History, Profiles, Reviews, Occasional Meanderings
SAMARRAN FACTIONALISM AND ABBASID FRAGMENTATION
Note: I wrote this article for a recently concluded course. I’ve made slight modifications before publishing it here, mainly grammatical or spelling changes. I reserve full rights, of course.
Ibrahim Moiz, copyright and full rights reserved
The decade following the dramatic murder of Abbasid caliph Mutawakkil Jafar I in 861 has been recognized as one of the most volatile periods in Islamic history. It featured the murder of at least four – if not five consecutive – caliphs, of whom two had been engaged in a brief but bitter contest for power over Iraq; a fragmentation in the corporate elite; as well as the breakdown of Abbasid authority both near and far in a series of revolts. Though by the mid-870s the Abbasids had, largely through the energetic efforts of Mutawakkil’s son Muwaffaq Talha, managed to salvage the situation, an inexorable process had begun whereby the caliphate’s extremities became effectively independent. Though the logical link between central collapse and peripheral secession has been recognized, less clear is the exact nature of that link. This paper argues that such effectively autonomous rulers as Ahmad b. Tuloun and Ismail b. Ahmad at Egypt and Khurasan respectively based and legitimized their effective autonomy not only on the fact of central erosion but along the same patterns and trajectories as the conflict in Samarra and Baghdad.
This paper proceeds in the following sequence. First, it provides a background to the Abbasid elite structure in the Samarran heyday; next, it chronicles the tumultous events of the 860s, and the trajectory of the various elite networks that dominated the Abbasid centre and competed for its control. It then examines the move towards autonomy in first Egypt-Levant and then Khurasan-Transoxania in the context of the Samarran tumult, drawing a link between the elite networks competing in the centre and their offshoots in the periphery.
Abbasid power in the Samarran heyday
The garrison city Samarra, built by Mutasim Muhammad III in 836, came to epitomize the special core of Turkish crack troops that this caliph had introduced into the caliphal forces on an unprecedented scale . This corresponded with a period of centralization arguably initated by Mutasim’s predecessor, Mamoun Abdullah III, but which really came into its own during Mutasim’s reign. It featured the centralization of Abbasid power on a perhaps unparalleled level in the dynasty’s history; the caliph paid close and personal attention to affairs as far-flung as Egypt, Anatolia, Sind, and Khurasan . To be sure, dynasts already ruled in the caliphs’ name – the Aghlabids, Samanids, and Tahirids (or more accurately Ruzaiqids ) – but the Ruzaiqids were close members of the caliphal cohort, rendering their autonomy in Khurasan at this time largely an extension of caliphal control, while the long-influential Samanids nonetheless only received formal gubernatorial appointments during the ninth century, under the jurisdiction of the Ruzaiqid governor-generals . Aghlabid autonomy can be partly explained by circumstances specific to North Africa, which the Abbasids never managed to decisively overcome ; the appointment of a loyal abna lieutenant was the closest they would ever get to controlling the region. In short, the Abbasid caliphate in the mid-ninth century was more centralized across a larger expanse of territory than had been the case either before or after.
The Turkish slave corps’ role in the subsequent anarchy has led to them assuming an outsize role in much historiography of the period. In fact, though Turkish slave officers came to constitute a defining and dominant part of Mutasim’s regime – especially after he purged the Khurasani factions hitherto influential in the army following an alleged “coup” by his nephew Abbas b. Abdullah III shortly after his accession – even at Samarra, they constituted only one conspicuous bloc in the army, and were by no means themselves homogenous, as subsequent events would show. The Ruzaiqid potentate Ishaq b. Ibrahim b. Hasan, an Abbasid regnal pillar for several generations, is recorded to have gently chided a regretful Mutasim over his promotion of such Turkish potentates as Ashinas Abu Jafar, Wasif Abu Salih, and Aytakh Abu Mansur, likening them to branches without roots – in contrast to the Ruzaiqids and other preceding elites who had strong roots with the Abbasid family . Ashinas passed away during Mutasim’s regime and Mutawakkil eventually managed to corner and execute Aytakh . By 861, the remaining senior Turkish officers from this generation included Wasif, the cupbearer Bugha Abu Faris, and the elderly generallisimo Bugha Abu Musa, whose families would play major roles in the events that followed.
Elite fragmentation and competition in Samarra’s turbulent decade
Mutawakkil’s murder was preceded by his very public humiliation of his son Muntasir Muhammad IV, whom he superseded with a younger brother, Mutaz Zubair. This decision was taken reportedly on the advice of another court faction with Turkish heritage, albeit freeborn and heavily “Arabicized”: Mutawakkil’s vizier Ubaidullah b. Yahya b. Khaqan and his uncle Fath b. Khaqan, Mutawakkil’s closest friend. Also reportedly in the gunsights for an Aytakh-style demotion was Wasif, who therefore lent his tacit support, and five of his sons, to a conspiracy, in whose formation the cupbearer Bugha Abu Faris played a major role, to murder Mutawakkil and install Muntasir on the throne. The assassination team was led by the cupbearer’s protégé, Baghir Abu Muhammad, and while accounts on its composition vary, the most liberal account includes Muntasir’s Turkish friend and future vizier Utamish b. Khatrakin, the cupbearer Bugha, as well as Wasif’s sons – among whom Salih would emerge as the most prominent character – and Musa, the deputizing son of the elderly Bugha Abu Musa, who was himself away on campaign and apparently innocent of the conspiracy. The implication, however, is that the remaining Turkish proteges of Mutasim and their families stood to lose from Mutawakkil’s decisions, and that they preempted it. Incidentally one of Mutawakkil’s younger sons, Muwaffaq Talha, was also present at the scene; he is reported to have initially attempted to fight off the attackers and then withdrawn to his chambers. Muwaffaq’s subsequent influence among the second and third generation of Turkish officers, particularly Musa b. Bugha, makes his role in these events quite murky.
Mutawakkil and Fath having been murdered while Ubaidullah found out too late to influence events, Muntasir assumed the caliphate and, allegedly under pressure from the Turkish magnates, excluded and imprisoned the next brothers in line, Mutaz Zubair and Muayyad Ibrahim. Muntasir’s own rather murky demise just six months later in the prime of his life is perhaps indirectly explained by a reference from Masoudi, who claims that Bugha Abu Faris – the most unscrupulous villain in the sources – and Baghir had originally intended to murder Muntasir, and then decided first to do away with the father first and split the son against his brethren so as to avoid punishment . This dastardly plot is otherwise uncorroborated, but may be taken as an explanation of Muntasir’s sudden death in the context of the Turkish potentates’, and in particular the cupbearer’s, schemes. Such an impression could have only been reinforced when Bugha and Wasif, blithely ignoring the succession plan, instead installed an obscure cousin, Mustaeen Ahmad I b. Muhammad, to replace Muntasir. Mustaeen’s apparent weakness against the coupmakers was mocked in a poem, recorded by Masoudi, that compares him to a parrot in the cage of Bugha and Wasif, echoing their orders.
The next chapter in the drama, paving the way to civil war, is explained in the sources as the result of an intrigue between the older Turkish potentates, Bugha and Wasif (the elder Bugha, Abu Musa, had passed away by this point), and their younger co-conspirators in Mutawakkil’s murder. Musa b. Bugha had by this time departed on campaign, but the vizier Utamish b. Khatrakin – accused of mass corruption during a period of financial hardship among the rank-and-file – and Baghir Abu Muhammad still remained; it appears, though the sources take care to clarify his role as more passive, that Mustaeen had also tried to cultivate these younger Turks to their elder colleagues’ detriment. Excepting the role of Bugha and Wasif, however, Utamish and Baghir’s downfalls were quite different; a mutiny by rank-and-file troops prompted the vizier’s execution , while Baghir, a popular commander with the Turkish rank-and-file, was murdered by Wasif’s kinsfolk and his execution provoked the troops into riot . Bugha and Wasif had successfully wedged a gap between the caliph and Baghir, who then allegedly plotted to kill Mustaeen. In both episodes, interestingly, the Christian secretary Dulail b. Yaqub, who served first Utamish and then Bugha and was targeted by Baghir, played an important role; he appears to have epitomized the regime’s corruption for the frustrated Turkish troops.
Wasif and Bugha spirited Mustaeen away to Baghdad, where the Turkish contingent was far more diluted by other troops, especially the abna and Khurasani troops who had been sidelined in the Samarran period. The return to influence that Mustaeen’s escape portended for this group was epitomized in the leading role that Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Tahir, the able Ruzaiqid governor, assumed in the ensuing war, where it was he – not Mustaeen, Wasif, or Bugha – who assumed overall command. That the Baghdadis viewed the Samarran forces – mixed though they were, even if the Turks were the largest faction – as representing the unwelcome Turkish hordes is evidenced even in contemporary chronicler Tabari’s description of the subsequent civil war, where he refers to the Samarran forces en masse simply as the “Turks”, and where he clearly favours the Baghdadi side.
We need not delve into the fascinatingly extensive material that Tabari provides on the subsequent 865-66 war other than to note the maneouvres by the various elite factions involved. Wasif and Bugha – who, as Gordon notes, were now perilously cut off from their power base – assumed the role of bystanders in Baghdad. Led primarily by the Ruzaiqids, the Baghdad forces included the Khurasanis and remnants of the old abna families, such as the Banu Abi Khalid; Arab bedouins, primarily employed in securing supply routes, particularly in the tribal Anbar region; urban ayyaroun militias, who shared their name and urchin background with their more famous namesakes in Khurasan; heretical mubayyids, apparently diluted remnants of the ghulat cults first encountered a century earlier in the wake of the Abbasid revolt; Arab tribal notables; and freeborn officers of diverse backgrounds. In short, it comprised those who felt threatened by the Samarran legions.
It should be noted that before hostilities commenced, “second-rank” Turkish officers linked to Bugha and Wasif, including Bugha’s former bodyguard Bayakbak, followed the escaped caliph Mustaeen to Baghdad, where they humbled themselves and assured him that he could safely return to Samarra. Mustaeen refused, and the officers’ indignation was compounded by the patronizing attitude displayed by the Ruzaiqi governor Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Tahir. Returning to Samarra, they and the troops freed Muntasir’s imprisoned brothers and declared Mutaz Zubair their caliph. Mutaz’s brother Muwaffaq Talha, the closest Abbasid prince to the Turks, commanded the army that marched on Baghdad. While both sides were clearly multiethnic in composition, it is clear that a configuration of Samarran “up-and-comers” versus older, primarily freeborn Abbasid officers was taking place. Thus Attab b. Attab, a Khurasani veteran, quietly escaped to Baghdad, while Bugha’s own son Abdullah, having originally returned to Baghdad, quickly collected what information he could and then defected to the attackers.
The war lasted about a year. If Tabari’s richly detailed account is to be believed, the Samarran force, despite their military specialization, initially floundered in their assaults against a large, well-defended city. It was rather an eventual shrink in supplies, as well as clever diplomacy by the Samarrans, that turned the tide against Mustaeen. Mutaz and Muwaffaq’s priorities can be seen in the fact that they never made a serious attempt to encircle Baghdad, which was able to dispatch expeditions against proto-Shia rebels in Kufa at the same time as the campaign was ongoing. Once it was clear that the city would not be stormed after several attempts, Muwaffaq resorted to diplomacy. He managed to win over a steady trickle of increasingly important defectors: these included Abbasid amirs, the staff who had accompanied Mustaeen, and the Banu Khaqan, led by Ubaidullah b. Yahya and his uncle Muzahim b. Khaqan – after all, it had been this family that originally persuaded Mutawakkil to choose Mutaz as his successor, and it can have been no great task for Mutaz to win them back to their stomping grounds in Samarra.
Even Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Tahir, suffering a slow-burning ulcer that would claim his life a few years later and engaged in disputes with other Ruzaiqid notables, finally deserted Mustaeen. Interestingly, Baghdad’s populace seems to have maintained the strongest sympathy for their beleaguered caliph; when they suspected the governor as preparing to defect, they nearly mobbed him and had to be calmed by Mustaeen himself. With the various elites won over by Mutaz’s generous terms, Mustaeen abdicated and withdrew to exile; far less generous to his cousin, Mutaz had him murdered by chamberlain Saeed b. Salih just months later.
Mustaeen’s murder came in the context of a new factional struggle, between Mutaz and the senior Turkish commanders. Bugha Abu Faris and Wasif Abu Salih had been restored to some dignity after having lost the war, but the suspicious young caliph could hardly ignore his experience. He originally tried to have them murdered by the Ruzaiqids, but the pair quickly found out and obtained protection from Mutaz’s half-brothers Muayyad and Muwaffaq, who had close links to the Turkish corps at large. Silently fuming, Mutaz soon had the brothers imprisoned on sedition charges that are hard to verify; after a Turkish contingent led by Musa b. Bugha attempted to break them out and was only stopped by a Maghribi contingent, Mutaz had Muayyad executed, though the particularly strong ties between Musa and Muwaffaq appear to have prevented the latter’s murder . Seeing potential in the hostility between the Maghribis and Turks, Mutaz appeared to have tried to weaponize the former against the latter.
A more successful stratagem occurred in Mutaz’s attempts to play the Turkish potentates off one another. During 867, he first isolated Wasif by showering favours on Bugha Abu Faris while giving Musa b. Bugha control over Jibal, the Iranian highlands currently held by Wasif; Musa’s field commander, Muflih Abu Abdurrahman, routed Wasif’s vassal, the Arab Dulafi chieftain Abdul-Aziz b. Qasim b. Isa in a major military campaign whose roots lay definitively in Samarra’s politics; Musa spent the majority of the next few years on campaign. Meanwhile, Wasif was soon lynched in a mass mutiny over pay that was probably manipulated by Mutaz or Bugha, the latter conveniently slipping away shortly before events escalated and leaving Wasif to his fate.
Nonetheless it was not long before Bugha’s turn came. Too shrewd to miss the signs, he tried to precede events by arranging a marriage between his daughter Juma and Wasif’s senior son Salih. Mutaz, however, availed of a dispute between Bugha and Bayakbak in order to levy the latter against Bugha. Panicking at a sudden attack by Bayakbak during winter 868, Bugha fled but was soon abandoned by his troops; trying to escape to Salih’s residence, he was caught en route and beheaded at Mutaz’s orders. Thus in the space of a few months the young caliph had outmaneouvred Samarra’s most seasoned intriguers.
This cannot have escaped the emergent Turkish elites, and rather than wait for Mutaz to pick them off they pounced first. Barracks unrest over salaries was the catalyst, and Salih flexed his military resources to arrest Mutaz’s vizier Ahmad b. Israil as well as two other influential secretaries to the Turkish elite, Isa b. Ibrahim b. Nuh and Hasan b. Makhlad b. Jarrah. After a public humiliation they yielded some money, but this only delayed the inevitable. There was, in fact, a potential lifeline when lower-ranked Turkish officers – who could scarcely have been unaware of the potentates’ vast wealth – offered Mutaz that they would murder Salih if he only paid them; the caliph pled his fabulously wealthy mother Qabiha to lend some money, but to no avail. The lifeline missed, Salih, Bayakbak, and Musa b. Bugha’s brother Muhammad flung Mutaz in prison, where he starved to death.
Before Mutaz passed away, he was prevailed upon to sign a letter that confirmed his abdication in favour of his cousin, Muhtadi Muhammad V, son of former caliph Wathiq. The new caliph had a reputation for frugality, pietism, and gravity that must have helped his case; he used this reputation, however, to shore up his position, often making moralistic public recantments against the overbearing potentates. The targets included not only civilians but also the lower-ranked soldiers, to whom Muhtadi personally appealed and also sent his kinsmen, notably his brother Abdullah b. Haroun II, to negotiate and address grievances. The caliph appears to have realized that there was potential in allying with junior officers against senior officers.
In the meantime, however, Muhtadi had little choice but to cooperate with the commander who had installed him, Salih b. Wasif. For a brief period in 869, Salih ruthlessly dominated Samarran affairs and attempted to obtain money by hook or crook; he seized Qabiha’s hidden wealth and, against the caliph’s wishes but apparently in league with the new vizier, Abdullah b. Muhammad b. Yazdaid, again brutally extracted funds from the disgraced bureaucrats– arranging the public torture of the hapless Ahmad b. Israil, Isa b. Ibrahim, and Hasan b. Makhlad, of whom only Hasan survived the ordeal. The brutality drove Muhtadi into near-hysterics, but in the meantime a more imposing threat approached, for the bereaved Qabiha had escaped and reached out to Musa b. Bugha, whom her son had promoted to command the front, calling him to return. Refusing polite requests by Muhtadi to remain at the front, Musa moved inexorably on Baghdad with a large, proven force. The returning commander’s reputation was such that Salih lost the vast majority of his guard to desertion; he fled underground, but not before fatefully having stoked mistrust between the caliph and Musa . Drawing on the bitter experience of the past decade, Musa suspected the caliph of secret collusion with Salih, and was in any case reluctant to let his guard down until Salih’s discovery and elimination; Muhtadi, rather oddly – since most chroniclers paint a picture of Musa as refreshingly honest and dutiful, in spite of his regicide – suspected him of corruption. At one point the commanders discussed murdering the caliph; however, Bayakbak’s brother Tughtaya reportedly dissuaded them, citing Muhtadi’s upright character and the repercussions associated with such an act.
Nor were the commanders, again, the only Samarran Turk protagonists; junior officers and troops, still awaiting pay, conducted negotiations with the caliph; one condition they raised was to replace their variegated commanders with a trustworthy Abbasid scion, a role that would later fall to Muwaffaq . The Samarran slave troops in particular had been indoctrinated into reverence for the caliphal family. When Salih was discovered and executed, Musa, Bayakbak, and Muflih departed on an overdue campaign against one of the many revolts that had broken out. A short-term compromise was agreed between the various factions; such potentates as Musa and Bayakbak retained their rank and pay, while Musa’s brother Muhammad b. Bugha was promoted to command the Samarran army; in view of the following events, this appears to have been a ploy by Muhtadi to put the onus of payment onto Musa’s network. When in summer 870 another mutiny over pay arose Muhtadi had Musa’s brothers thrown in prison, where Muhammad was murdered, and recalled the commander from the front.
The succession of ensuing events was swift but complex . Muhtadi simultaneously mobilized a large army; along with the embittered families of Bugha Abu Faris and Salih b. Wasif as well as younger Turks, this included Khurasani officers such as Attab b. Attab and Masrur Abu Hashim. It was a coalition of variant interests, united only in their alarm at Musa’s influence. The caliph meanwhile tried to play off Bayakbak, who had longtime links with the Banu Khaqan and Banu Wasif, against Musa. But Bayakbak, apparently playing a double role, both informed Musa – who swiftly dispatched Muflih with a force outside Samarra – and presented himself to the caliph, who suspecting treachery had his disembodied head flung into the attackers’ ranks. Rather than demoralize them, this only whipped Bayakbak’s contingent into a rage and prompted several Turkish units to mutiny while others deserted. The deserters included Yarjukh, a Turkish commander whose daughter had married Bayakbak’s stepson Ahmad b. Tuloun, and who had hitherto backed Muhtadi. The battle was fierce, showing how close Muhtadi had come to overcoming the Samarran command; eventually, however, he was forced into flight, pursued by a Turkish contingent – led, ironically, by Bayakbak’s brother Tughtaya, who had so staunchly defended the caliph the previous year – and cruelly done to death.
It was Yarjukh who produced Muhtadi’s cousin, another of Mutawakkil’s sons called Mutamid Ahmad II b. Jafar I; he was duly proclaimed the caliph with the further cooperation of the Banu Khaqan: Ubaidullah b. Yahya and his brother Abdullah both served as vizier in the next few years. The unexpected stability that ensued in the caliphal centre was in large part attributable to the amicable relations between the Turks, particularly Musa b. Bugha, and Mutamid’s brother Muwaffaq Talha. Now, at last, the caliphate proceeded to set its provinces in order; a myriad conflicts had festered both near and far, and now Muwaffaq set about addressing them one by one. It is notable that contrary to the pattern of the past decade and even his own conduct with Muhtadi, Musa and his lieutenants –notably Muflih and his son Abdurrahman, Ibrahim b. Sima, and Ishaq b. Kundachik – showed complete deference to Muwaffaq, showing a discipline and willingness to fight that had been rare over the past decade . With the exception of Ishaq, who we shall encounter below, these lieutenants and others were killed in the battlefield against various rebels such as the Gulf plantations’ Zanj slaves, the Farsi adventurer Muhammad b. Wasil b. Ibrahim, and the Sistani commander Yaqub Saffar b. Laith b. Muaddal; Musa himself eventually stepped down in favour of Muwaffaq’s Khurasani preference, Masrur Abu Hashim, and passed away quietly a few years later, earning a public eulogy at court by the caliph Mutamid.
It was no mean feat for Muwaffaq to have restored some semblance of order to the caliphate’s centre within a few years. This would appear to lend itself to a resurgence of central control. Yet by the 880s, a steady decentralization of caliphal authority had ensued: Ahmad b. Tuloun became effectively autonomous in the west, and Samanid prince Ismail b. Ahmad b. Asad in the east. To understand how this happened, we must look at the direct links between these far-flung regions and the networks that fought out the 860s conflict.
Centre and periphery in the Samarran period
Despite the Abbasid breakdown, the caliphate was still a somewhat compact neighbourhood during this period – insofar as events in one part, particularly the centre, were directly linked to events in another. To take one example, we may note that shortly after Mutawakkil’s murder, the legendary frontier commanders Ali b. Yahya and Aqta Umar b. Ubaidullah, were slain in their campaigns against the Byzantines. This news quickly reached Iraq, further stoking unrest at the role of the Turkish praetorians, who were perceived as collectively abandoning their roles and, in contrast to the veteran freeborn commanders at the front, concentrating their energies on intrigue and murder . The effect worked the opposite way, too, with central politics affecting the periphery. Another frontier commander, Tarsous’ Turkish governor Balkajur, competed with its notables for influence in the city. When Mutaz took power at Samarra after Mustaeen’s flight, these notables arrived at Baghdad and tried to persuade Mustaeen that Balkajur had treacherously thrown in his lot with Mutaz. The governor may well have been sacked had Wasif Abu Salih not been at hand to retort that he had probably been unaware of Mustaeen’s survival; sure enough, Balkajur soon pledged loyalty to Mustaeen and so retained his position.
The most powerful example of the interplay between the centre and periphery comes from the Ruzaiqid family, that veteran interface between caliphal Iraq and Khurasan. Disputes within the Ruzaiqid family, which especially sharpened after their senior statesman Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Tahir passed away in 867, directly impacted and were impacted by events in Khurasan, where competition among the family flourished in an atmosphere of increased corruption. Sulaiman b. Abdullah b. Tahir’s troops in Khurasan provoked a revolt in Daylam that soon rallied behind an Alid contender for the caliphate, Hasan b. Zaid b. Muhammad, and expelled the Ruzaiqid governor. Escaping to Iraq with a large, ravenous army, Sulaiman assumed the Iraqi governorate from his brother Ubaidullah, but soon found its revenue insufficient to pay his troops and descended into a tortuous feud with his cousins. Meanwhile the troops proceeded to plunder the countryside; among their acts was the release of a Mosul notable called Musawir b. Abdul-Hameed from prison, where he had been sent for Kharijite activities . Once released, Musawir resumed his revolt; it would be left to Musa b. Bugha to mop up both revolts years later. In these episodes, we can see a clear link between separate events in far-flung parts of the realm.
Ahmad b. Tuloun and Samarran network competition
I propose here that the progressive decentralization of the caliphate can be viewed not only as a natural corollary to mayhem in its centre, but similarly linked directly to the competition of elite networks in Samarra. The case of Ahmad b. Tuloun is especially so, because he had actually been involved, tangentially but not insignificantly, with the 860s contest in Iraq. While Ahmad, like Bugha Abu Musa and Musa b. Bugha, is often viewed as an exception to the carnivorously corrupt Turkish potentate, and indeed according to a possibly fictitious account had little respect for his peers, he was nonetheless closely tied to the Samarran Turks and their affairs. His father, Tuloun, had been a slave praetorian commander imported by the Samanids to Samarra; Ahmad himself was familially related to two notable actors in Muhtadi’s downfall, his stepfather Bayakbak and his father-in-law Yarjukh; Yarjukh and Ahmad were especially close. His exploits had also won the personal attention of the caliph Mustaeen, after whose abdication he served as an agreeable escort to exile. When Bayakbak subsequently shot to real prominence during Mutaz’s period, he dispatched Ahmad to deputize for him at his newly acquired province in Egypt. Finally, Ahmad was the link between Bayakbak and Yarjukh, which prompted Yarjukh to desert Muhtadi after Bayakbak’s execution.
If, following the patterns of familial and patrimonial networks among Samarran Turkish commanders, Ahmad was part of the Bayakbak-Yarjukh network, it follows that he would align with Yarjukh’s backing for caliph Mutamid Ahmad II. And though Ahmad mounted his revolt, making Egypt effectively autonomous, during the reign of Mutamid, he consistently pled his case as the caliph’s protector and warden. In this competition Ahmad’s major rival was Muwaffaq Talha, Mutamid’s overbearing if doubtless competent brother, whose own son Mutadid Ahmad III was in line to succeed. Consider the rapid succession and interrelation of events in Egypt and Iraq.
In 868, Bayakbak dispatched Ahmad to Egypt as his deputy. By all accounts Ahmad helped reorder the country’s economy, so that agriculture soared at the same time as Iraq’s economy was caving under conflict . In 870, Bayakbak was slain in the conflict with Muhtadi, and the brothers Mutamid and Muwaffaq came to power with the assistance of Yarjukh and Musa b. Bugha; Yarjukh, linked to Bayakbak via Ahmad, inherited the Egyptian province and maintained Ahmad as deputy there. 873, Yarjukh’s expiry and his replacement with Mutamid’s son and original heir, Mufawwad Jafar b. Ahmad II, gave Ahmad an opportunity to forge links with the caliph . Mutamid appears to have increasingly chafed under Muwaffaq’s dominance, and it is entirely likely that Ahmad was aware of the tension between them owing to the potential conflict between Mufawwad and Muwaffaq’s powerful son, Mutadid, for succession. In the middle 870s, at the height of Muwaffaq’s conflict with the various revolts, Ahmad refused to acknowledge the Abbasid regent, only recognizing Mutamid as caliph.
Having narrowly defeated Saffarid commander Yaqub b. Laith’s invasion of Iraq in 876, Muwaffaq was momentarily free to address this upstart, and tried to send his reliable lieutenant Musa to take over; however, Musa’s shortage of funds prematurely ended his expedition. It was only sustained Byzantine pressure on Egypt that forced Muwaffaq to recognize Ahmad’s position – that too after an appeal from Mutamid, suggesting some success on Ahmad’s part in winning the caliph’s confidence against his regent. Regionally, he faced a challenge from the Aghlabid ruler to his west, Ibrahim b. Ahmad b. Muhammad, which was apparently approved from Samarra but could only make limited headway. Ahmad’s star continued to rise during the late 870s: he removed his main competitor, the bureaucrat Ahmad ibn Mudabbir, who hailed from an important but rapidly declining bureaucratic family whose Iraqi wing had meanwhile been scuttled by the Zanj revolt . This gave Ahmad full control over Egypt, and he advanced into the Levant, coopting or defeating the mostly Turkish area governors up to the Byzantine frontier. His purported aim always having been to consolidate the front for jihad against Byzantium, Ahmad’s efforts did repel Byzantine pressure in the eastern Mediterranean, even if some of his numerous competitors – such as Tarsus’ Turkish commandant, Yazaman Khadim – could claim similar exploits. More to the point, Ahmad so impressed the caliph that during 882 he secretly slipped out of Samarra and entered Syria, hoping to enter Ahmad’s protection.
