lands, assess the kingdoms controlling them, take whatever booty they could scrape up, and then return home a little richer and a lot better informed. This was 20,000 mounted men campaigning entirely on their own, with no expectation of resupply or reinforcement, and really no assurance that they’d be returning home, for two years. The fact that they pulled it off is a testament to how unbelievably skilled the Mongols, from their top commanders all the way down to the greenest cavalry fighter, were at ever facet of 13th century warfare.

Map - Mongol Empire 1190-1400

The Mongol Empire and some of their most important campaigns. The solid red arrow that loops around the Caspian Sea and back east in 1223-1224 is the Jebe-Subutai excursion.

Jebe and Subutai led their men west through the region known as “Persian Iraq,” modern west-central Iran, sacking major city after major city, and north into Azerbaijan, where they were bribed to leave the wealthy city of Tabriz alone. They kept pushing north into the Caucasus, defeating a substantially larger Georgian army, before turning south again and campaigning in western Iran again. They considered sacking Baghdad but instead decided to sack the Iranian city of Hamadan, an easier target. Later they pushed back into the Caucasus, and by the end of 1221 they’d defeated another Georgian army and were raiding that kingdom at will.

It was apparently only at this point that Jebe and Subutai were given the green light by Genghis Khan to go on their extended raid–everything they’d done to this point had just been vamping, waiting for an answer to their request. Continue reading

The second Iraqi front

In an operation that looks like the twin brother (sister?) of the SDF’s recent activity north of Raqqa, in Syria, American Special Forces are embedded with Kurdish Peshmerga in an operation that is approaching, but will likely stop short of, the city of Mosul, in Iraq:

The operation is the largest by the Kurds in Iraq since they took Sinjar from the Islamic State last November. Intent on driving ISIS out of nine villages facing them at the Khazir front, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) threw 4,700 men into the offensive, according to Arif Tayfor, the sector commander at Khazir.

By Monday afternoon, seven of those nine villages had been taken.

The Kurds, without question, benefitted from some hands-on U.S. support.  A few miles from Mufti, on the road leading directly to Mosul, I came across a U.S. special operations commando shoveling empty machine-gun cartridge cases out of the turret of an armored car.

These camera-shy elite soldiers usually refrain from engaging the enemy directly, instead gathering intelligence and directing air strikes. But at Khazir, U.S. ammunition clearly was expended.


Khazir in relation to Mosul (via)

The Khazir front lies just east of Mosul along the main route from that city to the Kurdish capital, Erbil, and many of these villages are populated by Kurdish religious minorities, like the Shabak, whose continued existence as distinct communities (like that of the Yazidis in Sinjar) was put in grave peril when ISIS swept through the region two years ago.

The Kurds have an ulterior motive for pushing ISIS out of these areas. As Iraq falls apart politically, it behooves the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to establish control over as much territory as it can so that it might hang on to some or all of it in the event that post-ISIS Iraq either decentralizes or breaks up entirely. But contrary to some of what you may read about this operation, I think it’s unlikely that they’ll attempt to attack Mosul itself. As is the case with Raqqa and the SDF, the KRG recognizes that a Kurdish offensive to capture Mosul could, even if successful (and that’s no sure thing), potentially lead to some nasty and very counter-productive Arab-Kurd infighting. I feel pretty confident about this because Aziz Ahmad, an aide at the Kurdistan Region Security Council, wrote about this very concern in The Atlantic just a couple of days ago: Continue reading

Better late than never? Or just too late?

After over a year of US-abetted Saudi brutality in Yemen, the Obama administration has finally decided to do the literal least it could do:

Frustrated by a growing death toll, the White House has quietly placed a hold on the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia as the Sunni ally continues its bloody war on Shiite rebels in Yemen, U.S. officials tell Foreign Policy. It’s the first concrete step the United States has taken to demonstrate its unease with the Saudi bombing campaign that human rights activists say has killed and injured hundreds of Yemeni civilians, many of them children.

The move follows rising criticism by U.S. lawmakers of America’s support for the oil-rich monarchy in the year-long conflict. Washington has sold weapons and provided training, targeting information, and aerial refueling support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. It has also sold Riyadh millions of dollars’ worth of cluster bombs in recent years.

Asked about the hold on the shipments, a senior U.S. official cited reports that the Saudi-led coalition used cluster bombs “in areas in which civilians are alleged to have been present or in the vicinity.”

