Musa Dagh, the Magic Mountain – III

The French

We’ve traveled to many continents to visit the various genocides committed by the Great Powers at the dawn of the century. Now we return to the Eastern Mediterranean, where the Musa Dagh Armenians were, as legend has it, miraculously saved from the so-called “first genocide of the 20th century” in the nick of time by the French navy, which just happened to be passing through.

“Even children no longer hoped for a warship to pass along the Syrian coast. And if by some unbelievable miracle, against all reason, a warship did appear on the horizon, who would be stupid enough to believe the ship’s watch would even notice that ridiculous handkerchief hanging on a pole atop the Dish Terrace?”

“For many months no one in Alexandretta had seen even the shadow of a warship far out at sea.”

“First, there were no French warships of any description in the Northeast Mediterranean.”

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, David R. Godine edition, 2012

Was the Clician coast really that devoid of French naval traffic in the summer of 1915? Let’s see what the commander of the French fleet there had to say about that. This is from Admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet’s book Souvenirs de guerre d’un amiral 1914-1916, “War Memoirs of an Admiral, 1914-1916.” Plon, 1920. pp. 33-43.

The French fleet was omnipresent in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Bay of Alexandretta, in particular, “drew it like a magnet.” There was nothing miraculous about the Guichen showing up just when the Musa Dagh rebels needed it.
On June 7 we were coming out of the Gulf of Alexandretta, to which we were drawn like a magnet by the Baghdad railroad. There it was, so close, 20 kilometers from the shore. How tempting it was to cut it.
[. . .]
On July 9, we anchor at Castelorizo. This small island, between Rhodes and the Cape of Gelidonia, is an important maritime trade hub.
[. . .]
Back at Port Said on July 12, we had quite a serious alarm on the 14th.
[. . .]
On August 12, the Jeanne d’Arc arrived at Jaffa.
[. . .]
During the end of July and the whole month of August , the British seaplane carriers Anne and Raven salled the entire coast. Chalakdere bridge, Adana, and Mersina were bombed anew.
[. . .]
In accordance with the orders of the commander in chief, we blew up the German ship Syria in the port of Beirut on August 15.
[. . .]
On August 21, I assembled in front of Beirut the Jeanne d’arc, the d’Estrées, the Jauréguiberry, the Charner, and the seaplane carrier Anne.
[. . .]
Seizing Rouad Island (September 1 1915)
On September 1 at 9:30 AM we landed a party of 90 men…As the city notables who came on board the Jeanne d’Arc on August 30 had predicted, the population greeted us with joy.
[. . .]
Rescue of the Armenians of Musa Dagh (September 1915).
In the first days of September, the cruiser Guichen, skippered by Frigate Captain Brisson, was cruising along the coast of  Antioch, when it saw signals on land…

Here is how another naval officer in the same fleet described their mission:
“At the outset of the war, our colors flew in all the ports of the coast: Antalia, Mersin, Alexandretta, Latakia, Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon, Akko, Caïffa, and Jaffa, while our religious protectorate had united around the French flag the Maronites, the Melkites, the Syriacs, The Armenians, and the Chaldeans,  an immense clientele to which  were added, in Lebanon, the Metoualis and the Orthodox.”
-Paul Chack, Marins à la bataille: Méditerrannée 1914-1918. Gerfaut, 2002. p.141

Chack, who was an ordnance officer in Admiral Du Fournet’s Mediterranean fleet, also expresses the Great Power interest in attacking the Berlin-Baghdad railway at its weakest point, Alexandretta, a stone’s throw from Musa Dagh:
“The Gulf of Alexandretta is truly a sensitive point of Turkish lines of communication. Its wonderful shore and its well-sheltered port seem to invite troop transports to anchor there. 
Very early on, as a first warning, the admiral of the British navy in Egypt sent the cruiser Doris there, whose demolitions team blew up locomotives, demolished bridges, and gutted the railway. Excellent work.”
-p. 143

The Spy Ship Doris and Other Allied Ships

British intelligence and sabotage ship HMS Doris in the Bay of Alexandretta. Misnamed a “light cruiser,” she was lightly armed. Two other British ships of similar design, the Philomel and the Proserpine, assisted her.

Paul Chack was well informed. The British intelligence cruiser Doris, hosting the semi-famous British spy Harry Pirie-Gordon, was the most important British asset attacking the Ottoman Achilles’ heel, the stretch of the Berlin-Baghdad railway near the Bay of Alexandretta. The Doris’s logbook was classified until 1966, as it contained the names of many agents landed by the ship on the Cilician coast, as well as ordnance for the Armenian insurgents. In Military historian Edward J. Erickson’s accounts of the Doris’s missions, the second trip beginning January 7, 1914 involves the landing of an “Egyptian spy” and the taking of several prisoners for interrogation, most of them Armenians who volunteered for the position. There are also encounters at Alexandretta with the French cruiser Jauréguiberry, which apparently failed to land the spy and passed him on to the Doris, and the French destroyer Requin, which brought a “proclamation” to be distributed in Tripoli, no doubt calling on Arabs to revolt.

The German-built iron railroad bridge over the Ceyhan River at Çakaldere was one of the favorite targets of the French, British, and Russian warships visiting the Gulf of Alexandretta.

Erickson contends that the Doris’s activities targeting the Baghdad railway on the Cilician coast were the single most important factor that pushed the Ottomans to station 7% of their forces there merely to guard the railway against saboteurs, weakening the more active fronts, as well as to order the deportation of the Armenians in the region, who were induced and forced to collaborate with the British landing forces and spies. [1]

There is however an obvious discrepancy in Erickson’s reasoning, as the Doris was pulled out of the area and sent to Gallipoli in March 1915, whereas the Armenians were deported in August 1915. The reason for the Armenian deportation wasn’t the British navy, but the French one that replaced it, the same one that “miraculously” appeared in front of Musa Dagh to save the Armenians.

Maybe some readers expected me to say that Erickson was wrong because the Armenians posed no threat. They certainly would have preferred not to and the Ottoman authorities would have preferred that they continue leading their productive lives right where they were, but too much had been done “for” the Ottoman Armenians of Cilicia by their western “protectors” over the decades for them not to collaborate with the imperialists (in the illusion that they would achieve independence).

Unlike Erickson’s account that has the Doris performing just three missions from December 1914 to March 1915, the British Navy’s professional journal The Naval Review relates a much more sustained activity during that period, ending with a bombardment that took a very heavy toll on a garrison defending the railway, after which the flag was passed to the French ship Jauréguiberry: [2]

The last substantial act of hostility took place on March 10th, when the Turkish barracks, built in 1910 to overawe the Armenian town of Chokmerjumen on Deurt Yol (Dörtyol) were bom­barded….Turkish casualties amounted to over 450 killed and wounded. The Doris finally started south from Alexandretta for the last time at 6.20 on the evening of March 11th, turning the patrol over to the Jaureguiberry.

The Russian cruiser Askold, unable to return to Russia  when the war broke out, was part of the Great Powers fleet pounding the Ottoman Mediterranean coast with her twelve 152mm guns and her impressive 24-knot top speed.

Even the smallest French warship in the Eastern Mediterranean, the coast guard cutter Requin, had far greater firepower than any of the British so-called “cruisers.”.
Ottoman army helio-
graph unit. A mirror aimed at the receiving party is used to send Morse coded messages.

Not only was the Doris much more active than Erickson suggested but it was reinforced or relieved during its coaling trips to Port Said by the light cruisers Proserpine (10-25 January 1915) and Philomel (5-17 February 1915) . The log books of the Proserpine also show the non-logged arrival of the HMS Philomel, as well as the presence of the HMS Doris, the USS Tenessee, the Russian cruiser Askold, the French cruisers Amiral Charner and Dentrecasteaux, and the French warship Requin. The log books of the Philomel indicate that it exchanged  written messages with the shore on three separate occasions, the messages being transmitted by boat parties from the shore carrying white truce flags. Armenian Ottoman troops and functionaries willingly surrendered to the British and offered up information [3], as did Arabs further down the coast. A signalling device called a heliograph was found hidden in the reeds, just after a suspicious Armenian’s capture [4] near the strategic Payas bridge, regularly targeted by the Great Power navies prowling the Gulf of Alexandretta. The bombardments and attacks by landing parties on the railway skirting the coast, the roads, and all other visible infrastructure, as well as the troops defending them, were uninterrupted.

