Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
THE importance of the Middle Eastern region to the present and future course of the war is hardly a matter for debate. Just as during the First World War, the pattern of events in the great area reaching from the Eastern Mediterranean to India may greatly shorten or prolong the period of hostilities. It may be too much to say that the war can be won for the United Nations in this region; but it would be hard to deny that an outstanding Axis victory there, involving the conquest of Suez and the Caucasus, might make the decisive military defeat of the Axis next to impossible.
The stakes are great. An Axis conquest would deprive the Allies of the oil of the Caucasus, Mosul and Iran. Even if the retreating United Nations forces carried out a ruthless "scorched earth" policy so that the Axis could not obtain oil in the conquered fields except after many months of new drilling and construction, the United Nations themselves, already deprived of the oil of Burma and the Netherlands Indies, would find their own fuel problem immensely complicated. Further, the last supply line to Russia, except the sea route via the North Cape, would have been cut, and the German and Japanese forces meeting on the shores of the Arabian Sea would be in a strategically strong position, because they would then be in effeictve control of virtually all of the eastern, western and southern coast line of the vast Eurasian land mass. China would be cut off from British and Amecrian sources of supply entirely, except as a thin trickle of war materials might be brought in through Russia. Under such circumstances the Axis could tighten an iron ring gradually and inexorably about both Powers. The British Isles, Australia, and tropical Africa would be the only bases remaining in the hands of the United Nations from which large-scale attacks, aerial and otherwise, could be launched upon Axis territory; and though attacks so based might serve to harass the enemy, they could hardly bring about his early destruction.
On this chess-board of mountain ranges, deserts, inland seas and oceans, the Allied position may be regarded, without too much simplification, as constituting a single front extending from Libya through Egypt, Syria, and 'Iraq to the Caucasus, where junction is made with the Russian forces. From the Allied point of view this front is essentially defensive rather than offensive in character; for at no point, as a glance at the map shows, is it a front from which an advance can be made easily into enemy territory. Therefore, the basic problem is to establish and maintain as much strength as possible in order to be prepared against any Axis thrust; and -- what is equally, or even more, important -- to use this front as a protective shield for the supply lines across Iran to Russia.
War materials flow through Iran by every available route, for the Russian need is great and the Iranian facilities at best are none too good. Most important, of course, is the much-publicized Trans-Iranian Railway. Recently, many improvements have been made under the guidance of British, American and Russian engineers to expedite the movement of traffic through this all-important artery: the rolling stock has been greatly increased in quantity, new sidings have been constructed, and terminal facilities at both ends have been improved. Since the Trans-Iranian line is standard gauge, neither Russian nor Indian rolling stock can be used, with the result that England, the United States and Australia have all contributed locomotives, cars and other equipment.
At the southern end, the original problem was that of creating adequate harbor facilities at Bandar Shahpur. That terminal port, situated on a small arm of the Persian Gulf, though equipped to transfer supplies directly from steamer to railway cars, was so limited in size that it could accommodate only two ships at a time. Although this capacity has been increased considerably by recent improvements, it has been necessary to provide other means whereby supplies could be transferred from ship to rail. One such device has been the shipment of goods up the Karun River to Ahwaz, a town on the Trans-Iranian line. The Karun flows into the Shatt-el-Arab, as the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates is called, near the port of Khorram Shahr. Recently, this feeder route has been improved by the construction of a rail line from Khorram Shahr northwards 70 miles to Ahwaz. This should relieve the congestion considerably. There also has been a report that the Trans-Iranian is to be connected by a new rail link with Basra, the terminus of the 'Iraq railway.[i]
To supplement the facilities at Bandar Shahpur still further, steps have been taken to make more use of the port of Bushire. This may not offer great future possibilities, however, as ships must discharge their cargoes onto lighters some five miles from shore. Once on land, the supplies are taken by truck across the Zagros mountain ranges, through mountain passes 12,000 feet high, to Shiras and Isfahan, and thence on to Teheran, or are placed on the Trans-Iranian Railway at Qum. It was reported last November that the United Kingdom Commercial Corporation, in charge of Iranian highway transport, had a fleet of 250 trucks at Bushire for this five-day haul northward, and that these facilities were shortly to be enlarged by new truck shipments from America.[ii] There also have been reports that the port facilities at Bandar Abbas, whence a road leads via Kerman to Teheran, are being extensively improved.
The northern terminus of the single-track Trans-Iranian Railway is at Bandar Shah on the Caspian Sea. Never well developed, the port has had its natural usefulness partially destroyed in recent years by the shrinkage of the waters of the Caspian. To remedy this, Russian engineers have built a milelong jetty out into the water, but even this can never make Bandar Shah a key port because of a lack of steamer facilities for the water trip to Baku. More promising is the effort to build a rail connection between the Trans-Iranian and Tabriz, which has direct rail connection with Baku. This spur had been built from Teheran as far west as Kazvin before the outbreak of the war. By September 1941, the line had been extended over approximately half of the remaining 300-mile gap to Zenjan; and it is quite probable that the Zenjan-Tabriz gap is now closed. Even so, there is at Tabriz one of those breaks in
gauge which cause railway maps of this whole region to give a falsely optimistic impression. Despite this, the existence of continuous rail connections between the Caucasus and the Persian Gulf will be of the utmost value in speeding up the flow of goods northward.
