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A Historical "What If?": Could the Alexandretta Landing in 1915 Have Worked While Gallipoli Failed?

January 29th, 2015 No comments

Last night I explained how the idea of a British landing at Alexandretta in 1915 ultimately faded due to French objections, limited resources, and Winston Churchill’s focus on the Gallipoli venture, despite some strong strategic arguments for the Alexandretta operation as a means of cutting Turkish communications with the Arab provinces. Today I want to talk about a far more speculative question: could it have worked? Or at any rate, could it have worked better than the alternative chosen, the Gallipoli campaign?

I’m sure the ghosts of the dead at Gallipoli would nt hesitate to say that anything would have worked better than Gallipoli. The real question is could it have succeeded?

Now alternative or counterfactual history is fun. What if Lee won at Gettysburg? If JFK hadn’t been assassinated? If Genghiz khan had lived longer and the Mongols hadn’t retreated from Europe?

It’s also futile because history is contingent on so many factors that can’t be controlled (what if the ‘Protestant Wind” hadn’t blown during the fight with the Spanish Armada?), outright accidents (young King Ghazi of Iraq dying in a car crash), improbable chances (if Franz Ferdinand’s driver in Sarajevo hadn’t turned down the wrung street and tried to reverse in front of the cafe where Gavrilo Princip was having lunch after assuming his plot had failed)?

And one most relevant to our discussion here: if the little Turkish minelayer Nusret had not laid a line of 26 mines that the British and French flotilla failed to detect on March 8, 1915,, leading to the failure of the naval effort to run the Dardanelles on March 18 and the sinking of three capital ships and the crippling of a fourth, even the doomed Gallipoli plan might have worked. But the Navy decided not to try again until the infantry landings, by which time, a month later, the Ottomans were fully ready and Mustafa Kemal in command of part of the front.

Academic historians often won’t admit it, but books like the What If? series and the sci-fi/alternate history series of Harry Turtledove (trained as a Byzantine historian with a UCLA Ph.D., by the way) seem to have a following, and I suspect alternate scenarios are a private guilty pleasure for many historians who won’t admit it.  It is for me.

For reasons we saw yesterday, Alexandretta was abandoned.Given the disastrous bleed-out of Gallipoli, military historians have been tempted to wonder; could Alexandretta have worked instead of Gallipoli? As we saw, a combination of Winston Churchill’s determination and France’s opposition made it impossible, and there was insufficient manpower to do both. But if circumstances had been different, and all those resources diverted to Alexandretta, might it have worked?

Of course, we will never know, The British could have found themselves iun another Gallipoli. But there are some big differences in the battlefields. At Gallipoli, the Ottomans were defending their own capital, and they enjoyed internal lines of communication; they could easily move reinforcements between Anatolia and European Turkey. They had good roads and railroads.

Now consider Alexandretta. As we’ve learned previously, the only rail line to Alexandretta ran directly along the coast; n bad weather it could wash out, and long stretches of it were exposed to offshore naval guns, and Britain monopolized the sea. Only rough mountain roads could bring you to an inland rail line at Aleppo, and that was not yet connected to Anatolian rail lines because the Baghdad Railway had not yet tunneled through the Taurus and Amanus ranges.

If you didn’t read it at the time, I’d urge you to read my lengthy excerpt from Djemal Pasha’s memoirs about his difficulties in reaching Aleppo when going out to take command of the Fourth Army in Damascus. And he was one of the ruling triumvirate and the new overlord of Syria. If even Djemal faced such obstacles, imagine the difficulty of reinforcing Alexandretta by land. There would be no easy internal lines like the Ottomans enjoyed at Gallipoli.

Britain, on the other hand, enjoyed easier logistics at a time when Brittania still ruled the waves.