Although the British mischief on the Cilician coast was greater than Captain Larkin’s capers with the little Doris, it was still just a 3-month affair involving what the British optimistically called “light cruisers” (Doris’s previous sail-powered namesake was correctly called a frigate) that didn’t pack anything bigger than a couple of 100 or 120mm guns. In contrast, even the French coast-guard vessel Requin had two walloping 274mm guns and six 100mm ones. On February 3, 1915, she would knock out two entire Ottoman divisions attacking the Suez Canal. The number of ships and the firepower that France deployed in Cilicia was several orders of magnitude greater than Britain’s desultory efforts for the simple reason that the Lord of the Admiralty Churchill had staked his career on punching through the Dardanelles with his ships alone rather than allow Lord Kitchener’s army to land at Alexandretta and neatly snip off the entire raison d’être of the Kaiser’s war, his wild hope of taking Suez and seizing the British Raj.

Unfortunately, the French navy logs are not as readily available as the British ones. What I know of their activities is second-hand, through the memoirs of officers like Admiral du Fournet or the naval historian and former destroyer captain Paul Chack. They make no bones about what they were doing in the Levant, however. They weren’t there in such force to fight the nonexistent Ottoman navy, bombard the few paltry coastal military installations, or even to starve the Ottoman army out with their embargo. They were there to whip up a fifth column.

At the eve of the war, as all the ports of the coast, Antalya, Mersin, Alexandretta, Latakia, Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon, Accra, Haifa, and Jaffa (Tel Aviv), cheered our colors, our religious protectorate assembled around the French flag Maronites, Melkites, Syriacs, Armenians, Chaldeans; an immense clientele to which were added, in Lebanon, the Orthodox and the Metualis….In Syria, everyone spoke French. Over half of Levantine youth was being educated in our congregational or secular schools.
[. . .]
Jihad was declared in the mosques of Istanbul – a frightening declaration for the 1.5 million Christians who make up two-thirds of Syria’s population. Instinctively their thoughts turn to the open sea. Will the French come, as they always have?
Arwad (Rouad) Island, a former Crusader stronghold facing Tartous, became a French naval and intelligence base for the colonization of the Levant.

The French intention of co-opting the civilian Ottoman populations that they had seduced with their schools and churches to compensate for their lack of manpower, which they had frittered away by the millions in the trenches of the Marne, was a familiar leitmotif of the Balkans and Middle East. The British were marshaling Greek forces to reinforce their troops at Gallipoli and bribing the Bedouins and other Arabs to rise up against the Ottomans. The French were trying to regroup the Serbians and send them back to Serbia in order to cut off the Berlin-Bagdad railway there. They also had plans for the Christians of Syria and Cilicia, whom they considered their “clientele.” Initially, they used them as spies. In August 1915, just before rescuing the Armenians of Musa Dagh, the French fleet occupied Arwad (Rouad) Island, facing Tartous, Syria, and turned it into a spy base. Just as French and British battleships in the Gulf of Iskenderun communicated with spies on shore, French military personnel on Arwad directly controlled spies in Tartous.

French spy chief Father Antonin Jaussen with T.E. Lawrence at El Wedj, an Ottoman port that they helped capture on the Arabian side of the Red Sea.

French and British ships also landed a variety of agents from different ethnicities to conduct and organize subversion and sabotage further inland. As the French consuls, military attachés, and other officials running this spy menagerie before the war were unavailable with the commencement of hostilities, the task fell mainly to the missionaries, who were militarized, just as the British militarized their scholars and journalists in the Middle East.  The head of the French spy ring was Father Antonin Jaussen of the Dominican order. Father Jaussin’s intelligence reports at the Vincennes naval archives [6] reveal the thorough co-option of Ottoman minorities by the French:

  • “Rapport de Negueditc Krikorian” – Report of (Armenian) Neguedich Krikorian
  • “Renseignements fournis par Mich Ibn Isaac Sunaa grec-orthodoxe de Kérak” – Intelligence provided by Mish Ibn Isaac Sunaa, a Greek Orthodox from Kerak
  • “Interrogatoire de Léon Cassarian” – Debriefing of (Armenian) Leon Cassarian
  • “Rapport de Radji Ibrahim” – Report of Raji Ibrahim

Carving Up the Turkey

Bismarck-Congress_of_Berlin-no_more_TurkeyAfter succesfully holding off Britain, France, and Turkey in the Crimean War, Russia became even more assertive and went to war against the Ottomans in 1877 in the Balkans and in Eastern Turkey, where Armenian generals led the assault and the local Armenians greeted them as liberators. Britain then got Germany to convene a congress at Berlin where Russia was made to relinquish some of its gains, the Armenians got nothing, and Britain got Cyprus for free. This is the German Chancelor Bismarck saying to France, Italy, Greece, etc. that after Britain and Russia had “eaten” Turkey, there was none left for them.
The Infamous Middle East carve-up map signed by Sykes and Picot in May 1916. Most of it is red, i.e. British, because the whole idea was Baronet Mark Sykes’s in the first place. He coined the names Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, designed the red-green-white-black “Arab” flag, and planted a (Yellow) Jewish state in the middle of the mess he created, afterwards dedicating a monument to himself pictured as a crusader with the words “Rejoice Jerusalem.”

The fate of the Armenians of Musa Dagh and Cilicia was decided not so much by the German general staff and their Ottoman underlings but, as was the case for all Ottoman peoples, by the Great Power carve-up of the Ottoman state. Weakened by the reactionary Janissaries and their Ulama allies, the Ottomans were declared “the Sick Man of Europe” (they were considered European then)  and the squabbling began not on how to cure the Ottoman state but on how to butcher it. All the squabbling parties – British, Russian, French, and even Egyptian – would pretend at one time or another to “help” the sick man onto his feet, only to tear a piece off of him. This is, after all, what the Great Powers had been doing throughout the 19th century all over the globe.

Britain, the top global power, was constantly in fear that its far-away source of riches, India, would be torn from its grasp. Its lines of communication with the Raj were vulnerable. The new power in the East, Russia, wanted to send its navy into the Mediterranean and the Turkish Straits were blocking the way, which was exactly how Britain wanted things to stay. Britain tried unsuccessfully, with the help of the Ottomans and French, to stop Russia’s naval ambitions with the Crimean War, and when it failed, switched from open war to proxy war and diplomacy.

The Balkan wars were such a proxy conflict where Britain and Russia set up rival client-states, while blocking the path of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Drang Nach Osten at the expense of the Muslims and Jews, who were ethnically cleansed. Right  afterwards, the Kaiser got Austria to create a pretext for invading Serbia and relaunched his railroad into the Ottoman east – namely by sacrificing the unpopular Archduke Ferdinand, regarded as too soft on the Serbs. Germany’s European enemies then decided that the long Ottoman limbo had served its purpose and the time had come to destroy that state and chop up its territory. As Marks Sykes bluntly told Lord Kitchener, “Turkey must cease to be.”

As the battleships lined up before Gallipoli, the partition negotiations began between Britain, France and Russia, which demanded and obtained first dibs on Istanbul and the Dardanelles. Then the Dodecanese Islands and Adalia (Antalya) were offered to Italy to motivate it to attack Austria. Finally, France presented its claim on the Levant, and the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement that wrought havoc with the Middle East was penned. While their spies incited rebellion promising freedom and independence, the Great Powers had already mapped out their new colonies. France got a surprisingly good deal out of the Sykes-Picot bargain, landing a large colony in Cilicia, frustrating Armenian hopes for independence, as well as Syria. The catch, however, was that France had to supply troops for a ground offensive from Egypt, after the defeat at Gallipoli. France could only rustle up a mere 6200 of its own troops to add to Allenby’s ten British divisions but with the addition of the Armenian Legion, its contribution grew to divisional strength rather than a paltry regiment.

The Armenian Legion

That, in the end, had been the aim of France’s actions all along.  The French navy’s activities in Cilicia, intensive though they were, did not stop the Ottomans from using the railways near the Cilician shores to mount an assault on the Suez Canal. They did not disrupt Ottoman communications, so vulnerable to the massed French navy, to a significant degree. The French effort to regroup the Serbian army and use it to cut the Berlin-Baghdad railway in the Balkans also serendipitously “failed.” Severing the tenuous German lines of communications with the East would have allowed a swift British victory, leading to the loss of the Levant for France, as Mark Sykes and his mentor Lord Kitchener had no intention of letting France have a cut of the Middle East pie [7] .

Musa_Dagh_legionnaires_training_Port_Said-cThe 4000 fighting Armenians whom the French navy “rescued” from Musa Dagh became the Armenian Legion on their arrival in Port Said, where they are seen here training.

Therefore France didn’t push very hard at all against Churchill’s misguided Gallipoli plan and allowed the Ottomans to continue shifting troops and matériel to the Middle East, where Ottoman and German forces dealt the British forces in Mesopotamia the most crushing defeat  in the Empire’s history, taking their commanders prisoner. As Britain’s losses grew in the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia, so did its need for France’s assistance, and the price it would have to pay for it. What the French did instead of slashing the Ottoman arteries at Alexandretta was to create the conditions for raising an Armenian army, which they deployed in Palestine, as a bargaining chip to secure from Britain their Levantine colonies on the lands that had been promised to the Armenians and Arabs.

