Turkey enters the cauldron

The Feast of the Guardian Angels

The Turkish Parliament voted today 298-98 to authorize the use of the Turkish military in Syria and Iraq to fight against the Islamic State.  The motion also authorizes the presence of foreign ‘armed forces’ on Turkish soil to conduct military operations in those same countries.  The Turkish Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz stated before the vote that no one should expect any immediate Turkish action, so there may be a bit of a wait before we see how this has changed the situation in Syria, in Iraq, and in the Middle East as a whole.  But things have most definitely changed.

First the vote would seem to have given the United States Air Force the green light, with the permission of the Turkish government, to operate from its base in southern Turkey at Incirlik.  This dramatically decreases the distance that American aircraft have to fly before engaging in combat and will give them more time to operate on station and greater freedom to strike targets.  If this aspect of the situation is taken advantage of then the effectiveness of the air campaign against the Islamic State should see a dramatic improvement.

Now for the tricky part.  Ninety eight Turkish MPs voted against this authorization.  And they had their reasons.  The current Turkish AKP government headed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ahmet Davutoglu has a long standing grudge against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.  This government had cozied up quite close to Assad in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war but that turned sour when Assad started using his armed forces to attack demonstrators in the early months of the uprising.  Since that time the Turkish government has openly supported and armed several rebel factions inside Syria.  There have even been brief military dust ups along the Syria/Turkey border with a Turkish fighter plane being shot down in June of 2012, several cross border mortar attacks, and a car bombing in the town of Reyhanli on the Turkish side of the border that killed forty three people in May of 2013 for which the Turkish government pinned the blame on Syrian intelligence services.

The deputy chairman of the opposition CHP, as well as a member of the Kurdish HDP party accused the government of wanting to fight the Syrian regime, not the Islamic State.  There is good reason to question the Turkish government’s enthusiasm for fighting the Islamic State since they have turned a blind eye to both supplies and militants going in to the group’s territory and oil coming out from that territory.  So we shall see.  There have been reports for years that the Erdogan government in Turkey wanted to send troops into Syria to establish some sort of buffer zone along the border. This was seen as a part of the AKP Party’s dream of getting more involved in the Middle East, a region the Turkish government had largely turned its back on after the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate in 1922.  Now they might actually do it.  And how will the Assad regime respond?  Will Turkish troops use the pretext of the Islamic State to march south once again into the old Ottoman lands of Syria and Mesopotamia?  I don’t know but I suspect that if they do so they won’t find the going nearly so easy as it once might have been.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.  And join the Rosary Confraternity!

 

Meanwhile the Islamic State advances…

While presidents and prime ministers dither in Washington, London, Baghdad, Paris name your capital the Islamic State staged another advance and captured twenty one Kurdish villages in northern Syria along the Turkish border during the last forty eight hours.  The low casualty count among the Kurdish forces protecting the area, seven reported killed, is a likely indicator that whoever was supposed to be defending these villages simply ran away.

The rather confused Western response since June to the menace of the Islamic State is strange since the group/state (whatever they are) could easily have been defeated then and probably still could be now by a fraction of the power that the United States military is capable of bringing to bear.  But instead worry and doubt and confusion cloud the eyes of American and European leaders and their publics.  If one looks at history, especially Biblical history, one finds that at moments of great historical change a certain blindness overtakes those who are accounted powerful.  All of the sudden they just are not capable of doing what on paper they should be able to do with great ease.  It just isn’t in them anymore.  Strange, isn’t it?  Are we at one of those historical moments?  Time will tell.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.  And join the Rosary Confraternity!

Another small step toward the end of Iraq…

The Feast of Saint Augustine Zhao Rong and his Companions

Another small yet not insignificant step toward the dissolution of that grand creation of a now long dead empire: the Republic of Iraq.  The President of the Kurdistan Regional Government Massoud Barzani today withdrew (in Arabic here) all Kurdish ministers from the cabinet of Iraq’s central government headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad.  This comes a day after Maliki accused the Kurdish regional government of harboring terrorists from the Islamic State in its domains.

Turnarounds are always possible, but Iraq seems unlikely to keep on existing in the form we have known it.  I suppose that Iran could throw an immense weight of forces into fighting the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq and make a supreme national effort to destroy the wannabe caliphate led by its remarkably uncharismatic khalifa before it gets a real head of steam going.  Possible, always possible but unlikely.  Or Russia could decide that they don’t want a jihadi empire rising up to their south and decide to give serious backing to Maliki, but after his lightning annexation of Crimea Vladimir Putin no longer seems able to get out of his own way in Ukraine so I would be dubious on that.

Or there could always be a good old fashioned divine miracle, but one really does wonder at this point why the Lord of history would be interested in saving the Iraq that we have known.  In any case those things are beyond my comprehension.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.  And join the Rosary Confraternity.

The man who would be Caliph

The Feast of St. Anthony Zaccaria

Today the Islamic State released footage of a man they claim to be Caliph Ibrahim, better known to the world by his nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

 

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi addressing worshipers at a mosque in Mosul (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arabic/middleeast/2014/07/140705_iraq_security_retirement.shtml)

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi addressing worshipers at a mosque in Mosul (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arabic/middleeast/2014/07/140705_iraq_security_retirement.shtml)

Baghdadi apparently addressed worshippers at a mosque in central Mosul and declared that he was their (والي) or custodian/leader/guardian, there isn’t really a great English translation.  He also declared that while he was ‘not the best of you’ he expected to be obeyed by all Muslims if he followed Allah and advised of it if he erred though how well men like this take advice on their errors remains an open question.  His declaration of a caliphate and himself as caliph has met largely with scorn and derision from across the Muslim world, but time will tell.  If the Islamic State can continue to string together victories in Iraq and Syria then who knows?  Muslims from around the world who are starved for leadership (a condition we Catholics can relate to, though we are looking for a far different kind of leader; stop being so enamored with this passing world priests and bishops and Holy Father and just preach the Gospel!) may flock to him.  We shall see.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.

