Middle East

Erdogan and the National Pact: the fallout today from the British Army’s seizing of Mosul in 1918

By Dr Rod Thornton

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently repeated his country’s long-held territorial claim to Mosul and the whole of northern Iraq. Such a claim is based on the belief prevalent in Turkey that this area had, as territory of the Ottoman empire, been illegally seized by the British in November 1918 after the First World War in the Middle East was over.

The facts are not in dispute. At the time of the cessation of hostilities between the Allies and Ottoman forces – brought about by the Armistice of Moudros on 31 October 1918 – Mosul and most of its surrounding vilayet (administrative area) were still in Ottoman hands. Advancing British troops were still some way short of the city. However, during the next month, British troops – without any fighting – pushed beyond the armistice line and removed demoralised and unresisting Ottoman forces from both Mosul city and its vilayet. Thus the British took control of what today is northern Iraq.

 What is in dispute is whether the British had the right to do this. Ottoman government protests that the British should have kept to the armistice line and that Mosul should have remained under its control came to be enshrined, post-war, in something called the National Pact. This had actually been promulgated by Kemal Ataturk himself in 1920 and long before he became the first president of the new Republic of Turkey in 1923. This Pact is a document which still has influence to this day within the Turkish body politic and is being quoted by Erdogan as he makes his claim to Mosul. Overblown rhetoric, maybe, but the danger for the future geopolitics of the Middle East is that Turkey, referring to the Pact, will see no legal impediment to its troops not only occupying large swathes of northern Iraq but also of northern Syria as well.

So, why did the British take the controversial action they did in 1918? Well, the then Ottoman prime minister blamed not so much the British in general, but rather the ‘sophistry’ of one individual British officer. This was the GOC Mesopotamia, General Sir William Marshall. Here was, indeed, a highly unusual case where one man – acting without orders and largely on his own initiative – may be said to have shaped the territorial boundaries of a significant portion of the modern Middle East.

Marshall had, near the end of the war and as the Ottoman army in Mesopotamia was rapidly weakening, been pushing his Anglo-Indian forces north from Baghdad (seized in April 1917). The view in the literature on this subject has it that Marshall had received orders from London to try and seize Mosul before war’s conclusion because of its oil potential. My research (mostly carried out in Erbil, 90 miles from Mosul) shows, however, that this was not the case. Marshall had no such orders. London, in fact, was showing very little interest in capturing Mosul. Rather, Aleppo and Baku were seen as the big regional prizes.

Marshall was moving towards Mosul for reasons of his own. He needed British control not just of the city of Mosul itself but also of its whole vilayet. This was for two reasons. The first was because he understood that the populations of the two Ottoman vilayets that the British had already occupied during the course of the war (Baghdad and Basra) could simply not be fed after the war if what was known as the ‘granary’ of Iraq – i.e. Mosul’s wheat fields – was still in Ottoman hands. For centuries, this granary had been supplying Baghdad and Basra. Marshall, who would be responsible for maintaining order in post-war Iraq, was aware that while there would be difficulties enough in trying to control southern Iraq’s fractious Sunni and Shia tribes his task might become insuperable if compounded by any inability of British authorities to actually feed the people of said tribes. By 1918, indeed, there were already severe food shortages across central and southern Iraq.

The second rationale for seizing Mosul was that Marshall needed to keep in situ the hundreds of thousands of Christians (some indigenous, but including many displaced Armenians) who were present in Mosul vilayet. If this region was not in British hands at war’s end then these Christians would doubtless flood south. They could then overwhelm the already taxed British system for dealing with the huge number of Christian refugees who, fleeing from Ottoman excesses in eastern Anatolia, had already arrived in southern Iraq.

As for the Ottomans, they had realised by October 1918 that they had to sue for peace quickly. They needed an end to hostilities before they lost more territory – including cities such as Mosul and Aleppo – to the general British advance north in Mesopotamia and Syria. The British likewise wanted a swift peace deal in order that troops could be transferred from the Middle East to the Western Front. Talks thus began on 26 October on a British battleship in Moudros harbour on the Greek island of Lemnos. They were conducted between Ottoman representatives and a Royal Navy delegation led by Vice-Admiral Somerset Gough-Calthorpe. He had been given carte blanche by British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George to negotiate on behalf of the Allies. An armistice was duly signed on 30 October and this was to come into force at midday the next day.

While Aleppo had by now been taken (on the 26th) by General Edmund Allenby’s troops operating in Syria, Marshall’s forces in Mesopotamia, advancing up the Tigris, were still some 12 miles short of Mosul. They had reached the town of Hammam al-Alil (much in the news today as the site of ISIS massacres). This was on 1 November. Marshall, hoping that his lead cavalry brigade could seize Mosul if allowed extra time to advance, did not actually tell his forward commanders that the war was over! Troops at the front were only informed of the armistice by the Turks themselves (under white flags). At Hammam al-Alil they were requested by Ali Ihsan Pasha – the Ottoman commander at Mosul – to return to the point they had reached when the armistice had been signed the previous day; i.e. back to Qayyarah. The ranking British officer at the front – Brigadier Robert Cassels – refused and stayed put to await orders.

 On 2 November, and three days after the armistice, Marshall, in Baghdad, did finally receive some orders from London to occupy ‘Mosul’. Marshall then conveyed this order to Cassels who, doubting it at first given that the war was over, asked for confirmation. Cassels assumed he could only enter the city if there was evidence of a breakdown of law and order (e.g, if Christians were being massacred). But all was quiet there. The order to occupy was, though, reiterated to Cassels and he conveyed it to Ihsan. The latter refused to vacate the city and a stand-off ensued. Ihsan made complaints about the British behaviour to his superiors. These were passed on to Gough-Calthorpe at Moudros. The admiral agreed with the Turkish position. He was of the opinion that nothing he had negotiated with the Turks on behalf of the Allies/British government covered the post-armistice seizure of any Ottoman territory not occupied at the time of the armistice – including Mosul. Gough-Calthorpe made his views known to the Admiralty in London.

