August 24, 2020

Movie Review: The Ottoman Lieutenant (Netflix - 2017)

Initial comment - let's remember that the first rule of fiction, even historical fiction, is the suspension of disbelief. That means as you are watching a movie or reading a book that is not history or a biography, you need to keep telling yourself that this is not true, it's entertainment. However, when you watch a movie set in actual historic events, you expect the author to at least adhere to some aspects of reality.

If you decide to watch The Ottoman Lieutenant, be prepared to engage in a major suspension of disbelief. That said, you may want to watch it. Let me give you some information that will inform your decision. Consider that the movie production cost was about $40 million, but grossed worldwide just over $400,000 (less than $250,000 in the United States).

If you can imagine it, the movie is a Turkish-American romantic story set in the city and environs of Van, in eastern Anatolia (present-day Turkey) in the opening days of World War One. At the time, Van was a city with a majority Armenian and Kurdish population. The Armenians were arming themselves and forming militias, knowing full well that war was coming, and they would likely be caught between the Ottoman and the Russian armies. The Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of Germany in October 1914.

The love triangle in the movie, which I found to be unlikely, involves an American doctor (Josh Hartnett) working in an American-sponsored hospital in Van, established and run by an older doctor (Ben Kingsley). An American nurse (Hera Hilmar), who met the young doctor while he was in the States on a fundraising trip, decides to bring much-needed medical supplies and a truck to the hospital. A bit far-fetched.

Bringing the supplies to eastern Anatolia requires permission from the Ottoman authorities. Ottoman Army Lieutenant Ismail Veli (Michiel Huisman) is assigned to escort the nurse to the hospital in Van. You see where this is going - young doctor, young nurse, young officer.

As someone whose professional focus has been the Middle East, I find the historical aspects of the lead-up to World War One of interest, and was curious as to how the producers were going to treat the obvious issue: the Armenian genocide that began in 1915.

The disappointing answer: the producers either ignored it or adhered to the official Turkish government position. I should have known how this was likely to be handled since the major investors in the project are Turkish, the production companies are Turkish, and the final cut of the movie was done in Turkey.

The film treats the Armenians as the cause of the problem - blame the victims. In the Turkish view, Ottoman attacks on Armenians were reactions to armed Armenian gangs roaming the countryside raiding travelers and Ottoman villages. The killings of Armenians were part of this violence, unorganized in nature, but in no way an organized government genocide.

After I watched the movie, I did more research and discovered that there is a school of thought that this movie was a response to another movie - The Promise - that depicts the Armenian genocide as just that, an organized attempt to eliminate the Armenians in what is now Turkey. I plan to watch and review it. Where this movie smacks of denial, perhaps The Promise will better address the issue.

It is hard to generate any sympathy for the Turks, given the recent actions of their megalomaniac president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In July of this year, he revoked the museum status of the Hagia Sophia, the sixth century church and later mosque, into a mosque. The Hagia Sophia houses some of the world's greatest Christian art, which will now be recovered. Just last week, he did the same thing to another former church/museum, the Chora Church. (See my article: "Sultan" Erdogan converts another museum to a mosque.)

Add to that, Erdoğan's actions in Syria since 2015 have been unnecessary, unhelpful, and dangerous. It appears to many of us Middle East observers that he is tacitly supporting the Islamists in Syria, much as he facilitated the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in their earlier years. Think not? How did all of the foreign fighters in Syria actually get to Syria?

Now the self-styled sultan is trying to expand what I call his neo-Ottoman reach to Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, has established a military base in Qatar. (Read more of my articles on how unhelpful Erdoğan has been.)

If you're a fan of Turkey and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, you may like the movie. Otherwise, save yourself the 106 minutes.

It is available on Netflix.

August 21, 2020

"Sultan" Erdogan converts another museum to a mosque

Following the re-conversion of Istanbul's world-famous Hagia Sophia museum to a mosque earlier this year, Turkish President "I want to be the Sultan" Erdogan does the same to the Chora (Kariye) Church Museum, also in Istanbul.