A successful landing and occupation of Alexandretta might even have provoked the Arab Revolt a year early, though perhaps led by Syrian Arab nationalists rather then Sharif Hussein of Mecca. If an advance inland to Aleppo had been possible (a much bigger challenge) rail supplies to Palestine and the Hejaz could have been cut much to the north of where they were later cut. Allenby’s Palestine campaign might have come sooner.

It’s fun to game out and speculate, but of course it could also have been a disaster on the scale of Gallipoli or Kut for the British.

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Remembering January 28, 2011: The Army Steps In

January 29th, 2015 No comments

Four years ago today, still in the early days of the Egyptian Revolution, the Egyptian Army moved in to separate protesters and the Central Security Forces. In one of my posts on that day, I commented:

Who won today’s running confrontations? Clearly, the demonstrators believe they did. Clearly too, the police and Central Security Forces lost. The Army had to enter Cairo for the first time since 1986, and downtown for the first time since 1977. Exactly what the current dynamic is isn’t clear, because no one knows if the Army will be used against the demonstrators. It apparently did little to protect the NDP headquarters, taking up positions at the Foreign Ministry and the Radio/TV building, both close by. Mubarak’s decision to hang tough means we need to watch a bit more.

I spelled out a number of possible scenarios, none of which played out exactly, except that the Army intervention did portend the officer corps pushing Mubarak to leave.  In those heady days demonstrators welcomed the Army, swarmed around the APCs, and came up with the slogan, “The Army and People are One Hand.”

The next day, January 29, this dramatic video was made, showing three Army APCs moving to put themselves between the demonstrators and the police:

January 28 in retrospect was a critical turning point in the Revolution: The Army, led by what was soon to emerge as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, was taking control of the situation. In the end it would be the Army, not the protesters, that determined when Mubarak had to leave.

Later the enthusiasm among the protesters for the Army would sour, of course.
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On Journalistic Nonsense about Yemen

January 28th, 2015 No comments

Here is an excellent piece by Bilal Ahmed taking the major media outlets to task for their profound ignorance of Yemen.

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New Saudi King to Obama: Lower-price Oil Policy won’t Change

January 28th, 2015 No comments

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

President Obama cut short his India trip to head off to Riyadh in the wake of the death last Thursday of King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia. Some 30 members of the Washington elite came along, of both parties, including Sen. John McCain and Rep. Nancy Pelosi. This love fest underlined the close relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States, which are nearly as important for US Middle East policy as Washington’s special relationship to Israel.

Saudi Arabia gets special treatment from the US, with its arbitrary, absolute monarchy and extensive human rights abuses never being openly condemned by the US government. Iran, which for all the extensive faults of its theocratic government, is substantially freer than Saudi Arabia, is constantly hectored about its authoritarianism and attempt to export a radical form of Islam. But Saudi Arabia is held harmless in D.C. simply by never being brought up in this context. When asked by Fareed Zakaria about this issue of Saudi human rights, Obama took refuge in the close security cooperation between the two countries. He also maintained that the US does pressure Riyadh behind the scenes. But the US routinely complains about invidious policies pursued by European allies out in the open. That Saudi Arabia is treated with kid gloves only has one explanation: It pumps over 10 percent of the petroleum produced daily in the world.

One issue they discussed was the plummeting of oil prices, which is badly hurting North Dakota, where expensive hydraulically fractured petroleum may not be viable at $50 a barrel or less. US oil companies sent stock prices down in the US today by declining to buy new equipment from companies like Caterpillar, which took a hit. Saudi Arabia could put at least some upward pressure on prices by simply pumping a bit less petroleum daily.

But King Salman refused to change the current policy, of allowing the price of petroleum to fall dramatically rather than giving up Saudi oil market share. Saudi Arabia can just cut back on its infrastructure projects and spend less, and it anyway has an enormous surplus of some $750 bn in foreign currency reserves and another equally large sum available for foreign investments. The Saudis may lose $100 billion this year from budget shortfalls, but that sum can be cut if the low prices last (they will probably be with us for at least 3 years).