The implications of Mutamid’s escape, had it succeeded, were profound. It would have reduced the significance of Iraq in the Abbasid order and returned it to Syria; decades earlier, Mutawakkil himself had contemplated such a step. It would also have anticipated the Mamluk sultanate’s protectionism over the caliphate by some four hundred years in the same region. It was, of course, clearly a threat to the long-embattled Samarran elite who had fought so hard to save Iraq in the past and who had rallied behind Muwaffaq. It is therefore no coincibtldence that, as he had once dispatched the Samarran veteran Musa b. Bugha againt Ahmad, Muwaffaq now dispatched the deceased commander’s lieutenant, Ishaq b. Kundachik, to take over Ahmad’s domains. Ishaq could not budge the firmly consolidated Tulunid realm, but he did achieve the significant service of intercepting Mutamid and returning him to Samarra’s “safety”. In Mutamid’s adventure, we can see the final competition between two Samarran networks that had briefly coalesced a decade earlier to remove Muhtadi: the networks of Bayakbak and Musa b. Bugha. In the west, it was the former that won out, for Ahmad’s failure to protect Mutamid did not preclude the effective, and sustained, economy of the Egyptian-Levant realm he carved out.
Autonomy in the Islamic east
The linkage between the Islamic east – Khurasan and Transoxania – and the Samarran conflict is subtler but nonetheless clear. The Ruzaiqids who governed Khurasan were always closely tied into the caliphal elite, as noted above. This network was an active participant in the Iraqi conflict of the 860s, and on balance lost its former glory. With the exception of Baghdad’s very capable governor Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Tahir, the family fell into a complex series of squabbles. It is not necessary to detail them comprehensively here, except to note that this saw the steady displacement of caliphal control in the east. We have already encountered the misadventures of Sulaiman b. Abdullah b. Tahir above. His nephew, Muhammad b. Tahir b. Abdullah, proved a particularly ineffectual governor-general whose failures provoked differing responses from the Saffarids and Samanids.
The more spectacular response was the military campaign of the coppersmith Yaqub b. Laith b. Muaddal, who exploded from the Sistan backwater to conquer Khurasan and as far as Baghdad’s outskirts before Muwaffaq Talha finally checked his charge. Traditionally historians have tended to classify Yaqub, with his famous disdain for the moribund Abbasids and his militant lower-class origins, as a militaristic and unprincipled adventurer . Tor, more recently, has shown that in fact the Saffarids fit, and certainly tried to fit, the ideal of a frontier ghazi, regularly raiding into the pagan frontiers in the Sind region and espousing an uncompromisingly militant Islam that helped win over some defections from the Kharijite defections . If Yaqub showed ruthless militarism, it only reflected the environment where he operated.
At the outset of his adventures Yaqub captured Herat from its longtime Kharijite pretender, Mutawakkil Abdurrahman, whose head he sent to Iraq with a request for governorship, as well as routed the Alid rebel leader Hasan b. Zaid in northern Iran. This occurred in conjunction with, and may have been intended to legitimate, Yaqub’s entry into Nishapur during 873. Only when Muwaffaq and vizier Ubaidullah b. Yahya, recognizing the upset in the Ruzaiqid-dominated hierarchy of Abbasid vassals in the province that this represented, excluded Yaqub from this hierarchy did the Saffarid commander sweep decisively westwards towards Iraq. Indeed his centrally approved opponent in western Iran, sometime rebel Ali b. Husain b. Quraish, in fact echoed Yaqub’s hostility towards the Ruzaiqids with a complaint to Samarra . The point is not that Yaqub was keen to maintain the Abbasid structure in Khurasan – his personal disdain and mistrust towards the dynasty was well-known – but rather than that he was not opposed to entrenching himself within this structure if he could. It was only when this failed that Yaqub swept across Khurasan and made his famous attack on Iraq. Moreover, this was a common tactic in a period where the Ruzaiqids had been thrown into dysfunction; Yaqub was merely its most successful exponent.
Western Iran was the site of several longtime adventurers whose relations with the caliphate had varied between submission and revolt; during the early 870s, Muwaffaq had dispatched Samarran Turks such as Harith b. Sima, Abdurrahman b. Muflih, and Kayghalagh Abu Ahmad to confront them with only mixed success. These included the tribal Banu Dulaf, sometime lieutenants to the Ruzaiqids, and the notoriously temperamental Muhammad b. Wasil b. Ibrahim . Ibn Wasil’s longevity over a thirty-year period owed much to his purely transactional alliances that alternated between groups as varied as the caliphate and the local Kharijites. Having just broken off his latest alliance with Samarra by killing Harith, Ibn Wasil failed to make a deal with Yaqub and thereby tried to attack him on the caliphate’s behalf; he was duly captured and his long career brought to an abrupt end. Yaqub’s refusal to ally with Ibn Wasil and, even after his defeat against Muwaffaq, the nascent Zanj forces in southern Iraq, do not fit the actions of a purely opportunistic adventurer, no matter his disdain for the Abbasids. It appears that the difference between him and his brother Amr, whom the Abbasids successfully coopted and then played off against other regional forces, is not as stark as is often portrayed; both were willing to work with the Abbasids if the Abbasids would have them at little cost to their autonomy.
Rather the politics of Khurasan in this period should be viewed along the same continuum as the elite struggles in Iraq, predominant among them the Ruzaiqids. Such adventurers as the Banu Dulaf, Saffarids, and others operated in an unstable environment exacerbated by the breakdown of this hierarchy and the dysfunction of the once-solid Ruzaiqid control in the province. Occupying an eminent role in the eroding hierarchy were the Samanids. While the family’s influence in the region predated the Abbasids, we have noted that it was after helping suppress Khurasani revolts that they received official governorates in 820; that is, their official governorate remained subject to the Ruzaiqids, and thus indirectly the caliphate. Fifty years later, even an ineffectual Ruzaiqid scion such as Muhammad b. Tahir was able to overrule a senior Samanid scion such as Herat governor Ibrahim b. Ilyas, whose cautions he ignored and whom he dispatched on a vain mission to check Yaqub’s progress.
The northern, and eventually dominant, section of the Samanid family eventually availed of the Ruzaiqid decline to assert itself with proper autonomy: it was the remarkable Ismail b. Ahmad b. Asad who eventually asserted Samanid dominance. Though the Samanids had traditionally been loyal lieutenants, the Abbasid caliph Mutadid Ahmad III – having learnt, as we saw repeatedly at Samarra, to play off powerful commanders against each other – decided to neutralize the ambitious Saffarid commander Amr b. Laith b. Muaddal by giving him their domain . The Samanids, however, bested their rivals and assumed dominance over the region. Much as with Ahmad b. Tuloun in Egypt, however, Ismail continued to defer to legitimist authority: as Ahmad had guarded the Byzantine frontier, so did the Samanids guard the frontier against the pagan Turks in central Asia, as well as finally wiping out the Alid revolt in northern Iran that had been brought on by Ruzaiqid misrule. The Samanids were not as directly connected with Iraq’s factional intrigues as the Tulunids, yet indirectly the breakdown of Ruzaiqid authority fuelled by those intrigues set in motion a cycle that resulted in their, and Transoxania’s, autonomy.
The decentralization of the Abbasid caliphate in the third quarter of the ninth century was not simply the logical result of central collapse, but tied in closely with the dynamics of the conflict that caused the centre to collapse. The rise of the Tulunids in the west and the Saffarids and Samanids in the east proceeded along patterns and trajectories of elite competition in the centre; both the Tulunids and Samanids, and to an extent even the Saffarids, tried to make themselves autonomous agents of the caliphate in a way that was strikingly similar to various factions – such as the Samarran Turk potentates and the Ruzaiqids – in the Iraqi centre. The outcome of the Samarran conflict was therefore the permanent decentralization of the caliphate into several geographic blocs – the Aghlabid and Tulunid west, the Abbasid centre, and the Saffarid and Samarran east – that theoretically adhered to central rule but in fact constituted the autonomous proto-sultanates that continued right up to the modern period.
Abun-Nasr, Jamil. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. Oakleigh, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Adamec, Ludwig. Historical dictionary of Islam. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017.
Bianquis, Thierry. “Autonomous Egypt from Ibn Tulun to Kafur, 868-969.” In The Cambridge History of Egypt: Volume One, Islamic Egypt 640-1517, edited by Carl Petry, 86-119. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Bosworth, Clifford. “The Armies of the Saffarids.” BSOAS 31 no. 3 (1968), pp. 534-54.
Daftary, Farhad. “Sectarian and National Movements in Iran, Khurasan and Transoxania during Umayyad and early Abbasid times.” In History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Volume IV: The Age of Achievement, A.D. 750 to the end of the fifteenth century; Part One: The historical, social, and economic setting, edited by Muhammad Asimov and Clifford Bosworth, 41-60. Paris: UNESCO, 1998.
Gordon, Matthew. The Breaking of a Thousand Swords: A history of the Turkish military of Samarra (A.H. 200-275/815-889 C.E.). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001.
Ismail, Osman. “Mu’tasim and the Turks.” BSOAS 29, no. 1 (1966), pp. 12-24.
Ismail, Osman. “The Founding of a New Capital at Samarra.” BSOAS 31, no 1 (1968), pp. 1-13.
Al-Masudi, Ali b. Husain, Meadows of Gold, tr. Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010.
Al-Tabari, Muhammad b. Jarir, History of the Messengers and Rulers:
– “Volume 34: Incipient Decline: The Caliphates of al-Wathiq, al-Mutawakkil, and al-Muntasir A.D. 841-863/A.H. 227-248”, tr. Joel Kraemer, State University of New York Press.
– “Volume 35: The Crisis of the Abbasid Caliphate: The caliphates of al-Musta’in and al-Mu’tazz A.D. 862-869/A.H. 248-255”, tr. George Saliba, State University of New York Press.
– “Volume 36: The Revolt of the Zanj,” tr. David Waines, State University of New York Press.
– “Volume 38: The Return of the Caliphate to Baghdad,” tr. Franz Rosenthal, State University of New York Press.
Tor, Deborah, Violent Order: Religious warfare, chivalry, and the ‘Ayyarun phenomenon in the medieval Islamic world. Wurzburg: Ergon, 2007.
The Nakba, Part 3/3: The statelets fight it out
Ibrahim Moiz, rights reserved
The termination of the British mandate, which coincided with the announcement of Israel’s independence as the first Jewish nation-state and the attack by several neighbouring states to save Palestine, marks the last and perhaps most tortuous chapter in the 1947-48 Nakba. While the inter-militia conflict that marked the previous six months had played out largely independently of the United Nations, the newly established Israeli ethnostate and the advancing opposition – comprising military contingents from Syria, Masr, Iraq, Transjordan, and Lebanon – could not afford to ignore international dynamics, which were uneasily juggled with forces on the ground. In the end, both international and local dynamics tilted in Israel’s favour, completing the final stage in Palestine’s tragedy.
The conflict was interspersed with three internationally brokered ceasefires, whose main effect was to enable its protagonists to catch their breaths. The first ceasefire, taking place some four weeks after the British mandate ended during June 1948, occurred with the Israeli forces enjoying only a slight, and by no means decisive, advantage on the battlefield. Ten critical days separated it from the next ceasefire, in July 1948, and in those ten days the Israelis seized the initiative with a flurry of triumphs on various fronts, making various advances everywhere except the Hashimi-held West Bank region. These advances pressed the opposing states decisively onto the back foot, resulting in frenetic negotiations whose main effect was to place the West Bank, in eastern Palestine, under Transjordanian rule, given that it had the strongest international connection – with a still relevant British Empire, mainly – and that its Arab Legion had garrisoned the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The coup de grace occurred in October 1948, where a devastating and remorseless Israeli assault plunged north and south, destroying the Inqadh militia in Galilee and the Masri army in the Nagab. This left Palestine, with the exception of the Jordanian-governed West Bank and Masri-governed Ghazza strip, entirely under Israeli occupation.
Though it was technically five Arab armies that, together with assorted militias, failed against the newly formed Israeli army, this was far from an underdog scenario. To begin with, the Syrian and Lebanese states, only recently released from the French yoke, were barely older than their Israeli counterpart; Lebanon’s tiny army could afford only a token contribution at a borderland village. The British-trained armies made only marginally more impact; the oldest army, from Masr, had no battlefield experience. Ministerial management and ammunition shortages plagued both the Syrian and Masri armies; there was no actual coordination between the various militaries; and, most importantly, the Arab governments that led them were riven with mutual enmity and at each others’ throats throughout.
They made a stark contrast to the battle-hardened, unified, politically shrewd, and remorselessly decisive Israelis; even though the Israeli army was merely a renamed Haganah, it functioned as a state army, easily outnumbering, outplanning, and outfighting its scattered opponents. Non-state forces – the remnants of the exile Palestinian regime led by Amin Hussaini and loosely represented by the now-scattered Jihad Army, the Inqadh Army, the Muslim Brethren, and bedouin fighters – proved rather tougher on the battlefield, but were largely isolated from the politics and were forced to yield to tutelage by either Amman, Damascus, or Cairo. The losers were the Palestinians, who were expelled in the tens of thousands as the Israelis drove their advantage home.
The first stage: May – June 1948
As the British mandate ended a rather inglorious thirty-year tenure, the Haganah-led Jewish political-military forces in Palestine, led by the ruthless David Ben-Gurion, announced their “independence” – independence from whom is uncertain, though doubtless countless Jews victimized in Europe saw a nation-state as their salvation – and duly received international recognition. This was accompanied by a sharp uptick in military activity; in addition to a madcap race for British-installed outposts and forts between Arabs and Jews, the vario’us Arab states advanced into Palestine, and the Israelis advanced steadily eastwards in Jerusalem.
With western and southern Jerusalem having been wrenched from Jihad Army forces, the Israeli march rumbled east through northern Jerusalem. Their main opposition – a Jihad unit captained by longtime Palestinian militant leader Bahjat Abu-Gharbia – stood little chance, and the small mujahidin garrison in Jerusalem’s eastern Old City, captained by the Iraqi Inqadh officer Fadil Rasheed, seemed increasingly isolated, its only offensive activity directed to a small Jewish quarter to its south, whose presence compelled it to split its forces on two fronts.
Again this backdrop, the Palestinian exile government’s prime minister, Ahmed Abdul-Baqi, had appealed to the Transjordanian government for help. Amman’s ruler Abdullah I bin Hussein, who wanted nothing more than to expand his realm into Palestine, wasted no time in responding, overruling his British military commander John Glubb’s reservations. The Legion approached Jerusalem from north and south; the southern prong, captained by Abdullah Tal, played an especially vital role. Tal successfully withstood several concerted Israeli assaults on the Old City, while his daring lieutenant, Mahmoud Ubaidat, secured the capture of the Jewish quarter. Within days, Abdullah I was able to appoint a trusted lieutenant, Ibrahim Hashim, as his governor-general in Palestine; the crafty Hashimi ruler was confident in getting at least a slice out of the pie.
The northern advance on Jerusalem, proceeding from Nablus and Ramullah under British officer Norman Lash’s overall command, encountered more difficulty. One battalion, captained by Bob Slade, was assigned to proceed south to the Old City and thereby close off any Israeli threat to East Jerusalem. Slade and his deputy, Major Buchanan, were injured in the fighting and it was, in an early taste of command for native Arab officers, Ali Abu-Nowar and Sadiq Sharaa who directed the advance into Jerusalem under stiff fire. Another native officer from Bedouin stock, Habis Majali, scored a major strategic point when, assisted by Bedouin militia, his unit secured control of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road, thereby cutting off the Israeli forces in the city’s north from the Israeli capital; through the summer this front withstood Israeli attacks, thereby assuring that Jerusalem’s eastern half remained unchallenged. Finally, a third Legion unit, captained by Australian officer Bill Newman, attempted to break into Israeli-occupied Jerusalem from the north; after a severe fight ended in stalemate, however, Glubb vetoed further advances, fearing that the Legion was too thinly spread. Nonetheless, Abdullah was eager to capture what was realistically possible; when the influential Jihad commander in Lydd-Ramla, Hasan Salameh, was killed in battle, the Legion swiftly sent a small force, captained by British officer Nigel Bromage, to assume control of these two towns, not far inland from the Israeli strongholds on the coast; a Legionnaire, Idris Sultan, assumed their military governance, leading to popular optimism that envisioned a Legion advance into this region and perhaps up to the coast. This illusion would be shattered after the first ceasefire.
The Arab heartland in Palestine at this point lay in the West Bank’s main cities, Nablus and Ramullah. Transjordan, which had through its British link established firm roots here before the mandate ended, was viewed with suspicion by the other Arab states, with the partial exception of its Hashimi cousins in Iraq. An Iraqi force, captained by Nuraddin Mahmoud, had eventually garrisoned Nablus, thereby freeing up the Legion to move south towards Jerusalem. The Iraqis’ role has been unfairly downplayed; though they famously failed to recapture eastern Palestine’s Baysan area leading into the Jizril valley at the start of their campaign, they nonetheless attempted, albeit with limited success, some more ambitious exploits thereafter. Aiming to drive a wedge midway through the nascent Israeli state, two Iraqi prongs – captained by Ghazi Daghistani and Abdul-Karim Qasim – plunged west from the West Bank towards the coast. They came far closer to realizing this aim than is usually recognized; Qasim reached the outskirts of the coastal town Natanya before he was repulsed by an Israeli counterattack, and Daghistani established a firm frontline at Tulkarm. Meanwhile, a reinforcement unit, captained by Saleh Taufiq, arrived to bolster the defences to the north, in and around Jinin.
The significance of the Iraqi moves was not lost on the Israelis. They soon mounted a counterattack. The smaller, somewhat diversionary assault, failed to penetrate the countryside around Tulkarm; this valley, manned by both Daghistani’s lieutenant Khalil Jasim and various Palestinian militias, held out during the entire conflict. The larger thrust, however, converged at Afoula and plunged southwards towards Jinin. However, an Iraqi force captained by a daring highland veteran, Omar Ali-Daghistani, broke the Israeli siege and pushed them back. Far from the dismissive attitude assigned to them by many historians, the Iraqis did play an outsize role in the West Bank; the reason it is usually missed is the fact that, in contrast to Amman, Baghdad salvaged very little politically from the campaign.
The Lebanese army could only afford a token contribution, which focused on the mountainous border village Malikia overlooking the route into Palestine. They committed a single battalion, captained by Jamil Husami; the village would change hands several times over the war. The route that Malikia guarded had been liberally employed by the paramilitary Inqadh Army, whose commander Fawzi Qawuqji collaborated closely with the Lebanese army minister Majid Arslan and commander Fouad Chehab. Qawuqji himself operated mainly in the central Galilee, where he mounted several unsuccessful assaults from Nazareth towards occupied Tiberias; the kibbutzes on this route remained defiant against these attacks.
The Syrian army was originally intended to take this sector. On the eve of battle, however, the expeditionary commander Abdul-Wahhab Hakim was ordered to change course, instead proceeding far east into the Golan Heights region, and then skirting Lake Tiberias’ eastern shore. Hakim made a breakneck march that briefly overran the border Samakh village; the Syrians evidently expected an Iraqi collaboration that, perhaps owing to the Iraqi failure to penetrate Baysan, never came. They were unexpectedly stopped and then repelled at the kibbutzes on Lake Tiberias’ southern shore; within two days, their advances were completely reversed.
The outcry that resulted in Syria – unlike the other participant Arab countries, a fledgling republic with incredibly volatile politics, whose interior minister Sabri Asali soon mounted a wartime ban on political activity in an attempt to control the situation – forced the changeover of both armyminister Ahmad Sharabati and commander Abdullah Atfa; both accused each other as having underequipped the army. The fact that the same charges would be levelled against their successors indicated that, contrary to popular rumours, corruption and treason were not the reason for the Syrian failure but a systemic shortage of ammunition that should, in normal circumstances, have been calculated before the abruptly planned campaign. Atfa’s successor, Husni Zaeem, took several weeks to plan the next assault, whose aims, however, would be decidedly modest and only slightly more ambitious than the Lebanese attack.
This second assault came in early June 1948. Qawuqji threw himself vainly at the settlements between Nazareth and Tiberias. The Syrian attack came from both north and east this time; the eastern attack failed, but in the north Anwar Bannoud and Taufiq Bashour established a bridgehead on the northern border. Zaeem seems to have realized, much as other commanders would, that succeeding in a minor effort was better than failing in a major effort.
Similarly to Syria, Masr’s campaign at Palestine’s other end soon downsized its ambitions sharply. The Masris contributed both an army division and a Muslim Brethren battalion; the fact that these two unevenly sized forces made a roughly equivalent impression in the battlefield testified to both the army’s inexperience and Cairo’s hesitation. While Farouk bin Fuad I was quite happy to back the Palestinian exile government represented by mufti Amin Hussaini and spite his rival Abdullah I, the government led by Mahmoud Nuqrashy was extremely hesitant to get its inexperienced army involved in any substantive sense. It was a Muslim Brethren battalion, comprising both volunteers and off-duty Masri soldiers such as their commander Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, who made the first foray into Palestine.
In the vast southern Nagab desert, what mattered was control of routes between settlements; the story of this campaign is therefore littered with fights over kibbutzes, police forts, and that most evil necessity in military historiography, the numbered hill. This warfare was heavily conducive to defence; both Jewish kibbutzes and Muslim police forts generally proved resilient against attacks and encirclement. Such strongholds as the kibbutz to Asqalan’s east, the kibbutz between Ghazza and Khan Yunis, and the forts between Ashdoud and Bethlehem proved astoundingly firm, especially given that their garrisons largely comprised untrained amateurs such as the Zionist underclasses and the Muslim Brethren. Initially instructed by army expeditionary commander Ahmed Muawy to remain at the desert town Birsabaa and guard the expedition’s eastern flank, Abdel-Aziz soon responded instead to a request by the Muslims in Bethlehem and Hebron to reinforce them. He rushed north to these towns, assuming control with the acquiescence of the Arab Legion and reducing the neighbouring kibbutzes. While the Muslim Brethren dash into Bethlehem and Hebron proved Masr’s most ambitious exploit in the campaign, it also limited Muawy’s choices; he would spend the remainder in the campaign trying to protect his flank east of the Masri base at Ghazza, where most kibbutzes proved beyond Masri grasp.
Nonetheless, the Masri vanguard, captained by Mohamed Naguib, advanced as far north as Ashdoud, sweeping aside most resistance. There, however, they met a ferocious Israeli counterattack; while the Masri lines held, Naguib thereafter focused his attention not north but east inland. The police forts between Naguib at Ashdoud and Abdel-Aziz at Bethlehem were garrisoned by Masri officers and Muslim Brethren both; this connection could potentially isolate the desert-based Israeli forces and ensure that, come the negotiations, Cairo could negotiate the desert’s preservation from Israeli occupation.
When the first ceasefire was announced in June 1948, therefore, there was reason for guarded optimism on a purely military basis. In political terms, however, this was critically undermined by interstate rivalry among the Arab governments – most pressingly the rivalry between the two regimes with the most potential political-military influence, Amman and Cairo. During the ceasefire Israel bolstered its positions and armaments significantly – most famously, a major weapons supply from communist Czechoslovakia, with Soviet approval in aiding an apparently socialistic “liberation movement”. Astonishingly in the meantime, the Arab regimes failed to agree or coordinate on the most basic political strategy. The rivalry between the Hashimis in Amman and the Pashas in Cairo was paramount. By this point, indeed, the question of an independent Palestine seems to have entirely vanished. Rather Amman and Cairo, who covered the biggest territory in Palestine, were determined to salvage what they could not only in relation to Israel but in relation to their Arab rivals.
In contrast to the effusive credit Abdullah I received from pro-Amman, including British, commentators, modern writers have tended, largely on the basis of his longtime contacts with such Zionist leaders as Golda Meir, to portray him as an entirely selfish quisling who sold out the Palestinians. This should be put in some perspective; to be sure, Abdullah’s entire career was marked by often cynical self-interest, but his vision of a “Greater Syria” was not too different, in purely territorial terms, to the Arab unionism advocated only a decade later by some of his bitterest opponents. And he was the only Arab state leader to appreciate, as did Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion, that international deliberations were no match for battlefield fait accomplis. That said, he had made every effort to frustrate the most influential Palestinian leader mufti Amin Hussaini, and his ambition to join Transjordan with whatever he could acquire from Palestine were no secret. It is rather truer to say that Abdullah put the Palestinians in a spot where they had to choose between him and the Zionists, an obvious no-contest. However grudgingly, many Palestinian veterans – including mufti lieutenants by no means inherently sympathetic to Amman – soon threw in their lot with Amman, which was the only Arab state to attempt to merge Palestinians into Jordanian nationality in a reflection of its founder’s ambitions.
A disastrous ten days: July 1948
What contributed more than anything else to Amman’s subsequent vilification – including not only among the Palestinians, but many of its own Legion officers, including most field captains mentioned in this article – was the trauma experienced in the Lydd-Ramla area, at the very extreme ends of the Legion’s operations, during July 1948. This episode, occurring in scorching heat during the month of Ramadan, saw an Israeli campaign overrun the area with virtually no resistance. The Israeli plan was evidently to first take these two towns, and then open the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road and capture Ramullah to boot. In Amman, the first phase was apparently seen as a necessary evil to prevent the second phase by bolstering the forces there. Glubb recalled the already modest Legion garrison in Lydd, and the region fell rapidly. The Israeli advance was utterly remorseless, systemically expelling Palestinians in the tens of thousands and utterly ransacking their property. It was the first, but not the last, time Israel had attempted such tactics on a wide scale since its foundation two months prior. The resultant misery saw vast leagues of Palestinians trickle east towards Transjordan, their misery compounded by widespread resentment that an ambitious ruler who had stripped them of their own independent defences had now withdrawn his own.
These resentments, which trickled for the first time on a serious scale into the Legion’s ranks, were not lost on Abdullah. Glubb served as a convenient foil, though not entirely unfair; in a very publicized encounter in front of his cabinet, Abdullah lashed out at the Legion commander for withholding supplies and suggested – to great shock in London – that Glubb was free to resign. While he stayed on, this stung Glubb, who had always viewed the Legion with a certain paternalism, but it did help deflect criticism from the monarchy to its British advisors. When the Legion commander angrily pushed for the recall of Omar Ali-Daghistani, the skilful Iraqi Jinin commandant who had just mounted a successful northward march towards Afoula, such misgivings simmered further. And the fact that Habis Majali, the ultra-loyal Bedouin officer, had withstood another concerted Israeli attack on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road, and that serious Israeli attempts to capture East Jerusalem were thereupon jettisoned after one final push at the Old City, was only cold comfort in this atmosphere, even if it vindicated Amman’s decisions in a purely cold-blooded sense. During October 1948, Abdullah’s threat to withdraw the Legion from Palestine entirely should the Arab governments continue to court mufti Hussaini’s exile government confirmed to many observers – not least his own officers, many of whom would sharply turn against him – that he had effectively sold Palestine out even as he claimed to have salvaged it.
The Masris in the south, bolstered further by assistance from Muslim Brethren, bedouins, Arabian volunteers from Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and Sudanese units, sprang a day before the ceasefire ended. Planned independently by Naguib, this initiative featured joint assaults against several kibbutzes and Israeli settlements in the desert to Asqalan and Ashdoud’s east. When most such attacks ebbed away without success, the expeditionary commander Muawy temporarily removed Naguib and adopted the far more conservative policy of simply holding ground and guarding his extended supply lines. By this point Israel’s airforce was a regular factor in combat, to which its Masri counterpart only offered sporadic ripostes.