At least I was able to see the fabulous art before they cover it again.

The Church of the Holy Savior in Chora is considered one of the most beautiful examples of a Byzantine church. In the 16th century, the church was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman rulers, and it became a secularized museum in 1948. The interior of the building is covered with fine mosaics and frescoes. It is listed as one of the top 30 “must-see museums” in the world.

The original church was built in the early 5th century to the south of the Golden Horn, and stood outside of the 4th century walls of Constantine the Great; it became incorporated within the city's defenses later that century.

The frescoes and mosaics, plastered over by the Ottomans, are being restored. They are stunning, almost overwhelming. I have seen mosaics in other early Christian Churches throughout the Middle East, but nothing like these.

See my photographs of the art that is about to be lost to the world.

August 17, 2020

United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize relations - my thoughts

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayid, President Trump, Prime Minister Netanyahu

In a surprise announcement last week, President Donald Trump revealed the successful conclusion of an agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the State of Israel that will lead to the establishment of full diplomatic relations.

My first reaction: this is a good thing. The Gulf Arabs are coming to the realization that Israel does not pose a threat to them unless they pose a threat to Israel. There is no reason for the Gulf states to threaten Israel except for the myth of Arab - and in some cases Muslim - solidarity against the self-described Jewish state "for the sake of the Palestinians."

Having lived and served in a variety of these countries for many years, I assess that they are tired of the Palestinian "cause" and self-victimization, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanese Hizballah, and Hamas, to name a few. They are fearful of Sunni extremism (al-Qa'idah, ISIS, etc.), yes, but much more wary of Iranian support for Shi'a terrorist groups - the aforementioned Hizballah, as well as Iraqi Shi'a militias.

These Gulf Arab nations do not live in fear of Israel. For the most part, Israel tries to conduct itself as a member of the international community when permitted to by an overwhelmingly anti-Israel United Nations and European Union. In private, many senior and influential leaders of these Arab countries, those I would call "the enlightened" ones, actually want to be more like Israel.

The Arabs only have to look at Israel's advances in science, technology, medicine, and yes, weapons. Israel enjoys a qualitative edge in virtually every category when compared to the Arab countries. Many ask why this is the case, and the tired explanation that it is only the support of the United States for Israel that allows them to be so successful is losing its voice.

The United Arab Emirates has been blessed with a decades of enlightened leadership. Even during the presidency of Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahayyan, he allowed the next generation the leeway to try and change the Emirates into a modern society. One only need look at Dubai when I served as the acting Defense Attache to the U.S. Embassy in the UAE in 1992, and when I visited two years ago - night and day.

As part of my duties, I dealt closely with the UAE Ministry of Defense and its armed forces. I found them to be well-educated, well-motivated, and for the most part nonpolitical. That extended to their views of Israel and the Palestinians. Most were more concerned with the self-styled Shi'a hegemon just a few miles across the Gulf - Iran. You will note I am not calling it the Persian Gulf - that's one of the things about which the Gulf Arabs can get a bit testy.

At the embassy, located in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, I was the acting chief of the Defense Attache Office, the USDAO. Another section in the embassy was the security assistance office (SAO), now called the Office of Defense Partnership. These are the U.S. military officers who are there basically to sell U.S. weapons and training to the UAE. Fine officers and at time rivals - we jokingly referred to each other as the "spooks" (me) and "merchants of death (them)."

While there certainly was cooperation and coordination, at times we were acting at cross purposes. My role was to observe and report on UAE military capabilities, and to act as an intelligence liaison with the UAE Military Intelligence Directorate. Keep in mind that military attaches worldwide are declared intelligence officers, work for their country's military intelligence service - in my case, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency - and are accredited to the host country's chief of military intelligence.