Obama and Salman also talked about the collapse of Yemen, about Daesh (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria, and about US talks with Iran over its nuclear energy program. CCTV reports, below, that the US is playing down the links of the Zaidi Shiite Houthi movement in Yemen with Iran, while the Saudis see the Houthis as in Iran’s back pocket. As usual in Riyadh, the substance of the rest of what they said to one another could only be speculated on.

But one thing is clear: the Washington-Riyadh political alliance is extremely powerful.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CCTV: “Obama honors late Saudi King Abdullah; meets with King Salman”

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Women Empowered by Solar Energy in Bangladesh

January 28th, 2015 No comments

World Bank | —

“Bangladesh has become the world’s fastest growing market for solar home systems, thanks in part to IDA – the World Bank’s fund for the poorest. Solar energy is not only replacing expensive fuels, it also has become a tool of social change, empowering girls and women.”

World Bank from 18 months ago: “Women Empowered by Solar Energy in Bangladesh”

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Israel ‘systematically mistreats’ Palestinian children in custody

January 28th, 2015 No comments

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an News Agency) — Some 700 Palestinian children per year are arrested and face “ill-treatment” by Israeli forces, according to a new report by a children’s rights group.


In the report, Child Rights International Network said that “during 2014, an average of 197 children were held in military detention every month, 13 per cent of whom are under the age of 16.”

“Arrested children are commonly taken into custody by heavily armed soldiers, blindfolded with their wrists tied behind their backs before being transported to an interrogation centre,” the CRIN report said.

“Children questioned about their experience frequently report verbal and physical abuse during the arrest.”

According to research conducted by Defense for Children International — Palestine cited by the report, some 56 percent of children report having experienced “coercive” interrogation techniques during their time in Israeli custody.

Some 42 percent say they signed documents in Hebrew, despite the fact that most Palestinian children do not speak or understand the language.

Additionally, 22 percent of detained children say they underwent up to 24 hours of solitary confinement, in violation of international standards.

“This detention is a clear violation of children’s rights under several international human rights treaties to which Israel is a party,” the CRIN report said.

“The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture has called for a complete ban on solitary confinement for juveniles, warning that it ‘can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for prolonged periods, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles.’”

The report said that while it is technically possible to file a complaint about the way a child is treated in Israeli detention, “complaints are almost universally dismissed,” and there are “very few examples of soldiers being punished for ill-treatment.”

14-year-old girl imprisoned for 2 months

The report highlighted a case in which a 14-year-old girl from Ramallah was arrested on Dec. 31 and held for 22 days in Israel before being issued a sentence.

She was charged with throwing stones, blocking the road, and possessing a knife, “sentenced to two months in prison, and fined $1,528 by an Israeli military court.”

Her father believes she was coerced into confessing, saying: “She seemed to be very sick and scared.”

“The plight of this one girl put a face on a system that routinely runs roughshod over children’s rights,” CRIN said. “But behind this story there is a broader issue.”

The report recommended reforms while noting that countless other recommendations by human rights groups regarding the treatment of Palestinian children in Israeli custody have gone unheeded by Israeli authorities.

Ultimately, CRIN concluded, children will never be treated well under an Israeli military justice system.

“Regardless of the precise formulation of military rule, it can never protect children in the same way as a developed civilian juvenile justice system which places the best interests of the child at the centre of its work.”

Via Ma’an News Network

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January 1915; The Alexandretta Landing Idea Fades Away

January 28th, 2015 No comments

In December, as part of my discussion of the 100th anniversary of the Great War in the Middle East, I discussed the strategic origins of the concept of a British landing and occupation of Alexandretta (?skenderun), and we also discussed HMS Doris’ raid on Alexandretta and other ports on the Syrian coast. The idea of such a lending had originated even before the war, and both Lord Kitchener at the War Office in London and General Sir John Maxwell, the British Commander in Egypt, were enthusiastic supporters. Young 2nd Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence of the intelligence section, who knew Alexandretta from his prewar adventures in Syria, became a strong advocate and sometimes claimed to have originated the idea, though it was discussed for months before his assignment to Cairo.

