In a highway service station Over the month of June Was a photograph of the earth Taken coming back from the moon And you couldn’t see a city On that marbled bowling ball Or a forest or a highway Or me here least of all You couldn’t see these cold water restrooms Or this baggage overload Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads
From Joni Mitchell’s Hejira
When the Beatles and their partners, with Donovan and Mia Farrow in tow, travelled to India to sit at the well-kissed feet of the Maharishi, they would’ve travelled by BOAC jetliner. But hundreds if not thousands of young people from Europe and North America were already making their own own way, by boats, trains, trucks and automobiles, motorbikes and bicycles, and in extremis, shank’s pony, some ten thousand kilometres and more to the end of the line, be this Kathmandu, Kolkata (where I ended up), South East Asia (Tim Page, a recently departed friend, ended up there as a war photographer in America’s “crazy Asian war) or Australia (that’s where my uni pals washed up – see below). Other adventurers set out in the opposite direction from conservative Australia and New Zealand-Aotearoa heading for Britain, the “old country” and a wider world. The numbers would swell during the seventies and the “overland” as it was then called became the well-travelled “Hippie Trail” – until the Iranian Revolution and the Afghan wars effectively blocked it to all but a resolute and crazy-brave few.
The Beatles in India
I’d never intended to hit the hippie trail back in the day. In the northern summer of 1971, I didn’t even know it existed.
I’d just finished my final exams, graduating with a good degree, but after three exciting and formative years, it was as if everything had suddenly ground to a halt. Uni was over; a romantic relationship was on the rocks; I was footloose and free, floating and feeling the urge to escape elsewhere, somewhere, anywhere. I’d no idea at all what I would do next, other than an inchoate plan to undertake post-graduate study – guided by my tutor and mentor exiled Hungarian academic Tibor Szamuely, my academic interest was Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but that was to be down the track.
When the finals results came out, I spent the evening at the student union with friends, unwinding and getting pissed; and the very next day, I walked into the Student Travel office and booked a one-way air ticket to Athens (only my second time on an aeroplane), passage by steamer from Piraeus, Athen’s port, to Alexandria, Egytpt, via Limassol, Cyprus, and back from Egypt to Piraeus and thence to Tel Aviv, Israel, with no bookings for onward travel.
Seized by the idea of visiting the two principal antagonists of the almost recent Six Day War, I’d a naive and uninformed notion to view both sides of the Arab-Israeli puzzle (and we’re no nearer a solution today, and I’ve spent half a century since watching and waiting – but that is another story). Within a few weeks, I’d bought a second-hand rucksack and sleeping bag, converted my savings to traveler’s cheques – there were still currency restrictions in the UK on how much cash you could take out of the country – packed a few things, and in the words of Cat Stevens, I was “on the road to find out”.
That road took me through the Middle East, and on and on, until I reached Kolkata in Bengal. What was planned as but a two month holiday to “clear my mind out”, to quote that Cat song again, extended to over six months as the appetite grew with the eating.
I traveled through lands of which I knew very little, picking up fragments of history and heritage, parables and politics as eastwards I roamed, through the lands of antiquity and of empire: Greece and Cyprus; Egypt and Israel; the Levant (old French for the lands of the rising sun – Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan); Iraq before Saddam, and Iran under the Shah; Pakistan and India, who went to war with each other as I crossed their frontiers (a story for another time); and then back to Britain by way of Turkey and the fabled Pudding Shop.
I stood beside the great rivers of ancient stories – the Nile and the Jordan, the Orontes and the Yarmouk, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and the Ganges. I traveled though deserts and mountains, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. I climbed through the Kyber Pass, immortalised by imperial endeavour and hubris, and the valley of Kashmir, a betrayed and battered paradise. I crossed Lake Van, in the shadow of Mount Ararat, and the Bosphorus, from into Europe. I stood atop ancient stones in Memphis and Masada, Baalbek and Babylon, Jalalabad and Jerusalem.
On my return, my plan to specialize in Soviet Studies evaporated as I resolved to learn more about these lands, their peoples, and their histories, and this I did. The Middle East has long-since captivated and colonized much of my intellectual life, imbuing it with a passion that has found expression in my persona, my politics, my prose, my poetry, and my songs.
Broken statues, empty tombs.
Ghosts of commoners and kings
Walk the walls and catacombs,
The castles and the shrines,
Marking lives and story lines,
Lie the ruins and the bones,
The ruins and the bones,
Ruins and bones.
Through the desert to the beyond …
I was at the end of the beginning. Having travelled through Egypt and Israel, I’d decided, for many reasons, that I wasn’t ready to return to England as planned, and recalling the advice of a fellow traveler I’d met in Cairo, I resolved to head east …
In early 1972, I wrote in an empty1962 diary: “Friday 20th August 1971, a fateful day indeed, when manifold and manifest destinies unfolded, when plans were forgotten and begotten, when the past was shelved and the future postponed. To the desert. Through the desert. To the beyond. To see. To decide. To move forever onwards with no direction home. With no grip of time to defeat me or dictate to me …”
Less prosaically, my actual travel diary recorded on that day:
“Arriving in Nicosia from Tel Aviv at 15.15 after a neglectful and body-shaking El Al flight, I headed straight into town from.an almost deserted airport. How much Anglo, how much Greek, how empty. Hot and boring in my mobile mood. Bought a ticket to Beirut and headed straight out again on the six o’clock Air Liban Boeing 707. A highly hospitable fifty five minute flight and by seven o’clock I was passing through Lebanese customs … “
The following day, I wrote:
Saturday, 21st August 1971, Beirut
“Now for a calculation space … I have £55 in travelers’ cheques and £25 in cash. Eighty quid in all. How far will that go? Syria? Iraq? Jordan? Afghanistan, Iran? Then home? Visas, maybe five quid? Amman to Baghdad, four? Damascus Amman Two? Amman to Baghdad, Teheran, Kabul 10 quid? That’s £21 all up. Kabul to Istanbul, £13, so £34 in all. £3 max in each for contingencies? £15 or £49. Leaving about 30 quid by Istanbul. Cutting Jordan, could save four. India? There is time, but little money … Even if the three quid were cut and Jordan too, that would leave £19 from Kabul to Delhi – but I must eat, I must eat somewhere – hence, no India…this time … “
But the appetite grew with the eating and the road led on and on …
Life on the road …
People will tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know
Where some have found their paradise
Others just come to harm
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
Joni Mitchell, Amelia
Traveling was sooo different back then in the days before ubiquitous air travel, the Internet and mobile phones. On the road, our destinations were set, but these were fluid in their timeline and attainment. Much of our information came by word of mouth from other travellers on the road. You’d head to places other people had recommended, without having seen pictures and read descriptions on the internet. You couldn’t book a hotel room in advance so we often never knew where we’d sleep. You’d find a bed for the night once we’d arrived in a city, town or village or if you were in the information loop, you’d rock up at well-frequented hostelries like Amir Kabir in central Teheran, Mrs Dunkeley’s Guest House in the heart of New Delhi, and the famed houseboats on Dal Lake in Kashmir. Often, you slept on floors, in railway station waiting rooms, in constant fear of robbery, or beneath the stars. You’d spend long hours waiting in the post office to place a call home, and sometimes the operator didn’t know where that was. Letters would take an age to reach their destination. I wrote letters to England from Amir Kabir, and picked up the replies on my return journey months later. You’d work out how to deal with banks and money changers to convert travelers cheques to the local currency – and keep a close count of every cent because these were limited, and you were constantly worried about being ripped off.
Hotel Amir Kabir, Teheran
Like many on the road, I travelled on the cheap, crowded onto local buses, struggling to grab a third class seat on packed trains, eating street food. watched every dinar and dollar, rial and rupee. To supplement my diminishing funds, I washed dishes – and sold blood twice, to the Red Crescent in Jerusalem’s Old City (risky) and In New Delhi (in hindsight, potentially suicidal).
I’d only intended to be out of the country for about a month, but had cleaned out my bank account. I’d worked on building sites in Birmingham during the summer breaks from University, and had earned enough to keep me in books and records and other “luxuries” and also for travel. And I got to India and back to Istanbul before I ran out of cash and had to get my folks to wire me enough for a ticket home. My university pals who took The Overland a year later washed up in Darwin stoney broke and had to work their way all the way south to Bondi Beach, where they’d resolved to rent a flat overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Of the five who roved out, three returned to England, but two remained, establishing careers, marrying “sheilas” and raising children and grandchildren – by happy circumstance, I too settled in Australia six years later, and John (RIP) and Christian became my oldest friends in Australia.
Most of us travelled without cameras and so relied on travel diaries and memories. I had a dinky old Kodak and couldn’t afford a lot of film – I sold some for extra cash somewhere along the way – so I had had just a few pictures on a couple of rolls. And I had to wait until my return to England to take them to Boots Chemist for processing. And looking back, perhaps it was easier and also most adventurous in those days to be present, to live in the moment, and to be surprised over things you hadn’t seen before, not even in books and photographs. So many everyday things are now very practical with ATMs and mobile phones and travel advisories to hand, whilst our mobile phones and tablets absorb so much of our attention. In some ways these take away much of the vicarious risks and also, magic. I’m sure glad to have experienced travelling in the old-fashioned way.
If you never go, you’ll never grow
I’ll conclude this story by observing in the present how in all my journeying, I never came to harm, whether by mishap or misadventure, malice or malignancy.
The accidental journey was driven by a combination of whim, thrift, expedience, and necessity, but also, by a sense of romantic adventure – buoyed by what seems in retrospect, a naive feeling of dare-devil invulnerability.
Passers-by, and local people I’d meet would often ask where I was going and why I traveled thus. They’d tell me it was dangerous, that there were men out there who would rob me or do me harm. When I returned home, folk would ask if I faced danger and if I was afraid. Yet, we who traveled the world before jumbo jets and cruise ships understood that bad things could happen and that they sometimes did whether you journeyed by thumb, van, bus or train. In hotels and hostels from Beirut to Baghdad, Kabul to Kolkata, you’d pick up word-of-mouth “travel advisories”, warnings and “war stories”. In India, I’d been told of a chap who’d been robbed and stranded in Afghanistan, and I actually met him when I bunked down in a backpackers’ in Sultanahmet, Istanbul, on my way back to Britain.
As I journeyed “there and back again”, I took risks on rickety buses and in reckless cars. I’d walk alone through slums and shanty towns and eat food sold on the streets. I risked typhoid and cholera outbreaks, caught “Cairo belly”, sold blood in “third world” clinics, and ran from thrown stones and the sound of gunfire. I was arrested for spying on the Aswan Dam in upper Egypt (though released soon afterwards) and handcuffed as a “joke” in a Beirut police station. I’d crossed a battle-scarred landscape between Syria and Jordan on foot, and watched the military buildup in Kashmir as the Indo-Pakistan war was breaking out.
So yes, there always was a risk; but if you think too much about it, you’d never go, and if you never go, you’ll never grow.
The Road goes ever on and on Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with eager feet, Until it joins some larger way Where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.
Walking Song, JRR Tolkien
The morning after the night before …
In late summer 1972 we housemates threw an all-night farewell party before going our separate ways. Christian, Brendan, John, Mike and Eric embarked on the hippie trail across Asia and ended up in God’s Own Country. Having recently returned from that same odyssey, I remained in London, but destiny saw me washed up DownUnder five years later. The first picture portrays the laid-back lethargy of that morning in East Finchley. Chris is in the shot so Brendan must’ve taken the photograph. The second is taken when we got it all together for a more formal tableau with Chris behind the camera.
Shortly thereafter, the five pioneers set off for Dover and the East. Many years later, Christian revealed these pictures from their journey. The first is of John and Chris soon after landing in northern Australia. The others are pictures of Chris’ tote bag. He still has it.
The 25th April is Anzac Day, Australia’s national day of remembrance, honouring Aussies and Kiwis who perished in foreign wars from South Africa to Afghanistan. It takes its name from the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign – on this day in the spring time of 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed under heavy fire from Ottoman forces entrenched in the heights above what was later to be called Anzac Cove on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula.
The Anzacs were just part of a wider campaign devised by British Secretary of the Navy Winston Churchill to knock The Ottoman Empire out of the war with one decisive blow by seizing the strategic Dardanelles Strait and occupying Istanbul, the capital. It do not go well. The Ottoman soldiers commanded by Mustafa Kamal Pasha, the future founder of modern Turkey, Kamal Atatürk, held the high ground and fought stubbornly and bravely, and ultimately, victoriously.
The bloodshed ended in stalemate. The Allies withdrew eight months later leaving behind over eight thousand dead Australians and nearly three thousand New Zealanders (along with over thirty thousand English, Irish, and Frenchmen, Indians and North Africans, and close on ninety thousand Ottoman soldiers, Turks and Arabs, Muslims and Christians), without, historians say, having had any decisive influence on the course of the First World War.
Whenever we visit Israel, our friend and guide Shmuel of Israel Tours drives us all over tiny beautiful and vibrant country (travelling through the West Bank, we use Palestinian guides). During the pandemic year, most Israelis had been locked down three times and like in many countries, the all-important tourist trade barely has registered a pulse. When permitted to travel beyond his home in Jerusalem, Shmuel has spent the year exploring and learning, visiting places he has never guided to before. He believes that he has exited the plague year a better guide, and we are already making plans for our next Israel adventure, including recently excavated Herodian palaces and further travel in the Negev Desert.
Shmuel recently told me that he had visited Tel Sheva, Tel as Sabi’ in Arabic, in the Negev, five kilometres east of the city of Beer Sheva, a site inhabited since the fourth millennium BC. The ancient fortified town dates from the early Israelite period, around the tenth century BC. The walls, homes, storage warehouses and water reservoir system have been excavated and opened to the public. Today, Tel as Sabi’ s also known as the first of seven Bedouin townships established in the Negev as part of the Israeli government’s policy to plant the once-nomadic Bedouin permanent settlements.
