Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU): Can they be integrated into the Iraqi security forces?


On June 3, 2020, several Iraqi media outlets reported that the Chairman of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), Falih Al-Fayyadh, issued a circular letter that included a series of instructions addressed to all PMU factions, obligating them to terminate their political and non-political affiliation with all parties and organizations, to close all their headquarters within Iraq’s cities, and to replace their political names with numbers, like other units in the Iraqi Armed Forces. These instructions came in line with Iraq’s new Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s endeavors to curb the Iranian influence in Iraq, particularly its support to the PMU factions, by the integrating these militias into the Iraqi Armed Forces. 

ISIS on convoy


In 2014 the Islamic State Of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had swarmed over most of western  and northern Iraq in which the Iraqi army had collapsed, and it seemed Baghdad itself was threatened to be overrun. At that point the senior and highly respected Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, issued a fatwa, an Islamic ruling in June2014 calling for any Iraqi man capable of carrying arms to defend the Iraqi cities. Based on this Fatwa, thousands of Shi’a Iraqis rallied to defend Baghdad. The fatwa paved the way for the establishments of what is now known as the PMU.  

The PMU took part in a number of battles against ISIS. While the bulk of the success against the ISIS were scored by the largely US trained Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), the newly formed PMU launched a propaganda which convinced the Iraqi public that they were the saviors of Iraq. The CTS which one of its division is known as the “golden” division, lost many casualties in urban combat of retaking Mosul. Under the Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, the CTS was viewed as a possible threat to his regime and were not entirely reconstituted at the level it was before the Mosul campaign.

In 2016 the Iraqi government officially approved a law incorporating the PMU in the country’s armed forces but was allowed to operate independently. The law has not been implemented till now. However, the PMU has the official status of any soldier or officer in the Iraqi armed forces in terms of pay and benefits.

Over the past years the PMU received additional funding from the Iranian government, particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps ( IRGC) and its Special Warfare unit the al Quds under Qassem Al Suliemani who flitted around the Middle East encouraging and promoting Shi’a comet units in Syria and Iraq became somewhat of a Che Guevara persona, especially in the Western press. His killing was a monumental success for the US in that his myth had reached the point where he seemed invincible. The Iranian push to control the Levant was seriously damaged, but by no means eliminated.

PMU composition

There is no totally reliable source on the number of semi-independent organizations that are part of the PMU. They are depicted as having between 47 to 67 separate organizations. Generally, they are divided into three main movements. The first is a generally Iraqi nationalist oriented wing loyal Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Al-Sistani, a cleric who  takes an opposing view to the Iran’s Willayet-al Faqih doctrine which the rest of PMU factions follow.

Al-Sistani’s PMU wing is called the Atabat Divisions (Shrine Divisions) and they consist of four combat troop units and have no links with Iranian political or military institutions in Iraq. They have about 18000 full time militiamen and many thousands with personal weapons. The Atabat has withdrew recently from the PMU citing disagreement with Iran-backed groups.  They are not involved in any violence acts against Iraqis nor the U.S. forces. They do not consider the United States as an enemy. Their withdrawal from the PMU severely damaged the religious legitimacy of the Iran-backed factions.

The Iranian wing militias far outnumber the Al Sistani loyalists, composing some 40 organizations of vary degrees of loyalty to Iran with the major organizations, of which the most anti-American are the Kataib Hezbollah, which has about 18000 “regulars” and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq ( AAH) which has somewhat less. Both have years of experience ambushing and using offset weaponry against American troops, with much of the weaponry supplied by Iran. Especially effective were the armor piercing projectiles which killed a number of US troops. They were trained by the Iranian special forces, the Quds organization. They are totally in the pay of the Iranians. They never offered toe to toe battle, using the traditional Iranian way of way, especially using Improvised Explosive Devices. Both are being used in Syria, fighting the war for Assad and their Iranian puppet masters.


The weaponry of the Al Sistani factions are basic, mostly small arms and crew served weapons, but the Iranian factions have heavy weapons including some American Abrams tanks and artillery, but for the most part they fight with small arms, mines, mortars and other offset weapons.

The Iranian factions are armed based on the Iranian way of war which basically depends on intimidation, propaganda, deceit, and deception not conventional warfare. They are well trained in the light weapons and have a degree of discipline better than that of the Al Sistani faction. However with so many many groups under the Iranian umbrella, there are many divisions based on leader personalities and cash distribution by the Iranians.

Why should we worry about the PMU and consequently Iraq?

Iran has had irredentist aims ever since the Islamists overturned the rule of the Shah in 1978, initially based on the Iranian Shi’a aggressive version of Islam but as the fervor of the revolution waned , the Iranian regime resorted to more radical and militant approach to widen their control of neighboring states. Using their Al Quds unit to militarily support the Assad’ s regime in Syria, training the Lebanese Hezbollah in the Bekaa’ Valley in Lebanon, and supporting the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in the Gaza Strip they have forged a so called “Shi’a arc” across the Levant. However their appetite for greater world power status is not confined to the Levant. They have pushed their tentacles into North Africa, and South America, creating a stronghold in a region known as the tri state region. Iraq is the key to these moves. An adversarial Iraq would derail their grandiose plans and greatly curtail their activities beyond the Middle East. The Strength of the PMU is essential to the continued expansionist aims of Iran

Is it Possible to dismantle the PMU?

The January missile strike that killed Abu Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani gravely damaged the PMU. AS mentioned earlier, Soleimani had obtained mythical levels of belief in his abilities and accomplishments. Abu Muhandis was an effective leader of the fractious Iranian dominated wing of the PMU. The PMU unity often Hangs on a thread as the power-hungry leaders of the many various groups all vie against one another for more power and money. The replacements for Muhandis , and especially Soleimani are not in the same league with their predecessors and they are not up to the job they have been handed.

The New Iraqi PM Mustafa Khadhimi is young, energetic, and as the former chief of Iraqi intelligence he has the “files’ on everyone and that gives him a powerful tool to use against enemies. He is known as being pro-American…. at least not hostile, is not beholden to the Iranian bloc and is more cosmopolitan than previous prime Ministers

Iraq has been severely affected especially by the oil glut brought about by the corona virus pandemic but Iran more so which has had to scale down some of their foreign activities as well as navigate through a period of unrest in Iran itself. The average Iranian family is unable to meet basic needs with the salaries they receive and there is a great deal of frustration within the Iranian populace.

The situation as above would indicate that the process to dismantle the PMU or at least disarm the more violent groups should begin soon and would actually have some measure of success.

Shi’a militia in Iraq

Cultural Problem

One of the main problems in integrating the militias are the cultural issues involved, the same cultural factors which produce a better Arab unconventional fighter than a conventional one . For the Arab militiaman these factors are also why moving to a conventional unit from a militia is not a happy one.

Briefly the factors are.:

1.Militias methods of fighting are  more in consonance with the  Qu’ranic way of War.

2.The importance of bloodlines, i.e., in a militia unit you are far more likely to be serving with kin or tribal members.

3.The leadership are your tribal neighborhood men who rose by  virtue of personal characteristics vs. the often political appointed officer you do not know.

4.As member of a militia you are far more likely to be recognized for your individual feats of arms than slugging it out as an infantrymen in a conventional unit. The traditional Arab love of self promotion and combat glory will be smothered by the chain of command over you.

4. The individualism of the Bedouin Arab  is much inhibited by the discipline of a conventional unit. Drills and formations are unlikely to be welcomed by the former militiamen. Part of this can be observed in the uniforms. As a militiaman your uniform can accessorized with a multitude of berets, scarves, and other appurtenances.  You can usually choose your own weapon and what equipment to carry. Not so as an ordinary  soldier. Your ability to present a more heroic figure to the  women is thus another factor.

5.Finally as a militiaman you are usually licensed to plunder and  assuage  blood  lust against sectarian or political enemies. You are somewhat more constrained in a conventional unit.

abdul Aziz Ibn Saud

 The Saudi Case Study

Saudi Arabia was established by war and conquest, engineered by a most unique and singular individual, the  George Washington of Arabia, Abdul Aziz  Ibn al Saud. An extraordinarily ambitious man, he is described by St John Philby in these terms. “All through his life he had subjected himself to an austere regime to keep himself in perpetual training for the rough side of life. He told me that normally he  still didn’t normally drink water as much as once in six months. Coffee, and camel’s milk providing the necessary liquid his body needed. ” Saud could be magnanimous or extremely brutal, as the circumstances required, but primarily he relied upon the Arab method of overcoming his enemies, excellence of speech,  detailed knowledge of his rivals, especially their weaknesses and enemies, and a depth of military acumen unknown to the tribes.

The Ikhwan

The Ikwan were called soldier saints by some…in a semi humorous they were in many ways close to the ISIS of today their way of war and fanaticism. However the Ikkwan were truly motivated by an extreme version of Islam as opposed to the mercenary Baa’th party origins of the ISIS. They were former Bedouin tribes people settled by Ibn Saud to make his rule easier to maintain. In these villages the tribes were mixed in an effort to break down tribal loyalties.

Ibn Saud used them to conquer the Najran, Asir, the Hejaz, and his enemies in the the Nejd. They were constantly at war as the tribes of Saudi were not amenable to rule by anyone. Ibn Saud supplied them with better weapons and better leadership. From 1912 to 1930 that were almost always at war as revolts continually broke out in various parts of Saudi Arabia.

As St. John Philby wrote, no sooner had the Wahhabis ( Ikhwan) done what was required of them war, than they were packed off home to brood on on the iniquities of the world at large, and to wait their next summons to do such work as God might require of them. So around 1929, the Ikhwan began to be put off by the King’s hobnobbing with British officials, , using automobiles, using the telephone, and various other ungodly devices, and especially denying them permission to ride into Iraq and slaughter the Shi’a for whom they had special hatred.

Also the Ikhwan were tired of fighting Ibn Saud’s wars and getting very little in return, especially in terms of their version of an Islamic life., and forced do the fighting for the Kingdom. So in the spring of 1929 they went to war against the King. Of course the king was prepared.  While the Ikhwan were off fighting the wars, the King was building a more modern force of his own, equipped with motor vehicles, machine guns, and artillery. At the battle of Sabila, the Ikhwan were crushed. A couple of years later the remnants of the Ikhwan again confronted the King and were totally eliminated as an enemy force.