Moses_Derkalousdian-upperright-heroisMovses der Kaloustian (top right), the leader of the Musa Dagh rebels, was a Dashnak militant [9]. Based in Tiflis and Geneva, the Dashnaks were a terrorist organisation founded by Russian/Armenian Narodniks. Along with the purely Western-based Hunchaks, they sought to “liberate” the Armenian people but were in fact the fifth column of the Great Powers.
Pierre_DimlakianPierre Dimlakian, a French-speaking Dashnak militant aboard the cruiser Guichen, among a unit of French marines, directing artillery fire against the Turks.

The French Mediterranean Squadron’s cannonades, landings, and spies weren’t so much a military operation as armed propaganda, designed to impress  the Armenians and Arabs with France’s power and convince them of France’s inevitable victory. France’s blockade of the Mediterranean coast that caused famines wasn’t directed so much against the Ottoman military as against the civilians, who were forced to collaborate with France to avoid starvation. The subversive activities by France’s collaborators on land weren’t as significant militarily as they were politically, leading the Ottoman government to treat its minorities with increasing distrust and harshness, thus pushing them into the arms of the imperialists.

Musa Dagh was the culmination of these French efforts. The Armenians of Musa Dagh were first radicalized by Hunchak and Dashnak agents either brought in by the French and British navies or infiltrated through other networks such as the Protestant missions or even the Singer company’s sales network [8] . When these foreign shenanigans and the local agitation they produced, like the February 1915 Zeitoun uprising, sufficiently alarmed the Ottomans, they produced the desired behavior, viz. an increasingly brutal crackdown. The Musa Daghians, already harangued by Hunchak and Dashnak militants, were further radicalized by the government crackdown, and tensions rose to the point where the Germans and Ottomans both decided that the Armenians had to go. The Musa Daghians then put up a fight with French arms and with the cannons of the French navy supporting them, completing their transition from peaceful villagers to France’s colonial soldiers.

As the underdog of the “Entente cordiale,” France’s stealth strategy of hanging on to its interests in the Levant at Britain’s expense worked well. Lord Kitchener and Mark Sykes had intended to cut France out of the Ottoman carve-up altogether. A German mine took care of Kitchener and the crushing cost of Churchill’s Gallipoli follies forced Sykes’s hand. France shrewdly obtained the command of the Eastern Mediterranean after saving Britain’s bacon at the Suez Canal by blasting the attacking Ottoman army to bits. It then studiously avoided causing any serious disruption to the Ottomans’ fragile rail links at Alexandretta until General Townshend’s Poona division from India was destroyed, leaving the British no option but to attack from Egypt, where France could also join in, both in the action and the spoils. How fortunate that the Musa Daghians were already right there in Port Said to provide the troops for this undertaking!

France played its limited cards right and the Armenians were back in their homes with minimum losses under the tricolor flag before long. Then came the fatal mistake that caused both their downfall and France’s defeat: Instead of disbanding the Armenian Legion or giving its troops civilian jobs, France opted to use them to police its new Cilician colony. Instead, they went on a revenge rampage, causing the local population (mainly the Kurds of Marash) to take up arms against them and the French. When the French finally disbanded the Armenian Legion in 1919 and reassigned the Armenians as railway guards, they refused to comply and continued their attacks. The result, as U.S. High Commissioner Admiral Mark Bristol reported [7], was a catastrophe for all involved:

“A new condition has arisen in Turkey by reason of the French occupation of Syria and Cilicia. This condition is similar to the one that was caused by the Greek occupation of Smyrna. The use by the French of Armenian soldiers and the arming of Armenians brought about an uprising of the local population and assistance being sent by the Turks from the Nationalist forces. . . It is reported that the French [meaning the Armenian Legion] destroyed villages, outraged women, and killed the natives, and the result has been that a state of war now existing in Cilicia and the French are compelled to retire from Ourfa and Marash.”

The self-inflicted French defeat in Cilicia, caused by the blowback from its radicalization and exploitation of the local Armenians as a fifth column against the Ottomans, was the watershed event that brought about the victory of the Kemalists, who were even firmer than Enver and Talat’s C.U.P. in the belief that Turks could not coexist in their country on an equal footing with other etnicities. This not only brought about the total ethnic cleansing of Armenians, who fled Kemalist-occupied lands in droves, and Greeks, who did the same in the Aegean, but of Kurds as well, who were forced to reliquish their autonomy, language, history, and wealth to the Turks.

French forces handed over their arms to the Turks, to be used against the Greeks, who were Britain’s equivalent of the Armenian Legion. This convinced Lenin to override Stalin’s (prophetic) objections against aiding the treacherous Turks and turned the Turkish nationalist fortunes around with generous donations of Bolshevik arms, gold, and military advisors. After his final victory, Mustafa Kemal strode into Cilicia, cleansed of its Armenians, and told the local merchants in Adana:

“The Armenians have no rights in this bountiful country. The country is yours, the Turks. . . Armenians and others have no rights here.”
Flyer-for-Armenian-Legion.jpgThe Armenian Legion was the instrument of France’s pyrrhic victory in the Levant, as well as that of her defeat and the destruction of the Armenian community of Cilicia.

[1] Edward J. Erickson. “Captain Larkin and the Turks: The Strategic Impact of the Operations of HMS Doris in Early 1915,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1, 151–162, January 2010.
“Captain Frank Larkin’s voyages in command of HMS Doris in the winter of 1914–15 had an effect out of all proportion to their duration and scale. Larkin’s activities were so actively consistent and aggressive that the Ottomans came to believe that a British amphibious invasion was being coordinated with and supported by an imminent Armenian insurrection in the vicinity of Dörtyol. Unintentionally, Larkin played a key role in driving the Turks to some very poor decisions.”

[2] “Three Months off the Syrian Coast,” The Naval Review, 1915, Vol.3, Issue 4

[3] By this time Armenians had already become “usual suspects” because of the spate of Armenian rebellions and terrorist attacks during the reign of Abdulhamit II, including a very bloody attempt on his life with a VBIED. The Armenians were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t now since they were almost invariably punished at every incident they were involved in, even as mere bystanders. Accordingly, the railroad employees who surrendered to the Doris’s crew requested to be taken away to avoid punishment. The Ottomans were pushing the Armenians into the imperialists’ arms almost as hard as the Great Powers were pulling them.

[4] Erickson, op. cit. p. 158.

[5] Paul Chack. Marins à la bataille, Tôme III: Méditerrannée 1914-1918, Gerfaut, 2002. pp. 141-142.

[6] Eugene L. Rogan. Frontiers of the State in the Late Ottoman Empire: Transjordan 1850-1921, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 239.

[7] Jan Karl Tanenbaum, “France and the Arab Middle East
1914-1920.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Vol 68, Part 7, 1978. p. 7

[8] The US-owned Singer Sewing Machine company, which exclusively employed and catered to Armenians and Greeks, was directly implicated in the 1905 assassination attempt against Sultan Abdulhamit II. After Krisdapor Mikeilian, one of the three founders of the Dashnaktsutsioun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation), blew himself up in Bulgaria while trying to build the bomb for the assassination, the Singer company in Istanbul brought in the famous Belgian terrorist Edward Joris for the job. The VBIED that he built killed 26 people. Joris, like other foreign-backed terrorists caught by the Ottomans, was saved from prosecution by foreign pressure. Abdulhamit then ordered Singer to dismiss all its Greek and Armenian employees, an order that the company and U.S. Ambassador Morgenthau resisted. In February 1915, Agop Basmadjiyan the Singer company cashier in Kilis, the junction of the Berlin-Baghdad and Hejaz railways, was tried and hanged as the regional chief of the Hunchak organisation.

[9] Hratch Dasnabedian, History of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutiun 1890/1924. OEMME Edizioni, 1989. p.116

[10] Stanford Shaw, “The Armenian Legion and its Destruction of the Armenian Community of Cilicia.” in Türkkaya Ataöv, Ilber Ortaylı (ed.), The Armenians in the Late Ottoman Period, Turkish Historical Society, 2001, p. 188.


Musa Dagh, the Magic Mountain – II

The Germans

Hundreds of years of Ottoman rule in the Balkans ended with massacres and millions of refugees slogging through mud in the cold without food or shelter.

When World War I broke out, Turkey was a quasi-military dictatorship, ruled by the young officers who has seized power in 1913 after the British-backed Kamil Pasha government, itself installed by military putschists, humiliatingly lost the Balkan Wars, the Bulgarian cannons being heard even in the chic quarters of Istanbul. Millions of Turks were massacred or driven out of their ancestral lands in utter destitution [1], causing an immense trauma among the Muslim Ottoman population, not just from the physical hardship but from the shock of coming up against the violent nationalist hatred of former Christian Ottoman subjects.