To break the impasse, Marshall flew up to Mosul from Baghdad on 7 November. He ordered Ihsan, under duress, to not only vacate the city but also the whole of the vilayet as well. While he had his orders to occupy ‘Mosul’, it was not actually clear to Marshall what this meant. He was fairly sure it only meant Mosul city and not the whole vilayet as well. Marshall was thus taking a huge risk in making his own independent interpretations of both the wording of the Moudros Agreement and of his orders. He was using these interpretations in his negotiations with Ihsan. Hence he came to be accused by the Turkish prime minster of ‘sophistry’.

Ihsan again protested to Istanbul. But he was told not to oppose the British. The authorities in the Ottoman capital needed British diplomatic help in keeping Turkey-proper free from any post-armistice occupation by French, Greek and Italian forces. Thus they did not want to make an issue of Mosul.

Ihsan, in high dudgeon, resigned his commission and left the city. Marshall’s troops then moved in on 8 November and, in a swift operation and one for which Marshall took responsibility, went on to clear the entire vilayet of Ottoman forces up to what is roughly today’s border between Iraq and Turkey. Marshall, by his actions, had thus established a de facto if not an actual de jure border.

Curiously, in the British Official History of the war in the Middle East, Marshall received no praise at all for any of his actions as GOC Mesopotamia – including his seizing of Mosul. And yet by his actions he had added a vast area of – theoretically – tremendous economic potential to the British empire. This lack of praise is both highly unusual and telling. He must have done something that the British government could not approve of.

The Mosul situation had further negative consequences for Istanbul in that it had set a precedent. British troops in Syria could now, post-armistice and in light of what had happened at Mosul, also move forward and seize Ottoman territory right up to what is now, more-or-less, the current border between Syria and Turkey. The most significant town then taken was Alexandretta (today’s Iskenderun and part of modern Turkey). The commander there was one Mustapha Kemal – Kemal Ataturk himself. He, ashamed of what had happened at Mosul, wanted to fight the British troops as they approached Alexandretta. Gough-Calthorpe – again sympathising with the Turks – once more complained to the Admiralty.

Kemal was also told by his government not to oppose the British. The same rationale applied as with Ihsan at Mosul – the British could not be offended. Kemal, while protesting vehemently, obeyed. As it happened, the capitulations made over Mosul and Alexandretta did not, as hoped for by the Ottoman authorities, result in the garnering of any future assistance from the British. London raised little meaningful opposition to the subsequent occupation of Turkey by French, Greek and Italian forces.

Kemal never forgot his personal humiliation. In the post-war turmoil within Turkey, and as Kemal became involved in politics, he put forward the idea of the aforementioned National Pact. In his opinion, and thus also in the opinion of generations of Turks who were to follow, northern Iraq and northern Syria had been illegally seized by the British in operations that went against the wording of the agreement made at Moudros. These areas should, it follows, have remained within the Ottoman empire and thus they should have then become part of Ataturk’s modern Turkish republic. Erdogan agrees.

Image: Geographic map of Mesopotamia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


This is the first in a series of posts drawn from an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Suez Crisis which the Defence Studies Department Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre hosted on November 7th, 2016. Recordings of the papers will be posted shortly to the Department soundcloud.


An analysis of land operations for both Operations Kadesh (the Israeli Defence Force’s onslaught into the Sinai from 29th October 1956) and Musketeer (the Anglo-French invasion from 5th November) needs firstly to recognise the significance of joint operations, not least because of the use of airborne and amphibious forces. Secondly, it is worth bearing in mind that only one of the campaigns – Kadesh – actually succeeded, as the Anglo-French assault on Port Said was halted by international diplomatic opposition (and more importantly, American financial pressure on the UK). This blog post will summarise key points about the land war from the perspectives of the four belligerents concerned.

A fair assessment of the Egyptian performance should acknowledge that Egypt was a victim of aggression, and was the subject of an unprovoked attack (certainly as far as Britain and France was concerned). The sense of shock felt by its President and military commanders is reflected in Jamal Abdel Nasser’s telephone conversation to his confidante Mohammed Heikal on 29th October, in which the former exclaimed: ‘Something very strange is happening. The Israelis are in the Sinai and they seem to be fighting the sands’. In combat against the IDF (notably with the battles of Abu Agheila and Rafah) and the British and French in Port Said Egyptian soldiers and volunteers fought with considerable courage and tenacity (as was the case in 1967 and 1973), but they were poorly served by a command structure presided over by Nasser’s crony, Field Marshal Hakim Amer. Amer’s utter unsuitability for high command was exposed by Suez, but he remained as Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian armed forces until the catastrophe of the Six Day War of June 1967.

The assault on the Sinai was a test for the manoeuvrist (to use an anachronistic term) doctrine the Israeli armed forces developed after 1948. The War of Independence (or the Nabka, depending on your perspective) had been an existential struggle for the nascent state. Egypt’s acquisition of Soviet bloc arms, Nasser’s belligerent rhetoric, the blockade of the Straits of Tiran, and Cairo’s support for the Palestinian fedayeen were all necessary and sufficient causes of a pre-emptive attack as far as the Israelis were concerned. As was the case with the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars the mobilisation of the citizen soldiers of the IDF was a headache for the country’s civilian and military leaders. 60% of the vehicles requisitioned for the IDF’s use were found to be unserviceable, and the 1956 conflict was as much of a ‘come as you are’ war as the 1948 war.

Nonetheless, the IDF benefited from a war-fighting concept which emphasised initiative and audacity, as exemplified by the seizure of the Mitla Pass by Ariel Sharon’s force of 395 paratroopers, and indeed the overrunning of the Sinai by its armoured columns over the course of eight days. The IDF took heavy casualties in the process, with 231 soldiers killed and 899 wounded in action, but Kadesh was nonetheless a precursor to the more crushing victory won against Egypt in 1967.