Prior to the outbreak of war, the King had assembled all the notables of the Kingdom, clergy, sheikhs, amirs, officials in an attempt to meet the mounting criticism of his regime head on. The results were chronicled in HC Armstrong’s book, the Lord of Arabia. Many of the assembled were  jealous of his power, and influence, his dealings with foreigners, his view of modern devises such as the telephone, telegraph, and the motor car.  “He greeted them as his subjects and as his brothers., he played shrewdly on their pride and religious enthusiasm. He treated then as a massed parliament of his people with the right to criticize him. He placed himself  at their hands and asked for their opinions and their decisions. As long as they were able to argue with him they would afterwards obey him without hesitation.”

Ibn Saud continued “I have heard that some of you Have grievances against me and my viceroys and amirs….I wish to know these grievances so that I may discharge my duty toward you and stand absolved in the sight of God.” He said he would yield his authority of his own free will should the assembled desire it.

The discussion went on many days,  day after day Ibn Saud answered questions, always without rancor  nor the bombastic speeches so characteristic of Arab rulers.

Many feasts were arranged. The king entertained lavishly, and gave many gifts to all his guests. There were one to one talks, and Ulama were called in to answer thorny religious questions. “Every spare moment he spent in receiving the representatives, either singly or in groups, talking with, making friends with them.”

The vast majority were satisfied with his leadership, and those who challenged him were destroyed.


The above is the optimal method of dealing with Militias. Destroy them. The Iraqi prime Minister is unable to do this now so he has chosen the Arab method of honor but contain and gradually undermine their power and influence. He has sent the militias off to fight the remnants of the ISIS, and offered friendship to the PMU in going to their headquarters, observed their customs, honored their achievements, but reminded them of their responsibilities. His speech was more notable for what he did not say than what he did say, e.g., fighting the ISIS is the priority not the US forces.

Most of the PMU elements will fall in line eventually, understanding which side their bread is buttered on, but there are certain  groups so deeply wedded to Iran that cannot  or will not do so. These Khadhimi must play with, sympathize with  and with time, fashion a security force disciplined enough to destroy their power.


The army must once again become the revered institution (rightly or wrongly) it was once viewed by the people. It must recover from the disaster and humiliation of Mosul in 2014. This can be done both materially and cosmetically. The training must be intensified. and most of all a more professional officer corps created along with a noncommissioned officer corps. Cosmetically there should frequent displays of the military at public demonstrations, eg., firepower displays, parades, having certain units entertain young people. Create the fact that the Popular militias are no longer needed. Probably most important, a situations must be created where the army can score real victories over the ISIS, to restore the soldier’s morale in their profession.

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My report in Iranian Way of War

DeAtkine: The Iranian Way of War: The Father of Hybrid Warfare 

By Norvell “Tex” DeAtkine, for May, 2020. 

for the article with graphics go to

The academic and media angst at the early January killing of Qassem Al-Soleimani, the head of the Iranian state-sponsored terror organization al Quds, by an American missile, exposed the long history of American ignorance, at every level of foreign policymaking by successive administrations. 

Many saw the event as portending a spiral of violence leading inexorably to all-out war. However, the unpalatable truth is that Iran has been at war with the United States since 1979, a fact well documented by David Crist in his book, The Twilight War. The Iranians have mostly used surrogates to perpetrate a litany of terror attacks and provocations, which, until the killing of Soleimani, mainly were met with angry denunciations but little action. In a region of the world where strength must be constantly demonstrated, the U.S. influence has declined precipitously. We have been unable to contend with an Iranian way of war that is ignored or submerged in a morass of academic wishful thinking. The fundamental problem is a prevalent one. Americans lack interest in history, and tend to view other peoples’ actions through the lens of our own culture. The manner in which different cultures fight should be the starting point in understanding our adversaries, especially one as crafty and intractable as Iran. 

The manner in which peoples fight, like every other aspect of their way of life, is determined by their culture. Military historian John Keegan (the author of History of Warfare) wrote, “Culture is nevertheless a prime determinant of the nature of warfare, as the history of its development in Asia clearly demonstrates.” Martin Van Creveld (The Culture of War) was even more emphatic, writing that in warfare, “some very basic things stay the same in spite of all the changes in weapons, tactics, and so on.” Equally renowned military historian Victor David Hanson (The Western Way of War) defined the Western way of war, as opposed to the Eastern way of war, of which Persians are the most definitive example in western Asia. It would do well for those responsible for the safety of our soldiers and national interests in the Middle East to study Iranian history, and pay less attention to the daily pontifications of columnists and academics reacting to every event as epochal.

The Greco-Persian wars lasted for a half-century with Greek city-states successfully defending their culture against two Persian invasions, but only narrowly. According to a preeminent scholar of Persian history, A.T. Olmstead (History of Persia), the Persians were particularly noted for their ability to set Greek city-states against one another, bribing notables, and priests to favor Persian prophecies, and using Greek class divisions within city-states to create dissension. Today we should see the Iranian hand in dividing Western nations by their approach to Iranian provocations, as well as using ethnic and religious cleavages within the individual countries to weaken any unified approach to Iranian irredentism. Persian use of intelligence to ferret out adversaries’ weaknesses in the Greco-Persian wars was creative and very effective, as it is today.

The Persians conducted war by subversion, manipulation, evasion, and indirection, largely eschewing close- in combat on the fields of battle. As today in Syria and Iraq, where the weapons of choice are missiles and mines, the Persians depended on standoff weapons such as archers, and lances. 

As Herodotus wrote,

“In courage and strength, the Persians are not inferior to others. But they were without defensive armor and moreover were unversed in warfare and unequal to their opponents in skill, and would dart out one at a time or in groups of about ten…..and fall upon the Spartans and perish.”


The Persians fielded vast armies, mostly composed of peasant part-time soldiers gathered from allies, using them as cannon fodder, much as they use surrogate militia groups today. The size of the army was most effective for intimidation, as many Greek city states surrendered without a fight. While contemptuous of alien cultures, they were convinced, as they are today, of their superiority, but were generally tolerant and attentive to the needs of their many non-Persian peoples. They remained in constant alert to public sentiments among allied and opposing states. Their propaganda machine has historically been a Persian specialty

It was so in the Persian wars and remains so today. In Iraq and other parts of the Arab world, Iranian media has convinced many people that the United States is on the verge of a civil war due to the COVID-19 virus. Likewise, we see well-funded “think tanks” in western Capitols insistently urging “more understanding and empathy” toward the regime in Tehran, currently demanding the lifting of sanctions as a “humanitarian gesture.”

The Byzantine emperor Maurice depicts the Persians as “wicked, dissembling, and servile,” in his treatise Strategikon. At the same time, he pictured them as brave, patriotic, obedient, prosecuting war with precision and persistence inducing a war-weariness on their opponents. It is significant that the historical opponents of the Persians, such as Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, and Westerners have described Persian warfare in similar terms. A contrarian view was written by Kaveh Farrokh in two very sympathetic and well-executed histories of Persian warfare, Shadowsin the Desert, and Iran at War. The overwhelming weight of evidence, however, is too much to dismiss. 

Feeling safe behind their vast expanse of waterless desert and an overwhelming hubris, well described by Graham E. Fuller (Center of the Universe) and Edward G. Brown (A Year among the Persians), the Iranian theocratic rulers feel safe to use their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and especially the elitist al Quds force, in which all the superb Iranian warfighting qualities have been distilled and sharpened. Afshon Ostovar (Vanguard of the Imam), wrote that the “Quds [forces] has become the pillar of Iran’s strategic and foreign policy.” Armed with a well-founded knowledge of Western indecision, denial, and lack of will, the al Quds forces apparatchiks are free to prosecute their way of war, using surrogates, constant pinprick attacks, cautious retreats when necessary, and synchronizing well-developed propaganda and subtle intrigue with pinpoint military force, to undermine the influence of the United States in the Middle East.

In summary, perhaps the best amplification of the Iranian way of war is found in J.J. Morier’s The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan. Morier wrote of his long experience in Iran about the same time Alexis De Tocqueville wrote about the American character, and both remain incredibly prescient. Morier, putting his words in the mouth of an old Kurd, wrote, “You have never had any dealings with them, (Persians) and therefore you permit yourselves to be lulled into security by their flattering expressions and their winning and amiable manners. But I have lived long with them and have learned the value of what they say. Their weapons are not such as you have accustomed to meet in the bold encounter and the open attack; Instead of a spear and sword theirs are treachery, deceit, falsehood.” 

A Contemporary Parenthesis

As an example of the operational methods of the Iranian way of war, the Iranian intervention in Iraq is instructive. The overall strategic aims of the Iranian regime in Iraq dictates two alternatives; the primary one being the complete domination and control of Iraq through its political ties, manipulating religious Shi’a infrastructure, providing some economic support, and embedding Iranian influence in the military sector, including, most critically, Iranian funded Shi’a militia organizations. The fallback position, failing the first one, is to ensure that Iraq remains weak and divided. Iraq is essential to the Iranian maintenance of a bridge to the Mediterranean, securing ties with the Assad regime in Syria and the Hezbollah of Lebanon.


Since the killing of Qassem Suliemani, It appears that Iran has acquiesced to the Iraqi premiership of Mustafa al-Kadimi, who has formed a cabinet of officials considered by many of the more militant Shi’a organizations of the PMU as allies of the United States. More temperate political statements of the Iranian leadership, probably based on their realization of the growing anti-Iranian sentiment among the Iraqis indicates the Iranian regime has calculated that a step back is required. Therefore, they will move away from the first option, to instead rely on the finely-honed warfighting skills of the al Quds and security organizations to keep Iraq in a state of tension and constant political infighting. But there can be no mistake. This is warfare, in a historical Eastern manner, not diplomacy.

In keeping Iraq divided, the al Quds organization will ensure that the remnants of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) are kept alive with financial aid, intelligence, and limiting, when necessary, Iraqi military operations against them. Stoking the fires of the sectarian divide is essential for the continued Iranian presence in Iraq. Iranian ties to Sunni organizations ostensibly opposed to Shi’ism has never been a problem, as indicated by their support of Hamas in Gaza. The dichotomy of Iranian efforts in assisting Iraqi military forces to continue operations against ISIS, while at the same time supporting efforts of ISIS to continue operations in Iraq, will be no problem to a traditionally delicately nuanced Iranian culture of intricate social and political relations. 