At Palestine’s other end, Israel mounted a concerted assault on several lines. With the Lebanese battalion having withdrawn during the ceasefire and handed its position to Inqadh Army, the militia was their main target. An Israeli attack did target the Syrian frontline, captained by Anwar Bannoud, on the northern border, but after several days’ stiff fighting this front remained unchanged. This was not the case in the Inqadh sector in Galilee proper. Another vain attempt by Qawuqji to open the path to Tiberias faltered, and meanwhile his base Nazareth came under a sudden Israeli attack.
Israel’s conquest of Nazareth deserves some elaboration, since it shows the cunning with which Ben-Gurion and his cohorts approached the campaign. In contrast to other Palestinian towns, whose population had been freely brutalized and expelled, Nazareth was well-known in Christianity and thereby bound to attract some interest in Western Europe and America. The Israeli takeover of Nazareth was uniquely orderly and peaceful; Ben-Gurion gave firm instructions to protect its Christian sites, and even falsely claimed that the Israelis had gone in to rescue the town’s Christians from its Muslims and from the predatory Inqadh Army’s Iraqis.
What actually happened was quite different. In contrast to Inqadh conduct in Yaffa, their forces in Nazareth, captained by Iraqi officer Madloul Abbas, had been particularly disciplined. They had also forged a common link with the town’s leading Fahoum family – which included mayor Yusuf and council leader Ibrahim – who much preferred them to the area’s Jihad captain, the Fahoum family’s longtime peasant opponent Taufiq Ibrahim. With Inqadh forces having left in the thrust towards Tiberias, however, the Fahoums were eager not to experience the misery of the neighbouring towns and so agreed to peaceably hand over the town to the Israelis on the condition that it would be spared and its population remain. This was politically convenient, of course, for Ben-Gurion – notwithstanding his strong disdain towards the Arabs, whom he vainly hoped would soon quietly leave – and he instructed commander Haim Laskov to proceed with care. Nazareth, therefore, was the only important town conquered by Israel without accompanying atrocity. The mujahidin position in the Galilee was now shorn of any major towns, and reduced to the countryside. After the delicate balance just ten days earlier, Israel entered the second ceasefire firmly in control.
The Tempest: Israel overruns the North and South, Autumn 1948
Most of the succeeding three months saw the focus shift to the geopolitical and diplomatic sphere. The Israelis had a far more propitious prospect than the United Nations’ partition plan a year earlier; now, they held most of the fertile Galilee and the central hinterland. Transjordan had salvaged the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, if at enormous cost; they had also by this point garrisoned Hebron and Bethlehem, taking over from the Muslim Brethren contingent there. Masr still held a slender chance of retrieving the southern desert, through diplomacy. These bitter rivals therefore found themselves in ironic agreement at the Arab League that the war must end. The best-known United Nations mediator, Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte, had in fact been attempting to hammer out a compromise that may have enabled Transjordan and Masr to hold onto their ground. Instead, his infamous murder by the Irgun during September 1948 put paid to that proposal.
To Amman and Cairo’s indignation, it was those governments with the least remaining forces in Palestine – and hence the least to lose from continued conflict – who urged that warfare continue until full liberation: these included Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. The former pair, among whom Lebanon’s Maronite establishment had privately reconciled itself to an Israeli presence but dared not provoke its Muslim populace with an open admission theretofore, were largely playing to their domestic gallery, where unrest among various political factions at the Palestinian plight was rampant. By contrast, both Amman and Cairo, however otherwise different their aims, had a monarchic elite that responded largely to British overtures.
It was probably; in order to placate Britain that Masri prime minister Mahmoud Nuqrashy suddenly banned opposition activity, including the then still militarily active and widely popular Muslim Brethren. This was a blow to the Masri frontline, and in fact the army’s expeditionary commanders – Ahmed Muawy and his replacement Fouad Sadek – would lobby staunchly in the Brethren’s favour, arguing that they had manned the frontlines where other civilians had failed the army. This would also strengthen the bonds and collaboration between the Brethren and the army’s dissident Free Officers; many officers secretly belonged to both groups. But events had overtaken them in the meantime. During November 1948, a Muslim Brother student called Abdel-Magid Hassan murdered Nuqrashy. Though the Brethren’s leader Hasan Banna condemned and distanced the group from the murder, this prompted a merciless crackdown by Nuqrashy’s replacement Ibrahim Abdel-Hady, which would result in Banna’s own murder three months later.
Accompanying the political turmoil in Masr was the turmoil on the battlefield. During October 1948, Israel was given two separate pretexts to complete its conquest. In the north, Qawuqji – declaring his independence from international ceasefires – foolishly attacked a kibbutz; the Israelis had been waiting for just such an opportunity, and immediately stormed Galilee in a savage campaign led by that veteran punisher, Moshe Carmel. Villages were systemically wrecked and plundered, peasants murdered and expelled, as the majority of the Galilee’s Palestinian populace bore north to safety. They were given no leeway by the Israelis, who seeking to maximize their acquisitions stormed across the Lebanese border and as far as the Litani river, undoing at a stroke the previous year’s hard-won Arab bulwarks.
In the south, the Masri army fared little better. Israel required a similar pretext here; a United Nations-approved relief convoy into the desert bypassed a Masri unit, but to the Israelis’ frustration the Masri soldiers kept to their word and did not attack. So the convoy fired at them first, prompting a retaliatory Masri burst that became Israel’s pretext for their southern conquest. Led by Yigael Alon, who had directed the summer conquest in Lydd-Ramla, this Israeli attack was impressive in its breadth; its further reach extended into the Sinai proper, where commando teams sabotaged Masri supply lines and blocked off supply routes. This development suddenly forced the Masri force to defend its rear; in order to do this, Muawy recalled the frontline coastal force from Ashdoud, thus enabling Israel to both overrun the coast and break the encirclement of their counterparts in the desert by November 1948.
This included the capture of Birsaba, the Nagab’s main town, whose small Masri garrison, captained by Helmi Gomaa and reinforced by Abu-Sitta bedouins under the leadership of Abdullah Moussa, quickly crumbled after two days’ bombardment at the end of October 1948. The main focus in the campaign hinged at the Nagab desert’s northern edge, where the line of police forts that had hitherto help encircle the Israelis in the desert were now themselves encircled. This comprised some four thousand soldiers, with a large Sudanese contingent including its commander Sayed Taha, as well as volunteers from Yemen and Saudi Arabia. They literally fought tooth and nail – astonished Israelis would recall how Saudi fighters whose bullets had run out resorted to using their teeth instead. It took several attempts for the attackers to capture one fort from its commandant, Salah Badr, and surround the remaining force in a narrow gap at the Nagab’s northern desert. The force was now besieged, but its morale remained intact, as Taha consistently refused Israeli offers to surrender. The Arab League, having lost any hope of conquest, now busied itself with attempting to relieve the besieged pocket by diplomacy.
There was one final flurry in the southernmost extremity, however. The Masri expeditionary commander Fouad Sadek, who had just relieved Ahmed Muawy, had wisely decided to ignore Cairo’s orders and tacitly collaborate with a Muslim Brethren unit led by Kamel Sharif. Sharif and Dair Balah commandant Mahmoud Rifaat collaborated in repulsing one final Israeli attack on the Sinai border. Realizing that a foray into the Sinai was not worth the effort, the Israelis soon pulled back. Negotiations opened at Cyprus over the new year; though the Arab regimes publicly refused to acknowledge Israel, they had in practice come to terms with its existence as a regional power, one whose military effectiveness had outstripped their own and whose diplomacy, wooing both superpowers in the emergent Cold War, stemmed from its status as a major outpost of Global Northern imperialism in the Levant.
The Nakba, part 2/3: The militias’ war, November 1947 – May 1948
Ibrahim Moiz, copyright
30 May 2018
In one sense the 1947-48 Palestinian war was one of the earliest examples of the pattern of warfare that has been common across the world since the Second World War. In contrast to most conflicts of the previous century, it did not involve entrenched world powers deploying massive armies against each other; instead, the tumult resulted from the duels between rather small, localized militia units. What helped the Zionist side was their effective unification of such localized fronts into a sizeable, cohesive force of some sixty thousand fighters, the Haganah, and the resultant strategy they were able to plan and coordinate. By contrast, for both political and incidental reasons, the Palestinian fronts whom the Haganah routed were largely fragmented, scattered, and uncoordinated. The largest Palestinian fronts, such as that in Jerusalem during spring 1948, numbered just over a thousand; most were only a few hundred strong, with numbers fluctuating regularly because most fighters were part-timers from the Palestinian countryside. The arrival of the Arab states’ expeditionary forces raised the number to respectable levels, but even so the largest state forces – those from Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan – numbered just a division apiece, with no effective coordination and particularly ineffective resource management. It was, in the manner typical of post-World War conflicts, a war carried out between forces of decidedly modest size, but no less devastating for that.
The remainder of the article shall proceed in two parts: first we examine the conflict in the final six months of the British mandate, when the Haganah and other Zionist militias faced off against Inqadh, Jihad Muqaddas, and other Palestinian levies (to whom I shall refer, without controversy it is to be hoped, as mujahidin), and next we shall turn to the war between the fledgling states, which lasted roughly another six months before the Arab rout. Eventually this conflict saw Israel establish control over the entirety of Palestine, except for the Jordan river’s West Bank and the southern Ghazza strip, which would only be conquered two decades later.
Though there had been some violence before autumn 1947, the United Nations’ decision during partition Palestine, celebrated by the Zionists and bemoaned by their opponents, marked the start of major conflict. In a pattern familiar to those who study modern militia warfare, the fighting was overwhelmingly localizd, yet the Haganah was able at length to coordinate its fronts and thereby expand its activity by spring 1947, when a devastating campaign overran the coast and the Galilee, just prior to the British evacuation.
The geographic distribution of the protagonists contributed to the early localization. The Jewish population was most heavily concentrated on the coast around Tel Aviv; there were also significant Jewish centres in the Galilee and in western Jerusalem. Jerusalem was swiftly divided into its Arab-majority and Jewish-majority districts, the former comprising most of the city’s east, south, and centre. Similarly, mixed towns such as Haifa and Safad were barricaded between their Arab and Jewish quarters. In the countryside, the Arabs generally enjoyed a numerical advantage, but rural Jewish settlers had, partly for economic ease and partly in shrewd preparation, built fortified kibbutzes at strategic points and routes, such as the Jinin-Haifa road and the Baysan route overlooking the route from Jordan to the Galilee. These fortified farm blocks would, together with forts such as the Qastal ruins outside Jerusalem and the soon-to-be abandoned British police outposts, assume outsize importance.
Officially, the British government, led by Alan Cunningham, wanted to preserve order until their departure in May 1948. In practice, however, British patrols would intercept and force back mujahidin assaults on many occasions, an inhibition rarely practiced on the Zionists. By the time the mandate ended, Zionist forces had already conquered Safad, Baysan, Tiberias, Haifa, Acre, and Yaffa, as well as much of the surrounding countryside; the only British reaction was to shuttle out Arab refugees, with the occasional muted protest. Quite simply, the Zionist movement understood – and implemented – the concept of a fait accompli far more skilfully and ruthlessly than their Arab opponents could, would, or did; once the Haganah and related militias called the British bluff and attacked, the British garrison could, would, and did do little about it.
British obstructionism towards the mujahidin was also motivated by their approach to the Arab states. Most mujahidin forces attached themselves to either the Jihad Muqaddas Army, loosely directed by the British bane Jerusalem mufti Amin Hussaini, or to the Arab Inqadh Army commanded by Fawzi Qawuqji. Both factions, particularly the former, were viewed with intense suspicion by the premier British client, Transjordanian ruler Abdullah I bin Hussein. Abdullah’s well-known ambition to annex Palestine to his small, impoverished realm was in direct opposition to the mufti’s aims. He wanted to achieve this with his relatively efficient army, the Arab Legion. This would not be permitted by Abdullah’s British patrons while the mandate remained, but that fact did not stop him from trying to impede the mujahidin, particularly the Jihad Army. Though Jordanian officers did covertly train and arm Arab militias, this seems to have been done largely on their own initiative. Muhammad Hunaidi, who tried to organize the Haifa garrison, had resigned from his military post in the Legion first.
In the Arab camp, Abdullah was backed by his Hashimi cousins in Iraq, who also commanded an efficient army with relatively promising prospects and shared his British tutelage and enmity with the mufti. They did enjoy the support of several Palestinian council leaders, if only if mutual opposition to the mufti as a competitor in the Palestinian upper class; as we shall see, several Palestinian council leaders tried to inhibit militant activity in the hope that the more promising Arab Legion would take over. Meanwhile Transjordan’s competitors in the Arab League, Masr and Syria, offered assistance to, respectively, the Jihad and Inqadh factions without ever exercising real control over them.
The Jihad and Inqadh forces swung into action over winter 1947-48. During December 1947, Amin’s nephew Abdul-Qadir Hussaini laid siege to Jewish western Jerusalem by cutting off the road to Tel Aviv and mounting attacks from the western half’s only Arab neighbourhood. In contrast with other towns, mujahidin cooperation at Jerusalem was usually strong: Anwar Nusaiba, the city’s council leader, was a Hashimi sympathizer, but coordinated nonetheless with Abdul-Qadir and his kinsman, Khaled Hussaini, who commanded Jihad forces in the city proper. The fact that the charismatic Jihad commander, a veteran of former anti-British revolts, was seen as sincere and indifferent to partisanship, and that the mufti’s more pragmatic prime minister Ahmed Abdul-Baqi was at hand to observe local events, contributed.
The leading Jihad commander to the north, Hasan Salameh, was also an anti-British veteran but never managed to circumvent politics in the same way. This was evident at Yaffa, an Arab-majority coastal enclave surrounded by Jewish settlements and just a stone’s throw from the Jewish stronghold Tel Aviv. In Yaffa city itself, Nimr Hawwari, a lawyer who had long competed with the mufti for control in the anti-British resistance, had taken over as commander. He was approved by mayor Yusuf Haikal, who though an independent member of the mufti’s shadow cabinet gravitated towards minimizing violence until the mandate’s end; doubtless Yaffa’s vulnerable position as well as their political inclinations influenced their considerations. When Hawwari negotiated a local ceasefire with a Zionist militia, however, mufti Amin portrayed this as treason and demanded Hawwari’s ouster. However, his own favoured lieutenant, Salameh, could hardly take over, since he was based further inland around Ramla and Lydda. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby Salah Nazir, acceptable to both factions, served as Salameh’s lieutenant in Yaffa. But this could not paper over the garrison’s deep divisions. In this factionalism, the Inqadh Army’s recently deployed unit, largely comprising Iraqi soldiers, could have potentially helped whip the garrison into shape. But the first Inqadh commandant, Abdul-Wahhab Shaikh-Ali, soon quit in frustration over the factionalism and his replacement, Adil Najamuddin, only fuelled factionalism by attempting to replace the local garrison entirely with his troops, who meanwhile earned an unsavoury reputation. At Yaffa, the Iraqi soldiers’ patronizing attitude and, worse, abuses soon gave them a uniquely hated reputation.
Apart from sending largely uncoordinated contingents to bolster such towns as Yaffa, the Inqadh Army had also entered Palestine from two directions: the north, via Lebanon and Syria, and the east, via Transjordan – in spite of some consternation in Amman, where the already uneasy government was further pressured by indignant appeals from the British Palestine governor, Alan Cunningham, to bar off mujahidin passage. The strategy, it appears, involved these two prongs fighting their way to a convergence the Galilee, and then proceeding southwards through the West Bank towards Jerusalem. The plan never came close to fruition for both political and military reasons. The northern commander, Adib Shishakli, first unsuccessfully attempted to reduce the kibbutz at the Naharia border with Lebanon and was, moreover, prevented by the local British garrison from mounting any offensives in the main Galilee region around Safad; the most he could do was send troops to reinforce the local militias. In the east, Fawzi Qawuqji dispatched another Syrian officer, Muhammad Safa, to attack the kibbutz near Baysan that abutted the Jordanian route into the Galilee. During the subsequent assault, mangled communications between Qawuqji and Safa descended to farce; the attackers’ already unpromising prospects faded when a heavily armed British patrol arrived and ordered Safa’s dispersal. From that point, Qawuqji would relocate further south in the West Bank heartland and attempt to reach the coast from there, leaving Shishakli to operate autonomously in the Galilee.
A critical window
Though violence did not abate, the “frontlines”, such that they were, remained largely static until April 1948. This period saw continuing discord amid the mujahidin, while the Haganah subtly strengthened its positions. They steadily eliminated Arab militia leaders with diverse methods: at Jerusalem, several Jihad officers – including Mahmoud Jamil, son of the shadow cabinet’s influential member Jamal Hussaini, and district commandant Subhi Barakat – were killed in battle. Haifa’s respected Jordanian commandant Muhammad Hunaidi fell to a bomb attack while Shakib Wahab, the autonomous Inqadh vassal in the northwest hinterland, was assiduously wooed and persuaded that a fragmented, mostly Sunni Muslim cause was not worth the blood of his minority Druze constitutents. Wahab’s betrayal demonstrated to the Zionists the value of wedging between the Sunni majority in the Levant and assorted disgruntled minorities, a policy that continued and perhaps most destructively manifested itself through Israel’s role in the Lebanese civil war thirty years later.
At any rate, the Arabs were doing a fair job at internal combustion without Haganah infiltration. As we have noted, urban notables largely comprising the enemies of mufti Amin Hussaini sought to maintain the status quo until the British withdrawal; militants – largely rural peasants whipped up by preachers or by career officers – chafed at this apparent defeatism, especially as violence continued from the Zionist side largely unchecked by the same British mandate that regularly disarmed mujahidin forces. The “conciliatory” camp argued that inferior firepower – for the Damascus-based military council was unable, perhaps under political pressure from the anti-mufti bloc, to deliver arms consistently – required conservation. Yet the Hussainis’ bloc, drawing on its fundraising links with such groups as the Arab League, Muslim Brethren, and anti-Hashimi governments, and its strong roots in the countryside where the mufti retained considerable popularity, armed its fronts much more assiduously, drawing into its camp both autonomous militias and Inqadh officers who were frustrated with Inqadh inefficiency.
The split in Inqadh was evidenced at several fronts. Qawuqji had dispatched as Jerusalem Inqadh commandant Iraqi officer Abdul-Hameed Rawi to reinforce the small Inqadh force there. Abdul-Hameed came into conflict with, and was eventually forced to stand down in favour of, that small Inqadh force’s commandant Fadil Rasheed, another Iraqi officer. This was because of Rasheed’s strong local links: he was close to the Hussainis, having participated with them in the 1941 campaign against Britain at Iraq. Most Jerusalem mujahidin – the Hussainis, Abu-Gharbias, Uraiqats, and Barakats – were veteran comrades-in-arms from anti-British insurgencies, and this helps explain the superior coordination in the city.
Safad, whose first commandant, Syrian officer Ihsan Kamulmaz, veered towards the mufti’s camp and had a reputation for bold action. For unknown reasons, he was replaced with a Jordanian officer, Sari Funaish, who adopted a far more defensive approach, arguing that the garrison needed to conserve its ammunition; his conciliatory stance may be explained by his sympathy with Amman, where his second-in-command Amil Jumaeen would later become a key aide to the government. Funaish accused as an adventurist Kamulmaz, who in turn accused him – with some local approval – as a traitor. Funaish’s disappearance during Safad’s final conquest only strengthened this impression; he was briefly imprisoned in Syria after the war, but accused the regional field commander Shishakli as having deprived him of ammunition. Shishakli, who had first promoted Funaish and also vocally accused the Syrian government as failing to sufficiently arm the fronts, would echo Kamulmaz’s accusations towards Funaish. Whatever actually transpired, the blunt fact is that Safad’s garrison was bitterly divided and would give away easily.
At times the conciliatory camp’s attitude bordered on outright complacency. This was certainly the case in Tiberias, the Galilee town whose two-fifths Arab minority was led by the eponymous Tabari family – comprising mufti Tahir with his kinsmen Sidqi, Nayef, and commandant Kamel – who dominated the council. They had contributed to Tiberias’ unusual avoidance of bloodshed, a situation they vainly hoped could persist. This illusion snapped in April 1948 when Zionist commandant, Zelig Optik took the murder of a Jewish citizen – whose culpability was never investigated – as an opportunity to declare war. Even as Tiberias was being overrun, its notables remained mired in denialism; when a peasant militia, hastily assembled by Mustafa Abu-Dis, tried to relieve them, Sidqi Tabari pled that they withdraw so that he could negotiate a ceasefire that never came. Well-meaning but naïve, the genteel Tabaris – as with most Palestinian notables of their generation – were simply unprepared for the style of total warfare that the Zionists, hardened and embittered after the traumatic Holocaust, had introduced for the first time in generations. It was ironic that Tiberias, prized for its traditional coexistence, was the first Palestinian town whose Arab population was systemically purged.
While the expulsion of Palestinians is not the main focus here, it should be noted that, in the worst traditions of total warfare, the Zionists were willing to resort to whatever means were necessary to maximize their conquests. To this extent, they were perfectly willing to employ massacres – most infamously but by no means exclusively at Dair Yasin, a village outside Jerusalem that had strenuously but vainly sought to avoid conflict – that would intimidate the broader population into flight. The geographic dispersal and scope of these massacres suggests, contrary to what was until recently the standard Israeli position, a broader strategy by the Haganah and other Zionist militias. To be sure, some Arab citizens, particularly those who could afford to such as the Haifan upper classes, had been trickling from the Palestinian tinderbox for some months. Others in the rural areas may indeed have fled before the expected Arab governmental offensive, while word-of-mouth, sometimes ironically stirred by Zionist agents, may have prompted other flights. But these explanations, which have been conventionally employed by Israeli propagandists and many pro-Israel historians to explain the mass exodus, were not unique to the 1948 war and do not explain the mass flight adequately. It is apparent from a vast but often studiously ignored microhistorical record that the Zionist offensives of spring and summer 1948 involved, to a far greater extent than any Arab provocation, mass slaughter and calculated expulsion, on a scale regionally unmatched until the current Syrian war.
Conquest and calamity in the mandate’s dying days
A major Jerusalem offensive began when the Haganah force in its besieged western district attempted to break out towards the Jihad Army strongpoint at the hilltop Qastal castle. It was during this campaign that Zionist militias had butchered the population of Dair Yasin; days later, an Arab militia in northwest Jerusalem, captained by Adil Najjar, slaughtered a Jewish medical convoy approaching the northern city, an atrocity that significantly embarrassed the Arabs and – notably in this polarized atmosphere – led to profound apologies from various Arab officials and civilians alike. But it was southwest Jerusalem where battle was joined. With ammunition running low – for the Hussainis’ pockets were not bottomless – Abdul-Qadir had already travelled to Damascus to obtain more. The military council , chaired by Ismail Safwat, was theoretically meant to liaison between the Arab governments and mujahidin; however, whether because of Abdul-Qadir’s links to the mufti or simply their inability to channel resources, they failed to do so. The Jihad commander, suspecting the former motive, exploded: accusing the council as traitors and announcing his intentions to attain martyrdom at the frontline, he stalked back to Jerusalem. Here he found the frontline in turmoil, as the Haganah had broken through to Qastal; Abdul-Qadir lost his life in the bold but unsuccessful counterattack on the fort, and the size of his funeral attested to his unique popularity and respect in the region.
The Jihad Army’s front, now shared between Abdul-Qadir’s loyal lieutenants Kamel Uraiqat at the western road and Ibrahim Abu-Dayyah at the southern district, survived a little longer, its dwindling ammunition stocks briefly refurbished by Uraiqat’s blistering assault on a Haganah convoy from Tel Aviv. But that could not last long; eventually a ferocious Haganah assault overran the southern district. The themes familiar from this conflict came into play here: Abu-Dayyah, then returning for an ammunition resupply, was captured by the British garrison before he could return to the frontline. The district included several Arab consulates, and its conquest prompted consternation by the Arab governments, even Amman. But it was not till the Haganah had conquered the district that the British garrison forced a ceasefire. Haganah commander David Shaltiel, in desperate straits only weeks earlier, could view the results with satisfaction, and turn his attention to the remaining portions of Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, from the West Bank Fawzi Qawuqji had made a number of vain assaults on the kibbutz overlooking the road to the Haifa port. Qawuqji’s concern was not baseless. For such an important city, the wealthy port Haifa was chronically undermanned; the fact that its citizens could afford to sail away and avoid the war contributed to a slow trickle even before the Haganah assault. Rural mujahidin militias captained by Abu Mahmoud Safouri and Taufiq Ibrahim had arrived to bolster the garrison, but they were partly barred off by the British commander, Hugh Stockwell, and at any length the garrison still numbered less than a thousand fighters. The Arab council was split and indecisive, its veteran leader Rasheed Ibrahim having set sail after disputes with his peers, and the Inqadh commandant – a Lebanese officer called Amin Izzaddin – unable to assert control. Compounding this was the suspect attitude of Hugh Stockwell, who removed his buffer forces in apparent coordination with the Haganah. Haganah commander Moshe Carmel then mounted a brutal assault, which the Arabs were in no way prepared to face. The most Stockwell would do was to urge the Arabs to accept a ceasefire. But there was nobody both willing and able to accept such a ceasefire. The trickle from Haifa had become a flood; escapees by boat included the magistrate Ahmed Khalil, Izzaddin himself, and a day later his replacement Yunis Nafaa. In their wake, Carmel’s fighters let loose on the populace to accelerate the flight, pillaging and killing on sight; by the end, only some four thousand Arabs remained in what had once been the stronghold of the Palestinian merchant class.
Izzaddin and Nafaa did not abscond immediately; their next stop, as with the Haganah force bearing northwards, was the historic port Acre. The sudden influx of refugees, and the tales they brought of the pursuing Zionists, had already prompted the town’s rapid disintegration. By the time Izzaddin and Nafaa arrived, they inherited a garrison that numbered only a few score. Needless to say, resistance was negligible; within a blink Carmel had conquered Acre, Izzaddin and Nafaa making their final northward voyage into Lebanon. Further inland, the Inqadh fronts in the Galilee were also collapsing. Spying the incoming Israeli assault, Adib Shishakli tried to divert it by dispatching his brother Salah on raids against kibbutzes near the border. Ignoring this – for the kibbutzes were never in serious danger – the Haganah commander Yigael Alon bulldozed through the Galilee. The mujahidin’s morale completely collapsed with Safad’s conquest; with its commandant Sari Funaish missing, his second-in-command Amil Jumaeen announced the surrender. Further east, Haganah forces – interestingly, supported in part by airstrikes – also overran the besieged village Baysan, where, reflecting a common pattern, the Inqadh commandant Ahmed Jayousi had struggled to contain divisions in a small, under-equipped garrison.