Cluster bombs are some of the world’s absolute worst weapons: indiscriminate, highly lethal to civilians, and dangerous even years after the conflict ends, a la landmines. Their use in Yemen has been alleged for months to have been indiscriminate enough to qualify as a war crime. And while this ban on their sale to the Saudis may save some lives, the fact is that Washington doesn’t seem prepared to stop sending plenty of other lethal arms, along with targeting information and aircraft parts, to the Saudis to enable them to keep killing plenty of Yemenis.

On a positive note, peace talks between the Houthi-Saleh rebels and the government-Saudi coalition, which looked stalemated a couple of weeks ago, are now back on track according to the UN Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. The goal is to reach a deal on a prisoner swap before Ramadan begins (on June 5 or thereabouts), and then build on that success moving forward. Fingers crossed.


Difference of degrees

Iraqi forces are reportedly in the midst of a “final assault” to dislodge ISIS from the city of Fallujah:

State forces including members of an elite counter-terrorism unit are moving into Falluja on several fronts, an official statement said on Monday.

The Iraqi air force and international coalition jets are carrying out air strikes in support of ground troops.

IS fighters are reportedly putting up fierce resistance in some areas, especially around the southern side, leading to fierce battles.

The group is thought to have about 1,200 fighters, the majority from the city itself.

The BBC’s Jim Muir in Baghdad says government forces have taken over two townships on the southern fringes of Falluja, but on other fronts they are some way from the edge of the city itself.

The impression is that the army is trying to close a ring of steel around the city, he says.

Militia leaders taking part have said there is likely to be a pause before the assault on the city centre begins so as to allow more civilians to escape.

The New York Times reported on Saturday that the US is “worried” that the operation to retake Fallujah is relying so heavily on Shiʿa militias and their Iranian backers. Iranian advisers are reportedly embedded with front-line Iraqi troops, and celebrity general Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, is reportedly helping to direct operations personally. Fallujah is still home to tens of thousands of Sunni civilians who have been unable to flee in advance of the attack, perhaps because ISIS fighters have been preventing them from leaving. They’re already starving thanks to the blockade around the city, and now they’re in the path of the offensive to liberate it. The concern is that an overtly sectarian Iraqi force will treat those civilians as ISIS sympathizers and punish them accordingly, when in reality most/all of them have been among ISIS’s biggest victims and the objective should be to save them rather than brutalize them further.


This is either Qasem Soleimani or the Bogeyman; I’ve stopped being able to tell them apart

“But wait,” the savvy reader is saying right now. “Isn’t the US doing pretty much the same thing in northern Syria, embedding special forces with the mostly-Kurdish SDF in preparation for an assault on mostly-Arab Raqqa?” Funny you should ask, because that’s pretty much true! The Times article even acknowledges this, before explaining that the two situations are completely different because IRAN BAD: Continue reading

Today in World War I: the preservation of Armenia (1918)

As much as the 1917 Russian Revolution affected the course of World War I on the Eastern Front, I think there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that its biggest effects were felt in another of the war’s innumerable theaters: the Caucasus. While Russian forces in Eastern Europe had largely struggled almost from the war’s outset, apart from the Pyrrhic 1916 Brusilov Offensive, they’d steadily driven the Ottoman front line out of the Caucasus and into central Anatolia by early 1916, when Mustafa Kamal was put in charge of the front and managed to stem the bleeding. But when Russia itself descended into political chaos in 1917, and then pulled out of the war altogether after the Bolshevik takeover in October/November, the Ottomans were able to go on an offensive that continued through the end of the war. Although the Ottomans came out of the war as losers, and in fact stopped being “the Ottomans,” so thorough was their loss, the position of modern Turkey’s eastern borders owes a lot to the Caucasus Front’s 1917 change in fortunes.

There’s no question that the Armenian people suffered more than any other group on the Caucasus Front. Not only were they living right on the Ottoman-Russian front line, but Ottoman losses and the political pressure they created led imperial leaders like War Minister Enver Pasha to look for a scapegoat, and the Armenians were an easy choice. Armenian nationalism had been on the rise since the mid-1800s, which made their loyalty to the empire suspect, and the fact that many Armenian volunteers fought in the Russian army on the Caucasian and Persian fronts was even more damning, even though these were Russian (eastern) Armenians, not Ottoman (western) Armenians. It was determined that the Ottomans were losing in the Caucasus not because their forces were less capable than the Russians, or because leaders like Enver Pasha exhibited a toxic blend of arrogance and incompetence. No, it must have been Armenian treachery. The result of this scapegoating was, for Armenians living under Ottoman rule, genocide, and for Armenians who had been living under Russian rule, the very real threat of military extermination. With the Russians out of the war, those Armenians lost their only real protection against an Ottoman army that was looking to take back the territory it had lost, and to extract punishment from the people its government was blaming for their past humiliations.