The al Quds force will conduct surgical terror acts to keep the pot boiling. Their history of indirection, dissimulation, and intrigue often bewilders the western mind. It is the Iranian version of Orwellian doublethink, holding two contradictory beliefs in mind simultaneously. The Iranians did this skillfully with the al Qaeda organization. Meanwhile, the removal of American forces in Iraq will be a significant Iranian objective, primarily accomplished by their propaganda apparatus in the United States as well as Iraq. The Iranians can use the “tar baby” effect that the American public now sees in all Middle Eastern operations. 

The current COVID -19 crisis has given the Iranians an additional propaganda lever to play the “humanitarian aid“-card, slowly filling the void of the exiting Americans.


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What if the Iranians get too big for their Britches?


Recently there  have been suggestions that the Iranians are hoping to provoke an all-out conflict with United States,  ostentatiously harassing our warships in the Gulf,  ( Iran today bragged that they have 112 new speed boats to  harass our navy in the Gulf)

sailors abducted by Iran

American sailors abducted by Iranians after allegedly  straying into Iranian waters in the Gulf. Humiliated they were but John Kerry was good  with  that.


ignoring US sanctions by shipping oil to Venezuela, constant pinprick attacks against American troops in Iraq,  and massive hate and propaganda tirades against the Americans… not just the government, but the American people as well. It almost seems as if the Iranian regime is trying to force feed their people into a hate frenzy against the United States. It is eerily similar to the hate sessions in the George Orwell ‘s book, 1984.

Going against the US in a conventional war would seem to violate common sense. Why would a third-rate military power take on the United States?  Moreover, a toe to toe slugfest against the US seems a dramatic departure from their traditional way of War

Iran navy hit

Operation Praying Mantis  where the US m navy destroyed a good part of the Iranian Navy in 1987.

(more of that in later post). One reason is that the prior conduct of the US responding to Iranian provocations since 1987 has been tepid and often downright cowardly. The Iranians have a deep belief that the Americans can be easily bluffed. They often, in social media, bring up the” body bag syndrome”. Like Saddam they have convinced themselves that the US military is a paper tiger. I Recently received a twitter txt message from “Abbas, ” incensed by my less than favorable views of Mullah Iran,  in which he sent me a picture of our inglorious departure from Saigon, with added text calling me a Jewish poodle.”   This is typical of what Raphael Patai calls the Arab mind.  The abrupt departure of the Marines from Beirut in 1984 was another “fact” which embedded the picture of the Americans as dramatically risk averse in Arab and Iranian minds. A claim to which we would, in recent history, have to admit they have evidence to back it upsaigon


A second even more critical reason for the Iranian fool hardy provocations is the overwhelming Iranian hubris. Any outside observer, having spent any time in Iran, has commented on this cultural attribute of the Iranian personality. All nations have some amount of hubris and tend to overestimate their military. We certainly have and continue to do so. Without belaboring the point, I would suggest reading the book, Knowing One’s Enemies by Ernest R. May.  However, the Iranian hubris is palpable and often tinged with extreme arrogance, especially when they believe they have the upper hand. The story of the “student” takeover of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 is a prime example of that, especially as chronicled by the American Military attaché Colonel Leland Holland and others held for 444 days. The US state Dept, after assisting the Islamic regime to come to power by withdrawing support to the shah, finally came to their senses as indicated in this message sent from the US embassy after fruitless attempts to parley with the Khomeini regime, “Their outlook is a function of their history and the solace most Iranians have found in Shi’a Islam. They place a premium of survival. They are manipulative, fatalistic, suspicious, and xenophobic.” (quote from the book Twilight War by David Christ) . Iranian xenophobia was mentioned several times by the American ambassador to Iran William G Sullivan, and it was primarily directed toward the Americans. Certainly, I found that to be true when I toured there in 1968 and   1969.


Often American and Western military analysts underestimate Middle Eastern militaries, and then when they demonstrate a degree of proficiency, the pendulum seems to swing in an opposite direction. The experts then tend to overestimate their capabilities. In assessing the Iranian military, we should keep this in mind. They are not less courageous or intelligent than any other nation, nor are they particularly gifted in martial capabilities.  The Iranian record in conventional warfare is less than sterling, even in the Iran-Iraq war…. In which only their three to one advantage in population enabled them to hang on to a very dubious peace.( and because they were the beneficiaries of American training for years.)  As Charles Tripp and Sharam Chubin put it.  “Self-absorbed and utterly confident, revolutionary Iran provoked a war for which it impudently failed to prepare for, but, once embarked on, embraced with characteristic zeal. It defined it as a clash of supreme metaphysical values rather than national wills.”  

Iranian troops

Iranian Artesh troops ( regular army)

Despite some semi hysterical fears , Iranians will not march to Mecca and Medina, and their tenure as overlords in Iraq and Syria is in fact  declining, but they will continue to create dissension and instability in the region, and throughout the world, conniving with rogue states like Venezuela to create  dissention and chaos. Because of their characteristic hubris and typically Iranian view of Western caution as weakness, they will quite likely precipitate wars they did not intend. Western indifference to their aggressive actions and Iranian thirst for recognition will accelerate Iran’s designs for world power status.


Irabnain t4roops in Syria

Iranian Troops in Syria


As discussed earlier, culture is indeed the key to understanding the politics, daily living patterns and the way of war. Moreover, the near immutability of cultural norms, despite generations of changes in technology, political rule, foreign domination, and the much-ballyhooed “the global village,” can be demonstrated by the observations of Iranian/Persian culture over the centuries.  The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines all saw the Persians as an imaginative enemy possessing imagination, guile, and a disarming ability to suborn factions of their allies. Their ability to turn the Greek city-states into warring factions, using propaganda and diplomacy, was unmatched. Backing up their “soft power” were a variety of different approaches to war using their ponderous armies, “that drank the rivers dry” as they passed, to light detachments of cavalry archers to harass, delay and keep the enemy bewildered and off balance. Darius the Great spoke for all the Persians when he identified himself as the center of justice and righteousness. As Tom Holland in his book Persian Fire, put it, Darius was,  “Closely reflecting how they (Persians) saw themselves. No people had a greater faith in their own virtue.”  Sir Christopher Sykes called them “vain.”

Other observers added that the Persians were susceptible to ridicule, often reacting in a thoughtless manner and given to raging desires of reprisal and revenge. They could tolerate foreign cultures but at the same time viewed them with contempt. They used this tolerance to undermine their enemies by cunningly using their own traditions against them.  A more modern example of this is Islamist terrorists using the liberality of western civilization to operate freely within them. Another specialty of the Persians was intelligence, and psychological warfare.  Peter Green in his masterful book, The Greco- Persian Wars.  writes of the terror warfare used by the Great Persian King, Xerxes, “hoping by the magnitude of his arrival to strike the Greeks with terror before his arrival.” The Persians, long before Lawrence of Arabia and the Arabs, understood the importance of “winning wars without battles.” Unlike the Greeks, who often buried their heads in the sand, (like the West today), they were alert to shifts in public sentiments and smelled weakness. After the COVID -19 political circus abates, hopefully  we can get serious about more serious threats to  US security.


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Iran: ” Better to Kill Thousands Now than Millions later” Saddam Hussein.

For past few weeks Ive been reading books on Iran, specifically those concerned with the fall of the Shah in 1978. The one below…. The Fall of Heaven is a gem..the best and most informative and readable of the many I have read. It also surfaces the total malfeasance among our officials charged with foreign affairs in that era, including specifically President  Carter, our ambassador to Iran, William H. Sullivan, secretary of state Cyrus Vance, secretary of defense Harold Brown, National Security Advisor , Zbigniew Brzezinski ,  DOS Iraqi Desk officer, Henry Precht, and The National Security  Council Advisor  for the Middle East, Gary Sick., and lastly but by no means lastly, the head of US intelligence Ricard Helms, (who had once  been the ambassador to Iran). There was much blame to go around, which ,of course, no one accepted.



Reza Shah ( founder of the Pahlavi dynasty) with Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, his twin sister Ashraf and older sister Shams.

I was the Middle East desk officer in the Army Chief of Staff for Intelligence at the time, and a bit player in the Iran drama, but I was able to monitor the duplicity and  incompetence of the Carter administration in action as the No distribution ( NODIS)and limited distribution  (LIMDIS)top secret messages poured in from all sides. It is a funny thing but these type of messages  were supposed to be very limited in distribution but they were floating all over  Washington.  As the Army desk officer I was on the National Intelligence estimate (NIE) of 1978. It was that infamous intelligence document that stated that Iran was not even in a “pre-revolutionary stage.”  The CIA ran those intelligence estimates and the opinions of army, navy  etc, reps had very little weight  on the overall analysis. In those days if a bit player like me objected to a key point it was put in a footnote which was smothered by the main text. Anyway I did not object to anything and that made the task easier for marine major, seconded to the CIA, and running the show ( he was the assistant to a very redoubtable CIA officer whom I greatly admire) . Curious thing about military officers who get seconded to the CIA, DOS, NSC, etc they take on very officious, grandiose personas. They tend to affect  the dress  and mannerisms, of their  temporary  organization,

So not long after  a NODIS message came across my desk from Ambassador Sullivan, who in a couple of sentences, wrote that the game was up and the Shah was done, I was a surprised.  I was even more surprised that It did not seem to make much of a wave in DC at that time. Carter was off somewhere doing something, the big deal being  the Israeli-Palestinian “peace” negotiations. As usual the Washington foreign policy “experts” like those of today assume the only thing that really counts in the Middle East is an Israeli-Arab Peace pact of some sort. It is kind of a recurrent foreign policy sickness among a lot of Middle East “experts.”


Asraf with her father Reza Shah in exile in South Africa after being kicked out of Iran by the British because of his suspected German. sympathies in WWII

Anyway in reading the book, The Fall, of Heaven I was motivated to read  or reread the books by Graham Fuller,  ( a Sense of Siege and The Center of the Universe), a very interesting book by Ashraf Pahlavi, (Faces in  Mirror) , (the twin sister of the Shah,) Mission to Iran by Ambassador Sullivan, Robert Huyser’s Mission to Tehran, memoirs by Henry Precht, and many histories of Iran, especially those by Peter Avery and Joseph Upton. I also went back to the old standards, like  Christopher Sykes. In short I read everything I could get my hands on.


top pic.  The Shah with first wife Fawzia, sister of king Farouk.  with daughter Shanaz. bottom pic. The Shah with second wife Soraya. Fawzia could not take the boredom of Tehran, preferring Cairo. Soraya could not have children, so the Shah very reluctantly divorced her.

