Part LXXVI: The Invasion of Syria (1553-1554)
As the Romans advanced further and further into Syria, marching through lands that had not seen their rule in centuries, they met strangely little resistance. David first took this as a sign of God’s providence, but he and his generals soon began to realize that this was not the groundwork for a divinely-inspired victory. The Syrian emirates, rather than rushing into battle and being slaughtered one by one, drew together and waited for their enemy to come to them. As reinforcements came from north and south, roaring maelstrom of war was beginning to form, one that would decide the fate of the Middle East in the decades to come, and moreso the fate of Rome herself….
The Khandarhid Caliphate had existed as a functional state for a scant few years by the time of David’s invasion, and its limited bureaucracy--much of it inherited from the old Mamluk Sultanate--limited its direct control to Egypt and the southern Levant proper. Much of its fringe was controlled by effectively autonomous vassal lords, especially in Anatolia, the Hejaz and Syria. The largest cluster of these vassal states was in Northern Syria, where they formed a bulwark and a buffer against the Qutlughids and the Rumites, shielding the more valuable territory in the caliphal heartland from raid and invasion. There were four such states; the Alawite Emirate of Haffah along the Syrian cost, the Emirate of Homs in west-central Syria, the Emirate of Aleppo in the far north and the Emirate of Damascus in the south, albeit stretching across the desert to the western edge of Iraq. al-Hakim played these states off each other, content in the knowledge that a major revolt was unlikely since the neighbors of whichever state tried to revolt would invade and crush it before it could spiral out into something major. As such, he felt confident enough to appoint one of his cousins, Harun al-Khandarhi, as Emir of Aleppo, despite the risks of an usurpation that giving a relative power in a frontier zone posed. This would be both a blessing and a curse.
Firstly, Harun was a capable commander and administrator, and when the Romans crossed the Euphrates in the spring of 1553 he was smart enough to realize that rushing in to attack them immediately would be suicide. Instead, he gathered as many of his men as he could, sent demands for aid to Homs and al-Haffah, and word of the invasion to Cairo via sea, then pulled back towards his capital at Aleppo, hoping to lure the Romans away from their supply lines so they could be enveloped, or better yet destroyed piecemeal. With forces totaling only 22,000--12,000 Aleppans, 4,000 Homsites and 6,000 Haffans--this was the best strategy he could’ve chosen, and it briefly seemed to be on the verge of success, as April came and the Romans had neither forced a battle nor laid siege to anything that could not be recovered.
However, it was also a curse, as in appointing his cousin as emir of Aleppo, al-Hakim had neglected to install him in Damascus. Damascus, and much of southern Syria, was ruled by Ashraf al-Ghazali, the grandson of the region’s last mamluk governor and the self-proclaimed Sultanate of Syria. While the Ghazalis had been cowed by the overwhelming force of Egypt, Ashraf still dreamed of the glory and power which his dynasty had once held, and had every intention of reclaiming said prestige while killing every Egyptian possible in the process. al-Hakim had inflicted the sort of moderate wound which hardens a man’s heart, but had failed to deliver the mortal blow which would prevent him from acting upon it. As David’s army crossed the frontier and as forces began to be shuffled around to meet the invasion, Ashraf smelled blood and began quietly mustering out his own armies and hiring the services of the desert tribesmen….
David, like all Romans, was ignorant of this. By April, his men had advanced to Kiliza (Kilis), a small fortress town that lay less than seventy kilometers from Antioch, but in doing so had taken several weeks longer than anyone had expected. The Aleppans had carted all grain and pretty much everything edible behind city walls or burned it outright, leaving the army in a poor logistical position. Several cities and fortress of note had been taken--Nizip, Antep, Rumikale, and even Manbij, which had been found abandoned by a qizilbash force and subsequently garrisoned--but the Romans had yet to see hide or tail of any army sent out to meet them. With no immediate victory to be had, David could almost feel the morale of his men slipping as he and they both began to fear they were walking into a trap. After a council of war in Kiliza, the Romans decided that the original plan, to attack Antioch and Aleppo at roughly the same time, wasn’t feasible, not that anyone had really been that attached to it anyway. They would march directly on Aleppo, either take the city or force battle, and open the road into the heart of the Levant.