The French had extensive experience of expeditionary operations in Indochina, and were also involved in the struggle against the ALN in Algeria. With Musketeer Guy Mollet’s government and France’s high command accepted subordination to the British, but in a striking parallel with Anglo-American tensions over Normandy in 1944 commanders like Generals Andre Beaufre (the deputy to the Land Force commander General Hugh Stockwell) and Jean Gilles felt that their British counterparts were too cautious and timid in the planning and execution of Musketeer. General Jacques Massu’s proposals for airborne landings on Ismailia and Kantara were vetoed by Stockwell, and Gilles – a salty para of Indochina fame – never concealed his disdain for any of his peers who weren’t (a) French and/or (b) wearing airborne wings. A contrast between British and French air drops on 5th November showed that les Paras had better kit and weaponry, and were also more practiced in the intricacies of command and control, as demonstrated by Gilles’ use of a Nordatlas transport plane as an aerial command post.

The British were hampered by the fact that the Army in particular was positioning itself for a nuclear conflict alongside NATO allies against the Soviet bloc, while also fighting insurgencies in a shrinking overseas empire. The UK’s involvement in the Korean War (1950-1953) was treated by the Chiefs of Staff as an anomaly, and in the aftermath of Normandy and Walcheren the expertise in and capabilities for amphibious operations so painstakingly acquired in WWII was simply forgotten. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the Royal Marines’ (RM) 3 Commando Brigade (3 Cdo) chasing Communist guerrillas in Malaya, while at the time Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal (26th July 1956) the Parachute Regiment was on anti-EOKA duties in Cyprus. To use the analogy Field-Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery employed a year after Suez, the British armed forces were prepared for a ‘test match’ (WWIII), but were unprepared for ‘village cricket’ (intervention operations against state-based adversaries).

At the time of Suez the UK’s armed forces had a Strategic Reserve set aside from NATO that nominally consisted of 3 Cdo, the 16th Independent Airborne Brigade (16AB) and the 3rd Infantry Division (3 Div). However, as early as the Abadan Crisis of 1951 it became clear that Britain lacked the capability for a combat air assault involving 16AB; the RAF lacked the transport aircraft needed for another Arnhem, and by the autumn of 1956 it only had sufficient capacity to drop a battalion of paratroopers into battle (with 3PARA on Gamil Airfield on the night of the 5th November). It also took time for the British to muster the air and maritime assets needed to position forces for intervention following Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which meant that a military fait accompli (which the Americans may have tacitly accepted) was impossible to achieve.

The mobilisation of 27,000 reservists and the retention of 6,200 national servicemen also contributed to a morale crisis within the Army, albeit not one as grave as that suffered by the French in Algeria or the Americans over Vietnam. In this respect, the decision to abolish National Service taken with the Sandys Review of 1957 represented a pragmatic recognition by Harold Macmillan’s government that overseas interventions could only be conducted with an all-volunteer force.

With Musketeer the original plan was to seize Alexandria on 15th September 1956 with the Special Boat Service in the vanguard of an air and amphibious assault, conducted by 3 Div, 10th Armoured Division, the 7th Light Armoured Division (French) and the 2nd Infantry Division. The use of the latter formation required its transferral from the British Army of the Rhine, and it was also politically impossible to use the 10th Armoured Division which was stationed in Libya, thanks to basing rights agreed with the regime of King Idris (subsequently overthrown by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s coup in 1969). Musketeer Revise made Port Said the focus of the Anglo-French landing, which would be Phase 3 in an operation preceded by Phases 1 (the destruction of the Egyptian Air Force) and 2 (the ‘aero-psychological campaign’).

The air drop of 600 British and 487 French paratroopers on the night of the 5th was followed by the landing of 40 and 42 RM Cdo at 0615 on the 6th. One important innovation involved the heliborne landing of 500 marines from 45 Cdo from HMS Ocean and Theseus in Port Said, and British marines and paratroopers also relied on improvised close air support with the RAF in the fighting that followed. By the time of the ceasefire at 0000 on 6th November 2PARA and the 6th Royal Tank Regiment were at El Cap, 23 miles from Port Said. The British had lost 20 dead and 65 wounded, while the French had 8 killed and 65 injured. Egypt’s loses are estimated as 1,600-3,000 military fatalities on both fronts, and 1,000 civilians.

Operations ended due to international pressure for a ceasefire, and in order to ensure Anglo-French and Israeli disengagement the UN deployed its first ‘blue helmet’ peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). For the belligerents, the outcome of the war had varying effects on the evolution of their land forces. The Egyptian armed forces remained under Amer’s command despite the fact that he was a liability, and its rank and file paid a high price for this in June 1967. Kadesh epitomised the Israeli trait of employing military force pre-emptively to offset the lack of strategic depth, regional isolation, and the political and economic impossibility of mobilising the IDF over a prolonged period of time.

The French refined the use of heliborne manoeuvre in Algeria (1954-1962), and also conducted a parachute drop under combat conditions during the Kolwezi crisis in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1978. In this respect, France maintained a two-tier land forces that consisted of crack units capable of expeditionary operations (paratroopers, Troupes de Marine and the Foreign Legion) and a conscript mass confined to France and Germany, although the mixed performance of French units sent to Bosnia in the early 1990s contributed to the adoption of an all-volunteer military after 1997.

In Britain’s case, Suez led the Army and Royal Marines to prepare for ‘village cricket’, most notably with the ‘Commando Carriers’ which would provide the UK with a quick means of intervention ‘East of Suez’, to be backed by sea-borne armoured/mechanised units if necessary. In reality, interventions like Operation Vantage in Kuwait in 1961 and conflicts like the Falklands War of 1982 turned out to be ‘close-run things’. With Kuwait there was a critical week where British troops lacked the anti-tank weapons needed to resist any Iraqi invasion, while with Operation Corporate their counterparts fighting at Goose Green, Longdon and Tumbledown found themselves faced by incompetently-led and demoralised draftees. British land forces avoided a Dien Bien Phu because they were lucky with the enemies they confronted.

