This Week in Middle Eastern history: the Second Battle of Gaza (1917)

Having noted the 100th anniversary of World War I’s indecisive First Battle of Gaza just a few weeks ago, I suppose it would be inappropriate to skip over the centennial of the slightly less indecisive Second Battle of Gaza, which was April 17-19. I say that both of these battles were indecisive mostly because each was a temporary Ottoman victories and both were followed up in early November 1917 by a truly decisive British victory in the Third Battle of Gaza. Britain’s second crack at capturing Gaza was a bit more decisive than its first because, for one thing, this time the British didn’t literally give victory away by retreating when there was no discernible reason to do so, and, for another, because it was a little over five months before the Brits would make another serious effort here, whereas their victory in the first battle only bought the Ottomans about three weeks of quiet before they were fighting again.

Map - Ottomans in WW I

WWI Middle Eastern Theater

The British commanders, Archibald Murray and Charles Dobell, having probably realized that they screwed up in their first effort to take Gaza, seem to have assumed that the second time would be the charm. Unfortunately for them, the Ottomans and Germans hadn’t exactly slept through that first battle, and so after it ended the Ottomans dispatched a large number of reinforcements to Gaza while the Germans sent enough aircraft to at least even the odds a bit with the Brits. Michael Collins Dunn has a new piece up on the battle and he offers the short and to the point version of what happened:

On April 17 and 18, the advance began with the British infantry advancing from the Wadi Ghuzze to engage the forward Turkish outposts. Turkish resistance was fierce and after two days of fighting, they were at their desired position but had captured only outlying outposts.

The fighting on the 19th was complex and need not be described in tactical detail. Resistance was fierce and casualties mounted. British and Empire forces succeeded in penetrating the Ottoman lines in several places, but each time they were met with counterattack which drove them back. The next morning, British positions were bombed by German aircraft, and Turkish cavalry was massing near Hareira. It was decided to withdraw. Losses were high, and the defeat more decisive than in the first battle.

Murray somewhat hilariously tried to pin the loss on Dobell (it probably helped that Dobell was Canadian, not British), but while Dobell was replaced Murray was also taken out of the field and put in command of a training center back in Britain. Because the Middle Eastern Theater wasn’t as glamorous as the Western Front, it took a while to find Murray’s replacement and he didn’t get there until June. The pick was a fellow named Edmund Allenby, who had recently been taken off the line because his former commanding officer blamed him for a costly stalemate at the Battle of Arras, in France. As it turns out, he was the right man for the job.

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Conflict update: April 18 2017

AMERICA TO THE RESCUE

If you’re worried about the state of human rights around the world, I’ve got great news–this afternoon, America was on it:

The Trump administration is seeking to highlight its commitment to human rights around the world, and so its envoy to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, is presiding over what it calls the first “thematic debate” on human rights in the Security Council on Tuesday afternoon.

“Council members are encouraged to express their views on the nexus between human rights and international peace and security,” reads a memo circulated to the members this month. Rights abuses, the memo says, can often be the first signs of a full-on conflict erupting.

This was, of course, not the first time human rights have been discussed to no effect at the UN Security Council, but it probably is the council’s first “thematic debate,” whatever the fuck that means. Human rights groups were skeptical–for some reason, they seemed to think that a UN Security Council meeting on human rights, presided over by a country that bombs mosques, bombs apartment buildings, bombed civilians even on this very day, and allies with countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, wouldn’t amount to shit. Well, the joke’s on them, because as it turns out…they were, uh, pretty much right on the money.

UNITED KINGDOM

Britain is having a new election in June! What fun! Yes, I know, they just had an election two years ago, and Prime Minister Theresa May has said multiple times that she wouldn’t call snap elections before Britain had exited the European Union, but since when are we dinging politicians for lying? If early polling is to be believed, we’re not doing it this time either. May has a major political opening staring her in the face–serious Brexit negotiations won’t start until later this year, and she and her Conservative Party have huge polling leads over Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party–and she’s going to take advantage of it to increase her parliamentary cushion for the Brexit process. This is a smart, calculated move–so calculated that her opposition might even want to make an issue out of how bloody cynical the whole thing is.