It was from the foot of this stark desert hill that the Light Horse Brigade launched its famous charge towards the Ottoman lines at the strategic rail-head and wells of Beersheva on October 31st 2017.
Today, it is the ninth (not seventh) stop on The Anzac Trail which traces the route of the Light Horse Brigade from Gaza on the Mediterranean coast to Beer Sheva. For obvious reasons, it begins beyond Gaza’s wire and concrete encirclement and trail culminates at the Anzac Memorial Centre In Beer Sheva, inaugurated on the 100th anniversary of the battle.
Tel as Sabi’ to Tarkeeth
As we commemorate Anzac Day this Sunday, few folk in Bellingen Shire would know that there is a link between that hill in the heart of the Negev and Tarkeeth on the north bank of the Kalang River just six kilometres west of Urunga as the crow flies.
In A Tale of Twin Pines, the first of our Small Stories, I wrote of how researching the history of the Urunga area where we live, I came across Lloyd Fell’s story of the Fell Family Farm. This was located close to the present Twin Pines Trail, just east of Fells Road on South Arm Road, and west of the Uncle Tom Kelly motorway bridge over the Kalang River. Click here to access TwinPinesStory.pdf
Lloyd tells the story of how in 1926, New Zealand farmer, solo-yachtsman, and returned ANZAC Chris Fell first saw the land that became the family farm, purchasing it from a deceased estate for a thousand pounds. Chris was impressed by the two mature hoop pines that stood on either side of the track leading to a rough timber house that already stood there – and these gave the farm its name. He cleared the bush, felling and hauling timber until he had sufficient land and capital to run cattle. In time, he built up a prosperous dairy business and cattle stud where he and his wife Laura, a Sydneysider from a well-to-do Vaucluse family, raised their three children. The house has long gone, but the two magnificent pines are still there.
On October 31st 1917, Chris Fell and his comrades in the New Zealand Mounted Infantry fought on Tel as Sabi’.
The strong position the Ottomans had established on the hill was a key obstacle to the conquest of the town and the ANZACs had to seize it before storming Beersheva itself. The Ottoman soldiers fought valiantly, and it was only at around 3 p.m. that the fighters of the New Zealand Brigade, primarily the Auckland regiment, succeeded in capturing the hill in a face-to-face battle. Had these fortifications not been overrun, the Light Horse would have been prevented from advancing on the wells. Afterwards, the machine gunners and their Kiwi mates took part in a bayonet charge against the enemy.
“The New Zealand brigade was sent against Tel el Saba’, but this steep-sided hill with terraced entrenchments was formidable. The dismounted horsemen, with the limited fire support of their machine-gunners and the attached horse artillery batteries, had to slowly suppress the enemy defences and edge their way forward. Chauvel sent light horse to assist, but as the afternoon crawled on, success remained elusive. Eventually the weight of fire kept the defenders’ heads down enough that the New Zealanders were able to make a final assault. The hill was taken and the eastern approach to Beersheba opened, but nightfall was approaching”
Major-General Harry Chauvel, the ANZAC commander faced a dilemma. The light was fading and there wasn’t enough time to properly regroup to assault the town. An unsuccessful attack would mean withdrawing far to the south, whilst delaying ng the attack until morning would deny him the element of surprise and and also give the Turks time to destroy the town’s vital wells. He decided to attack, and assigning the the mission to the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade.
The 31 light horsemen who fell are buried in the Beersheba War Cemetery along with 116 British and New Zealand soldiers who perished in the Beersheba battle. There are 1,241 graves in the military cemetery, soldiers being brought in from other Great War Middle East battlefields. We visited it in May 2016. It is a tranquil, poignant, and beautiful place in the Negev Desert, where the bodies of young men from Australia and New Zealand and from the shires of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were laid to rest. “Lest we forget”
UN-sponsored talks have produced a new interim government for Libya aimed at resolving a decade of chaos, division and violence by holding national elections later this year. But with myriad factions loathe to surrender influence they already hold, and with foreign powers invested in local allies, the new government may rapidly come under pressure. The appointment of a new government may also do little to change the balance of military power on the ground, where armed groups rule the streets and factions remain split between east and west along a fortified front-line.
Some Libyans have been critical of a process which they view as being managed from abroad and which they fear will allow existing power-brokers to cling to their influence. “It’s just a painkiller to portray Libya as stable for a while. But war and tension will certainly come back sooner or later so long as militias have power,” said Abdulatif al-Zorgani,a 45-year-old state employee in Tripoli.
“Déjà vu all over again”
A year ago, In That Howling Infinite published Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East Back then, Libya held poll position for its multitude of active players and, to use that Shakespearean script note, “voices off”. A year on, borrowing again from the Bard, there are continuing “alarums and excursions”.
Libya has long been a jigsaw puzzle of competing interests –tribal versus urban, Islamist versus secularist, revolutionary versus old-regime, localist and regional players, Middle Eastern and European – all prepared to tear the country apart for in pursuit of their own political and economic interests – which include, as is often the case, oil and gas. Their contortions get more and more torturous.
It was reported year last year that that more than 1400 Russian mercenaries had been were deployed in 2019 by the Wagner company, a Russian military outfit headed by a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had deployed in Libya to assist warlord Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army in its push against Libya ostensibly internationally recognized government. It was joining troops hired by Haftar’s backers, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and included mercenaries from Sudan’s brutal Jamjaweed militia – aided and abetted by several EU members and French, Italian and sundry other arms suppliers.
Wagner’s sell-swords included a good number of Syrians – sundry rebels and jihadis left high, dry and unemployed by the Syrian regime’s ongoing ‘reconquista’ – which is, as we know, bolstered by the Russian military – including Wagner’s fighting men, who include in their number many Muslim Chechens from Russia’s subservient neighbour.
When Haftar’s offensive stalled outside Tripoli, Libya’s capitol, last June, it was reported that more than a thousand of the Russian and Syrian mercenaries had beenpulled back from the front lines and taken planes to who knows where. This “retreat” was precipitated by a Turkish military intervention that has helped block an assault on the capital.
The Turkish contingent is comprised of numerous specialists and advisers, artillery and aircraft, and a contingent of, surprise surprise, hirelings drawn from the same battered battlefields of northern Syria. Those same jihadis and rebels in Wagner’s pay.
Many Syrians sell their services because it is the only way they can feed their families in the war-battered economy of the regime’s Syria, and the besieged enclaves of the disparate rebel forces. It reported that these mercenaries, zealous and reluctant alike, have also been deployed in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh during the recent brief but bloody war between Russian-backed Armenia and Turkish-supported Azerbaijan. Recruits on both sides in both conflicts are reportedly complaining that they are not being paid what they were promised nor on time.
Haftar spend time late last year in Egypt conferring with his patron and mentor, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, over possible next moves. There is speculation now that whilst Haftar’s backers are becoming increasingly disillusioned with his martial abilities, they are reluctant to relinquish their influence in this politically and economically strategically area leaving the field to an ambitious Erdogan. They may, indeed, be surreptitiously looking around for a new dance-partner.
As COVID-19 infections continued to rise, and as Turkey and Russia vied for influence in this strategically important corner of the Mediterranean, there wereincoherent mumblings that the that the USA might be about to throw its MAGA cap into the crowded ring, This did not however eventuate, and there are indications that the new administration may be reluctant to involve itself in torturous proxy wars involving disreputable Arab and other despots.
Nevertheless, Libya’s nightmare continues. As American baseball wizz Yogi Berra once said, “It feels like déjà vu all over again”.
The paradox of piety observes no disconnect Nor registers anxiety As the ship of fools is wrecked So leaders urge with eloquence And martyrs die in consequence We talk in last and present sense As greed and fear persist E Lucevan Le Stelle, Paul Hemphill
At a recent conference in Berlin, Germany’s prime minister Angela Merkel and and UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé managed, at least on paper, to cajole the external actors guilty of super-charging Libya’s misery to sign onto a unified agenda. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Boris Johnson, and Egypt’s pharaoh (and Donald Trump’s “favourite dictator”) Abdel Fatah el-Sisi,joined a dozen or so others (with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo representing the United States) in declaring an intention to end foreign interference in Libya’s internal affairs: “We commit to refraining from interference in the armed conflict or in the internal affairs of Libya and urge all international actors to do the same,” states the communiqué, in language one hopes all participants endorsed in (what would be uncharacteristic, for some) good faith.
This corroboree of hypocrites acknowledged that the increasingly violent and globally tangled Libyan civil war could only be ended if outside powers backed off and ended their meddling. They made altruistic and totally disingenuous declarations about a conflictthat they themselves have incited, exacerbated and perpetuated for nine years. And yet, explicitly excluded Libyan participation, contradicting the 2012 UN Guidance for Effective Mediation and its insistence on “inclusivity” and “national ownership” as fundamental elements for peaceful conflict resolution. It’s focus at this point was on the on the external, rather than the Libyan, actors and for reviving the world’s attention on the Libyan conflict.
A follow-up conference in Munich was convened in mid-February to renew its pledges to quit meddling. Stephanie Williams, the UN deputy special envoy for Libya reported zero progress and declared the agreed-upon arms embargo to be a joke. A sick joke, indeed – plane after plane land in Benghazi loaded with weapons from the UAE and other arms-suppliers destined for self-anointed warlord Khalifa Haftar‘s self-styled Libyan National Army.
Unfortunate Libya is neither the first nor the last pawn to be used and abused by outsiders in the new Great Game as the following guide demonstrates.
But first, there’s this letter to a British daily from Aubrey Bailey of Fleet, Hampshire (where hurricanes hardly happen):
Are you confused by what is going on in the Middle East? Let me explain.
We (she’s talking if Britain and us generic “good guys”) support the Iraqi government in the fight against Islamic State.We don’t like IS but IS is supported by Saudi Arabia, whom we do like. We don’t like President Assad in Syria. We support the fight against him, but not IS, which is also fighting against him. We don’t like Iran, but Iran supports the Iraqi government against IS.
So, some of our friends support our enemies and some of our enemies are our friends, and some of our enemies are fighting against our other enemies, whom we want to lose, but we don’t want our enemies who are fighting our enemies to win. If the people we want to defeat are are defeated, they might be replaced by people we like even less.
And this was started by us invading a country to drive out terrorists who weren’t actually there until we went in to drive them out.Do you understand now?Clear as mud!
It casts new light on that thorny old aphorism “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”!
A cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East
We begin withLibya, the “beneficiary” of the Berlin talk-fests.
On the side of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, Libya’s capital there’s:Not many … Italy (former colonial oppressor, in it for the oil, who’d just love to see an end to those refugee boats that wash up on its shores); Turkey (former Ottoman oppressor now ruled by a wannabe Ottoman sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and eager for offshore oil and gas leases); and potentially, Qatar (who fell out with Egypt, Saudi and the United Arab Emirates over its tepid support for the Sunni grand alliance against Shia Iran). Turkish soldiers fly the government’s drones whilst Turkey’s Syrian jihadi mercenaries provide military muscle– Turkey would like to move them out of Kurdish Syria on account of their murderous behavior).
On the side of the self-anointed warlord Khalifa Haftar, based in Benghazi in the east, whose sharp uniform is festooned in medals for this and that act of service and heroism), there’s: Egypt, (the US’ impecunious, brutal “partner in Freedom” – strange bedfellows in this amoral “new Middle East” that is just like the old Middle East); Saudi Arabia, and the UAE (see above, re. Qatar, whom they blockaded for several years); Jordan (perennially cash-strapped and dependent on rich Arab relatives), France and Russia (arms, oil, and influence); plus Russian mercenaries (plausibly deniable, capable and reliable, and familiar with the Middle East – see below); and Sudan’s murderous Janjaweed Arab militias (broke Sudan seeks Saudi favour).
And on the sidelines, a disinterested and divided UN, the UK and the US – although Britain, with France, helped wreck the joint by ousting longtime dictator Gaddafi; arguably, the US, although Donald Trump has confused matters by phoning Haftar and then saying that he’s a great bloke (he has a thing for dictators actual and potential, including Putin, Erdogan, Al Sisi, and the thuggish Saudi crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman); and in the middle, and against all of the above, the ever-opportunistic and troublesome Da’ish and al Qa’ida..
As American baseball wizz Yogi Berra once said, “It feels like déjà vu all over again”.
On the side of the internationally recognized government in Damascus headed up by Bashar al Assad, there’s: The Islamic Republic of Iran (Iran’s Shia Muslims are related to Syria’s heterodox Alawi minority, whose elite happen to have rule the country for half a century, and Iran is consolidating it’s Shia axis across the Middle East); Russia (oil, pipelines, and restoring Soviet greatness); Lebanese Shia Hezbollah (de facto ruler of Lebanon) and its soldiers; the Iranian Quds brigade (the expeditionary arm of the Revolutionary Guard, a military-industrial complex that virtually runs Iran); sundry Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias beholden to Iran for cash, weapons, training and ideology); Russian and Chechen mercenaries (see above – deniable, reliable and capable); and, quite surreptitiously, Turkey (former Ottoman oppressor) which is ostensibly opposed to Assad, but needing Russian pipeline deals, runs with the hares and hunts with the hounds – but see below, and also, above with respect to Libya. As the song goes, “I’m so dizzy, my head is turning” already!
On the side of “the other side”, which is not really a “side’ at all, but a grab bag of sundry rebels who were once supported by the US and are predominantly Islamist, with some indeed linked to al Qa’ida, which, of course, we all love to hate (Twin Towers, Osama bin Laden and all that), there’s: the US, Britain and France (why do they persevere so in what Donald Trump has called these forever, endless wars?); Saudi Arabia (Salafi Central and banker for all the bad guys) and the United Arab Emirates (also a financier for the foe); Israel (of course – mortal foe of Iran and of Hezbollah (“the enemy of my enemy” fair-weather friend – anything that distracts its perennial enemies is good for Israel); Hamas, the Islamists who rule the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, and oppose the Alawi oppressor of Sunni Muslims and of Palestinian refugees in Syria; and Turkey (see above –hares and hounds, on the outer with Saudi and the UAE and pals with outcast Qatar, and engaged in an ongoing blood feud with Syrian Kurds ostensibly allied with Turkey’s outlawed separatist Kurds), and as we write, ominously trading blows with the Syrian Army and its Russian allies; and Turkey’s Syrian jihadi mercenaries – erstwhile former rebels and al Qa’ida and Da’ish fighters who are in it for the money, for vengeance against the Kurds and the Assad regime, and, for many, good old blood-lust.
