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A Compendium to Military History: free taster sample

John Hughes-Wilson and his literary agent, Andrew Hayward at Court Publishing Services, are developing a dynamic, multimedia, freemium product under the auspices of the Guild of Battlefield Guides (of which the author is a past President) called Compendium to Military History.

Some taster content will be free, like this blog post; whereas access to detailed content – including audio and video clips – will be paid for via a cheap, monthly subscription.

For more details about how to subscribe to the full Compendium to Military History project, please send your name and email address to Andrew Hayward at: andrew.hayward21@yahoo.com

Introduction

Military history continues to fascinate. 

Indeed, at a time when, certainly in the West, fewer and fewer people have actually served in the armed forces, the subject seems to have actually grown in popularity. As Dr Johnson pointed out, ‘No man [and increasingly it would now appear, some women] but thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ 

However, that alone doesn’t account for our fascination with war. The real truth may lie much deeper, in our uncomfortable realisation that war and conflict are really an inbuilt part of our make-up. Fighting and war has always been humanity’s darkest group activity.

This book doesn’t seek to glorify war. On the contrary, it records many of the horrors of war. But over thirty years of soldiering – plus over 150 battlefield tours – have taught me that war and soldiering are not all bad. Soldiering can be rich in the finer things of life, too: comradeship; comedy; heroes and idiots; eccentrics; self-sacrifice and endurance; good and bad luck; sometimes even a sense of being a better person, or serving a greater cause. But, above all, humour: my old sergeant major used to say that if he didn’t get three good laughs a day out of the army, he’d quit. He soldiered on and took his pension.

This may partly explain the interest in a subject devoted to what is otherwise really just a long and dismal record of breaking things and hurting people – because that’s what war is. 

So, this compendium of facts and stories seeks to entertain as much as educate, while guiding the reader down the long path of things martial from the dawn of time. It’s part of what we do as a species, whether we like to admit that truth or not. 

I have arranged it as a series of crisp little ‘factoids’, little stories that I hope will interest and entertain. It tries to follow a chronological trail, covering the whole sweep of military history. That’s an impossible task; but at least our selection is not all about the West. For example, the Chinese invented – and used – gunpowder long before Roger Bacon and his fellow monks wrote about it. And the Koreans had a fighting ironclad in the water long before the Europeans ‘invented’ one. That means that the scope is global, which makes the subject a huge field. So, although I have tried to highlight the little known and the unusual as much as possible, the range of possible entries is so great that sometimes it’s been hard to pick out the best stories.

The result is that some of the entries are serious, some are grim and some are just plain daft, because I have to confess to occasionally being drawn to the odd and eccentric. Maybe that’s a reflection of the fact that wars are fought by real people, and real people sometimes behave very oddly indeed. Who, for example, could believe that one successful general, not so long ago, was given to walking around stark naked with an alarm clock tied round his neck while munching a raw onion?  But he did.

As far as possible I have tried to stick to facts from solid sources. However, I haven’t the slightest doubt that some of the entries will be argued over. That’s inevitable; but then, after all, history is ‘the never ending argument.’

One final point: I wish that I had had a book like this when I first started leading battlefield tours. It would have made my life so much easier.

Table of contents

  1. The Ancient World 
  2. The Man on Horseback 
  3. Fortifications 
  4. Artillery
  5. Engineers
  6. Land 
  7. Naval 
  8. Airpower 
  9. Battles and Campaigns
  10. World War I
  11. World War II
  12. Weapons
  13. New Weapons: New Wars?
  14. Intelligence
  15. Logistics  
  16. Prisoners of War
  17. Warriors:
    • Spartans
    • Knights Templar and the Orders
    • Janissaries
    • Mamelukes
    • Cossacks
    • Vikings
    • French Foreign Legion
    • SS 
    • Plains Indians
    • Ghurkas
    • Samurai/Ninja
    • Zulus
    • Kamikaze
    • Special Forces
    • Marines
  18. The Exotic East – India, Japan and China. 
  19. Those Other Things:
    • Courage, Cowardice, Pacifism
    • Disease, Casualties and Death
    • Victory and Defeat
    • The Media 
  20. The Dark Side of War
  21. Who Said That? Selected Quotations  
  22. The Weird and Wonderful: Military Eccentrics
  23. Trivia, Curiosities and Medals

Sample factoids

Chapter 1: The Ancient World

War: a universal fact

Chimpanzees fighting

Watching indigenous tribesmen in places like Borneo we can be pretty sure that Stone Age men fought each other for territory, women and food, brandishing stone clubs and spears made of sharpened wood. Although we have no record, there is little doubt that different tribes have made war on each other from the dawn of time. Nowadays the battles of Brazil’s Yanomamö and Borneo’s Maring tribes are living examples of the fact that war between humans is ‘a timeless universal activity’.

When anthropologists pose the question, ‘Why does mankind fight?’ one standard answer is, ‘Because it can.’ Even aggressive chimpanzees and peaceful gorillas fight bloody battles for food, territory and females. Some of the anthropologists even claim that war is merely the most extreme form of Darwinian competition, and therefore – in evolutionary terms – can be seen as a good thing. Hmm… 

Chapter 2: The Man on Horseback

Definitions

The phrase ‘The man on horseback’ is generally taken to have two clear meanings: literally, the warrior on his horse; but also, figuratively, to mean the involvement of the military in politics, after Samuel Finer’s seminal book of that title: The Man on Horseback. This an image that has dominated war and societies for centuries – and for very sound reasons…. The man on horseback can be dangerous.

Advantages of cavalry

A mounted soldier has three big advantages over an infantryman on the ground: He’s big and powerful; he can move quickly from place to place; and, within a mass, he can be very frightening. Some idea of this can be gained from a close-up experience. Visitors to the Stibbert Collection of arms and armour in Florence rarely fail to be impressed by the life-sized cavalcade of armoured knights on horseback that dominates the main hall. Looking up at these menacing armed men looming above the close-in pedestrian observer, the visitor suddenly gets a taste of what it must have been like to be confronted up close with the grim reality of the armoured fighting man on horseback.

Chapter 4: Artillery

Origins

The word ‘artillery’ seems to come from Artillier – a ‘builder of war machines’ – according to the manuscript of Etienne Boileau on the Guilds of Craftsmen in France, written in 1268.

The first artillery was mechanical, not powered by chemical explosives. Long before gunpowder was known, soldiers used various methods of hurling projectiles at their targets. There were three main methods: the spring; the twisted cord; and the counterweight or lever.

The Greeks used ‘arrow-shooting machines’ from the mid-fourth century BC onward. Aeneas Tacticus mentions their use in his treatise on siegecraft written around 350 BC, and Athens’ Arsenal is recorded as having a number of catapults in store capable of shooting bolts of varying size by using animal sinews as springs. 