Apart from the northern coast and the Galilee, there was one other major stronghold captured by the Zionists before the British withdrawal. Yaffa had been perched uncomfortably in an overwhelmingly Jewish neighbourhood outside Tel Aviv. Morale remained low, not simply because of Jewish encirclement, but the conduct of the Iraqi Inqadh forces captained by Adil Najamuddin. This reached such a point where Fawzi Qawuqji had to replace Najamuddin with a locally born Lebanese officer, Michel Issa. Najamuddin, refusing to obey a former subordinate, sailed off in indignation with his entire contingent. This took place just before the Zionist assault. The Haganah had not, apparently, originally intended to attack Yaffa just yet; they were drawn into it when the more extreme Irgun militia initiated the charge. The battle outside the city was remarkably fierce, with hundreds killed as the garrison, reinforced in the hinterland by Hasan Salameh commanding the peasants, put up a fierce fight. But it was a lost cause; Jaffa was largely cut off, and though the garrison appealed to the Arab governments none could come to the rescue in such an isolated area. British mediation tried to staunch the wound with a ceasefire, but fearing accusations of treason none of Yaffa’s notables, except Issa, signed it. Issa was eventually last to leave the city; only Salameh’s local lieutenant, Nazir, remained in a rapidly shrunken Arab contingent from a population whose disappearance testified to the costs of endemic factionalism.
With the mujahidin position at Jerusalem in peril, meanwhile, the Arab Legion at long last moved. The Legion had based itself in the West Bank under British approval, preparing for an imminent offensive on Jerusalem; an appeal from Hebron’s militia leader and shaikh, Muhammad Jabri, prompted another unit’s dispatch to the city. In contrast to most Legion units, these forces – at Ramullah and Hebron respectively – were captained by native officers, Sidqi Jundi and Abdullah Tal. The Arab position in Jerusalem was increasingly shaky; Fadil Rasheed, backed up by the Syrian Muslim Brethren leader Mustafa Sibai, ordered the forces to concentrate in the southeast Old City where they would hold out against the advancing Haganah. Jihad leader Khaled Hussaini put his forces under Rasheed’s direction and slipped south to meet Tal. The British force had not quite left yet, but the Legion’s officers – particularly Tal, who had a deserved reputation for independence and initiative – were now chomping at the bit. The Legion force first attacked a kibbutz bestriding the road from Hebron to Jerusalem, which had stubbornly withstood mujahidin harassment for months but now found itself outgunned, and abandoned by the Haganah, which preferred to focus on Jerusalem itself in preparation for the coming battle. The kibbutz’s defenders, rejecting Khaled’s offer to negotiate their exit, instead surrendered to Tal – but were slaughtered en masse shortly thereafter.
The next day, governor Cunningham left Haifa and the thirty-year British occupation of Palestine came to an end with an air of almost embarrassed inconspicuousness. “The Union Jack was lowered,” wrote Jack Marlowe, “and with the speed of an execution and the silence of a ship that passes in the night British rule in Palestine came to an end.” It was an ignominious end to a troubled, divisive tenure. Britain left as its legacy a trail of impending slaughter.
Ibrahim Moiz, copyright
28 May 2018
The 1947-48 conflict in Palestine, which permanently uprooted hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants and established the Jewish state of Israel on the remains of the former British occupation, is without a doubt the single most notorious event in modern Islamic history. The loss of this precious territory and the cataclysmic, and sustained, expulsion and repression of its native populace has received more attention than most events of the twentieth century, and is known among Arabs as the Nakba, or calamity. The Zionist conquests of spring 1948, the foundation of Israel, and its subsequent repulsion of a badly organized and disparate pan-Arab offensive that summer continue to profoundly affect and shape international politics and public memory seven decades later.
This three-part article aims to trace the political and military history of the Nakba, explaining how and why both Palestinian forces and the regional Arab governments failed to check the conquest of Israel. It is not a review of the major population changes caused by the Zionist conquests and their systemic colonization; nor is it a question of the conflict’s conduct under international agreements and international law (which are neither here nor there yet for political reasons dominate much of the analytical literature); nor is it a polemic about the campaign’s rights and wrongs – though, as should become clear, I sympathize entirely with the Palestinians in this matter. It is rather an attempt to summarize and explain the main political-military events of the Nakba both in a Palestinian and regional context. Because the focus is primarily on whom I consider the (very flawed) protagonists in the tale – that is, the Muslim, Arab, and/or Palestinian side – there will be little in-depth exploration of internal politics and organization among the Zionists – though it is obvious that they were politically, organizationally, diplomatically, and militarily far ahead of their opponents. The first part of this article focuses on the buildup to 1947-48.
Israeli, and pro-Zionist, literature has unsurprisingly dominated in the aftermath of their conquest; for several decades it was virtually unchallenged in the English language, though this is no longer the case. The idea of a tiny, embattled Jewish underdog resisting a voracious, concerted Arab assault bears no resemblance to what actually transpired, but remains a popular one partly because it is politically convenient for Tel Aviv to regurgitate. At the same time, anti-Zionist literature has not been averse to rhetoric or exaggeration, partly because political champions of the anti-Zionist cause tended to interpret the events as befitted their particular ideologies – pan-Arab socialism, Islamism, royalism, communism, and so on – and partly because it is strongly emotive. I cannot promise strict neutrality, but I shall certainly do my best to give a comprehensive and intellectually honest account.
Palestine and the region after the Second World War
The British and French empires, which had conquered and dominated the politics of the region after the collapse of Ottoman rule and the First World War, were dealt a severe blow by the costs of the Second World War, one that made their continued occupation in the Levant unsustainable. This historic region had, of course, been carved up into specific enclaves – Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan, and Palestine – among whom Paris had ruled the first pair by “mandate” and Britain the latter pair in addition to indirectly dominating politics in Iraq and Masr.
A generation of largely elite “nationalists” (for want of a better word) had occupied an ambiguous position vis-à-vis this European domination. This ambiguity was epitomized by the Sharifi Hashimi rulers in Transjordan, particularly, and Iraq. Descended from the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bestow peace and blessings upon him), they had revolted against Ottoman rule with British assistance in the vain hope that they would rule an unspecified united Arabian realm, not necessarily limited to but certainly including the Fertile Crescent. This dream had been quite cruelly punctured by the Entente, however, and the family had to content themselves with Iraq – under strict British supervision against the tumult of a restless society and political class – and the Transjordanian enclave. Abdullah I bin Hussein, ruler of this small, poor desert enclave, could nonetheless dream of outliving the European mandates that so inhibited him and establishing control over, at the very least, the Levant. Hashimi ambitions were a very real factor in regional politics and would remain so until the 1950s.
Abdullah I’s most conspicuous competitors at the time were the other monarchies in the region. The ambitious Saudi monarchy to the south had already shown an expansionist inclination on several occasions, and was engaged at one point or another against most neighbours, including Transjordan. It was only British protection towards its most favoured Arab client that held the Saudis at bay. In Masr, meanwhile, Farouk bin Fuad I – scion of the Albanian Pasha dynasty that had dominated every competitor, except British protectionism, since the nineteenth century, was also opposed to Hashimi extensions of their influence.
But there was also an increasingly relevant non-royal challenge. This came largely from private political actors. Elite families – comprising landowners, merchants, clan leaders, and magistrates – had dominated localized politics, particularly in Syria and Palestine, since the Ottoman period; they marshalled considerable opposition to European domination and were therefore instrumental in the “nationalist” movements against the mandates. Joining and sometimes competing with them were military officers, preachers, and other private actors from humbler origins. None of these categories were monolithic and often local concerns and rivalry trumpeted grand strategy and ideological blocs. To give one example, the notables of the merchant city Aleppo tended to support Hashimi expansionism, because it would link them up to Iraq, yet the notables in Jerusalem, particularly its infamous mufti Amin Hussaini, were intensely suspicious of the Hashimis.
Bedraggled by the Second World War, the once-invincible Entente powers began to plan their exit from the Levant. France quit Lebanon in November 1943 and Syria in April 1946; Britain quit Jordan in May 1946, though its subtler and more insidious policy of “indirect rule” meant it still exerted major unofficial influence in Jordan as in Iraq and Masr. The question of Palestine prompted far more controversy than the other colonies, because the mandate period had seen a major influx of Jewish immigration, mainly from Europe where entrenched persecution culminated in and provoked the Zionist movement, a largely European-influenced ethnonationalist movement calling for the return of Jewry to the ancient homeland of the Hebrews. The Levant has always been a diverse, multi-confessional land, but the steep rise of Jewish settlements under British rule prompted tensions and unrest between these newcomers and the settled Arab-speaking inhabitants that ran parallel to native revolt against British rule. Jewish organization into “kibbutzes” – essentially fortified farmers’ complexes in the countryside – would give them a major advantage in the upcoming war.
Zionist organization outflanked their opponents in other ways. At an international level, Zionist diplomats cultivated ties with Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and at the United Nations, building on a process that had begun decades earlier. The horrific experience of the Holocaust, and the systemic extermination of millions of Jews by its antagonists, lent further weight to their claim for the urgency in a Jewish homeland; the fact that it was far away suited Europe perfectly. This was accompanied by “civilizational” appeals that continue to the present day, drawing on European supremacist ideas that portrayed the proposed Israeli state as an outpost of civilization amid oriental barbarians, and drawing on socialist ideas of collectivism and progressivism that appealed to the Soviets. Both blocs in the emergent Cold War probably saw the skilled, organized, and determined Zionist movement as inevitable victors over the scattered local Arabs, and sought to build ties with it as a potentially useful strategic partner.
Though the Arab League, founded during 1945 by Abdel-Rahman Azzam at Cairo, had been meant to present the Arab governments en bloc, in fact it was complicated by internal rivalry. The Hashimis, especially Abdullah I, saw it as a vehicle of Masri influence. Nor was this Transjordan’s only concern: they shared a bitter mutual rivalry with Amin Hussaini, the ambitious Jerusalem mufti. Though originally instated during British rule, Amin – scion of one of the major elite families in Palestine – had engaged in several anti-British revolts since then – most notoriously collaborating with Nazi Germany during the Second World War, a move that would prompt Israeli propagandists to portray the Palestinians as Nazi-collaborating anti-semites en masse thereafter – and had a knack for portraying his rivals, not always without basis, as traitors and puppets. The Hussainis had immense influence on the ground, largely marshalled by his relatives, the mufti spent most of the war in exile at Masr, though this did not prevent him from restless schemes and attacks on his rivals.
Abdullah I was hardly less ambitious, of course, and to compete with the anti-Hashimi political groups sought to control military organs. Both Hashimi dominions – Iraq and Transjordan – boasted the most efficient Arab armies, trained by British officers, so Abdullah tried to leverage this: his conduct in the war can be partly explained by his ambition, directly opposing that of Hussaini’s, to annex Palestine to Transjordan as part of a larger Levantine realm. The Hashimis played a major role in the formation of a military council, based at Damascus and containing officers from the various Arab armies, which would transfer weapons from their governments to the frontline. The council’s composition revealed its pro-Hashimi bias: there was no Masri member, while Iraqis provided both its chairman Ismail Safwat and its eminence grise, the former Iraqi prime minister Taha Hashimi.
Militias and councils: localized organization in Palestine
Career officers also played a major role in the composition of the parallel Inqadh Army, a theoretically paramilitary force founded by the experienced but bombastic Levantine adventurer Fawzi Qawuqji, who had fought in the Ottoman army and in every anti-European revolt – at Palestine, Syria, and Iraq – since then, as well as serving a brief stint with the Saudi army. His braggadocio and lack of political connections (for both Hussaini and the Jordanian monarchy despised him) made Qawuqji an easy scapegoat after the Zionist conquest, but this is not entirely fair: while he was hardly a brilliant strategist, nor was he a total incompetent. It is unlikely that a more astute commander would have fared much better, and his commitment to the cause was unquestionable.
The Inqadh Army did, however, completely fail to live up to its advertised raison d’etre: to “professionalize” the Palestinian resistance. The rote military doctrine and structure learnt by its officers was totally unsuited to the rather messier arena of non-professional militia forces, and it was fatally decentralized. In spite of the mutual disdain between Qawuqji and Hussaini, for instance, several Inqadh ground officers – such as Ihsan Kamulmaz in Safad and Amin Izzaddin in Haifa – sympathized with the mufti. Similar autonomy was exercised in practical matters: Inqadh’s nominal vassal in the critically important hinterland, the Druze chieftain Shakib Wahab, was entirely independent. Rivalry between competing officers also hampered Inqadh effectiveness, as we shall see: at Safad, the Syrian officer Kamulmaz and the Jordanian officer Sari Funaish were bitter opponents, while Yaffa’s Iraqi commandant Adil Najamuddin resented his local-born lieutenant, Michel Issa, a Lebanese officer of lower rank but greater local influence. The role of professional soldiers was important in training the overwhelmingly irregular Palestinian forces, but politically and strategically most career officers were simply unable to exercise authority and direct their forces in a substantial manner. This contributed to and was especially complicated by Inqadh’s poor logistics, which meant that units, particularly those from outside the area such as Iraqis, occasionally resorted to plunder and stirred resentment.
The other major militia force was the Jihad Muqaddas Army, politically linked to the mufti Amin Hussaini but commanded by his far more respected nephew Abdul-Qadir. The Hussainis’ considerable grassroots links, owing to the family’s prestige particularly around Jerusalem, helped them build a fairly effective organization in and around the sacred city. Abdul-Qadir assumed responsibility for besieging the Jewish-majority western Jerusalem area, while his cousin Khaled Hussaini commanded a sizeable contingent inside the city. Another major front lay in the hinterland outside Yaffa and Tel Aviv, where Hasan Salameh, a longtime Hussaini contact from the anti-British revolt, commanded an important, if irregular and thinly spread, front of clansmen and peasants. Yet another veteran from that revolt, Taufiq Ibrahim, founded a similar front in the Galilee. Yet another Hussaini contact with strong local links was Jamal Sourani, whose father Moussa had been former Ghazza mayor; he founded a front in the Ghazza strip and arranged for an Iraqi volunteer, Abdul-Haq Azzawi, to found another sizeable front outside Haifa; soon a local leader, Abu Mahmoud Safouri, replaced Abdul-Haq. The Jihad Muqaddas Army, however, was even less coordinated than the Inqadh Army; it effectively constituted autonomous militias drawing on their local linkages. And while this localism and their anti-British experience gave them more credibility than the Inqadh Army, the fact that their fighters were overwhelmingly volunteers made organization difficult, as the size and strength of the militias constantly fluctuated.
Apart from these two organizations, most of the Palestinian countryside and towns had smaller, uncoordinated garrisons. Their leaders were a disparate and diverse bunch. Tariq Afriqi, an East African soldier who established a front in the Ghazza strip, had the same Ottoman roots and Saudi experience as Qawuqji. Muhammad Hunaidi, who energetically tried to organize Haifa’s defences until he was killed in the spring, had recently quit the Jordanian army. Meanwhile the Hebron militia was founded by a shaikh with no military background, Muhammad Jabri.
One political organ that the mufti attempted to bring, largely unsuccessfully, under his control was the town council. Across Palestine, towns established local councils, led by local notables, that were theoretically under the control of the exiled Palestinian government but in practice quite separate, and indeed often fiercely opposed. Again uncoordinated, these councils tended to take a more conciliatory approach towards the Jewish populace, even at times Zionist militants, than the Arab militias. This could be done from pragmatism – as was the case with Tiberias’ eponymous Tabari family, who were anxious to maintain the tense peace in a Jewish-majority town – or an expectation that Transjordan’s army, the Arab Legion, would come to the rescue, until which hostilities had to be minimized. Yusuf Haikal from Yaffa, Rasheed Ibrahim from Haifa, and Anwar Nusaiba from Jerusalem clung to this idea, holding out for a Jordanian reconnaissance even as they prepared their towns’ defenses.
Competing agendas and the Arab governments
That Abdullah I wanted to add Palestine to his realm was, as we have seen, no secret, and a source of tension with both Palestinians such as the Hussainis and non-Hashimi Arab governments. Abdullah has sometimes stood accused of having conspired with the Zionist movement against the Palestinians. This is an exaggeration, since Jordan did fight fiercely against the nascent Israeli state, but what is certain is that Abdullah showed absolutely no enthusiasm and indeed considerable hostility towards Muslim-Arab Palestine independent of his rule and separate from Transjordan, particularly one that he feared would be dominated by Amin Hussaini.
Even had Abdullah been more sympathetic, his options – as a British client – were strictly limited. The efficient Arab Legion remained dominated by British officers, including its commander John Glubb. The quintessential British Arabist, “Glubb Pasha” had a sympathetic – if patronizing and somewhat self-serving – attitude towards the Arabs and despised the Zionists, but should push come to shove his loyalty to the British crown trumped everything else. While he led the Arab Legion well enough and had established a strong rapport with its Arab fighters, he seems to have believed, as he would write after the war, that the entire venture was a foolhardy one, for which he blamed the Arab League in general and Egypt – Amman’s arch-rival, where mufti Amin Hussaini remained as a state guest – in particular.
Glubb epitomized Britain’s ambiguity in the conflict. The receding empire was anxious to wash its hands of the impending bloodbath while maintaining as much influence in its aftermath as possible. Both sides, Arabs and Jews, would accuse the British government and army of assisting or enabling the other side. The Arab argument holds far more water: as we shall see, British forces intervened several times to block off Arab offensives on the pretext that those could wait till the mandate ended in May 1948, yet they made no real attempt to block off similar assaults from the Zionist Haganah; this even as Zionist leaders organized anti-British boycotts, murders, and subversion. Evidently the British saw the mainstream Zionists, as represented in the Haganah, as a safeguard against the more extreme elements such as the militia founded by Avraham Stern; in fact, the Haganah proved to be enablers. London also backed international diplomacy, via the United Nations, that was tilted in favour of the Zionist movement. At the same time, while British macro-policy was definitely tilted, whether by design or circumstance, towards the Zionists, their stake in Jordan necessitated tolerance for Arab forces so long as they followed Amman. British officers such as Norman Lash and Bob Slade played an important role in the Arab Legion’s campaign, and by all accounts fought with unreserved determination.
Britain, in foreseeing an imminent catastrophe, proved shrewder than most Arab governments. Locked in their disputes, many leading Arab politicians expected till the very end that war would be averted, an expectation that permitted them to bloviate without reserve. An exception was the Arab League founder Abdel-Rahman Azzam, but his attempts to forge a common front were perhaps inevitably viewed with suspicion by Cairo’s rivals. There was more active mobilization by Azzam’s relative through marriage, the Muslim Brethren founder Hasan Banna. This Islamist group, most influential in Masr – where it had a considerable following among younger army officers, including the royal family’s relative-by-marriage Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, as well as broader society – had earned the hostility of the still-influential British embassy and the suspicions of many elite Masri statesmen. But this suspicion was temporarily shunted aside, and the Brethren would form a sizeable unit, captained by Abdel-Aziz, that would be attached to the professional army. While the Brethren’s influence in the Levant was smaller, its Syrian leader Mustafa Sibai, Palestinian leader Kamel Sharif, and Jordanian leader Abdul-Latif Abu-Qurrah played important supporting roles in the 1948 campaign.
Tolerance for the Brethren was motivated partly by necessity, since few Arab armies were in a proper state of readiness. Masr’s large army was largely untested. The Syrians were battle-hardened from the revolts against France, but their army was only a year old and therefore lacked both organization and, in particular, ammunition, which would prove a major issue. As the only republic that dispatched a force of any size (republican Lebanon’s tiny army mainly contented itself with maintaining Inqadh supply lines on the border), Damascus was moreover remarkably unstable in its politics. The misfortunes and vicissitudes of the war, and its tragic aftermath, would play a particularly jarring role in Syria, whose people were perhaps the most invested in their Palestinian neighbours. The Iraqi army was both experienced and efficient, and in fact played an outsize role in the war. Officially, the Arab forces’ joint commander was an Iraqi officer, Nuraddin Mahmoud, who incidentally shared his name with the Zangid amir, Nuraddin Mahmoud b. Zangi, who had fought off the crusaders exactly eight centuries earlier. But Iraq’s Hashimi monarchy, still largely dependent on London, therefore suffered from similar constraints as Jordan, along with the fact that it was geographically remote and itself in some political turmoil. In spite of Nuraddin’s official role, he only really captained the Iraqi contingent, since there was minimal coordination between the Arab armies.
While the major Zionist force, the Haganah, was large, well-armed, more or less cohesive, well-connected, and imbued with a ruthless determination only hardened by the desperation of the recent Holocaust, their opponents – both militias and armies – were completely uncoordinated, generally under-armed, and exceptionally fragmented on both a political and military level. In retrospect the tragic outcome of the war should be no surprise.
A SIX-DAY SHOCKER AT 50: THE ARAB WORLD AND ISRAEL’S 1967 CAMPAIGN
Few events in modern history have had the impact on both the popular imagination as well as regional politics as Israel’s six-day juggernaut versus three Arab neighbours during the summer of 1967. As that war, which led to conquests from the territories of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and the stifling occupation of millions of Palestinians, reaches its fiftieth anniversary, it’s worth a revisit.
Setting the stage
It is often claimed that the crushing defeat suffered by the leading Arab statesman of the day, Egyptian dictator Gamal Nasser, spelt the end of the lure of the particular brand of pan-Arab socialism that he had marshalled as his ruling philosophy (1). This claim needs a caveat. Nasser, while no doubt the most charismatic and influential Arab leader at the time, had spent most of the past decade overcoming dissidence from a diverse cross-section of actors. Not only did these include the “reactionary”, broadly pro-Western monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, but many other regimes and non-state actors as well. These included the Baathist regime in Syria, which had feuded fiercely with and overcome Nasser’s Syrian sympathizers over 1963-64 (2); the Syrian “conservative” political class, largely dormant by now but which had helped spoil Nasser’s shortlived United Arab Republic (3); Iraqi dictator Abdul-Karim Qasim, who had studiously tried to avoid joining that same republic; his purportedly sympathetic successors Arif brothers Abdul-Salam and Abdul-Rahman, who in spite of their rhetorical support proved rather more conservative and in fact fought off two coup attempts by Nasser’s Iraqi sympathizers over 1965-66 (4) ; the Iraqi Baathists, against whom Nasser had helped the Arif brothers earlier and who plotted their revenge; the Muslim Brethren movement, which Nasser had banned after seizing power during 1954 (5); the Fateh Palestinian militia, which had worked quite independently of Nasser’s own specially designated Palestinian “government”, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) (6); the newly independent Algerian regime, which in spite of modest Egyptian support during their struggle for independence proved sharply critical of Nasser’s leadership (7); even the republican rebels on whose purported behalf Nasser had invaded Yemen, who turned out to be more conservative and resistant to Egyptian tutelage than he would have wanted (8). 1967, in short, was not 1957, where Nasser’s popularity and appeal had been overwhelming; plenty of faultlines had emerged in the intervening decade.
The divisions in the Arab camp help explain in part why they struggled, yet the year immediately preceding the war (1966-67) had given Israel cause for concern. Egypt still remained the leader in the anti-Zionist camp, and if that camp was divided, its faultlines were at least papered over. During February 1966, one of the many feuds that had beset the Syrian Baathists resulted in the rise of a strongly leftist faction, led in name by Nuraddin Atasi, a Sunni Muslim figurehead in accordance with the constitution, but in fact by a junta of mostly minoritarian officers, chief but by no means undisputed leader among them Salah Jadid, who competed fiercely for influence, partly over assistance to pan-Arab causes. During November 1966, Syria joined a defence pact with Egypt. Moreover, various elements in the junta – notably Ahmad Suwaidani, the leftist Sunni army commander who envisioned Fateh as part of a “people’s war” along newly acquired Maoist ideas, and more recently the right-leaning Alawite army minister Hafez Assad – competed for sponsorship of the major Palestinian guerrilla faction independent of Egypt, Fateh. (9)
Unlike the PLO, whose leader Ahmed Shuqairy was beholden to Cairo, Fateh had emerged largely independently and contained a variety of strands – rightist, leftist, Islamist, Baathist – spread across the Muslim world and Europe, whose common theme was Palestinian nationalism and a general aversion to pan-Arab pressure. Nonetheless, by 1966 the Syrians succeeded through a mixture of coercion and enticement into coopting certain Fateh leaders, such as Yasser Arafat, then a dashing field commander who cared little for the intricacies of regional geopolitics and was willing to work with whoever would have him (10). In order to avert Israeli retaliation strikes, which were frequently brutal and disproportionate, Syria pressed Fateh to raid from across Jordanian borders, thereby putting the pro-Western Jordanian monarch Hussein bin Talal under serious pressure. Though its army was quite efficient, Jordan was in no position to offer a serious challenge to a hypermilitarized Israeli opponent that enjoyed support from both Cold War powers, but especially America (11). Though the Israelis tended to be more permissive towards Jordan than other Arab states, by the end of May 1967 Hussein felt insecure enough to sign a peace treaty with Nasser, prompted in part by an Israeli raid across the border. The arrangement they worked out put Jordan’s army at the command of an Egyptian officer, Abdel-Monem Riad, who was both unfamiliar with the local terrain and handicapped by his subservience to the Egyptian command.
As had become the case with Fateh in Syria, the Palestinian cause was largely subordinate to Egyptian security concerns, thereby depriving the PLO of serious strategy and its leader Ahmed Shuqairy any real influence. By contrast a third Palestinian group, the strongly leftist alliance of Palestinian militias, the Arab Nationalist Movement led by the Marxist ideologue George Habash, was subordinate to Egypt by choice rather than coercion, genuinely believing that Nasser’s leadership would liberate Palestine and unite the Arabs. (12)
Egypt was, of course, the strongest of the Arab states and the major concern for Israel. But it, too, faced serious challenges. Notwithstanding Nasser’s increasingly leftist politics over the decade, the “revolutionary” regime had turned into an aristocracy of its own. The nature of the military junta was such that its army’s top levels had become seriously politicized. In particular, Nasser’s deputy, Abdel-Hakim Amer, a lifelong friend whom he had humoured and indulged, had become a contender for power. Amer’s lavish financial favours and genuine bonhomie covered up his serious deficiencies as a military commander and made him immensely popular in the army, to the extent that Nasser could not dismiss him for fear of inciting a mutiny. At the same time, the army’s performance was distinctly unimpressive, as displayed by the war in Yemen, where modestly armed tribesmen routinely thwarted them. Moreover, in order to oversee the brutal repression of dissident groups, notably Islamists and most famously Sayyid Qutb, Egypt had constructed a sinister security apparatus whose chiefs – the wily spymaster Salah Nasser and the newly appointed army minister Shamseddin Badran – saw themselves as kingmakers. As in Syria, the tussle for power determined Cairo’s stance towards Israel. With nobody seriously believing that Egypt could challenge Israel yet, the dispatch of a massive corps to the Sinai Peninsula was done for purely ceremonial reasons. (13)
Preferring to see, and portray, itself as an island of civilization on a barbaric frontier, Israel was naturally a militarized state, largely surrounded by hostile Arab states from its bloody inception. This facilitated a siege mentality, partly strong among the founding generation of Israeli army officers who had fought in 1948 and acquired enormous influence and military expertise as genuinely skilful, if usually utterly ruthless, soldiers. This group, epitomized by the army minister Moshe Dayan, was only strengthened in their argument that Israel was under threat by the Egyptian mobilization. On 5 June 1967, therefore, they sprang.