With Operation Telic in 2003 – another politically-contentious and internationally unpopular Middle Eastern intervention – 1st UK Armoured Division and 3 Cdo were hampered by equipment shortages and kit failures just as their counterparts were with Musketeer, and the requirement of soldiers and Royal Marines to beg or scavenge to make up deficiencies led their American allies to nickname them ‘the borrowers’. The men of 3PARA cursing stoppages in their Stens and their faulty radios during the firefight for Gamil airfield would perhaps have seen some grim humour in the similarities between their plight, and those of their future counterparts sent into battle in Iraq in March 2003.

Above the tactical level, however, the enforced halt of Musketeer and the deployment of UNEF arguably saved British and French land forces the quagmire that would in all likelihood have ensued had Nasser been overthrown. The war-fighting phase of Telic/Operation Iraqi Freedom was the easy part; it was the replacement of Baathist totalitarianism with a new order that led to the prolonged occupation which cost the USA 4,491 lives, 318 Coalition fatalities (including 179 British lives lost), and over 100,000 estimated Iraqi dead. Breaking the historian’s rules about counter-factual speculation, it is hard to imagine a pro-Western successor to Nasser being able to survive in power in Egypt without British and French bayonets and tanks to back him up, with all the consequences that would have entailed.

Image courtesy of the Department of History, United States Military Academy.

DSD Summer Reading #4

This post forms part of a series where members of the Defence Studies Department share their thoughts on the books they are reading this summer. This post is by DR AMIR M KAMEL see more of his posts here, here and here.

The book: Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the US-Egyptian Alliance has provided for an interesting read this summer. Jason Brownlee’s analysis of US-Egypt ties from 1979 up until and including the 2011 Egyptian Revolution provides a well researched account of how Washington, DC implemented a policy in Cairo which ultimately led to the failure of democracy in the Middle Eastern state. Brownlee also attests that this policy continued in the post-Mubarak era.

Poignantly, Brownlee assesses how the White House continued to pursue its own interests of ensuring US presence and influence in the country, as well as prioritising broader regional security concerns over the self processed ‘promotion of democracy’ in Egypt. This is something which I have found to corroborate with some aspects of my research. Indeed, through the reading and analysis of primary sourced material and data, I have found that economic interests have also played a key part in Brownlee’s so called ‘democracy prevention’ thesis. Additionally, my findings have determined that it is not just ‘democracy’ which was affected by this relationship under Mubarak, but broader strategic and regional issues also.

That being said, Brownlee’s work provides a very apt and useful analysis of the contemporary US-Egyptian relationship, and a worthy read for scholars looking to understand the Egyptian environment in which the Washington, DC-Cairo relationship resided over the past three decades.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Interesting times for the Gulf Arab monarchies


With its double meaning, the Chinese proverb ‘may you live in interesting times’ aptly describes the current mood in the Arab Gulf monarchies. These states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates) are going through a period of intriguing flux. A range of long-held assumptions across the political, economic, and military sectors are being reassessed. Analysis needs to catch up quickly if it is to keep pace with the atypically quick changes currently cascading around the region. And, more to the point, with some of the region’s political ‘sacred cows’ being deeply challenged, it is interesting to reflect on what other ‘certainties’ and aspects of received wisdom are, perhaps, subject to change.

Among the most notable changes in the region are in the economic sphere. For the seven years prior to December 2014 the average price of a barrel of oil was around $89 whereas from January 2015 to May 2016 it fell over 50% to $46. This had profound effects around the region. All of the region’s monarchies remain reliant on the hydrocarbon industries and thus the price of oil is crucial for their revenues. Even Qatar, the richest state on earth per capita, saw its budget revenues plunge 40% from July 2014 to July 2015. Unsurprisingly, the region’s states shooting from budget surplus to deficit has led to consternation in the financial press. Particular concern is reserved for Saudi Arabia, by far the largest and in many ways most important state in the region, whose income and expenditure looks to be massively at odds in the near and medium term.

The reaction from the states has been striking. Aside from budget trimming across numerous sectors, new forms of indirect tax have been mooted. A region-wide VAT tax is provisionally set, for example, to be introduced by 2018. Similarly, states have found other ways to extract money from their citizens with subsidies being cut. The interesting thing about these revenue streams is that, as mundane as they may seem in a western context, in the monarchies, the nature of the ruling bargain is different. Though the realities certainly differ across the states, the notion of ‘no taxation for no representation’ is a basic assumption as to the modus operandi of state-society relations in the region. To see such a basic understanding come under some kind of challenges is interesting.

Moreover, one of Saudi Arabia’s reactions to this fiscal crisis has been to endorse and launch yet another consultancy-led project to revamp the state’s economy. The likes of McKinsey have been writing these reports for decades and they have had, overall, vanishingly little impact on the core change: meaningfully shifting the economy away from its hydrocarbon dependency. This latest project is perhaps more far-reaching than others, but it is the accompanying announcements of the part-privatization of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, that is a remarkable step forward. While in a western context, again, this may sound like another mundane reaction, in Saudi Arabia, where the oil company has been the font of the nation’s wealth, so sacrosanct that until last year Royal family members were kept out of senior Aramco decision making circles, to nationalize even a small part of the behemoth company is extraordinary.

It must not be forgotten, however, that this is not the first time that these states have suffered from vacillating oil price. A serious crash in the price in the 1970s and 1980s induced a range of lay-offs and budget cuts. Such historical contextualisation is often forgotten by the press in their alarm. So the states have survived moments where the ruling bargain has been challenged, and the governments have demanded more from their subjects. But, of course, just because they have survived before does not automatically mean they could survive again.

