January 28, 2020

Miniseries Review: "Rise of Empires: Ottoman" (Netflix - 2020)

Netflix poster for Rise of Empires: Ottoman

The year was 1453, almost 40 years before the initial Christopher Columbus voyage to the new world. The Ottoman Empire has a new ruler, Sultan Mehmed* II, who assumed the position in 1451 upon the death of his father, Sultan Murad II.

Sultan Mehmed II (1432-1481), also commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror (in Turkey, you will see it written as Fatih Sultan Mehmet, and you will see it on a lot of things), was the seventh Ottoman sultan. Technically, he ruled twice, first when he was 12 years of age for two years before his father Murad realized he was not ready and re-assumed the position himself, and again at age 19 when his father died. He remained the sultan until his death in May 1481.

This six-episode (4.5 hours) docudrama series begins with the death of Murad II and the uneasy transition of power to Mehmed II. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about Mehmed's youth and formative years, and the attachments with his step-mother Mara Branković- a Serbian princess admitted to his father's harem - and Grand Vizier Çandarlı Halil Pasha, who also served Mehmed II until his execution on the orders of the sultan following the fall of Constantinople. These two people were very influential in Mehmed's early life.

As Mehmed assumed and consolidated power, he remained focused on his childhood dream of seizing the city of Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire (also called the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium). At the time of Mehmed's assumption of power, Constantinople was ruled by Emperor Constantine XI.

The sultan was also concerned with the presence of the city of Galata, located north of Constantinople on the opposite side of the Golden Horn. Galata was a colony of the Republic of Genoa.

Mehmed believed that these lands properly belonged to the Ottoman Empire. For the most part, it appears Mehmed was willing to allow the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians to live in the areas, but under the auspices of the Ottoman sultan.

Most people believe the Ottomans approached and assaulted Constantinople (located in Thrakia, on the European side) from Anatolia, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Actually, the capital of the Ottoman Empire was also on the European side, in Edirne. Edirne is located 150 miles northwest of what is now Istanbul, in present-day Turkey - the producers could have been a bit clearer on the geography and included more maps.

If you were not familiar with the history, you would come away with the impression that the seige was launched from Anatolia, across the Bosphorus, then southwest along the shore. While the Ottomans did build a fortress (Rumelihisarı, which has been restored and a tourist attraction today) in 1451 on the strait to block Christian reinforcements coming from the Black Sea towards Constantinople, the action took place almost exclusively on the European side.

Since there are four and a half hours, the series was able to devote sufficient time to discuss the military aspects of the campaign. One of the interesting topics that covered included the use of large-caliber artillery to attack fortifications. The walls of Constantinople were reputed to be among the strongest in the world - construction started in the 4th Century, and improvement were continuous.

A Hungarian engineer named Orban offered his cannon-making skills first to Emperor Constantine, and when the emperor declined because of the expense, to Sultan Mehmed. Mehmed funded the construction of a huge cannon that required 60 oxen to move. I suspect that when Constantine watched the walls of the city being reduced to rubble, he second guessed that fateful decision.

On the other side, the series documented the fighting skills of the Genoese mercenaries hired by Constantine to defend the city. Although they extracted a price from the Ottomans - and there were times the battle could have gone either way - in the end, the overwhelming numbers and some daring decisions on the part of Sultan Mehmed led to an Ottoman victory.

Those decisions included the use of Serbian miners to tunnel under the walls in an effort to weaken them, the use of a naval blockade to prevent Genoese reinforcements and resupply (they got through), and transporting dozens of Ottoman navy ships overland to circumvent the iron chain blockade of the entrance to the Golden Horn. Attrition and treachery from the Galatans gave the Ottomans the upper hand.

The only hope for the besieged city would be the arrival of the Venetian fleet, which never came. The Ottomans launched the final assault on the city, and took it, on May 29, 1453.

The city became the empire's fourth and final capital, lasting until the end of the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate (which had existed since 1299) on November 1, 1922. On November 11 of that year, Ankara was named as the capital of the new Republic of Turkey. At the same time, the name of Constantinople was officially changed to Istanbul.

For anyone who has visited Istanbul, this docudrama is a fascinating history - the graphics are well-done and are easily recognizable to what the city looks like today. The mix of reenactment and scholarly comment is well-done. A few years ago, I was able to walk the walls and venues of much of the fighting of the final battles in Istanbul - this series puts it into great perspective. I wish I had been able to watch this before walking the terrain; it would have been more understandable.