The decisive blows of the war, which set the tone for the next week, occurred at the start, when Israeli air marshal Mordechai Hod ordered a mass bombardment of the Egyptian airforce before it had even left the ground. Egypt’s air defences had been sadly neglected, its deficiencies known to both the incompetent air marshal Sidki Mahmoud, occupying that position for over a decade, and Nasser, who refused to upgrade it for fear of antagonizing the United States beyond a limit. Mahmoud, together with fellow military oligarch Abdel-Hakim Amer and the army strategist, Anwar Qady, were actually in mid-flight when the bombardment of Egypt’s air fleet began (14); by the time they landed several hours later, the army had plunged into turmoil. (15)
Worse yet, Egypt’s state-run propaganda, and the outright dishonest reports filed by Amer and other officers, wrought havoc with battlefield coordination and dragged their allies into the morass (16). They reported to Riad, whose Jordanian strategy was based on the assumption that Egypt’s army would advance beyond the Sinai and into the Negev desert to bolster Jordan, that the Egyptian airforce had recovered and pounded the Israelis. Riad therefore decided, against the vocal advice of the Jordanian front commander Muhammad Salim and operations director Atef Majali, to encircle Israeli-held Jerusalem by the south, where Egypt’s army could catch up, rather than the north. (17)
If Egyptian mendacity betrayed the Arab alliance, so too did Syrian bluster. In spite of Syria’s militant rhetoric preceding the war and reassurances of reinforcements, Hafez Assad kept the army firmly away from the battlefield. An Iraqi unit commanded by Hasan Naqib (18) and even a Saudi battalion did make their way towards Jordan, but they were so badly bombarded by Hod’s airforce that they could make no real contribution. With the Syrian front completely safe, the Israeli commander there, Elad Peled, instead turned east, attacking Jinin and Nablus in a three-pronged advance. This meant that Jordan was now confronted not only in Jerusalem, where Riad had unwisely ordered an attack against a larger Israeli contingent, but also the West Bank. The Jordanian forces here were rather thinly spread, and when Peled attacked the Jinin commandant Awad Khalidi, cutting him off from Nablus further south, Riad was forced to change tack. He had earlier dispatched a crack cavalry regiment, captained by Rakan Inad, south to meet the expected Egyptian forces; now he ordered him back north to the West Bank in an urgent, gruelling charge overnight under the Israeli air fleet’s fire.
Simultaneously, Yeshayahu Gavish, commanding the Egyptian front, dispatched a three-pronged attack into the Sinai. Each prong was commanded by a veteran of the 1956 war who knew the Sinai well. Israel Tal, at the northern prong, swept through Rafah and west along the coast, an airlifted commando regiment landing behind Egyptian lines to batter the artillery ensconced there. The southern prong, captained by the brutal but brilliant field commander Ariel Sharon, headed straight for the central Sinai fortress at Abu Ugaila. In between, Avraham Yoffe worked his way through the sand dunes, heading for the southern end of the Egyptian frontline. (10)
Egypt could make no cohesive response. In addition to the bombardment of their forces, their command structure had fatal flaws. On the brink of war, Amer had superceded the Sinai corps commander, Salaheddin Mohsen, with a newly formed “front command” under the leadership of Abdel-Mohsen Murtagy (20), a veteran of the Yemen war completely unfamiliar with the Sinai peninsula and thereby forced to play by ear. It was never clear who was in charge – the completely incompetent Amer made no clarification – and the Egyptian command was flung into confusion.
By the second morning of the war, Tal captured the important garrison town Arrish, whose commander Abdel-Aziz Suleman had lost his life during a series of hard-fought battles along the coast. Himself continuing west towards the Suez Canal, Tal dispatched his vanguard, led by Shmuel Gonen, south to attack the Egyptian forces from behind while Sharon attacked from the front. Yoffe had already arrived here in improbably short time, routing an Egyptian reinforcement sent by Murtagy. Amer had left the strategic fortresses in the central Sinai, Abu Ugaila and Gebel Libny, to the respective command of his close friends Saadi Naguib and Othman Nassar, both of whom were later reported to be absent from the battlefield (21). Both forts were speedily overrun.
Yoffe now continued south, where the Egyptian cavalry, led by Abdel-Qader Hassan and Saadeddin Shazly, had started to fall back westwards towards the Suez Canal. At the eastern end of the Egyptian front, meanwhile, Gavish now attacked the Gaza strip. A fierce hand-to-hand battle ensued overnight – the garrison assisted by PLA units captained by Wajih Madani – but by the next morning the Gaza commandant Abdel-Monem Hosny was forced to cede this heavily populated region, mindful of the massacre that the Israelis had inflicted in 1967 after facing prolonged resistance. (22)
At Jerusalem, meanwhile, the Israeli front commander Uzi Narkiss had effectively surrounded the Jordanian garrison – advancing, as the Jordanian officers had feared, by north. Narkiss, born in Jerusalem, had bitterly resented the failure to capture its eastern portion during the 1948 war, where he had fought in the Israeli militia. Now he had a prime opportunity to fulfil his ambition . With the Israeli airforce bombarding Jordanian reinforcements out of action, Narkiss was able to dispatch a force by both air and ground to the city’s north. The ground force overran Latroun, a strategic fort that the Jordanians had successfully defended in 1948, and which linked East Jerusalem to the West Bank. The airborne regiment assailed the Jordanian garrison, whose commandant Atta Ali had no option but to withdraw into the Old City under siege.
In the West Bank, Peled had captured Jinin from Khalidi and could now look both south and east. To the south, the reinforcements led by Rakan had remarkably managed briefly not only to intercept but even push back the Israeli march on Nablus, but intense aerial bombardment at last wore them down (24). It was the east, the border with Jordan, that was an especial concern. By now, Riad was convinced that not only the West Bank but even Jordan itself was under threat by an enemy, particularly the ambitious army minister Dayan, who had made no secret of their desire to cross the river Jordan and maximize its conquests (25). He therefore ordered an urgent withdrawal back to Jordan, simultaneously appealing, along with the Jordanian monarch Hussein, to Nasser to call an international ceasefire. By the second day of the war, the wind had been totally knocked out of the once-proud Arab alliance’s sails.
With the Jordanian army evacuating the West Bank, Jerusalem commandant Atta realized he could not count on reinforcements. Early on the third morning, he slipped out of the Old City to join the wholescale Jordanian withdrawal. Narkiss’ aim of capturing Jerusalem in its entirety was realized, as the Israeli army took over the vacated garrison. The Palestinian mayor, Anwar Khatib, remained at Jerusalem, recounting the Jordanian side of the Jerusalem battle to his Israeli replacement, Chaim Hertsog, who in turn relied on it to write his history of the war (26). Within days, however, the Israeli garrison accused Khatib of trying to organize rebellious activity and banished him to Safad under a police escort (27). The Palestinian mayor’s experience was a revealing forebear to what his countrymen have escorted in the half-century since, living in what is in effect a brutally controlled police state.
The guns had fallen silent in the Holy Land, but the Sinai campaign was in full swing. In spite of an Egyptian ambush just short of the Suez Canal, the northern Israeli axis, now led by Israel Granit, had reached the Suez. The axis’ commander, Tal, had meanwhile moved south to join Yoffe in surrounding the Matla pass, a strategic path in the mountains of central Sinai that offered the Egyptian cavalry’s only route in and out. Mercilessly harassed by Sharon on the ground and Hod by air, the cavalry commanders Shazly and Hassan had vacated the central Sinai and were headed straight for the Matla pass. There Tal and Yoffe sprang their ambush, resulting in an utter massacre. Hundreds of tanks were constricted and destroyed in the ravine, bombarded from every side on the ground and by air. With Gaza already under Israeli control, it was quite clear that the Egyptian corps in the Sinai was destroyed. In total, at least ten thousand soldiers, and perhaps twice that number, were killed in the short campaign, let down by the bluster and incompetence of their leaders.
The fourth day of the war was the one where Gavish completed the Sinai conquest. From the Matla pass, Yoffe had already moved south, targeting the last Egyptian garrison in the Sinai. This was based at Sharm-el-Sheikh, which Yoffe had already captured during the 1956 war. This time the task was easier, for the garrison, captained by Abdel-Monem Khalil, had run out of supplies. With the command unresponsive to Khalil’s repeated requests for refurbishment, and by now quite unable to do anything about it, the garrison evacuated well before the Israeli arrival.
At the Egyptian “front” command, Murtagy held out against hope. One more cavalry force was dispatched to attack, and in fact it held off Sharon for some six hours, but this was merely an attempt to buy time. The rearguard commander, Sidki Ghoul, tried but failed to organize the withdrawal through Matla (28), and the Sinai cavalry was in wreckage, the Israelis capturing whatever tanks remained. Murtagy, who lacked military brilliance but not courage, was at last persuaded to vacate Ismaelea, lest the Israelis take one more high-profile captive to go with the thousands of captured soldiers. It was clear that Cairo, by now in complete panic, feared that Israel’s momentum would not stop at the Suez Canal.
In fact, the Israelis were quite happy to stop at the Suez Canal; both Egypt and Jordan were out for the count. They now turned to another rival. This was Syria, whose Baathist regime had done so much to instigate the war, but left its allies in the lurch. In any case, Assad’s hope that his abstinence would placate Israel from attack was disappointed. The Israelis had long coveted control of the Houla valley on the Syrian border, while the Golan Heights gave Syria enviable high ground on the border. Dayan, never shy to strike while the iron was hot, commissioned David Elazar to organize the campaign against Syria. Elazar also had available to him forces from the campaign against Jordan, who now moved north towards the southern Golan heights.
The campaign, again, began with an aerial bombardment by air marshal Hod. Thereafter Elazar’s deputy Dan Laner assaulted the northern Golan on several axes; the main cavalry force, captained by Albert Mandler, rolled up the steep Golan Heights in a frontal assault, while a smaller force led by Yona Efrat attacked the foothills of Mount Hermon, further north. The Syrian frontline commander, Ahmad Mir, had plenty of experience in the Baath junta’s internecine politics but not the battlefield; he advised commander Suwaidani that the frontline would collapse. Assad shared this view, as did Izzat Jadid, another veteran Baathist (and brother of strongman Salah) who served as commandant at Qunaitra, the major regional city. Izzat rejected out of turn, probably prudently, a proposition by Jadid’s lieutenant Awad Bagh to launch a nighttime counterattack. Qunaitra governor Abdul-Halim Khaddam began to organize the city’s withdrawal in anticipation of an Israeli takeover (29). This fear materialized the next day.
Pierced on several sides, the Syrian frontline collapsed as Suwaidani ordered a fullscale retreat. The southern end of the Golan Heights was taken without a fight. Further north, Mandler and the cavalry entered Qunaitra, largely vacated by this point yet with equipment abandoned, and looted both the equipment and the town at large; it remains a ghost town to the present day. Over the remainder of the day, Elazar mopped up the Golan Heights’ conquest before the United Nations kickstarted negotiations. These negotiations restored Qunaitra, but not the Heights, to Syrian control; the Baathist regime, for its part, refused to rebuild the town, preferring to systematically leave it ruined as a reminder of the Israeli forces’ rapacity. However true that is, it was equally true that Syria’s regime abandoned both the Heights and the other Arab states; the six-day war reflects badly on every Arab government therein, but perhaps none more so than Syria.
Only days after the Israeli conquest, former Syrian premier Shukri Quwatli – a vocal proponent of pan-Arab nationalism and onetime Nasser ally – passed away. It seemed a metaphor. The traumatic defeat marked a turning point in several ways. These did not necessarily include, as is often claimed, the destruction of pan-Arabism; I have already pointed out that that was in its twilight, though the shattering defeat no doubt crystallized its decay and turned away Arabs to its appeal.
Most potently, the defeat shattered Palestinian reliance on Arab states. There had already been some scepticism, mainly by Fateh, on the Arab states’ usefulness in the war versus Israel; now, however, Palestinian factions across the field saw self-reliant guerrilla activity as their only option. Of course they did not outright cut off ties to the Arab states, but the strong hold that Egypt had on the PLO and ANM, and the similar hold that Syria had attempted to replicate on Fateh, were a thing of the past. The vast refugee community swollen further by the Israeli conquest of the West Bank and Gaza would soon add to their numbers, and from now when Palestinian fidayin militias dealt with the states, it was as brazen near-equals, not clients. Fidayin raids on Israel, rarely translating into a decisive strategy but serving to draw their cause to the world stage, multiplied, and with this increased independence of state largesse came contempt for the states – most notably exemplified in the contest to capture Jordan from its monarchy during 1970. It was in attempting to address this latest inter-Arab dispute that Nasser succumbed to a heart failure. During his last years he had made some progress in correcting the excesses committed earlier, but his death came at another moment of crisis. (30)
Egypt. The Palestinians were not the only people disillusioned with the Arab governments; the 1967 defeat sharply threatened regime security. At Egypt, the officers and the security state that had wielded power for over a decade were now discredited. Nasser had publicly offered, perhaps sincerely, his resignation after the defeat; he did not end up resigning, but his powerful deputy Amer, who had long cultivated a parallel network in the army and security, was under threat. Amer appears to have lost heart entirely, but his allies – most notably army minister Shamseddin Badran and spymaster Salah Nasser, both former bulwarks of the regime (31), anticipated that their positions were threatened. They first forced Nasser to reject Amer’s resignation, and then worked feverishly to organize a coup in Amer’s favour. However, Nasser’s loyalists – most ruthlessly, Mohamed Fauzy, who as army commander had been superseded and frustrated by Amer’s control of the army – sprang first. Fauzy, taking the army minister’s role, both countered the coup attempt and imprisoned Amer – who was discovered to have committed a convenient suicide that September – and then ruthlessly purged the army. Many senior soldiers, including the incompetent air marshal Mahmoud and, less justifiably and even unfairly, the unfortunate rearguard commander Ghoul, were publicly tried and disgraced. (32)
Over the next few years, Egypt launched an extensive reorganization – geopolitically, where the dispute over Yemen with Saudi Arabia ended as Egypt withdrew that autumn – politically – as the aggressive Arab socialism of the preceding five years was toned down, a return to religiosity tolerated and sometimes even encouraged, and security barons, including the feared Badran and Salah, disgraced, though their instititutions left largely intact – and militarily. In this last respect, Egypt most notably upgraded its air defence, largely with Soviet-bought technology, and also, as shown during the 1973 reconquest of the Sinai that blindsided Israel, its discipline, meritocracy, and effectiveness. Along with Fauzy, key officers in this process included Riad – who replaced Fauzy as army commander and earned a reputation for daring innovation before he was killed in battle versus Israel during 1969 – Mohamed Sadek (army spymaster in 1967), who replaced Fauzy in 1970, and the Sinai field commanders from 1967, Abdel-Qader Hassan (Sadek’s deputy until 1972), Abdel-Monem Khalil (a corps commander in 1973), and Saadeddin Shazly Shazly, who served as army commander during the 1973 campaign and deserves a reputation as one of Egypt’s best officers. Egyptian resilience was on display shortly after Nasser’s standoff with Amer, when contrary to expectations the Egyptian army resumed a lower-scale border war, backed by Palestinian fidayin attacks, on Israel that lasted through the late 1960s.
Jordan. Prior to 1967, Jordan’s monarch Hussein was lambasted as the ultimate Western lackey. The failure of his Arab allies to deliver their promises, if anything, hardened Hussein towards them, and by the 1970s he regularly conferred through backchannels with Israel. However, he did during 1967-70 initially support and hoped to coopt the fidayin, partly because of Jordan’s vast Palestinian population. The legendary 1968 battle against Israel – at Karamah, a Jordanian border town, where fidayin led by Yasser Arafat stared down an Israeli attack and propelled a generation of young Palestinians to the fidayin cause – was in fact largely conducted by the Jordanian army, commanded by Hussein’s cousin Zaid bin Shaker, a veteran of the 1967 war. Jordanian assistance, and with it an attempt to control their activity along Amman’s priorities, did not impress the fidayin, who soon openly threatened to topple Hussein. A bloody campaign during September 1970, where fidayin control of several towns was backed up by a Syrian invasion, eventually ended in Jordan’s favour after Syrian army minister Hafez Assad again refused to commit his airforce and let the Jordanian airforce pummel the invasion force. Assad, in turn, would use this Palestinian episode to cement his control in Syria’s ongoing power struggle.
Syria. As with Egypt, Syria’s Baathist regime was left vulnerable – but not to external opposition, which was largely mute by this point under an increasingly penetrative police state, but various Baathist potentates in the army and security forces. First to go in this contest was army commander Suwaidani, the officer closest to the Palestinian fidayin, but also vulnerable on account of his failure on the Golan frontline. During 1968, he blinked first in a staring contest with the other Baathist potentates, attempted an abortive coup, and was imprisoned for the next half-century. The same fate eventually befell the regime’s strongman, Salah Jadid, as well as the figurehead civilians led by Nuraddin Atasi. Their downfall was tied to another Palestinian episode, the 1970 war in Jordan, immediately after which Assad, who had tightened his grip on the army during the late 1960s, seized power (33). In spite of his carefully planned stasis during 1967, Assad as dictator would also lead Syria during the 1973 campaign to recapture the Golan. The strategist for that campaign was Abdul-Razzaq Dardari, who had led the Syrian reserve during 1967 and had at least learned from his colleagues’ frontline collapse. But widespread politicization in the officer corps persisted, and the Syrian performance in the 1973 war failed to live up to expectations. To the present day, the Syrian regime remains more committed to the Palestinian cause in word than action; its rhetorical defiance of Israel has rarely been backed up, but serves a useful propaganda purpose. The memorialized ruins of Qunaitra are, in this regard, something of an unintended metaphor.
Other states. The rival Baath party, based in Iraq, also capitalized on the 1967 disaster to topple the military regime that had ruled Iraq in one way or another for a decade. During July 1968, the Iraqi Baathists, led by Hasan Bakr, bloodlessly toppled the rather reluctant dictator Abdul-Rahman Arif, and then proceeded to brutally purge the regime to avoid a repeat of their 1963 experience, when Arif’s brother had ousted them after they outlived their use. Ironically, the 1968 coup was backed by US intelligence after Arif had nationalized Iraq’s oil, but this did not prevent the nascent Baathists from smearing their increasingly widespread net of victims as agents of the West or Israel. As in Syria, a brutal, pervasive, and unprecedented police state took over; unlike Syria, the army was largely cut out from the outset, for though Bakr was an officer, so were most of his rivals, and the Iraqi Baath party had always been suspicious of the army. Eventually it was Bakr’s cousin Saddam Hussein, a veteran of Baathist skulduggery, who would take over the regime. As in Syria, the Palestinian question, and sponsorship of certain fidayin factions, was a key card in internecine struggles between regime members – so that, for instance, Saddam and Bakr exploited the Iraqi army’s failure to intervene on the fidayin’s behalf at the 1970 Jordan campaign to oust their main rival, Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar. However, it was not Saddam’s qualified support of certain fidayin factions nor his thuggery but his quest to acquire strategic weapons that made him a major target for Israel, which – unlike the United States – remained trenchantly committed to his ouster in his quarter-century of rule.
It may be surprising to find that, in spite of the humiliation he had suffered, Nasser’s precedent was not quite yet lost. In 1969, two self-proclaimed Nasser imitators in Sudan and Libya – respectively Gaafar Numairi and Muammar Qaddhafi – seized power in military coups. But a mixture of circumstance and opportunism meant they never quite matched this rhetoric – Numairi’s regime, indeed, was quietly dealing with Israel by the early 1980s – and instead turned into bitter mutual enemies. The Nasserite example may have been a useful tool in capturing and justifying state power, but it proved rather less so in actual governance and military practice. And so while 1967 may not have precipitated the fall of pan-Arabism, it certainly helped to confirm it.
Israel. In retrospect, Israel’s tour de force has been termed a “cursed victory” (34), for while it expanded Israeli territory (in fact, if not officially) over the West Bank and Gaza, those sites became hotbeds of insurgency and various forms of resistance. From a purely military standpoint, the Israeli army had performed superbly, and yet this gave rise to a wave of triumphalism, contempt, and complacency that would nearly backfire in 1973. Most Israeli (and drawing on them other Western) accounts of the war are keen to contrast their army’s enterprise and panache with the politicization, inefficiency, and incompetence of their Arab opponents. This would be fair enough were it not expanded, as has often been the case, to explain Israel’s contrast with the Arab world at large (35). Israeli historians, to this end, never fail to chastise Hussein for his decision to ally with Egypt during 1967; it is not the incompetence of the alliance that they criticize, but the fact that Hussein would have the temerity to consider the alliance in the first place. This is prevalent to the extent that even “balanced” histories such as Michael Oren’s Six Days of War go to great lengths to unnecessarily exaggerate the indubitable inefficiency of the Arab forces and, by extension, explain every grievance against Israel as a result of Arab regime rhetoric and opportunism (it took years, for instance, simply to accept that “Palestinians” were not an artificial creation of inherently anti-Semitic Arab regimes), and every military action against Israel a doomed result of fanaticism or incitement.
Grievances against Israel, foremost among the occupied Palestinian populations, are real, as real as are grievances against various oppressive Arab regimes that no serious Israeli observer would deny; to be sure, Arab regimes may attempt to exploit anti-Israel sentiment, but they did not invent it from thin air. Indeed, to date the most effective anti-Israeli resistance has been carried out by effectively independent local Palestinian forces, best illustrated in the 1980s and 2000s intifadas. It is often forgotten that 1967 – as 1956 and 1948 – featured the same particularly talented pool of first-generation Israeli soldiers whose successors have never displayed, whether in conventional (as in Lebanon 1982 and 2006) or unconventional (various crackdowns in the West Bank and Gaza), anywhere near that level of skill (36). Yet even as most Israeli accounts dismiss their enemy’s competence, they warn darkly against its fanaticism and the sinister threat it poses. A siege mentality persists; in the post-Cold War world, this is most starkly revealed in the Israeli government’s war on so-called “radical Islam” (37), which has in turn deeply affected the equally farcical US “war on terrorism”.
1. See, e.g., Al-Jazeera, “1967 and the rise of extremism,” 13 July 2009, http://www.aljazeera.com/focus/arabunity/2008/03/200852518359222993.html, accessed 27 June 2017; Michael Sharnoff, “A humiliated Arab world turns to Islamism,” The Jewish Chronicle, 6 June 2017, https://www.thejc.com/news/news-features/a-humiliated-arab-world-turns-to-islamism-1.439907, accessed 27 June 2017; Asher Susser, “The Six-Day War was a Watershed in Middle Eastern Politics,” Fathom Journal, spring 2017, http://fathomjournal.org/the-six-day-war-was-a-watershed-in-middle-eastern-history/, accessed 27 June 2017; Faisal Al-Yafai, “The death of Arab secularism,” The National, 3 November 2012, http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/the-death-of-arab-secularism, accessed 27 June 2017. In fact, Islamism had been a fairly dominant force in certain Arab countries, including Egypt during the 1940s and 1950s, before it was driven underground by various rulers during Nasser’s heyday; the 1967 defeat did not instigate it, but rather served to confirm Islamist attitudes on the secularist state. I have traced some pre-1960s Islamist history here, https://layyin1137.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/beyond-1979-the-roots-of-islamism-in-the-modern-arab-world/, and William Barnes at Muftah offers a solid rebuttal: William Barnes, “Islamism’s Rise in Egypt wasn’t just because of the 1967 war,” 3 December 2014, https://muftah.org/islamism-egypt-1967-war/#.WVLHz3qK9FU, accessed 27 June 2017.
2. Itamar Rabinovich, Syria under the Baath, 1963-66: The army party symbiosis (New York: Halsted Press, 1972).
3. Elie Podeh, The Decline of Arab Unity: The rise and fall of the United Arab Republic (Sussex Academic Press, 1999).
4. Majid Khadduri, Republican Iraq: A study in Iraqi politics since the revolution of 1958 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969) gives the best account of 1960s Iraq.
5. Hazem Kandil, Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s road to revolt (Verso, 2012).
6. The single best history of the Palestinian militias, which also doubles as an excellent history of the Arab world’s politics at this time: Yezid Sayigh, Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian movement, 1949-1993 (Oxford University Press, 2000).
7. The Algerian regime, further left than Egypt, had initially been quite supportive of the leftist Baath regime in Syria – two major Baathist leaders, Yusuf Zuayyin and Ibrahim Makhous, had fought alongside the Algerian independence movement and established these links- but the 1967 war changed this as Algerian dictator Houari Boumedienne accused both Egypt and Syria of hypocrisy. He would play an important role in the far more respectable 1973 campaign. David and Marina Ottaway, Algeria: the politics of a socialist revolution (London: University of California Press, 1970), 248.
8. Jesse Ferris, Nasser’s Gamble: How intervention in Yemen caused the six-day war (Princeton University Press, 2013).
9. Sayigh, Movement, 125-28, 157. Syrian assistance came with attached strings; indeed as late as August 1966 Damascus had imprisoned fidayin commander Yasser Arafat for allegedly murdering the Baathist Syrian officer who had been intended to supercede him, Yusuf Urabi. Interestingly, early Fateh operations and organization was largely facilitated by those stereotypically reactionary monarchies, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which did not share Jordan’s queasiness towards the Palestinian movement.
11. Samir Mutawi, Jordan in the 1967 war (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). A rather hagiographical account of Hussein personally, and his deliberations, is given by Avi Shlaim, Lion of Jordan: The life of King Hussein in war and peace (London: Allen Lane, 2008).
12. Sayigh, Movement, 75-80, 100-18 provides a detailed account of Egypt’s relations with the ANM and PLO,
13. Kandil focuses especially and provides an excellent account on Egypt’s military-political struggle.
14. The trio were veterans of the 1956 war, where Amer had first shown his incompetence, Mahmoud had done nothing of note, and Qady, by contrast, had put up a somewhat respectable fight as a frontline field commander. Qady was one of the few high-ranked Egyptian officers at the time whose focus was primarily on the battlefield; he also commanded forces in Yemen, where he was wounded in the eye, during 1963.
15.Underscoring the fateful mixture of politics with army operations, the Cairo airport commandant, Mohamed Ayoub, initially assumed from the bombardment that Amer had concocted a plan to topple Nasser, and assailed the group when they landed. Michael Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the making of the modern Middle East (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), 177 gives an amusing account of this incident.
16. There is unanimous agreement on the dishonesty of state propaganda, battlefield reports, and its crippling effect on the army.
17. Salim and Atef’s arguments with Riad became quite famous among Jordan’s officers; at one point Atef seized his shimagh and made to leave the room in exasperation, while Riad and Salim traded insults. The broad consensus is that the normally capable Riad was undercut by his reliance on Cairo. Mutawi, Jordan, 125.
18. Naqib remained in charge of Iraqi forces in Jordan over the next few years; he notably advised Arafat during the 1968 battle with Israel, and he seems to have built up a solid rapport with the various fidayin, who in turn viewed Iraqi abstinence in the 1970 war as a personal betrayal. Naqib rose to become Iraqi second-in-command until the Baathist regime exiled him during 1978; he became a PLO member, an advisor to Arafat, and remained active in exile opposition. Naqib’s son, Falah, later returned to Iraq after the 2003 as a member of Ayad Allawi’s faction who served as interior minister. I have written on Falah here https://layyin1137.wordpress.com/2015/01/. Sayigh, Movement, 162, 178, 184, 435-36.
19. The Israeli soldier Chaim Hertsog outlines Israeli operations in a comprehensive if slightly biased history. Chaim Hertsog, The Arab-Israeli Wars: War and peace in the Middle East (Vintage Books), 155-62. Hertsog served as the Israeli army spymaster as well as first Israeli governor of East Jerusalem; his brother Yaacov had served as a secret negotiator with Jordanian monarch Hussein bin Talal since 1960. These ties especially developed during the 1970s. Other Arab states’ suspicions of Hussein were hardly baseless. Shlaim, Hussein.
20. Oren, 65, claims that Murtagy was a lackey of Amer and a commissar, but there is no real indication thereof. In any case, Murtagy had little field experience, even at Yemen where little fighting actually took place. Mohsen, far more familiar with the Sinai terrain, was cut out yet remained officially in charge of the Sinai corps. Notably, an early plan drawn up during 1965-66 but shelved shortly before the war had anticipated precisely the sort of thrust that the Israeli army would launch into the Sinai.