Serious-looking crises and changes are not confined to the economic sphere. Politics in the Gulf region is also going through an era of profound change with new, often younger leaders coming to the fore. In recent years this has happened in Qatar, to a degree in the UAE, and also in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, in the Saudi Kingdom a new Prince has arisen who has hoovered up a variety of critical portfolios. Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, a thirty year old son of the King, has effectively carved out enough roles to make himself arguably the most important man in the state. In a country that has endured such elderly leadership in recent generations, the shift to this dynamic youngster is a jarring, fascinating development. Perhaps only someone as taboo-breaking as Mohammed bin Salman could have led the privatization of Aramco or, indeed, launched such an unprecedented war (in terms of scale, ambition, and troop deployment) in Yemen in conjunction with another regional hawkish leader, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the de facto leader in the UAE.

In terms of international politics, the Iranian nuclear deal has deeply concerned the Gulf Arab monarchies. When sanctions are ultimately released, they feel that that will allow Iran to grow stronger economically and ultimately militarily and it will then continue its various campaigns supporting its proxy forces around the region (e.g. Hezbollah, the Assad regime) with even more resources. Moreover, since 1979 American-Iranian relations have been frozen. Yet they will now thaw, albeit slowly. Nevertheless, the Gulf Arab monarchies have long feared this kind of ‘grand bargain’ – that the US will, in their desire to make sure that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons to safeguard Israel’s future, effectively abrogate their role as a de facto protector of the Gulf Arab monarchies as a price worth paying.

It will be fascinating to observe how new, often inexperienced leaderships respond with policies of change and continuity to the regional and international challenges they face in a more constrained fiscal climate. With a taboo-breaking announcement, event, or policy every few months, predicting the direction of travel is fraught with danger. History suggests that the states are more resilient than they may first appear; their downfall has been predicted for decades, yet still they march on into ever more interesting times.

Image: US Secretary Kerry Sits With Gulf Cooperation Council Members Before Meeting in Saudi Arabia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What BREXIT means for the Middle East


The June 23 vote in the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU) sent shockwaves across the country, continent and globe in the political, economic and security spheres. This has already had and will continue to have ramifications in the Middle Eastern region. These are likely to be both positive and negative, depending on where one is sat, based on their perspective, in the region and what issues are of their concern.

From the perspective of Western-allied governments and actors in the international community, the development can be seen as weakening the cohesiveness of the forces tackling international security issues both in the region and outside of it. Indeed, when viewed in the context and desire to increase alliances, cooperation and integration, the BREXIT result can only be detrimental to this cause.

From the perspective of those who reject foreign influence in the region, this is a positive step. This camp includes a range of peoples and actors who cut across the different levels of society, government and non-governmental entities in the region. The concern here comes from the average Middle Easterner who is fed up of the continued presence and impetus of foreign powers in the region whom exercise their will. Indeed, regional desires to curtail outside interference stretch back at least as far as the Ottoman Empire and the mandates which managed the region following the first and second world wars, as well as global powers using the territory to fight proxy conflicts (i.e. during the Cold War). Additionally, this camp includes the various governments and actors across the region who have continued to reject foreign presence and policies in the region, the most notable of which being the Islamic Republic of Iran regime, Russia and the Bashar Al-Assad Administration in the context of the Syrian Civil War.

Rather despondently, this group also includes non-governmental actors and militant groups, such as Al-Qaida and DAISH (aka IS, ISIL, ISIS and the Islamic Caliphate). Indeed, for these militant organisations, a more divided or perhaps more poignantly, a less aligned and cooperating enemy is only a good thing. Further, the conceptual impact of the BREXIT result for these actors is one which represents less cooperation and coordination within the anti-DAISH coalition. That being said, the counter to this point is that due to the grave, and as some have called it, existential threat of DAISH, there will always be an alignment in the international community among those who have an interest in seeing the terrorist organisation fail. However, the point remains that, despite its many shortcomings, organisations like the EU nevertheless provide a forum in which countries come together and discuss issues of mutual concern. Indeed, examples of where this has already proven to be problematic are evident when concerned with issues surrounding Greece and Turkey. With both countries being members of and therefore eligible to attend North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) led meetings and discussions, but only the former’s membership of the EU means that the latter cannot attend meetings in an EU context.

Resultantly, there are both positives and negatives for the various actors across the region. Indeed, the BREXIT can be either a positive or a negative, depending on where you sit. What is clear, however, is the fact that whilst what the BREXIT represents, that is a sentiment of ‘independence’ as noted by the Leave Campaign. Further, the likes of DAISH have continued to capitalise on the interdependent and liberal nature of the international community, by targeting western and non-westerners in their terror campaigns across the globe. Therefore, increasingly ‘independent’ states must ensure that they maintain their place in the interdependent nature of the international system in order to tackle such terrorist threats.

Image: Middle East geographic. Courtesy of NASA’s globe software World Wind via Wikimedia Commons.

Iran and Regional Security


Following the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in January 2016, involving Iran and the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany, on behalf of the international community), there has been an increased potential for a new era of Iranian cooperation when it comes to security issues of international concern. The JCPOA had ameliorated international security concerns surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme, and set a precedent for reciprocal dialogue between the Middle Eastern state and the international community, at least on paper. That being said, there are still points of concern across the region as to whether the JCPOA is a positive development, vis-à-vis removing the nuclear threat of Iran, in principle, and what this means in practice across the Middle East.

Firstly, regional concerns emanate from the very nature of the JCPOA, i.e. it’s finite remit. Specifically, the agreement details that:

– Iran must limit it’s estimated 20,000 centrifuges (as of July 2015) to 5,060 of the oldest and least efficient centrifuges in Natanz over the next 10 years.

– The country must also reduce it’s uranium stockpile by 98% to 300kg (660lbs) over the next 15 years, limit the level of enrichment to 3.67%, and the Natanz facility is to be used for research and development.