Yet by late January, 1915, the Alexandretta scenario had virtually evaporated, due to a combination of factors: a shortage of resources, objections by France, and most of all, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill.

As we have seen in our previous posts on the war in both Egypt and Mesopotamia, British forces in the Middle East (except for one Territorial Division from home,, the 42nd East Lancashires), all the British troops in the Middle East were colonials from the Indian Army (both British and Indian units), and the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (the ANZACs. These were the forces Britain had in the theater and their first responsibility was protection of the Suez Canal.

But the idea that the Canal could best be defended not merely by a passive defense but by a forward defense behind Ottoman lines appealed to planners. But there were two competing options. While Kitchener at the War Office and Maxwell in Egypt were keen for the Alexandretta plan, Churchill at the Admiralty was totally focused on the idea of running the Dardanelles and taking Constantinople.

Both projects had their advocates and, if Britain were not also bogged down against Germany on the Western Front, might have been possible. (Though, of course, the Ottomans would nver have gone to war with Britain and Russia without their German and Austrian allies.)

By January 1915, the planning for the Dardanelles venture, what became the Gallipoli campaign, was under way. though the Army preferred Alexandretta, it could not be done without the Royal Navy, and the Admiralty was laser-focused (in those pre-laser days) on the Dardanelles. Alexandretta would have to be done with whatever else could be spared, if anything.

We’ve previously looked at the strategic arguments for the Alexandretta landings, but by December the problem was emerging of where to find the troops. By January, the Turkish advance toward the Suez Canal was getting under way, and that was Britain’s lifeline to India.

On January r, Milne Cheatham, Acting British High Commissioner in Egypt until Sir henry McMahon’s arrival a few days later, strongly urged the Alexandretta plan. But in London, while the idea had much appeal, there was debate about how many troops would be needed: somewhere between 21,000 and 50,000 seemed to be the prevailing view.

But the Indian and ANZAC troops were still being trained; many would be needed for defense of the Canal and the Dardanelles. Where would the troops come from? Kitchener wired Maxwell in Egypt asking if ANZAC Commander General Birdwood could spare 5,000 of his Australians for the operation. (For more on Gen. “Birdy” Birdwood, see my earlier post here.) Birdwood candidly said he thought far more troops were needed, but was ordered to proceed. with planning anyway.

But if the military planners were enthusiastic, the diplomats had another issue. France had long seen itself as the outside protector of the Maronite Christians in Lebanon and had a longstanding stated interest in Syria and the Levant generally. France appears to have let its British allies know that it was not enthusiastic about British troops landing in an area it saw as a future sphere of influence if the Ottoman Empire disintegrated. In January it was agreed that a French Military Mission would be dispatched to Cairo; its arrival in February was the death knell for any real chances of Alexandretta happening.

The idea did not die completely, though, and would crop up again in 1916 and 1918. The French and the Admiralty ultimately killed it. Churchill wanted every available resource for his pet project of Gallipoli, and France wanted no English forces ashore in Syria.

Military history buffs and fans of alternative history scenarios still wonder if it might have worked. I’ll address that question tomorrow

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Symposium at Berlin State Library

January 27th, 2015 No comments

Johann Gottfried Wetzstein (1815 – 1905)

by Christoph Rauch, H-Net

Arabic manuscripts and Oriental studies: Symposium on the occasion of the 200th birthday of Johann Gottfried Wetzstein.

The international symposium “Studies on Johann Gottfried Wetzstein (1815-1905): Manuscripts, Politics and Oriental Studies” will be held at Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin from 19th to 21st February 2015. (Venue: Potsdamer Strasse 33, 10785 Berlin)

The symposium will be inaugurated Thursday, 19th February 2015, 6:00 PM with a keynote lecture by François Déroche (Paris): “The Qur’anic collections acquired by Wetzstein”; and a musical-literary program by Claudia Ott and her ensemble. Furthermore, some original documents and manuscripts related to Wetzstein will be exhibited at the opening.