21. Kandil, 82-83, remarks acidly in consideration of the fact that Saadi owed his position to his friendship with Amer, “he was understandably reluctant to leave his side.” The claim about Nassar is made by Oren, Six Days, 215, citing an Egyptian article. It is uncertain, however, if this was a trumped-up accusation made up in the aftermath, when the regime was seeking scapegoats.
22. Eric Hammel’s impressively jingoistic Six Days in June: How Israel the 1967 Arab-Israeli war (Pacifica: Pacifica Military History, 1992), 218 claims that Hosny succumbed to “Israeli pleas” to avoid a massacre. In fact both precedent and the record since have shown that Israel’s army was not queasy about inflicting massacres if it could serve a purpose. Hammel gives the chest-thumper’s account of the war. Wajih Madani was a former Kuwaiti royal guard captain of Palestinian origin, who had served as the PLA commander but been severely inhibited by Egypt’s control. See Sayigh, 169.
23. Hertsog, Wars, 171.
24. Kenneth Pollack, Arabs at War: Military effectiveness, 1948-1991 (London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 310. Even the generally churlish Hammel acknowledges the “aggressive and resourceful” Rakan, Six Days, 375.
25. While Dayan was no wild-eyed fanatic, he had carved out a career as a conqueror and was quite willing, in the ruthless practicality of any warlord, to seize what he could. He believed that Israel could carve out a “Greater Israel” comprising large chunks of the Levant outside Israeli borders. Yael Yishal, Land or Peace: Whither Israel? (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1987), 63-64.
26. Hertsog, Wars, 180-81
27. In fact, Khatib had appealed to the Palestinian civilians to cooperate with the conquerors. During the battle, he had asked Atta not to fight in the Old City’s holy sites lest they be targeted. Nonetheless, he was caught in limbo, and eventually banished by Dayan to Jordan. Avi Raz, The Bride and the Dowry: Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians in the aftermath of the Jume 1967 war (Yale University Press, 2012).
28. Ghoul, who commanded the elite cavalry in the rearguard, was blamed by the military court in the aftermath of the war, and publicly disgraced and court-martialled. This seems unfair; Hertsog and even Hammel mark him as a quite competent commander trying to organize a retreat in an impossible situation.
29. A Muslim Brethren opposition article a decade later claimed that Assad’s brother Rifaat had also declined Bagh’s plan. They also claimed that Khaddam, himself a Sunni by background, had given priority to the minoritarian families to whose background trrhe Baathist elite belonged, and accused Suwaidani of fleeing the battlefield. Finally, they termed Hafez Assad “the seller of the Golan”. I cannot confirm or deny the claims about Khaddam and Suwaidani. What is certain is that most of the army was recalled well before combat took place. Robert Rabil, Embattled Neighbours: Syria, Israel, and Lebanon (Boulder: Lynne Riener Publishers, 2003), 34.
30. Sayigh, Movement.
31. They had played a major role in helping Nasser seize power during 1954. See Kandil.
32. One of the officers backing a coup was Othman Nassar, the Gebel Libny field commander during 1967. Now in charge of the commando force, he addressed Amer thus, “We implore you not to give this man [Nasser] power over us…he will not shrink from humiliating and destroying us.” Kandil, 87-91, covers the coup and countercoup.
33. If anything, of course, Assad’s failure to dispatch his airforce to supplement the invasion force and fidayin decided the defeat, and perhaps his coup was an attempt to preempt any such move by Jadid.
34. Ahron Bregman, Cursed Victory: A history of Israel and the occupied territories (Penguin UK, 2014).
35. Examples include Oren, Pollack, Hammel,
36. Julian Thompson, in his foreword to a Dayan biography written by Martin van Creveld, Moshe Dayan (Orion, 2015), is perhaps overstating the point when he claims that modern Israeli operations, “with its ham-fisted tactics in the Occupied Territories, would have horrified Dayan”. Certainly the Israeli soldier was no stranger to ruthlessness. At the same time, the mobile, adaptive, and inventive force he presided over is a far cry from today’s army, which is effectively a gendarmerie heavily reliant on its international diplomacy rather than any military skill and more accustomed to bullying villagers than tank maneouvres.
37. See, for instance, Israel US ambassador Ron Dermer’s remarks in support of a notorious anti-Islam association, one of several, which is in turn linked to Richard Perle, a former advisor to both the United States and Israeli governments. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/israel-dermer-frank-gaffney-232651; accessed 14 December 2016. Several anti-Muslim thinktanks are also linked to rightist Israeli governments, and there has certainly been an attempt by such people as Perle to expand the war against Muslim countries at large, and most pressingly Israeli opponents such as Hamas.
Bism Allah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim
Libya, Syria, and the Oversimplification of the Regime Change Narrative
The Anti-Imperialist narrative
Regime Change is a word that often comes up in analyses of the Middle East and has been misused spectacularly in the purported cause of anti-imperialism while only serving selfish, cruel elites. After the United States’ disastrous invasion of Iraq, premised upon the forcible removal of its brutish Baath regime, as well as the NATO bombardment of Libya to remove Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, a beguilingly simple narrative appeared to anti-imperialists the world over. The United States was trying to destroy revolutionary, anti-imperialist regimes—the infamous neoconservative pamphlet by the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) was only, after all, a fairly recent document—and it was spawning and manipulating anti-regime groups in these countries to do so. With Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein gone, anti-imperialist focus swung around to Syria, whose Baathist regime was at least verbally an opponent of the United States and particularly its closest ally, Israel.
Indeed, anti-imperialists fretted, did we not remember Afghanistan, where the benignly invited Russian invasion was ousted by bloodthirsty mujahidin forces that the West termed, at the time, “freedom fighters”? Did we not recall the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, all for the fiendish purpose of expanding NATO under the pretext of humanitarianism (“ha!”, a skeptical antiimperialist may sneer), at the expense of its pro-Russian regime? Or how about Chechnya, where radical forces revolted against the sovereign Russian federation under the guise of autonomy? Pah! Such narratives may have fooled the majority of the media-brainwashed Sheeple, but not skeptical, sophisticated and discerning anti-Imperialists like ourselves. Regime change is the Perennial Agenda, and the so-Called “Arab Spring” simply its tool if not outright creation. (1)
Holes in the Anti-Imperialist Narrative
These “alternative” narratives, very alluring popular among the alternative media (both left and right, both of them self-identifying as opposed to expansionist empire), are of course over-simplified, distorting rubbish. But let us assume for argument’s sake that they are true. In Libya, for instance, the Western air campaign was a major factor in the ouster of Qaddafi. Assuming that these are simply cunning astroturf programmes designed to overthrow a grimly determined Axis of Resistance, we still cannot adequately answer the following questions:
-Why did the Western-backed rebels in Libya fall apart in short order?
-Why did the United States, having favoured Islamist mujahidin in Afghanistan, invade Afghanistan in 2001 and proceed to occupy it on precisely the premise of opposing Islamism?
-Why did the imperial powers, having apparently whipped the world into a state of outrage by framing the Resistance Axis for the Syrian chemical attacks in 2013, fail to overthrow the Resistance regime? Why, in fact, did it reach out to the Resistance and make a deal (suitably criticized by the Israeli Settler State) with Iran within two years?
Anti-imperialists typically have ready-made answers to these questions, usually to do with the radicalism and inherent fanaticism of the reactionary forces that the United States and Imperial Powers concoct against the Resistance. In Libya, the bungling idiocy and irrational factionalism of the rebels is a typical excuse for explaining away the chaos. After all, didn’t Iraq fall apart after the American invasion? It’s clearly an example of American policy backfiring: Blowback, etc.
Some especially Intrepid Anti-Imperialists will go so far as to tell you that this is not Blowback, but in fact exactly what the Imperialists planned: organized chaos to necessitate repeated intervention. Here, typically, Afghanistan is brought in as an example. The mujahidin factions, Taliban emirate, and Al-Qaeda group (used interchangeably, since they are of course to the Discerning Anti-Imperialist for practical purposes one and the same) were known to be fanatics, and it was known that they would haul back Afghanistan into the Pits of Reaction and Fanaticism, thereby necessitating American intervention (the fact that the second half of this statement, assuming that Irrational Islamic Fanaticism and Reaction is the problem, coincides perfectly with neoconservative, Imperialist and interventionist dogma, is lost on these anti-imperialists, who are perfectly willing to agree with Imperialists in the short run if they think it will hurt them in the long run.) The more direct, blunder voices in the Anti-Imperialist sphere will remark that the brutality of Saddam, Assad, Qaddafi, and Najibullah was a Necessary Evil, and the only glue holding these otherwise anarchic, chaotic and irrational countries together.
What the Argument misses
This is a delectably alluring argument, delectable because of its apparent continuinity (contradictions are not readily acknowledged in the Anti-Imperialist Sphere) (2) and alluring because, even though it mimics Imperialist propaganda in its characterization of the Irrational, Fanatical Natives (a mimicry that Anti-Imperialists will never, of course, acknowledge), it ultimately blamed Imperialist Forces like the United States and thereby redeems itself for its momentary flirtations with imperialist rationale.
The inconvenient truth, however, is that these arguments, though not always (though often) wrong in of themselves, miss massive slices of the picture. They miss the fact, for instance, that religiously based politics if not outright religious politics have a long, indigenous history in the region quite separate from—and usually, if not always, opposed to—imperialism. (I partly addressed this in my previous article.) (3) They miss the fact that Qaddafi had an eight-year détente with the West prior to his overthrow, that dyed-in-the-wool imperialists like Tony Blair agitated on this anti-imperialist beacon’s behalf, and that even when the West did intervene against Qaddafi, it intervened on a certain side of a multipronged, complex insurgency. They miss the fact that the most direct and arguably important government involved in Qaddafi’s removal was not a Western, or pro-Western, regime, but the Sudanese government, which had itself been on Western blacklists for decades and itself threatened with an invasion in the mid-2000s, during which that anti-imperialist bastion Qaddafi hosted Sudan’s rebels. (Of course, pro-interventionist Westerners rarely mention Sudan’s involvement either, though for quite different purposes: it hurts the argument that you are selflessly overthrowing a dictator when the dictator next door is playing a major role; either way, this ignorance of Sudan’s involvement is another common point for both interventionists and anti-imperialists) (4) .
They miss the fact, and this is particularly important, that the Libyan opposition, itself locally divided and in some cases completely mutually independent of each other, never mind the West, had different external backers. To be sure, during 2011 there was a somewhat hysterical reaction and exaggeration of the threat Qaddafi posed to his opponents (5) —even the usually excellent Al-Jazeera station rode into this trap—but that does not mean, as Anti-Imperialists would have us believe, that the anti-Qaddafi movement was a monolithic bloc of pro-Western fanatics out to hurt a maligned leader, or that its dynamics were applicable elsewhere to, for instance, Syria. The anti-imperialist narrative refuses to countenance any context or complexity beyond the February-to-October 2011 period, which forever enshrines Qaddafi as the perennial anti-imperialist victim and his opponents forever as an imperially-controlled bloc of NATO mercenaries and fanatics.
For one thing, this narrative, at least as much as any anti-Qaddafi propaganda, misses the complexity and context of Libya before, after and even during the 2011 war. For one thing, the rebel groups were a disunited, heterogenous bunch who cannot be easily dismissed as fanatics, imperial tools or mercenaries. The West (here more Britain and France in the first place, and the United States only tangentially) were supporting a particularly, perceived “liberal” and pro-Western faction in the opposition, led partly by Mahmoud Jibril; in this they were supported by the United Arab Emirates, which was at least as suspicious of the “Islamist” factions in the rebellion as it was of the regime itself. It is the UAE that has been the major international backer of Khalifa Hiftar, the renegade Libyan general who has attempted with Western support to stamp himself as Libya’s new ruler. This group was also generally allied, not because of ideological or strategic purposes but simply by convenience and mutual interests, with the Zintan-based militias from the western ranges of the Nafusa Mountains.
Opposed to this group was a collection of Islamist factions, usually remnants of the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (which antiImperialists, like Imperialists, happily term as Al-Qaeda, and which was subjected to torture by the anti-Imperialist leader Qaddafi with the knowledge and compliance of the Imperialist leader Tony Blair) or groups linked to the Muslim Brethren or the Sanousi order, particularly strong in the eastern Cyrenaican region, and Misrata in the western region. A similar pattern has repeated next door in Egypt, where the UAE and Saudi Arabia resolutely backed Abdel-Fattah Sisi over the elected Islamist leader, Mohamed Morsi, who was favoured by Turkey and Qatar.
Finally, the local aspect and dynamics of different conflicts are entirely lost on the Anti-Imperialist dogma. In the Libyan case, even a simple Turkey-etc versus UAE-etc dichotomy can be an oversimplification because of its focus on geopolitics and ignorance of local realities (it is not entirely clear, for instance, that Zintan and Misrata are ideologically different areas), yet not even this minimum geopolitically-focused tip of the iceberg is available in Anti-Imperialist analyses, which blithely puts Turkey (because NATO) and Qatar (because oil) in the same bloc as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the West. It also takes no small sadistic pleasure in misattributing the post-Qaddafi violence to the utterly idiotic claim that only his iron fist could have held an unruly land together. (6)
This is the shallowness of the Anti-Imperialist Doctrine on Libya. Its analyses on Syria in particular is even worse, for at least in Libya the West did support a significant part of the opposition and help topple Qaddafi. In Syria—rhetoric notwithstanding—the West has attacked literally everybody apart from the government, even the rebels that anti-Imperialist dogma insists are Western hirelings. The major conflict between Turkey and Qatar, with their typical sympathy for the Islamist-dominated Syrian mujahidin (7) , and the West and the powerless exile SNC; the complete lack of coordination between the Syrian mujahidin on the ground and the generally pro-Western Syrian exiles; the heterogeneity in Syria’s rebel spheres; the fact that the White House has blocked every attempt to diplomatically or financially isolate the Assad regime; heck, the fact that Assad was a longtime collaborator in the same Imperialist War on Terror that the Imperialists hate so much when it comes to Iraq; the fact that Iran, supposedly the strategic target of Syrian Regime Change, has been merrily funnelling tens of thousands of auxiliaries and troops into Syria under the Americans’ nose, just as it did in the Iraq occupation where it was also painted by the Anti-Imperialists as a victim of American intrigue; the fact that it has overwhelmingly been airstrikes, to which the Syrian mujahidin have no recourse, that have levelled entire Syrian cities and towns on a level that Qaddafi could never have dreamt of—none of these facts matter, if they exist at all, to the Discerning Anti-Imperialist’s dogma.
I’ve written elsewhere on the major fallacies in Afghanistan discourse, so I won’t spent much time here; but it is true that a bizarrely simplistic, ignorant revision of the Afghanistan conflict has been a key building block of Anti-Imperialist dogma as much as imperialist propaganda. This included the often-exaggerated American support for the Afghan mujahidin—exaggerated by pro-Americans because it inflates their sense of contribution to the Soviet Union’s demise, and exaggerated by anti-imperialists because it fits so neatly into their dogma—as well as the idea that the Americans had any control over the Afghan mujahidin factions, the vast majority of which were localized, and the more internationally linked of which were largely confined to Pakistan, which was and remains suspicious of American intentions in the region. It also includes a complete distortion of the catastrophic 1990s civil war as the inevitable outcome of American-induced fanaticism, another revision that completes exaggerates American influence in Afghanistan during this period, and which ignores the fact that various remnants of the mujahidin fought with each other and made unlikely deals, including with Russia, for purposes that had nothing at all to do with America. And it offers absolutely no clue—indeed prefers to ignore outright—the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the Taliban-dominated insurgency therein, relegating it—again just like American interventionists and neoconservatives, except that they blame Pakistan and other regional states only, while Anti-Imperialists blame regional states and America’s 1980s role—to currents of fanaticism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is for such reasons that Anti-Imperialists, echoing imperialists to the letter in their rationale, howl Al-Qaeda at the sight of a mujahid fighter in Syria. The legacy of propaganda runneth deep.
Distortions with the Same Logic
Idiotic innuendo and conjecture has been a common tool of Anti-Imperialist dogma as much as imperialist dogma. In the imperialists’ case, they may point at a picture of (for example) Jerusalem mufti Amin Husaini, an early Palestinian leader against Zionism, with Adolf Hitler and claim that Palestinians are crypto-Nazi antisemites; this argument has, indeed, been done to death by hardcore Zionists. In anti-imperialists’ case, they may point to a picture of Ronald Reagan sitting with various mujahidin leaders to claim that the United States supports regime change by fanatical Islamists against progressive Anti-Imperialist governments, even as the United States has killed literally tens of thousands of Islamists in the interim period.
Just to point out how ridiculous this binary worldview is, imagine how ridiculous the following arguments are:
1) Because the Iran-contra programme involved Israeli weapons being sold to Iran by American neoconservatives, Iran and Israel are secretly best buddies whose mutual ire is just an act.
2) Because the United States and Russia both support the government of Uzbekistan, the United States and Russia are and have always been on the same side.
3) Because Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill allied with and sat next to Stalin against Hitler, America and Britain are actually pro-Soviet communist governments and the Cold War never happened.
4) Because Qaddafi helped undermine Sudanese dictator Omar Bashir in the mid-2000s, with the support of the West, he is obviously a Western puppet and he was, actually, never overthrown at all in 2011 since that would make the Binary Dichotomy of Imperialism crash.
Anybody, including, hopefully, Discerning Anti-Imperialists, would know that these are moronic generalizations that completely distort historical events based on false binaries. Unfortunately, many Discerning Anti-Imperialists have followed the exact same logic in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere, not only making vacuously pompous fools of themselves in public but doing actual harm by spreading blatant lies.
The idea of a centrally coordinated Imperialist conspiracy against them is an attractive proposal to various tyrants of the world, including those who collaborated and rubbed shoulders with Imperialists whenever it suited them. But this argument’s many omissions include local dynamics, which are heterogenous and varied from place to place, never mind country to country, and it cannot easily or coherently explain away these omissions or contradictions that confound its ignorant premises. Moreover, these premises are as often as not based on the exact logic, spectrum and sometimes even rhetoric of the imperialist powers that the Anti-Imperialists claim to see through; they simply position themselves at the apparent, though rarely actual, opposite end of this spectrum, disagreeing with whatever an imperialist power claims to have said irrespective of the actual facts on the ground and even more so the gap between the imperialist power’s actions and its rhetoric. The superimposition of a clumsy regime change across vastly different contexts and regions is as distorting, dishonest and incoherent as that of the imperialists that it claims to oppose.
1. See among others Tim Anderson, Patrick Cockburn, Charles Glass, Rania Khalek, Nir Rosen, John Pilger, Seymour Hersh, and Robert Fisk, a large proportion of whom used to command some admiration for their purported commitment to justice. See outlets like Al-Masdar News, Mint Press News, Russia Today, Press TV, and frequently the London Review of Books, Counterpunch, The Real News, Democracy Now, Mondoweiss, and Jacobin.
2. The dreaded Wahhabi, Salafi, jihadist, radical Islamist, etc is a particular staple that both imperialists—when dealing with groups as varied as Daaish, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Ahrar-ul-Sham, Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Hamas, and Muslim Brethren—and anti-imperialists, mostly when dealing with the same factions when they threaten a purportedly anti-imperialist government, employ. Imperialists usually include Iran and Hezbollah in this bracket too, however (substituting Wahhabi for Khomeinist and Salafi for revolutionary), which anti-imperialists rarely do.
3. See https://layyin1137.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/beyond-1979-the-roots-of-islamism-in-the-modern-arab-world/; this deals with the Arab-majority world, and I plan to add sequels for other Muslim regions.
4. Asim Fathelrahman Ahmed, “Sudanese Role in Libya 2011,” African Perspectives, Vol. 11, Issue 38, 2013. http://www.sis.gov.eg/Newvr/africa38/africa38en/10.pdf
5. Maximilian Forte provides a good account of anti-Qaddafi propaganda in his otherwise disorganized, distorting and meandering Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2012), which for the most part is precisely the sort of incoherent “anti-imperialist” drivel that this article aims to debunk. I do generally favour the 2011 campaign against Qaddafi, but it is—unlike the case of Assad—true that there was considerable propaganda against him that exaggerated his threat.
6. The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath, edited by Peter Cole and Brian Quinn, is an excellent collection of essays on the Libyan revolt. Another solid source is Cherif Bassiouni’s book on Libya, though I have been unable to read more than a few excerpts as it is very difficult to procure.
7. The word mujahidin is typically reserved for the Afghan guerrillas in the 1980s, but I think it can be easily applied without fear of contradiction to the Syrian guerrillas as well. “Jihadists” is a common pejorative, but I should clarify that this is not what I mean here; similarly, I do not mean it in an uncritically admiring way in that all opposition are mujahidin or behave as mujahidin ideally should. I do not, for instance, condone or support groups like Nusrah Front (Jabhat-Fath-al-Sham) or their ideological positions even though they would self-identify as mujahidin and even though they are more locally rooted than a blanket denunciation may indicate. For an analysis of the “jihad” aspect that I do not necessarily endorse but which has some revealing facts and is generally fair, see Charles Lister’s The Syrian Jihad (London: Hurst & Co, 2015). It should be noted that even not-necessarily Islamist groups have often identified as mujahidin, such as the FLN-dominated Algerian moudjahedine from the 1950s.
Bism Allah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim
ISLAMISM AND CONSERVATISM IN ARAB POLITICS
Particularly since 2001, it has become a staple to see discussion on political Islam in the Muslim world described in negativist terms—that is to say, Islamism has only come about because other, more secularist, ideologies either failed or were failed and the blind masses swung in another direction. This article will, focusing on much of the Arab-majority world, attempt to address that gross, misleading distortion. (See this utterly incorrect extract from a Patrick Cockburn rag for an example: https://twitter.com/BenjaminNorton/status/769605965851295744)
The heyday of Arab socialism around 1960, with Gamal Nasser thundering from balconies to rapturous crowds and Voice of the Arabs broadcasting Cairo propaganda to millions of Arabs, is well known. This is often contrasted, by people across the political spectrum, with the contemporary rise of Islamism in the Muslim, including Arab, world. An especially popular theme has been to put this rise of Islamism down to external factors—whether the influence of reactionary Saudi propaganda, the Iranian revolution, the trauma after repeated defeats to Israel, or other factors. While these factors have undoubtedly played a partial role, this explanation is over-simplified to the point of outright distortion and misses the critical factor of early politics in the Arab (and more broadly the Muslim, but let’s concentrate on the Arab world for now) world.
As is well-known, the Ottoman Sultanate’s collapse led to a colonization and partition of the Middle East into French and British mandates. While the Sharif family, led by Hussein bin Ali and his sons Abdallah I, Ali, and Faisal I, had been promised the rule of the Arab majority world instead of the Turkish Ottomans, they instead came second to British-French negotiations. The result was that Britain took Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq in addition to their Egyptian protectorate, while France took Syria and Lebanon (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine having been carved out of the historical “Sham”—that is, Levant or greater Syria—region). Saudi Arabia, originally also meant as a part of the Sharifs’ territory, was instead conquered by the British Empire’s secondary ally there, Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud. Yemen and Oman were ruled by conservative monarchies based on Zaidi Islam and Ibadi Islam respectively, while the eastern Gulf was a conglomerate of tiny statelets ruled by local sheikhs.
Rule by these foreign powers was, of course, immediately opposed. Faisal I bin Hussein tried to protect the prized Damascus from France, but was routed and sought assistance from the British Empire, who had meanwhile been stunned by a ferocious revolt in Iraq. The solution was to place Faisal as Iraq’s king, a strongly dependent British client much along the same lines as Egypt’s monarchy. In Transjordan, Faisal’s brother Abdallah I assumed the same title; perhaps the Sharif family envisioned a confederation of dynastic principalities in much the same way as many rulers of the Middle East prior to the Ottomans and Mamluks had done. Of course, even as they depended on British support, Faisal and especially Abdallah never gave up the idea of retaking Syria. As such, the borders within which the Arab states were confined were always resented.
Various local forces, such as southern Syria’s Druze sect and northern Iraq’s Kurds, continued to give France and Britain trouble. In the occupied interior, however, the rise of a peculiarly anti-British, autonomist nationalism was brewing. Its early proponents were mostly either intellectuals or ideologues who opposed foreign rule on principle, or notables of local elite families who had lost their longstanding influence. In the former category we can also include religiously motivated preachers, such as Egypt’s Hasan Banna, Syria-Palestine’s Izzaddin Qassam, and Iraq’s Mahdi Khalisi, who preached resistance to the foreign occupation. A third category gradually emerged, which constituted soldiers in the new Arab armies, who also resented foreign control. Of course, there was considerable overlap between these categories.
In shunning foreign domination, a number of ideologies emerged. These included a right-wing nationalism, which called for an advanced Arab state free of foreign domination, much along the lines of Germany and Turkey; as such, it had a rather far-right extremist fringe as well and, since Germany was a rival to the hated occupiers, even some indirect Nazi influence. They also included socialism and Marxism, which was seen as a way to both share wealth and industrialize the state towards the much-vaunted ideal of progress; this had a communist-influenced fringe, but communism was not very popular because of its openly atheist tendency. Again, Marxism also appeared to give an alternative to Britain and France. They included a “state-nationalist”, or watania, ideology as opposed to a pan-Arab qaumia ideology; this was often, but not always, favoured by people of non-Arab background, such as the considerable body of Circassians, Turkmen and Kurds that inhabit the Middle East. (It should be noted that early Arab nationalism, except for the far-right, was not necessarily opposed to these minorities, but took their status as societal if not racial Arabs as a given.) Finally there was a “liberal”, economically conservative Arab nationalism, exemplified by the landowning families: they wanted to be free of foreign domination, but they also accepted Western ideas of governance and society and were generally favorable towards an independent friendship with the West. This was typified by the Sharifs who ruled Iraq and Jordan, as well as in particular Nuri Saeed, their longtime military lieutenant who was a key ally of British interests in the region for forty years and who often served as prime minister.
Though it has until recently received much less attention, the ideology of Islamism was already widespread by 1940, a decade after Banna had founded the Muslim Brethren in Egypt and by which time a classically “Islamist” rural revolt had already occurred in Palestine. The localized networks of these groups—the Muslim Brethren maintained a widespread informal network, which included both armed and political activity but also charity and other such services, while Qassam mobilized at the Levantine countryside nearly independently of the urban elite—and the general appeal of a pietistic Islamic pretext were both key to understanding the spread of Islamism. Nor was it exclusive to other patriotic or nationalist forces; quite the contrary. Since the history of Arab fortunes closely entwined with Islam, Arab nationalists—particularly rightist nationalists—at least gave lip service to the role and prestige of Islam; few among them were outright secularists even if they were personally irreligious. A figure like Amin Husaini, the infamous mufti of Jerusalem during the 1940s, exemplifies the crossover between Islamism and rightist Arab nationalism.
Because of the opportunities afforded to armed forces, it was the various army officers who struck the earliest blows. A case in point was Bakr Sidqi, who had become famous—indeed, celebrated—in Iraq when he massacred an Assyrian settlement, both fighters and civilians, in 1935. The Assyrians, who were privileged by the British in much the same way as the Alawites were privileged by the French, had formed an armed paramilitary which was loathed by many Iraqis as the symbol of foreign domination. Therefore Sidqi’s exploit propelled him to fame, and he used this the next year to mount a coup alongside the civilian statesman Hikmat Sulaiman. The Turk Sulaiman, whose brother Mahmoud Jaudat had been an Ottoman officer who played an important role in the 1908 coup against sultan Abdul-Hameed II bin Abdul-Majeed, and the Kurd Sidqi were hardly Arab nationalists: they exemplified the watani tendency and wanted to turn Iraq into a modern centralized republic along the lines of neighbouring Turkey.