Technically, May does not have the power to call for early elections–prime ministers used to have virtually unlimited authority in that regard, but parliament voted to restrict it in 2010 in order to keep precisely this kind of purely political vote from being called. If just a third of the House of Commons rejects her plans, she’ll have to resort to legislative trickery by having her own party vote against her government in a vote of no confidence. But it’s probably not going to come to that, as both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said they’ll vote to approve the early election. It’s not clear why they’re going along with this, but I suppose if either party really knew what it was doing then the Conservatives wouldn’t be on the verge of pummeling them both in a couple of months.

The actual risk for May is that, if British voters are really feeling buyer’s remorse over the Brexit referendum, they could opt to hand May a parliament that’s much less amenable to her plans for a so-called “hard Brexit” (apologies if there are any impressionable children reading this smut).  Continue reading

Conflict update: April 15-17 2017

Happy Easter again to everyone who celebrated, and Pesach Sameach to those observing Passover, which ends tomorrow. And if any Egyptians happen to be reading this, happy Sham el-Nisim.

TURKEY

The weekend’s biggest story was, as expected, Sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan I’s formal coronation. By a slim margin, also as expected, Turkish voters on Sunday approved a referendum to amend Turkey’s constitution and change the country’s political system from a parliamentary one to a presidential one. The changes will be phased in over the next two years, but when the process is complete full executive authority will be concentrated in the office of president rather than split between the presidency and the prime minister’s office (with the PM, which is disappearing under the new system, actually the more powerful of the two positions). Erdoğan, who could now serve as president through 2029 under these changes, and will presumably try to change the constitution again in a decade if he wants to stay in office beyond that, will have vast new powers to control Turkey’s state bureaucracy, judiciary, military, and legislature.

Juan Cole writes at length about something I brought up on Friday, which is that many of these changes, on their face, are not particularly anti-democratic or authoritarian. On paper, when these changes are fully implemented Turkey’s government won’t look that much different from France’s, for example, or America’s–both of which have their own problems, don’t get me wrong, but neither of which could be called a dictatorship at least at the moment. The problem with Turkish democracy is, as it’s been at least since the Gezi Park protests in 2013, Erdoğan. Especially since last summer’s failed coup gave him an excuse to institute a permanent state of emergency, Erdoğan has been able to purge his political rivals, imprison his political opposition, stifle independent media, and rule Turkey as a one-man show for several years now under the current system, so all this change will do is make it easier for him to keep on keeping on.

Do these changes take Turkey back toward something resembling the Ottoman Empire? Stephen Cook says yes, but even he acknowledges that this is only really going to be the case when the president and parliament both come from the same party. The potential for an opposition parliament to check the president is there. The problem is that it’s impossible to see how an opposition parliament can ever be elected when Erdoğan has thoroughly stifled the Turkish press, has stocked the judiciary with his political appointees, has purged Turkish academia of anyone who dares to criticize him, and won’t let opposition parties mount anything approaching an actual political campaign (and likes to throw their leaders in jail just for good measure). And he didn’t need these amendments to do that. Does this result make Erdoğan a dictator? I would say no, but only because he pretty much already was one.

Also, while we’re mourning the demise of Turkish democracy, I think it’s important to bear in mind that it has always–and here I’m not just referring to the Erdoğan Era, but to the entire history of republican Turkey–had an authoritarian edge to it. You can go all the way back to the days of Atatürk and right through the decades during which another military coup seemed always to be just around the bend, and you’d be hard pressed to find a time when there wasn’t tension between the will of the Turkish people and the will of the few actors at the top of the Turkish political system.