If you plan to attend the conference please register before 31st January at the secretary of the Oriental Department, Mrs. Muenchow,

The symposium is generously supported by the Fritz Thyssen-Stiftung and the Verein der Freunde der Staatsbibliothek e.V.; and is organized in cooperation with the Oriental Institute of Leipzig University.

Here is the list of contributions in alphabetical order:

Ibrahim Akel (Paris), Wetzstein in Arabic sources and remarks on some manuscripts from his collections

Kaoukab Chebaro and Samar El Mikati El Kaissi (Beirut), Manuscript ownership and readership at the American University of Beirut at the turn of the 20th century

Alba Fedeli (Cambridge), Tischendorf and the Mingana Collection: Manuscript acquisition and Qur’?nic Studies

Ludmilla Hanisch (Berlin), Semitic studies at the University of Berlin during Wetzstein’s lifetime.

Michaela Hoffmann-Ruf (Bonn), The Wetzstein collection at Tuebingen University Library – its history, its content and its reception in Oriental Studies

Ingeborg Huhn (Berlin), Some remarks concerning the official correspondence of Johann Gottfried Wetzstein

Robert Irwin (London), The Arabist and Consul in Damascus Sir Richard Burton and the problematic nature of his translation of The Thousand and One Nights

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Obama, Modi and India’s Solar Future

January 27th, 2015 No comments

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)

In his visit to India, Barack Obama pressed unsuccessfully for India to set specific carbon limits. Nevertheless, he did get agreement from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the USA and India would pursue vigorously non-carbon energy sources, including nuclear and renewables such as solar.

That was a better outcome than would have been anticipated based on Indian cabinet members’ statements just last spring. They blamed most of the increased CO2 in the atmosphere on the wealthy countries and hinted that it would be unfair to impede Indian economic growth now, given that India had put relatively little of the extra carbon into the atmosphere.

This situation is sort of like if a bunch of people with water hoses were filling an inflatable swimming pool but were tied up so that if the water got too high they would drown. Saying that you didn’t help fill it at the beginning and so should be allowed to put extra water in makes no since if that policy would drown you.

Modi is known as a proponent of solar energy, though like Obama he has an “all of the above” approach to energy, including an insouciant attitude toward deadly coal.

Alan Neuhauser writes: “Obama agreed to help finance Modi’s planned $100 billion expansion of solar power in the next seven years, from 20,000 to 100,000 megawatts.”

Just for comparison, note that the total US solar installed capacity today is also only 20,000 megawatts.

India was originally planning to double its solar energy by 2020, to 40,000 megawatts. But even before the meeting with Obama, India had decided to go for 100,000 megawatts by 2020.

Obama has pledged help in funding this five-fold increase.

One Indian government project backed by the World Bank will create a 750 megawatt solar facility in Madhya Pradesh, which, when finished, will be the largest such solar plant in the world.

But the fact is that government policy and foreign aid will help along a process that will also grow because of market forces.

By the end of this year, 2015, commercial rooftop solar panels in India will be grid parity or less. That is, it will be cheaper to have solar panels on the roof of a business than to use coal or natural gas. Moreover, you don’t know how much natural gas will cost 20 years from now (especially if India starts using a lot of it), but you can lock in cheap solar rates for 25 years.

Since 2010, the cost of solar panels has declined 62 percent, and similar price falls are likely in the next few years. In sunny India, within five years it will be crazy for people not to put up solar panels.

25% of India still lacks electricity (i.e. some 300 mn. people), and if they electrify with coal that will be disastrous for climate change and human welfare. But if they get it from solar and wind, they will save money and the earth all at once.