A year later, however, Sidqi was murdered in a conspiracy planned by a group of midranked officers whose ringleaders adhered to a mixture of rightist pan-Arabism and Islamism. Their most famous member was Salahuddin Sabbagh, who led an influential group of four colonels that the British nicknamed the “Golden Square”; as well as Sabbagh, they included Mahmoud Salman, Kamal Shabib, and Fahmi Saeed. Sabbagh, a fervent ideologue, declared that as a Muslim, he could not accept British rule of a Muslim country; as an Arab, he could not do the same, and he was particularly opposed to British rule in Palestine, which he emphasized was part of the Muslim-Arab nation. Substitute America or Russia for Britain, and such a statement (as Ibrahim Marashi points out in Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History) is indistinguishable from modern-day Islamists in the Arab world (Eliezer Beeri, in Army Officers in Arab Politics and Society, claims that Sabbagh was a specifically racialist Arab nationalist, but there is little to back this up and one of his collaborators, Baghdad commandant Amin Zaki, was a Kurd whom Sabbagh hailed for devotion to the “Arab cause”).
Four years later, during the heat of the Second World War, the Golden Square, in concert with mufti Amin Husaini from Jerusalem, Baghdad commandant Amin Zaki, and civilian statesman Rashid Ali, toppled the Sharif monarchy in a coup meant to coordinate with Germany against Britain. Amin Husaini, as Zionist authors never tire of reminding us, was an ally of Hitler against their common enemy, Britain. The coup was swiftly crushed in a British invasion where the Golden Square fell apart and was slain, with the exception of Sabbagh who escaped to Turkey for a decade.
Iraq was not the only theatre where Islamists and other anti-British forces collaborated. In Egypt, a daring but rather foolhardy conspiracy was hatched to impede the British campaign in North Africa. It included both members of the far-right Egyptian Youth group, including Anwar Sadat, and Islamists in the army, such as Abdel-Raouf Abdel-Munim. Abdel-Raouf is an especially cogent character here because he was both a Muslim Brethren member and a founder of the future Free Officers movement, a quintessentially nationalist movement. Even Gamal Nasser, the modern emblem of secular Arabism and a future persecutor of the Muslim Brethren, briefly joined up with the Brethren and trained their members.
In the tumultous years that followed the Second World War, the Islamists were a key, if not the key, component of anti-British agitation in Egypt, and Arab independence as a whole. During the war in Palestine, one segment of the Egyptian force was composed of Muslim Brethren volunteers led by Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, an upper-class officer martyred in the field and later described by Arab nationalists in Nasser’s period as a role model. The Muslim Brethren militia formed an important force in the Negev campaigns during that war; their leader, Kamel Sharif, maintained good ties with the Egyptian and Jordanian armies. The founder of the Arab League, Abdel-Rahman Azzam, was a close friend of Muslim Brethren leader Hasan Banna, typifying the close connection between early Arab nationalists and Islamists. The restless Jerusalem mufti Amin Husaini was, again, a key figure, and his cousin Abdul-Qadir Husaini—the celebrated leader of the siege of Jerusalem who was martyred in May 1948 after he was stranded at Qastal with plummeting ammunition—led the Jihad Muqaddas (Holy Jihad) army, made up of local volunteers waging jihad for the holy land. A more prototypically Islamist segment can hardly be imagined.
In spite of the contribution at Palestine, the Muslim Brethren were, under British pressure, blacklisted in Egypt before the war was over. Egypt’s prime minister Mahmoud Nuqrashy specifically banned them en route a generally autocratic campaign, and he was soon murdered by a stray Brethren member named Abdel-Maguid Hassan. Though Hasan Banna condemned the murder as un-Islamic and inexcusable, Nuqrashy’s successor Ibrahim Abdel-Hady only doubled down on the crackdown, which included the murder of Banna and the ban on the Brethren for the rest of the monarchic period. Several Brethren members were tried, and even though the Egyptian field commander in Palestine, Fouad Sadek, vouched for them, the government was unrelenting. The Brethren fled to ground, and their armed wing, led by Saleh Ashmawi, engaged in sabotage activities against the British army. It was at this point that Brethren activity in the army became especially frenetic. As mentioned, Abdel-Raouf Abdel-Munim was a founding Free Officer; other early and important Free Officers who were onetime or remained Brethren members included Sadat, Hassan Ibrahim, Kamaleddin Hussein, Rashad Mehanna, and even Nasser himself. Apart from Abdel-Munim, who Nasser purged, each of them was a member of the Free Officers’ junta after the July 1952 coup.
The coup, led by Nasser in concert with a celebrated, respected senior officer Mohamed Naguib, ousted the monarchy for good. It also led to a struggle for power between various coupmakers. The popular artillery officer Rashad Mehanna, who was assigned to the symbolic but powerless position of regent early on, was an Islamist leader whose artillery lieutenants, Fathullah Rifaat and Mohsen Abdel-Khaliq, mutinied against Nasser in December 1952. More pressing was the conflict between Naguib, an old-fashioned gentleman with basically traditional instincts who wanted to transition to parliament rule, and Nasser, who wanted to maintain a personalized dictatorship capable of single-mindedly developing Egypt. Naguib’s generally conservative, Islamist-friendly politics can be seen in the fact that he commissioned Abdel-Razzaq Sanhury, a renowned legalist, to codify sharia into state law—something that Islamists to the current day yearn for, and for less than which current-day statesmen like Recep Erdogan have been branded “radical Islamists”. Sanhury also served as Naguib’s liaison with the Muslim Brethren, whose deputy Abdel-Qader Ouda organized mass rallies in Naguib’s favour when he came into conflict with Nasser. The Islamists were not alone here—the various political parties, including communists and liberals, backed Naguib because of Nasser’s hostility towards them—but their role was decisive in ensuring that Nasser’s attempt to purge Naguib in February 1954 failed, because they organized the gigantic protests that forced Nasser to back down.
Nasser spent the summer of 1954 trying to win over the Brethren and split their forces, his wily spymaster Salah Nasser adopting a carrot-stick policy. In October 1954, the penny dropped when a Muslim Brethren officer, Mahmoud Abdel-Latif, tried with spectacular incompetence to murder Nasser at a speech in Alexandria. He missed nine shots at point-blank range—leading to disquieted allegations that it was a staged attempt—and Nasser’s bravado in the face of danger was sufficient to entirely turn the popular tide in his favour. Armed with both a popular mandate and dictatorial force, he banned the Brethren and imprisoned thousands, executing their second-in-command Ouda in spite of a belated plea for reconciliation from jail. Naguib, disgusted with the Brethren’s naivete, was himself arrested a month later for his links to the Islamists and spent the last decade of his life under house arrest. The remainder of the Brethren escaped to neutral or conservative countries like Saudi Arabia, where they were welcomed by the pietistic crown-prince Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz and were tainted with a repute for reactionism that was spectacularly unfair given their contribution to Egypt’s revolution. (It is notable that even at this time, Muslim Brethren cells led by Fathi Shaqi remained active in Ghazza alongside the famous Egyptian field commander Mustafa Hafez; among their members were Yasser Arafat and Salah Khalil, later leaders of the more secularist Fatah faction).
While Egypt provided the most concerted and spectacular case of Islamists in and out of power, sympathetic sentiments continued to smoulder across the Arab-majority world. The Algerian independence movement’s earliest champions were classic Islamists: Abdelhamid Ben Badis, Messali Hadj, Malek Bennabi and Bashir Ibrahimi, who had agitated for Algerian independence on the basis of its Islamic obligation and character since the 1920s, long preceding both liberal and socialist approaches to Algerian patriotism. The monarchy of North Yemen had been basically the Zaidi version of a caliphate, and even the Egypt-backed republican forces that fought them during the 1960s proclaimed an Islamic republic, and included large numbers of pietistic, socially conservative lower-class Yemeni members whose “backwards” bumptiousness frustrated Nasser no end (“you see,” he once spat in disgust to Nikita Khrushchev after meeting the republican leader Abdullah Sallal, “what I have to deal with?”). It is important to note that, despite his internal hostility to Islamism, Nasser presented the image of an Islam-friendly alternative to communism abroad. This was illustrated in both his relations with the United States, whose leader Dwight Eisenhower bailed him out of a military defeat against Israel, Britain and France in 1956 for fear of a communist takeover, as well as Syria and Iraq.
The middle 1950s were a tumultous time in Syrian politics, as it was courted by both East and West and as ideologues of all stripes bickered and competed in its relatively open political space. The exaggerated spectre of an imminent communist takeover, entertained by both the United States and by local actors, led to a concerted effort to integrate Syria with Egypt in a pan-Arab alliance. Pan-Arabism was by now firmly in vogue, with Nasser the toast of the Arab world after his political triumph over Israel, Britain and France. On the other hand, Syrian actors of all stripes were apprehensive of communist influence, which was never great but which was sufficiently feared for a wide number of them, both officers and statesmen, to invite Nasser to merge Syria with Egypt in February 1958. Because of both Nasser’s popularity and the fear of communism, this was greeted with enormous enthusiasm in both Egypt and Syria. The Sharif monarchs of Iraq and Jordan—whose call for an Arab union, only one ruled by themselves and not a republican dictator, preceded that of most other Arab movements—responded with a British-sponsored federation, but this never really caught on and soon collapsed. Jordan’s young ruler Hussein bin Talal navigated this crisis skilfully and without harm; on the other hand, his cousins in Iraq were swept away.
In July 1958, a loosely organized “Free Officers” group in Iraq mutinied, with mass support from the Iraqi citizens, and bloodily overthrew the monarchy, whose remnants were killed by firing squad. Nuri Saeed—the long-derided epitome of pro-Western treachery—was captured, lynched and his corpse, like that of Iraqi regent Abdulelah bin Ali, mauled and dragged through the streets. The coup’s military leaders were Abdul-Karim Qasim and Abdul-Salam Arif. It had been a long time coming; we have seen the Iraqi officer corps mutiny in the 1930s and 1940s already, and the Iraqi regime’s closeness to Britain—especially in the aftermath of Britain’s 1956 attack on Egypt—stamped out whatever support it retained outside the political elite. Free Officer cells had been founded by Rifaat Sirri as early as 1956, during that same war.
Rifaat Sirri, Abdul-Salam Arif, and their close collaborators, Abdul-Wahhab Shawwaf and Nazim Tabaqchali, exemplify the close relationship between proto-Islamism and rightist Arab nationalism at the time. Each of them described and interpreted their pan-Arab sentiments in exactly the same Islamically based way as Salahuddin Sabbagh had in 1941 and as a modern Islamist may. With the exception of Rifaat, each of them was the son of an Islamic leader—Shawwaf’s father was the mufti of Baghdad—and each of them was opposed not only to the pro-West monarchy but also the apparently atheistic communists. Unlike Syria and Egypt, communism had a real street power in Iraq, principally among lower-class Shias and certain intellectuals, and they organized huge rallies and kept militias that dwarfed their competitors. The threat of a communist takeover in Iraq was not as far-fetched as Syria or Egypt. To pietistic officers such as this segment of the Free Officers, a union with the Egypt-Syria federation offered not only a stepping stone towards Arab-Islamic unity but also a bulwark against communism. In short, their enthusiasm for the secular Arabist Nasser, whose secularism was at any rate not well known outside Egypt, derived from the same sort of conservative pietistic concerns that any Islamist may have.
Abdul-Karim Qasim, the new dictator of Iraq, had other ideas. He was not affiliated to any ideologies, including communism—indeed, he was publicly respectful of religion, proclaimed the Iraqi people to be “Allah’s party”, and changed his official title, “The Unique Leader”, at the insistence of a cleric who claimed that unique rulership belonged only to Allah. What Qasim did believe in was the sort of watani Iraqi nationalism that had characterized Bakr Sidqi, to whom he had distant familial links. It has also been speculated that Qasim’s background—his family was half Kurd and half Shia—predisposed him against the Arab unionism project, which was dominated by Sunni Arab officers. From the start, Qasim was unwilling to align Iraq with the Egypt-Syria union. Because most of his fellow officers did not share this reluctance, he turned to the communists, who had some officer followers and who also possessed a massive militia.
Qasim’s lieutenants, most notably his once-loyal second-in-command Abdul-Salam Arif, remonstrated with him to no avail, and they may have tried even to murder him. At any rate, Qasim remained unmoved, and purged the agitated Arif from the leadership. This led to a conspiracy between the influential Rifaat Sirri, so long active in the Arab nationalist underground, as well as Tabaqchali, the army’s northern commander, and Shawwaf, the Mosul garrison commandant. Mosul was a hotbed of conservative Sunni nationalism of precisely the sort that resented Qasim’s leftward shifts. The conspirators had already contacted Rashid Ali, the restless right-wing Arab nationalist leader who had led the 1941 revolt with the Golden Square.
In the spring of 1959, Shawwaf mutinied at Mosul, but Rifaat and Tabaqchali were quickly detained and could not mount their planned mutinies in Baghdad and Kirkuk respectively. After a bloody battle—where not only rightist Arab nationalists, but also Arab tribesmen, collided with not only leftist loyalists but also Kurdish militiamen—Shawwaf was slain and the mutiny crushed. His corpse was buried in Damascus, where Nasser’s propaganda machine had long waged a relentless war on Qasim. Rifaat, Arif, Tabaqchali and Rashid were grilled at the public court that Qasim had set up, which was led by his bombastic cousin Fadil Mihdawi. They specifically cited hostility to the foreign creed of communism as their motivation. Qasim, who as dictator usually exercised his privilege to pardon inmates from execution, unusually upheld the sentence for Rifaat and Tabaqchali. Meanwhile he also had to remonstrate with his uncontrollable communist allies, who in concert with Kurdish militiamen had run riot in Kirkuk and massacred a large number of rightists, Arabs, and Turkmens. The episode again underlines the large current of rightist, conservative, and Islamically oriented sentiment that remained in Iraq’s officer class.
The Egypt-Syria union imploded two years later; it had been dominated by Nasser’s arrogant deputy Abdel-Hakim Amer and his ruthless Syrian lieutenant Abdul-Hamid Sarraj, and set up in Syria the sort of hitherto unknown security apparatus that had been founded in Egypt from 1954. It had attempted to impose the Egyptian style of centralized rule on the always decentralized Syrian landscape. It had also broken the backs of the traditional landowning families that had long dominated politics; in their place came generally left-leaning officers, often from minority sects and religions. What had probably clinched the deal was Nasser’s mass nationalization of Syria’s commerce, which alienated the wealthy merchant class and a significant body of rightist or independent officers outright. Even former supporters of Nasser were disillusioned; most notable were the Baath party, a vaguely “Arab socialist” party that had originally enthusiastically supported Nasser but chafed at his domination. Like Nasser, the Baath had been viewed benignly by the United States as a basically containable alternative to communism. They established a number of cells in the officer corps of both Iraq and Syria. They had basically the same attractions as Nasser’s pan-Arab socialism, but they were spectacularly prone to division over the pettiest matters and dominated by the personalities of their leaders.
In September 1961, a very loose coalition of officers led by Abdul-Karim Nihlawi mounted a coup that dissolved the Egypt-Syria union. A series of behind-the-scenes power struggles, coups, and mutinies ensued as the remaining forces in Syria wrestled for domination. Next to the chaotic Syrian scene, Qasim seemed perfectly secure. But in February 1963, he was ousted and bloodily murdered by an alliance of the rightwing officers, led by Abdul-Salam Arif who he had pardoned himself, and the Baath officers, led by Hasan Bakr. The next month Syria’s Baath, also aligned with non-Baathist officers like Ziad Hariri and Rashid Qutaini, seized power from the tottering rightist government. In both cases, the Baathists established brutal paramilitaries, especially Iraq where they ran riot that summer and dominated the still-weak regime of Arif. In November 1963, however, the Iraqi Baath’s thuggish paramilitary commanders, Mundhir Windawi and Ali Saadi, fell out with the more cautious Bakr, and in the ensuing confusion Abdul-Salam Arif and his brother Abdul-Rahman successfully ousted them from Iraq, banning the party and decrying it—in another nod to the conservative pietistic background that had bred them—as a secular party.
In spite of his earlier support for Nasser, which had led him so enthusiastically into the coups, Abdul-Salam Arif’s enthusiasm cooled as he realized, like Qasim, that Iraq’s landscape was very different to Egypt’s. He also likely had religious concerns in mind; this was a period where Nasser was especially brutal towards the Islamists, and Arif, the pietistic scion of an Islamic preacher’s family, was moved to personally request that Nasser release the noted Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb, towards whom the Arif brothers were quite sympathetic. The Arifs’ only civilian prime minister was Abdul-Rahman Bazzaz (1965-66), an Islamist technocrat-cum-theoretician who espoused an Islamic identification rather than specifically Arab, subjected Arab union to Islamic union, and who was as a result more conciliatory towards the rebellious Kurds in the north. The Arifs were obviously taken by him, and were only forced to remove him after the pro-Egypt Nasserites mutinied.
Arif also attempted to publicly reconcile the Arab socialism preached by Nasser with Islam. Where Nasser’s other ally, Abdullah Sallal at Yemen, had not made any pretences to socialism and declared Yemen an Islamic republic, Arif hesitantly claimed that Iraq was economically bound to Arab socialism but morally and legally bound to Islamic law. This was a far cry from Nasser’s secularism, and another indication that the legacy of secularism—preached by Nasser, the Baath, and communists in ascending order—in the Arab nationalist sphere was neither unanimous nor uncontroversial. Not until Bakr returned at the helm of the Baath party to topple Abdul-Rahman Arif in 1968 did a secular form of Arab nationalism predominate, not without considerable force and bloodshed.
While Islamic political parties had never been a significant political force in Syria, they remained a powerful social vehicle for opposition to the Baath party. Characterized by a brutal police state, dominated as it was by minoritarian members—although its official dictator Amin Hafiz was a Sunni Muslim, his chief lieutenants were nearly exclusively Alawites, Druze, Ismailis and Christians—and governed by a more obvious secularism and leftism than Nasser, it was an obvious opponent to the Islamist parties, who were also backed by the Sunni middle class that had been hit by Baathist nationalization. In 1964 a revolt broke out at Hama—where the Islamists would be so brutally crushed during 1982—after a student was arrested for erasing Baathist slogans from the blackboard. Hafiz only quelled it with difficulty, while smaller uprisings in Aleppo and Hims were also put down. The Baath party constituted only a minority in Syria—indeed, its Marxist-leaning ideologue Yasin Hafiz erased the term “secularism” from a public copy of his private treatise, in order to make it more palatable to the Syrian masses (see Itamar Rabinovitch, Syria under the Baath 1963-66)—but it controlled the important army and security units by this time. The tensions between this paranoid, minority-dominated secularist state and the generally conservative and pietistic, Sunni-majority public were to flare up again as factors in the 1979-82 and post-2011 conflicts.
By way of conclusion we can return to Egypt, where the Islamist opposition had always been stronger and most evident. After the 1967 defeat, which forced him to purge at least part of his state apparatus, Nasser showed some more tolerance towards Islam in public spheres—at least where it could serve the government. During 1967-70, the army was given a moral commisar, Gamaleddin Mahfouz, who preached the virtues of jihad and the importance of Islam to Egyptian soldiery. Sadat, Nasser’s successor and another onetime Muslim Brethren member, continued to expand the scope for political Islam in the 1970s. Whereas the triumph of the glorious Arab nation and Arab socialism had been watchwords in the 1960s, the 1973 war in particular saw a large number of soldiers, both rank-and-file and commanders, adhere to a public pietism also reflected in the general Egyptian public (see George Gawrych’s The Albatross of Decisive Victory). One of them, the Islamist officer and field commander Abboud Zummur, organized the Islamist murder of Sadat in 1981, which was at least well-received in parts of the army who probably knew about it beforehand (see Hazem Kandil’s Soldiers, Spies, and Revolt). The popular 1980s army commander, Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, was also close to the Muslim Brethren and well-known for his emphasis of Islam in society, as opposed to the stoutly secularist dictator Hosni Mubarak.
The 1967 defeat and the post-1970s developments in large parts of the Muslim world may have contributed to the rise of Islamism. But they were not its cause, and Islamism as a political force, usually in opposition but sometimes in concert with rulers, had remained a significant public factor through even the age of secular Arab nationalism. Islamism was not a new invention brought about by the failure of other ideologies; rather, it was one of the most natural indigenous ideologies that had only temporarily been driven to ground.
Bism Allah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim
Recently I’ve had a lt of requests from cullies and shipmates to write up a list of recommended books. These are a bunch of really good books I’d recommend. It’s just a start, I’ll add to the list as I thjink of more books InshaAllah Taala
Africa: A Modern History. Guy Arnold, 2005. This is over a thousand pages long in fairly small print, yet I’ve hardly read a book that flies by so quickly. The reason is the style of the writer—a longtime British observer of Africa with rather postcolonial sympathies—which is flexible, fast, discussing things from thematic to specific, from economy to wars and coups. He is especially hard, happily, on Western colonialism and condescension towards Africa, but he doesn’t hesitate to give other forms of domination as well as hypocritical dictators who use West-bashing (e.g., Qaddafi) a hard word too. I do disagree with some of his analysis, at least semantically, but I appreciate the effort and it’s a good, honest, and for the most part comprehensive look by a wellwisher of the continent and its folks.
From Saladin to the Mongols. Stephen Humphreys, 1977. This is my favourite history book, not only because I like the subject, but the ease, keen observation, and combination of fluency and precision that marks Stephen Humphreys’ work. I haven’t seen a combined political-military-social analysis quite to match it in historical work, and I really, really recommend it—not only is it clinical, but at times—such as the section of the Mongol invasions—it’s downright lyrical at times. I nearly shed a tear at the disastrous, humiliating end of Nasir Yusuf b. Muhammad, the final Ayyubid sultan at Syria. A really solid piece of work
Empires of Mud. Antonio Giustozzi, 2009. A superb analytical work on the political economy and history of Afghanistan’s military barons, with a special but not exclusive focus on Abdul-Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan. A groundbreaking book with deep detail unmatched, as far as I know, in English language at any rate. Villainous mercenaries, tub-thumping adventurers, destructive barons and conniving commanders, wily feudalism and autocratic centralism–it’s superbly and scientifically dissected herein (see also next three books).
Revolution Unending. Gilles Dorronsoro, 2005. There are a number of excellent books about Afghanistan (few of which, unfortunately, are famous outside of academia) but the most clinical, comprehensive so far is this thoughtful, balanced book. One minor critique I have is the author’s tendency to over-categorize things such as ideology or social background, which in a fluid conflict zone is a problematic exercise. Nonetheless, that’s a minor quibble. A highly recommended book—if there’s a single book you read on Afghanistan, this is it.
Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond. Abdulkader Sinno, 2007. Before 2009-10, the vast majority of literature on post-Russian Afghanistan was written in a rather double-standarded ideological manner—see, for instance, anything written by the loathsome William Maley. Sinno’s excellent book, which dissects the organizational differences between various non-state groups in Afghanistan, thrusts a fair number of cliches aside as well as provide a solid academic comparison of various groups, from the highly centralized Hizb-i-Islami 1 group captained by Gulbadin Hikmatyar to the completely decentralized Harakat-i-Inqilabi group founded by Mohammad-Nabi Mohammadi. Variables including foreign sponsorship, diplomacy, internal revenues and different structures each come under consideration. I actually wrote a school paper recently on the same subject, but I didn’t come across this excellent book till I had nearly finished.
An Intimate War. Mike Martin, 2014. This is a remarkable, blow-by-blow and terrifically detailed work on Afghanistan’s restive Helmand Province, whose twists and turns can—as Mike Martin, who formerly worked alongside a British garrison of whose viewpoint and methodology he emerges very critical, shows—fill an entire book. A truly remarkable, nearly ethnographic book based partly on a huge number of interviews from a number of primary actors and a critical analysis of their account. When something is this well-detailed, you can read it nearly like a novel. Real life is far more interesting than fiction, and this history laden thick with conflict and deception is as enjoyable for the intrigue as it is for analysis.
Republican Iraq. Majid Khadduri, 1969. It’s easy to forget the decade of republican military rule that Iraq experienced in between its monarchy and the notorious Baath regime. Nowhere is this fascinating period chronicled, again in great detail and with thoughtful analysis, better than in Majid Khadduri’s book written a mere year after the Baath takeover. I confess it rather saddens me too—quite a few of the book’s characters, including dictators Abdul-Karim Qasim and Arif brothers Abdul-Rahman and Abdul-Salam—strike me as basically decent, well-meant folk who collided unnecessarily and catastrophically over very avoidable disputes. Alack, such are politics during military rule. It makes for woeful reflection, but terrific reading.
Sovereign Creations. Malik Mufti, 1996. Though the idea of a pan-Islamic union is rather popular—an idea I have no problems in admitting my attraction towards—it’s easy to forget that the postcolonial Arab regimes in the Middle East attempted a number of such mergers during the 1950s and 1960s. The longest-lasting, unfortunately, was a mere three years: the shortlived 1958-61 United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria. This book focuses on internal disputes within Iraq, which long mulled the idea of a merger, and Syria while also examining out the intentions and calculations of their regional neighbours and the colonial powers. It does a fine job in an easy-paced, fluent style.
Mongols and Mamluks. Reuben Amitai-Preiss, 1995. During the thirteenth-century the Mongol khanate swept across Eurasia, flooring in its path the regimes of China, Central Asia, Anatolia, Khurasan, virtually all of what is now Russia, and Iraq–including the Abbasid caliphate. The juggernaut finally screeched to a halt at “Goliath’s Spring”, Ayn Jalut, where a Mamluk army largely comprised of similar steppe cavalry (“for every pestilence,” quoth a Muslim panegyrist who saw little difference between Mamluk Turks and Mongols, “there is a cure of its kind”) set up the start of a twenty-year campaign where it eventually won out to carve an extraordinary slave-elite military state in Egypt and Syria. A remarkably clinical, if ruthless, state founded by Zahir Rukanuddin Baybars and Saifuddin Mansur Qalawoun receives a comprehensive overview in this book. Perhaps because the Mamluks, at least initially, took this conflict far more seriously than the Mongols, who had plenty of land to fall back on, they seem to have made some extraordinary adjustments, of which their highly advanced political-military system and in particular their espionage apparatus is especially fascinating.
ISIL, Concubines, and the Ideology of Impunity
A shocking story that the self-styled caliphate that spans the Iraq and Syria borderland has recently launched a “theology of rape” has sent a wave of hysteria across the internet. News that ISIL or Dawlah, as I’d rather call them since the “Dawlah” or state is the focus of their ideology, have captured and raped sex slaves as a matter of doctrine has drawn horror. As usually happens when rando Muslims do something vile, we’ve had Muslims in the West flock to condemn the atrocity while analysts have focused on Dawlah’s ideology. I would argue, however, that Dawlah’s rapine has nearly nothing to do with doctrine or scripture and everything to do with the control mechanics of wartime rape.