And stuck in the middle: Those Syrian Kurds, of formerly autonomous Syrian enclaves Afrin and Rojava (betrayed by America, invaded by Turkey, and forever abandoned by the rest of the world, they have been forced to come to terms with the Assad regime which has discriminated against them forever; sundry Bedouin tribes who work to a code of patronage and payback; the scattered remnants of Da’ish which was at the height of its power a veritable “internationale” of fighters from all over the world, including Europeans, Australians, Chechens, Afghans, Uighurs, Indonesians and Filipinos – the remnants of whom are still in the field and hitting back; and sundry die-hard jihadis from constantly splintering factions. Da’ish and the jihadis have been dubiously aided and abetted by money and material from allegedly unknown patrons in the Gulf autocracies, as evidenced by those long convoys of spanking new Toyota Hi Lux “technicals” – which have now curiously reappeared in Haftar’s Libyan National Army (see Libya, above).
On the side of the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, there’s: Saudi Arabia, the US, and Britain; plus sundry mercenary outfits from Australia and Brazil; and Sudan (its militias paid by Saudi, as in Libya). The UAE was formerly on this side, but now supports a breakaway would-be Yemeni government Opposed to the present one. On the side of Houthis, a rebel Shia tribe in the north of the country, there’s: Iran and ostensibly its Iraqi and Lebanese auxiliaries – see above, the Shia ‘Arc” of Iranian influence.And in the middle, and against all of the above, the ever-opportunistic and troublesome Da’ish and al Qa’ida.
Its America’s longest ever war – ours too …
On the side of the UN recognized government there’s: NATO, including the US, Canada, Britain, Germany, Denmark and Norway; and also, Australia and New Zealand – though why antipodeans want to get involved in the faraway Afghan quagmire beats me … Oh yes, the US alliance, and our innate empathy for the poor and downtrodden.
On the other side, there’s: The ever-patient, ever-resilient Taliban, aided and abetted by duplicitous Pakistan (an ally of the US – yes!), and al Qa’ida and Da’ish, both dubiously aided and abetted by money and material from Gulf despots.
And on the sidelines, miscellaneous corrupt and well-armed Afghani warlords who take advantage of the ongoing turmoil and grow rich on bribes, option and smuggling; and the rest of the world, really, which has long ago zoned out of those “forever, endless wars”.
So, what now?
More of the same, alas. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations. It is business as usual in the scattered killing grounds as a bewildering array of outsiders continue to wage their proxy wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Bombs still explode in Afghanistan and Somalia, and whilst Islamists terrorise the countries of the Sahel, and even distant Mozambique, warlords rape and pillage in Congo. As usual in these proxy conflicts the poor people are stuck in the middle being killed in their thousands courtesy of weapons supplied by the US, European, Israeli, Russian and Chinese arms industries.
As outsiders butt each other for dominance, and the Masters of War ply their untrammelled trade, we are condemned, as Bob Dylan sang in another time and another war, to “sit back and watch as the death count gets higher’. I am reminded of WH Auden’s September 1, 1939, a contemplation on a world descending into an abyss: “Defenseless under the night, our word in stupor lies’. All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.
‘What I was going to say,’ said the Dodo in an offended tone, ‘was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus–race.’
‘What IS a Caucus–race?’ said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that SOMEBODY ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.
‘Why,’ said the Dodo, ‘the best way to explain it is to do it.’ (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)
First it marked out a race–course, in a sort of circle, (‘the exact shape doesn’t matter,’ it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’ This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, ‘EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.’
In October 1973, Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia cut off oil sales to western states in retaliation for their support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. It was one of the most significant economic shocks to the global economy since the end of the Second World War.
The Saudi embargo quadrupled world oil prices, pushed consumer inflation into double digits and tipped the US and states across Europe into painful recessions. Some argue that it even helped wreck the credibility of centre-left governments in the 1970s, ushering in the neoliberal revolution of the following decade.
The extrajudicial murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by perpetrators allegedly linked to the Saudi ruling family, and particularly the ambitious and overweening crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, has introduced discussion of possible sanctions against Saudi Arabia – a scenario that Saudi’s brutal war in Yemen has not to date precipitated. I empathize “discussion” because there is a many a slip twixt the cup and the lip – Saudi’s western allies have long been complacent about and at times complicit in the kingdom’s many misdeeds in the interests of intelligence, security, and contracts; and also, in opposition to their mutual Iranian enemy, and the ambivalent, and in practical terms, tepid support for the US’ quixotic ‘war on terror” (in conflicts that Saudi Arabia has in many instances fermented with its export and funding of fundamentalist Islam and its support for Islamist groups worldwide.
The kingdom has threatened retaliation in the (unlikely) prospect that sanctions are indeed implemented – the USA and its western allies are reluctant to take such a big stick to this strategically important ‘partner in freedom”.
Predictably, commentators, and presumably policy-makers, are asking whether therefore we’ll see repeat of 1973. Many observers of a certain age recall the pain of what was to become a great economic and political re-calibration – of kowtowing to Gulf tyrants, and of endeavours to reduce dependence upon the old producers of the Middle East. But few tend to focus on the gains to economies and corporate bottom lines during the years that followed.
The massive increase in oil revenues flowing into Gulf coffers kick-started a veritable “gold rush” as westerners beat a congested path to the open doors and chequebooks of the kings and emirs who now sought to “modernize” their medieval backwaters with industrial plants, high rises and condos, conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, and more weapons than countries of their size and population could ever require or use.
For over four decades, it was party-time for consultants, fixers and arms manufacturers as democratic governments turned a blind eye to the repression, intolerance and inequity that prevailed among these valued customers. As was said about Catherine the Great and the partition of Poland, they weep as they take.
Visitors and expats sing the praises of these “miracles in the desert”, with their highways and shopping malls, but the kingdoms and emirates are still governed by medieval mindsets in which autocracy, patronage, patriarchy and misogyny, and religious intolerance and obscurantism contradict the values of the western nations who regard them as indispensable allies in their quixotic defense of democracy and freedom.
So, how much economic and political disruption would a Saudi oil embargo actually do today?
The global energy market has evolved significantly over the past half century. Western countries have strategic reserves of oil and a wider range of suppliers. Recent years have highlighted the market’s resilience in the face of handbrake supply and demand turns. The “West” is not as dependent on Gulf oil as it was in the ‘seventies. A surge in domestic and non-Mid East sourced oil and gas, and in renewables has reduced Saudi Arabia’s economic clout.
Meanwhile, the autocratic kingdom is feeling the pinch of diminishing revenues, royal drones, growing populations, youth unemployment, and economic recession. An act of economic warfare as hinted by Saudi insiders, like an extreme oil production cut, would have but a limited impact upon the global economy, and would destroy Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” economic reforms. His signature $500 billion dream of a high-tech city in the desert will never materialize without tapping western expertise and materièl, implying a free flow of knowledge, people and investment. And Saudi will not become a tourist destination, as the current leadership fervently hopes, if relations with the west utterly disintegrate. Saudi Arabia itself has the most to lose economically, politically and diplomatically in any standoff.
The 1973 Saudi embargo quadrupled world oil prices, pushed consumer inflation into double digits and caused painful recessions, but the global energy market has evolved significantly over the past half century, writes Ben Chu in The Independent, 29 October 2018
How important is the kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the global economy? Does Riyadh hold the world’s economic destiny in its hands?
These questions are not academic given the profound uncertainty over how the Jamal Khashoggicase will play out in the coming days and over how western governments could respond if credible evidence emerges that the dissident Saudi journalist’s killing was not a “mistake” made by “rogue” operatives but was, in fact, explicitly ordered by the all-powerful crown prince Mohammed bin Salman himself.
Donald Trump has threatened“very severe” consequencesunder those circumstances. And, for their part, the Saudi government also last week made it clear they would not passively soak up western sanctions or other forms of punishment.
“The kingdom emphasises that it will respond to any measure against it with an even stronger measure,” its Foreign Ministry said in a defiant statement. “The kingdom’s economy has an influential and vital role in the global economy.”
Oil was not specifically mentioned. But then it doesn’t really need to be.
The Saudi-led oil embargo of 1973, when Gulf states stopped sales to the likes of the US, the UK, Canada and Japan in retaliation for western support of Israel, was one of the most significant economic shocks to the global economy since the end of the Second World War.
It is branded in the memory of politicians and civil servants of a certain age, but also on the inherited folk memory of the current generation. The Saudi embargo quadrupled world oil prices, pushed consumer inflation into double digits and tipped the US and states across Europe into painful recessions. Some argue that it even helped wreck the credibility of centre-left governments in the 1970s, clearing the way for the neoliberal revolution of the following decade.
So would we be going back to the 1970s? How much economic and political disruption would a Saudi oil embargo actually do today?
The global energy market has evolved significantly over the past half century.Western countries have strategic reserves of oil and a wider range of suppliers. Recent years have highlighted the market’s resilience in the face of handbrake supply and demand turns.
The recent spike in oil prices in 2010, when prices hit $125 a barrel, stimulated the domestic US shale oil and gas production sector. The industry grew so fast that domestic energy production today is almost 90 per cent of US consumption. A decade ago the US had net daily imports of 10 million barrels of oil and petroleum products. In 1973 it was 6.4 million. Today that is down to just 2.3 million.
Indeed, the US this year, thanks to shale, overtook Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest daily crude oil producer.
It’s true that the UK and western Europe are still heavily reliant on imported energy and therefore appear particularly vulnerable to a sudden jump in global oil prices. But the European share of renewables as a source of final energy consumption has also been rising rapidly, hitting 17 per cent in 2016.A spike in oil prices would be likely to accelerate this switch away from fossil fuels (just as the 1973 embargo encouraged western energy conservation measures such as the Nixon administration’s 50mph US highway speed limit). Again, while this could actually be beneficial in the medium term for the west, it would hardly be in the Saudi economic interest.
The oil price has been rising since the middle of last year and is now close to a four-year high at $80. One Saudi newspaper columnist has suggested that, if faced with severe western sanctions, Riyadh could slash its roughly 10-million-barrel-a-day production by two-thirds, sending the global price back to $100, or perhaps even on to a record $400 a barrel.
It’s clear why. An act of economic warfare like an extreme oil production cut would destroy Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” economic reforms. The crown prince’s $500bn dream of a high-tech city in the desert will never materialize without tapping western expertise, implying a free flow of knowledge, people and investment. And Saudi will not become a tourist destination, as the current leadership fervently hopes, if relations with the west utterly disintegrate. Saudi Arabia itself has the most to lose economically in any standoff.
There are certainly reasons why the west should tread carefully with Saudi Arabia, from state-to-state co-operation on terror intelligence, to considerations of geopolitical stability. But fears of a repeat of the 1970s oil embargo should not, whatever folk memory holds, be high on the list.
All that was old is new again with the potential re-emergence of the US’ Cold War strategy of “offshore balancing”
Commentator and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen is always worth reading. Here is his latest piece for The Australian on this subject.
It is a well-tried and well-documented strategy whereby an offshore power counters a rival by backing opposing coalitions in a region of strategic competition, supporting local allies indirectly (with weapons, money, advisers intelligence or diplomatic cover), and using proxy military muscle, regular and irregular, to prevent any one rival dominating the region.
Maritime powers (including Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the US for much of its history until 1945) historically used offshore balancing to counter land-based rivals while lowering their own costs and avoiding decisive commitment. To succeed, the offshore power does not need to control a region itself, merely to prevent a rival doing so. As such, this is a low-cost approach — something military planners call an “economy of effort” strategy — that reduces exposure and preserves freedom of action.
This comes in the wake of hugely expensive and largely unsuccessful efforts by the US to dominate a region directly through direct military intervention – and subsequent entanglement that left it ‘neck deep in the big muddy’ to quote political activist and balladeer Pete Seeger. It was a maximalist approach that had adverse consequences in terms of lives lost, funds wasted, credibility eroded and loss of freedom of action (particularly after 9/11, as the US became bogged down in self-inflicted wars of occupation).
But, offshore balancing requires a cool nerves, a steady hand and deft footwork.
Bad timing and miscalculation can increase the risk of wars that the US neither wants or is prepared for. And in inexperienced, needful, and impetuous hands, it could render the US vulnerable to being played by its partners. Kilcullen notes that a body of opinion in the US intelligence community, and also, within Israeli intelligence, holds that the threat from Iran has been overstated, that Iran’s ability to dominate the so-called “land bridge” from Afghanistan to the Golan Heights is overblown, and that no regime in Tehran would be suicidal enough to consider a nuclear strike on Israel, Saudi Arabia or any of its other regional rivals.
But it would appear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince Muhammed bib Salem have successfully sold Donald Trump on their expansive vision of the Iranian threat, creating the possibility that Washington may be manipulated into decisions that run counter to its own wider interests.
Moreover, with regard to US foreign policy generally, one size does not necessarily fit all. Taking a strategy like offshore balancing, however successful it might prove to be in the Middle East, and blindly applying it on the Korean peninsula, to Russia or China where conditions are dramatically different, would be full of risk.
Donald Trump: The man with the plan
David Kilcullen, Contributing Editor for Military Affairs, The Australian, May
This week, as Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and start reimposing sanctions on Tehran, a chorus of condemnation broke out on both sides of the Atlantic. European politicians condemned the decision and began working on ways to keep Iran in the deal, while in the US former secretary of state John Kerry engaged in last-minute direct negotiations with Iranian leaders.