– The Fordo facility is prohibited from nuclear enrichment for the next 15 years (and is to be converted to a technology centre with the existing centrifuges to be used for alternate purposes).

– The Arak plant is not permitted to build additional heavy-water reactors or accumulate any excess heavy water for the next 15 years.

– Additionally, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is mandated with further safeguards, including: IAEA inspectors are allowed access to sites deemed suspicious and Iran has 24 days to comply with IAEA requests for the next 15 years.

The JCPOA also articulates that should Iran fail to honour it’s commitments to the agreement then the sanctions imposed on the country prior to January 2015 would be ‘snapped back’ into place for 10 years (and extendable for another 5).

Resultantly, the finite nature of the JCPOA has created a ‘new realm of security’, where the nuclear capabilities of a state have been effectively put on pause for the next 10-15 years. As a result, this has inevitably caused concern for the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) regime’s regional rivals. Consequently, the rhetoric of limiting Iran’s intentions (i.e. the rhetoric put forward since the IRI came to power following the 1979 Revolution), has continued to hold it’s place in the regional centres of power.

On the one hand, the JCPOA has condoned or legitimised Iran’s clandestine behaviour over it’s nuclear programme over the past fifteen years or so. Further, to put this in a regional context, the agreement has brought Iran ‘in from the cold’ when it comes to the international community (to a certain extent). Those who see the world in zero-sum or realist terms, see this as a negative development.

On the plus side, the JCPOA has provided a new foundation and framework for dialogue and cooperation. Indeed, as I argued in a previous post titled Iran and DAISH: A Cause to Agree on, issues of mutual concern, e.g. the threat of DAISH, have already resulted in uneasy collusion between Iran and it’s most prominent regional rival, Saudi Arabia. As a result, the positive-sum or liberally inclined actors and observes see the agreement as a positive development. Indeed, the precedent set over such cooperation, is promising for the post-JCPOA era.

That being said, both views will adjust, develop and reform as different internal and external pressures emerge and re-emerge in the short and medium-term, as I noted in an earlier post titled Winners and Losers of a Post-Sanctions Iran.

Image: Satellite Image of the Middle East Region, obtained from NASA and/or the US Geological Survey. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The UAE’s Jeffersonian Foreign Policy


A small Arab Gulf State is not the first place in the Middle East that one might expect to fashion a foreign policy according to Thomas Jefferson’s dictum of the importance of separating church and state. Yet this is what the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is doing. Key leaders in the state believe quite deeply in the importance of separating where practical the influence of organised political Islam from political affairs. This central premise has been guiding and driving the UAE’s foreign policy particularly since the Arab Spring.

In Libya the UAE joined in NATO’s operation unified protector to protect the rebellion against Colonel Gaddafi’s forces. The UAE then became involved on the ground supporting specific types of groups and political actors. While Qatar, for example, tended to support Islamists of one variety or another, the UAE purposefully supported nationalist-orientated groups (such as the al-Qaqa Brigade and the conglomerate surrounding the Zintan brigades) ranged Qatar’s Islamists. More notably, the UAE emerged in mid-2014 as the central backer of General Haftar, the former Libyan military commander who returned from exile in the US to lead an anti-Islamist crusade – Operation Dignity. The UAE not only supported him and his movement diplomatically and with materiel, but the New York Times reported that UAE fast-jets and special forces were used to support Haftar in his fight against Islamists.

Elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa region, support for nationalists or at least actors other than Islamists, is also evident in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. Though there are exceptions, these are notable by their rarity and thus reinforce the overarching principle.

This Jeffersonian policy stems from lessons drawn by modern-day leaders from the domestic Emirati experience with political Islam. The local chapter of the international Muslim Brotherhood organisation – called al-Islah – opened in the UAE in 1974. It soon gained particular traction and influence in the northern emirates of the federal UAE that happen to be far poorer than those in the south (i.e. Abu Dhabi, the capital, and Dubai). Al-Islah members from Ras al-Khaimah, one of the UAE’s northern emirates, even became federal ministers in the 1980s.

But this growth in power of a foreign-born social group unnerved leadership in Abu Dhabi. From the late-1980s onwards, leaders in Dubai and particular Abu Dhabi began to – as they see it – negotiate with al-Islah to lessen their overt influence on Emirati society. But these negotiations did not work and relations worsened between the two antagonists. Eventually, after foreign al-Islah members were deported and others were fired from their jobs, two Emiratis from the norther emirates took part in the attacks of 11 September 2011 and the fears of those in Abu Dhabi were realised. A greater crack-down ensued, yet still al-Islah refused to be cowed or follow its sister Muslim Brotherhood group in Qatar that dissolved itself voluntarily in 1999. But the Arab Spring was the final straw. It was proof positive for the Abu Dhabi elite as to the insidious nature of Muslim Brotherhood organisations that seemed to wait at the fringes of societies, preaching about social issues only to take power as soon as the opportunity emerged. In reaction to the Spring, the Abu Dhabi-led government instituted aid packages and extra subsidies aimed mostly at the norther emirates to forestall any early grumblings of discontent, and they banned groups like al-Islah, and arrested hundreds of its members.

This experience then came to guide the UAE’s foreign policy as a whole under the rubric that organised political Islam should not be supported but needed to be opposed. While such a policy based on a key tenet of US political thinking may curry favour for the UAE the beltway, there are two key problems with the thesis. Firstly, a Jeffersonian approach to foreign policy can never be applied towards Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s behemoth neighbour that institutionally mixed religion and politics. This rhetorical problem becomes a practical problem when both states are engaged in the same environment as with their intervention in Yemen. Here, the two states are operating with different tactical principles in important strategic cities like Taiz. Saudi Arabia is actively seeking to use local al-Islah commanders in their wider war, while the UAE appears to be far more reluctant to empower such groups.