Ballista-type catapults were basically huge crew-served crossbows that could fire heavy metal arrows or darts at a flat trajectory (and with considerable accuracy) against their targets. This is the origin of the modern word ‘ballistic’. 

The Romans started to use catapults by the 3rd century BC and even mounted ballista catapults on their warships

Chapter 5: Engineers

Mottos

Quo Fas et Floria Ducunt (Where Duty and Glory Lead) – motto of the British Royal Engineers

Essayons! (Let’s try) – motto of the US Army Corps of Engineers

A brief history

The word ‘engineer’ comes orignially from the Latin ingeniarius or ingeniator, the name given to the military engineers who constructed roads, camps and siege equipment for the Roman Army.

The White Tower

In 1078 William the Conqueror employed a monk called Gundolf of Bec to build the White Tower in the Tower of London, describing him as ‘competent and skilled at building in stone.’  Gundolf took the title of ‘King’s Engineer’ from Waldivius, who had pre-fabricated forts for the Norman invasion as depicted on the Bayeaux Tapestry.

By about 1325, the French engine’er – meaning, ‘one who operates an engine’ – was used to describe the builders and operators of military machines such as mangonels, catapults, etc.

Rights news: Military Intelligence Blunders new edition

Front cover for the second edition of the book

As of Friday, 20 May 2022, Bonnier Books UK have signed a contract to do a third and updated edition of Military Intelligence Blunders to include references and analysis of military intelligence communication prior to Russia invading Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

In war the law is dumb

Silent enim leger inter arma

Possibly the most used historical quotation in many tongues is the opening of Psalm 46: ‘God is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble.’ 

Variations of these words, or very similar heartfelt sentiments, have been voiced by frightened soldiers – and not a few civilians faced with death and destruction – for over 4000 years. It makes the point that, after the elemental forces of nature, it is war that most scares humanity – and rightly so. Fear has ever been the universal emotion of the battlefield. Perhaps that is why mankind over the centuries has tried to limit war and control its bloody excesses. However, when societies elect to sort out their political, social and economic problems by resorting to violence, killing people and breaking things, in Cicero’s famous quotation, ‘silent enim leger inter arma‘ or (in its English translation) ‘In war the law is dumb.’

One of the ironies of history has been the urge to try and control behaviour that is by definition almost uncontrollable. Although mankind has tried to devise ‘rules’ for fighting and killing one another en masse, the truth remains that war is still nothing more than legalised murder. After the horrors of the Thirty Years War, Europeans desperately sought to find laws to channel and limit the excesses of the brutal soldiery. But the French Revolution and ‘the nation in arms’ period changed all that. Out went the 18th-century constraints of limited war leading to the full horrors of industrial war. A fight to the death between whole nations and societies was gradually unleashed, finding their ultimate expression on the Eastern Front in World War II, in the indiscriminate fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo and, finally, with the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One effect of mankind’s new ability to obliterate and destroy on an unimaginable scale has been to encourage a new phenomenon: an increased attempt to try and control and limit war by the imposition of laws. Today, certainly in the West, we have teams of lawyers telling soldiers and generals what they can and cannot do on the battlefield. In modern warfare the law – and its all-pervasive lawyers – seem anything but dumb. Calls to indict Putin as a war criminal have eerie echoes of 1918’s ‘Hang the Kaiser!’ and overlook the massive industrial butchery of civilians from the air perfected by the RAF and USAAF by 1945. No nation has clean hands when it comes to the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians: ask the Uighars or the hapless Burmese Muslims. Even Britain has to explain away its legal right to go to war in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Macedonia, Iraq and Afghanistan (among other examples). A ‘UN Mandate’ is a legal right only to those who agree, as Korea made plain.

Indignant, liberal western media rarely asks the key question: by whose law and on what authority do they call for selective legal vengeance on some aggressors? They forget the killing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, let alone the fact that Russia has never signed up to the Rome Convention, setting up the International War Crimes Court. Nor, significantly, has the USA.  

So, anyone who expects the Russians, a proud people, to hand over their Vozhd to decadent western lawyers needs to lie down in a darkened room. Whoever fails to see echoes of the Danzig Corridor in the seizure of the Marienpol–Donbas corridor, or genuinely expects to see Russia give up its link with its only Black Sea maritime naval nuclear base in the Crimea, needs to take lessons in realpolitik and history.

The irony remains that, for those enemies waging their asymmetric campaigns against Western liberal democratic states, ‘the law’ and lawyers are the last thing they ever care about. They just want to slaughter, maim and destroy for their cause, be it territory, populations or greedy economic advantage. Mankind’s atavistic catalysts for conflicts have never gone away. Lawyers’ howls of protest or not, the old Roman was right. It was ever thus. 

Truly the reality remains: in war – real, all-out war, à l’outrance – ‘the law; remains as dumb as ever.

The Kremlin and France

On 8 February 2022, The Times in London published an article by Charles Bremner, Alistair Dawber and Bruno Waterfield with the title ‘Macron visits Putin with a peace plan for Ukraine‘ [paywall].

Here is a contemporary account of the visit reported in The Telegraph on 9 February 2022 by Bruno Maçães: ‘Macron is offering Ukraine a poisoned peace plan.’

Here is John Hughes-Wilson’s response.

Having been a professional Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) Soviet watcher for many years, it is worth pointing out two enduring interests that override all other factors.

First, since 1945 the Kremlin has had a consistent policy of building a ‘glacis’ against the West. Stalin was no fool and that is precisely what the Warsaw Pact and ‘Eastern Europe’ were intended to provide. 

Washington talked openly of ‘fighting the Commies’ from 1945 on. That, and the US nuclear arsenal, frightened the Politburo – and still does.

Second, Emmanuel Macron is merely using the opportunity to press Charles De Gaulle’s agenda of anti-Anglo-Saxon sentiment, based on the latter’s ambition and sense of grievance, summed up by his dream of ‘a certain idea of France‘ contained in the first line of his memoir.

Macron see his chance as President of the EU’s rotating leadership to move Paris away from NATO once and for all, to try and cobble together a Europe/EU led by ‘the French jockey riding the German horse.’ 

Berlin, terrified of losing a cheap supply of gas to fuel its economy, is only too happy to slipstream Paris on this issue and stay quiet.

Putin doesn’t want a wider European war – and never has. 

Russia wants, not unreasonably, to reannex the Russian speaking Donbas region – which has been in rebellion against Kiev since 2014 – and to control the contiguous territories bordering Crimea.