Fred Kaplan of Slate penned a piece that was typical of the mainstream media reaction, arguing that Trump withdrew “because of spite, ignorance, or both”.
There is no doubt that the US President’s decision reflected animus toward his predecessor’s signature achievement in foreign policy. It also highlighted president Barack Obama’s self-inflicted vulnerability over the deal, which he approved personally as an executive agreement rather than submitting it to the US Senate for formal ratification as a treaty. His administration also voted for a UN resolution lifting sanctions on Iran before congress had properly begun its review of the agreement. These decisions, over near-unanimous Republican opposition, made the deal a bone of partisan contention from the outset, a problem Obama’s staff exacerbated through a manipulative media campaign that drew harsh criticism when disclosed in 2016. All this made it easier for Trump to leave the deal with just a stroke of the pen.
Yet there’s reason to believe Trump may be acting from more than political spite. Indeed, it’s possible we might be witnessing the early signs of a new approach with the potential to transform America’s overseas military posture, though also carrying enhanced risk of war and other unintended consequences. The new approach may signal the re-emergence of Washington’s former strategy of working through regional coalitions to counter rivals in the Middle East, thereby enabling US military disengagement from the post-9/11 wars.
The decision to dump the deal is far from the only indicator. Other recent signs include statements by Trump to the effect that he seeks to withdraw from Syria while sponsoring an Arab coalition to prevent the re-emergence of Islamic State. Under this scheme, Washington would support allies (including, potentially, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as a coalition of local Kurdish militias) but end combat troop deployments.
Last month’s coalition strike on Syria sent a similar message in that it avoided targeting the Assad regime’s leadership or Russian and Iranian assets in Syria. It was also accompanied by clear statements that the US did not seek regime change — effectively acquiescing in Bashar al-Assad’s victory, moving away from Obama’s goal of regime change and further disengaging from involvement in the Syrian conflict.
Alongside an Arab coalition, Israel seems ready to step into any gap created by US withdrawal, while cheering Trump’s decision to exit the Iran deal. Indeed, an undeclared low-level air battle has been going on between Israel, Hezbollah and Iranian forces in Syria since February. Israel decided to retain its advanced fighter aircraft in-country rather than send them to a scheduled exercise in Alaska last month and this week it raised military forces to their highest alert level, called up air defence and intelligence reservists, and opened air-raid and missile shelters for Israelis living within range of the Syrian border. If anything, Israel’s willingness to directly engage Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria has only increased after since Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
At the same time, statements by Saudi Arabia and the UAE indicate that the Sunni monarchies and their Gulf allies would consider participating in an Arab stabilisation force in Syria. Saudi leaders also have expressed a willingness to participate in strikes within Syria (making Saudi Arabia a de facto coalition partner with Israel, a tricky political position for Saudi leaders).
Overtures by the US towards Egypt suggest Washington also is seeking Egyptian support for the same Arab coalition.
All this may be evidence of an emerging post-deal strategy, whereby the US works through Israel and Arab partners in the region to weaken and contain Iran. For political reasons, Israeli and Arab components would operate separately, but Washington would co-ordinate with each and support both to prevent the re-emergence of Islamic State while containing and undermining Iran, Hezbollah and Russia (with the emphasis very much on Iran).
As part of this strategy, US forces may launch periodic operations (missile and drone strikes, air raids or special forces operations) to preserve their preferred balance but would avoid protracted commitments, and troop numbers in Iraq and Syria would be drawn down. Washington would operate with allied support where possible, but strike unilaterally if needed.
Provided Turkey can agree on a demarcation line with US-backed Kurdish groups — probably somewhere near the present line of control along the Euphrates river — the US also might support Turkey’s buffer zone in northern Syria. In that case Turkey, too, would play a role in containing Iran and preventing the re-emergence of Islamic State — the two paramount US objectives.
This approach, if it does emerge, would be a classic instance of offshore balancing, where an offshore power counters a rival by backing opposing coalitions in a region of strategic competition, supporting local allies indirectly (with weapons, money, advisers intelligence or diplomatic cover) to prevent any one rival dominating the region.
Maritime powers (including Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the US for much of its history until 1945) historically used offshore balancing to counter land-based rivals while lowering their own costs and avoiding decisive commitment. To succeed, the offshore power does not need to control a region itself, merely to prevent a rival doing so. As such, this is a low-cost approach — something military planners call an “economy of effort” strategy — that reduces exposure and preserves freedom of action.
One of the strategy’s key attractions would be that it might restore a critical strategic distinction: the difference between hugely expensive (and largely unsuccessful) efforts to dominate a region directly, and the far cheaper and more achievable goal of merely preventing a rival doing so.
In the post-Cold War era of liberal and neo-conservative interventionism, US leaders often conflated the two, as if preventing a hostile power from dominating a region necessarily implied dominating it themselves.
This maximalist approach had obvious adverse consequences in terms of lives lost, funds wasted, credibility eroded and loss of freedom of action (particularly after 9/11, as the US became bogged down in self-inflicted wars of occupation).
Trump has been railing against these overseas commitments for years. Indeed, one of his themes on the campaign trail was the need to get out of overseas commitments, bring troops home, force allies to commit their own resources to their defence, cease putting American lives at risk to provide security guarantees for countries (in Europe, Asia or the Middle East) that were unwilling to pay their fair share, and stop spending money on nation-building that would be better used at home.
An offshore-balancing strategy offers a way to do this while still acting tough and reserving the right to intervene unilaterally (another key Trump theme).
Offshore balancing does not preclude periodic interventions to restore a favourable balance of power in a given region, but it does tend to rule out long-term occupation or decisive commitments of the post-9/11 kind. It also implies holding military power back, over the horizon or outside the region, rather than establishing permanent bases.
As such, naval forces (including warships, expeditionary marine units, carrier-based aircraft and submarines) are the key assets needed for such a strategy — and for now, at least, the US leads the world in these capabilities, giving it a comparative advantage.
The strategy’s other key benefit is its low cost and ability to preserve (or, in this case, restore) strategic freedom of action. Its disadvantage is that interventions, when they do occur, can be extremely costly.
Britain’s approach to Europe from the 1680s to 1945 — periodic interventions to prevent any one power dominating the continent but reluctance to create permanent alliances or bases — is one example of offshore balancing. Another was the US strategy for the Middle East from just before the end of World War II (when Washington first became concerned about the strategic centrality of the region) until the Gulf war in 1991.
From 1944 to 1992, despite periodic interventions (a CIA-backed coup in Iran in 1953, brief engagements in Lebanon in 1958 and 1983, bombing Libya in 1986) the US generally kept its military out of the region, preferring to counter Soviet influence through partners such as Israel, Turkey, the Arab monarchies, the Afghan mujaheddin in the 1980s and, until 1979, the shah of Iran.
After 1991, everything changed: permanent US bases in Saudi Arabia (plus no-fly zones over Iraq, and the Clinton administration’s policy of “dual containment” towards Iraq and Iran) committed the US directly to the Middle East. US bases in Saudi Arabia, in particular, created intense grievances that led in part to the 9/11 attacks. After 2003, the Iraq war mired Americans in a full-scale military occupation. Successive presidents have sought to extricate themselves, but to little avail, proving what advocates of offshore balancing long have argued: hard though it is to avoid being dragged into permanent commitments, it’s far harder to extract yourself once committed.
It’s unclear whether Trump knows any of this history; Harvard international relations professor Stephen Walt argued last month on Foreign Policy’s website that he probably does not.
This may not matter, though, since offshore balancing so closely aligns with Trump’s instinctive preferences. Despite his surface volatility, Trump consistently follows certain patterns of strategic behaviour. His two main (and apparently contradictory) urges — the desire to appear strong, while disengaging from post-9/11 commitments in the Middle East and lopsided (“unfair”) treaty arrangements in Europe and Asia — would be well served by an offshore-balancing strategy, so he may consistently follow it, consciously or otherwise.
A more serious criticism, from the few analysts who have yet commented on the emerging strategy, is that Trump is too mercurial and strategically illiterate, and his administration too incoherent, to enact this kind of strategy. These criticisms, too, are overblown. The sacking of secretary of state Rex Tillerson and national security adviser HR McMaster in March has removed competing power centres in US foreign policy, while former CIA director Mike Pompeo (Tillerson’s replacement as Secretary of State), and Defence Secretary James Mattis appear more than capable of executing an offshore balancing strategy.
New national security adviser John Bolton is from the neo-conservative tradition that led directly to the post-9/11 wars of occupation and to the invasion of Iraq, and he will have to modify his views to be able to support this kind of strategy. Likewise, independent-minded UN ambassador Nikki Haley will need to collaborate more closely with the State Department and the White House than she has done to date.
But neither Bolton nor Haley are likely to oppose the strategy if it appears to be succeeding.
If it does succeed — a big if — offshore balancing may become a de facto Trump doctrine to be applied elsewhere. Opportunities to apply it include the Korean peninsula, where Trump seems willing to agree to partial US withdrawal and a permanent peace treaty in return for North Korean denuclearisation and enhanced sponsorship of Japan and South Korea to balance China.
Another possible opportunity is eastern Europe, where Washington may continue arming Ukraine, and support the Baltics and Scandinavia to balance Russia while stepping back from permanent NATO commitments (or making them more conditional on European defence spending.)
Africa, where efforts to work through regional coalitions against terrorists are already well advanced, naturally lends itself to this strategy, which could be further enhanced through France and its G5 Sahel regional coalition, which is already operating against Islamic State in northwest Africa.
Likewise, in Southeast Asia, enhanced support for Vietnam and The Philippines may combine with existing US relationships with Australia, India and Japan to balance China.
Whatever its possibilities, offshore balancing does carry significant risks. The most important is proxy conflict, which can spiral out of control when more than one external power backs local actors, drawing them into confrontation. This risk is severe in the Middle East, where Iran and Russia are sponsoring their own proxies. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are already fighting a proxy war against Iran and its Houthi allies in Yemen, from where conflict is spilling into the Horn of Africa and bringing missile strikes to the heart of Saudi Arabia (most recently, this past week after the nuclear deal announcement).
Internal conflict in Saudi Arabia is also a risk: a recent incident where a drone flew into the royal compound in Riyadh triggered a coup scare and highlighted nervousness within the Saudi royal family about opposition towards Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms. Co-operation between Saudi and Israeli forces (even tacit) would be highly controversial within Saudi Arabia and could prompt sharply increased internal unrest.
For its part, given this week’s series of strikes and the ongoing air campaign, Israel appears to be posturing for imminent war against Hezbollah and Iranian-backed forces in Syria, and possibly Lebanon too. This could draw Israel into more direct conflict with Iran — indeed, one possibility here is that Israel is deliberately escalating conflict with Iran in order to increase its leverage in post-nuclear-deal Washington.
In the same region, a US exit from Syria (a key element of a balancing approach) would remove deterrents on Turkey’s ability to attack Kurdish groups, heightening conflict risk between Ankara and the Kurds.
Besides enhanced war risk, the other important concern of an offshore-balancing strategy is that it leaves Washington vulnerable to being played by its partners. A body of opinion in the US intelligence community (and also, ironically, within Israeli intelligence) holds that the threat from Iran has been overstated, Iran’s ability to dominate the so-called “land bridge” from Afghanistan to the Golan Heights is overblown, and no regime in Tehran would be suicidal enough to consider a nuclear strike on Israel, Saudi Arabia or any of its other regional rivals.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince seem to have successfully sold Trump on their expansive vision of the Iranian threat, creating the possibility that Washington may be manipulated into decisions that run counter to its own wider interests.
Likewise, taking a strategy such as offshore balancing, however successful it might prove to be in the Middle East, and blindly applying it on the Korean peninsula or in Europe, where conditions are dramatically different, would be full of risk.
Still, despite the ongoing condemnation from the policy establishment and allies alike, Trump’s decision to exit the Iran deal may indicate something deeper than mere ill-informed petulance — and if a strategy of offshore balancing does emerge, it just may point the way to disengagement from the post-9/11 wars, a goal that every president since 2001 (including George W. Bush himself, since about five minutes after his “mission accomplished” speech in May 2003) has sought but failed to achieve.
The great and the good, the wise and the weary, have all offered a definition of ‘history’. To Napoleon, it was “a myth that men agree to believe”. Historian Marc Bloch observed that it was “an endeavour towards better understanding”. His Nazi killers disagreed – their’s was a less nuanced, more zero-sum approach. Abba Eban, long time Israeli foreign minister, wrote that it “teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives”. Aldous Huxley wrote “that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.” And channeling Mark Twain and Karl Marx, Buffy Summers remarked, “You know what they say. Those of us who fail history are, doomed to repeat it in summer school”. But best is John Banville’s admission in The Sea that “the past beats inside me like a second heart”. Simply put, we like to see some pattern, some sense of order to it all. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. commented: “The passion for tidiness is the historian’s occupational disease”. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote: “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who have ever been, and shall ever be, animated by the same passions. And thus they necessarily have the same results”. And yet, whilst seeking patterns, we cannot really use them to predict outcomes. And it is impossible to know what really happened. The past is another country and all that. All we can say for sure is that in the end, history will remember where we end up much more than how we got there. And, history takes time. All the time in the world.