Greeks and Turks celebrating the 1908 constitution in Monastir, just 4 years before that Macedonian city would be ransacked by invading Serbs who ethnically cleansed it of all Muslims.

The First Balkan War was the final straw for any hope that the Young Turk reformers of the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP) may have still entertained of creating an Ottoman union, based on equal citizenship, of the disparate etnicities and religions of the failing Ottoman state. They had hoped, along with their many and influent Armenian and Jewish supporters, to turn a new page with the 1908 constitution, hailed all over the the Ottoman lands as the dawn of freedom. The Balkan Wars, sparked by Russian and British fears that the Kaiser and his Ottoman understudies would form a strong union via the Berlin-Baghdad railway that was being built through the Balkans, snuffed out all the hopes and dreams of 1908 revolution.

Field Marshall Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz, or “Goltz Pasha” as the Turks called him, shaped the minds of all the officers who took over the Ottoman state and fought in World War I.

Since the beginning of the century, when Kaiser Wilhelm II took over the reins of the young German state from its founder Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Germany was engaged in a Drang nach Osten – an eastward impetus – as a result of which its economic and military relations with the Ottoman state were steadily developing. Ever since the Ottomans abolished, or rather slaughtered, their retrograde Janissaries in 1826, forming a modern army to replace them had been a seemingly unattainable top priority. The Prussian officers that Wilhelm sent to Turkey made sure it got done. Foremost among them was Colmar von der Goltz, who took a shine to the Turks, learned fluent Turkish, and trained an entire generation of officers, who worshipped the ground he stood on.

The British put over 100,000 civilians in death camps during the Boer War and killed 28,000 of them, 80 % being children. During the Nuremberg trials, Hermann Goering responded to accusations that he had set up the death camps by pointing out that it was Great Britain that had invented them.

Goltz didn’t confine himself to strictly military matters but also taught his students about politics. He praised the 1908 constitutional revolution that made all Ottoman citizens equal under the law and represented in parliament but he also warned them that in a world of nationalisms, it was impossible for the Muslim Ottoman majority to coexist with the “foreign elements” who were the Armenians, who felt allegiance not to the Ottoman state but to Russia. He proposed to expulse all the Armenians to “the deserts of Mesopotamia,”[2] just as German Schutztruppen had driven the Herero and Nama people of Namibia into the Omaheke Desert, where they perished. [3] Goltz and his students the CUP officers were highly receptive to the lessons of the Second Boer War (1899-1902) where Great Britain in the person of Cecil Rhodes, seeking to capture the Transvaal diamond fields from the Dutch colonists living on top of them, managed to defeat the formidable Boer guerrilas by destroying their towns, farms, and fields, locking up all their families in death camps and starving them to death until the guerrillas surrendered. [4] Germany repeated the experiment in Namibia, where it killed off a portion of the Hereros and Namas in the Swakopmund, Windhoek, and Shark Island death camps. [5]

Goltz’s views, inculcated in his Otoman cadets for over a decade, were shared by all the German staff officers stationed on Ottoman soil in World War I, and by some of the diplomatic staff as well. Vahakn Dadrian, who is widely regarded as the foremost world authority on the Armenian Genocide, states quite unequivocally that the decision to exterminate the Armenians was a Turco-German one:

“As has been explained throughout this work the decision to deport the Armenians originated from the Ottoman General Headquar­ters whose Chief of Staff was German General Bronsart von Schellendorf; the entire enterprise bore a military imprint.” [6]
– Vahakn N. Dadrian. German Responsibility in the Armenian Genocide:A Review of the Historical Evidence of German Complicity

Dadrian notes that various Ottoman officials declared in their memoirs or conversations that the genocide  was decided on the insistence of, and according to Rauf Orbay, with “collective urgings amounting to an ultimatum” from, the German staff officers. There is of course a possibility that this was their cover story to shift the blame on the Germans but Dadrian has also found direct deportation orders, demanding “severe treatment” of non-combatant Armenians, issued by General von Schellendorf. The general also instructed the German consul of Erzurum, whose sole function ordinarily would be to defend the rights of Christian minorities, not to do so for Armenians. [7]

The U.S. genocide between 1899-1902 in the Philippines caused at least a million deaths

Admiral Guido von Usedom, who prepared the Turkish shore and sea defenses at Gallipoli and shared the credit for that great victory with General Otto Liman von Sanders, had a conversation with U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau where he openly admitted that “the Germans had suggested to the Turks the deportation of 100,000 Greeks” and that the Armenians were likewised “removed” because they constituted an obstacle. [8]  Usedom may have thought that Morgenthau could not possibly be shocked by these revelations as his own government had barely finished massacring, torturing, and starving to death over one million Filipinos who were resisting the U.S. colonisation of their country [9], to loud cries of protest from anti-imperialists like Mark Twain, who advocated replacing the stars in the U.S. flag with a skull and crossbones.

“The Germans to the Front,” a painting depicting British Admiral Seymour ordering Usedom’s marines to lead the assault on a Chinese fort during their abortive attempt to capture Beijing.

Usedom, a purebred Prussian officer unfamiliar with the perfidy and hypocrisy of Great Power diplomacy, spoke with the frankness of a commander who just 15 years earlier had helped save the bacon of the Great Powers in China, where the British and the smaller American expeditionary forces invading and plundering the country had been routed by the imperial army and the Boxer insurgents. Usedom’s Kaiserlischer Marine troops had prevented the failed assault on Beijing commanded by the inept British Admiral Edward Seymour from being encircled and annihilated, while  Field-Marshall von Waldersee, unders orders from the Kaiser to emulate the carnage of Attila, [10] had laid waste to the country after the capture of Beijing. The missionary Arthur Smith commented: “It has seemed as if the foreign troops had come to northern China for the express purpose of committing within the shortest time as many violations as possible of the sixth, the seventh, and the eighth Commandments.” [11] As the Great Powers’ missionaries and troops went on an orgy of looting and murder and rivers became awash with corpses, journalist E. Dillon describing the holocaust could not suppress a moment of pathos: “I saw two bodies on a low-lying ledge of the shore. . . A father and his boy of eight had been shot down in the name of civilization while holding each other’s hands and praying for mercy. And there they lay, hand still holding hand, while a brown dog was slowly eating one of the arms of the father.” [12]

According to Peter Balkakian’s book The Burning Tigris, Ambassador Hans Freiherr von Wangenheim told an American journalist “I do not blame the Turks for what they are doing to the Armenians…They are entirely justified”

The Germans had, in effect, kicked in China’s door in service of the U.S.’s “Open Door policy,” all participants of the multinational invasion of China during one of its most severe famines and epidemics having jointly committed the genocidal massacre of hundreds of thousands of Chinese, while indirectly causing the additional deaths from famine, exposure, and disease, of millions, so the last thing that Usedom, a man of honor if not of mercy, had expected was for the U.S. ambassador to use his words to spin a pretext for his country to go to war against Germany.

Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, commander of the Ottoman navy and the man who as skipper of the heavy cruiser Goeben, dragged the Ottoman state into World War I by hoisting an Ottoman flag and bombarding Sevastapol, was far more circumspect in public but he did write in his diary: “It will be salvation for Turkey when it has done away with the last Armenian; it will be rid then of subversive bloodsuckers.”