So, Putin and Macron’s interests coincide: Putin to weaken NATO and keep the Americans off his doorstep; and Macron to further his Gaullist dream of a permanent French-led EU/Europe.

Kremlin capabilities are not necessarily Kremlin intentions. But external political consequences are not under Putin’s control: witness Finland and Swedens’ forthcoming applications to join NATO.

Letter from Lefkoşa: A new occasional feature

Our guest columnist

Living in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is an experience in itself and allows a view of events rarely – if at all – publicised in the UK press and media. This website will occasionally publish articles by Mr Stephen Day, an ex-Westminster MP who retired to the TRNC in 2006. These posts will offer a unique insight into the reality of life in an unrecognised country.

Stephen Day was the former Conservative MP for Cheadle, Cheshire (1987–2001) and Member of the Tory Whips Office. He successfully brought into law a Private Members Bill introducing the compulsory wearing of seat belts by children, consequently winning the Automobile Association silver medal for his contribution to road safety. Prior to Parliament he worked as a Sales Executive, as a Graduate Member of the Institute of Export. In 2006 he retired to North Cyprus and is currently President of the British Residents Society (BRS). 

He has been a columnist for the Cyprus Today newspaper for the last 16 years.

Lefkoşa is the Turkish name for North Nicosia, the capital of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.

Stubborn stupidity

You would hope that an august organisation like the United Nations, might at last produce a Secretary–General capable of some original thought on the matter of Cyprus. Forget it. There’s as much chance of that as a resident of Lefkoşa being selected for the next crew of the International Space Station. In other words, none at all.

The latest ‘biannual report on Cyprus’ (Christmas, 2021), submitted to the UN Security Council by Secretary–General Antonio Guterres, is about as original as a forged Da Vinci masterpiece. It looks the same, but is worthless. In fact, the late, great, founding TRNC President, Rauf Denktaş, would have recognised every word – from 1983 onwards. The yawns of the Security Council must have been audible in far-off California, never mind in New York’s UN headquarters. 

The Secretary–General is concerned that ‘the faltering economy of the TRNC and the passage of time without a settlement being reached are thwarting reconciliation efforts.’ Well, I never. Get away! For a statement of the blindingly obvious, you can’t beat that, now can you? To some extent, Guterres blames the impact of Covid for that ‘faltering economy’. Undoubtedly so, but isn’t there another important factor impacting on the TRNC? Like the UN’s never-ending enforced diplomatic and economic isolation of the North, for instance? How can you overlook the impact of that? You can’t. It’s what the Secretary–General proposes to do about it that staggers me. Something different? No chance – just more of the same old failure (the mind boggles at the extent of the inertia).

He went on to say that there is ‘a risk that the deepening of disparities between the two [Cypriot] economies may start eroding the basis for important convergences achieved in the past.’ Pardon? What convergences? The so called ‘Republic of Cyprus’ in south Cyprus is still the recognised ‘government of the whole of Cyprus’ (even though it isn’t) and the TRNC doesn’t exist! What kind of ‘convergence’ is that? And what’s all this ‘may start’ eroding convergence? The UN’s (and EU) stubborn stupidity in pursuing repeated failure began eroding the chance of a settlement decades ago. It still does and, if the Secretary–General has anything to do with it, it will continue to do so. Favouring one side with all the recognition and ignoring the existence of the other hardly smacks of even-handedness, now does it? Inviting the Greek–Cypriot President to address the UN General Assembly last year and failing to invite the Turkish–Cypriot President to do the same was a classic example of UN bias. What incentive does the favoured side have to concede anything? It doesn’t. That is why they don’t. The status quo suits the Greek part of Cyprus nicely.

If not achieving a settlement worries the Secretary–General, isn’t it about time that the UN started asking itself why? It should be as obvious as the wart on Oliver Cromwell’s face, Cyprus needs a radical UN rethink. We need a new UN vision, like treating both sides equally and recognising the obvious fact there are two states in Cyprus, not one. 

This shouldn’t be too hard for the Secretary–General to comprehend. For instance, as one writer pointed out last week, ‘the UN supports and advocates the proposal for a two state solution for the Israeli/Palestine situation but rejects ratifying the two state solution in the island of Cyprus, where it actually exists’ [my italics]. Quite! That is amazing in itself – and it is even more incredible that the ‘Palestine’ bit of the equation is divided in itself, territorially and politically, between Hamas and Hezbollah. They are at each other’s throats. Not only that, but Hamas – a militant, so-called ‘Islamic’ terrorist group – rule that part of ‘Palestine’ called ‘the Gaza Strip’ and regularly fire missiles into Israel (Tel Aviv in particular). They receive Israeli retaliatory attacks in return as a consequence. In other words, in Palestine both the threat and the reality of violence exist on both sides. 

How is it right that the UN is quite prepared to grant recognition to two peoples in conflict but not to a Cyprus at peace? There’s no armed conflict here. What message does that send? Chuck a few missiles and bombs around and we will recognise you? I’m sure the UN doesn’t intend that, but that is the consequential inadvertent reality of the UN’s differing attitudes to both disputes. If so, it is literally ‘bloody’ madness!

The UN stupidity goes further. They want Cyprus reunited but under Greek rule. They want Turkey out of the Cyprus equation – especially her troops, whose presence has really ensured fifty years of peace in Cyprus, not the presence of the UN. Everyone on Cyprus knows better than to mess with the Turkish Army. If those troops had not come here, it would have been a ‘Palestine plus’ scenario! Turkey could have taken the whole island. They didn’t. They simply saved the Turkish Cypriots from extinction. That is the reality. That is the truth. Before they came, civil war raged: ethnic cleansing to evict the Turks was rampant. Since when has putting two peoples back together again, who experienced such division and conflict, ever been a clever idea? Never, unless you happen to be the UN.

If Turkish Cypriots remain eternally isolated and treated as some sort of pariah who does the UN think they have to turn to? There is only one place that can help and it’s Turkey: the very opposite of what the UN claims it wants to achieve! Madness incarnate.

The Secretary–General readily identified the current lack of common ground between Cyprus’s two sides and ‘the deepening distrust, both between the two sides and among the two communities.’ He got that right, at least. He called on the leaders to ‘look to the future with pragmatism.’ Well, I never. If anybody is lacking in pragmatism and needs to ‘look to the future’ it’s the UN. For goodness sake, it is blindingly obvious that the UN position on Cyprus is untenable. It is not working. It never has worked. It never will. It has failed, failed and failed again, almost more times than the sun has set. 

It’s time to accept there are two states, Mr. Guterres. There is no other way. Make history and recognise the facts. On the ground, sticking to the same old song is pointless. As things stand, so is the UN. 

