Yesterday in European history: the (third) Siege of Algeciras ends (1344)

I forgot to repost this yesterday, but it’s just a little dated, it’s still good! It’s still good!

Modern Algeciras is the main city on the Bay of Gibraltar and one of the busiest commercial ports in Europe. It’s pretty old, too, since it was founded by early Berber-Arab invaders all the way back in 711–“Algeciras” is a European corruption of the city’s original name, al-Jazirah al-Khudra (“the green island”). And, if we’re being totally comprehensive, those Muslims only rebuilt a city that had previously been a major Roman port before it was destroyed by Germanic invaders.

They say the three rules of real estate are “location, location, location,” and I suppose that’s as true when you’re looking for a city to conquer as it is when you’re looking to buy a house…

Source: Today in European history: the (third) Siege of Algeciras ends (1344)

Conflict update: March 18-19 2017



If you’re one of those folks who are convinced that climate change is a Chinese hoax or whatever, I’ve got great news: it snowed in the US last week. Problem solved, am I right? Anyway, for the rest of us, things are not so hot. Or, rather, they’re extremely hot, and that’s the problem:

February 2017 was the planet’s second warmest February since record keeping began in 1880, said NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) on Friday; NASA also rated February 2017 as the second warmest February on record. The only warmer February was just last year, in 2016. Remarkably, February 2017 ranked as the fourth warmest month (expressed as the departure of temperature from average) of any month in the global historical record in the NASA database, and was the seventh warmest month in NOAA’s database—despite coming just one month after the end of a 5-month long La Niña event, which acted to cool the globe slightly. The extreme warmth of January 2017 (tenth warmest month of any month in NASA’s database) and February 2017 (fourth warmest) gives 2017 a shot at becoming Earth’s fourth consecutive warmest year on record, if a moderate or stronger El Niño event were to develop by summer, as some models are predicting.

Arctic sea ice extent during February 2017 was the lowest in the 39-year satellite record, beating the record set in February 2016, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). The record low ice extent was due, in large part, to very warm air temperatures in the Arctic—temperatures at the 925 mb level (approximately 2,500 feet above sea level) were 2 – 5 degrees Celsius (4 – 9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the Arctic Ocean during February.

Sea ice has been exceptionally scant on the other end of the globe. Antarctic sea ice extent dropped below the lowest values recorded in any month in the satellite record by mid-February. They continued to sag until reaching a new record-low extent in early March.

NOAA also said a few days ago that this December-January-February period was the second hottest on record. But really, how about that snowstorm?


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Conflict update: February 18-19 2017


Say, this seems nice:

On any given weekend, you might catch President Trump’s son-in-law and top Mideast dealmaker, Jared Kushner, by the beachside soft-serve ice cream machine, or his reclusive chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, on the dining patio. If you are lucky, the president himself could stop by your table for a quick chat. But you will have to pay $200,000 for the privilege — and the few available spots are going fast.

Virtually overnight, Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s members-only Palm Beach, Fla., club, has been transformed into the part-time capital of American government, a so-called winter White House where Mr. Trump has entertained a foreign head of state, health care industry executives and other presidential guests.

But Mr. Trump’s gatherings at Mar-a-Lago — he arrived there on Friday afternoon, his third weekend visit in a row — have also created an arena for potential political influence rarely seen in American history: a kind of Washington steakhouse on steroids, situated in a sunny playground of the rich and powerful, where members and their guests enjoy a level of access that could elude even the best-connected of lobbyists.

I’m not going to pretend that the wealthy and powerful never had special access to the levers of power in DC before this, but as with so many things about Trump, he seems to have taken the grossest parts of American politics and made them grosser.

On Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the Munich Security Conference and tried to assure the attendees that the Trump administration’s commitment to NATO is “unwavering.” Reuters, at least, suggested that he was received tepidly at best, though the NATO bit got him some applause.

Paul Pillar wrote a typically insightful piece a few days ago about the utter confusion surrounding Trump’s Israel-Palestine policy, and what it says about Trump’s foreign policy more generally.

We’re Still All Gonna Die

Because it’s the one part of the government that Donald Trump and Paul Ryan can’t be seen to contradict or gut, the one part of the government that will definitely be allowed to continue research into climate change and its impacts is the Pentagon. Trump’s Defense Secretary James Mattis, ironically for this cabinet, was actually pretty forward thinking on renewable fuels and the national security implications of climate change when he was a flag officer.

