A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

April 17-19, 1917: The Second Battle of Gaza, First Use of Tanks and Poison Gas in Middle East

Of eight Mark I tanks at 2nd Gaza, Turkish fire destroyed three
The past three days mark the 100th anniversary of the Second Battle of Gaza, part of the Palestine Campaign in World War I. In an ironic echo of the present, it also marked the first use of poison gas in the Middle East campaign, as well as the first use of tanks.

As we saw in discussing the First Battle of Gaza in March (Part I and Part II), the British command in effect snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by ordering a retreat, despite the fact that ANZAC Mounted troops were already in the midst of Gaza town. They feared the arrival of Turkish reinforcements and the fall of darkness.

The overall commanders, Egyptian Expeditionary Force commander General Sir Archibald Murray, and Eastern Force Commander General Sir Charles Dobell began preparing for another attempt. Both minimized the first loss in their reports and predicted a successful second attack. Both men in effect were putting their reputations on the line.

After the first battle, the Ottoman forces had be reinforced. There were now three regiments defending Gaza proper, with additional regiments at Hareira (now Tel Haror in Israel)nd others at other points along the road between Gaza and Beersheba. The Ottomans and their German allies had fortified a series of trenches interspersed with strong defensive redoubts and enfilading fire. New German aircraft had arrived, making the air war component more equal. Both sides had discovered the advantages of aircraft in open desert reconnaissance.

Meanwhile, the British had been reinforced with two weapons already in use on the Western Front: a supply of poison gas shells, in this case containing a 50/50 blend of phosgene and chlorine gas; and eight Mark I tanks. The Mark I was the British first generation tank introduced in 1915. Though history would prove desert to be excellent tank country in future wars, the gullies and arroyos around Gaza and the Turkish trenches made it hard to pass; and the Mark I had a maximum speed of only six kilometers per hour and a tendency to break down. Of the eight tanks, two were knocked out in the opening attack and a third later. And though the Turks had no gas masks, the gas attack, when launched, reportedly dissipated in the desert air without significant effect.

Dobell favored a direct frontal attack, accompanied by a swing to the right around the main Gaza lines by the Desert Column. Desert Column Commander Sir Philip Chetwode and ANZAC Commander Harry Chauvel expressed doubts, favoring an attack on the coastal flank of the Turkish lines.

On April 17 and 18, the advance began with the British infantry advancing from the Wadi Ghuzze to engage the forward Turkish outposts. Turkish resistance was fierce and after two days of fighting, they were at their desired position but had captured only outlying outposts.
The fighting on the 19th was complex and need not be described in tactical detail. Resistance was fierce and casualties mounted. British and Empire forces succeeded in penetrating the Ottoman lines in several places, but each time they were met with counterattack which drove them back. The next morning, British positions were bombed by German aircraft, and Turkish cavalry was massing near Hareira. It was decided to withdraw. Losses were high, and the defeat more decisive than in the first battle.

Aftermath


With its manpower depleted, the EEF campaign to take Jerusalem was put on hold. Murray decided to make the Canadian Dobell the scapegoat. He was relieved of command and packed off to India. Chetwode, a better and more experienced general, replaced him ans head of Eastern Force; and Harry Chauvel, the ANZAC Light Horseman, took over the Desert Column. In August it would be renamed the Desert Mounted Force, and Chauvel, one of the last great cavalry commanders, would lead it in a series of charges at Beersheba, Megiddo, and into Jerusalem, Damascus, and Aleppo. The Light Horse would win fame for Australian arms, and Chauvel would become Australia's first full General.

Murray (Seven Pillars)
But not under Murray's command. Murray has been a patron of the Arab revolt, a sponsor of T.E. Lawrence (the David Lean film does him an injustice), and a victor over the Senussi (Sanusi) and in the Sinai. But the two defeats at Gaza in two months, after his confident predictions, was too much and he was recalled and given command of the Army training center at Aldershot. He continued to recive promotions, but held no more field commands.

Though the military high command continued to believe that victory would be won on the hemorrhaging Western Front, the man who had become Prime Minister the previous December, David Lloyd George, was an enthusiast for the Eastern Front, and particularly for taking Jerusalem. The Bible-quoting Lloyd George favored naming a "dashing" sort of commander for the Palestine Front.

Allenby (Seven Pillars)
The search for a new commander was not smooth.  General Jan Smuts, Commander of the South African Army and a member of the Imperial War Council, refused the assignment. In June, a former cavalry commander and Boer War veteran (though in that war he was the opposite side from Smuts), but who had been enjoying a rapid rise on the Western Front until suffering a setback. Still a believer that the West was the real war, he first considered it a joke, but accepted. His name: Edmund Allenby.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Turkey After Erdoğan's Referendum

Drastic changes to a constitutional system are not to be undertaken lightly. Many systems. like the US,  make amendments extremely difficult. Supermajorities are often necessary. Yet, despite suppressing the media and silencing the opposition, Recep Tayyicp Erdoğan's referendum squeaked through with a 51-49 "Yes" vote, losing in all the country's major cities hardly a resounding endorsement. Erdoğan's victory is being disputed over a decision to count ballots not properly stamped.