Everyone agrees on one thing. The Shah was a weak Monarch, indecisive, rather remote, stiff, sometimes pretentious, but in the The Fall of Heaven he is also pictured as  a very decent man who cared about his country. He was a not a fighter, but he was not a coward. After all he has survived several assassination attempts. When the chips were down he could not bring himself to order his troops to fire on the rabble of communists Islamists, and ignorant urban mobs  demanding his  head. He backed away from blood shed and let events take their course.   On the other hand Ruhollah Khomeini comes across as a dedicated, Hitler -like creature with a obsession with power and a blood lust. He was distrusted and hated by many of his fellow Ayatollahs, including  his main rival,  Grand Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari,  as well as Grand Ayatollah Musa Sadr,  and Grand Ayatollah Abol Qasem Khoi.  He was not popular with the peasants in the rural areas either who continued to trust in the Shah.   Khomeini actually conspired with his ally,  Muammar Gaddafi, to have Grand Ayatollah Sadr murdered by regime’s  security thugs. Shariatmadari was put in house arrest ,and later Khoi was murdered by Muqtada Sadr’s thugs ( ironically Musa’s son).   This is the same Khomeini  that Ambassador Sullivan termed a “Gandhi-like”  personage and Andrew Young, Carter’s ambassador to the  U. N.,  described as a “saint.”


For a while Iran was the model for the westernization of the Islamic world. Then reality set in.

The most fervent supporters of Khomeini were Western educated (?) youth from middle or upper class families , the urban middle class, and slum dwellers The most vociferous supporters were the Iranian students and their leftist allies in American universities. Living in Northern Virginia at the time and attending many conferences and seminars on Iran, every such event I went to was broken up by chanting Iranian  students shouting anti-Shah slogans. They had protests in the street and as it seems to always happen the Liberal Press took up their crusade by establishing in the publics mind that the Shah was an evil, rapacious tyrant surrounded by a corrupt family, especially his twin sister Ashraf, who undoubtably was not a saint, but also a very tough woman who tried to put backbone in the Shah. She was a an extraordinarily strong and resolute woman who could have run Iran very well on her own. I liked her take no prisoner style that comes out her autobiography.   Her detractors called her the “black panther” a sobriquet she apparently liked very much. She was instrumental in working with the  CIA to set up the coup in 1953 to oust the charlatan  Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, whom Ashraf depicted as a Machiavellian  genius: “an intellectual, a fanatical demagogue, a charismatic orator, and above all a consummate showman.” Mossadegh would frequently faint dead away while reaching for a crescendo  in his fiery speeches.


Carter with Ambassador Sullivan

As his urban followers began to melt away he increasingly hitched his wagon to the Tudeh ( communists) in Iran. Threatening the oil supply to the US and UK set the CIA on the path to assisting a coup to end his premiership. In reality the CIA had very little to do with it as Iranian military officers were the prime movers in the coup.


Ambassador Sullivan with the militants who brought down the Shah. As the author of the book  Fall from Heaven wrote, the intellectuals and students who brought down the Shah were building the scaffold they were later hanged from.

The Iranian students who formed a ring of adulation around Khomeini when he returned from Paris, formed the lawless Komitehs  that executed people on hearsay, plundering and destroying the legacy of the Pahlevi regime. In  return for their adulation, Khomeini later turned against them. One very active student leader that I actually watched lead a demonstration in down town DC,  Sadegh Ghotzbadegh,  was later executed by Khomeini. My understanding at the  time was that he was a Big Man on Campus at Georgetown. He also was the go between Khomeini and the the Palestinian Liberation Organization, bringing in weapons and munitions  for use against the Shah.  It is not a coincidence that the first visitor to Iran after the Khomeini takeover was Yasir Arafat.  It was a perfect storm  of the confluence of the “Black and the Red”  a term made famous by the Shah referring to the alliance of the Communists and Islamists.  Later, the Inner city Islamist thugs destroyed the  effete communist dilettantes  in a series of street battles. A lesson is there to be learned in our own country as we view the Islamists make common cause with “progressives.”

the shah and his queen

The Shah crowning his queen Farah

The shah was weak no doubt. Twice he was offered the opportunity to have Khomeini killed, once by his officers and once by Saddam who at that time hosted exiled  Khomeini in Iraq. Both times the Shah demurred.  In castigating the Shah for his weakness, we had our own  tepid leadership to answer for.  We also had a  very weak leader exposed  in this Iranian fiasco…. Jimmy Carter. He had no control whatsoever over his people in the government. Every official even remotely involved with Iran had their own plan for Iran. Most of the state department and the NSC were immersed in the “human rights” tar pits, admonishing the shah from using violent action against the mobs.  There was the totally naive belief that Khomeini was a man they could deal with.  Some thought he was just a figurehead for the Russians, and the communists. No one in the shakers and movers of Washington has taken the time to read Khomeini’s  doctrinal tracts in which his radical Islamist plans were clearly laid out.  It was the Ayatollah’s Mein Kampf.  Power, not Islam, was his religion, but scant attention was given to it.

The Shah, who had reduced his generals and top officials  to a coterie of ineffectual ciphers, (with a few exceptions) kept waiting for someone to bail him out,  but from the US he received a bewildering melange  of contradictory messages. “Ziggy”  Brzezinski was advising him to turn loose his army on the mobs, the CIA was still viewing the situation as  redeemable,  advocating caution,  the Iranian DOS desk officer, Precht wished the Shah all the worst. Precht was the deputy  chief of Mission in Cairo when I served there in 1981-82. A rather prickly individual, he was bitter about not being rewarded with an an ambassadorship.   Precht in his later remarks denied his animus toward the shah but that doesn’t stand up well. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and his deputy,  Warren Christopher  focused on sharpshooting the Shah’s handling on the precarious  situation, mouthing pious platitudes about “human rights.”General  Robert Huyser , the deputy commander of EUCOM, was sent to Iran to ………. well….. he was never quite sure,  except tell the Iranian generals that a coup to establish a military government was looked upon unfavorably by the Carter Administration.

But perhaps the gravest  problem was the Ambassador  William Sullivan. Sullivan had completed a number of years in tumultuous assignments in Southeast Asia and was hoping to serve a final tour in Mexico where he had a home. Instead he was sent to Iran, a place with which he had no expertise, and from his book, did not care much for the shah or Iranians in general.  In his book he wrote about the “unfailing rudeness of the average Iranian merchant and clerk.” Nor did he find the American embassy personnel much to his liking, complaining that most of them avoided average Iranians,  “… for the most part they attempted to emulate the the international jet set…. “. Nor was he happy with DOS in Washington saying that they ignored President’s Carter’s instructions, “They continued to grind out their position papers, some of them totally at  variance with the Presidents position.” Nor did the DOS  put much stock in Sullivan’s reporting. Sullivan was a rather crusty gentleman and did not allow any messages out of the embassy that disagreed with this assessments that basically depicted that all was well. …until the very end.

Later Sullivan also railed against President Carter, telling General Huyser that Carter’s decisions were “stupid.” Basically as the end approached, Sullivan wanted to negotiate with the Islamist leaders himself and was incensed that Carter chose to go through the French in Paris. In fact one of Carter’s retinue of know nothings,  Hodding Carter, was bartering with Paris Islamists  tacitly offering the Shah as a prize. His telephone calls were intercepted by us.  ( Not in any book, my personal knowledge) It is doubtful the President condoned that but in the Carter Admin everybody was doing his own thing.


Ashraf with her brother Reza Ali and sister Shams

Sullivan had no empathy with the Shah and as the end approached, he began bartering with Khomeini people to usher in a transition government.   He vigorously opposed a military takeover and somehow believed that the Khomeini thugs would carry out their promises to enter softly and gently. He was not getting any instructions from a fractured and inept DOS. Ayatollah   and the other Khomeini minions  repeatedly lied to him but he was naive to an astounding degree. The DOD and CIA was out to lunch as well. As the Shah’s government crumbled, a bunch of Middle East specialists in the Pentagon, including me, were assembled and told the DOD was finalizing a plan to send American military advisors to Iran to help train the “new” Iranian army. The primary reaction of the attendees was disbelief. It died a quick death, happily,  or those advisors would been among the hostages held at the Embassy in Tehran. It was obvious that the Secretary of Defense,  Harold Brown was as clueless as the rest of the Carter cabinet.


As Christopher Sykes once wrote, “The Persians are remarkably vain, and they think so highly of their barren desert country they cannot conceive of any power failing to covet it”.

In Iran the Americans made the same mistake we made in Vietnam ( and maybe in Iraq) we  basically made the Shah totally dependent on American domination of his decision-making. He became totally dependent on the US as his moral big daddy.  When the fickle Carter crowd  all but disavowed him when he needed them the most , he became  mentally and spiritually paralyzed.  His advancing Lymphoma was a big factor as well. It is ironic in that Carter had, just prior to there revolution, bathed  the Shah’s regime in the most lavish of praise.  In a speech in 1978, Carter in a dinner with the Shah  said, “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah ,  is an island of tranquility in one of the more troubled areas of the world.”

The Western power elite and many in the main stream media bought lock stock and barrel,  the propaganda of the Khomeini movement. The shah was painted as a blood thirsty  tyrant, his family corrupt, especially his twin sister Ashraf, who was accused of every depravity known to mankind……. and this narrative was largely accepted uncritically by the Western press. Even today in Hollywood, as seen in the movie Argo, ( surprise, surprise it won an Oscar)  the Shah is depicted as a corrupt despot, and, as always in the style of Hollywood lefties,  his  “brutal”regime is pictured as the reason  for the savagery of the Mullah regime.  Queen Farah sent a long letter to the producer, Ben Affleck pointing out the inaccuracies, and lies, but went it unanswered.   No surprise there either!! The movie reminded me of another award winner , The Killing Fields, in which Sam Waterson,  the star attributes the genocide of the Cambodian people by their  communist rulers , to American bombing. It drove them crazy he said.


Farah vs. Jackie? Farah wins hands down!!! Not only lovely but a powerhouse  fearless leader.