The German Ambassador Wangenheim was, surprisingly enough, almost as naïve as Admiral von Usedom, when he attempted to bargain with Morgenthau, whose government was technically still “neutral” in the war, for the cessation of U.S. military aid to the Allies in exchange for Germany saving the Armenians from destruction. Boasting “We now control both the Turkish army and navy,” Wangenheim called the Armenians “traitorious vermin” and said “nothing could be guaranteed” if Britain attacked the Dardanelles, urging Morgenthau, whose close relations with President Wilson were well known, to obtain the cessation of ammunition deliveries to Great Britain if he wanted to save the Armenians. “I will help the Zionists,” he said (Morgenthau was one), “but I shall do nothing for the Armenians.” [13]

[1] Justin McCarthy. Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman
Muslims, 1821-1922. Darwin Press, 1995. pp. 139-151 Back

[2] Wolfgang Gust, ed. (2014). The Armenian Genocide: Evidence from the German Foreign Office Archives, 1915-1916, p.XXI Back

[3] David Olusoga and Casper W Erichsen. The Kaiser’s Holocaust. Germany’s Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism. Faber and Faber, 2010.  pp. 144-148 Back

[4] Gregory Fremont-Barnes. The Boer War, 1899-1902. Osprey Publishing, 2003. pp. 60, 61, 63, 77, 79 Back

[5] Olusoga, David and Erichsen, Casper W. op. cit., pp.162-171 Back

[6] Vahakn N. Dadrian. German Responsibility in the Armenian Genocide:A Review of the Historical Evidence of German Complicity. Blue Crane Books, 1996. p.90 Back

[7] Ibid, pp. 117-118 Back

[8] Ibid, pp. 133-134 Back

[9] Mike Davis. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. Verso, 2002. pp.198-200 “American officers acknowledged openly in correspondence that starvation had become official military strategy.” Back

[10] “No quarter will be given! Prisoners will not be taken! Whoever falls into your hands is forfeited. Just as a thousand years ago the Huns under their King Attila made a name for themselves, one that even today makes them seem mighty in history and legend, may the name German be affirmed by you…”
Kaiser Wilhelm II’s “Hun Speech” Back

[11] Mike Davis. op. cit. p. 187 Back

[12] Ibid, pp. 187-188 Back

[13] Dadrian, op. cit. p.144 Back


Musa Dagh, the Magic Mountain – I

A Mountain of Myths

 97-year-old witness of Musa Dagh resistance sings Armenia’s anthem in Vakifli-1
97-year-old witness of Musa Dagh resistance sings Armenia’s anthem in Vakifli-2
This Musa Dagh is in Adrasan, Antalya, 500km from where the interview was held.

Imagine you’re Frodo the Hobbit setting out on his journey from the Shire to meander into all sorts of unexpected places before reaching Mount Doom. That’s what this series of posts will feel like. The destination of your journey here won’t be as scary as Frodo’s but the meandering part, there’ll be plenty of that.

Our first destination is a physical place: Musa Dagh, somewhere in Turkey. Here’s our first clue: According to this Armenian news agency story, Musa Dagh is a mountain in Hatay, a province of Turkey that was once the Sandjak of Alexandretta before the Turkish dictator Ataturk annexed it and changed its name, something he liked doing a lot, having changed his own name four times [1]. Apparently Armenians lived there and ran into some trouble in 1915, then again in 1939 when they were forced to flee Musa Dagh for good. There’s also something about French warships transporting them in 1915, so this Musa Dagh is probably by the sea.

At the end of the news story, there it is: a photo of mountain by the sea, as billed – except it’s not. That mountain is called Musa Dagh all right but it’s 500 kilometers as the crow flies from Hatay. So what does the Musa Dagh in Hatay look like? Nowhere near as spectacular. The mountain on top of which the elderly gent lives is a low, weathered, rather nondescript mass, not an imposing rocky peak. Honest mistake, right? I mean how is the Armenian news agency that came and interviewed the old man at his home on Musa Dagh supposed to know where Musa Dagh is, especially since it holds such an apparently iconic place in Armenian national history?

Hatay_Musa_Dagh-sThe Mousa Dagh in Hatay

Pardon the sarcasm but there is a point to it: The Armenian news agency didn’t pick that fake photo just because it liked it better. There’s more to it than that. There is a whole myth around that mountain that needs to be preserved and its craggy image is part of the myth. From the Turkish dictator calling Alexandretta Hatay and pretending that Hittites founded it to exiled Armenians pretending that their mountain looked sexier than it does, the place is shrouded in myths and fiction. Let’s start to unshroud it.

Hans Werfel, a man in love

This is where the craggy image of Musa Dagh comes from: An artists’s design for the cover of a novel written by  Czech poet Franz Werfel who never set foot in the place.

Armenian deportees in the desolation of Deir ez-Zor, photographed by Armin T. Wegner

The novel is loosely based on the historical events that took place there in the spring and summer of 1915, as recounted to Werfel by fellow poet and German pro-Armenian activist, Armin T. Wegner, who was a medic under Field Marshall Colmar van der Goltz in Deir ez Zor at the time. Wegner was less interested in the hardships and battles there than in the Armenian deportees who had ended up in the desolation of that arid war zone. He photographed them and got in trouble for doing so, as the Armenian deportation was both approved and backed by his German superiors, the celebrated Field Marshall having said that the Ottoman Empire needed to be cleansed of it “alien elements” the Armenians, for whom he had advocated, long before World War I, a “relocation to the deserts of Mesopotamia.” [2]

When Wegner found out that Werfel had used his material to write a book, he was furious [3] but by the time The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was published, Wegner was in all sorts of new trouble, with the Nazis this time, because of his pacifism and his defense of Jews, so he had no time for Werfel. Anyway, Werfel was Jewish himself so the Nazis banned his book before long.

Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel in 1919

Alma Mahler and Oscar Kokoschka, with whom she broke up in 1918

Although Werfel was a Jew by birth, he was no longer one by faith when Hitler came to power in 1933, having renounced Judaism to marry the love of his life Alma Mahler, the talented, seductive, brilliant, and rich widow of the great Gustav Mahler, and an anti-Semite. One of her first recorded impressions of Werfel was “fat, bow-legged Jew.” Theirs was an anguished but surprisingly enduring relationship of dominant disdain and submissive adoration.

Werfel had long resisted Alma’s demand that he renounce Judaism and suffered the moral guilt of their illegitimate love and child while Alma was married to the famous architect Walter Gropius and having an affair with painter Oscar Kokoschka as well. However Alma was not a woman he or anyone else could give up on. She had lain naked on Mahler’s piano, her ex-lover Kokoschka was so smitten he made a life-size sex doll of her, she was a highly talented composer, and did I mention, quite rich? In 1930, he finally relented and they married, going to the Middle East for their honeymoon.

Child labor exploitation in the carpet trade is well-nigh universal.

In Damascus, they visited a carpet-weaving workshop where Alma got emotional over the exploited child laborers, prized for the fine knots that their little fingers could weave. The carpet trader told them a story about their having been orphaned by the evil Turks and how he took them in out of the kindness of his heart.

Musa Daghians back at their homes under the French protectorate flag in the 1930s during a memorial service for the 18 who died fighting in 1915.

Alma was aghast at the Dickensian scene: “Werfel and I left the place, nothing from now on seemed to be of importance or beauty…” It never occurred to the couple that those children were not even born in 1915, let alone orphaned, and that Armenians had now returned to nearby Cilicia, which was a French protectorate. Alma’s emotions for the exploited children, the tale of the carpet-trader exploiting them, and their travelling companion Armin T. Wegner’s account of the desperate Armenian deportees whose plight he had personally witnessed, convinced Werfel to write a book about them.


Musa Dagh refugees in Port Said being trained for the French Foreign Legion.
Newly-built Armenian neighborhood in Aleppo in the early 1930’s, financed by wealthy Armenian benefactors. An even larger neighborhood was built in Bourj Hammoud, Beirut, as well as a village in the Bekaa Valley 50 km from Damascus. More new housing and infrastructure was built in Greece and in the French Cilicia protectorate.

When the Werfels returned to Vienna, Franz went to his friend the French Ambassador Count Clauzel to inquire further about the Armenians of Mousa Dagh, whose plight he thought he had witnessed in the Damascus carpet workshop. France had of course recruited the Musa Dagh Armenians into the Foreign Legion and sent them to fight against the Ottomans and to occupy Cilicia, so it was hardly an objective third party. The count gave Werfel access to French naval records, which should have revealed to Werfel, had he cared to look, France’s aggressive designs in the region (the Picot part of Sykes-Picot carve-up of the Ottoman lands) of which the hapless rural Armenians were clearly made the pawns. But Werfel was only interested in seeing France as an uninterested protector of the Armenians, certainly not as the power that got them into trouble. He also got material from an Armenian catholic order but none whatsoever from the other side, i.e. the Germans and the Turks.

One document influenced Werfel enormously: Pro-Armenian activist Pastor Johannes Lepsius’s tell-all conversation with Ottoman Minister of War Enver Pasha (unconfirmed by anyone else) that was published in chapter 28 of U.S. Ambasador Morgenthau’s 1918 book Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, where Enver allegedly tells Lepsius quite candidly that he massacred many Armenians and will continue to do so unless they simmer down and foreign powers stop helping them. Werfel tore that chapter out (metaphorically), sexed it up a bit, and pasted it into his own book under the heading “Interlude of the Gods.”