A disclaimer: this isn’t an attempt to entirely wipe out ideological lens. Nor is it an attempt that Dawlah are “selective” Muslims who use Islam as they see fit; there are plenty of those, both in extremist militancy and in some governments. Too often people claim that extremism has “nothing to do” with Islam but avoid the fact that it often does tangentially. For example, Al-Qaeda’s list of atrocities aimed at Western civilians in particular is quite clearly a contravention of Islamic legalism; there are more or less broadly-agreed-upon and fairly restrained codes of conduct for jihad (which is not to say they haven’t been violated at different stages in history), but Al-Qaeda contravene them by attempting, in very modern terms and with modern justifications usually predicated on the need to use every tool at their disposal against a more militarily powerful opponent, a total war. But the overall premise that Al-Qaeda give—that the Muslim world needs to be freed from foreign subjugation—is widely shared by a not insignificant number of Muslims, both laymen and scholars; it is the murderous means, of terrorism and civilian-aimed attacks, that Al-Qaeda use that the vast majority of Muslims reject out of hand. So Al-Qaeda proper’s ideology can be said to have at least tenuous links with certain aspects of Islam, even if it ignores inconvenient restrictions and caveats; it is, after all, not alone in that respect and arguably many Muslim governments and militants juggle their conveniences with Islamic jurisdiction to various extents, though rarely to the same extent on so grave a matter as violence.(1)
Another disclaimer: this is not an Islamic scholarly rebuttal; I have no qualifications in Islamic jurisprudence or theology. Rather it is an attempt to analyze Dawlah from a political viewpoint against its own ideological evolution.
By contrast to what can be argued as a “selective” interpretation of Islam on other groups’ part, Dawlah rejects any sort of traditional Islamic legalism whatsoever. This is not simply pick-and-choose from the tradition; rejection of compromise with any party, including the tradition, is an active part of its dogma as it stands. Rather, whatever benefits the Dawlah is seen as legitimate, and whatever inconveniences the Dawlah, including the restraints of Islamic legalism, is brushed aside with contempt (Dawlah’s online ideologues—a heady range including “Ghazi Shami”, “Marwan Tounisi”, and “Shami Witness”—like to refer to this as “coconut” Islam, a pejorative is usually applied to anything that doesn’t endorse their Dawlah outright).
This can be seen as similar to “selective” Islam in the sense that it picks and chooses Islamic jurisdiction based on its conveniences, and indeed there is an arguable if indirect link; Dawlah propaganda claims, after all, that their Dawlah state, as a self-styled caliphate, is the greatest tool to fulfill the needs of the Muslim world. But increasingly with time, the Dawlah has gone from becoming a “tool” to an end unto itself; now, particularly with so much of the Muslim world, including hardline Islamists, pitted against it, the “state’s” ideologues predicate Islam itself upon loyalty to the Dawlah. This goes beyond mere opportunism: it makes the state not a tool, but a determinant, of Islam. Over time its thugs’ warcry of “Baqiyaaaa”—“forever”, claiming that the State will live on till endtimes—has become nearly a dogma in its insistence and vigour. The State no longer simply serves Islam, as was the overall role of historical Islamic caliphates and their offshoots: the State is made out to have embodied Islam in totality; opposition to the State has been turned into “apostasy”, while anything that advances the State—no matter how contrary to Islamic laws—is endorsed.
There are various reasons that can be put forward for this. One of them is somewhat ideological, which is that Dawlah neatly claimed, without any agreement from the wider Muslim ummah whatsoever, the much-vaunted post of “caliphate”; millions of Muslims, and not just old-fashioned ideologues or young hotheads, recall the perceived glory days of Islam. Particularly the age of Prophet Muhammad, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, and the Rashidoun Caliphs who succeeded in the seventh-century, are seen as ages of superb governance, which is an uncontroversial position with Muslims. A subsequent millennium of monarchic caliphates, ending with the Ottoman Sultanate that spanned six centuries, is widely and uncontroversially seen as an imperfect but nonetheless strong, relatively fair and desirable stronghold of Islam that embodied some semblance of Islamic unity, dignity and values. The subsequent divisions, weaknesses, and uncertainty of the Muslim world has also led to a yearning for the return of the caliphs: prior to the twentieth century, the shortest period without a caliphate was a couple of years after the 1258 Mongol conquest of Baghdad, and even that was lamented by chroniclers. Most Muslims nowadays at least yearn for aspects if not the body of the historical caliphate, and some groups—most notably the controversial Hizb-ul-Tahrir party, a pacifist but ambitious party that has some currency in the West—have placed enormous emphasis on its restoration.
Dawlah’s unilateral claim to have restored the caliphate in the summer of 2014 was a gamble at winning over the Muslim world. By and large—largely because of Dawlah’s brutality, particularly its gratuitously thuggish and wildly broadcast executions as well as its attacks on minorities and other sects, but also because of its unilateral self-declaration—this was widely rejected by a large body that included Islamists such as Dawlah’s opponents in Syria, as well as more importantly scholars from various backgrounds. After more than a year Dawlah has managed to attract a bare handful of ideologues, few of them even scholars by any traditional mark, to its banner, and this is a sticking point that has repeatedly hurt them.
The State did attract hundreds of largely identity-stricken youths from the West to fight for the “Caliphate”, and it also has key support from various Iraqi Sunni factions driven to desperation by a decade of insurgency and repression under a spiteful Baghdad regime. Rarely are such fighters persuaded by rigorous scholarship and Islamic legalism; it is more their identity as Muslims and the labels, not substance, of the self-professed “Islamic State” that draws such youths. But its theological and scholarly limits were immediately clear; as Abu Abdulmalek, the top shariah scholar of the Ahrar-ul-Sham Islamist faction in Syria, stated in a Jul 2014 public notice, the Caliphate was meant to be a government that could serve the Muslim Ummah, not a totalist utopia built largely exclusively on the corpses of Muslims. Even fellow “jihadi” scholars, including the controversial Palestinians Abu Qatada Umar Uthman and Abu Muhammad Isam Tahir—Uthman having controversially supported a similarly rejectionist group in Algeria during the 1990s, even earning criticism from other “jihadis” for it, and Tahir having known, though rejected, the original founder of what became ISIL, Abu Musab Zarqawi—rejected the “Dawlah” outright. Its gamble at Islamic legitimacy had failed.
It is for this reason—the absence of support by any notable body of scholars—that I would pose is one reason that Dawlah have not become simply “selective” in their interpretation of Islam but outright rejectionists against anything perceived as traditionalism or “mainstream”. Early on, especially during the summer of 2014, Dawlah had tried to present themselves as at least somewhat legitimate with occasional handouts on film and periodic festivals to whip up both internal morale as well as external legitimacy as “acceptable” Muslims. They had, of course, always choreographed grisly executions of captives—dating back to Abu Musab’s wildest days in 2004—but shortly after declaring their “caliphate” they did briefly try to present themselves as theologically viable candidates. However, it soon became clear that no validation was forthcoming; rare ideologues, like the Australian preacher Musa Cerantonio and the Jamaican-British preacher Abdullah Faisal, were trumpeted from the rooftops in Dawlah propaganda, but no scholars of any weight or authority, even jihadis, had any sympathy. Even when the United States and a gaggle of other, most anxious Gulf, countries bombarded Syria and Iraq, there was little sympathy for Dawlah even as there was some outrage in the Muslim world at the bombardment itself. (2)
Particularly over the winter of 2014-15, therefore, Dawlah abandoned much of their attempts at ideological veneer and it was here that they claimed exclusivist membership of and support of their State as a determinant of Islam, and therefore a shroud of impunity to any member of the State. No longer did Dawlah propaganda try to wheedle Muslims into their arms, but instead tried to justify itself to its existant followers; now, grisly executions were not only broadcast but justified energetically on the grounds that some Muslim in history had once done it, so it could not be illegal even if that Muslim had done it illegally. Even massive disapproval by Muslims was taken as a justification: this only proved, according to Dawlah’s propagandists, that most Muslims were nonbelievers and that Dawlah’s flimsy numbers were a proof of its uniquely virtuous nature. Opposition by Muslims and Islamic law was no longer a source of dismay; it became a propaganda tool to convince millennarian followers that they, and they alone, were on the right path. (This is not to deny the “sincerity”, which is impossible for us to calculate, that IS fighters have; however, their interpretation of Islam is a retroactive and self-serving one, even if subconscious and not intended)
Dawlah’s glossy but substantially hollow magazine, Dabiq—breathlessly followed by Western analysts as a key insight into terrorism ideology—revealed more about their modus operandi in carving out a new ideology, one based entirely around the State. As long as it called itself Islamic and adopted Islamic rhetoric, the State—and, more importantly, its followers, who were given a rationale of utter impunity quite different to the traditional code of conduct for jihad in Islam—could violate as much Islamic doctrine as it needed.
Perhaps the most telling example of this came in a recent Dabiq issue, which urged women—including married women—to “migrate” to the Dawlah and abscond with its “mujahideen”. The pesky matter of that well-known Islamic injunction on adultery as a major sin punishable by death? No matter, Dabiq announced airily; because it deemed non-loyalists of the Dawlah to be non-Muslims, the women’s husbands were “non-Muslims” and that made their marriages illegal (3). This sort of retroactive justification, flying in the face of both Islamic law and procedure, is characteristic of Dawlah’s propaganda: as long as it’s rhetorically done in God’s path, Dawlah can blatantly any of God’s commands and perform feats of self-serving justification after the fact. It is a sort of “reformism” in its own right, similar in attitude ironically to the same sort of state-driven “Muslim reformism” so beloved of certain Western regimes. The ends, as determined by the state, justify any means, even the most unambiguously unIslamic ones.
Insofar as it is influenced in any way by the Islamic tradition, the Dawlah ideology now seeks to aggressively pick out keywords from history, never mind their status under Islam. The case of concubines is an example. Historically, concubines were a feature in many cultures and in wartime, Islam permitted this practice amid captives albeit with injunctions as to their treatment, their status and their rights, much as it had permitted slavery with very tight regulations and caveats not present in other traditions. Against the abolitionist pressure of the 1800s as well as its own push at modernization, the Ottoman Sultanate—not without controversy—abolished the slave trade, though it continued unabated in some parts of the world well into the twentieth century. Much as they had unilaterally declared themselves a caliphate and the arbiters of Islam, Dawlah unilaterally declared the reimposition of the slave trade, and—presumably in part because enough women weren’t absconding from the West to join the thirsty “mujahideen”—also, apparently, of concubines.
This has, of course, aroused shock and horror. Rukmini Callimachi, a dubious NYT reporter (and a writer with a long history of hyperbolic articles that usually exaggerate the threat—and therefore, to potential recruits, appeal—that Dawlah poses, and in my opinion indirectly if unknowingly helped boost its recruitment)(4) took care to emphasize the fact that certain Dawlah fighters prayed before raping their victims, with the implication that their prayers made it ritualistic and therefore somehow bound to Islam. Western Muslims have, understandably but perhaps unnecessarily, reacted with speedy denials about the legitimacy of such acts. Some have declared it a time to introspect and perhaps revise the Islamic tradition.
There are several problems with this. A major problem, as has been noted above, is that Islamic tradition as it stands is not only irrelevant but actively loathed by Dawlah. They rhetorically claim inheritance of Islamic law and values, yet they have not only shunned it but made it a point to do so precisely because, according to their rhetoric, it has failed to give what they—and therefore, since they have appointed themselves Islam’s guard, in their view Islam—want. In this sense, Dawlah are very much revisionists of convenience ironically not dissimilar to the same pro-Western “reformers” pushed by certain Western governments. That makes them far, far different from traditional Islamic scholarship as well as most Islamist groups—from the Ahrar-ul-Sham of Syria and Taliban of Afghanistan to Hamas of Palestine and Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, each of which Dawlah has categorically shunned—who are for the most part, though not spotlessly, sticklers for Islamic procedure to the extent of being labelled “fundamentalists”. There is a reason that for the better part of a century no other Islamist group, however hardline, attempted to revive such institutions as slavery; such a unilateral declaration goes precisely against the consensus-based jurisdiction of traditional Islam, and fits very much into Dawlah’s worldview. Orthodox or traditional scholars are the last people Dawlah are likely to heed.
The second problem is that it assumes Dawlah are driven towards rape by theology and ideology. As has also been noted, Dawlah have a consistent track record of appropriating and revising ideology to fit their attendant conveniences. Much as a mass-decapitation-by-explosives—what one Islamist critic online sarcastically called the minhaj, or methodology, of gore entertainment franchises—was justified because it could serve the Dawlah’s psychological warfare needs, and much as adultery and retroactive takfir against the cheated-on spouse was justified because it could serve Dawlah’s plethora of lusty single fighters, so too has the collection of concubines. Moreover, given Dawlah’s history of nearly always justifying such stances after the fact, it is nearly certain that the “ideological” aspect was taken as an afterthought, to assure thirsty young rapists that their rape was not a crime and could be continued—rather than serving as an original ideological bedrock to commit crime.
This is further strengthened when one considers the historical use of rape as a weapon of war, in particular but hardly exclusively by non-state militias. Mass rape, in particular, assures the psychological breakdown of communities, particularly in villages and small towns. It traumatizes, sometimes beyond recovery, the victim and renders their family and community in a state of shock. Though perhaps the first to justify it by claiming to represent Islam, Dawlah are hardly alone in this. From militias, like Dawlah, alone—never mind state armies which themselves have a terrible record—recent systemic rapists include various militias in Congo’s bloody war, Serbian militias in the 1990s Balkans, shabiha paramilitaries in Syria, the Interehamwe genocidaires of Rwanda, the millennarians in Uganda’s LRA, together with others.
An example perhaps more resonant with Dawlah than any other comes from central Afghanistan during the 1990s, where opposed Hazara Hezb-e-Wahdat and Pakhtoun Ittihad-e-Islami militias systematically raped each other’s civilians as a means of cleansing and terror. The reason it resonates is that, like Dawlah, both groups portrayed an exclusivist self-image as mujahidin and often labelled their opponents as nonbelievers. Not as systematically extreme as Dawlah—indeed, they eventually coalesced around the Northern Front to fight the Taliban advance and now ironically act as members of the Afghanistan regime under the occupation—their opportunistic exclusivism and communalism was a smaller, temporary version of what Dawlah has now made infamous.
Nor is this an exclusively Muslim issue, far from it. Serb militias in the Balkans, fighting for the unity of Yugoslavia against purported foreign subversion; Russian soldiers in Chechnya, fighting to retrieve their country’s glory after the humiliation of 1990; Kivu militants in the Congo, purporting to defend Tutsi rights after the Rwanda genocide; Indian soldiers in Kashmir, fighting to crush a vilified insurgency; Colombian soldiers and paramilitaries against socialist guerrillas; each have used mass rape systemically and justified it as necessary for whatever cause they claim to support. With arms and assured impunity, extremists can act like animals. In Congo, for instance, the notorious militia commander Bosco Ntaganda assured his (largely underage) fighters that their weapons and status as “soldiers” was enough for them to do anything, including mass murder, rape and displacement, a near-identical method to Dabiq’s howls. The common factor linking such groups is the heady intoxication of self-proclaimed impunity—a very different tune to the constant introspection and discipline of any orthodox Islamic stance, and most Islamist political groups.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State is not a fundamentalist symptom of a hijacked tradition that requires ideological reform of Islam; indeed, it is quite the opposite: a brazenly modern, rejectionist and post-traditionist militia that has made a point of rejecting orthodox Islamic views even as it appropriates their title. To focus on ideology on what is a brash but not unfamiliar militia group of thugs is to miss the point and, therefore, bungle the diagnosis.
1) I would add that the Nusrah Front in Syria has been Al-Qaeda’s first “guerrilla militia” affiliate to attempt to govern any sort of territory, rather than the transnational terrorism that made their name, and if it succeeds there Al-Qaeda may transform in some respects to a conventional sort of warfare without dropping their hostility outright; this seems, however, unlikely to happen with the major stakes in Syria and Nusrah’s rare propensity for making unnecessary enemies. UPDATE NOTE: It has been pointed out that AQ’s eventual gameplan was indeed to control territory much as Nusrah does. But it was the pre-“militia” role that AQ espoused–attacks, for instance, against civilian centres such as most infamously the WTC and also the East Africa embassies–that were mostly condemned by Muslims, including those who may have sympathized with AQ’s stated anticolonial aims. It is also probably for this reason, combined with Nusrah’s military value and mixed-to-positive reputation within Syria’s opposition, that it has been seen as less controversial than AQ proper or other AQ affiliates
2) Dawlah’s links with the old Iraq Baath party, while occasionally oversimplified and exaggerated, also can have done little to help.
3) The “adultery” case reminds me of a bizarre incident from the 1980s in eastern Afghanistan, referenced in David Edwards’ Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad. It refers to a hardline young woman who warned her husband not to join the Khalqi communist army of the time, and that she would consider him a disbeliever and their marriage would be annulled automatically. The husband paid no heed and went to the army. Claiming her marriage invalid, the woman then absconded with an unmarried youth. By Islamic law, of course, despite her claims (and presumable conviction) to Islamic righteousness, her marriage was still intact; joining the communist army did not annull one’s Islam. The region, then under mujahidin control and officially Islamic law, therefore executed the woman even as she taunted them for cowardice and lack of faith. The woman’s lover managed to slip away. This story was narrated to Edwards by Samiullah Wakil, a mujahid field officer who sympathized with the woman.
4) It is also worth noting that Callimachi has supported the same self-styled Muslim reformists, such as Asra Nomani, who gleefully exploit Dawlah’s opportunistic revisionism to push their own, more conveniently pro-Western, opportunistic revisionism
Note: I originally wrote this for a publication on a news site, but they rejected it “for policy reasons”. I thought I’d best print it afore it becomes outdated.
Afghanistan: Lessons from the Past, Implications for the Future
2015 Copyright etc
With the eventual drawdown of the United States and NATO, the Afghan regime that rode to power on their backs in 2001 finds itself in a difficult position not dissimilar to that of the former USSR-imposed regime of Najibullah Ahmadzai after its patrons withdrew; as then-opposition leader Burhanuddin Rabbani remarked of Najibullah, Kabul’s regime is “like a suspended teardrop, about to fall.”
Yet Najibullah hung on to power surprisingly long after the Russians withdrew in 1989; it wasn’t until Apr 1992 that he was eventually ousted, bringing into place a dysfunctional “Islamic State of Afghanistan” officially under Burhanuddin’s leadership that from the outset was imperilled by vast mistrust between the commanders and leaders that had brought about Najibullah’s downfall. One important measure that Najibullah had taken in this respect was to encourage mistrust and divisions among his opponents, primarily by using a “carrot and stick” approach, offering amnesty to some mujahidin defectors while officially cutting back his regime’s notorious abuses, as well as his secret service playing off commanders against one another.
This was not, of course, simply Najibullah’s doing: a variation of competing sponsors—from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to Iran and the United States—as well as competition over finances, clans, ideology or simply ambitions meant that the mujahidin had, from the late 1980s onwards, begun to seriously fight amongst themselves. The longest-lasting such enmity emerged between Gulbadin Hekmatyar and Shah Massoud, who had already fought each other in northern Afghanistan well before Massoud marched into Kabul in Apr 1992, prompting a ferocious battle between the pair and their respective supporters that claimed thousands of lives.
That conflict, and the splintered Afghanistan that emerged, offers lessons for both today’s Kabul regime and the Taliban insurgency as well as their respective supporters. Kabul has, of course, long tried to wheedle away Taliban fighters from the front: former president Hamid Karzai famously called them his “brothers” and he tried to promise some amnesty; additionally, the United States and NATO—rather ironically given the tens of thousands of troops they maintained to prop up the Kabul regime—tried to portray the Taliban movement as simply an agent of Pakistan, downplaying the considerable support it enjoyed at rural Afghanistan and especially in the south and east. The links that the Taliban undoubtedly enjoyed with Pakistan’s army and intelligence were always equivocal, and based more on mutual interest and a common narrative of Islamic jihad against invaders rather than control by one party over the other.
In this respect the TTP insurgency that mushroomed in Pakistan from 2007 was an unlikely boon for the Kabul regime and its backers, and there is some evidence of links between Afghanistan’s secret service and members of the TTP insurgency, such as former TTP third-in-command Latifullah Mehsud (the enemy of my enemy, and so on). Pakistan, for its part, had overplayed its hand under Pervez Musharraf’s regime in trying to simultaenously satisfy and outsmart the United States: repeated incursions into the historically autonomous FATA northlands, which were meant to appease the United States’ calls to “do more” and which agitated more locals than they were worth, only galvanized the TTP narrative that Pakistan was an agent of the United States, killing FATA locals, and helped draw people towards the TTP, who quite ironically ignored the repeated orders of Taliban leader Mohammad Omar, to whom they claimed to answer, to focus on the invasion of Afghanistan. Not until Pakistan tried its own “carrot and stick” approach, drawing such commanders as Khalid Sajna away from the TTP’s hardline commanders Fazlullah Hayat and Abdul-Wali Omar, did the TTP begin to fragment.
For their part, the Taliban leadership want to avoid the same sort of splits in their ranks, especially as much of Afghanistan has come under their control. The belated exposure that their respected founder Mohammad Omar had passed away—perhaps as early as Apr 2013—was a potent attack at any faultlines. Omar’s eventual successor and confidante, Akhtar Mansoor, long faced accusations of ambition, especially by Taliban commanders who felt that his Ishaqzai clan was overrepresented in the leadership. One of these dissidents, former Kabul corps commander Abdul-Rauf Khadim, eventually split from the Taliban and this year joined the extremist group, self-styled “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant”, who have attemped to open a franchise in Afghanistan and wipe out the Taliban insurgency. It is quite likely that Khadim did this more over his dispute with the Ishaqzai leaders, especially Mansoor, than any ideological relation with ISIL, who have managed to alienate an impressive number of Islamic groups from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Chechnya as well as Afghanistan.
But even apart from defectors, there has been disquiet at Mansoor’s ascent. There has long been dispute, most notably with famous field commander Abdul-Qayum Zakir, over Mansoor’s proximity to Omar. Though Zakir promised to be “the most obedient Taliban” member if Mansoor was properly picked as leader, a number of Taliban officers have tried to push Omar’s eldest son Mohammad Yaaqub as successor. Yaaqub’s supporters criticized the selection process and claimed that many officers had simply not attended the shura where Mansoor had been picked. The discord appears serious enough for Omar’s brother, Abdul-Mannan Houtak, to publicly request a peaceful mediation.
Nonetheless, the fissure should not be overestimated. Tensions are not a novelty to the Taliban leadership—its founder, Omar, was reported to have had considerable differences with his second-in-command Mohammad Rabbani, while many prominent Taliban commanders conflicted during the 2000s—but a strength that they have traditionally shown is to overcome or suppress such rifts. One of the causes d’etre of the Taliban foundation had been to quell the autonomy of powerful commanders, so that even at the height of the tensions between Zakir and Mansoor the campaign continued largely unabated. The fact that Mansoor’s second-in-command was named Sirajuddin Haqqani, the aggressive Zadran commander whose father Jalaluddin Haqqani had been a formidable commander of both insurgencies against Russia and the United States and a pragmatist leader with experience of the mujahidin rifts in the 1990s, should probably help, as should the support of another prominent eastern commander, Abdul-Latif Mansoor. The fact that, unlike the competing sponsors of the mujahidin against Russia, the Taliban’s jihad has only a handful of foreign sponsors, particularly Pakistan, should also help.
However, Kabul is not out of cards. One chip is the strength of largely autonomous militias, especially that of Abdul-Rashid Dostum, whose appointment as Ghani’s vicepresident underscores the Afghan regime’s reliance on strongarm fighters. An infamously brutal predator, Dostum nonetheless has experience as a hefty paramilitary commander since he fought for the Russian occupation during the 1980s. During the 1990s he effectively ruled northern Afghanistan as an autonomous state separate from the rest, with its own currency and airlines, trading independently with the Central Asian states. The Junbash militias he commanded received the support of Central Asian leaders, especially Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov with whom Dostum shares ethnicity, and it is clear that Ghani needs Dostum’s muscle more than vice versa.
Tajik-dominated former mujahidin militias have also proven hardened opponents against the Taliban advance. The most formidable such leader, arguably, is Ismail Khan, who unlike many such militia leaders seems to command genuine local support after decades as Herat’s effective ruler, without the reputation for gratutious violence than some others. Though Ismail’s tendency towards autocracy has provoked some dissent, as has a troubled relationship with Kabul, it is difficult to find another commander with a similar level of local legitimacy. Finally, a number of minority militias are likely to remain embittered opponents to the Taliban advance, with memories of a scorched-earth campaign in the Hazara-dominated Bamyan region. Again, the price for Kabul’s survival seems to be the return of often exceptionally vicious militias over a state army, many of them also favoured by the United States for their uncomplicated ruthlessness.
This runs the additional risk of an ethnicization and communalization of the conflict as occurred in the 1990s—though there are some Tajiks and Uzbeks in the Taliban army’s ranks, the vast majority remain Pashtun fighters and that is unlikely to change. Pro-regime Pashtuns, such as southern leader Gulagha Sherzai, have been widely loathed for thuggery; many of Sherzai’s abuses were responsible for provoking surrendered Taliban officers, including current leader Akhtar Mansoor and former commander Abdul-Ghani Baradar, back into the insurgency. Furthermore, Taliban commanders like Abdul-Majeed Nurzai and Abdul-Mannan Abdul-Rahim enjoy strong roots and considerable respect in such regions, as do Haqqanis, Mansoors and other mujahidin veterans in the east.
Another important card in Kabul’s pack is the occupation itself as a diplomatic tool and military force. Unlike the Russian withdrawal, done with overwhelming foreign pressure, NATO and the United States are likely to have a considerable residue in Afghanistan for several years. Having officially withdrawn in 2014, the United States nonetheless maintains a garrison of some ten thousand troops. Effectively, the Kabul regime has been forced into dependency on external benefactors—something that jars a considerable number of traditionally autonomous Afghans, even those opposed to the Taliban insurgency—but it remains an important chip.
It has been in an effort to prolong this occupation that Kabul has attempted to play up the threat of a Taliban alliance with the bloodthirsty ISIL group; an article published by the sympathetic RFERL website drew nearly exclusively on Afghan security officials to construct the case of such a partnership. In fact, quite the opposite has taken place: whatever ISIL recruits in Afghanistan have fought fiercely versus the Taliban fighters especially in the eastern province of Nangarhar. ISIL has been particularly bitter towards the Taliban movement because Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Zawahiri, proclaimed his allegiance to Mohammad Omar, “Commander of the Faithful”; news of Omar’s death was met with gleeful derision by ISIL ideologues online, who accused Zawahiri of either dishonesty or allegiance to a corpse.
Perversely, therefore, the prospect of an ISIL outgrowth chimes in with two of Kabul’s short-term objectives. Firstly, ISIL are a direct challenge to the Taliban. Secondly, the longer ISIL stays the more inclined the United States and NATO will be to extend their stay in Afghanistan and thereby protect Kabul’s embattled regime. How much influence ISIL have is unclear; they have attracted headlines and a number of recruits, most notably the dissident commander Abdul-Rauf Khadim and the former TTP commander Saeed Khan-Orakzai, but their success on the battlefield has been minimal and, as elsewhere, enormously exaggerated by their active media efforts.
Whether or not ISIL present another significant force on the scene, however, the Afghan landscape has already become extremely complicated. What Afghanistan needs more than ever, is a decrease in equivocal external interference—most obviously the occupation itself, which is increasingly unpopular within the countries that constitute it, but also Pakistan’s support of the Taliban rebels and the support given by Iran, the United States and the Central Asian dictatorships for various pro-regime militias—and thereafter a reconciliation between the various groups. Thirty-six years of nearly endless conflict has exhausted the people, and reconciliation between enemies has a long tradition in Afghanistan. But the calculations and objectives of various actors have made the possibility of a reconciliation as unlikely as it is necessary.