One day, someone in New York might realise it.

Turkish Lira: A curious bit of creative accounting?

Turkey’s central bank continues to defy gravity. Its inert rate-setters held the benchmark interest rate at 14% for the fifth straight month recently, despite worsening inflation and the continuing collapse of the Turkish lira. It remains surprising how markets seem indifferent to bizarre monetary policy from the Turkish central bank.

The country’s monetary policy is inefficient and makes no sense. The central bank has no impact on monetary policy. Its policy rate has no impact on market rates.

However, Turkey’s central bank serves as a lira printing house and as the accounting department of the Erdogan administration.

The press picks up on these inconsistencies. One such article was published by Bloomberg – syndicated to Al Jazeera – on 4 January 2022, written by Cagan Doc:

Mystery surrounds end-of-year windfall for Turkey’s central bank

Turkey’s central bank had penciled in an expected $5.2bn loss on December 30, but managed to end the year $4.4bn in profit

Turkey’s central bank posted an extraordinary daily profit of around $10 billion on the final day of 2021, sparking questions on what caused this overnight boon that will trickle down to the nation’s Treasury.

The monetary authority had penciled in an annual loss of around 70 billion liras ($5.2 billion) on Dec. 30 but ended the year with 60 billion liras of profit, an unprecedented change of fortunes in a single day, according to its daily balance sheet. In February, the Ministry of Treasury and Finance – as the central bank’s biggest stakeholder – will begin collecting much of that sum as dividends.

The abrupt turnaround comes after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled measures meant to compensate lira investors for any losses. The Turkish currency slid 44% against the dollar last year, largely as the central bank – egged on by Erdogan – slashed its benchmark rate by 500 basis points since September.

The lira’s depreciation has fueled consumer price rises, with inflation ending the year past 36%, the highest level since September 2002. That’s eaten into Erdogan’s popularity as 2023 elections approach. But even with guaranteed returns on lira deposits, Turkish investors are still holding on to foreign currencies, undermining the Turkish leader’s plan to support the lira without raising interest rates.

Erdogan, who has attacked elevated borrowing costs as a brake on economic growth, pledged to remove the “bubble” from inflation in a speech on Tuesday, calling exchange-rate fluctuations and ‘excessive’ price increases ‘thorns’ on Turkey’s path. His policy of cutting rates to bring down inflation goes against mainstream economic thinking.

The central bank declined to comment on the dramatic move on its balance sheet, which was first reported on Monday by the bank’s former deputy governor Ibrahim Turhan and ex-banker Kerim Rota, both members of the opposition Future Party. Two officials familiar with the matter said it was in line with independent auditors’ accounting advice, but asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

According to Turhan, a possible explanation for the sizable overnight profit boost could lie in the sale of foreign-exchange reserves to the Treasury. The lira’s depreciation makes foreign reserves more valuable in local currency, but that can’t be logged in the profit column until the reserves are sold, he said.

The same amount of dollars would then have to be bought back to maintain the reserves level, Turhan said.

The Treasury’s borrowing program for the current three-month period showed authorities were already expecting 44 billion liras in external revenue next month.

Turkish Cypriots fear the heavy hand of Erdogan

The following article was originally published in The Times on 26 July 2021. It provides a context for the current likelihood of the success of any peace talks regarding the long-running conflict in Cyprus.

Under a punishing sun and the equally searing glare of international condemnation, President Tayyip Erdogan took the salute as the Turkish army paraded through northern Cyprus last week.

Hundreds of commandos marched in file while fighter jets and helicopters flew low and a long column of tanks and armoured vehicles roared past. Chants for the Turkish leader broke out from the crowd that had gathered to watch, many among them clutching placards of his image.

He gave them what they wanted: a raging recap of Cyprus’s bloody history, a diatribe against the hypocrisy of the West and assurances that the north will forge ahead to full independent statehood, torching the UN peace process predicated on reuniting the island. Away from the parade, his announcement that Varosha, once a glittering resort largely owned by Greek Cypriots, will be redeveloped by Turkish companies, has drawn rebukes from the UK, the US and the UN security council.

Plans for Turkish companies to develop the long abandoned resort of Varosha have fuelled fears of a new war on the island.

It was also eyed warily by many Turkish Cypriots, despite the enthusiastic turnout at the parade, which is held annually to mark the Turkish army’s landing on the island during the war of 1974.

For the first time Serdar Denktas was not there; instead, the veteran Turkish-Cypriot politician and son of the founding president of northern Cyrus sailed his boat to a more peaceful part of the island and contemplated the fading prospects for reunification.

“Once people lose hope, some of them look to Turkey, others to Greece. That is a loss for the Turkish Cypriots. Once our generation goes, we are finished,” Denktas, 62, said. “A two-state solution will not give us a heads up. I would love to be recognised but I know it won’t happen. We have to start with a very moderate policy with the Greek side, start working together on environment, health and trade with the political equality we had in the 1960s. Varosha could have been used in this direction. Instead, they open it and don’t care what anybody thinks. [Opening Varosha up to Turkish investors] would bring us to the edge of a new war.”

It is easy to forget that Cyprus, where a million Britons holiday each year, is Europe’s most enduring frozen conflict. Since 1974 it has been split straight through its capital, Nicosia. To the south, a Greek-speaking republic has joined the EU. In the north a complex society, tiny but unlike anywhere else on earth, has emerged.

The self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was founded in November 1983, nine years after Ankara sent troops to defend the Turkish Cypriots in the aftermath of a Greek coup on the island. Rauf Denktas dominated politics there into the 21st century, and like many of his generation was determined to find a way to reunite the island.

Today about 30,000 Turkish troops remain stationed in the north, and while the state remains unrecognised by all but Ankara, it does run a representative office in London. You can fly there only from Turkey, and embargoes mean that it is mostly only Turkish companies which invest there, although a large community of British expatriates own homes. It has become a casino capital despite gambling being banned in Turkey, with 27 of them scattered across the north. There are 18 private universities, which attract scores of students from Africa and southeast Asia; young Pakistani men were among those who came to see Erdogan at the military parade.

After 1974 settlers from the Turkish mainland moved to the island in waves, bringing a more conservative, nationalist culture with them. Their descendants now equal the original Turkish Cypriots in numbers. The total population of 300,000 is still so small, however, that degrees of separation are slashed.

Ersin Tatar, 60, the new nationalist president who was elected with Erdogan’s backing in October and is a staunch opponent of reunification, was once an accountant to Asil Nadir, the Polly Peck boss jailed for stealing £29 million from his empire. At Nadir’s trial, one policeman said that Tatar had shredded papers for his boss. After years of speculation, the Serious Fraud Office in the UK confirmed in 2019 that Tatar was not under investigation.