On 6 April, the Romans reached Azaz, a relatively small but well-fortified town defended by fanatically loyal Turkmen. After a cursory bombardment, David realized that he wouldn’t get anywhere and prepared to move on: however, an artilleryman named Iasonidis observed that it had been a dry winter, that Azaz would be of little use to them anyways but could pose a serious danger if left intact, and within a day the large grain stores behind the walls had turned the town into an inferno. The Romans pressed onward towards Aleppo, and Harun was supposedly woken in the middle of the night on the 7th with word that Azaz had been destroyed. He had been relying upon Azaz and the nearby fortress-town of Afrin to stall the Romans until reinforcements arrived from Cairo and Damascus, but evidently he would have no such luck. The force he had assembled was too large to withdraw within the city entirely, as it was already choked with refugees, the support fleet couldn’t possibly arrive in time, and Ashraf was being infuriatingly cagey with his plans. He had to either offer battle at Aleppo despite bad odds or retreat to Sarmada and pray his capital could hold out. Reluctantly, he chose the former.
On 12 April, Roman scouts returned to camp telling of an army camped out on the plains to their south-east, a bit to the north of Aleppo proper. Further investigation revealed an estimated 20,000 Khandarhi soldiers spread along the east bank of Queiq River, which had dwindled to a glorified stream after two years of poor weather, arranged behind a rather impressive series of earthworks. With the land around his city not exactly full of force multipliers, Harun had drafted the people of the city into digging out a series of trenches, palisades and other earthworks, helping alleviate his numerical defects, to some extent. He also possessed superiority in cannonade, albeit by a slim margin. The Syrians were arranged with the Alwaites as their own formation on the right/northern edge, the Halabis in the center and left/south, and the Homsites as a reserve and blocking force behind them, with what little Bedouin and Mamluk cavalry that had been scrounged up across the earthworks as a screening force. David sent feelers across the lines to the enemy commanders, then arranged his forces to give battle, overloading his left/northern flank with light horse and infantry while leaving most of his heavier infantry on his center and right. Battle was joined the next day, 13 April.
With no artillery preamble such as usually preceded a battle, the Romans advanced in the early morning twilight, armor hastily muffled and relying upon drill and whispered commands rather than the usual shouts and trumpets. Several bandons became disoriented and fell out of formation, but the lion’s share of the force was in position when the silent dawn was shattered with clarion calls, surging forward and charging the earthworks as the Syrians scrambled to man them. Fierce fighting ensued, in some places breaking down into dozens of individual duels as orders and formations were lost in the chaos and screams in Greek and Arabic, but for once the weight of numbers was on the Romans’ side where it counted and after a few bloody minutes they broke through in the south, capturing the earthen ramparts and hastily wheeling the cannons there around to fire down into the Syrian reinforcements swarming up to hold the line. Meanwhile, now that there was enough light to properly move, the traitorous Alawite commander, Husayn al Shughuri, sounded the order to retreat, allowing the horsemen and the skirmishers on his Roman opposite to flood in through the gap he left and pin down the edge of the Aleppan right flank, threatening to roll up the entire Syrian line just as Harun was struggling to hold the left. Orders flew up and down the line as forces rushed to take up positions, and a fatal mistake was made by the Homsite commander, Iskandari, who was caught trying to reinforce three segments of the line at once. He ordered his men to pull back to try and reposition themselves, but all the men in front of them saw was the ranks behind them suddenly scampering backwards. Morale collapsed, and within minutes the Syrian center was streaming southward, towards Aleppo and coincidentally towards the captured battery. An absolute slaughter followed as men trampled each other trying to escape, only to emerge directly in front of the enemy cannons, and several hundred were killed before the Romans were finally driven back. The survivors fled into Aleppo or the wilds to the east. About 8,000 Syrians and 3,000 Romans were killed, while thousands more of the former disappeared into the desert.
The Battle of the Queiq was a clear-cut Roman victory, but a very hard fought-one as well. David’s men were in no shape to move on on the 13th despite having routed the enemy before noon, and it took until the 14th for them to move the few scant kilometers south to Aleppo. They need not have worried, though, as with Haroun missing and presumed dead his secretary took command, offering the Romans tribute in exchange for not sacking the city, completely unaware that the Aleppans outnumbered the Romans two-to-one and the latter were in no state for a siege. Quickly thinking it over, David demanded tribute in the form of grain, coin and valuables to feed and pay his men, as well as the installation of a token force of 800 men (most already on punishment duty) in the citadel. The latter held little value--after all, there were some 75,000 people within the city walls at any given time, not to mention the war refugees and the remnants of Haroun’s army--other than focusing any Aleppan resistance inward, rather than allowing them to pose a threat to the Roman rear.
With Haroun missing and the Aleppans rudderless, the Homsites a spent force and the Alawites currently making their way back over the mountains, the road southward was effectively clear. There was still the possibility of Khandarhi forces being sealifted into the Roman rear, but David was sure that God would not let such a thing foul his advance now. The Romans, now numbering a little under 25,000 marched further into Syria, making better time now that they could support themselves off the countryside. The small groups of militiamen that organized as they approached either withdrew in the face of overwhelming odds or were batted aside with ease, while most of the fortresses en route either hunkered down and tried not to get involved or were, again, battered aside with ease. They reached Hama on 8 May, then Homs five days later, where David made contact with Ashraf, who had seized the town only a few days before under the guise of protecting it from the Romans. The two men quickly calculated that they would be better off letting their enemies bleed each other and warily continued on their way, David to the Khabir Valley and Ashraf to Masyaf.