No story about that era of Iran could go without mentioning the fact that in Iran at the time there were about 50,000 Americans there, most living in the Tehran environs.  These folks, many  with families, were not sent to Iran to have tea and make friends with Iranians. They were there to maintain equipment, assemble Bell helicopters, train Iranian troops. And as might be expected  there were a high percentage of “ugly Americans” among them. Probably the worst were teen age Americans who went out of their way to mock and humiliate Iranians from their school busses on the way to the American school in the center of Tehran. The Iranians hate all foreigners, and at the top of the hate list were the Americans. Of course that did not stop thousands of Iranians fleeing the Khomeini regime moving to California. Nor did it stop a number of the Khomeini regime officials  sending their kids to school there.

Finally there was good story about this era and that was the three women in the Shah’s life that mattered. ( His first wife Fawzia was well liked but did not like the Court life in Tehran.) The three were  his twin sister, Ashraf, second wife Soraya, and most importantly the third wife and queen, Farah. Everyone around the Shah knew that his  twin sister exercised tremendous influence on the Shah, and many were nervous when she was not around, because he looked for her approval on most decisions. She was a jet setter, society queen,  with some suspicious real estate dealings, and had shed three husbands, but she was tough and did not back away from confrontations with the Islamists.

Princess Soraya, was also a strong woman, as well as beautiful, who basically told her husband to get some backbone and fight back when he went into exile the first time during the short premiership of Mossadegh. His precipitous flight that time was a warning to his closest associates that he was always a flight risk.


Top.The shah with crown prince Cyrus ( still out there waiting for the Mullah regime to fall). Bottom:Ashraf with son who was later murdered on the streets of Paris.

But it was Queen Farah who should be held up as a Woman in the Margaret Thatcher mold. She was fearless, driving straight into crowds protesting against the Shah, fighting back against scurrilous accusations with anger and spirit ( one example that was in the Western press…she bathed in milk every night, etc.) She went to see the grand ayatollahs that hated Khomeini, ( most did)  pleading for their help. They were too scared to do anything.  One in particular was Grand Ayatollah Khoi, of Iraq. Instead of support she got a lecture on her unIslamic mode of dress. Betrayed by his closest friends, by the Carter administration, by most of his generals,  becoming a pariah, persona non grata, to the Western leaders all anxious to suck up to the Khomeini regime, she stuck with a rapidly declining Shah.  Buried in Cairo, as Sadat was one of the few leaders who accepted him, Farah visits his tomb every year.

This era in Iran should be a case study  of how to screw up  a developing country but there are too many sacred cows involved to ever let that happen.

Pics are from Ashraf Pahlavi book Faces in a Mirror..



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The Muslim Brotherhood

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The Iranians lose one… in Iraq

Despite massive problems with their faltering economy and uncontrolled COVID-19 spread,  Iran continues its quest to become the Middle Eastern regional power.  The  ruling Mullahs have a pathological hatred and fear of the United States , which. has not, nor will it, abate  for the foreseeable future. But where are they now?

Is Iran accepting its Defeat in Iraq? From MEMRI 20 April (on line periodical bringing the news and thinking of the Middle East that US  media do not cover.



On April 10, 2020, Tehran welcomed the designation of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s pro-U.S. Chief of Intelligence as its new Prime Minister, a decision reached with consensus among Iraq’s political groups. Abbas Mousavi, spokesman of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said in a statement that Al-Kadhimi’s designation is “the right step in the right direction,” wishing him success in his mission to meet the demands of the Iraqi people.[1]

Iraj Masjedi, the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, similarly stated that “Iran supports the appointment of Mustafa al-Kadhimi as the new Prime Minister of Iraq” and that the country “views him positively.”[2] Commenting on the news, Iran’s state-run news agency, Tasnim, anticipated that Al-Kadhimi will succeed in forming a cabinet within the mandated 30 days.[3]

Iran’s welcoming of Al-Kadhimi’s designation came as a surprise. Just a few weeks before he was appointed, Iran-backed political groups accused Al-Kadhimi of providing the U.S. with the intelligence that facilitated the January 3, 2020 airstrike that killed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC) Qods Force commander Qassim Soleimani and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) deputy commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.[4]

The new Iraqi designated PM Mustafa Al-Kadhimi (Source:

If he succeeds in forming a cabinet, Al-Kadhimi might very well thwart Iran’s ultimate goal of ousting U.S. troops from Iraq, a possibility which Tehran and its proxies in Iraq have been pointing to repeatedly and loudly since the death of Soleimani.

An Iraqi government headed by Al-Kadhimi and supported by the U.S. could also threaten Iran’s economy, which relies on Iraq as a last-ditch lifeline. It would also threaten their land supply route to Syria.

In light of this, the positive reaction expressed by Iranian officials and media raises some serious questions as to what might have prompted Tehran’s change of tune, and whether its acceptance of a pro-U.S. Iraqi Prime Minister signals an overall shift in its policy in Iraq and the rest of the region.

What Prompted Iran To Accept Al-Kadhimi?

To answer this question, one must look back at the recent events leading up to Iran’s acceptance of Al-Kadhimi.

First, Iran’s extensive meddling in the internal affairs of Baghdad has elicited a growing political and public opposition, as evidenced by the anti-government protests which lasted for months, and which resulted in the resignation of one of Iran’s closest allies in Iraq —  PM Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was in power for less than a year. Mahdi is widely accused of making backroom deals that served Iran’s strategic interests and economy and expanded the influence of PMU factions in the Iraqi state.[5]

Second, amid the anti-government protests, said to have been oppressed by Iran-backed groups, came the U.S airstrike which eliminated Soleimani and Al-Muhandis. Iran has been unable to find the right replacements for the two men, and thus failed to ensure its tight grip over the Shi’ite parties and militias in Iraq.

The new IRGC Quds Force commander, Ismael Qanni, has so far demonstrated that he is unable to fill the shoes of his predecessor. His recent visit to Baghdad on April 2 to unify the Shi’ite groups in rejecting a pro-U.S. candidate for the post of Prime Minister has proven to be a failure.[6]

Third, the killing of Soleimani and Al-Muhandis served as the beginning of the fragmentation within the PMU scene. The most obvious symptom of this fragmentation was the withdrawal of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s aligned factions from the PMU and their subsequent plan to merge with the Iraqi security forces.[7]

Fourth, the withdrawal of Al-Sistani’s well-equipped and trained factions from the PMU also signaled the termination of Al-Sistani’s 2014 fatwa, which obligated all capable Iraqi men to take arms against ISIS. Iran took advantage of that fatwa to help establish the PMU as existing outside the authority of the Iraqi state in the fight against ISIS. The termination of the fatwa strips the PMU of the cover of religious legitimacy, which they have been misusing to target U.S. interests in Iraq, thus making them vulnerable to being held legally accountable.

Fifth, the efforts of PMU factions to outdo each other in expressing their loyalty to Tehran resulted in growing rifts between them on the question of who will succeed Al-Muhandis, in addition to further damaging Iran’s ability to agree on how to address the presence of the U.S. in the country.

Sixth, the PMU factions had begun exhibiting signs of their fear of U.S. retaliation, so much so that they began denying their involvement in recent rocket attacks targeting the U.S. embassy or Iraqi military bases that house U.S. troops.

The factions obviously fear facing the same fate as Soleimani and Al-Muhandis. This has limited Iran’s options for targeting U.S. troops.[8] In fact, some of Iran’s proxies went even further, and denounced rocket attacks targeting U.S. troops and interests. For example, the pro-Iran Fatah coalition condemned the three rockets which landed near the site of U.S. Halliburton oil service, saying such attacks “cause severe damage to the Iraqi economy.”[9]

Seventh, Tehran has also realized that any attack against U.S. troops in Iraq will prompt a severe military retaliation from Washington, one which will target not only Iran’s proxies in Iraq, but Iran itself. Iranian officials fully understood President Donald Trump’s message when he tweeted on April 1 that Iran and its proxies will pay a heavy price if U.S. troops or assets in Iraq were to be attacked.[10]

Eighth, Iran’s unsuccessful alternative tactic of creating fictitious Iraqi armed groups such as the League of Revolutionaries or People of the Cave, and blaming them for rocket attacks against U.S. troops has proven to have little — if any —  impact on the presence of U.S. forces in the region. Accusing these groups also demonstrates Iran’s wish to disassociate itself from the more recent attacks.[11]

In this regard, three previously unknown Shi’ite militia groups have surfaced in April: Usbat Al-Thaereen [League of Revolutionaries], Asehab Al-Kahf [People of The Cave] and Qabdat Al-Huda [The Fist Of Guidance]. The three groups have issued threats against the U.S. presence in Iraq, including videos showing drone footage of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone[12] and the Ain al-Assad military base which houses U.S. troops in Anbar.[13]

Lastly, in addition to all these crippling factors, the COVID-19 crisis has brought a sharp drop in oil prices, further aggravating Iran’s economic difficulties and inhibiting Iran’s ability to advance its goals in Iraq.

Does Endorsing Al-Kadhimi Signal A Change In Iran’s Policy In Iraq And The Rest Of The Region?

Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Israel have all taken action to limit Iran’s ability to control Syria and Iraq as part of its scope of influence. And yet, Iran has proved before that it knows how to turn threats against it into opportunities for ensuring the survival of the regime as safeguarding its regional influence.

Recognizing its weaknesses and recent failure in Iraq, Iran’s endorsement of Al-Kadhimi comes as part of a new, pragmatic approach, which is nevertheless limited to Iraq, and not the rest of the region.

Even so, while Iran seemingly accepted Al-Kadhimi’s designation in Iraq, it will continue to obstruct his task of forming a government. In its efforts to do so, Iran will use stalling tactics, and threaten that if the new PM fails to oust U.S. troops from Iraq through diplomatic channels, Iran’s proxies will resort to force once again.[14]

One should also expect Iran to take covert action in its efforts to rid itself of its major opponents, who may continue to threaten the Iranian hegemony in Iraq: President Barham Saleh and his protégée, the designated-PM Mustafa Al-Kadhimi.

My thoughts on this.

MEMRI got it right. While the Washington think tanks are claiming Iran’s continuing successes in Iraq, the MEMRI folks with their connections in Iraqi Social Media are exposing the fragility of Iranian power plays in Syria and Iraq. Iranian propaganda continues to very effective however, with our media and think tanks still viewing Iran as a state with normal interests and issues. As such they believe with some adroit diplomacy and some more inducements we can reel Iran in as “one of us.” The “” Nuclear” deal was a fiasco but the dewy eyed US officials who negotiated it still think it was greatest thing since sliced bread. The Persians fight and negotiate in the Eastern Way of war. They outthink us With their subtle and unfathomable layers of personalties, but in Iraq their traditional hubris fell victim to a society that very well understands duplicity, evasion, manipulation, and intrigue. The mutual antipathy between Arabs and Persians has not faded. So kudos for MEMRi

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Lightning ( killer viruses) does strike twice in Iran

In 1918 the “Spanish Flu” swept over the world killing 50 million people and one of the worst hit countries was Iran. One has to wonder why Iran again? Are there any commonalities we can surface as to why Iran has been twice in 100 years?