When I arrived in Abu Dhabi, I made an office call on the Director of Military Intelligence, who later introduced me to Minister of Defense (since 1971 and still today) Shaykh Muhammad bin Rashid Al Maktum. If that name sounds familiar, it should - he is now Vice President of the UAE, Prime Minister of the UAE, Emir of Dubai, and as I said, Minister of Defense of the country.

"Shaykh Mo," as he asked us to call him, and I struck up a conversation about the Gulf War and my service as Central Command chief General H. Norman Schwarzkopf's interpreter. I think since we were fairly close in age, he asked if I would give him my analysis and opinion on the future of the UAE's armed forces. I knew he had been in rather heated discussions with representatives of the embassy's SAO over weapons purchases. At that time, the U.S. defense industry was pushing sales of the M-1 Abrams main battle tank and the Patriot air defense missile system.

Perhaps this is when I should have consulted with the security assistance people....

I told the shaykh/minister that in my opinion, and stressed that this was just my opinion, not the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, that he should pattern the UAE armed forces on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), with one exception - the Israeli Army. Did I just note that the U.S. defense industry was pushing the M-1 tank?

I explained that as I saw it, the UAE's primary adversary was, and likely to be for the foreseeable future, Iran, or at least as long as it remained the Islamic Republic of Iran. Unless Iran was to develop a massive amphibious assault capability, there was little chance of a land invasion - special operations raids on oil and gas facilities, maybe, but a major ground assault? Unlikely.

Iran's major threats would come from the air, the sea (either the Gulf or Gulf of Oman), or terrorism. On point, in 2019 there was a terrorist attack on four ships in Emirati territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of the Emirate of al-Fujayrah.

What the UAE needed, at that time and now, was a world-class air force, an effective air defense/anti-missile system, and a regionally competitive navy/coast guard. Ground forces like a national guard should suffice to face the minimal ground threat, and they needed to develop a serious counter-terrorism effort against Iran.

What the UAE did not (and does not) need is an armor-heavy army that should never deploy to fight an expeditionary war, or have to defend the territory of the UAE. They have strayed a bit from where they should be in Yemen, and I think they have learned that deploying their ground forces is not wise.

That said, buying M-1 tanks? Not a problem, but not a priority. Acquiring Patriot missiles? Yes, a high priority. F-16s? Absolutely the highest priority - get the best money can buy, and the UAE can afford it. I am satisfied to see that the UAE Air Force now flies some of the most advanced F-16s in the world.

It was a wide-ranging conversation - the shaykh was well-informed and cognizant of the current situation. I think my comments were merely confirmatory to his own thinking. However, reports of my conversation with the shaykh reached the ears of the SAO people at the embassy. I was immediately called to meet with the chief of the SAO, a soon-retiring U.S. Army colonel obviously looking for a position at Raytheon (Patriot missiles) or General Dynamics (M-1 Abrams tanks). Both are great weapon systems, but were they right for the UAE?

The security assistance function of the Department of Defense has always been suspect to us foreign area officers and intelligence specialists. Senior officers recommending ("selling") certain weapons systems to countries where they have served and then retire and end up working for companies named Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics, etc. It just sounds too convenient.

I told the shaykh what I thought he needed to know, not what the defense industry contractors (or the SAO officers) wanted to sell him. I was immediately challenged by the Army colonel who was chief of the embassy security assistance office. All in, he was a fine Army officer just doing his job, but peddling unnecessary arms to an ally did not seem to be kosher (pun intended) to me. Since we labored for different masters, we parted on rather icy terms.

As I said, I am pleased to see that the UAE has developed a very capable air force - if not world-class air force, it is certainly among the best in the Middle East. They have also developed a good naval and coast guard capability. I am disappointed that they have attempted to use their military as an expeditionary force in Yemen and Libya. I find it hard to believe that the Shaykh Muhammad of 1992 is allowing his forces to be used this way in 2020. The force structure we had talked about in 1992 was never meant to operate in this manner.