The seaborne invasion force which had been sent to repel David had in fact landed in early May. However, because of a miscommunication about the Romans’ location, its admiral, Tariq ibn Nashid had chosen to bypass Latakia and instead sail for Iskandarun, the seaport of Antioch--and a Rumite city. The Khandarhis landed 10,000 men in a city that had been seized by the Savonese after a local dispute, seized it in turn and installed a garrison in preparation for marching over the mountains to Antioch and then onwards to interdict the Romans. However, the next day a Venetian fleet arrived in the harbor, having been dispatched to seize the city themselves, and a battle ensued that saw most of the Khandarhi fleet burned at anchor. Three days later, 15,000 Rumites arrived from Adana under Kadir himself. The resulting battle saw the Khandarhids chased into the sea, their surviving ships and guns seized and all prisoners slaughtered; supposedly, fishermen would find rings of mail in their catch’s stomachs for years to come. Thus ended the primary Rumite contribution to the war, at least on the Syrian front.
Meanwhile, as June began, the Romans advanced along the Lebanese coast. David had hoped that doing so would rally the region’s significant Christian population to his cause, but the Maronites were slow in taking up arms, fearing that David’s success so far had been a mere fluke, and that like those who had supported the Crusaders before they would eventually be rounded upon and abandoned to persecution as soon as the region was retaken. Nonetheless, the string of victories gave enough hope for some to take up arms and join him, and cowed several of the coastal cities into surrendering without a fight. Rather than spreading himself thin, he extracted light tribute from most of these cities, concentrating his resources on the Mina of Tarabulus as a supply port and garrisoning it with three bandons. The local Venetian merchants were more than happy to bring in food at severe markups, something which David could afford to do in the short term because of his loot and pillaged goods from Syria. In doing so, he helped reduce the burden upon the locals, which he hoped would entreat more of them to join his cause. It worked, and things were going quite well as he swept down the difficult terrain of the coast in June and July.
Then he reached Beirut.
Ever since the decline of the Mamluks, Beirut had been held by the Ma’anids, a local dynasty of Druze mystics who were high on the hit list of pretty much everyone in the region. During their years of governance, they had turned Beirut into a true fortress city, with a series of overlapping land and seawalls defended by fanatical tribesmen who saw weapon training as a religious duty. Already on thin ice with Cairo and suspecting that David’s string of miracle victories was just that, the sitting emir, Yunis, refused to submit to the Romans. Beirut was too large to be left in the rear, as it could allow thousands of Khandarhi soldiers to land in their rear and attack, and so David refused to advance. He ordered a round-the-clock bombardment of the walls, and when that failed to make headway, sat down for a siege while he tried to find a way to take or disable it. He would spend the next eight months banging his head against the walls, and even as outriders captured Sidon and Tyre, Beirut remained too strategic to leave in the rear.
Meanwhile, in Cairo, a crisis of confidence was at hand. The Khandarhid Caliphate was already beset with problems on all sides--rebellions in the Hejaz, a brutal war against the Nubians arising from an attempt to force them to convert, and a war with the Venetians--and this string of humiliating defeats to the Romans and even worse, the Rumites, was inauspicious at best. Even worse, the already senile caliph al-Hakim was found dead in his bath in November 1553, which plunged the realm into a succession crisis lasting the better part of the next three months as his sons struggled for control, during which Ashraf would finally declare his independence. Finally, in February 1554, Ibrahim ahl Suleyman returned from Anatolia with much of the region’s 15,000 garrison troops, joined shortly by the Cairo garrison. He unceremoniously executed his nephews and installed himself as regent for his own son, Khalid, then sued for peace with the Nubians on the ground of restoring the ancient Baqt Treaty, freeing up tens of thousands of men, and turned his gaze northward. There would be no more half-assed attempts to stop the Romans, and there would be no more half-assed governance by vassal emirs. He held every card, and it was about time he played them….
 al-Shughuri was one of the few survivors of the alt-Telal Massacre, in which the Aleppans massacred tens of thousands of Alawites in 1523. Neither he nor his emir had any intention of actually helping Haroun, and were instead waiting for their sudden betrayal to have the most impact.
 Islamic jurisprudence rather strictly forbid an uncle from usurping his nephews, and no matter how Ibrahim really felt about this he was trying to run a Caliphate and couldn’t just flaunt the law