Some intelligent commentary: Yavuz Baydar at The Guardian,
"Erdoğan’s referendum victory spells the end of Turkey as we know it." On a similar theme, Steven A. Cook at Foreign Policy laments "RIP Turkey 1921-2017." Cook acknowledges that the Turkish Republic was far from a perfect democracy, but I feel he overstates the break between the Ottomans and the Republic (the Ottomans wrote constitutions in 1876 and 1909, and Westernization began with the Tanzimat). And while he acknowledges flaws in the Republic, I feel he understates the authoritarianism of the Kemalist era, not to mention the interludes of military rule.

The Erdoğan/AKP phenomenon is, as both authors recognize, a reaction to the excessive secularism of the Kemalist era, and part of a (global?) reaction of conservative, religious, rural and small town voters resentful of the urban secular elites who they feel have looked down on them for years. But their revenge may come at the price of Erdoğan's authoritarian ambitions.

Sham al-Nassim

For this Sham al-Nassim I'm repeating a blend of earlier posts. More to come later today..
Sham al-Nissim delicacies (Al Kahira-Cairo-LeCaire)

Unless you're Egyptian or Sudanese, or have hung out in one of those countries, or are an Arab who's watched a lot of Egyptian movies, you may not know about the holiday celebrated today. Yet arguably it may be the oldest holiday celebrated anywhere, and its name may preserve an ancient Egyptian name.

Sham al-Nassim is Arabic, and the words mean "smelling the air," or "smelling the breezes" if you prefer. Other than the specifically patriotic days, such as the National Day, Military Day, etc., it's the only Egyptian holiday celebrated with equal ardor by Muslims and Copts, and by Jews when Egypt's Jewish population was significant. For the past couple of thousand years, it has been celebrated on the Monday after Coptic Easter (which coincides with the general Eastern date for Easter), thus today.

Egyptians of all religious identities get the day off and picnic along the Nile, if they live near it, or go to parks if they don't, eat a dried fish called fassikh and several other traditional spring treats (though my memories of fassikh are not all that endearing: just dry, salty fish), and generally "smell the air" of spring. (According to this site, they also paint eggs. I don't recall seeing that, and perhaps it's a Western Easter import, or I just missed it.)

That's just for the past couple of millennia, though. Wikipedia's article notes the purported link to the ancient Egyptian feast of Shemu, "creation" or "new life," celebrated at the spring equinox, which has been documented (at least according to Wikipedia and its Egyptian source) to 2700 BC in the Third Dynasty. On the other hand, Wikipedia's separate "Shemu" article suggests it was a movable feast in the dry (low Nile) season. Presumably the feast shifted with the advent of Christianity to coincide closely with Coptic Easter, but remained essentially a spring equinoctial celebration. Since the Muslim calendar is purely lunar, the holiday stayed, like some others (including the Nile flood holiday), linked to the Coptic calendar. Somewhere I believe I've read that Plutarch even mentions the Egyptians eating dried fish at the equinox: if so, fassikh has been around a while. (On the other hand I tracked down a reference to this Plutarch statement, and it was Wikipedia citing the Egyptian State Information Service, and the State Information Service link just goes to the main page. So the scholarship here may be a little edgy. I'm no Egyptologist: I start with the Arab conquest and come down from there.) (Egyptology/Coptology/Late Antiquity Grad students: term paper subject? Send me your results.)

Like Easter itself, which in English at least combines a Christian feast central to Christian belief, but based on the date of Jewish Passover, with a Germanic word relating to fertility (compare "estrus"), Sham al-Nassim is a historical palimpsest, a syncretistic hodgepodge, that has — besides being a great spring holiday for Egyptians of all faiths or none — finally given me the rare opportunity to use "palimpsest," "syncretistic," and "hodgepodge" all in the same sentence. (Class, you may use your dictionaries.) The ancient Egyptian spring festival was first baptized by placing it on Coptic Easter Monday, then Islamized or at least Egyptized by being adopted as the spring holiday for everybody regardless of religion.

I think the only other ancient Egyptian feast that survives in the Egyptian calendar today may be the Wafa' al-Nil in August, celebrating the Nile flood and also retaining elements of pagan, Christian and Muslim eras, but fading a bit I think since the end of the annual flood with the building of the Aswan High Dam.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Easter Greetings, East and West

This is one of those years when the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity celebrate Easter on the same date. Easter greetings to all who celebrate.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Holiday Treat: Maamoul

As Easter approaches, NPR offers a hunger-inducing tribute to "Maamoul: An Ancient Cookie That Ushers In Easter And Eid In The Middle East."

The Use of the MOAB: Is It Really a Huge Escalation?

The use of a GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Gravity Bomb (MOAB) in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, today by the United States is being treated as a major news story and a potential escalation. It may prove to be both, but the sheer explosive power of the ordnance, while newsworthy, may not be as dramatic an escalation as some are portraying it.