The world carbon dioxide output rose to 40 billion metric tons last year. India’s output was up 5%.

But the increasingly cheap solar panels will attract Indian businesses and building owners. Things will change quickly once they begin changing.


CNN: “Obama Guest of Honor at India’s Republic Day Festivities”

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Kurds expel ISIL/Daesh from Syria’s Kobane after months of fighting

January 27th, 2015 No comments

Rita Daou | Your Middle East

Kurds expel Islamic State group from Syria’s Kobane after months of fighting
Banner Icon War in Syria Kurdish fighters have expelled Islamic State group militants from inside the Syrian border town of Kobane, a monitor said Monday, dealing a key symbolic blow to the jihadists’ ambitions.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) had pushed IS militants out of the town after four months of fighting.

In Iraq meanwhile, a senior army officer announced that Iraqi forces had also “liberated” Diyala province from the Islamic State group.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that YPG forces had “expelled all Islamic State fighters from Kobane and have full control of the town.”

“The Kurds are pursuing some jihadists on the eastern outskirts of Kobane, but there is no more fighting inside now.”

The monitor said Kurdish forces were carrying out “mopping-up operations” against remaining IS forces in the Maqtala district, on the eastern outskirts of the town.

There was no immediate official announcement from the YPG, but Mustafa Ebdi, an activist from the town, told AFP that “fighting has stopped” in Kobane.

YPG forces were “advancing carefully in Maqtala because of the threat of mines and car bombs,” he added.

The advance by Kurdish fighters came after 24 hours of heavy bombing by the US-led coalition fighting IS in Syria and Iraq.

In a statement, the Pentagon said the coalition had carried out 17 air strikes against IS positions in Kobane in the 24 hours from January 25 alone.

The targets included “tactical units” and “fighting positions” as well as an IS vehicle and staging areas, the statement said.

– ‘A huge symbol’

The loss of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, would be a key symbolic blow against IS, which has lost more than 1,000 fighters since it began its advance on the town on September 16.

At one time it looked set to overrun Kobane, which lies on the Syrian-Turkish border.

The group vastly outgunned the YPG thanks to weapons captured from military bases in Syria and Iraq, and sent hundreds of fighters to the battle.

But Kurdish forces gradually pushed back the jihadists with the help of extensive air raids by the US-led coalition fighting IS as well as fighters from Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga forces.

Analysts say the loss of Kobane is both a symbolic and strategic blow for IS, which set its sights on the small town in a bid to cement its control over a long stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border.

Since the group emerged in its current form in 2013, it has captured large swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq.

It has declared an Islamic “caliphate” in territory under its control, and gained a reputation for brutality, including executions and torture.

But its apparent failure in Kobane could put the brakes on its plans for expansion in Syria.

“Kobane has become a huge symbol. Everyone knows Kobane, it’s where the Kurds stopped IS,” Kurdish affairs analyst Mutlu Civiroglu said earlier in January.

“They (IS) lost hundreds of fighters, millions of dollars of weapons, and the image that wherever IS goes no one can stop them,” he told AFP.

“Instead of being a great prize for them, it’s turned around on them like a boomerang.”

The fighting in Kobane has killed at least 1,600 people, according to the Observatory.

Civilians though were largely spared because the town’s residents evacuated en masse, mostly across the border into Turkey, in the early stages of the fighting.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in Syria’s complex, multi-front war, which began in March 2011 with anti-government protests but spiralled into a bloody conflict.

Over the border in Iraq, Staff Lieutenant General Abdulamir al-Zaidi announced they had “liberated” Diyala province from IS militants.

“We announce the liberation of Diyala from the (IS) organisation,” he said.

“Iraqi forces are in complete control of all the cities and districts and subdistricts of Diyala province.”

Via Your Middle East

Related video added by Juan Cole:

WotchitGeneralNews: “Kurds Close to Driving Islamic State Out of Syria’s Kobani: Monitor”

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