The three heavies of the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief: From left to right, 1) Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau, the commander of the U.S.’s army of consuls in the Armenian-populated provinces, 2) the J.P. Morgan partner and copper magnate Cleveland H. Dodge who ran the whole show as well as Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy, and 3) American Board Secretary James Barton, the leading proponent of an autonomous Armenia. Dodge was also the president of Robert College, from where all pro-Armenian missionary activity was orchestrated. [4]

While Lepsius’s account rings true and jibes with everything else we know about the CUP leadership and its German sponsors, there’s no getting past the fact that Lepsius was no more an objective observer than Wegner was and in fact was in close collaboration with US “diplomatic” missions and US missionaires, whose reports form the backbone of his work The Massacres of Armenia (1919), and who were all employed by US financial and copper magnates seeking to obtain propaganda material against the Turks, Germany’s allies. They intended to use this material to persuade the public that US troops needed to go to Europe to defeat Germany. The extensive network of US diplomatic and Evangelist missions catering to Armenians in Anatolia had no other purpose than to fabricate the pretext for Woodrow Wilson, who got elected on an isolationist ticket, to declare war on Germany, but more about that later.

Franz Werfel as a “historian”

All of this renders Franz Werfel’s novel’s claim to be “historical” highly dubious. Granted, Werfel researched his subject extensively but not exhaustively, completely neglecting to research opposing sources on the matter. He didn’t speak Turkish or Armenian but claimed to present an accurate picture of both Turkish and Armenian parties of the Musa Dagh events, while totaly neglecting the German, American, and British actors, although German was his mother tongue and he spoke English fluently.

Werfel was also hampered by his utter submission to the opinions of his dominating wife, who was Catholic, royalist, reactionary, and utterly anti-Muslim. When he first met Alma, Werfel was something of a communist in 1918, hanging out with the “Red Guard” in Vienna, until one November night when he made a fiery speech and came home drunk to face Alma’s cold disdain, after which he immediately lost all interest in the revolution of the proletariat. Worse still, he gave up his Jewishness to please his mistress. Werfel was simply incapable of saying or writing anything that displeased his reactionary, anti-Semitic, and racist domina. Therefore, we have to think that whatever duty of accuracy he may have felt during the writing of 40 Days, would have fallen by the wayside if it got in Alma’s way.

Finally, Franz Werfel was not a substantive author. He was interested in fame and success, not literary or academic excellence. After having abandoned Judaism and even signed an oath of allegiance to the Nazis at the Prussian Academy of Literature of which he was a proud member (but was kicked out of for being a Jew anyway), he wrote The Song of Bernadette about the miracle at Lourdes, which was an instant hit with all bible-thumpers and not only stayed on the New York Times list for 13 weeks but became an even worse Fox movie. Thomas Mann called it “a well made bad book.” 40 Days wasn’t even well made.

His characters rant interminably about his confused and reactionary political and religious ideas. Even that wasn’t enough for Werfel so he added pages of his own commentary on the virtues of spirituality and the evils of materialism and nationalism. His Gabriel Bagradian bears no resemblance to the actual leader of the Musa Dagh insurgents, who was a Dashnag militant from Yoghunoluk village, Moses Der Kaloustian, not some dispora Armenian with an identity crisis and an Alma-like bourgeouis wife who slept around. Nor did Der Kaloustian oversleep and miss the rescue boat, where no one inexplicably noticed the valorous leader’s absence so that he could get himself tragicomically killed. The real Musa Dagh leader lived a long and prosperous life.

In fact, unless you read 40 Days as some sort of act of homage to the Musa Daghians, it’s just a boring, annoying, and downright silly book, in the image of the silly man who wrote it.

Now that both Werfel and his book are desecrated as they should be, it’s time to pass from fiction – even if it pretends to be “historical” – to facts.

[1] His real name is Mustafa. He changed it to Kemal, meaning “perfection” when he was a schoolboy. Later during his military career “perfection” started sounding a bit too pretentious so he changed it to Kamal, which isn’t even a word. Finally, he went back to pretentious and decided to call himself “Father of the Turks,” i.e. Ataturk. [Back]

[2] The Armenian Genocide: Evidence from the German Foreign Office archives 1915-1916, edited by Wolgang Gust, 2014 [Back]

[3] Werfel’s biographical details are from the books Understanding Franz Werfel by Hans Wegener, 1993 and Franz Werfel: The faith of an exile by  Lionel B. Steiman, 1985. [Back]

[4] Protestant Diplomacy and the Near East: Missionary Influence on American Foreign Policy 1810-1927 by  Joseph L. Grabill, 1971, pp. 80-105 [Back]


Caucasus Jihadis in Syria/Iraq: The royal flush

Abu Ibrahim Shishani
Died 05/02/2015
01-10_of_spades-Salahuddin_Shishani-Ruslan Machalikashvili
Georgiy Kushtanashvili
a.k.a. Salahuddin Sishani
Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili
a.k.a. Abu Omar Shishani
Died 03/14/2016
Murad Margoshvili
a.k.a. Muslim abu Walid Shishani
Islam Seit-Umarovich Atabiyev
a.k.a. Abu Jihad
Abu Bakr Shishani

High value Chechen targets in Iraq/Syria: The Pankisi connection

[Updated 03/17/2016]

The lawless Pankisi Gorge
Turkish  television announcing the “murder” of  terrorist Dokka Umarov , shown in front of the Imarat Kavkaz banner.
isis-omar-photoBatirashvili (2nd from left) with McClatchy reporter Mitchell Prothero during the 2008 Georgian invasion of South Ossetia, remniscing about their days with the US Army 82nd Airborne.
Batirashvili-Menagh_presserBatirashvili with his multinational gang after his victory at Menagh airbase
Menagh_Aug_2013_VBIEDsBatirashvili’s VBIEDs exploding at Menagh airbase in August, 2013, each one the equivalent of the bomb-load of an F-16.
Al_Absi-ISIS_flag-Bab_al_Hawa-2012July 19, 2012: The Al Absi gang  flying the ISIS black flag seize control of the Bab al Hawa border crossing and start receiving European jihadis sent by Sharia4Belgium
Abu-Omar-al-Shishani-Abu_Jihad-ODAmr al Absi (left), who persuaded Batirashvili to join ISIS. The old guy on the right is Batirashvili’s contact with Daghestan, Abu Jihad, who founded ISIS’s Vilayat Kavkaz.

ISIS’s famous red-bearded commander Abu Omar Shishani was again wounded recently in a US airstrike, finally giving up the ghost on March 14, and bringing his bio once again into the media spotlight. Like the other HVTs (High-Value Targets) in the SYRAQ (Syria/Iraq) theater, Abu Omar is a Kist Chechen hailing from the notoriously lawless Pankisi Gorge of NATO-allied Georgia, a staging area and support base for Chechen terrorist operations in the Russian Federation.

Pankisi is home to the Al Qaeda-affiliated Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) founded by the now-defunct Dokka Umarov, whose Syrian branch is Georgiy Kushtanashvili’s (a.k.a. Salahuddin Sishani a.k.a. Feyzullah Margoshvili) Jaish al-Usra. ISIS’s Caucasian operation Vilayat Kavkaz is of more recent date and is based in Daghestan. It is these Caucasian extensions of the Chechen terrorist gangs in the SYRAQ theater that constitute their main avenue of exporting terrorism into the industrialized world. The Chechen terrorists operating in the Caucasus are far more lethal than any other terrorist formations in the world, owing to their Russian and Georgian military training, foreign (mainly US) assistance, and the natural selection operated on them by the even more lethal Russian counterterrorist forces.

Chechen terrorism issued forth from the CIA’s Afghanistan Jihad, whose veterans were repurposed by US, UK, Saudi, and Turkish intelligence, to inflict further damage on the USSR and later the Russian Federation, this time on its own soil. Doku Umarov thus fought in the 1st and 2nd Chechen wars and Murad Margoshvili a.k.a. Muslim abu Walid Shishani fought by his side. Abu Bakr Shishani, who is Margoshvili’s military commander in Syria, likely participated in those conflicts as well, and probably has more military experience than Margoshvili. Judging by his military knowledge, Abu Ibrahim Shishani of ISIS, the commander of its Baiji operations in Iraq was also a seasoned veteran, having built an artillery rocket factory and taken over the training of ISIS recruits in Baiji.It is their unparalleled experience, gained by facing the full force of a superpower’s military and intelligence apparatus, and sometimes their military training in the Russian/Soviet spetsnaz, into which Chechens were often selected, that makes them the highest-value targets in the SYRAQ theater. Of course in Batirashvili’s case, it was the U.S. spetsnaz, or special forces, that turned him into a killing machine.

Chechens proved their game-changing HVT credentials in August 2013, when Tarkan Batirashvili a.k.a. Abu Omar Shishani, trained by US special forces in Georgia, who fought in the US Army 82nd Airborne in Iraq as well as in the Georgian army during its 2008 South Ossetia invasion, reversed the fortunes of the FSA-led sickly siege of Menagh airbase near the Turkish border by taking over the command of operations and promptly capturing the base with suicide bombers and VBIEDs, which have since become the hallmark of the foreign terrorists in Syria. Similarly, freelancer Murad Margoshvili a.k.a. Muslim Abu Walid Shishani, who rents out his Junud al Sham gang to Al Qaeda’s Northern Syria paymaster Sheikh Mohammed al Muhaysini, made his mark in several successful Al Qaeda offensives in Northern Latakia and Idlib.