As Mark Twain remarked sardonically, “history doesn’t repeat itself. A best, it sometimes rhymes”. A recent rhyme was evident when an opulent exhibition on the life and legacy of Alexander The Great of Macedon was brought from ‘old world’ St.Petersburg, the twice renamed city of Peter The Great of Russia, to ‘ new world’ Sydney, Australia. For all his ‘greatness’, young Alexander was, like Lord Byron “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, but with murderous psycho mixed in. In his ‘Inferno’, Dante had him standing in the river of boiling blood, along with war-mongers and murderers. Why don’t these people just stay at home! Well, what would you think? You are minding your own business down beside the rivers of Babylon, and then suddenly, there’s an army of 50,000 Greeks on the other bank intent on doing damage. Or there you are, beside the sacred Indus, just about to tuck into your chicken vindaloo, when a rampaging horde of homesick Greeks come charging over the horizon. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been massacred or enslaved by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” And there you are on the banks of the Tigris, minding your own business, and keeping out of the way of the Mukhabarat, when over the horizon in a cloud of dust and disco sweeps a column of armoured vehicles and hordes of ka-firi-n with rifles and ray-bans. And you ask to no one in particular, because they have all been bombed or strafed by now, “Why don’t they do the things they do back in their own bloody country?” Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose. Nothing much has changed, really.
Which brings us back perhaps, to what Basil Fawlty called ‘the bleeding obvious”. Beyond the scholars’ passion for patterns, and the dry dialectics of cause and effect, there is the personal dimension. Who were the actual inhabitants of ‘history’? What did they think and feel? The thinking of another time can be hard to understand. Ideas and ideologies once compelling may become unfathomable. And the tone and sensibility that made those ideas possible is even more mysterious. We read, we ponder, and we endeavour to empathize, to superimpose the template of our value system, our socialization, our sensibilities upon the long-dead. And thence, we try to intuit, read between the lines, draw out understanding from poems, plays, novels, memoirs, pictures, photographs, and films of the past. We feel we are experiencing another facet of the potential range of human experience. But in reality, we are but skimming the surface, drawing aside a heavy curtain for a momentary glimpse through an opaque window into the past. Simply put, people who lived ‘then’ are not at all the same as we who live ’now’.
Over two and a half thousand years ago, the controversial Greek poetess Sappho wrote:”I tell you, someone will remember us; even in another time”. And so we do, for one thing is for certain: we all love a good story. As they say, in Arabic, as indeed in all tongues, times and places, “ka-n ya ma ka-n bil ‘adim izzama-n wa sa-lifi al aSri wa la-wa-n”‘ or, “once upon an time”.
So, let us walk down what Welsh poet RS Thomas called ‘the long road of history”, beginning with, yes, the usual suspects: power and pride, greed, and aggrandizement, and as accessories after the fact, dolour, devastation, and death.
Time: Year Zero of the Christian era. Place: The Mediterranean littoral
Often, with overwhelming political and military power and economic wealth come arrogance, decadence, and complacency. And with lean and hungry barbarians on the borderland, the geographical interface between the desert and the sown, and soon hanging around the gates, so the seeds of decline and destruction are scattered and germinate. The Pharaohs conquered and ruled over much of North Africa and the Middle East for centuries. Indeed, the first historical record of a ‘formal’ set piece battle between two armies took place in 1468 BCE at Meggido, just south east of Haifa in present day Israel – some five thousand Egyptians took on and bested two thousand Canaanite soldiers of local city states. But Egypt was to fall to the ascendant and ambitious Greeks and Persians, and later, the Romans. And down went these mighty successors. Thebes, Athens, Sparta, Persepolis, Ctesiphon, Rome, Carthage, Byzantium, Constantinople. Grand names, but now bones, bones, dry bones. The Bard of Avon declaimed “The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve”. As Percy B Shelley intoned: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away”.
It was the English historian Toynbee who suggested that “civilizations die from suicide, not murder”. They lose their “mojo”. The 14th Century Arab philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun, called it “assabiyah” – in short, they lose their élan, their sense of direction and their minds. His point was that the moribund Byzantine and Sassanian empires were broke and militarily overstretched, corrupt, venal and soft, and hence no match for the desert hardened, combat keen, tribally cohesive, spiritually zealous warriors of the one true faith.
At the dawn of the Christian era, the known world was divided up between the those Romans and Persians, who themselves had subjugated and subsumed the Greeks and Phoenician Carthaginians, and Hittites and Assyrians respectively (in the east, the Chinese and Indians boasted powerful, prosperous civilizations as old as The Pharaohs, but this is not their story). Anyhow, the Romans, who morphed into the Byzantines with the loss of the western empire (to nomadic rovers from out of the east) in the third and fourth centuries, and the Persians, were over extended and overspent, slave societies living off the land and labour of conquered peoples. Until they were challenged and defeated by another ascendant power. Those Arabs of Arabia and of the imperial marches.
For generations this lot had served as mercenaries and satraps of both empires, and fired up by the energy and unity of a new but hybrid faith, and muscled up with a martial spirit built upon generations of mercenary employment and privateering, stormed the sclerotic empires from within and without, and in the space of fifty years after the prophet’s death, built a domain that extended from Spain to Afghanistan. Modern genetic analysis has shown that the bloodline of these desert conquerors is as much a mosaic as most other overlords. Assyrian, Babylonian, Hittite, Persian, Egyptian, Nubian, Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Arabian, Hebrew. And whoever else may have been passing through. Many races came and settled, and many too were invaded and scattered. The ruins and artefacts endure still to remind us of their passage.
And this genetic calabash was stirred some more with the Arab conquests. As they surged eastwards and westwards, slaves were sent homewards as plunder and labour. This was the modus operandi of carnivorous empires throughout history. The Babylonians did it; the Romans too. They conquered and controlled though mass death and deportation, dragging their broken subjects in tens and hundreds of thousands across the known world. So too with the Arabs, therefore, as hundreds of thousands of souls from afar afield as the Pyrenees and the Hindu Kush ended their days in Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Baghdad. Blue eyed blondes and redheads, sallow skinned Turkic and Chinese. You see their heirs today in Homs and Aleppo, Gaza and Hebron. In a fascinating post-classical irony, the European empires were likewise catalysts for ethic trans-migration. The suburbs of Paris and Marseilles, Birmingham and Bradford reflect the colours, cuisines, and conflicts of once-upon-a-homeland.
It is the view of some revisionist historians that whilst Mohammad and his revelations provided the impetus for the Arab “surge”, the religion that we know as Islam was actually retrofitted to the Arab adventurers’ ethos, a kind of ex post facto justification for what was in reality an old fashioned smash and grab. They suggest, therefore, that Islam and the role of Mohammad within it as the messenger and final word were cleverly constructed one to two hundred years after his death by Arab dynasties seeking legitimacy and heavenly sanction for their own aggrandizement. But then, wasn’t it always thus? As Jarred Dimond and others have written, this pandering to invisible friends and post-mortem insurance is part of our genetic baggage. It goes back to way back, to Neanderthals, and before them, to chimpanzees, our closest relatives).
Notwithstanding this, these parvenus ushered in the flowering of Arab culture in the arts, architecture, literature, and science as caliphs encouraged intellectual inquiry, and invited polymaths from across the known world to abide in their domains. Indeed, much of the work of the Greek and Roman philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, doctors and scientists was translated into Arabic and preserved for posterity when the Roman Empire was overrun by waves of barbarians, the beginning of what are called The Dark Ages.
One other ‘safe house’ for these tracts during these dire days was Ireland, in the monasteries of the far west, where monks would meticulously copy rare texts, often embellishing them with their own, ‘Celtic’ art work. The Book of Kells owes a stylistic debt to the monasteries of the Byzantine Levant. And whilst we digress on the subject of books, it is believed by some scholars that The Quran was not actually written in Mecca or Medina, but most likely in Baghdad, which did not exist whilst Mohammad breathed. Learned iconoclasts also purport that it was originally written in Aramaic, the language of the Levant at the time of Jesus, and that Arabic has not yet evolved as a written language. The Torah, the basis of Jewish law and custom, and of The Bible, was written in Babylon and not Jerusalem. And The New Testament? Well. that was assembled all over the shop: in cosmopolitan Athens, Rome, the desert solitudes of Syria and the Sinai. The Quran itself drew on both of these. Such is the power of foundation myths. There are always issues surrounding the literal ‘Word of God’.
Contrary to popular assumptions, these centuries were not that dark at all. The Islam tide was turned at Tours by the Frankish forces of Charles ‘the Hammer’’ Martel, named nostalgically for the Israelite rebel who defied and defeated the Seleucid Greeks in the Maccabee Revolt in the second century BCE. Charlemagne founded the French monarchy which endured until the unfortunate Louis the Last lost his head to the French revolutionaries in 1793. The Western Christian church established many fundamentals of law, politics and theology that endure to this day. There was, nevertheless, a lot of fighting, most of it between squabbling European potentates, and a major doctrinal rift in the Christian Church that saw it bifurcate, often with accompanying bloodshed, into the Catholic Church of Rome, and the Eastern Church of Constantinople. Between the Christian ‘West’ and the Muslim ‘East” however, there endured an armed peace interspersed with occasional warfare until the eleventh century. The Byzantine heirs of Constantine were reasonably content to maintain a kind of Cold War with the many fractious emirs who ruled the lands to their east, and to sustain their power and influence through canny diplomacy, alliances, mercenaries, and proxies (It is testament to the ‘byzantine’ skills of these emperors and their servants that the empire endured for a thousand years as a powerful political, economic, and military force until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453).
Things changed utterly for east-west relations towards the end of the eleventh century. The heirs to the Roman Empire in the west, the Franks and the Normans, descendants of those nomadic marauders who broke the power of Rome, fired up with religious zeal and the prospects of material gain, embarked upon a series of Crusades to free the Holy Land, the paths that Jesus trode, from the heathen Mohammedan. But do not for a moment dismiss the power of religious fervour in those far-off days. The promise of a full remission of all sins and a place in paradise was a powerful motivator. Nevertheless, God and gilt, backed by martial grunt, conveniently colluded with another new power, out of the east. The Mongols had spilled out of the steppes of central Asia, having conquered the ancient Chinese empire, and once again, the nomads were on the move as the sons and heirs of Genghis Khan sought khanates and kingdoms of their own in the west. And when they advanced into the Levant, they came up against, and collaborated with the Franks against the Saracens. History is never black and white – the crusaders also did deals with Muslim warlords if it suited their common interests. In their politics as well as their lifestyles, many ‘went native’.
It was always thus. The barbarians, usually horsemen originating from central Asia, surge in from the wild lands, devastate the settled lands, and take the cities. In Eastern as well as Western Europe, and the Middle East, they came, they saw, they conquered, and they moved in. Settled down, intermingled, and developing a taste for the good life, and gave up their roving, rampaging ways. We are their heirs and successors, us descendants of Celts and Saxons, Goths and Vikings, Vandals and Huns, as are French people, Italians, Spaniards, Turks, and Arabs.
Vaslily Grossman encapsulated all this poignantly and succinctly in An Armenian Sketchbook: “The longer a nation’s history, the more wars, invasions, wanderings, and periods of captivity it has seen – the greater the diversity of its faces .Throughout the centuries and millennia, victors have spent the night in the homes of those whom they have defeated. This diversity is the story of the crazed hearts of women who passed away long ago, of the wild passion of soldiers intoxicated by victory, of the miraculous tenderness of some foreign Romeo towards some Armenian Juliet”.
The story of the Vandals is an epic in itself. From out of what we now call Sweden they came, ethnic kin to the Norsemen and Vikings. Scouring through the Baltic lands, and present day Poland, Germany, and France, they settled in Spain. Andalusia is Arabic for ‘Land of the Vandals’. And eventually they established a kingdom in Libya, challenging and then paying tribute to the ascendant Roman Empire.
But the Norsemen were not quite finished with the east. On a rail of the gallery of the beautiful Aya Sofya basilica in Istanbul, there is some graffiti carved by Halvden, a 9th Century soldier of the Emperor’s Varangarian Guard, an elite force of Viking mercenaries. One commander of this guard was Harald Hardrada, who, as King of Norway, died in Yorkshire at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the first of two kings to die during the English summer of 1066. Whilst specifically the imperial bodyguard, the Varangarians fought on the empire’s frontiers against Arab pirates and raiders, marauding nomads from the steppes, Saracens, Normans and Bulgarians. How Harald came to Mickelgard, or Great City, as the Norsemen called Contantinople, is a story in itself, but the sagas say that he even travelled to Jerusalem, protecting caravans of Christian pilgrims. Just picture it. A brigade of Norseman slashing and bashing their way through the wadis and wastelands of Syria, fifty years before the first crusaders put Jerusalem to the sword. One further Scandinavian digression: in 1110, Sigurd, the teenage King of Norway, having fought his way around the Mediterranean with a sixty ship fleet massacring infidels as he went, landed at Acre in Palestine and wintered in what the Norsemen called Jorsalaberg (See Harald Went a ‘Viking).
“If I forget thee, Oh Jerusalem!” The Arabs call the city ‘Al Quds’, “The Holy’. It was deemed sacred from pre-history. Those aforementioned iconoclast scholars suggest that Jerusalem was actually the holiest place in Islam, and that like Islam itself and the Prophet, Mecca and Medina were retrofitted to suit the conqueror’s narrative. A city of the mind as much as of this earth, it haunts the prayers and dreams of three faiths, and to this day, it is coveted and contested. “The air above Jerusalem”, wrote Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “is filled with prayers and dreams, like the air above cities with heavy industry. Hard to breath”. Arthur Koestler wrote: “The angry face of Yahweh is brooding over the hot rocks which have seen more holy murder, rape and plunder than any other place on earth”. Perhaps it is because Jerusalem is mankind’s number one hot spot. “There’s this thing that happens here, over the Hell Mouth”, says Buffy, “where the way a thing feels – it kind of starts being that way for real. I’ve seen all these things before – just not all at once”. More Jews have probably died violently in Jerusalem than in the Holocaust. And countless folk of other faiths have likewise perished.