A first step toward the official end of Iraq

The Feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle

The Iraqi state, cobbled together by the now long dead British Empire from the former Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul in the aftermath of the First World War, appears to be coming to its end.  The fruits of the 2003 American invasion are now laid bare for all to see.  The gains of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, over the past three weeks in the north and west of Iraq and the inability of the Baghdad government to reconquer this territory have now opened up an opportunity for the Kurds to achieve their dream, which is as old as Iraq itself, to cut off their own region from Baghdad’s control and form their own state.

The president of the Kurdish regional government Massoud Barzani today asked the Kurdish parliament to form an electoral commission for the purpose of conducting an independence referendum.  No date has been set but there is no doubt as to the outcome.  And whenever they decide to do it this referendum will eliminate any chance of putting Iraq as it has been known to the world since the 1920s back together.

What chance the Kurdish state will have in the future I cannot say; there are powers in the Middle East such as Israel who see it as some sort of buffer against the rise of the Islamic State but we shall see.  Meanwhile the Islamic State is gaining strength (doubtless due to the influx of Iraqi weapons) in Syria and has taken control of large parts of the Euphrates valley.  Only the Syrian government controlled town of Deir az-Zour stands between the Islamic State and its control over the whole of the Euphrates valley from Raqqa to Haditha.  All of this while other Syrian rebels are saying that they will give up fighting against the Islamic State.  Nothing succeeds like success, as IS is showing right now.  Events are fluid in the Middle East and it has been a long time since the world has seen so much that most people take for granted across the world in such doubt across such a wide region.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.

Caliphate: June 29, 2014

On this feast of Saints Peter and Paul the Shura council of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام ) has now, officially at least, transformed the Islamic state into a caliphate, with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph (الخليفة) of all Muslims and its borders stretching from Aleppo to Diyala province of Iraq.  Caliph is the ancient Islamic term for a position that by the Catholic mind may well considered a combination of Pope and Emperor.  The first four caliphs conquered much of what is now the Islamic world in a series of lightning campaigns that greatly weakened what was left of the Catholic Roman Empire in the east and destroyed the Sassanian Persian Empire during the half century after Muhammad’s death.   After that the position, while remaining powerful, diminished in the eyes of the Muslims as it was occupied by a series of corrupt rulers with the title then being tossed around after the destruction of the Abbasid Empire to whomever was the strongest Muslim ruler of the day before finally landing in the lap of the Ottoman Sultans.  They held it for nigh on half a millennium after they conquered Constantinople and the position was finally eliminated by Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, in 1924.

The importance of this moment will of course only be known in the future.  The Iraqi government is already launching an offensive against the gains made by the Caliphate in northern Iraq but it has brought what can at best be described as mixed results.  This may be a very significant moment or it may be a flash in the pan, but these fighters are determined, cunning, bold, and brutal and that should never be underestimated.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.

A barren stretch of desert and the end of a world

For most of the first three quarters of the twentieth century this was the failed dream of Arab nationalists like Gamal abd al-Nasser: to undraw the borders of the former Ottoman Empire that the European powers who dismantled that empire drew after the First World War.  Today it might actually be happening.  The militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام) have now seized the great bulk of Iraq’s border crossings with Syria (the Kurds in the north now hold one) along with Iraq’s one border crossing with Jordan along with the town of Rutbah that sits astride the highway leading from Baghdad to the Jordanian border.  The Iraqi government, has now effectively lost control of its western border regions and after taking the al-Qa’im crossing yesterday and the al-Waleed crossing today the militants whose operations straddle both sides of the Iraq/Syria border have, for the moment at least, erased that border.

The Iraqi commanders in Baghdad announced that their forces had conducted a ‘tactical retreat’ from the border crossings and were regrouping for an assault to retake them.  We shall see.  If the ISIL can hold their gains then they will have transformed this barren stretch of wasteland (save al-Qa’im in the Euphrates valley the Iraqi/Syrian/Jordanian border runs through one of the most inhospitable deserts on earth) into the birth of a whole new Middle East and possibly a new world.

It isn’t just a matter of a few border crossings or even a few cities falling into the hands of marauding Islamic militants.  There has been a progressive breakdown of central authority in Iraq since the American invasion in 2003 and a massive breakdown of central authority in Syria since the revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime started in 2011.  Prolonged absences of trust in or respect for or fear of the central government followed by a sudden onslaught such as the ISIL just launched have a way of permanently changing things.  It is doubtful that either of the regimes in Baghdad or Damascus possess or will possess any time soon the strength or the resources to remove the ISIL from the scene and to erase what they have done in the last two weeks.  ISIL is a more formidable force than anyone seems to have realized.  After their first victories in Mosul and Tikrit when the road to Baghdad seemed open they didn’t take it like everyone (myself included) thought they would.  Instead they have focused on securing their flanks in Diyala and Anbar provinces and eliminating the Iraqi/Syrian border to gain them freedom of movement and to show that they could in fact destroy that border which has always been one of their goals.  They will of course have to move on Baghdad at some point in order to dismantle the Iraqi state as the world has known it for the last 80 years.  If there is any kind of central government in Baghdad there is always the great possibility that it will regroup and destroy them, but if that goes away then there will be very little threat anymore to the existence of ISIL.  And then they could move on Damascus.  Time will tell but the earth is moving under our feet here.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and for the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim people.