So what happens now, as in right now, before 2019? Continue reading

Last week in Middle Eastern history: the First Battle of Gaza (1917)

Two Sundays ago, March 26, marked the 100th anniversary of the First Battle of Gaza, a small and, to be honest, fairly inconsequential affair (the Second Battle of Gaza was fought less than a month later, so clearly neither side expended itself this time around) that is nonetheless interesting in that what could have been a decisive British victory became instead an indecisive Ottoman one because British forces, having actually taken Gaza, decided to retreat rather than prepare for an Ottoman counterattack. That’s why there was a second engagement in April, which was also an Ottoman victory, and then a third one in November when the Brits finally were victorious.

Why am I only writing about this now, and not last week when it might have been appropriate? Well, the simple answer is that, as regular readers know, when World War I stuff comes around I generally like to send you all to read Michael Collins Dunn instead of writing about these things myself. And, well, it took him a few days to get his account written so it’s taken me a few days to point you at it. But if you’re interested in WWI history, do go check these out: part I (introducing the key people) and part II (recapping the engagement itself).

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Conflict update: March 27 2017

A FEATURE, NOT A BUG: PART I

At LobeLog, I look at the recent increase in US-caused civilian casualties in the Middle East, and the presumption, still denied by Washington in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, that President Trump has told the Pentagon to stop worrying about civilian casualties and just blow the shit out of them, as it were. I conclude with the short version of why, aside from the obvious loss of life, carelessly killing civilians is bad for the US:

The eventual defeat of IS and al-Qaeda requires not simply beating them on a battlefield or driving them out of a city. It requires undermining and discrediting their ideology. These groups, and their eventual successors, can survive indefinitely if the United States and its allies take actions that fuel Muslim resentment toward the West. In any war, some civilian casualties are unfortunately inevitable. But if the Trump administration has truly decided to “take the gloves off” in the war on terror, then it may find that it’s punching the wrong people.

Of course, this analysis only holds if you assume that the Trump administration is actually trying to secure America and minimize the threat posed by extremist jihadi groups. If, however, their real goal is to have their Clash of Civilizations war with Islam, then they may be doing exactly what they need to be doing. Civilian casualties in that scenario are very much a feature rather than a but. I assume the former is still true for most of the people working in this White House and this Pentagon, but I have to admit I don’t really have any reason to assume it.

A FEATURE, NOT A BUG: PART II

Jon Wolfsthal and Laura S. H. Holgate of the Carnegie Endowment worry that Donald Trump’s planned cuts to the State Department budget will consequently mean cuts to US funding for the International Atomic Energy Agency. In writing about this possibility, they manage to be correct and also pretty misguided at the same time:

Regardless of what you may have heard about the United Nations or the IAEA itself, the agency may be the greatest national security bargain the United States has. As the old cliché goes, if we didn’t have it, we have to invent it. Washington provides a significant percentage of the IAEA’s annual budget and, on top of that, additional resources known as voluntary contributions. This money ensures that the IAEA can handle its current responsibilities by having the tools, people, skills, and resources needed to do its job — which is, to put it bluntly, to help keep us and other countries safe and enable all to benefit from the peaceful benefits of nuclear technology.

So in plain English, what does that mean? IAEA inspectors are on the ground in Iran monitoring that Tehran fully complies with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It helps monitor nuclear materials in over 50 countries to deter diversion and to certify that none have been syphoned off for illicit weapon programs. It helps ensure the safety of nuclear facilities all over the world. It’s increasingly on the front lines of preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons. Oh, and it’s also part of the fight against the Zika virus and other deadly insect-borne diseases (they nuke male insects so they can’t breed, poor guys).

Cutting IAEA funding is objectively a terrible idea. But if you’re opposed to the JCPOA and want a good excuse to screw around with its terms or abrogate it outright, then defunding the agency that’s supposed to be monitoring the agreement is a pretty good place to start. If the IAEA no longer has the resources to monitor Iran, then, gosh, I guess we’ll have to make the deal more onerous for the Iranians to ease the IAEA’s burden. And if the Iranians aren’t willing to accept a reasonable escalation of the deal’s terms, well, that’s on them, isn’t it?