Secondly, and linked to this point, is the fact that the UAE will need to compromise given that so much of the discourse is dominated by religion throughout the Middle East. Pursuing an active and pure Jeffersonian policy will be, in other worse, something of a challenge overall. Though the UAE can certainly support nationalists or other non-Islamist groups, they will rarely be in the majority.


This post is based on Mosque and State: The United Arab Emirates’ Secular Foreign Policy published by Foreign Affairs on 18 March 2016.

Saudi Arabia and its anti-terror alliance


On 14 December 2015, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, called a press conference and announced the formation of a new thirty-four nation-strong Islamic military alliance that would be dedicated to countering the threat of terrorism around the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

But the reaction to this initiative was mixed.

There is currently no evidence of any blueprint as to its incorporation, operation, or evolution. Nor is it clear how anything approaching a meaningful, joint military organisation could be forged between the thirty-four countries. Embarrassingly, the foreign ministries of Pakistan and Lebanon subsequently denied that they have even signed up to any such organisation, while the Malaysian minister of defence refused to contribute troops to the venture.

This is not the first time that leaders in Saudi Arabia have made grand announcements on the hoof.

In March 2015 Saudi announced that Pakistan was joining the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which was news to the Pakistani parliament that subsequently rejected the overture. Similarly, in 2011 King Abdullah al-Saud invited Morocco and Jordan to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) without consulting any leaders involved. The fact that Muscat, the capital of Oman, a founding GCC state, would have been closer to Shanghai than Morocco’s capital Rabat, seemingly did not strike King Abdullah as problematic. The plan was abandoned in an embarrassed silence in due course.

Another basic problem for the putative alliance is that it includes neither Iraq nor Iran. These are pivotally important states that are crucial to achieving the purported aims. Without these Shia-dominated states, Saudi’s new alliance is wide open to accusations that it is sectarian in nature or even that this is little more than a new, institutionalised way to combat and contain Iran.

The scepticism pervading the announcement of this new military alliance is, therefore, unsurprising and warranted. Indeed, this announcement is better seen as political rhetoric rather than organisational reality.

The announcement attempts to signal that Saudi Arabia is eager to take the leading role fighting terrorism. This comes after years of criticism that seems to have peaked in recent months with unflattering comparisons between the actions of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State, insinuating or plainly claiming that Saudi Arabia has played a key role in the emergence of Islamic extremism in the MENA region.

Yet as fashionable a refrain as this is, it is not necessarily a statement of the obvious.

It is true that Saudi Arabia has long exported its austere, intolerant version of Islam around the world and supported armed Islamically-based resistance movements such as the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s. But it also exported its particular Islamic creed to India, Professor Bernard Hakyel notes, where little subsequent Wahhabi-based extremism has arisen.

The motivations underlying the bouts of extremism that are currently rampaging around the MENA region are complex. Though some of Saudi Arabia’s historic (or current) policies may play a role therein, it would be far too simplistic – and simply not proven thus far – to charge that the state is the root cause of modern-day Islamic extremism.

It is also possible to interpret this announcement as Mohammed bin Salman’s attempt to further burnish his reputation at home and abroad. Without much pedigree, he was elevated to Minister of Defence, third in line to the throne, head of the state oil company ARAMCO, and head of the state’s most important economic council.

But despite launching a war in Yemen of unprecedented scale, it is Mohammed bin Nayef al-Saud, the Crown Prince and Minister of the Interior, who enjoys the more prominent reputation at home and abroad (particularly in Washington DC) as the architect of Saudi Arabia’s relatively successful domestic counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorist policies of the late-2000s and 2010s.

Mohammed bin Salman’s rise is a testament to his political skill among the elite in Riyadh, backed by the support of his father, the King. Without the decades of experience traditionally assumed as necessary to rule even ministries in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman must instead find other ways to reinforce his place and his legitimacy.

His unique selling point is his age with which he can signal the start of a new type of politics in the Kingdom that can chime better with Saudi’s population, two thirds of whom are under the age of thirty. A key strand of this must be reformulating the Saudi approach to terrorism and extremism – at the very least making explicitly clear his commitment to countering them effectively, no matter what their origins.

The young prince may yet forge some alliance; certainly, he has proven capable of undertaking ventures of unprecedented scale, as he demonstrated with the war in Yemen.

But this policy announcement did not get off to a promising start.

The lack of planning evidenced by just how quickly the alliance frayed within the first 24 hours carries strong hints of traditional, preparatory-work-free policy announcements that tend to not come to fruition. And on this topic above all others, neither the Saudi government nor Mohammed bin Salman can afford such befuddled, ill-conceived pronouncements.

Image: Air Strikes in Yemen, May 2015, via wikimedia commons.

Reasons to (not) be cheerful in 2016…The Middle East and the Institutionalisation of ‘Least Bad’ Options

After a turbulent 2015, members of DSD’s Regional Security Research Centre (@KingsRegSec) look forward to the coming year and examine the issues that they believe will be prominent in 2016, including the US presidential elections, continuing instability across the Middle East and the various coalitions seeking to counter IS, talks between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and continuing concerns about Russian activity in eastern Europe.

Dr David Roberts

In recent years, after the hope of the Arab Spring, Libya went from a swift revolution to a bitter civil conflict. Syria descended into utter Hobbesian chaos radiating refugees foisting crises on countries near and far. Egypt returned to the status quo ante. Tunisia continues to flirt with a successful political transition but suffers from regular, deadly terrorist attacks. Algeria remains frozen in its autocratic mould. The situation for the Palestinians is dire and hopes for a two state solution are as dim as they have ever been. The situation in Iraq inexorably deteriorates as the medieval fascists in Islamic State continue their rampage. And the Arab Gulf States are increasingly mired in a deep sectarian funk and have engaged in a brutal war in Yemen that will lead the way, as it were, for the downward trajectory to continue.