The south is hardly doing any better. The banking crisis of 2012 prompted the government to sell citizenship to foreigners in return for a €250,000 investment in property; a scheme that was dismantled this year when it emerged that oligarchs and corrupt politicians from across the world had taken the opportunity to buy themselves EU passports. Relatives of President Anastasiades, 74, and members of his government are said to have profited from the scheme.

Russia’s influence has also mushroomed in the south, largely due to Syria’s civil war. It has struck a deal allowing its warships to use Cypriot ports, miles from the British air bases, while Russians are among the biggest citizenship investors. There is even a political party set up by and for Russian Cypriots.

Now there is a tangible sense that this volatile balance is tipping. Elections in the south in May resulted in gains for the ultra-nationalists, while a mounting row over the ownership of undersea hydrocarbons is deepening the mistrust. Even those in north Cyprus who oppose Erdogan’s growing influence say the south bears the brunt of the blame for his interventions.

“Anastasiades chose to put the political conflict aside, ignore the rights of Turkey and those of the Turkish Cypriots in the maritime zones and monopolise all hydrocarbon licensing and partnership agreements. The long-lasting isolationist policies of the Greek Cypriots on Turkish Cypriots and exclusion from the EU law continues to result in a growing dependence on Turkey,” said Fikri Toros, the foreign relations spokesman of the Republican Turkish Party, one of two blocs in the north Cypriot parliament to boycott Erdogan’s speech there last week.

Denktas ran against Tatar in October’s elections in an attempt to rein in Turkey’s influence and keep hopes for reunification alive. He found himself up against the might of Ankara, which poured money and people into Tatar’s campaign. Several opposition candidates, including Mustafa Akinci, the president at the time, say they were put under pressure to withdraw, including through visits from Turkish intelligence officers.

“I grew up adoring Turkey. I wasn’t able to criticise any Turk. When I entered politics and started criticising, my father would get angry,” Denktas said. “If Turkey has a good future, we will have a better future, but I feel we are vulnerable. We don’t have the power to decide for ourselves. We feel a lack of respect from the whole world. When the same comes from Turkey, it breaks our hearts.”

Peace in Cyprus?

Last chance – or just another missed opportunity?

Originally drafted in April 2021

According to the UN there are still two long standing unfinished wars, both halted only temporarily by a ceasefire or armistice. One is Korea; the other is Cyprus.

The Greek–Turkish war on Cyprus of July and August 1974 still remains a legally unresolved international conflict. In Cyprus it was only a UN-sponsored ceasefire that officially ended the fighting. This has been the situation for the past 48 years. A well-armed corps of around 30,000 Turks still garrisons the North, where its deterrent presence ensures peace on the island.

The best hope yet of reuniting war-partitioned Cyprus was dashed in 2017 after reconciliation attempts were brought to an abrupt halt following two years of intense negotiations. On Friday, 29 April 2021 the various parties had yet another round of inconclusive talks in Geneva, Switzerland to end this long running conflict.

The previous round of talks to unite the Mediterranean island ended in 2017 when the United Nations special envoy, Espen Barth Eide, announced that he was terminating negotiation efforts.

“Without a prospect for common ground, there is no basis for continuing this shuttle diplomacy,” the Norwegian former foreign minister said in a short statement. 

For nearly five decades, tenacious and skilful propaganda has managed to airbrush the Greeks’ responsibility for the tragedy of the hot bloody summer of 1974, and the war that followed, out of the history books. The story of Cyprus has been seen only through the distorting prism of the Greeks’ tragic chorus. Turkey has been denounced as the aggressor and the sole cause of all Cyprus’s woes. This is not only untrue, but it makes a lasting solution harder.

At the time, Archbishop Makarios III – the last head of a united Cyprus – himself quite openly blamed his fellow Greeks for the disaster of 1974. After a narrow escape with his life from an assassination attempt by the Coupists, the Archbishop publicly admitted to the UN Security Council that his fellow Greeks were to blame, and he was unequivocal that it was the terrorist leaders of the Greek-Cypriots who destroyed the Republic of Cyprus in the name of Enosis, saying:

 “It was a [Greek] invasion, which violated the independence and the sovereignty of the Republic … The Security Council should call upon the military regime of Greece … to put an end to its invasion of Cyprus.”

Although the wily Archbishop later conveniently forgot his tearful outburst to the UN, not only had he for once admitted the truth about the coup of 1974, but his interpretation of events was – astonishingly – backed by Greece itself. 

On 21 March 1979 none other than the Greek national Court of Appeal in Athens ruled that the Turkish intervention of 20 July 1974 was not only legal but, significantly, was in direct response to the Greek coup:

“The Turkish military intervention in Cyprus, which was carried out in accordance with the Zurich and London Agreements, was legal. Turkey, as one of the Guarantor powers, had the right to fulfil her obligations. The real culprits … are those Greek Officers who engineered and staged a coup and prepared the conditions for this intervention.” 

This Greek judgement supported the Standing Committee of the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe, which confirmed the legality of the Turkish Intervention in Cyprus at the time, confirming that Turkey’s actions were a response to the Greeks’ coup: “Turkey exercised its right of intervention in accordance with Article IV of the Treaty of Guarantee.”

Today, peace around Cyprus can only be secured by recognising the fact that there are now two separate communities. Cyprus is now split into a Greek Republic of South Cyprus and a Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.  

Agreement needs to be centred round the delimitation of the territories of the two States; numerous property claims – by both sides – and compensations; the re-deployment of military forces; and the management of residual issues covered by the London–Zurich treaties of 1960. Such agreements can only be expected once the factual existence of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus has been recognized without any doubt. Therefore, ending the Conflict lies not in the hands of the Greek and Turkish conflicting parties but in the hands of relevant governments, the UN and even the EU.

The core of the Cyprus Conflict however remains in the insistence by the Greek-Cypriots to reign over the whole island and the Turkish-Cypriot community’s equal determination to govern themselves. The problem is compounded by the backing of the respective “motherlands,” Greece and Turkey, supporting the conflicting parties. The UN has assumed the role of additional partner to the conflict and most governments have muddied the waters over the years by embargoing the Turkish Cypriots, instead demanding that they must agree to a common Cypriot State with the Greek–Cypriots: to which Ankara or Turkish–Cypriots can never agree. The EU has exacerbated the problem further by claiming that the whole island is really EU territory and admitting Greek Cyprus into the EU.

The result has been that in nearly 50 years of negotiations, no agreement on conditions for the formation of a joint Greek-and-Turkish State of Cyprus has been reached. Instead, ever since the EOKA terrorist campaign of 1955, (“first the British and then the Turks)  the Greek–Cypriots have employed every means to evict the Turkish Cypriot community or to enforce their submission to Greek rule.