I highly recommend it, but suggest keeping your internet search engine of choice handy to clarify things that might not be well-known to people who do not have a background in Middle East history.

Here is the link to the Netflix series.

* Mehmed is the Turkish rendition of Muhammad.

January 15, 2020

Middle East oil pumping stations and military air bases

Tiyas Air Base, also known as T-4, located east of Hims, Syria© Google Earth

Over the last year, there have been a series of confrontations between the Israelis on one side, and the Iranians and their Syrian allies on the other, at an airbase in western Syria. The air base is located between the Syrian cities of Hims (Homs) and Tadmur (Palmyra). The base has been identified as both Tiyas, and as T-4, depending on the media outlet doing the reporting.

In the above image, the Arabic descriptions give both names. Which is correct? Actually, both are.

The name Tiyas comes from the name of the closest village. It is customary in the Syrian Air Force to name bases and installations for the nearest city, town, or village. However, the base is not just close to the village of Tiyas, it is also close to the location of an oil pumping station in Tiyas designated as T-4. The T-4 designator goes back to the early days of oil exploration and transport in Iraq as far back as the 1930s.

This map shows the oil pipelines used to move oil from the Kirkuk oilfields in Iraq to Mediterranean ports - Haifa, (now in Israel but then in British-mandated Palestine) and Tarablus al-Sham (Tripoli, in French-mandated Lebanon).

The K-prefix indicates pumping stations on the Kirkuk pipeline, which transported the oil from Kirkuk to a station near the city of al-Hadithah. At Hadithah, the oil was routed into the Tripoli triple pipeline or the Haifa double pipeline. Pumping stations on the Tripoli pipeline are designated with a T prefix, while the Haifa pipeline stations are designated with an H prefix.

Not only were the pipelines accessible by the series of roads paralleling the lines, the Iraq Petroleum Company constructed private airstrips to move men, supplies, parts, etc. between stations and facilities. Many of the airstrips still exist in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Many of them were converted into civil airports, some into military air bases, and some into shared civil/military facilities. K-1, K-3, T-3, T-4, H-2, H-3, H-5 all were/are major air bases. The current T-4 air base is about four miles west of the original Iraq Petroleum Company airstrip.

Tiyas was the location of the fourth pumping station on the al-Hadithah-Tripoli pipeline. There are three such stations in Syria, all in use today. T-2 is located just inside the Syrian border near the city of Albu Kamal, the site of a large Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) base populated by both IRGC personnel as well as Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a militia groups.

The station at T-3 is now the shared military air base and civilian airport in the city of Tadmur (also known as Palmyra, site of ancient Aramean, Arabic, and Roman ruins).

The air base at T-4 is used by not only the Syrian Air Force, but by Russian forces in Syria, and elements of the IRGC. Having been there a few times, I can vouch for the description as being "in the middle of nowhere."

Note: Given the political situation following the 1948 creation of Israel, and later political turmoil in both Syria and Lebanon, the Iraqis constructed an alternate pipeline from al-Hadithah to Faysh Khabur on the Turkish border, then west to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. It is still in use today.

January 5, 2020

Fallout from the killing of Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani

Iran-backed militia members outside US Embassy in Baghdad
Note red boxes contain names of Kata'ib al-Imam 'Ali (left) and Kata'ib Hizballah (right)

These are my responses to an interview request from Eurasia Diary. I will post a link to the actual article once it is published.

Q. Colonel Francona, attacks organized by radical Shi’a groups on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad protesting U.S. airstrikes against Iran-backed militia Kata’ib Hizballah on the last day of 2019. As a result, the U.S. Secretary of Defense ordered the deployment of additional troops to the region. An American drone strike killed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani. Do you think that such actions could ignite a war between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Iraq, or elsewhere in the region?

A. I have no doubt there will be reactions, both by Iraqi Shi’a groups/militias, and possibly even the Iranians directly. While in the past, we have seen the Iranians conducting their operations in the region via their Iraqi, Lebanese, even Afghan and Pakistani proxies, the U.S. killing of Qasem Soleimani may cause a direct Iranian response on an American target. I suspect it will be against an American target in the region, possibly the Persian Gulf.