Still, the UAE has been a key American ally for decades. The use of the al-Dhafra air base outside Abu Dhabi has been an integral part of American air operations in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

I often wonder why we have positioned U.S. Central Command (Forward) at the al-'Udayd (Al Udeid) air base in Qatar. Qatar is an ally, yes, but much more aligned with Turkey and its support for Islamist groups in Syria. Let's not forget that the anti-American satellite news network Al Jazeera is based in Doha, Qatar. For those of you who watch Al Jazeera English, the Arabic language network and the English language networks are totally different - the Arabic-language broadcast is exponentially much more anti-American and anti-western than the English language content. I digress.

What is driving the change in the UAE that they are willing to normalize relations with Israel? Easy - Iran. I guess we owe a debit of gratitude to former President Barack Obama and his terminally ineffectual Secretary of State John Kerry.

If Obama and Kerry had not spent so much time and treasure on the ill-advised Iran nuclear deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia would not be so worried about a potential nuclear-armed Iran. (See my article from earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and China nuclear cooperation - is Riyadh seeking nukes?) The prospect of a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration and the probability of another ill-advised American effort to befriend the world's leading sponsor of terrorism is of great concern to our Gulf Arab allies.

I hope the United States is able to work with the leaders of Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait to follow in the UAE's footsteps. Saudi Arabia, who also cooperates with Israel silently, may take a bit longer.

The Israelis are smart to try and work with the Sunni Arabs. They share a common threat: the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Shi'a syndicate in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

August 8, 2020

Saudi Arabia and China nuclear cooperation - is Riyadh seeking nukes?

Saudi DF-3A missiles on parade (2014)

A recent story in The New York Times claims that the U.S. intelligence community believes Saudi Arabia is working with China on a program that could potentially lead to a nuclear weapons capability. According to the paper, Saudi Arabia may be in talks with China to develop an indigenous nuclear fuel production capability, a step often seen as the initial phase of a nuclear weapons program.

American intelligence agencies have discovered at least two facilities in the kingdom that may be undisclosed nuclear facilities. In addition to a small nuclear research facility near Riyadh, the Saudis are in discussions with five companies to build two reactors, with a plan to have 16 reactors on line by 2030. While the United States may believe Saudi Arabia with nuclear energy is no problem, it is concerned that a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia might trigger a wider acquisition of the weapons in the area.

I think that puts the cart before the horse. It is not Saudi Arabia's potential acquisition of nuclear weapons that will catalyze a regional arms race - it is Iran. Most sane people are under no illusion that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. Despite the Obama Administration's ill-advised and abysmally-negotiated nuclear deal with Iran, the Iranians have continued their quest for a nuclear weapon.

Skeptics will claim that the International Atomic Energy Agency, tasked with monitoring Iranian compliance with the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has found no evidence of Iranian violations of the agreement. Absence of proof is not proof of compliance, it merely means the IAEA has not found any violations. How could they? Although the JCPOA allows inspections of Iranian military facilities, the Iranians refuse to allow access, and the IAEA will not call them on it. Why not? The answer: pressure from the Europeans. The Europeans are not worried about an Iranian nuclear weapons program - Iran is not threatening them or their allies. So-called Iranian "compliance" with the JCPOA allows them to peddle their wares to the world's leading sponsor of terrorism.

Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability will trigger an immediate Saudi response. While I deplore the release of classified documents by the Wikileaks crowd, some of the information is interesting. Here is an excerpt from a February 2010 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh to the Secretary of State. (10RIYADH178, SCENESETTER FOR SECRETARY CLINTON'S FEB 15-16 VISIT TO SAUDI ARABIA, classified SECRET NOFORN. (My highlighting.)