The result is that in order to end the Conflict, only four real alternatives exist: 

  1. Subjugation of the Turkish Cypriots by force majeure to the Greek-Cypriot claims. 
  2. Greek agreement for Turkish self-government in part of the island’s territory. 
  3. Voluntary submission of the Turkish Cypriots to Greek-Cypriot claims. 
  4. The UN, the EU and international governments recognition of a separate Turkish Cypriot State existing in part of the island’s territory without consent of the Greek conflicting party.

Alternative one can be ignored. Experience shows that no power is willing to challenge any armed Turkish resistance. Moreover, the UN, the EU and relevant governments have confirmed they will not violate the de facto-border delineating the separate territories inhabited by the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. 

Alternative two has no little chance of realisation as long as the UN, the EU and relevant governments refuse to recognise the reality of a separate Turkish-Cypriot community.  The Greek-Cypriots are well aware of this loading of the dice and use it to uphold its claim of ownership of the whole island. The status quo suits them economically and politically.

Alternative three is, given the Turkish-Cypriot experience of Greek rule since 1960, a non-starter. Turkish mistrust based on past misdeeds and murders runs too deep to expect surrender by the Turkish-Cypriots to be a realistic option. Moreover, Ankara recognises the geo-strategic realities if the island and can be relied on to block the existence of a Greek-ruled state only 40 miles off Turkey’s southern coast in the middle of a new hydrocarbon field. Another obstacle would be the massive national debt of the Greek Republic of South Cyprus to EU banks and the European Central Bank; this is a major deterrent to any new pooling of economic resources with the Turks.

Alternative 4, recognition of a Turkish-Cypriot separate state, would undoubtedly end the Conflict. However it would also end any claim by Greek-Cypriots to reign supreme over the whole island. Such a solution overlooks two serious problems, however: the deep-seated festering sense of Greek-Cypriot grievance after their defeat by the Turks in the 1974 Cyprus war, (“I want my Grandad’s house in Kyrenia back…”) and second, it would require Athens, Nicosia and Brussels to accept such an outcome. On the evidence that is unlikely as the status quo suits those three parties nicely and has for 48 years.  They have little incentive to agree.

On balance, the only hope for future talks in appears to be:

  1. An acknowledgment by the UN and international community that that there are two sovereign equal states with equal status on the island of Cyprus.
  2. With a level playing field established through the above principle, the two peoples of Cyprus – the Turkish–Cypriots and the Greek–Cypriots – should negotiate freely a mutually acceptable settlement that will create a new co-operative relationship between them.
  3. This will facilitate security, stability and cooperation on the island and the region. There is no way either side will subordinate itself to the will of the other. Future peace and stability lies in recognition of this fact. The parties are equal. 

Despite unrealised EU and international community promises to lift restrictions on the Turkish–Cypriot side in 2004, continuation of the economic embargoes has worsened trust and made a political settlement on the island less likely. Economic, cultural and social restrictions on North Cyprus have significantly worsened trust between the Greek–Cypriot, the EU and international parties. There is a sense of resignation. More talks? Again? After 50 years of fruitless negotiation?   

Don’t hold your breath; a unilateral declaration and decision now seems the only solution. Over to Ankara and President Erdogan to break the logjam … 


Will Putin and Russia invade Ukraine?

Vladimir Putin addresses journalists at a recent press conference

This is the central question politicians and journalists are agonising over. It is a basic problem of intelligence: ‘capabilities’ versus ‘intentions’.

The invasion of Kuwait back in 1991 demonstrated perhaps the clearest example of an intelligence failure of this type: the clear distinction between capabilities and intentions in assessing intelligence. If ever a nation had an obvious, ready-to-use military capability in 1990, it was Iraq before the invasion. In 1991, Iraq possessed an army comprising 5000 tanks, 7000 armoured infantry vehicles and 3500 artillery pieces. There were up to 1,000,000 Iraqi men under arms; ten times the size of the British Army. Iraq had more battlefield helicopters than the RAF and the British Army Air Corps had aircraft combined. It was an awesome military capability.

Saddam Hussein

The intelligence problem about Iraq in 1990 was therefore really quite straightforward. With his legions amassed on the Kuwaiti border, what would Saddam Hussein – the Iraqi dictator with the fourth biggest army in the world – do next?

The intelligence requirement was that most difficult, dangerous and ephemeral of all intelligence requirements: what were the dictator’s intentions? 

The task for intelligence analysts and experts on Iraq was to put themselves into Saddam’s mind. The only ways in which this could be done were either by reading Saddam’s secret orders directly or by recruiting an unimpeachable source as close to the Iraqi President as they dare risk. It was a tall order, but it was essential. What would Saddam do? It was that trickiest of intelligence problems to answer: do capabilities reveal intentions? Only Saddam at the time, as with Putin today, knew the correct answer.

Since Vietnam, the US intelligence community has led the world in collecting intelligence. The ability of the US national agencies, and their allies, to collect information is literally awesome. From satellites overhead to the ‘Mark 1 Eyeball’ on the ground, the US intelligence community collects everything it can on potential enemies. Common sense tells us that today’s targets of attention are Russia, China and Iran. 

A selection of issues of Soviet Military Power

During the Cold War, the most influential (and most eagerly awaited) publication for the Western intelligence community was a document called Soviet Military Power, a glossy red handbook published every year by the US Department of Defense’s DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). For the intelligence expert, this document – which fell in classification over the years until eventually it became an unclassified book given free to journalists as part of Washington’s public relations effort – was an absolute feast of good things: pictures from space of new surface-to-surface missiles being rolled out of a secret hangar deep in the Siberian taiga; close-up snapshots of the latest Soviet tank leaving the factory; grainy photographs of some unknown attack helicopter turning in mid-air over a distant airfield; even a pin-sharp long-lens shot of a sophisticated new, purpose-unknown radar antenna sticking out from the fin of a Red Banner Northern Fleet nuclear submarine that had never been seen before.

It was all there, comprising charts, comparative tables and estimated performance figures. Soviet Military Power was an Order of Battle and Equipment (OOB&E) intelligence analyst’s dream. There was genuine excitement at the arrival of the DIA travelling circus to brief the latest intelligence to NATO senior officers and their intelligence staffs.