Reading an excellent article by Amir Afkhami written in 2003 entitled, “The Iranian Experience with the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,”  ( Bulletin of the History of Medicine  , Summer 2003, gave me some good information to go on.

In depicting the environment of 1918 in Iran and comparing it to today’s surfaced some important facets.

Iran in  1918 was a ravaged nation , invaded and partially occupied by the Russians and British, with a fractured society. People were at their low ebb . Today the Iranians are certainly independent but still wracked by civil disturbances, still recovering from a horrendous war with Iraq, and under economic sanctions. The psychological state of the Iranian people is not buoyant to say the least. The psychological state of the populace has a great deal to do with their physical health.

iran protest

Iranian protest in Jan 2020

The  Iranian government  in 1918 was the lingering remnants of the corrupt Qajars, feeble and ineffective. They did not control their own country. Today they have a strong but economically weak government more interested in expansionism than the welfare of their people. The dual government of the civil authorities and the controlling symbiosis of the pulpit and the sword has the people divided and in tension.

In 1918, the Iranian people were close to a famine stage, especially in the rural areas. Their resistance to disease was very low. Today there is no famine in Iran but because of the stupid priorities of the Iranian regime, downgrading of  quality of life   issues to military and expansionist designs, bringing on sanctions, most Iranian people can barely pay their rent, and buy good food for nutrition.  Moreover a study indicates the Iranians suffer from a deficiency of vitamin D. This seems strange in that  sunshine, of which Iran has a surfeit, provides it. However the dress of women covered in black from head to foot, as well as a traditional avoidance of darkening the skin color, accounts for it in women.  Men in  a Muslim society  likewise avoid wearing scanty clothing. People believe that men who wear shorts are considered homosexual. Most always wear long sleeves.

Traditional beliefs and gender issues always complicate the medical field in the conservative Islamic countries ,and Iran,  especially under the Mullahs have engendered retrogression. In 1918, the  Iranians believed that an evil  wind, known as the “nakbushi” carried the disease. Even Iranian doctors believed that to be true. Today traditional beliefs still inhibit up to date treatment of illness.  Winds still play an important part in Islamic-Persian belief systems. Cutting through the cultural barriers has only been partially accomplished. Many, in 1918, just gave up hope, crawling to the nearest mosque to die. Today there is little confidence in the ruling authorities to provide the required care and home remedies are used. Some clerics were initially telling g their flocks that a good Muslim would not contract the disease.

In 1918, some of the first to die were government officials, creating another void in authority to combat the disease. Ironically it seems that many higher officials in the  current clerical Iranian regime were the first ones affected.

The health care system in 1918 was, at best rudimentary, and today, despite glowing reports  from the World Health Organization (WHO) , and other organizations with a vested interest in conveying an optimistic view of the Iranian health system, the Iranian health care today is broken, especially in convalescent care. A good part of the problem is the low esteem accorded nurses in the Islamic tradition. Iran only has half the required nurses and the care given patients has been surveyed as abysmal. Patients complain of being treated with “no dignity,” confined in unhygienic conditions, no privacy,  no communication with doctors, who are much too few, especially in the rural areas.  The medical staff expects family members to stay with the patients and provide most of the care.

Iran  provides funding for medical education in return for the graduated doctors to serve a certain period of time in rural areas, but, in fact, few do for any length of time.

Finally as written in my last post  middle easterners are a people who do not like distance from one another, especially family members and trying to impose social distances is very difficult even for an authoritarian regime like that of Iran.





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Why Coronavirus is potentially more virulent in Middle East?

As the panic surrounding the Coronavirus continues to grow, it is useful to look at where it would seem it would be most virulent.

The first point here is that health care, like almost every other aspect of life, it is culturally dependent.An excellent book as a primer on this is the Cultural Geography of Health Care by Wilbert Gesler.

As he writes “medical systems must be seen in the context of larger cultural and environmental systems. The context consists of many sub-systems: social relationships, political and economic systems, attitudes and beliefs, topography and climate. All of which determine how health care is delivered.”

First let’s look at some larger cultural attributes of the Islamic/ Middle Eastern world.

To begin with the Arab/Islamic world between the 8th and 12th century. The Middle East was far ahead of the rest of the world. Avicenna’s (Abu Ali Sina)  Qanun of Medicine  was the standard medical  book in Europe for centuries.



With the decline of the Islamic world so well told by Bernard Lewis, (What Went Wrong), many of the strengths of the Middle East mosaic which had made it more advanced than Europe eroded under corruption, sectarianism,  moribund Islamic induced cultural stagnation, and Western-introduced nationalism

The Turks, who were great soldiers, but not great inventors or agents of cultural advance, depended on their millet system of diverse religious and ethnic communities for many of the scientific achievements and managing everyday living institutions. For instance the Jewish millets furnished many of the financiers, and metal shop keepers, the Christians were the barbers, butchers, and medical providers. etc.  But with the coming of nationalism and militant Islam, most of these minorities have been expelled under the ethnic cleansing conducted by Middle Eastern governments – (nationalistic or Islamic) since WWII. So, the stark reality today is the unpreparedness of the Middle East to cope with any pandemic disease.

Ironically there are far more injunctions on cleanliness in Islamic tradition than the Christian, and Middle Easterners are just as personally ( or more) attuned to cleanliness as any other people.  In fact in Islam, cleanliness is considered to be part of the faith. Unfortunately the real world of the Middle East  there are many traits which militate against community efforts against coronavirus.

Some cultural traits adversely affecting  health care:

 The Lack Civic of Responsibility

Anyone who has lived in the Middle East knows well the lack of communal civic responsibility of people, especially in an urban area. Maids sweep apartments squeaky clean and throw the dirt in the street. Garbage is allowed to pile up on street corners,( hello SF and LA)  sewage after a heavy rainfall is always a problem  Smog produced by burning trash is endemic. Even in military headquarters, the VIPS are taken up in elevators because the stairwells are littered with trash. Officers walk outside their offices and throw food wrappers in the hallways.

In the cities, where neighbors are not of the same family or clan, this irresponsibility is most apparent.  On an international level the Middle Easterners do not seem at all embarrassed that the “hated West” supplies most of the medical help for the massive numbers of displaced families in the Middle East. (Exception is  Jordan which has done all that could be expected for about one million Syrian refugees in their country).

The “Potemkin village” aspects of the main westernized centers of the cities, with their gleaming shopping centers and upscale shops, often mislead visitors who do not see the areas of the cities where recent immigrants from the country side live in squalor.  On the other hand, rural villages have much more civic responsibility in that the people are mostly all related to one another and know they must depend on each other because no one else will,  particularly not the government.


In strict traditional Islam human detritus, e.g. blood, human skin, even hair is considered najis, (unclean) which is the main reason that in the Islamic empires, Christians normally performed the roles of butchers, nurses, barbers etc. Today as Christians have become rare in the Middle East, only low class Muslims will perform the role, and only with great reluctance, especially as nurses.  All of the Middle East countries are very short on nursing care. 80% of the nurses in Saudi Arabia are expats. Many stay only a short time, unable to cope with the environment and gender rules of the Wahhabi state. There are so many rules in Islam pertaining to cleanliness and personal hygiene one has to be an Islamic scholar to know them all, therefore the danger of running afoul of some proscription is very large indeed. Unfortunately, many of the rules are only peripherally cogent to personal hygiene. For instance a miscarried fetus is unclean.  a dead body, once it is cold, is unclean, Etc. More pertinently, traditional Islamic forbids postmortem dissection to ascertain case of death or more experimentation.

 Gender proscriptions

Our troops found during Operation Provide Comfort that treating women was a tough problem.   Generally speaking, the Kurds, who are usually less religiously oriented than many Arabs, would not allow male medics to treat women unless accompanied in the clinic with their husbands or senior male relative.

Among the women themselves, their mind set and indoctrination  often kept them from seeing a doctor until their illness was far advanced.  And women doctors are not plentiful in the Middle Eastern countries as there are many restrictions on what they may see and do during doctors training such as  looking at or touching forbidden parts of the body (Awrahs).

And of course, she should never treat men.  For that reason urology is absolutely forbidden to Muslim female doctors.  After going through all their proscriptions and prescriptions to be a doctor the incentive to be a female doctor are few indeed, especially in the more conservative Middle Eastern states.

Privacy and Proxemics

In the Middle East the idea of privacy is an abomination. Middle Easterners are congenial,  communicative,  and outside their homes or villas, very  public people.  Islam tends toward orthopraxy following the traditions of the Prophet. As  evidenced by the ostentatious use of public prayer on streets in European cities. Middle Easterners are a touchy feely people. As Edward T. Hall, the renown American anthropologist explains it, there is no personal space in the Middle East, particularly in the public sphere. This  is why  there  is seldom any such thing as  privacy in the Middle East.  In Arabic there  is no specific word for privacy, and as the Sapir -Whorf analysis showed, people think in words and if there is no word for it they can’t visualize it. Nor is there anything such as a cue , in that people push and shove in a manner that is considered very rude in the West.


My experience was that  people like to be able to smell the breath of the person they are talking to  (perhaps not literally and not mixed genders) but as a rule it is how close they want to be. In terms of privacy, the following scenario is typical.  When an American boards a bus he heads for a seat not only empty but some distance from the other passengers. If an Arab gets on a bus very likely if there is only one other guy on the bus he will go sit next to him.  If he does not the passenger will feel offended.  For these reasons it is it is extremely difficult to put a person in quarantine. A sick person expects to be inundated with visitors.

The Inshallah  factor

This is overworked factor  in the West when analyzing Arab/ Middle Eastern cultures but it still has validity. From my experience working with Arab soldiers their cavalier attitude handling weapons and driving vehicles is only a few examples. There is a strong belief in predestination as typified by a Jordanian taxi driver, observing me putting on my seat belt, saying “if God wanted you dead would that strap prevent it?”