Razed down to the bedrock like Jerusalem of old
The crusader kingdoms of Palestine lasted a hundred years, leaving their castles and churches to remind us of their passing, and have haunted the Arab historical memory to this day. The Arabic word for foreigner, ‘faranjiye’ is derived from Frank (or maybe not – it is also said that Varangarian derived from the Greek Varangos, for the Scandinavian Varing or Vara, either a placename or a family name, which became the Arabic Varank). They fell to the Kurdish warlord from Tikrit (hometown of Saddam Hussein, small world that it is), Salah ad Din Ibn Ayyubi, and were restored to the House of Islam. But even this renowned soldier and schemer could not escape the assassin’s poison forever (it may have been just typhoid, but why spoil a good yarn?). He was supplanted by other despots, not the least, the famed one-time slave, the blonde, blue-eyed Mameluk Barbars who ruled Egypt, conquered Syria, and died when he inadvertently ate the poison he intended for his dinner guest. And then, out of the east, came the aforementioned Mongols, and these brought the house down. They conquered, settled, assimilated, and then weakened and fell as they, in their turn, were supplanted by, yes, another nomad band, this time the Turkic Ottomans (and again, out of central Asia). That’s how assabiyeh works. Once you have it, you have to work on it. Lose it and you are done.
The Ottoman Empire inherited the Arab, Islamic patrimony and assumed the caliphate as the official ‘Deputy of God’. The Ottoman Caliphate, successor to the famed Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates of Damascus and Baghdad, endured until its abolition in 1924 by Kemal Ataturk, the creator of modern Turkey. It was restored in 2014 as ad Dawlet al Islamiye fi Iraq w ash Sham or Da’esh. We will get to that later, but meantime, the wars and plagues and famines that beset the Middle East brought an end to the golden age of Arab civilization, with all its ecumenical, martial, intellectual, artistic, and scientific adventurousness (the same wars, plagues, and famines scoured the western world too, but these had less far to fall). And so, time stood still for Islam and the Arab world, as the outlying, often neglected provinces of the ascendant Ottoman Empire. It is said of old, that before the advent of the Mongol lord, Hulagu, a cockerel could graze from Baghdad to Basra without alighting to earth, such was the fertility and prosperity of the Land of the Two Rivers. In the wake of the Mongol, with his mass slaughter and the destruction of the long-lasting irrigation systems, came the Arab proverb: “When God made Hell he did not think it bad enough so he created Mesopotamia.” The place never recovered, although the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq endured through all of this until the present, when their way of life was finally destroyed by Saddam.
Meanwhile, the focus of our story shifts westwards with the crusader armies returning home, bringing with them a taste for the luxuries of the east, and scientific and philosophical ideas and inventions lost to the west during the Dark Ages (what they didn’t take home, however, was a tolerance for folk of different colours and creeds). The Islamic world settled into the backward looking atrophy that we see today. And in time, came the rise of the great European powers. To Western Europe came the social and economic upheavals of war and plague, and the social and intellectual unravelling that was to lead to the age of discovery. Came the power of the papacy, the questioning of that power, the end of the feudal system and the rise of absolute monarchy, and the invention of the printing press and with it, the dissemination of knowledge. All this set the stage for the next act.
Enter the Spanish and Portuguese, resource poor and priest-ridden, astutely patronizing the adventurers, and hence, made wealthy and powerful on the riches that then flowed in from the New World. Enter the inquisition and the straighteners of religious conformity, the bedrock of imperial power. And enter also, the mercantile nations who challenged their claim to the Americas (sanctioned and sanctified as it was by Alexander, the Borgia Pope) and papal supremacy: England, France, and Holland. The era of world empires thus began against a backdrop of trade and religious wars that would set the stage for the very gradual evolution of what would become democratic institutions. But that was way, way down the bloody track.
The wars of religion, between Catholicism and Protestantism morphed into great powers’ wars by proxy (for there is nothing new under the sun). These endured some two hundred years, giving us the renaissance and the reformation, and many, many people perished. And amidst the scramble for colonies and resources, and the ever-widening scope of scientific and intellectual inquiry, there ensued interminable blood-letting. Folk got much too close to the fire, literally and figuratively. Many were dragged there, and many were eager pyromaniacs. The Thirty Years War wasn’t called that for nothing, and unlike The Hundred Years War between France and England before that, which enjoyed a few time-outs between bouts, this was an interminable danse macabre that was at once mediaeval and mid-20th Century in its savagery. ‘Full on’ is the term we use today. It is said that it staggered to an end in 1648 because the combatants just collapsed with exhaustion.
And in its shattered wake, came the decline of the Spanish and the Portuguese, and the ascendency of the English, the French, and the Dutch. Germany and Italy were still a profusion of principalities and oppressed satellites, Russia had yet to emerge out of an anarchic fog, and the USA had not even been thought of. Meanwhile, in the most populous parts of the planet, the Chinese and Indian empires carried on ever, in splendid isolation, narcissistic and ethnocentric, though not above trading profitably with the occident. The potentates that is – the lower orders were, and in many in many ways remain, in a state of repression and submission.
So came an era of religious and intellectual ferment and the mass movement of peoples across the known world and beyond it, to the Americas. Innovation in transport, communications, industry and warfare, and the trans-global transit of armies and of international commerce in goods and in humanity literally changed the face of the planet. Eleven million slaves crossed the Atlantic in four centuries. Over forty million migrants “went west” in less than one. The inscription on Our Lady Of The Harbour, a gift from the Old World to the New, still says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door”. And so indeed did folk travel, fleeing poverty and pogroms, powerlessness and persecution, seeking “a new home in the sun”. From the glens of the Gael, from the shtetl and the steppe, from Old Europe and Old Asia. The Great American Dreaming. Today, some 1,300 airplanes a day cross ‘the pond” (475,000 transits a year).
And the printing press and the bible in the vernacular changed the way men thought. Merchants and missionaries and military men, seekers and makers of fortunes, slavers and saviours, prophets and potentates, philosophers and pamphleteers, poets and painters. Enlightenment, revolution, and war. And in America, the creation of democratic institutions.
Royal France was a midwife to this American Revolution, and endured the ironic blowback when French armies returned home harbouring the virus of republicanism and the concepts of liberty and equality. Be careful what you wish for, for liberty wields a two-edged sword as the revolution devours its children. Mounting the scaffold, the doomed Girondin Manon Roland exclaimed “Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!” The redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk noted that freedom and liberty often had to crawl over broken glass.
And thence, the Nineteenth Century and the Age of Revolutions – political, industrial, and ideological, bountiful and bloody. And the rise of new empires – Russia, Germany, and the USA, competing with the old, and all extending their power and influence throughout the world, conquering and colonizing the oldest – India, China, and the Ottomans – and spanning the globe. The Americas, Africa, Asia, Australasia, no place was beyond the reach of the empire’s military and mercantile power, and no indigene was safe from the depredations of these latter-day Medes and Assyrians. Diamond again: it was all down to “guns, germs, and steel”. The ‘discovered’ world was ripe for plunder. For land, for minerals, for food. And if the natives got fractious, we had machine guns and gun boats to back us up. For this was the era of militant and muscular Christianity and gunboat diplomacy, synergized in a divine plan to render the world a holier and happier place. Rudyard Kipling said it best: “Take up the White Man’s burden, send forth the best ye breed. Go bind your sons to exile to serve your captives’ need”. A new age of Empire had arrived wherein competing white countries seeking economic and political aggrandizement, sent their boys to die far away from home. The West, it seemed, had got its mojo back!
So far away from home
A little known facet of that century’s history is that contemporaneous to the western expansion of ‘These United States” and the spread of British red across the globe, Imperial Russia was moving eastwards. One outstanding volume of George McDonald Fraser’s rollicking, picaresque and quite political incorrect Flashman series sees the eponymous anti-hero fleeing eastwards out of The Crimea having precipitated the disastrous Charge Of the Light Brigade (Captain Nolan was fitted up), and making his way through the vast Asian hinterland, one step ahead of the invading Czarist armies, and of sundry Muslim warlords. In the Flashman books, the unreconstructed villain of Thomas Hughes’ Victorian yarn “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” is roving and rogering his way through the late nineteenth century, somehow managing to escape by the skin of his teeth from one military disaster after another, including Custer’s famous “Last Stand” at Little Big Horn, and the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak during the disastrous First Afghan War of 1842.
Amidst the humour and ribaldry is a poignant reminder of those ‘lost worlds’ that succumbed to the relentless blade of progress, a theme revisited in Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man and Theodore Olsen’s Soldier Blue, set in the American West, and Vincent Cronin’s The Last Migration and James A Michener’s Caravans, set in Iran and Afghanistan respectively. Ibn Khaldun’s ‘asabiyyah’ is no match for modern weaponry.,
With trade and economic wealth creation came the rise of the middle class. The urban, mercantile elite who seek political power commensurate with their economic clout thus demand a say in how they are governed. In an age of mass production and the beginnings of mass communication, we see the emergence of the masses as a political concept, and of mass society in which rulers are responsive and reactive to the needs fears, and rages of the masses and their representatives. The times of Machiavelli give way to those of Marx. And the focus of history is as much on the ruled as on the rulers.
So passed the Nineteenth Century. The Old World ruled. The New had its own preoccupations, with civil war and western expansion. The east and the south were conquered and colonized. God (European and most probably, English-speaking) was in His heaven and all was good and right in the world. The old scourges continued as they has since time immemorial: plague and famine, drought and flood, economic boom and bust, migration and invasion, war and peace, and comme d’habitude, death and destruction on a large scale. Good times and bad times as ever, with little to impede the onward march of progress. A reporter once asked Gandhi: “What do you think of Western civilization?” The Mahatma replied: “I think it would be a very good idea”.
In came the Twentieth Century. Same old, same old, but with markets and machines much more efficient, and likewise our capacity to create and destroy. A time of totalitarian regimes and total war, social change and technological wizardry. In 1905, the Imperial Russian Navy sailed eighteen thousand miles to the Korea Strait only to be broken by the Imperial Japanese Navy. There was a new boy on the block, and once the guns of Tsushima Bay had fallen silent, signalling that the white man could indeed be beaten, and thence, the decline of the colonial empires of old as the “our new-caught, sullen peoples” threw off their chains. In the political, economic, military and demographic spheres, balances of power changed, and changed again. In the wake of two World Wars, from Old Europe to the USA and the Soviet Union, and then, in these present times, to a totally new configuration that reflects the transitory rise and fall of nations. As I write, we see a hesitant America and a struggling Europe competing with a resurgent and belligerent Russia, and the rise and rise of its fellow BRICs, Brazil, India and China – an ascendency that is not however assured in this unstable and unpredictable world of ours. And in the post-Cold War, global financial crisis world of wide-open borders and the mass movement across them of people, goods, and capital, everything has a price and can be bought and sold. Immoral mathematics: “in these shifting tides, bombs and babies, girls and guns, dollars, drugs, and more besides, wash like waves on strangers’ shores – damnation takes no sides” (from E Lucevan le Stelle).
And passing strange it is that whilst we can place men on the moon and machines on Mars, we still live in a world riven by superstition. We have come through the age of enlightenment, the age of revolutions, the age of machines, the age of mass society, mass war, and of mass communications, And yet, we are so, so ignorant. We thought that the rising tide of progress and knowledge would raise all the boats. But how wrong we were. The Muslims in their glory days would refer to what went before as al Jahiliyya, the age of ignorance. But in so many ways, we have returned there. Helped in no small part by their more atavistic descendants who see some wisdom and benefit to all in reverting to a mediaeval ethos and lifestyle.
One thing is pretty certain. We are almost closing a circle. The history of the West, for the past two millennia has been dominated by the emergence and triumph of Christianity and of Islam. As the early Muslims saw it, al Dar al Harb and al Dar al Islam, the houses of war and peace respectively. A pretty good description if the terms are used interchangeably. Much of what has passed has been refracted through the prisms of these theologies. Call it crusade or call it jihad; or call it blow back on a grand scale. The legacy of two millennia of empire is coming back up the pipes. “Take up the White Man’s burden (or any conqueror’s burden, in fact) and reap his old reward: the blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard”.
For surely, “by all ye cry or whisper, by all ye leave or do, the silent, sullen peoples shall weigh your gods and you”. Weigh them all and find them wanting. In compassion and loving kindness, in reason and rationality, in patience and peacefulness. And the greatest, saddest irony of all for all who have a passion for history and for charting the unbroken story of humankind, and for those with this passion who treasure the depths of their cultural lineage through all the fugues, follies, and fault lines of our heritage, is the dawning realization and regret, that after two millennia, the religion that kicked off so much controversy and conflict, schism and schadenfreude, brilliance and bigotry, bounty and bloodshed, that was the heir to ancient faiths and the progenitor of many more, is probably now doomed in the lands wherein it was born.
It’s as if over a millennium of painful, staggering, stuttering, blood soaked, inventive, and pioneering progress has meant naught, and that we might as well have remained in the dark, literally and figuratively. “It is written in the Book of Days where the names of God a wrought, where all our dead a buried and all our wars a fought”. We range through “the battlefields and graveyards and the fields our fathers knew”. The cartography of carnage: Bali, Beslan, Gaza, Grozny, Kabul, Kigali, Sabra, Srebrenica, to mention but a few of those “far-away places with strange sounding names”. ”Many have perished, and more most surely will”. This latter quotation is adapted from Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world between the wreckage of The Second World War and the foreboding for the impending armed peace. “The bane of bad geography, the burden of topography. The lines where they’re not meant to be are letters carved in stone”. And all this against a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked and betrayed. “The revolution’s father, the hero psychopath” shows us how hopes and dreams can be “fooled by the riddle of the revolution”. “Words carried far in time and space will topple tyrants, but there’s no salvation”. (see In That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul Hemphill)
When Miranda exclaimed “what brave new world, with such people in’t!’, when the dismal Dane moaned ‘what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving, how express and admirable’, was the Bard being singularly ironic? He was writing at the dawn of the Sixteenth Century when the wars of religion were well under way, and yet, the reign of Elizabeth had brought a degree of civil calm, and King James was determined to heal the schisms, using his translation of The Bible as his balm. Reasons to be cheerful, perhaps. The Thirty Years War had yet to devastate continental Europe, and the English Civil war had still to come. Sweden had not yet ravaged Eastern Europe (yes, the Swedes had indeed attempted world dominion before ABBA). The Pilgrim Fathers were not to set sail for a decade, the Inca and Aztec were already no more, and as the Plains Indians rode the range mounted on the descendants of the conquistadors’ horses, the American West had not yet been discovered let alone ‘won’.