Whatever the military value of Soviet Military Power, its publication was not always met with unalloyed joy. Cynics, frequently from the signals intelligence community, would sometimes ask the US briefer, ‘Do you have any new information on Soviet intentions?’ The DIA staffer would then look hurt and mumble something about ‘that not being his Agency’s responsibility, and anyway, who could tell?’ The excited audience would then stare, irritated, at the questioner, and the session would proceed albeit with damage done and bubble pricked. In truth ‘intentions’ was always the real intelligence challenge. The invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the near invasion of Poland in 1981, the collapse of communism in 1989-92, the rape of Kuwait in 1990 and the collapse in 2020 of the Afghan regime all took the intelligence community completely by surprise, despite vast sums of taxpayers’ money being spent on expensive intelligence equipment and resources, plus the highly trained staff needed to operate them.

The problem of divining intentions is both a cultural and a practical one. The cultural problem is embedded deep in the modern psyche as a particular lens for looking at the world. In order to deal with a problem, it has to have three distinct phases. First, there needs to be identification that there is a problem; second, once the problem has been identified, just how big is the issue that has to be measured? Lastly, once the size of the problem is known, what solutions are needed to put an end to it?

The key to this materialist logic is the measurement of size of the problem: quantification. It pervades all our lives and has even extended into the humanities, where computers can now analyse the rhythms of Shakespeare. In Tom Wolfe’s despairing cry, ‘Goddammit! They’ve even started to put literature into a white coat!”

There is an important link here with the intelligence world. The modern world runs on scientific method: it can measure problems that can then be managed in order to solve them. The ‘tangible’ is given greater value than the ‘intangible’. A fact can be measured, proved, prodded or demonstrated. Intangibles are harder: they cannot be exhibited or put on PowerPoint slide at a management meeting. How can you sell an ‘unknown quantity’ to a sceptical Defence Minister?

Human nature being what it is, people in organisations and individuals in general tend to choose to do whatever is easiest to measure and can be most clearly demonstrated. For example, a sales director who tells a CEO he thinks ‘blue cars will sell better than red cars next year’ must prove this is the case if he wants to keep his job as Head of Sales. Hunches count for little, but if he can back up his prediction by saying, ‘I’ve guessed right 18 times in the last 20 years, boss; that’s a 90% track record,’ then the hunch has been validated with quantifiable evidence. If the statement is true, the ‘90%’ is a measurable fact and the CEO would say, ‘these are good numbers.’

This scenario also plays out in the world of intelligence. It is relatively easy to count tanks, ships and aircraft nowadays. The technical problems in gathering such information may be immense and the expense horrendous, but the task can be achieved successfully given enough time, resources and technology to do so. However, it is much harder to assess intentions because they cannot be measured. A politician or diplomat may share something indiscreet at a cocktail party but then change his mind next morning.

Intentions rest on the shifting sands of the human psyche, with all it inconsistencies and frailties. For example, the whole course of world history would have been altered had Adolf Hitler answered ‘Nein‘ in response to the question from his Chief of the General Staff, ‘Do we proceed, mein Fuhrer?’ on 31 August 1939. Intentions are to the intelligence world what ‘fuzzy logic’ is to mathematics.

Not only are intentions difficult to assess – requiring, as they do, access, risk and expense (and even then there is no guarantee that they will be ‘cost-effective’ as they are unquantifiable) – but intentions also defy measurement. In Berlin at the height of the Cold War, some agencies tried to measure their intelligence officers’ success by the number of low-level agents they had recruited. So, an agent-handler running twenty agents, each making five reports a month from the East, (whatever their quality) was valued more highly than an agent-handler with only one source, who never reported at all, but who had access to the East German Communist Party’s intentions should a war ever seem likely. It is difficult to put a high enough value on such a potentially crucial human intelligence source.

In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that hard-nosed intelligence agency managers and their budget holders find intelligence capabilities much easier to deal with than intentions. Human intelligence (HUMINT) is not only difficult to measure, there are no guarantees of success either.

Oleg Gordievski

The second problem about HUMINT is a practical one: it is very hard to do successfully. Consider one example, from the ‘James Bond’ end of the intelligence spectrum: the Gordievski case. Oleg Gordievski was a career KGB officer who was recruited by the British SIS (MI6) and run as an agent in place for six years. The risks both to Gordievski and to his handlers were considerable. At any time he could have been discovered and executed. The value of the information he shared was incalculable and may even have helped to end the Cold War more quickly than might otherwise have been the case. 

However, at no time could the British be absolutely sure that Gordievski was a genuine source and not simply a ‘plant’. Only the passage of time has confirmed that he was 100% genuine and his intelligence equally good. As a HUMINT operation, the Gordievski case stands as a masterpiece of intelligence. But at what cost? How many similar operations were unsuccessful? Yet even if the Gordievski case represents 1 valuable source out of 100 duds, the 1% success rate is worth it in the end if the quality if the intelligence is sufficiently high. So, the takeaway lesson is that HUMINT and intentions both hard to measure and difficult to do. Confronted by a Minister demanding, ‘How accurate is your estimate?’, the Intelligence Officer can only shrug and reply truthfully, ‘It’s the best we can offer, given our sources, Minister.’

All intelligence bureaucracies – certainly the accountable ones – will therefore veer instinctively towards the quantifiable and the easy, certainly when results are hard to prove. People could lose their jobs and pensions for getting it wrong. Much easier just to point to the numbers of all those tanks, planes and ships.

Options for Putin’s next move

All of which brings us back to the current tension surrounding Ukraine. Putin certainly has a military capability to threaten Eastern Ukraine and the Black Sea (see right, map), but what does he intend to do with his resources? His options are clear. First, Putin can bite off the Donbas region, whose population is heavily pro-Russian anyway. Second, he can move into the south and seize the bit of Ukraine that borders the Crimea to its north-west and north-east. Third, he can invade in force and attack all of Ukraine east of the River Dnieper with fierce fighting and serious bloodshed. Last, he can go all out and seize Kiev with an attack from the north. Such a move would be highly symbolic to all Russians: not for nothing was Ukraine (along with other Soviet satellite countries) referred to as the ‘near abroad’ by the USSR. Kiev is revered by the Russian Orthodox Church, but became the centre of a Ukrainian breakaway traction in 2018. Also, despite its Slavic roots and importance, Kiev is considered the most pro-Western and pro-democracy region of Ukraine. This final option would mean an all-out war.

Which option will Putin choose? Much depends on Western reaction, but it is worth bearing in mind that ‘heavy economic sanctions’ like removal of the SWIFT system of monetary transfers would hit German, French and Belgian banks hard but have little effect on Wall Street (a fact with which President Biden is well aware). Last, behind the scenes, Germany intends to keep buying Russian gas at any price and to hell with NATO. The big German industrialists and their political hirelings know which side their bread is buttered.

What are Putin’s intentions?  You had better have a mole in the Kremlin to find out – or else just make a lucky guess.