The War on Terror (Old School Edition)

Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind radical Muslim cleric whose involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and subsequent terror plots in the United States earned him a life sentence in federal prison, completed his sentence when he died on Saturday morning. He was 78 and, really, won’t be missed.

Seriously, fuck that guy.


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Today in European history: the Treaty of Granada (1491)

and that's the way it was

The final curtain on the Muslim presence on the Iberian Peninsula came down on January 2, 1492, when the last Muslim ruler of Granada, the Nasirid Sultan Abu Abdullah Muhammad XII (“Boabdil” to the Spaniards, for whom “Abu Abdullah” was apparently too hard to pronounce), went into exile in Morocco. But the departure was a formality. Boabdil was obliged to leave by the Treaty of Granada, which he signed, along with the victorious King Ferdinand (d. 1516) and Queen Isabella (d. 1504), on November 25, 1491.

The Treaty of Granada ended the Granada War (go figure), which started in 1482 after an incredibly ill-advised Granadan attack on the Castilian city of Zahara, ordered by the reigning Sultan, Boabdil’s father Abu al-Hasan Ali. The Granadans took Zahara, but it was a Pyrrhic victory if ever there was one. Isabella had only just won out in the struggle to succeed her brother…

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MENA conflict update, October 25


A day after informing the world that there would be no more humanitarian ceasefires in Aleppo unless the US somehow made al-Qaeda surrender, today the Russians let everybody know that their aircraft haven’t come within six miles of the city in a week and that they plan to continue this hold on airstrikes indefinitely. This freeze went largely ignored amid Russian and Syrian artillery bombardments of eastern Aleppo, which use ordinance that explodes just as well as something dropped from the air, but, ah, credit where credit is due, I guess. This seems less like an act of mercy on the Russians’ part and more like the kind of thing you’d do when shifting from bombarding a place to trying to conquer that place on the ground. All airstrikes are imperfect, and Russia and Syria aren’t exactly packing the latest in smart bomb technology, so if they’re sending ground forces in it’s more or less incumbent upon them to also ease off on the bombing runs. The Russians also said that, while another ceasefire is out of the question, corridors for people to evacuate the city could still be opened up if there’s a demand for it.

On the other major active front in Syria, Turkey and its rebel proxies are approaching the ISIS-held city of al-Bab, which is maybe 25 miles northeast of Aleppo, shown here:


(Google Maps)

The fight for al-Bab may be Turkey’s first real military test since it invaded Syria in August. Rao Komar at War on the Rocks compares it to the Syrian Democratic Forces’ operation to capture Manbij from ISIS, which took months, and he notes that the SDF was a heck of a lot better organized and more battle hardened than the rebels fighting with Turkey. On the other hand, the SDF didn’t have Turkish armor and air support, so I tend to think this operation will be easier than the capture of Manbij. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, though.

Also elsewhere in Syria, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is talking as though the operation to capture Raqqa is going to begin soon, as in “before Mosul falls” soon:

“Yes, there will be overlap (in the Mosul and Raqqa campaigns) and that’s part of our plan and we are prepared for that,” Carter said after a gathering of 13 countries in the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.

That’s…interesting, considering that there are a lot of details about a Raqqa operation that are still up in the air, little questions like “what force is actually going to capture the city?” Recent reporting has suggested that there’s been some debate within the Obama administration about whether to push ahead with a Raqqa operation now or put more time into planning it. It sounds like the debate may be over.

Finally, elsewhere but not in Syria, Spain, of all places, is…well, read for yourselves:

Spain is facing international anger as it apparently prepares to refuel a flotilla of Russian warships due to step up strikes against the beleaguered city of Aleppo.

Politicians and military figures condemned the support from a Nato member, while the head of the alliance indicated Madrid should rethink the pit stop.

Warships from an eight-strong group led by the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov will take on fuel and supplies from the Spanish port of Ceuta after passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on Wednesday morning, Spanish papers reported.

The EU is in the middle of a messy internal debate over maybe sanctioning Russia over Syria, but with the Brexiting UK leading the push for more sanctions many of the rest of the EU states don’t seem inclined to go along. Spain regularly refuels Russian ships and makes some decent cash for their trouble, and they’re not about to let a little thing like more dead Syrians get in the way of that.

Mosul, Yemen, and Libya after the break.