Two other routes of actual as well as potential importance are available. During the World War a narrow-gauge railway was constructed from India through northern Baluchistan to a terminus just inside the Iranian frontier at Zahidan (Duzdab). In subsequent years this line was allowed to deteriorate, and it appears that the track was taken up in some places. Now it has been restored, and supplies can be moved over it from Karachi to Zahidan, from which point transportation must be provided by trucks over bad roads north to Meshed and on to Firuze, a place on the Iranian-Russian frontier. A spur railway connects Firuze with Ashkhabad, which is on the main Bukhara-Merv-Krasnovodsk rail line. From Krasnovodsk it is necessary, of course, to move supplies by steamer across the narrow waist of the Caspian to Baku. Despite the difficulties of this route, a first test trip was completed in November 1941, and the press has since reported that the Zahidan-Meshed highway is being hurriedly improved by a force of 5,000 laborers.[iii] Apparently a trucking service, with Indian trucks and drivers, has been created to serve this route.
Finally, an 'Iraq-Iran route is being utilized. From Basra there is direct rail connection via Baghdad northward to Kirkuk. At Khanikin this line runs quite close to the Iranian frontier, and truck transportation from Khanikin over the 600-mile route north to Tabriz is supplied by the United Kingdom Commercial Corporation working in conjunction with a similar Soviet organization. Some 2,000 trucks were reported as operating on this route last winter.[iv] An alternative route runs from Erbil (north of Kirkuk) to Tabriz via the Rowanduz pass.
On the western side of the long Middle Eastern front communications are likewise being improved as rapidly as possible. The most important recent development has been the gratifyingly rapid construction of a coastal rail link between Haifa, where rail communication with Cairo terminated, and Tripoli, in Syria, where rail connection with the Istanbul-Baghdad line is made via Aleppo. This 175-mile line, by now probably in operation, has been constructed in record time. Some 8,000 civilian laborers were put to work on it. Since a great deal of tunneling was necessary in the northern portion, the project was placed in charge of South African engineers who recruited a force of 1,000 miners from the diamond mines of the Union of South Africa.
Two other improvements in this sector have also been recently reported in the press. One is the construction of a steel swing bridge across the Suez Canal. Such a bridge was built during the First World War, but the opposition of the Canal company led to its demolition after the end of hostilities. A further announcement is to the effect that a new rail link "between Egypt, Palestine and Trans-Jordan, improving communications of the latter region with the Red Sea" is projected.[v] Although no details have as yet been announced, a fair inference may be drawn that a railway is being planned between Aqaba, on the Red Sea, and some adjacent point on the Hejaz railway. If so, a future route of water and rail transport would have been established from the important new American base in Eritrea into Syria, by-passing Egypt entirely.
The gap on the United Nations front is, of course, the absence of direct rail communication between the Egypt-Palestine sector and Baghdad. Here the only rail line is mainly in Turkish territory, crossing into Syria at only two points. A direct east-west railway from Haifa to Baghdad was projected a number of years ago, but the 'Iraq Government was apparently unwilling to assume the financial burden incident to its share, and the scheme was dropped.
To complete the picture presented by the accompanying map we must reverse the situation and examine the situation as it appears to the Axis. Assuming the great desirability, in the Axis view, of an early thrust into this region, what are the obstacles and the advantages? Is it possible to envisage a two-pronged offensive drive along both sides of the Black Sea at the same time? If so, will Turkey be by-passed in favor of a direct blow at Syria?
We shall deal with the last question first. It seems unlikely that the Nazis can drive into Syria without going through Turkey and it is rather doubtful that they would do so if they could. Although this war has produced many seemingly unlikely or impossible events, the Nazis can scarcely be able to strike a major invasion blow at Syria without first taking Cyprus and establishing complete naval supremacy in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Syrian coast is too far away from Crete to permit of a successful air-borne invasion based on that island. The distance is too great for the use of the famous JU-52 transport planes; and we may doubt that Germany could put into that theater enough long-range transport planes, especially when unaccompanied by great naval strength, for her to feel justified in making the effort. Further, even if a landing could be made in Syria there still would be no available rail communication with 'Iraq except by violating Turkish neutrality.
On the other hand, an approach through Turkey would offer desirable communication facilities. The last gap in the line from Haydar Pasha (across the Straits from Istanbul) to Baghdad was closed in the summer of 1940.[vi] Moreover, there are direct rail communications across Turkey via Sivas and Erzerum to the southern Caucasus, and the line could be reached not only from the Straits but from the German-dominated Aegean at Izmir as well. The only serious flaw in this route is the lack of a link between Diyarbakir and Mardin.
The key, however, to a possible German drive into this Middle Eastern area rests rather more upon the German-Russian front in the Ukraine than upon the state of Turkish communications. If the front could be stabilized so that the Nazis felt relatively free to move toward the southeast without fear of trouble with the Russians on their flank, they would undoubtedly do so and at the earliest possible moment. If, however, Russian military power is great enough either to threaten, or actually to take and keep, the offensive on the southern section of the front, the Germans may not feel themselves in a position to extend themselves still further by a push through Turkey. In any event, the hurried construction of new Middle East communications will put the United Nations in a better position to mass their maximum strength at a given point against any possible Nazi drive.
[i] New York Herald Tribune, May 3, 1942. On Iranian communications generally, see E. M. Wright, "Iran as a Gateway to Russia," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, January 1942; also The Bulletin of International News, March 21, 1942.
[ii] New York Herald Tribune, November 25, 1941.
[iii] London Times, November 19, 1941.
[iv] New York Times, February 4, 1942.
[v] New York Herald Tribune, May 3, 1942.
[vi] See Philip W. Ireland, "Berlin to Baghdad Up-to-Date," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April, 1941.