ISIS’s first Chechens

Batirashvili entered Syria in the the spring of 2013 with a gang of freelancers just like Margoshvili’s, called Kataib al Muhajireen, the Immigrants Battalions, made up, he claimed, of Georgian Chechen survivors of battles with Russia in the Caucasus, as well as jihadis of other nationalities, gathered together by Saudi handlers such as a certain Abdul Aziz in Istanbul. He had arrived in Turkey in the spring of 2012 after his release from prison in Georgia, where his military career had reached a dead end. By March 2013, his Kataib (battalions) had expanded into a Jaish (army) with the addition of other two other Saudi-formed gangs, and possibly also Amr al Absi’s “Belgian Brigade,” providing him with an ample supply of suicide bombers, which he used as smart weapons to capture Handarat and Menagh airbases in Northern Aleppo.

Flush with success, Batirashvili decided to join ISIS. He had come into contact with the Al Absi gang of Azaz, which flew the first ISIS flag in Aleppo over the Bab al Hawa border gate, where it famously clashed with the FSA’s Farouq Brigade over the kidnap of journalists John Cantlie and Jeroen Oerlemans. Amr al Absi, who took over the gang after his brother was killed by the FSA, had been with the Islamic State of Iraq since its earliest days, long before the 2011 Syrian uprising. The Al Absi “Belgian Brigade” was the Syrian end of the Sharia4Belgium jihadi pipeline that spewed out French, Belgian and UK jihadis eager for martyrdom.

UK and French intelligence services, following the US-Saudi playbook of using Sunni radicals to roll back Iran’s influence, had outsourced their Syria jihad to Belgium, much like global corporations did their head offices, to benefit from that disarrayed country’s lax laws and even laxer law enforcement. Sharia4Belgium thus funneled thousands of battle-winning human smart weapons to ISIS and Al Nusra that the FSA could not offer. Chechens, on the other hand, were not only few in number but weren’t that crazy about martyrdom. There were loud grumblings about the number of Chechens and Crimean Tatars that Batirashvili had sacrificed to take Menagh, including a Pankisi boy called Khamzat whose newly-wedded beautiful celebrity widow he took for his own wife. These facts and the excellent introduction that Amr al Absi provided to the ISIS leadership prompted Batirashvili to join them.

The mysterious Abu Ibrahim Shishani

Abu Ibrahim: The elusive older brother Tamaz Batirashvli?

We know far less about another experienced veteran Chechen whose nom de guerre was Abu Ibrahim Shishani, killed by the Iraqi Hashd al Shaabi militia at Baiji refinery, where he was both a field commander and a trainer. A redhead like Tarkan Batirashvili, there is a slight chance that this experienced war veteran might be his older brother Tamaz because he is the only known Russian-speaking older redhead Chechen with battle experience in ISIS – not that redhead Chechens are a rarity. He doesn’t fit the portrait drawn by his father for The Daily Beast too well: “The two brothers have similar features, the same nose, same red beards, yet we are told that Tamaz doesn’t typically wear military fatigues. He dresses simply, in a gown with a scarf on his head.” Moreover, Tamaz is supposed to be a supreme warrior, yet Abu Ibrahim was the first HVT killed so far, admittedly in a difficult battle against vastly superior forces. Still, even if he is no relation at all to Batirashvili, he was the commander of all ISIS operations in the key Tikrit-Baiji sector, so he was an important HVT.

Al Nusra’s Chechens

Unfortunately in those early months of 2013 when Batirashvili’s star was rising, ISIS’s Syrian expeditionary force, called Al Nusra, had been co-opted by Qatar and split from its Saudi-backed Iraqi parent organization. The Qataris got Pakistan’s “guest” Ayman al Zawahiri to back Al Nusra and “excommunicate” ISIS. Many of Batirashvili’s Chechens, his right-hand-man Georgiy Kushtanashvili a.k.a. Salahuddin Shishani most of all, had been sent there by Dokka Umarov, who was dependent on Al Qaeda, i.e. Saudi support, as evidenced by Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan’s threat to use Chechen terrorists “controlled by us” to attack the Sochi winter games. Consequently Kustanashvili and many others, including Batirashvili’s protégé Seyfullah, refused to follow Batirashvili. Kushtanashvili took over the command of Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (JMA) when Batirashvili joined ISIS.

The Chechens’ “Displaced Conflict” in Syria

say-with-umar-and-sonBatirashvili with his son and aide Sayfullah Shishani in front of his purloined BMW with Imarat Kavkaz plates. According to Joanna Paraszczuk, it was ironically Batirashvili who started the Imarat Kavkaz tagging fad in Syria, even though he claimed that he had never pledged allegiance to its emir.
Abu_Jihad-russian_SOF_GorkaIslam Seit-Umarovich Atabiyev
a.k.a. Abu Jihad in a Karachay-language propaganda video accompanied by an Ingush terrorist preacher. Wearing a status-symbol spetsnaz Gorka uniform, Abu Jihad appealed to his ethnic kinsmen to join ISIS’s jihad.

The split between the Chechens wasn’t just because of the importance of Saudi support, though this was certainly the main factor. There was also what Joanna Paraszczuk calls the “phenomenon of the displaced conflict,” i.e. the displaced revenge of the Chechens against Moscow’s ally Syria, after they dragged themselves bloody and beaten from the Caucasus. They were, in a sense, re-fighting in Syria the Caucasus battles that they had lost against Russia. Certainly, this displaced revenge motivation was visible in the large Imarat Kavkaz logos displayed on their walls, clothes, and vehicles, despite the fact that they officially called themselves Jaish al Muhajireen. Batirashvili was able to think strategically and see how he could have a better shot at the Russians by allying himself with ISIS but most of the other Chechens clung to their past.

Batirashvili’s Caucasus Gambit

I’m not done with ISIS’s Chechens yet because a crucial aspect of the Imarat Kavkaz story is how Batirashvili is using ISIS to wrest control over Caucasus terrorists from IK. The gray-beard often described nowadays as Batirasvili’s “right-hand man” is not his lieutenant in the Syria/Iraq Jihad but the ethnic Karachay-Balkar veteran jihadi Islam Seit-Umarovich Atabiyev a.k.a. Abu Jihad who is setting up Batirashvili’s “Vilayat Kavkaz.” This is the guy Putin should be most worried about because he has already obtained the bay’ah of most Caucasus terrorist imams and appointed his own Vilayat Kavkaz emir,  Rustam Asilderov alias Abu Muhammad Kadarsky. Atabiyev is quite a talented propagandist, not at all the rigid salafist mullah type you would expect him to be. Despite ISIS’s strict salafist rules against music, he made use of a german rapper Deso Dogg, from among ISIS’s many German recruits, to produce a music video featuring all the Caucasus preachers who had given bay’ah to ISIS.

The Rise and Fall of Giorgi Kustanashvili a.k.a. Salahuddin Shishani

Georgiy Kushtanashvili a.k.a. Salahuddin Shishani saw himself as the future emir of Imarat Kavkaz

When Batirashvili’s Katibat al Muhajiroun arrived in Syria, Kustanashvili, with whom he had presumably fought in the Caucasus under Ruslan Gelayev, was his field commander. He immediately launched into several high-profile operations from the KM/JMA base in the luxury villa in Hraytan seized by Batirashvili. He captured Kafr Hamra and attacked Layramoun, reaching the outer ring road of Aleppo, and pushing east to organize several SVBIED attacks against the Canadian i.e. Al Kindi Hospital,  making a name for himself.

Kustanashvili was eventually pushed out of Al Nusra-allied JMA by Saudi sheikhs, led by Sheikh Mohammed Muhaysini, the Saudi envoy who would gradually wrest back control of Al Nusra from Qatar. Kustanashvili and his Crimean Tatar lieutenant Abdul Karim Krymsky then formed Imarat Kavkaz fi Shame, the Caucasus Emirate in the Levant. However he was pressured out of this command as well, this time by the new emir of Imarat Kavkaz Abu Usman Gimrinsky, who probably wasn’t too happy about Kustanashvili setting up his own parallel emirate in Syria. Kustanashvili then left his command to a younger Chechen fighter, Khayrullah Shishani, and formed Jaish al Usra, again allied with Jabhat Al Nusra. These successive ousters prevented Kustanashvili from expanding his operation to the measure of his ambitions. We never again heard of such thunderous exploits from him as during his whirlwind entry into the Syrian jihad in the spring and summer of 2013. He partnered with Murad Margoshvili in Latakia and they were reportedly on good terms but he got no coverage at all in the victory videos.  His Jaish al-Usra is reduced, at this writing, to bombarding Kurdish civilians in the Sheikh Maqsoud quarter of Aleppo in revenge for the  vast territory captured from Al Qaeda and its Turkish allies by the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces of Afrin.