Before I explain what I mean, let me clarify something: I am no enthusiast for the ongoing war in Afghanistan. After 16 years, the US is the latest power to find itself fighting a seemingly endless war in a land with a long track record of defeating invaders. I'm not defending either the war or the choice of aerial bombing as a weapon, merely commenting on a tactical decision.

While the GBU-43 is indeed the largest non-nuclear explosive in the current US arsenal, that may not equate to greater lethality. (And the Russians have a bigger one.) Other types of weapons, such as thermobaric or fuel-air explosives, can be extremely lethal. And while the 20,000+ pound bomb is he heaviest in the US arsenal. it is partly a successor to the 15,000 BLU-82 "Daisy Cutter" developed to clear jungle for helicopter landing zones, and later in Iraq for mine clearance.

The GBU-43 was originally developed for use in the 2003 Iraq War, but the war was fast-moving and the weapon is not appropriate for urban areas. Though the weapon was deployed during the Obama Administration and its use planned, the Trump Administration is now claiming credit.

Not every target is suitable for such a weapon; some are better suited to ten one-ton bombs than one ten-ton bomb. The total tonnage dropped in most modern wars is what matters, except for the psychological effort.

Afterthought: If this were purely aimed at collapsing the caves, why even announce the weapon used used? It's a tactical decision using a weapon in the known arsenal, so the decision to publicize was for effect.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Passover and Holy Week Greetings

Passover begins at Sundown tonight. Yesterday was Palm Sunday, and since this year both the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity celebrate Easter on the same date this year, Passover and Holy Week coincide closely, sadly punctuated by the horrific bombings in Tanta and Alexandria. Despite the horror, my holiday wishes to both Jewish and Christian readers.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Google Earth Airbase Confusion

Yesterday, writing about the US attack on Sha'irat airbase in Syria, I posted a Google Earth image of the base; that was indeed the base the US attacked. But if you zoom in, you will find the image is labeled, in Arabic, as Tiyas Military Airbase (image below):
But Sha'irat, which is in fact pictured, is not only a different base than Tiras, though, is a much larger base, also known as T-4, which lies astride the main road from Homs to Palmyra, and before the civil war would be seen by anyone en route to  Palmyra.

Google's labeler screwed up the label.

The tactical pilotage chart below shows he location of both bases: Sha'irat at far left and Tiras to the right.




Thursday, April 6, 2017

The US Strike on Syria


I doubt if anyone who read my Tuesday post will mistake me for an Asad apologist. I do feel that a multilateral international response was called for, and worried that tonight's unilateral cruise missile attack may have been a little precipitate, but if the intelligence that the chemical attacks were launched from the Sha'irat air base, then it seems to be a proportionate response. I would hope the intelligence and military briefers had time to game out potential responses and escalation scenarios. Is there a strategic plan, or was this just a don't-just-stand-there-do-something knee-jerk reaction?

Whether it justified the expense of 59 Tomahawks must wait for a daylight bomb damage assessment (BDA).


The deniers, who seem to believe the Syrian opposition gassed their own kids, should read this piece on the evidence.

I'll have more tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

War Crime at Khan Shaykhun

In certain circles, it has become almost fashionable to defend the Bashar al-Asad regime; oddly in the US the temptation seems to seduce not only the ideological right but also the ideological left. Outside of Syria's Russian, Iranian, and Hizbullah enablers, it is time for the scales to fall from their eyes. The chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib province.

It is true that the Syrian regime denies it was behind the attack and claims it is a "false flag"operation by the opposition. Notwithstanding the fact that witnesses said the attack was delivered by a Sukhoi Su-22 with Arabic markings. The only air forces in Syria flying Su-22s are Syria's and Russia's, and I doubt the Russians would do the dirty work themselves.

The death toll is said to be somewhere in the 80s, including at least 25 children. Most accounts say the gas was Sarin, but those are preliminary reads, and chlorine, which Syria also has used.an have similar symptoms.

But wait! Didn't Syria agree in 2013 to surrender all its chemical weapons? Well, yes, it did.

The world has responded as usual, with massive denunciations. (Though the US Trump Administration said it was the result of President Obama's failure to carry through on his "red line" threats in 2013, which it characterized as weakness, but it offered no prospect of strong action now.

Six years of war in Syria has produced nearly five million external refugees and over six million internally displaced persons. This is a humanitarian disaster of historic proportions. The Asad regime is not solely responsible, but an internationally recognized government systematically gassing its own people deserves no international tolerance.

I am not advocating American boots on the ground, since that almost always backfires, but instead of Russia and some in this country defending Asad, it is time to brand this regime a pariah like North Korea, and treat it as the renegade it has become. If the world cannot find a way, or the will, to stop the atrocities, it should end any pretense of toleration. My language may offend, but the far greater offense is Asad's; this is fucking barbarism, and it is time to call it by its proper name.