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Today (?) in European history: Muslims invade Hispania (711)

Map - Expansion West

The Muslim conquest of North Africa and Hispania, 7th-8th centuries

I’m frankly not all that sure that today’s event actually happened on this particular date in 711. Dating anything that happened that far back in history is an inexact science to say the least, and that goes double for something like the arrival of the first Muslim armies in Hispania, an event that led to chaos among the established Visigoths and that wasn’t recorded in any Muslim histories (at least none that have survived) for at least a few decades. Frankly, the whole narrative of the conquest of Hispania could be a later invention crafted by historians looking to make sense of an event that was actually far more disjointed than this story indicates. But most scholarship about the conquest of the future Andalusia has the first Muslim forces arriving sometime in April 711, and you’ll find some “this day in history” type stuff out there on the internet tubes that pinpoints April 27 as the date, so let’s just go with it.

Regular readers will know that we’ve already covered the conquest of Andalusia in general terms, but there are some details that can be filled in about Tariq’s decision to cross into Hispania in the first place. For one thing, we can talk about the role of North African politics and economics in influencing the decision to press on into Europe. The early Arab armies that conquered North Africa found themselves drastically outnumbered by the Berbers who were already there, many of whom were either Christian or still practicing a pagan religion. The rules in these cases were quite clear: Christians were expected to pay the jizya, an additional tax that Muslims were not required to pay (Muslims were required to pay zakat, a charitable donation that nevertheless functioned more or less as a tax, but it was not as burdensome as the jizya), and pagans were to be given a choice between conversion and the sword.

Of course, rules are meant to be broken, and when you’re surrounded and outnumbered by the people you’re meant to overtax and/or threaten, that’s as good a time as any to look the other way. Still, running North Africa took money, like everything else does, and if that money wasn’t going to come from a Christian jizya or from former pagans-turned-good taxpaying Muslims, then it had to come from continued conquest and the booty that ensued. And although going north into Hispania meant crossing the water, that was probably much preferable to those 8th century armies than attempting to push south through the Sahara.

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Today in European history: the (third) Siege of Algeciras ends (1344)

Modern Algeciras is the main city on the Bay of Gibraltar and one of the busiest commercial ports in Europe. It’s pretty old, too, since it was founded by early Berber-Arab invaders all the way back in 711–“Algeciras” is a European corruption of the city’s original name, al-Jazirah al-Khudra (“the green island”). And, if we’re being totally comprehensive, those Muslims only rebuilt a city that had previously been a major Roman port before it was destroyed by Germanic invaders.

They say the three rules of real estate are “location, location, location,” and I suppose that’s as true when you’re looking for a city to conquer as it is when you’re looking to buy a house. Algeciras was in an incredibly important location that made it a hub both for commerce and for the transit of human beings (often heavily armed human beings) from North Africa into what in 1344 was al-Andalus (Andalusia, Iberia, Spain, call it whatever you like). So for the various European principalities who were participating in the so-called Reconquista, capturing Algeciras was a major goal. That helps to explain why this 1342-1344 episode was the third of four sieges of the city undertaken in the 13th and 14th centuries, though it was the final Christian siege. The first, in 1278, ended when a relief army from Morocco broke through a Castilian naval blockade and then drove off the Christian besiegers, and the second, in 1309-1310, ended when disease ravaged the Castilian camp and forced then-King Ferdinand IV (d. 1312) to withdraw.


Algeciras in relation to the other major cities of the region (Wikimedia | falconaumanni)

For this third bite at the apple, Castilian King Alfonso XI (d. 1350) obtained considerable assistance from the Republic of Genoa, from Portugal, and from Aragon. In the interim since the previous siege, the Marinid rulers of Morocco had taken Algeciras from the Emirate of Granada and made it the capital of a planned expansion of their territory into Europe. So the Castilians weren’t just fighting an offensive campaign this time, they were acting to some degree in self-defense. Alfonso had already seen the Marinids’ intentions and Algeciras’s importance during his successful defense of Tarifa in 1340. During that operation, Marinid reinforcements from Morocco landed in Algeciras and might have made the difference in the siege if the Marinid ruler, Abu al-Hasan Ali b. Uthman (d. 1350) hadn’t proven to be, in technical military terms, a blockhead.

Alfonso besieged Algeciras in early August, 1342, after his naval allies from Portugal and Genoa had driven off the Marinid ships in the area and established a blockade. Continue reading