Yemen remains wracked by fighting. The campaign led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been enormously costly in terms of lives and loss of infrastructure. And the state that was already on the cusp of humanitarian disaster is now resolutely in the midst of complete catastrophe. 82% of the population, some 21.2 million people, are classified as ‘in need’ by the UN, a near-unfathomable number more than those ‘in need’ in Syria. Worse still, when the conflict is over, the Gulf Arab states dealing with low oil prices and domestic budget shortfalls will struggle to rebuild what they have broken. Otherwise, the Houthis – the quasi-Shia group that the Gulf coalition is so eager to crush – though taking a pounding, are employing classic guerrilla warfare tactics, melting into cities, and hunkering down in their tribal and often mountainous terrain. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, the franchise that became a household name with its attempted attack on a US airliner on Christmas Day 2009, has enjoyed a resurgence without any concerted pressure from a central state. All these factors coalesce to make Yemen a depressingly likely candidate to follow Syria and Iraq down the road of becoming a state in name only that harbours and incubates terrorist groups that pose a grievous security threat to the wider international community.

Searching for positives is an exercise in hope over expectation. One would have to be excessively Pollyanna-like to expect that the cease-fire in Yemen or the peace talks in Libya to make a drastic difference. And one would have to be near-certifiable to expect, for example, the UK’s recent announcement of airstrikes against IS targets in Syria to make any kind of strategic difference. Perhaps a better imagination is needed to conceive of truly positive, important developments in the MENA region in 2016. But the experience of recent years simply does not lend itself to optimism. Instead, policymakers are left with depressing calculations of ‘least bad’ options that seem to worsen as the months go by. The region’s turmoil has to end at some stage, but there are no reasons to expect that this will be in 2016.

Image: Two destroyed tanks in front of a mosque in Azaz, Syria, via wikimedia commons.

UK in the Gulf: to Engage or not to engage?


On 1 November 2015, the UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond inaugurated the beginning of works constructing the UK’s first permanent military base in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf since 1971 when the UK withdrew from the region. Using language that almost seemed to deliberately hark back to Britain’s colonial days in the Persian Gulf, Hammond announced that “The presence of the Royal Navy in Bahrain is guaranteed into the future, ensuring Britain’s sustained presence east of Suez.”

In reality, the Royal Navy has scarcely left the Persian Gulf region in the last century, and this ‘new’ base is better seen as the renovation and expansion of existing structures. Nevertheless, the fanfare surrounding the announcement of the new permanence of the UK presence is interesting and indicative of the current UK Government’s perspective. Indeed, the timing of the turning of the soil on this ‘new’ base comes between the hosting of the Chinese President for a lavish, extended state visit in October and the hosting in early November of Egyptian President Sisi. David Cameron’s government plainly believes in the importance of international engagement with states that many accuse of a range of human rights abuses.

The government marshals a variety of arguments to defend its engagement with such states, many of which have roots in the UK’s National Security Strategy (NSS), the key document that seeks to outline the UK’s national interest and how it can be defended.

The government argues that the UK’s security is protected by maintaining and developing these kinds of links. In terms of the military, the UK provides a range of key training roles for counterparts in the Gulf region, while regional bases provide an important change of arena for UK troops. Moreover, given the salience of the region to the wider world economy and the number of conflicts that have plagued the region in recent decades, developing military to-military links in the Gulf area are deemed to be important. As the former Chief of the UK Defence Staff put it, ‘if we are to influence, we must know what drives our friends and how to motivate. This is not something that can be done on the eve of an operation.’ There are also direct intelligence links with, for example, Saudi Arabia that have proved to be crucial in thwarting at least one serious terrorist attack on UK soil.

The UK is highly dependent upon the Persian Gulf region for trade. Bilateral trade with the region is increasing quickly to around £30bn per annum, which is more than to India, Russia, and Mexico combined. Most governments would likely deem it inadvisable to shun such countries where trade is so important.

Some charge that there is a flat contradiction between the UK’s desire to trade with these states and other important goals of the state’s NSS, namely the promotion of British values and influence. It is not difficult to imagine ministers avoiding criticising murkier issues related to human rights in the wider effort to win a particular contract.

Similarly, the UK government is open to the charge that however many links are established between governments or in industry, and no matter the theoretical opportunities created to allow the promotion of British values and culture, the reality remains that little seems to ultimately change.

Both charges are difficult to answer. Individual examples of international pressure forcing, for example, Saudi Arabia to reverse a particularly egregious travesty of justice can be found, but the system remains the same. Which makes it all the more puzzling as to why the British government eventually chose to make a stand with Saudi Arabia over a contract to consult on Saudi Arabia’s prison system. This £5.9m contract was cancelled in mid-October because of wider human rights concerns. Principled though this may be, it would seem to be logical that anyone in the UK government or otherwise interested in spreading British values would seek to exert influence in Saudi Arabia’s prison system as a matter of priority. The narrative of building contacts and influence is effectively aimed at opening the door for just such opportunities to share expertise and best practice. This confusion is an inevitable by-product of the nature of modern British politics and the subjective, inconclusive arguments put forth by those supporting and opposing engagement.

The argument is inevitably more difficult for those against engagement. For they must move beyond rowdy, faux-principled rejectionism and actually make a case for how, for example, the Saudi prison system will reform better now that the UK role therein is finished. Perhaps another western liberal democracy will take up the contact, perhaps not. And those seeking greater engagement need to move beyond platitudes and seek concrete, direct, and ideally verifiable examples of UK influence leading to a change in policy.


For more on the evolving role of the UK in the Persian Gulf region and how this chimes with understandings of British national interest, see David Roberts ‘British national interest in the Gulf: rediscovering a role?International Affairs (v.90, i3, May 2014).


Image: Persian Gulf (Dec. 10, 2005) – HMS Montrose comes along side the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, 2011, via wikimedia commons.