Obviously we know today that, as bad as things got for the Armenians, they were thankfully not exterminated. Continue reading

Today in Middle Eastern/European history: the Fall of Constantinople (1453)

The Fall of Constantinople is one of the great milestones in world history, signifying the end of the last vestiges of the Roman Empire and the true ascendance of the Ottoman Empire as a great world power. For world historians, who generally put a period change around the year 1500, it’s one of the markers of the end of the “Medieval” period and the beginnings of the early modern period. To commemorate the day, please enjoy my post on the city’s fall from a couple of years ago:

The Ottomans were not the first Islamic power to threaten the Byzantines, and in fact the Byzantine (Roman, if you prefer) Empire was by this point in 1453 a hollowed out husk of its former glory. Successive waves of Turkish and Mongol invasions had taken almost all of Anatolia out of Byzantine control, and the Ottomans had by this point conquered considerable portions of the empire’s Balkan territories. Constantinople itself, whose population may once have been as high as 800,000 people (500,000 is more realistic), never recovered from the Fourth Crusade’s sacking and the Black Death, and probably only had about 50,000 people living there in 1453. But the city had survived several sieges by Islamic armies (including the Ottomans, pre-Ankara) in the past, because of its seemingly impenetrable walls. Unfortunately for the Byzantines, the Ottomans came prepared with some of the strongest cannons yet invented.

The Ottoman guns were the product of a Hungarian engineer named Orban, or Urban, who initially offered himself to the Byzantines as a maker of massive artillery pieces but, when the impoverished Byzantines told him they couldn’t afford his services, turned around and offered himself to the Ottomans. I guess he wasn’t too wrapped up in the whole religious war aspect of things (though, to be fair, neither were the Byzantines except when it suited them; during a 14th century civil war, the two rival claimants to the throne both sought and received Ottoman help at various points during their struggle). Orban made a cannon so big that it is estimated that it could have shot a 600 pound ball a full mile; it had to be pulled to Constantinople by a team of 60 oxen and eventually fell apart under its own weight. It’s believed that Orban was killed during the siege when another of his large guns exploded.


The road to Raqqa

The largely Kurdish and very American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are pushing south, out of the historically Kurdish northern enclaves where they’ve operated previously, toward ISIS’s “capital city,” Raqqa.

ISIS appears to have predicted this offensive, at least it does if you can believe US military reports of a couple of weeks ago suggesting that the insurgent group had declared a “state of emergency” in the city. Things really picked up late last week, when the US-led anti-ISIS coalition dropped leaflets on Raqqa advising residents to leave the city in advance of an assault. Then, earlier this week, SDF ground forces (with air support courtesy of the US) began to conduct new operations in Raqqa district, north of the city:

An unspecified number of SDF fighters were seen moving south from their stronghold of Tel Abyad near the Turkish border toward Ain Issa, a town about 60 km north west of Raqqa city, and clashes were reported nearby, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

An SDF spokesman, Talal Silo, confirmed a military operation began this morning but gave no details. He told Reuters via internet messaging it was focused at this stage on capturing large tracts of territory north of Raqqa, not the city itself.

ain issa map

Ain Issa in relation to Raqqa and the Turkish border (Google Maps)

As that report says, the current operation is only focused on taking territory on the way to Raqqa city, not assaulting the city itself. An SDF spokesman insisted that there are no immediate plans to assault the city and that those will only take shape once this operation is completed. It’s long been the policy of the Kurdish YPG, the main component in the SDF, that it will not take the lead in an operation to liberate Raqqa, traditionally a predominantly Arab city. They want Arab forces to take the lead, both to avoid clashes with the local Arab population (I know the YPG is America’s best pal in Syria, but it has–allegedly–committed war crimes against Arab civilians in the areas it’s taken away from ISIS and it is not well-liked by Syrian Arabs in general) and so that the YPG can keep most of its forces in the north defending Kurdish territory, but the SDF’s Arab component simply isn’t up to the task at this point. That may help to explain all the Agence France Presse photos that have popped up over the past week, showing US Special Forces embedded with the SDF in front line positions around Raqqa–wearing YPG uniform insignia, no less, which won’t make isn’t making Ankara very happy (though Turkish uneasiness doesn’t seem like it will scuttle the offensive).

There is an obvious concern with assaulting Raqqa that civilians will be caught in the crossfire. ISIS is reportedly allowing some Raqqa residents to leave the city, but it’s not clear now many “some” actually is, and if Iraqi assaults on Tikrit and Ramadi are any template, it’s likely that forces attempting to liberate Raqqa will find plenty of civilians still there, prevented from fleeing either by ISIS or by their own circumstances.