9. (S/NF) COUNTERING IRAN: We expect that Saudi Arabia will continue to develop its ties with China, in part to counterbalance relations with the West. While the King's preference is to cooperate with the U.S., he has concluded that he needs to proceed with his own strategy to counter Iranian influence in the region, which includes rebuilding Riyadh-Cairo-Damascus coordination, supporting Palestinian reconciliation, supporting the Yemeni government, and expanding relations with non-traditional partners such as Russia, China, and India to create diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran that do not directly depend on U.S. help. The King told General Jones that if Iran succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.

Saudi officials have also gone public, stating to a The New York Times reporter, "It would be completely unacceptable to have Iran with a nuclear capability and not the Kingdom."

Unlike some of the intelligence analysts who fear Riyadh might turn to China for the technology to develop weapons, or try to just acquire them from China, I don't find that likely. Why do some analysts think that the Saudis may turn to Beijing? Here we need to go back a few decades to 1987. I remember this well - I was with the Defense Intelligence Agency and followed this very closely.

In 1987, commander of the Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces, Lieutenant General (Prince) Khalid bin Sultan bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud made several secret (or so he thought) trips to China. For those who do not understand Saudi names or know the leaders, let me elaborate. Khalid is the son of then-Minister of Defense Sultan, son of then-King Fahd. Khalid was later the commander of the Arab/Muslim troops in Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Khalid was in China to acquire ballistic missiles. In 1987 and 1988, Iran and Iraq had been at war for over seven years. In 1988, Iraqi engineers modified the Soviet-provided Scud missiles into a longer range missiles dubbed the al-Husayn (after Muhammad's grandson and imam, not Saddam Husayn) by increasing the size of the fuel tank and decreasing the size of the warhead.

Tehran and Baghdad became almost nightly targets in early 1988. Having been in Baghdad in 1988 on the receiving end of Iranian Scud missiles, and later in Riyadh in 1991 on the receiving end of Iraqi al-Husayn missiles, I can attest to the impact on the population.

The Saudis wanted their own ballistic missile capability, but were not able to convince the United States to supply it. So, they turned to China. The Chinese provided Saudi Arabia with about 30 DF-3A medium-range missiles, armed with conventional warheads. The missile is very inaccurate, but since it was designed to carry a nuclear warhead, that was not an issue. It was the beginning of what today is known as the Royal Saudi Strategic Missile Force. The inaccuracy, as well as the time and difficulty in refueling the liquid-fueled missiles, led to the decision to not employ them during Desert Storm. It would have caused unnecessary civilian casualties and achieved very little militarily. Coalition airpower was much more effective.

The Saudi DF-3A missiles had not been seen publicly until they were displayed at a military exercise in 2014. The photo above is from the parade at the end of the exercise. Watch the video here - the caption reads: His Highness the Crown Prince attends the closing ceremony of Exercise "Sword of 'Abdullah" in Hafr al-Batin.

Why buy an inaccurate missile if you were not going to acquire the nuclear warhead that makes the system viable? I think it was just the first step in a long-range plan.

If the Saudis are not going to get nuclear warheads for the their Chinese-made missiles, where would they get them? Many of us who have followed events in the Kingdom for years believe the Saudis have had a plan for years. They will acquire the warheads from Pakistan. After all, they funded the Pakistani nuclear weapons program.

According to retired Pakistani Major General Feroz Hassan Khan, Saudi Arabia provided generous financial support to Pakistan that enabled the completion of the nuclear weapons program. It is possible that the Saudis provided the finding with the proviso that if needed, the Pakistanis would provide warheads for the DF-3A. Notorious Pakistani engineer AQ Khan revealed that Pakistan has the capability to produce such compatible warheads.

If Iran develops a nuclear weapons capability, it is almost certain Saudi Arabia will acquire that capability as well. It will not be limited to Saudi Arabia - other countries will do the same. I suspect we will see research and development in Turkey and Egypt, and possibly the United Arab Emirates.

Look for the Saudis to go shopping in Islamabad, not Beijing.