South Sudan’s time loop

I know it’s late and it’s Friday, but I’ve been trying to write an update on South Sudan all week and just keep getting drawn into other things, so I’m doing it now. When last we checked in on the world’s newest country,  in ealy July, the fragile peace that had interrupted its ~two year long civil war last August was in danger of collapsing. Forces loyal to South Sudan’s President, Salva Kiir, and his Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) were once again clashing with forces loyal to South Sudan’s First Vice President (at the time, anyway), Riek Machar, and his Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO). Initially Kiir and Machar jointly appealed for calm, but as the clashes continued Machar’s people in particular began to talk as though the civil war were back on.

Then Kiir instituted a unilateral ceasefire, and that seems to have tamped down the worst of the fighting, but it hasn’t brought the country back from the brink of renewed civil war. On July 13, Machar responded to Kiir’s ceasefire by leaving the capital, Juba, and taking his forces with him. And while you could see that as a move to try to deescalate the situation in Juba, it seems that Kiir is more inclined to see it as a repeat of the beginning of the civil war, back in 2013, since that conflict began with, well, Machar and his fighters withdrawing from Juba to go plan and carry out a rebellion. Worst. Time. Loop. Ever. Machar’s people insist that this time around, he’s definitely not planning any kind of armed insurrection, but I suppose it’s not unreasonable to harbor some doubts.

Last Thursday Kiir decided he’d had enough, and he issued an ultimatum for Machar, who remember is (or was; we’re getting to that) South Sudan’s Vice President (in fact his occupancy of that position is kind of key to the peace deal he and Kiir signed last year. Kiir demanded that Machar return to Juba and reoccupy his office, but Machar responded with a hearty “thanks but no thanks,” suggesting that Kiir wanted to lure him back to Juba to have him killed, or arrested, or something unkind. Kiir gave Machar until Saturday to come back and resume his job; when Machar didn’t show, whatever element of the SPLM-IO was still in Juba convened and named another top SPLM-IO official, Taban Deng Gai, as the country’s new First Vice President. Machar took the news about the way you’d expect: Continue reading

What about all these other al-Qaeda affiliates?

J.M. Berger, at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, has a smart piece on where al-Qaeda’s other affiliates might be heading now that Jabhat al-Nusra tronc Xfinity SyFy Xe whoever they are have decided to cut ties, even superficially, with the mother ship. He argues that even if there’s no practical change to Nusra’s relationship with al-Qaeda, the symbolism of dropping formal ties and what that means for al-Qaeda’s brand is still significant, and from a more global perspective (i.e., looking beyond the Syria theater) he makes a pretty compelling argument as to why it’s significant:

The break formalises a dynamic that has been apparent for some time – al Qaeda’s affiliates have become less and less global, and more and more local. The vision of al Qaeda as one big thing has given way to the reality of multiple al Qaedas – in Syria, Yemen, Northwest Africa, East Africa, and the Indian Subcontinent. The affiliates increasingly cater to local concerns and local politics. Even before the break, al Nusra cited instructions from Zawahiri to cease any efforts to attack the West.

So the question now becomes whether those local affiliates will also start looking to break out on their own. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is, as Berger notes, probably the best bet to make a similar move simply because, after Nusra, it is the largest, strongest, best-organized of those affiliates, and the only other one firmly in control of its own territory. And, in fact, AQAP has had a separate brand since 2011 that it uses when it acquires and governs territory: Continue reading

Today in Middle Eastern History: the Second Crusade craps out (1148)

I know some of you were around when these re-blogs were originally posted, but the thing about “this date in history” is that each date comes around again once a year.

Well, leap year…but anyway.

The audience around here these days is about double, or maybe even more, what it was last year, so that means lots of new people who didn’t see these posts the first time, and I think they’re pretty good, so that’s why I keep reposting them. Enjoy!

and that's the way it was

Apart from the Fourth Crusade, which was really unmatched from a pure irony perspective, the Second Crusade (caveat that the whole Crusade numbering thing is really a modern historian’s conceit and not an actual historical phenomenon) can make a serious claim to being the Crusadiest Crusade of them all. It started off with noble goals, completely fell apart in the planning stage, failed entirely in its intended mission, and then fizzled out for good in a battle it had no real business fighting. Called by Pope Eugenius III (d. 1153) in December 1145 (and then again in March 1146), it was supposed to amass an army to head off and relieve the Crusader states from the pressure they were feeling from a Turkic dynasty called the Zengi. Imad al-Din (“Pillar of the Faith”) Zengi (d. 1146) founded this dynasty by getting himself appointed governor of the cities of Aleppo…

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The Jihadis Formerly Known as Nusra


Also reportedly changing his name, from “Abu Mohammad al-Julani” to “George Washington Disney GoodGuy” (Wikimedia | Beshogur)

As I briefly mentioned earlier, Jabhat al-Nusra is no more. In its place is a brand new* organization known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, or “the Front for the Conquest of Syria.” The name change is, of course, secondary to the step accompanying it; the former Nusra has now renounced* its links to al-Qaeda. Nusra Fatah al-Sham leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani explains:

“We have stopped operating under the name of Nusra Front and formed a new body … This new formation has no ties with any foreign party,” he said, giving the group’s new name as “Jabhat Fatah al Sham”.