Some digression, that! So, back to where are we now, in the first decade of the 21st century. A world of wonders, no doubt, of technological advances in medicine, machines, and mass communications. But the new millennium began with the destruction of the Twin Towers, and war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars in these sad states continue. Conflagrations now engulf Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and turmoil threatens Egypt and Turkey. These are all the battlegrounds of old. Alexander marched this way and back (he burned Persepolis and died in Babylon, and his body, embalmed in gold, lies waiting to be discovered). In 1853 Czar Nicholas I of Russia demanded the right to protect Christian shrines in Ottoman Jerusalem, setting in train the chain of events that led to the Crimean War, and thence to the dissolution of the once grand Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the long decline and eventual demise of what the ascendant Europeans called ‘the sick man of Europe”, accompanied by Europe’s cultural and political – and in the case of France, territorial – conquest of the Muslim Middle East and South Asia bred a bitterness that endures and manifests today. In June 1914, in Sarajevo, a former outpost of that empire, a wrong turn put Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the imminently moribund Habsburg Empire in pistol range of Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip. The sixth attempt on his life that morning sounded the first shot of “the war to end all wars”, which led, incidentally to the destruction of the long-declining Ottoman Empire, to the Balfour Declaration, and to the Sykes Picot Agreement that created the tortured Middle East that today is the sum of all our fears.
So, we are still paying the price as all these ghosts watch over a brave new world of asymmetrical, ideological warfare weaponized by the Lords of War who know no frontiers or ethics, and waged by rag-tag armies who likewise know neither. The sundered and sullied tribes of man are caught up in the dreams and fears of their fathers and grandfathers, all the old hatreds and habits, schemes and shibboleths, the ethnic, sectarian and partisan traps of their elders. “There rides the mercenary, here roams the robber band. In flies the emissary with claims upon our land. The lesser breed with savage speed is slaughtered where he stands, his elemental fantasy felled by a foreign hand” (from ‘Freedom Comes’).
Over to the good and the noble players of the new Great Game who wage those ‘savage wars of peace’ that are “the white man’s burden”. As the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes expounded gloomily, “I show in the first place that the state of men without civil society (which state may be called the state of nature) is none other than a war of all against all; and that in that war, all has a right to all things”. He had the English civil war on his mind, but, if he had slept for over four hundred and fifty years, and awoke today, he would cry “See! What did I tell you?” In the war of all against all, Homer’s blinded Cyclops is staggering around, endeavouring to catch the one who robbed him of his sight.
And he wages his savage wars of peace with weapons that would make the inquisition jealous. In his tombstone of a book about Lebanon’s civil war, and Israel’s intervention therein, the redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortals. Made in America, used on Arabs, by Jews. But it happens anywhere and everywhere, inflicted by anyone on everyone.
And meanwhile, back in the lands of the rich folks, economic recession and high unemployment, and political and social instability, financial graft and funny money dressed up in manufactured metaphors like derivatives, sub-prime mortgages, and collateralised debt obligations. And in the lands of the poorer folks, those “faraway places with strange sounding names”, as The Springfields once sang, and of those who are climbing out of the mud, a sliding scale of prosperity and poverty, venality and violence. And threatening all of us, environmental degradation and climate change, with ice caps melting, low lands flooding, pasturelands turning to dust, and oceans becoming deserts. Fires and floods, and twisters and earthquakes, famines and plagues. As Joni Mitchell sang, paraphrasing Yeats, “Surely some revelation is at hand, surely it’s the second coming and the wrath has finally taken form” (the word ‘apocalypse’ is derived from the Greek for ‘revelation’).
We are not on the ‘Morningtown Ride’ to Honalee, but are we on the road to Pichipoi? This not the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak but are we Israelites looking out over Canaan Land? We are not climbing Jacob’s ladder to Paradise, but are we sliding down the road to Ragnarok? In Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the poet begins his descent into Hell saying:”I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost”. Journeying down and then back up through the seven levels of Hell, he finally returns to the surface saying: “And thence we emerged to see the stars again”. We yearn, to quote Nigella Lawson, “that blissful moment when the bagpipes stop”. But in all truth, the crystal ball is shattered. All bets are off. Everyone has a game, and all is now in play. And remember what Bob said: “Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen, and keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again. And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin, and there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’, for the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin”’.
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus 2014
Since I wrote this history, the final paragraph has effectively been mugged by reality. The heady days of February 2011, with the green of the Arab Spring fresh sprung from the soil of the economic and political bankruptcy of the Arab Middle East, had not yet transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter. Five years on, the wars of the Arab Dissolution have dragged the world into its vortex. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations.
The fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality. It was followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Syria, Libya, and Yemen that have led, five years later, to the virtual destruction and disintegration of these countries, the ongoing dismantling of Iraq, and an expanding arc of violence, bloodshed and repression from Morocco to Pakistan, that has extended southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.
Civil war and economic desperation have propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism has filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and coreligionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris, Istanbul, Beirut, Djakarta, and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, outsiders have intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.
In the game of political ifs and buts, the world reaps the whirlwind of bad decisions by our owners and rulers. If “the Coalition of the Willing” hadn’t destroyed Iraq in the Third Gulf War; if the war in Afghanistan hadn’t been subcontracted out to warlords and private security firms; if the west hadn’t propped up tyrants and kleptocrats for decades; if it hadn’t turned a blind eye to its Saudi friends financing and inspiring the Salafi Killers; if the US had destroyed the Da’esh convoys as they crossed the open desert to capture and desecrate Palmyra; if the Russians had attacked IS rather than other Syrian militias; if the coalition had made as many bombing runs as the Russians. If so many events that had come before had not happened – the fall of the Shah and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (apparently given the nod by the US), and the wars that ensued; the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed it; the rise of al Qa’ida. If, if, if. But, at the end of the day, Muslims pay the price, and yet, it will have to be Muslims who sort it out. Western boots on the ground will not fix it, but, rather, as in days of yore, it will create yet another whirlwind for us all to reap.
We are in midst of what could be described as the final phase of the Wars of the Ottoman Succession. The lines drawn on maps by British and French bureaucrats in the years after The Great War have been dissolved. The polities fabricated by Messrs Sykes and Picot, and manifested in the mandates that evolved into the present states of Syria and Iraq have effectively disintegrated. The future of the other former mandates, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, is uncertain, as is that of Turkey, the country which rose out of the ashes of defeat and civil war to inherit the Ottoman Anatolian heartland. Indeed, new states could emerge from the maelstrom. A Kurdistan long denied; a partitioned Iraq; Ottoman redux: and the atavistic Islamic Caliphate.
All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly.
The featured image: Timeless. A Syrian moment, in Foreign Policy 23rd July 2012. Paul Simon once sang “On the side of a hill in a land called somewhere”. Little changes.
The Destruction of the Temple, AD70, Francesco Hayes
So Far From Home, William Barnes Wollen’s The Last Stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak, 13th January 1842 (1898). The phrase ‘so far from home’ is the title of young Mary Driscoll’s 1847 account of her migration from Ireland to America.
Yarmouk Camp, Damascus February 2014. Al Jazeeraz 26 February 2014
Babes in the Wilderness. Syrian children in the eye of the storm. Al Jazeera, September 2011
In addition to a multitude of Wiki and Google searches, and references to and quotations from many songs and poems, including my own poetry and verse , special note is made of the following books that I have read of late that have inspired this piece:
Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood (Knopf)
Thomas Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization (Sceptre)
William Dalrymple, From The Holy Mountain (Harper Perennial)
William Dalrymple, Return Of A King (Knopf)
Robert Fisk, The Great War For Civilisation (HarperCollins)
Robert Fisk, Pity The Nation (Andre Deutsch)
Vaslily Grossman, An Armenian Sketchbook (NYRB Classics)
Tom Holland, In The Shadow Of The Sword (Doubleday)
Robert D Kaplan, The Revenge Of Geography (Random House)
Amin Malouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Schoken)
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, The Biography (Orion)
Simon Winchester, Atlantic (HarperCollins)
Counterfactual or alternative history had never gone out of fashion. As a history tragic with many kilometers on the clock, I enjoy such alternative history. “What if…?” and “if only…” are natural, if not instinctual responses to events around us – particularly the unpleasant ones. Hence the popularity of films like SS-GB and The Man in the High Castle (WW2 and the “Nazi victory” books they are based which on have always attracted us alternative history aficionados. There is currently excitement (and panic in some politically correct quarters) about the prospect of a project pitched by Game of Thrones’ show-runners visualizing a USA in which the Confederacy won the Civil War and slavery endures still. But such history is an indulgence that serious historians ought not take seriously – unless they are branching out into historical fiction, that is, which many indeed do. Popular English author Peter Ackroyd has said, the words “What if …” should never be on a historian’s lexicon. But writers of historical fiction have literary license to let their imaginations roam. Counterfactuals or alternative history is a fiction genre all of its own.
When we create alternative histories, we largely replicate a history we already know, often intimately. We replicate histories in which most of the same variables coexist, and the same historical trends prevail. Our motives are quite often as much to warn readers or audiences as to entertain them. Hence the tendency for such endeavours to drift into the depressing dystopian dramas that are so in vogue in these challenged times.
And yet, changing one or more of the players, removing or adding ingredients, hypothesizing different, even opposite scenarios, and imagining how events might have transpired differently, may not radically alter the result. In the case of the First World War, for example, if the conflict had not happened, the European empires may or may not gave endured. Often such multinational entities contain the seeds of their own demise – internal dynamics and contradictions, the impact of events in other countries. Whose to say what might have happened in say France, Germany, Russia, Türkiye or the US that might have upended the balance of power?
One surmises whether or not there is an iron law of inevitability that determines – predetermines, even – the same or similar outcome – a historical equivalent of Oedipus’ unsuccessful efforts to avoid his prophesied fate, affirming TS Elliot’s observation in Little Gidding: “And the end of all our exploring will be be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.
In this entertaining podcast, British historians Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland discuss many examples of what might have been if …
In an interesting if light-weight and indeed disappointing exercise in alternative history, with an absolutely meaningless but catchy play on the title of a fabulous song, title, The Sultans of Spring, The Economist recently pondered how events would have unfolded if the Ottoman Empire had sat out WW1 or joined the Entente of Britain, France and Russia instead of throwing in its lot with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. You may click on the above link, or page down to the full (and brief) transcript. Al-Sisi below, but preceding this is a brief précis of a a popular paperback historical novel published a short while ago which presented an imaginative if overcooked and totally different Ottoman history.
But first, here is my own argument:
So, what if?
Removing the Ottoman Empire from the strategic equation, or else placing it in the military scales against the Central Powers, would certainly have a significant impact upon the conduct and progress of the European war on both the eastern and western fronts. Russia and Britain would not have had to divert forces and materiel to the Middle East arenas. The Ottomans could have reaped the political and economic benefit of either neutrality or victory, with commensurate benefits for their own survival. The hypotheticals with respect to what may have happened next are innumerable.
The Economist surmises: “How much of today’s mayhem in the Middle East, from civil wars to terror in the name of Islam (and of restoring the caliphate) to the emergence of sectarian dictators such as Bashar al-Assad, not to mention of such a grudge-bearing Ottoman revivalist as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, might have been avoided, if only Churchill had embraced Johnny Turk instead of sinking him?”
But would things have turned out radically different if this had happened – notwithstanding the fact that three to five million Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Africans, Indians, and Europeans who lived in or soldiered through the Middle East theatre would have lived to die a natural death after fulfilling their own particular destinies or to perish purposefully or pointlessly in some other conflict.
The previous century had seen the steady decline of the Sultan’s Empire. It had commenced with Napoleon, and the rise of Muhammad Ali in Egypt, an Albanian “slave soldier” who in practical terms, seceded from the empire. Greece followed next, assisted by European states, and then, bit by bit, the Balkans. The Czar dubbed the empire the “sick man of Europe”, or so British politician John Russell misquoted him, and everybody wanted a piece. The European powers were circling hoping to pick up pieces as the Empire’s borderlands detached – Russia in the east, France in the Levant, and Britain in Egypt and the Gulf. The Crimean War was but one manifestation of “the Eastern Question” that had excited European Chancellories for a hundred years. France and Britain challenged Russia for power and influence in the East and went to war on the Sultan’s side, ostensibly to protect Christian rights in the Holy Land, but weightier matters were in play – alliances have always been fluid in this part of the world, as today’s shifting allegiances demonstrate. Crimea ended in stalemate, but Russia kept encroaching, whilst France established its presence in the Levant. Britain, meanwhile, has its sights set on Egypt and the Red Sea, (the vital route to its African and Asian empires), and when it was finally built, the Suez Canal, a strategic and commercial link that to this day concentrates the minds of foreign and state departments, military strategists and corporations worldwide.
The Balkan states continued to decouple from the empire, and prior to 1914, engaged in several bloody wars with each other, drawing their neighbours deeper and deeper into the tangle. The slow countdown to WW1 accelerated with the Austro-Hungarian archduke being killed by a Serbian student. Gavril Princip’s “shot that echoed around the world” in Sarajevo in 1914 was but one part of a chaotic picture, igniting tinder that had long awaited a match. Russia, supported the Serbs, Germany, the Austrians, Britain, and France, the Russians. And the Ottomans, forever hard pressed by the Russians, French and Brits, had already moved into the German orbit. When the Ottomans entered the war on the side of the central powers, the cards were dealt.
The Empire was already on a revolutionary path what with the Sultan’s desultory efforts with constitutional reform, the ascendency of Young Turks, a cabal of Turkish nationalist army officers, and the parlous state of the economy. Efforts to institute political and economic reform had faltered, and sooner or later, something was going to blow.