Islamic  clerical  Misinformation and strong influence of reputation protection

Quite often people who may have the disease do not come forward, being ashamed and afraid of being shunned by relatives and friends.  Recently  an Iranian mullah told his flock that anyone who comes down with the disease is not a good Muslim. They sound ridiculous;lous but many believe that. Two examples from actual cases in Iraq:

An old woman in Iraq felt sick so her daughters and sons took her to the hospital, but deliberately withheld the information that she had been in Iran recently. When she died the children told the staff that she had just returned from Iran. They said – quite typically Arab and commendable – they did not want to leave their mom alone.  But the result is that  nurses and doctors were not quarantined in time.

Another example. An Iraqi tribesman went to the hospital saying he had the flu. When the doctor told him he had to be tested for corona virus. He replied that he would do so but if the test was negative he would sue the hospital and staff for demeaning his reputation. Moreover no one would believe that he tested  negative anyway.

iran corona virus

treating corona virus in Iran


Very often the medical credentials of the doctors in the Middle East are of doubtful credibility. Their training is suspect.  For instance the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are reported to be  sending home hundreds of Pakistani doctors after they learned of the  inadequate professional qualifications they acquired in Pakistan.  Much more importantly, thousands of doctors have fled to the West to avoid the wars in Iraq and Syria, as well as the oppression of State controlled health care in  other Middle East countries.

A number of Middle Eastern countries financially support medical education with the proviso that the graduated doctors serve in rural areas for a specified time but few do because it is a characteristic of most Middle Easterners, that despite the fact the majority of their nations are desert, they  abhor  the desert and rural areas. Most find a way to depart before their specified terms are up.

Surgeons are a very respected profession in the Middle East, which seems to create a dichotomy considering their religious attitude toward blood as unclean.  But the  surgeon is considered an artist. He skillfully cuts and slices, leaving the clean up to the nurses.

Political Barriers

The primary reason for poor or inadequate medical care in the Middle East is the   incompetence and indifference of the ruling elites to their people, excepting those who are the pillars of the regime.  The difference between between military spending and health care is astronomical and the portion  which is allocated to health is siphoned off in corrupt deals. How this corruption and indifference plays out is in several forms;

When sanctions were applied against Iraq under Saddam, the Ba’athist elite did not suffer at all. Saddam continued building palaces and rearming his military, while the poor suffered from malnutrition, and the middle classes began selling family heirlooms just to keep body and soul together.

IZ uday's love palace

Uday’s “love Palace” Let them eat cake!

Looking at the statistics coming out of the Middle East, it would seem at present that with the exception of Iran, the Middle Eastern countries are better off than Italy and possibly Germany. ¹ But the governments  lie about almost everything and their data keeping is inadequate at best.  My view is that Middle East governments  have no real idea how many cases of Coronavirus they have within their borders, and if there are many, they simply lie about it. In fact lying has become a way of life for the regimes,  even if it is not  really their fault. A lack of potable water supplies, adequate power, sewage, and trash collection, and a host of other ills, over and above the constant bloodletting between regime rivals, have made the Middle East a prime area for an uncontrollable outbreak of the virus. But they are by no means alone in this disregard for taking care of their people. In certain parts of our country we have similar problems. Will we take heed?

  1. As a footnote the low incidence of the Corona virus in the Middle East- so far- one may think about the fact that many middle easterners go through life  without having the plentiful availability of drugs, medical care, vitamins. etc that we do. In the Middle East I always advised newcomers to eat whatever, get sick and get it over with. Not being a doctor or even playing one on TV, somehow I think Middle Easterners to some degree, if they survive, become more immune to the diseases which lay us occidentals  low. Just a thought!


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Russia and the Middle East

A recent photo appearing in the news showed   Putin and  Erdogan , discussing their “peace treaty” in Syria, siting in a room overlooked by a statue of Catherine the Great. If one believes in symbology as it seems almost everybody but Americans do,   the Russians were making a not-so subtle hint.


Putin reading the riot act to Erdogan


Renown British diplomat and historian Sir reader Bullard, wrote, “Catherine openly proposed to expel the Turks from Constantinople and re-establish the Byzantine empire under a Russian nominee. ” Catherine the Great built the Russian empire out of the disintegrating Islamic world,  always had deep inroads into Iran, invaded it twice, took provinces away from Turkey and in their protocols  agreement with the Nazi  government,  They  made clear that they intended to eventually control the Bosporous  and Dardanelles. Yet despite some setbacks, the Russians always seem to be the innocent one, leading an expert on the Russian intelligence history to write,

“Though the United States possessed the world’s largest number of public relations experts, it found it difficult to project a favorable – or even balanced – image of its policies to the Third World And yet unlike the Soviet Union, the United States had much that the rest of the world wanted. American music, films, TV, IT, casual clothes, fast food and soft drink were all part of the most pervasive popular culture in world history.”

So why even today the United States is still the great Satin in most of the Middle Eastern and Islamic world? There are a number of reasons, few of which the best public diplomacy in the world can correct.

Envy– Much of the world, including old Europe has an inbred dislike of America and its people’s success. This attitude, so pronounced in France and among the upper classes everywhere in Western Europe, has been well illuminated by Barry Rubin (Hating America) and Jean Francois Revel( Anti -Americanism). The attitude of the European elite is very  welcome to the wannabe elites of the Middle East  (and here as well) who cling to the hope of being included within the circle of the European  anointed ones, giving them intellectual cover for cognitive puerility.

anti ameriv can cartooin

Truman the new Hitler

Colonialism and Anti- Semitism. Whether we like it or not our wagon is firmly hitched to   European “colonialism and imperialism.” We may vociferously protest, going on about Wilsonian ideals and lack of an imperial past but it falls on deaf ears.  We are generally of the same skin color, religion and a similar culture  as Europeans( in Middle Eastern eyes) and that seems to be enough. Secondly, the anti semitism pervasive in Europe, and an Islamist pathology  in the Middle East,  is another  important factor in that we are seen in their world as manipulated by Jews and other miscreants.

anti jewish

NYT adds to anti American attitudes linking Trump and Zionism


Correlation of Forces. A favorite term of Soviet military doctrine-  also sometimes refers to   the inevitability of a communist world dominion. In this case  the attractiveness of Communism or the Soviet model was  found among Middle Eastern intellectuals as a movement to accelerate the progress of a moribund Middle East to catch up with the West.  The Middle Eastern elite  were the impatient ones, shutting aside hundreds  of years  slow building by the Europeans to bypass all roadblocks and obtain instant gratification.  Their inability to do so was explained  in the Crisis of Islam by Bernard Lewis. Among the lower classes of the Middle East, the eternally disenfranchised peasants and urban poor were susceptible to Soviet propaganda, a fact a Frenchman nailed  when he wrote, “The Soviets are hailed and loved less for what they bring than what they destroy.”The urge to destroy and ravage is a common occurrence in history when the have nots break free of bondage in which they feel they have been held . I saw that in Iraq watching young men destroy and vandalize for no apparent reason. Destroying the remaining vestiges of order  was an aphrodisiac to the people of the Al Sadr city. So it was for the former subjects  to watch the imperious Frenchmen and haughty British depart the Middle East dragging their tails behind them. So it as been with the Americans as well, departing Iraq and soon  ( apparently) Afghanistan. The Soviets have cleverly used that facet of human nature to their advantage.

Russian bear

The Russian bear


Soviet/Russian civilization and Middle Eastern. Russia has been called ” Upper Volta with missiles,” an appellation  applied to a Soviet Union with a massive well armed military compared to a comparable  third world civilian sector.   For many  in the Middle East, the fact that they and Russia had a common enemy-The West- was enough to accept the  incongruities of the Soviet State. Walter Laqueur wrote, ” for Soviet civilization is in some respects closer than Western culture to the feelings and aspirations of the intelligentsia in backward countries…” One of those incongruities was Islam. In the decades past, it was an axiom that Communism and  Islam were incompatible. Deeper studies have revealed that an all -encompassing Islam has more in common with totalitarian communism than democracy, ( Joel Carmichael, “Communism in the Middle East,  Nationalist-Communist Symbiosis.” The level of the average Soviet citizen then and  now is still “closer to the ground,” than most Westerners.  They have few of the amenities available to most Westerners.  I observed this in Egypt., working with Egyptian officers, relating their experiences with Russian advisors. In some ways, the less sophisticated Russian equipment, easier to maintain, and the life style of the advisors themselves, was closer to that of the Egyptians. There was a common understanding of the vicissitudes of life.


über masculine Putin

Closed vs Open Society.  As Christopher Andrew in his book, The KGB and the Battle for the Third World, wrote,  “in the climate of the Cold War, one of the greatest strengths of American culture- its ability to criticize itself- became a foreign policy weakness.” As he correctly points out, our most severe critics were ourselves, particularly during the Vietnam war. The Russians and their vessel states, such as Cuba, didn’t have to dig up much dirt, as conspiracy theorists and left-wing fellow travelers did the work for them. American muck-rakers like Seymour Hersh made lots of money peddling fanciful tales, disgruntled American intelligence employees, like Philip Agee, fingered CIA agents world wide for free (over a thousand employees of the CIA were identified by Agee).  The  Senate select  Frank Church committee  deeply adversely affected the CIA,  failing to separate  domestic spying abuses with legitimate inquiries into American citizens receiving enemy foreign support. Moreover, Hollywood did its best to depict to depict American society as immoral, infested with criminality, and psychotic. The fact that Arabs love our films does not mean that they see them as the model for their society. Quite the opposite.  We send abroad many professors to teach in Middle Eastern institutions, but from my soundings, many of them,  being of the far left of center, join in the s chorus  of anti American criticism voiced by their students. Another  particularly egregiously wrong idea that  has been the bedrock of our appeal to the third world is the oft-quoted idea that all men (the collective term) cherish freedom.  From my experience, especially in the Middle East, it seems to me  that every man wants to be free but does not necessarily want that for his fellow man.  Erich Fromm nailed it in his book Escape from Freedom. 