He said the step was being taken “to remove the excuse used by the international community — spearheaded by America and Russia — to bombard and displace Muslims in the Levant: that they are targeting the Nusra Front, which is associated with al Qaeda”.

Golani said the action would narrow differences with other rebel groups that are also fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

So what can we make of this move? Well the first thing you should be clear about is that unless and until there’s some actual tangible evidence that Nusra Fatah al-Sham has genuinely cut ties with al-Qaeda, we can assume that it hasn’t actually cut ties with al-Qaeda. For one thing, Julani said a number of things in his announcement earlier today, but one thing he didn’t say was that he was renouncing his own pledge of loyalty (bayʿah) to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. These al-Qaeda branches aren’t legal franchisees–their ties to al-Qaeda are based on personal pledges from one leader to another. If Julani hasn’t renounced his, then he’s still on the team. For another thing, al-Qaeda’s leadership gave Julani’s move their blessing: Continue reading

Aleppo besieged: some quick thoughts

Syrian state media is claiming that government forces have now fully cut off the last road into and out of Aleppo, the Castello Road, tightening the government’s siege of rebel-held parts of the city. The most recent blow to the rebels’ chances of keeping that corridor open a sliver, or of widening it again, reportedly came at the hands of the US-allied Kurdish YPG–both rebel and regime sources are saying that the YPG took a rebel-held position in a youth housing complex along Castello Road, though the YPG is saying it did so in response to rebel attacks against them while the rebels are accusing the YPG of coordinating its attack with Bashar al-Assad’s forces.


A somewhat out of date (current as of July 8) map of the situation in Syria (Wikimedia | Gurnotron and Spesh531)

Aleppo was already almost fully besieged, but this just clamps the lid down more tightly and makes the situation for the ~250,000 civilians still in the city just a little more desperate. Needless to say this is about as bleak a situation as the Syrian rebels have faced since the conflict began back in 2011. The rebel-held parts of Aleppo have long stood as the rebellion’s “capital,” at least inasmuch as such a disconnected network of rebel factions can be said to have a single capital. The impact of its loss, and it hasn’t yet been lost but the writing is on the wall at this point, can’t be underestimated. I’m going to be briefly on Alhurra in a couple of hours to discuss these events, but let me make a few points here before I have to go do that: Continue reading

How not to tamp down a conspiracy theory

The case for Russia as the perpetrator of the DNC hack seems to be growing, albeit with a pretty big caveat:

American intelligence agencies have told the White House they now have “high confidence” that the Russian government was behind the theft of emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee, according to federal officials who have been briefed on the evidence.

But intelligence officials have cautioned that they are uncertain whether the electronic break-in at the committee’s computer systems was intended as fairly routine cyberespionage — of the kind the United States also conducts around the world — or as part of an effort to manipulate the 2016 presidential election.

Oh, well, two big caveats, then. That second paragraph is one, but the caveat I meant was the fact that these are the same intelligence agencies that claimed that the case for the existence of an active Iraqi WMD program was a “slam dunk” back in 2002 or thereabouts. When they say “high confidence,” it’s probably time to get a second opinion. In this case, though, the intel agencies are the second opinion–investigations by private security firms have already come to this same conclusion, and while I wouldn’t consider those 100% conclusive either, they strike me as more conclusive than the government’s “high confidence.”

Whether or not there’s real meat to this story, it’s clear that Donald Trump, the leak’s (witting or not) beneficiary, either doesn’t care or can’t stop himself from inflaming things:

Trump, meanwhile, speaking at a press conference in Florida, raised the stakes again, as he appeared to incite Russia to hack into and release Hillary Clinton’s emails from the personal server she used whilst she was secretary of state.

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing,” he said.

“I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens. That will be next.”

The Republican nominee added: “They probably have her 33,000 e-mails that she lost and deleted … I hope they do … because you’d see some beauties there.”


Even the Russian’s can’t hack whatever’s on top of his head

He’s now calling on Russia to hack an American target and saying that he hopes they’ve already done it. This is not exactly the route I’d take if I wanted people to stop trying to tie me to Vladimir Putin–which means, again, that either Trump doesn’t care about the implication or he’s just talking without thinking. I guess either is possible.

In addition to maybe not calling on Russian hackers to commit cybercrimes against Americans, Trump could also tamp down this “Putin’s Man” chatter by releasing his tax returns and showing that he’s not financially connected to Russian oligarchs. But he’s not going to do that: Continue reading

Today in Middle Eastern/European history: the Ottomans get started (1299, or 1302)

and that's the way it was

If you’ve read The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and, you know, who hasn’t, then you may know that Edward Gibbon marks July 27, 1299, as the date of the founding of the Ottoman Empire. It was on this date, according to Gibbon, that Osman I (d. 1326), the Ottomans’ founder and namesake, led his fighters (it would be exaggerating to call it an “army” at this point) on an invasion (“raid” might be the better term) of Nicomedia, which was under Byzantine control at the time (and would remain so until 1337). This may have been the first Ottoman raid into Byzantine territory.

“Osman I,” a portrait by British engraver John Young (d. 1825), via Wikimedia

The date is worth marking as much as a curiosity as anything else, because while Gibbon’s work is a landmark of Enlightenment scholarship, it’s really not much…

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