The Hired Gun

Shamir_Basayev-Murad_MargoshviliA young and beardless Murad Margoshvili with the Beslan butcher Shamir Basayev in the heyday of Chechen terrorism.
Margoshvili-Sheikh_MuhayssinyMurad Margoshvili with Al Qaeda paymaster Sheikh Mohammed Muhaysini

Unlike Kustanashvili, Murad Margoshvili a.k.a. Muslim Abu Walid Shishani never gave bay’ah to anyone and never had to put up with any political backstabbing. He probably owes his relatively comfortable status to his drug lord uncle the late Vephiya Margoshvili, head of the Margoshvili clan that owns the Pankisi Gorge and hosts the Imarat Kavkaz gangs that hide out there, who double as their personal army.

Margoshvili got his military training with the Red Army in Mongolia but when he returned home to the Pankisi, he set out into the terrorism sector rather than the family drug business. He fought with both Shamir Basayev and Ruslan Galeyev, both of them former spetsnaz, on many fronts. His last Russian caper was in 2002, an unspecified operation led by Aslan Maskhadov. He was captured in 2003 but only stayed in prison for 2 years, though it took him until 2008 to recover from whatever they did to him there.

Shanghaied to Syria

What happened after that is, curiously enough, in the public record: According to the Public Defender of Georgia Ucha Nanuashvili, a group of Kist Chechens, from among the 120 trained by the Georgian Interior Ministry in military bases for subversive operations, decided to enter the Tsuntin district of Russian Daghestan through the Lopota Gorge in August 2012. These men were from Murad Margoshvili’s jemaat in Tsuntin. Georgian special forces intervened and denied them passage, telling them to leave their weapons and go back to their military base. No reason that we know of was given. The men refused, a firefight ensued, and 8 of them, plus 3 Georgian handlers died. One of the dead was a relative of Murad Margoshvili called Aslan Margoshvili. The survivors were not returned to their bases but sent to Syria, at which point the incident starts to make sense: They were ordered to go to Syria but didn’t want to and tried to get to Daghestan. They were then forcibly prevented from escaping and packed off to Syria. Georgia being heavily under U.S. and Turkish influence, it may have been persuaded to relinquish the Pankisi Chechens it had intended to use against Russia for the Syrian jihad.

Batirashvili_villa_HraytanWhere it all began: The summer of 2013 in Batirashvili’s stolen luxury villa in Hraytan. Poor Pankisi boys and even less-poor Pankisi gangsters had the time of their lives.
Margoshvili and his aide Abu Tarib Shishani celebrating their brief victory at Tower 45 in Northern Latakia.

So that’s how Margoshvili ended up in Syria in 2012, where he was shortly joined by Batirashvili, who was apparently framed and jailed for 16 months just motivate him to go to Syria. In the warm months of 2013, they were one big happy terrorist gang living it up at the poolside of Batirashvili’s Hraytan villa, seized from an Aleppo businessman. Then Batirashvili joined ISIS and Margoshvili took more than 100 Chechens with him to Latakia for a whirlwind offensive in the summer of 2013 that would take him all the way to Durin, and which earned him the nickname Sopa Durin: Durin Hilltop. Unfortunately for him, Batirashvili got an even bigger billing at Menagh airbase.

Margoshvili did increase his fame during the March 2014 Kessab offensive, when Al Qaeda terrorists poured out of Turkey into that Armenian village founded by 1915 genocide survivors, thoroughly ethnically cleansing it. He helped briefly capture Tower 45, a dominating strategic location, and had the moment recorded for posterity on video. The next year, Al Qaeda poured out of Turkey again, this time into Idlib, sweeping away the Syrian army, and Batirashvili was there posing for the cameras again. However at the end of 2016, he was no longer celebrating but desperately calling for help in his videos as the Syrian army overran his training camps at Ateera on the Turkish border, forcing him to flee.

The Young Lions

The Jack of our HVT royal flush isn’t a leader like the others but a very competent and experienced tactician nonetheless. Abu Bakr Shishani, whose real name is unknown, was Margoshvili’s field commander but transferred to the younger and more daring Abdul Hakim Shishani’s Khalifat Jamaat after the 2015 Idlib offensive. Abdul Hakim is thought to be Rustam Azhiyev, a young veteran Chechen terrorist (2000-2009) who fought under Shamir Basayev’s son Rustam and later had his own command in the central Nokhchiycho sector of Chechnya.

Young Chechnya veteran Abdul Hakim Shishani with a happy Sheikh Muhaysini after Al Qaeda captured Idlib in 2015.
Well-equipped and professional young Chechen terrorists of Ajnad al Kavkaz in Idlib.
Khamza Shishani, now dead, and Abu Bakr Shishani under an Imarat Kavkaz banner. Abu Bakr displays his status not only with with his Gorka special forces uniform but with an Israeli KPOS Glock pistol submachine gun converter. He is saying “I don’t need an assault rifle, I’m an officer.”
Kamov Alligator attack helicopter being assembled at Hmeymim on March 17, 2016.
Mi-28N Night Hunter attack helicopter overflying Hmeymim airbase on March 16, 2016.

If Abdul Hakim ever gets to be Batirashvili’s age, he will no doubt be the ace in the pack. Even now, he is a very dangerous. He and his young pack of Chechen wolves tore up Idlib , Ariha, and Jisr ash-Shughour, chasing the Syrian army all the way out of the Ghab valley, while capturing scores of armored vehicles and other heavy weapons in the process. They worked in perfect synchronization with CIA-backed FSA TOW missile teams, who destroyed the Syrian armor in their way as they progressed down the Ghab valley.

The man who has the experience to keep the young hothead Abdul Hakim out of fatal trouble is Abu Bakr Shishani. Abdul Hakim came to Syria in the company of Abdulvakhid Edelgireyev a.k.a. Khamza Shishani, a Chechen veteran like him who became his lieutenant. The youngsters were both heavily wounded in Chechnya and bonded in a Turkish hospital in 2009, Abdul Hakim emerging with a damaged left hand and eye and Hamza with his left leg 10 cm shorter. They displayed a gung-ho style throughout the Idlib offensive, with Abdul Hakim often leading the column. That style will no longer fly against the now better-trained and -equipped Syrian army and air force, even without Russian marines backing them up. Worse still, their anti-tank cover provider the FSA has laid down its weapons with the ceasefire in Syria.

Edelgireyev became the victim of his devil-may-care attitude when a Russian hit team gunned him down in Istanbul in January. According to his family, he utterly disregarded his personal security. Edelgireyev’s activites since he left Syria, however, showed clearly why he needed to be taken out. He had gone to Ukraine to fight with the Nazis against Donbass, then returned to Istanbul to recruit & seek funds for Abdul Hakim’s old Chechnya command the Nokhchiycho district. Now Abu Bakr is Abdul Hakim’s military commander, a more experienced and wiser one than Edelgireyev, which makes him a higher-value target to be eliminated ASAP.

Russians pulling out, HVTs still breathing: Mission not accomplished?

It would be foolhardy to second-guess what Russia intends to do about the Caucasian HVTs remaining in Syria but what we do know is that neutralizing them was one of the reasons that pushed it to intervene in Syria. Does the fact that it is pulling out all its SU-34  and SU-25 attack aircraft and some of its SU-24s, as well as 3,000 marines, mean that it has given up on that goal?

First of all, taking out HVTs is not a function of the number of mission flown or the tonnage of bombs dropped, but primarily of intelligence. Are Russia’s electronic surveillance assets still in place? Judging by the swarms of Russian drones monitoring the ceasefire since February 27, that’s a definite yes. Are GRU Osnaz ELINT units still there? They have been there since 1957 so it’s safe to assume they’ll be sticking around. Moreover, Russia has moved in assets more tailored to targeted killings than iron-bomb-dropping jets, namely Mi-28N Night Hunter and Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters, both top-of-the line aircraft bristling with sensors and stand-off weapons. When ground assets spot an HVT, these quasi-invisible sniper aircraft can be deployed at night to take it out. The withdrawal of most of its tactical aircraft has no obvious implications for Russia’s determination to go after Chechen HVTs in Syria and it has everything it needs there for the job.

As you may have noticed from the links, I am heavily indebted for this page to Joanna Parazcszuk @joaska_ for her excellent investigative reporting on Caucasus terrorists in Syria. I have merely tried to give a narrative flow to her reports.
Thanks also to Misha @filokalia for pointing me to the Guardian story on the assassination of Khamza Shishani.