Welcome to the Next Middle East War

Well, it’s already started. The many wars in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran are beginning to come together into one single, bigger conflict. We are on the road to another war.

The shadow war, which has been going on between Iran and its sworn enemies, Israel and America, ever since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution now looks like escalating. In the last few weeks there have been ominous military, naval, diplomatic and psychological-warfare developments on all fronts. The omens are not good; we seem to be heading for a major bust-up not very far from here.

Intelligence officers use a system called an ‘Indicators and Warnings board’ to monitor events and assess where they are heading. Essentially it is a list of key questions, listing the critical information requirements. Examples might be:

• Are the potential enemy’s warplanes bombed-up and armed?
• Are the pilots on weekend leave?
• Is radio traffic normal?
• Have reservists been called up?

The answers are traffic-light coded – green for normal, amber for abnormal activity and red spelling danger.

Today, the I&W board for the Middle East is not looking encouraging. From Tehran to Tobruk the war drums are beating. Iran, as ever, is at the heart of the problem.

Should another red star be added to the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf?

The narrow Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil chokepoint because of the large volumes of oil that pass through the strait. In 2018, its daily oil flow comprises 21 per cent of global petroleum liquids consumption. China’s gluttonous need for fuel makes the Gulf indispensable to Beijing.

This puts Iran in a strong position geographically; and for decades Tehran has been threatening to block the Straits. In July 2018, Tehran hinted that Iran could disrupt oil flows through the Strait in response to US sanctions and Trump’s calls to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero. A Revolutionary Guards commander warned that Iran would block all oil through the Strait if Iranian exports were stopped.

The USA has been willing to use its firepower in the past. It escorted ships here during the 1980s ‘Tanker War’. America fought its last naval battle in these waters against Iran in 1988. In July that year, the warship USS Vincennes even shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all 290 aboard, in what Washington said was an accident. Tehran said it was a deliberate attack.

This summer has seen Iranian attacks on tankers with the result that now the US Navy is putting together a coalition of nations to counter a renewed maritime threat from Iran.

This US move to build a maritime multinational force to patrol the key sea route across the Strait of Hormuz prompted outrage in Tehran. Iran’s Foreign Minister blamed the US, insisting that ‘any extra-regional presence is by definition a source of insecurity’ and that Iran ‘won’t hesitate to safeguard its own security.’ The result is that tankers are now being convoyed down the Straits. All it needs now to spark fighting is some out of control Revolutionary Guard commander chancing his luck – and the Iranian RGC is a law unto itself.

This is demonstrated daily in Syria, where the long arm of Tehran now reaches as far as the Israeli border. For months now an undeclared low intensity war has been waged by the Israelis, systematically targeting Iranian weapon dumps, training camps and missile sites across Syria. Unfortunately Netanyahu’s professed strategic goal – ‘the removal of all Iranian forces from Syria’ – is fantasy. The result is a dangerous instability, because Israel is confronting a nasty dilemma. An enemy sworn ‘to drive Israel into the sea’ is camped on his borders; and every day that Tel Aviv does nothing to pre-empt Iran’s expansion makes the potential enemy stronger.

Netanyahu has been steadily raising the stakes, ostensibly with the aim of forcing Iran back to its own turf. But what does Israel seek to achieve? Removing Iran’s forces from the entire Middle East? Changing the Iranian regime?

What kind of American backing can Israel expect? Israel is now upping the ante. It was undoubtedly responsible for recent explosions at Iran-linked sites in Iraq. Sabotage or air strikes were involved and Israel stands at the top of the list of potential culprits. Israel is on the verge of expanding its anti-Iran campaign from Syria deep into Iraq to check the threat from the Islamic republic. But any Israeli action in Iraq comes with high risk that it could ignite a major regional war.

So the danger of crossing the line between limited and full-scale warfare between Israel and Iran grows daily more likely, especially now that Hezbollah – Tehran’s Shi’a proxy, currently running Lebanon – appears to be gearing up for a missile strike on Israel’s cities.

To make this devil’s brew more dangerous still, Iran – smarting from increased US sanctions – is now openly accelerating its drive to get a nuclear weapon. The Mad Mullahs, hell bent on war, can just about be contained; but the Ayatollahs with a bomb? For Israelis that is a chilling step too far. It threatens the country’s existence. Israel has made it very clear: it will not allow an Iranian bomb – by force if necessary.

Others in the region are equally nervous of any Atomic Ayatollahs. Sunni Saudi Arabia has the money and technology to build a bomb quickly to deter the Shi’a of Iran; and only last week President Erdogan openly hinted that of Turkey has an interest in obtaining a bomb, adding to worries about the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

If this were not bad enough, everywhere you look in the Middle East there are many other dangerous flashpoints, many of them already the scene of fierce fighting. In Yemen, Sunni fights Shi’a (Saudi versus Iran), as the Houthis become part of Iran’s regional proxy warriors. On the Syrian border, Turkey is already busy fighting the Kurds. Gaza and the West Bank still simmer with anti-Israeli anger. Israel has already mobilised some reservists as a cornered Netanyahu looks for a grand gesture – probably a demonstration of Israel’s military might – to help him form a government after the recent elections.

Even sleepy little Cyprus, sitting secure in the eye of the hurricane, is now feeling the heat. Drawn by the lure of black liquid gold, powerful allies are now jockeying for position. Ankara suddenly finds itself having to confront a Greek-Cypriot defensive alliance of Israelis, Egyptians, Greeks and Italians – plus France and the USA – all hungry to get their hands on the spoils of the huge natural gas reserves off the coast. Gunboats now protect the Turkish prospecting ships as a symbol, a warning and a deterrent.

The truth is we are sitting in the middle of a region set to explode at any moment, thanks to an aggressive Iran-sponsored build-up. The plan appears to be to force Israel to concentrate on dealing with threats to its civilian population – from rocket barrages and commando raids – from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. Consequently, Israel would not be able to focus on blocking the principal surge when it comes.

Now even China is involved. Beijing considers Iran to be its strategic partner in the greater Middle East and vital to China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ across Asia. The PRC knows that the Iranian network of roads, railroads and pipelines all the way to the Mediterranean is a major contribution to the ‘New Silk Road.’ But now, Beijing is becoming increasingly concerned by the sudden possible slide to war caused by Iran’s regional ambitions.

It may not come next week, it may not come next year, but be in no doubt, the Middle East is gearing up for a major war. And it’s important to remember that for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, according to their scriptures, a final battle between good and evil will usher in God’s brave new world, free from sin.

The place for this battle? The ancient city of Megiddo, better known by its Greek name – Armageddon – a real, geological location in Israel….