A big part of America’s public diplomacy  problem


Fear vs Love.  As Osama Bin Laden put it, people always prefer the strong horse and like all people, but more than most,  middle Easterners admire strength and power. The effectiveness of the fascist propaganda in the Middle East in World War II  was due in large part to the  admiration of German Nazi power and their unbridled us of it.  Several militant organizations in the Arab world were modeled on fascist organizations.The totalitarianism of both fascism and communism were ( and still are) powerfully addictive to the young Middle Easterners unable to articulate why their societies lags so far behind the rest of the world. As an example of how fear works, a coup of pages in the book Beirut Rules, by Fred Burton and Samuel Katz,  illustrates why Soviet diplomats and security personnel were mostly immune from the years oof terrorism perpetrated against Americans by Palestinian and Hezbollah terrorists. On September 1985, in Beirut,  the Hezbollah super terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, feeling his oats after terrorizing Americans without response, kidnapped four Russian  diplomats. One of them was murdered by his captors. In response the Russians flew  in their anti terrorist team Alpha Group,  they found out who the captors were  and abducted relatives of the kidnappers. They cut off ears and fingers and send them to the surviving relatives. Later they then abducted another male relative  and castrated him,  leaving his body and his testicles on the doorstep of one of the Hezbollah members doorstep.  The  three other Soviet diplomats were delivered to the gate of the Russian embassy a few days later.

To be loved is nice but in the Middle East  but if one has to choose it is better to be feared.

Russian brutality

Russian walking over mass gave of Chechens



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Syria: The Turkish -Iranian Battleground

In the Syrian war which has been going on since March 2011 and  while some observers say the end is in sight,  in reality it is only about to begin a new phase. The ISIS has been defeated or contained, depending on one’s  viewpoint.   Assad’s loyalists appear to be on the cusp of victory and  exerting control over most of Syria, with some portions under  Turkish control along the northwestern Turkish- Syrian borders, and the northeast under Kurdish where a small American contingent is present. The ISIS still controls small parcels in the mostly uninhabited southeast desert and on the Jordanian border while assorted anti Assad rebels ( most of whom are Islamist  organizations) still maintain  a territory north of Aleppo and around Idlib in northwest Syria.


present approximate situation on the ground

The primary antagonists on the ground are the Syrian Assad loyalists, their allies the Iranians and Russians, with help from Shi’a  organizations such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi Hezbollah, pitted against The ISIS, ( ISIL) assorted Sunni Islamist groups,  and most importantly, the Turks. The Kurds are primarily oriented on the Turks as their enemy but also against the various Islamist organizations, and only a tacit agreement with the Syrian government. Some where in this melange of  militias, armies, and terrorists is a small American force, located near Manjib primarily involved in training Kurds. This puts the Americans basically without any allies other than the Kurds.

Recently a upsurge of fighting has featured Syrian government forces clashing with   Turkish troops near  Idlib. According to news reports 33 Turkish troops were killed in a Syrian  air strike. Turkey will not allow this to go without a significant response. The Turks do not want to initiate a conflict with Russia but they are itching to confront Iran and their surrogate, Assad’s Syria.

The Syrians and Turks have many longstanding  issues, some historical, some religious, some political, but all serious. they are:

1.The Arab independence movement during World War I in which a certain number of Arab leaders sided with the British to undermine the Ottoman empire. While the primary leaders  and military forces of the Arab revolt were primarily from the Hejaz, the intellectual heart was in the Levant,  Syria and Lebanon.  The Sultan of the Ottoman empire was the titular head of the  final caliphate of the Islamic Empire and the connivance of the  Muslim Arabs  with British infidels to destroy the Ottoman empire dividing it into squabbling Arab states still rankles the Turkish elite. Although my very popular professor at the American University, Zeine N. Zeine  ( The Struggle for Arab  Independence) averred that the vast majority of the Arab Sunni Muslims  were proud to be part of the Ottoman empire, however the Christians,  Druze, Alawis, and the Shi’a were not. Toward the end of the Ottoman empire, the corruption and brutality  of Ottoman governors turned many Sunni Arabs against them as well.

Ottoman empire map

The Ottoman empire at its greatest extent



Hatay in Red

2.The Sanjak of Alexandretta. On the Mediterranean southern coast of Turkey is the Hatay province, once called the Sanjak of Alexandretta under the Ottoman empire. I visited there in the nineties and it is a beautiful area,  formerly inhabited with a majority of non -Turks,  primarily Arabs  and Armenians plus many other smaller sectarian groups. Through a tortuous process of international deals and heavy handed Turkish intervention, a plebiscite in 1938 was held to determine the future of Hatay in which  the Turks, as they have done in Cyprus, imported a massive influx of Turks, and the vote ( of dubious legitimacy) resulted in the province being awarded to the Turks. In actuality the real reason was that as WWII loomed on the horizon, the French and British, remembering the role of Turkey in World War I, wanted Turkey on the Allies side and Hatay was the sweetener.  The Syrians have never officially accepted that referendum and still maintain a star on their flag representing the Province as part of greater Syria.

hatay antakya

Antakya formerly Iskanderun

Orentes river

Orentes River

3. The Euphrates River Project Turkey beginning in the 1980’s began what is called the Southeastern Anatolia Project  which includes 22 dams on the tributaries of the Euphrates River basically in Hafez Assad’s view , turning northern Syria  into a desert. Hafez came up with the idea of supporting the PKK terrorist/freedom fighter organization against the Turkish government. When the Turks threatened to invade Syria, Assad dropped support of the PKK. The issue continues as the water problem escalates.


The Euphrates project

4.The Alevi Issue. Frequently  even the “experts” confuse the  Alevis of Turkey with the Alawis of Syria. They are both distinct off shoots of Shi’ism, though some  would opine that the Alevis are not really Muslim  at all and identify themselves as Turks, while  the Alawis of Syria  are Arabs and do have some tenuous claim to be Muslims. Despite their  differences, there is a cultural affinity between the two groups and Turkish rulers have accused the Syrians of fomenting trouble among the Turkish Alevis who are found mostly along the Syrian border and in the big cities. The Alevis of Turkey tend to be more secular in outlook and are an anathema to the fundamentalist brand of Sunni Islam instilled by Erdogan. See  my     on the Alevi issue in Turkey

syrian troops

Syrian troops

5. The Turkish -Iranian clash. The antipathy between the Ottoman empire and the Persians dates back some  500 years. In an eerie prelude to the present situation in the Middle East,  Turkish sultan was made of aware of intense Persian propaganda and proselytizing  of his subjects on his eastern flank converting them to Shi’ism. As the renown American Islamic scholar, Norman Itzkowitz wrote, “It is characteristic of Islamic society that social, economic, and political problems are fought out using the rhetoric of religion, and so it was, in great part with irreconcilable enmity  between the Ottomans and the Safavids.” In fact the first Safavid ruler of Iran, Ismail I,  initiated his people’s conversion to Shi’ism, partly to differentiate them from the Sunni Turks and  ingrain a sense of separate identity  into the Iranians. For almost 150 years  the Ottoman-Persian wars  seesawed back and forth across Iraq until  about 1639 when another treaty was signed. The distinctive ways of war then is precursor of the Turkish and Iranian preferred ways of war  today. The Turks  general use of brute force and decisive military battles to achieve objectives is polar opposite to the traditional Persian use of guile, propaganda,  and indirection.  The Turks are very aware that their country is a target rich environment for sedition and trouble-making among the Alevis and Kurds. The Turks very much distrust the Iranian rulers, viewing the Iranians, as they have always have, as  duplicitous, and messianic. They firmly believe in the expansionist nature of the Iranian regime. In this view, Syria has become the primary battleground.


Turkish troops

So what of the Russians and Americans?  Of all the Arab countries the Russians have dabbled in over the past half century, Syria has been the most favored. The Syrian ports,  modern history of their political system , the Ba’ath party aping the Russian communist structure, and geographic location has endeared the Syrians to the Russian  imperial designs.  In 1957 The Soviets threatened to intervene if Turkey invaded Syria ( which the Turks suspected of becoming a communist state). The entrance of Russians in 2015 into the Syrian civil war did not change the direction of the war but it rapidly expedited Syrian military victories. When they entered  the war it was already  clear that the Assad government  had turned the corner. But their support is now critical.

Russian mecenaries

Russian mercenaries

The Turks and Russians will work hard to avoid a clash  but there are a number of Turkish young officer hot heads who are loose cannons on the deck and may precipitate  a wider conflict they are not looking for.  The long historical enmity between Turk and Russian lingers and is not forgotten. Turks frequently recall  the Russian Czars stated designs on the Dardanelles or that most of the Russian empire was created at the expense of the Turkish speaking peoples. Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov in a note to the  German Ambassador in Moscow ( 1939) wrote that German terms were acceptable, ” providing that the area south of Baku and Batum in the general direction of the Persian Gulf  is recognized as the center of aspirations of the Soviet Union. ”

Fast forwarding to the present time, the Russians will not eject the Turks from the Kurdish areas in Syria they now occupy. They are not interested in controlling all Syria, only in maintaining thier naval port and airbases in which to further their Mediterranean and Middle Eastern designs. But on their side the Russians are using a number of contract soldiers and their discipline is suspect. They too may precipitate a conflict. The Russians will attempt to rein in Bashar from further attacks on the Turks, but Bashar is no Hafiz, with his father’s cautious, well thought out maneuvers, based on careful assessments. He is likely to misstep and embroil Syria in a more serious regional war. Also there are numerous bands of thugs in the pay of other middle eastern countries roaming about the Syrian  countryside who ignite clashes between the major antagonists.   Meanwhile the Iranian Quds force of the IRGC are hard at work instigating  tribal, religious, and national conflict.

Some observers  advocating are advocating that the US step in and assist Turkey with military weaponry. Why I wonder?  Erdogan is not our friend and the Turkish population  evidences  a higher degree of  anti American  attitude than the Arab nations. I have seen that with my own eyes in my visits there. We will receive no  gratitude, and what  strategic  advantage  would we obtain by doing so? How much gratitude did we get for abducting the Kurdish leader Ocalan and turning him over to the Turks?

kurd scary map

Kurdistan map as envisioned by Kurds. Scares the hell out of all their neighbors

The American military mission in Syria- as best I can ascertain it- is to continue to train Kurdish forces and act as a sort of trip wire, symbolizing that we still have an interest in what happens there.  It is a very ambiguous  mission. It reminds me of the American debacle  in Beirut with our ‘peace keeping” mission there. We are not sure who the enemy is, and other than the Kurds  ( who have a different interest than we do) we have no friends there. Our force is much too small to resist a major attack and with the Iraqi militia government attempting to force us out of Iraq  our back is not secure.  Perhaps we should use the wisdom of George Patton who believed the US forces should have stopped at the  Rhine and let the Russians and Germans kill each other. In this case let the   Syrians, Russians, Iranians, and Turks beat each other up. What is the dog we have in this fight?



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