Three Tales of the Jewish Spy Ring That Helped the British Take Palestine from the Ottomans

June 22 2018

In the midst of World War I, a few Jews in the village of Zikhron Yaakov formed a clandestine group called NILI, which relayed information about the placement of Ottoman forces to General Allenby’s army in Egypt, helping to ensure the success of his invasion. Just weeks before the British offensive began, Ottoman counterintelligence cracked the spy ring and captured and brutally tortured Sarah Aaronsohn, one of its leaders. Aaronsohn managed to kill herself rather than risk giving up any secrets. Reviewing two recent biographies of Aaronsohn—James Srodes’s Spies in Palestine and Gregory Wallance’s The Woman Who Fought an EmpireAmy Newman Smith highlights what they reveal about their heroine’s character:

Wallance’s narrative allows Sarah to step out of the shadow of her famous brother [Aaron Aaronsohn] and her headstrong colleagues, showcasing her intense focus and sense of duty to her fellow Jews. In Wallance’s telling, NILI was not only the scientist-diplomat Aaron’s project. He describes Sarah’s horrified eyewitness reports on the Armenian genocide as just as central to NILI’s founding as [her collaborators’] hatching plans to aid the British for Zionist ends. Where Aaron paid bribes to and joked with Djemal Pasha, Sarah was convinced that Djemal “would match, if not exceed, the brutality of the dozens of sultans who had ruled the Ottoman empire over six centuries.”

Newman Smith also contrasts the two books with Hillel Halkin’s 2005 book on NILI, A Strange Death:

Halkin, [in contrast to both Wallance and Srodes], underscores how, by defining a life as “historic,” historians elide much that makes a life. His Sarah is not an untouchable heroine, but rather a woman whose “heroism and passion” are “perfectly human.” . . .

Where Wallance and Srodes both place their trust in the established archives, Halkin shows us memorial books from small settlements, township-council notes, pictures found in abandoned buildings, and the memories of those who lived through NILI and the aftermath, as malleable and unreliable as those memories might be. The established narrative is that fear of the Turks motivated those Jews who opposed NILI, even to the point of betraying it. Halkin bids us to look deeper, . . . [by] showing how small-town feuds and rivalries, past hurts, and insults intersect with historical events.

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More about: Edmund Allenby, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Ottoman Empire, World War I


Russia Has No Interest in Curbing Iran in Syria—Despite Putin’s Assurances

July 20 2018

In his joint press conference on Monday with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump stated that in their meeting he had brought up U.S. concerns about the Islamic Republic’s malign influence in the Middle East, and that he’d “made clear [to Putin] that the United States will not allow Iran to benefit from [America’s] successful campaign against Islamic State.” It does not appear, however, that any concrete agreements were reached. To Alexandra Gutowski and Caleb Weiss, it’s clear that agreements will do little, since Putin can’t be trusted to keep his word:

In late June, Russia began to unleash hundreds of airstrikes on [the southwestern Syrian province of] Deraa, in flagrant violation of the U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement that Trump and Putin personally endorsed last November. While Russia struck from the air, forces nominally under the control of Damascus conducted a major ground offensive.

Closer examination shows that the dividing line between Assad’s military and Iranian-aligned forces has become ever blurrier. Before the offensive began, Lebanese Hizballah and other Iranian-backed militias staged apparent withdrawals from the region, only to return after donning [Assad]-regime uniforms and hiding their banners and insignia. Tehran is also directly involved. On July 2, a senior commander of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) died in Deir al-Adas, a village in northern Deraa province along the strategic M5 highway. Persian sources describe him as the commander for the province. [In fact], forces nominally under the control of Damascus are permeated with troops that are at least as close to Tehran. . . .

It’s also becoming clear that Russian aircraft are supporting the efforts of Iranian-backed units nominally under the control of Damascus. . . . Russia has also now deployed military police to hold terrain captured by Iranian-aligned forces, demonstrating a level of coordination as well as Russia’s unwillingness to use its forces for more dangerous offensive operations. These terrain-holding forces free up Iran-aligned actors to continue undertaking offensives toward the Golan.

Reported meetings between militia commanders and Russian officers suggest these operations are coordinated. But even without formal coordination, Russian air cover and Iranian ground offensives are mutually dependent and reinforcing. Iran can’t be in the sky, and Russia refuses to put significant forces on the ground, lest too many return home in body bags. Thus, Putin requires Iran’s forces on the ground to secure his ambitions in Syria.

President Trump should remain highly skeptical of Putin’s interest in serving as a partner in Syria and his ability to do so. The humanitarian relief Putin proposes [for postwar reconstruction] is designed to fortify the regime, not to rehabilitate children brutalized by Assad. Putin also has limited interest in curtailing Iran’s deployment. Russia itself admits that Iran’s withdrawal is “absolutely unrealistic.” Trump should not concede American positions, notably the strategic base at Tanf which blocks Iran’s path to the Mediterranean, for empty promises from Russia. Putin can afford to lie to America, but he can’t afford to control Syria without Iranian support.

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More about: Donald Trump, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy, Vladimir Putin