Arab nationalism had already taken root in the Levant, a secular creed spear-headed by Arab Christian intellectuals, to be brutally suppressed by the Young Turk triumvirate, Enver, Talat and Jamal. “Martyrs” were being strung up in Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem. Perhaps the Ottoman Middle East would have unraveled like in the Balkans (and Balkanised too? Most probably). The “wars of the Ottoman Succession” that we are witnessing today amongst the states created in 1921 would eventually have erupted.
The Zionist project was already underway at the outbreak of war, with settlements of Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia well-established in Palestine, often encouraged by the Ottoman authorities. The pioneers included many of the founders of modern Israel, including its architect and first prime minister David Ben Gurion. The pressures that drove Jews from eastern Europe and Russia in the first place (the discrimination and the pogroms paramount) were unlikely to abate given the atavistic nationalism of Holy Russia and just as Holy Poland. Sooner or later, Zionism and Arab nationalism were going to collide. We will never know how the Ottoman state and its Arab provinces would have coped with the emergence of a Jewish state in Palestine. It certainly would have put the popular (but highly qualified) narrative of Ottoman tolerance of other faiths through a rigorous stress test. The Zionists had a pretty clear road map, and they weren’t sharing it with their new neighbours.
The British, French and Russians had been involving themselves in Middle Eastern affairs – that confounding “Eastern Question” – since the Napoleonic wars. , and Germany, seeking its coveted “place in the sun”, wanted in. German influence was already strong amongst progressive army officers – Prussian elan, ethos, menswear and weapons have exerted a powerful influence on wannabe juntas, the “men on horseback”, since the days Frederick the Great. The Kaiser’s government was very keen on expanding German influence in the east as a counter to British and French imperial power. Meanwhile, the industrial powers were already sniffing around the Gulf, Iranian, and Mesopotamian oilfields, the economic impetus behind imperialism having yet to run its course. The sea-lanes that preoccupied policy-makers in London, Paris and Moscow were soon to be joined by railways and pipelines, with the Germans making the running with its backing of the Berlin to Baghdad Bahnhof. Petroleum would soon join the fabled Great Game as a western imperial obsession. And this too, in time, would have to come up against rising Arab nationalism.
Would Ataturk and Ibn Saud’s ascendency in Turley and Arabia respectively have happened? Perhaps. The political instability in Anatolia and the Arabian Peninsula, and also, as we have described in the Levant, would have created conditions which could have brought these ambitious, capable and charismatic men to power.
Mustafa Kemal was just one of many promising Young Turks. Whether he would have risen above his peers without his Gallipoli reputation is moot – he would still have had to shove aside the three amigos. His Turkish nationalism, like that of his Young Turk compadres, was not sympathetic to Arab aspirations. Nor was his agnosticism empathetic to what he considered to be a backward and suffocating Islam. Fezzes and face-coverings were amongst the first things to go once he established his secular republic. Whether he could have held the empire together is another question.
Ibn Saud was not the only kid on the Arabian block. The Hashimites (the descendants of Jordan’s King Abdullah) held the western edge of the peninsula, but also the most spiritually significant – the “haramayn” of Mecca and Medina, no less. The Hashimite princes has their eyes on an Arab Kingdom, but Ibn Saud had his eyes on them. The house of Saud, with its Salafi Wahhabi credentials of a cleaner Islam was way “out there” as far as Arab politics and religion went at the time. Apart from perennial outbreaks of intolerance towards and repression of religious and ethnic minorities and heterodox Muslim sects, Istanbul ruled its multinational and multicultural empire with a light if autocratic hand. But there was all that oil – and to British policy makers, that trumped loyalty to the Qurayshi wannabes in the west, for all their descent from the Prophet and their custodianship of the Holy Places.
How would British-controlled Egypt’s politics have developed? Resistance to Britain and its puppet monarchy (headed by the descendent of that famed Albanian schemer Muhammad Ali, who had caused the Europeans so much angst in the early days of the Eastern Question) was growing and would develop into a secular Egyptian nationalism on the one hand and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood on the other.
So: no Gallipoli campaign (Churchill would have had to find another project, and young Australia another patriotic shibboleth); no Arab Revolt – the Hashemites would have remained just another influential desert clan and TE Lawrence would not have become a legend; no Balfour Declaration or Sykes Picot agreement to distort and dismember the Arab Levant with two conflicting and irreconcilable nationalisms, so, no Syria, Iraq and Lebanon; no British (and Australian) advance on Gaza, Jerusalem and Damascus (General Allenby might have ended up on the Western Front instead of the steps of King David’s Tower in Jerusalem) and arguably, therefore no Mandate, no Palestine, and no Israel; no Armenian genocide to darken Türkiye‘s reputation and prefigure the Shoah that was to come, or then again, perhaps never came; and no Türkiye as we know it today (although President Erdogan is certainly acting out his inner sultan).
As former and unlamented Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice prematurely proclaimed in 2006 too much ridicule from Arabs generally, “a new Middle East”.
TE Lawrence, General Allenby, Ataturk, and Ben Gurion
The Ottoman Secret
By Raymond Khoury
The Ottoman siege of Vienna of 1683 sees the city fall and the Christian forces annihilated. Western Europe is conquered soon afterwards and in 2019, an increasingly repressive Sultan still rules the continent (though Britain and Russia withstood the onslaught and remain independent nations). A lot has happened in the world since 1683, and as Christendom was vanquished, many things just didn’t happen. Russia is still ruled by the Czars, and America by a post-Mayflower Christian theocracy. Concepts like democracy, freedom of thought and expression, and gender equality are ideas still struggling against heavy odds to be born.
We are in Muslim Paris in 2019. Kamal Arslan Agha is a patriotic, loyal subject of the the Sultan and a special investigator of the Tashkeelat-i Hafiye, the secret police, on the front line of the empire’s harsh response to increasing political and economic turmoil throughout Europe. The Caliphate’s efforts to maintain law and order spare no one, and soon, Kamal’s own family attracts the Hafiye’s attention.
His brother and sister-in-law discover a secret so dangerous, the Caliphate must suppress it, and with the foundations of the Empire under threat, Kamal’s family have no choice but to run. Whether or not they can escape the pursuing Hafiye will determine their own fate, and that of the Caliphate itself – its past, its present, and its future.
Khouri’s vision of a world dominated by conservative, repressive regimes combining religious conformity with modern technology is not a pleasant one. Western democracy might have its faults, but as Churchill said, it’s better than most of the alternatives.
This is, of course, fiction, written by a novelist and not a historian. Its political, cultural and technical milieu is predicated on “what if? What if the Ottomans had expanded and prospered for three centuries instead of gradually transforming into the “sick man of Europe” to be dissected and defeated by western powers? What if through serendipitous and underhand means, the empire has acquired the military, industrial, scientific and technical wherewithal to build over four centuries a world that in many ways in not unlike our own? What if their had been no enlightenment, no French or Russian revolutions, no Hitler, no Holocaust, no Hiroshima?
Incidentally, the siege of Vienna in 1683 gives its name to ‘Gates of Vienna’, a fanatically anti-Muslim far-right blog. Its essential thesis is that this was only one battle in a long war and that Europe and its civilisation are constantly threatened by a Muslim invasion.
As Kurt Vonnegut’s avatar Kilgore Trout would say, “so it goes …”
Sultans of Spring – if the Ottoman Empire hadn’t collapsed.
Imagine the mayhem that might have been avoided had the Ottoman Empire been saved rather than sunk. Blame, among others, Winston Churchill
When a Serb gunman shot an Austrian archduke in the summer of 1914, the nations of Europe tumbled into war with all the grace of bowling pins. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, whose ally Russia declared war on Austria, whose ally Germany declared war on Russia, whose allies France and Britain declared war on Germany and Austria. By early August the continent was in flames.
Much as it wobbled like the rest, however, one of those bowling pins could not make up its mind. Which way would Turkey fall? Should the fading Ottoman Empire join the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) or go with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary)
Turkey’s 500-year-old empire was shrinking. It had lost its territories in Africa, nearly all its Mediterranean islands and most of its Balkan lands as well as chunks of eastern Anatolia. It was debt-ridden, industrially backward and politically shaky.
Still, the sultan’s lands straddled two continents, controlling access to the Black Sea. His Arabian territories stretched beyond the holy cities of Islam to the mountains of Yemen and the Persian Gulf, where there were rumoured to lie vast caverns of the sticky black liquid soon to replace coal as the world’s chief source of power.
Confident of Turkey’s weakness, Britain, France and Russia could have clobbered the Ottomans and divided the spoils. Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed. At a secret conclave aboard a British dreadnought off the coast of Norway in late July, a far-sighted politician by the name of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, worked with French, Russian and Turkish diplomats to forge a treaty. The Turks drove a hard bargain for, as they coyly revealed, Germany too was proffering arms and gold in exchange for an alliance.
The deal that was reached proved immensely beneficial to all concerned. From France, Turkey received generous debt relief. Russia scrapped all claims to Ottoman territory, and made a limited goodwill withdrawal from parts of Anatolia. Churchill waived further payment on two warships that British shipyards were building for Turkey. And Turkey received assurances that its vulnerable extremities would not be attacked; for an empire that for a century had been preyed upon like a carcass this was a new lease of life.
The rewards to the Triple Entente were equally big. Granted exclusive access to the Black Sea, Russia’s allies could resupply the tsar’s armies when they faltered at the start of the war. With no need to defend its Turkish frontier, Russia moved thousands of crack troops from the Caucasus to shore up its front lines. Turkey signed separate agreements recognising British control of the Suez Canal, Aden and the Trucial sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, securing the sea lanes for Britain’s massive deployment of troops from the colonies to the Western Front. Turkey’s own army joined in a broad front against Austria-Hungary. Together, these Allied advantages are thought to have shortened the war by as much as a year; the Central Powers might not have sued for a truce as soon as America entered the war, but fought on instead.
Reprieved from collapse, the Ottoman Empire’s government pursued radical reforms. Challenged by growing nationalist tendencies from Arab, Armenian, Greek and Kurdish subjects, Sultan Mehmed V issued a historic firman or proclamation that recognised these as individual nations united under the Ottoman sovereign.
The sultan got to keep the title of caliph, commander of the Sunni Muslim faithful, which his ancestors had acquired four centuries earlier. This proved useful when the empire had to put down a rebellion of religious fanatics in central Arabia, led by a man called Ibn Saud who gained followers by claiming he would restore Islam to a purer state. But mostly the empire was seen as a tolerant place. When Nazi persecutions drove Jews from Europe in the 1930s, many took refuge there (as they had done when expelled from Spain in 1492), particularly in the province of Jerusalem.
Needless to say, none of the above happened. Quite the opposite. Turkey aligned with Germany in the first world war, and the allies did attempt to invade and divide its empire. Churchill, instead of handing over the warships that ordinary Turks had paid for by subscription, had them seized for the British navy. In 1915 he ordered a catastrophic attack on Turkey; the landing at Gallipoli cost the allies 300,000 casualties. British campaigns against Turkey in Iraq and the Levant cost another million lives.
Turkey’s casualties mounted, by war’s end, to 3m-5m people, nearly a quarter of the Ottoman population. This included some 1.5m Armenians, slaughtered because Turkish officials believed they might become a fifth column for a hostile Russia. And when Britain and France grabbed the Ottomans’ Arab lands, their suppression of uprisings cost thousands more lives.
How much of today’s mayhem in the Middle East, from civil wars to terror in the name of Islam (and of restoring the caliphate) to the emergence of sectarian dictators such as Bashar al-Assad, not to mention of such a grudge-bearing Ottoman revivalist as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, might have been avoided, if only Churchill had embraced Johnny Turk instead of sinking him?
Ataturk Monument, Istanbul
Here are other posts about Turkey past and present:
“Byzantium, Byzantium, Constantinople, Kostaniniyye, Istanbul – The City has tangled with or represented an “idea” for so many, its influence has spun so far that her story, whether imperial, spiritual, cultural or political, frequently ends up being played out anywhere and everywhere other than in the city itself”. Bethany Hughes , Istanbul – A Tale of Three Cities
As we observe Turkish president Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s apparent drive to reestablish Ottoman autocracy, those who take a longer view of history will assert that there is nothing new under the sun. There is nothing unprecedented about Erdogan’s apparent urge to don the imperial purple, and join the long cavalcade of colourful emperors and sultans that ruled the land that now constitute modern Turkey.
Richard Fidler reminds of this as he literally walks us through the streets of Istanbul.
Part father-son quest, part travel story, ‘Ghost Empire’ is at once a history, and a treasury of tales both true and far-fetched. The Australian author and broadcaster, and onetime member of the comedy trio, the Doug Anthony Allstars, has written a blend of popular history and meditation on the significance of history.
Although ‘Ghost Empire’ might in seem in parts overly breezy and lightweight, as an introduction to the ancient and wondrous city of Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul, it is an highly informative portal to weightier albeit less entertaining books. This is not to say it is without its more harrowing moments. Fidler dwells as much on the gory as on the glory. And indeed, for many, particularly the sons of emperors and sultans, confidants and conspirators, life could indeed be nasty, brutish and short.
Whilst Fidler’s primary focus is the story of the Byzantines, concluding with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, he travels back and forth in Istanbul’s long and storied history, between the violent past and the tumultuous present, from Julius Caesar and Constantine the Great, and the power couple Justinian and Theodosia, through Mehmet the Conqueror and Suleiman the Magnificent, to Ataturk and Erdogan, and captures the magic and at times, mayhem of the fabled metropolis that inspired WB Yeats to write:
“Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come”
If Ghost Empire has whetted you appetite, i would recommend Bethany Hughes’ more substantial – “encyclopedic ” would a better description – Istanbul – A Tale of Three Cities (Orion 2017). It is a lengthy, comprehensive and fascinating journey from the prehistoric past to the polarizing present.