A quick word on the killing of Soleimani. There has been speculation in some media that the intelligence used to support the decision to kill Soleimani and Kata’ib Hizballah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was not as definitive as portrayed by U.S. Administration officials.

My response is that there has been sufficient cause for years to eliminate Soleimani. It was Soleimani who was behind proxy Iraqi Shi’a militias which caused the death of over 600 American troops, and the wounding of hundreds more. That alone, to me, is enough reason to kill him. Killing al-Muhandis? A bonus.

It appears that Iran’s initial response, other than the almost elevation of Soleimani to sainthood in the Shi’a- controlled media in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, has been a non-binding resolution in the Iraqi majlis an-nuwab (Council of Representatives, or Parliament) to expel “foreign” forces from the country.

Note that this was what we in the United States would call a “party line” vote – the Shi’a representatives, to no one’s surprise, overwhelming followed Tehran’s urging to demand the removal of coalition – but aimed at the United States – forces from the country. I suspect this was for domestic consumption and an attempt by Shi’a lawmakers to appease their masters in Tehran.

The Iraqi majlis should be careful what they wish for. There is little support in the United States for continued American presence in Iraq. Most Americans understand the need to continue the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but are weary of the actions of the Iranians in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, etc.

I have even heard what I believe is a short-sighted claim that since we (the United States) no longer are dependent on any foreign oil or gas, we should not be putting our troops at risk in the Middle East.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the calls for the removal of American and coalition forces becomes actual legislation in Iraq – I don’t think it will but let’s examine that possibility. Are the Iraqis – even with their Iranian masters’ support – capable of defeating the remaining ISIS presence in the country? A look at Iraqi operations would tell you it’s not likely. The Iraqis still rely heavily on U.S. intelligence and airstrikes to take the fight to ISIS.

In the unlikely event there is actual legislation to expel U.S. forces, it will be 2011 all over again.

Q. About 2011, you have repeatedly said that it was major mistake for the U.S. to leave Iraq in 2011, in essence leaving it to Iran. Do you still believe this?

A. I do. I had to laugh when I read the comments of one of the Shi’a legislators today – it may have even been the prime minister, who is essentially an Iranian puppet. He said (and this is my interpretation of his remarks in Arabic) that there were no foreign forces in Iraq from 2011 to 2014, and that they did just fine.

Seriously? Let’s remember what actually happened. With no residual U.S. troops in the country (thanks to the decision of President Obama to not push for a new Status of Forces Agreement), the Shi’a proved themselves incapable of resisting the bribery, graft, and corruption that effectively hollowed out the Iraqi Army, a once-proud army that collapsed in the face of an inferior ISIS force.

Are the Iranians going to be able to replicate the capabilities of the anti-ISIS coalition? I doubt it – the Iranians are not in Iraq for the Iraqis, they are in it for the Iranians. As the self-appointed guardians and leaders of all things Shi’a, the Iranians believe they are destined to be the key power broker in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and as much of Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and even Azerbaijan as they can.

Q. After the killing of Soleimani, what are the next steps likely to be taken by Washington in Iraq?

A. Good question. I hope that after the initial anger wears off, cooler heads will prevail and the two sides can continue to work towards the elimination of ISIS, and the eventual development of Iraq as secular republic.

Do I think those things will happen? Yes and no. On one hand, the Iraqis will realize that to defeat ISIS completely, they need U.S. support.

On the other hand, the killing of Soleimani was a serious and visceral blow to the pro-Iranian groups – the Shi’a proxies if you will – which rely on Tehran for leadership and funding, by what they believe is “the Great Satan” in Iranian parlance. They regard this as just the latest attack on the Islamic Republic by the United States.

We’ve been tap-dancing around a major confrontation between the United States and Iran since 1979. This event may bring the animosity between the two governments to a head. If there is a lethal Iranian attack on an American facility, I think we have to assume that there will be an American response – I believe there will have to be. Anyone who is watching the region cannot help but notice the buildup of American military capabilities. The Iranians should be very circumspect in their next moves.

One last comment – unless something changes in Iraq, it will continue to be a failed state. The government and its institutions do not serve the interests of the Iraqi people. I think the Iraqi people are beginning to realize that they are in effect a vassal state of Iran. The recent spate of protests against Iranian influence indicate that awakening.