Wolfsthal and Holgate start, like I did, by assuming that Donald Trump and his administration are actually interested in national security, and maybe that’s their mistake. If what these guys really want is to get back on the path to war with Iran, then the likelihood that slashing IAEA funding will help them do that is a feature, not a bug.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: February 27 2017

FOREVER WAR

President Trump would like to increase the Pentagon’s budget by $54 billion next year, an amount that, if you’re keeping score at home, is all by itself equal to roughly 4/5 of Russia’s entire military budget. This would boost America’s capacity to shovel huge piles of money at defense contractors fight MOAR WARS, and pay for it by cutting pretty much everything else, including the stuff we do to try to avoid fighting wars.

EARTH

The Great Barrier Reef is still dying, so consider this your semi-regular reminder that none of the rest of this will matter if we don’t figure out a way to stop rendering our planet uninhabitable.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces secured the western end of the southernmost bridge connecting the two halves of the city across the Tigris River on Monday. They’re now pushing into the heart of ISIS-controlled western Mosul, where they’re increasingly running into challenges related to the estimated 750,000 civilians still there. Thousands of civilians have tried to leave the city amid the fighting, but at this point they’re an impediment for the Iraqi military whether they stay or go. Securing the bridge will, once it’s been repaired, in theory allow the Iraqis to resupply their front line forces more directly via eastern Mosul.

There continues to be mostly confusion surrounding the eventual fate of Tal Afar. Pronouncements coming out of the Popular Mobilization Units suggest that the PMU are preparing to take the city, but the Ninewah provincial government says that Iraqi regulars will be the ones to handle that phase of the operation. Baghdad originally floated the idea that the PMU would take Tal Afar but backed down when that plan raised Turkish ire. At this point it seems clear that Baghdad would prefer to have its professional military liberate Tal Afar, but it can’t spare any manpower from Mosul to do the job. The PMU are sitting out in the western desert surrounding Tal Afar and could probably liberate the city, but Turkey would undoubtedly respond negatively to that scenario (and, to be fair, there are concerns over how the PMU will treat Sunni Turkmen in Tal Afar who may have collaborated with ISIS back in 2014).

SYRIA

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Conflict update: February 25-26 2017

THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

New Trump National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster has only been on the job a few days, but I wonder if he shouldn’t already be looking for the exits:

President Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser has told his staff that Muslims who commit terrorist acts are perverting their religion, rejecting a key ideological view of other senior Trump advisers and signaling a potentially more moderate approach to the Islamic world.

The adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, told the staff of the National Security Council on Thursday, in his first “all hands” staff meeting, that the label “radical Islamic terrorism” was not helpful because terrorists are “un-Islamic,” according to people who were in the meeting.

This is nice, and certainly not in keeping with the administration’s “Clash of Civilizations” view of Islam, but the NYT’s optimism notwithstanding, it doesn’t signal any change in the administration. McMaster, per the NYT’s reporting, has less influence than ultra-Islam haters Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller (both of whom have “walk-in privileges” for the Oval Office, while McMaster does not), so if they don’t like what McMaster is saying, they’ll just make sure Trump never hears it. So then the question becomes how long McMaster will stay in an advisory job in which he has no real influence.

SHIʿISM

ali_sistani_edit1

Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (Wikimedia)

Al-Monitor’s Ali Mamouri has written an interesting piece on the role that inter-Shiʿa political disputes in Iraq have highlighted the theological gap between Iraqi Twelvers, based in Najaf, and Iranian Twelvers, based in Qom. Iraqi clerics, following the example of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, stick to a much more quietist tradition that says religious figures should steer mostly clear of worldly politics, while Iranian clerics, following the teachings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have a…well, substantially different view of the proper relationship between religion and politics. In the middle is Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, which is undeniably political, so not really aligned with Najaf, but is at odds with Qom over Sadr’s harsh criticism of the Iraqi government, which Iran supports. Sistani turns 87 this year, and he’s such a domineering presence within Iraq’s Shiʿa religious community that his death will undoubtedly have a major impact on the Najaf-Qom-Sadr relationship.

IRAQ

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