South Sudan’s path out of civil war?

I’m really into the “can’t write anymore” portion of our August vacation, but I wanted to highlight a piece I posted at LobeLog this morning from former US Ambassador and Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen, on South Sudan. Usually when we cover South Sudan around here, I try to stick to telling you what’s happening because, like Uzbekistan, this is a place I’m still learning about. But the thing that has stuck out to me lately is the degree to which the turmoil in South Sudan revolves around its now-former First VP, Riek Machar (at least according to John Kerry, who says the decision to replace him with Taban Deng Gai was legal under the terms of a 2015 peace deal that ended South Sudan’s civil war).

During the 1983-2005 Sudanese Civil War, Machar led a group that broke off from the main Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which was led by John Garang with current South Sudanese President Salva Kiir as his deputy. Machar was allegedly concerned about the SPLA’s domination by ethnic Dinka (Garang and Kiir are–or were, in Garang’s case–Dinka) at the expense of South Sudan’s other ethnicities, and also by Garang’s decision to closely ally the movement with the government of Ethiopia. However, there is also evidence that Machar was enticed to break with the SPLA by the government of Sudan, though Machar and the people around him have always denied this as far as I can tell. Whatever his reasons, fighting between the two factions produced at least one horrific war crime, when Machar’s mostly Nuer forces massacred thousands of Dinka in Bor in 1991. Continue reading

Off to the great people-boiling pot in the sky


Islam Karimov

Uzbekistan’s president for life, Islam Karimov, either already has or is about to learn that the “for life” part of that title is the real deal. Karimov, known among other things for (allegedly) executing political prisoners by boiling them, has apparently suffered a brain hemorrhage and there are conflicting reports as to his continued existence. But even the reports that say he’s still alive suggest that it’s only a matter of time. He is 78 after all (man, that “only the good die young” thing really does have some validity), and 78 year olds who suffer massive strokes (I’m speculating, but when a regime like Karimov’s admits that the leader has suffered a stroke at all, then you can bet it was a big one) usually don’t go on to thrive for years to come.

Uzbekistan doesn’t get a lot of coverage around here, but that’s more my failure than a testament to its relevance. All five of the former Soviet Central Asian republics are ruled by kleptocratic authoritarian regimes whose commitment to human rights is rhetorical at best, and so the region is constantly viewed as a potential new hot-bed for Islamic radicalization and ergo terrorism. Groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which fell apart last year when part of the group joined ISIS while another opted to continue its alliance with the Afghan Taliban, are testament to the possibility of Central Asian radicalization, and there are occasional worrisome signs from the region. One bunch of guys who are happy to fan the flames about the threat of Central Asian radicalization, a threat that some regional experts argue is completely overblown, are these countries’ dictators themselves. This works for them because they’re able to excuse all manner of abuses on account of “fighting terrorism” with nary a peep from the United States or Europe (in Karimov’s case, supporting the US invasion of Afghanistan also helped his stature with Washington).

Karimov’s death, or at least the stark reminder of his mortality, has kicked off a bit of a tizzy over succession. published a piece on this yesterday that’s worth checking out if you’re interested:

Under the constitution, it is the Senate chairman, currently Nigmatilla Yuldashev, who holds the reins of power while the president is incapacitated. Yuldashev, a former Justice Minister, is one of many anonymous figures within Uzbekistan’s nebulous elites, so the obvious and well-known candidates to succeed Karimov are few.

The succession will likely play out behind the scenes and under the control of the powerful domestic intelligence agency, the SNB, and its director, Rustam Inoyatov. However, the opaque nature of the regime in Tashkent makes it difficult to speculate on who might step into Karimov’s shoes, said Alice Mummery, a London-based independent analyst specializing in Uzbekistan.

“Through his presidency, Mr. Karimov has moved swiftly to remove any potential threats to his power base. This makes it very difficult to ascertain who is a likely successor in the event of his death or incapacitation,” Mummery said.


Obama’s Syria policy is officially eating its own tail

Things are happening so quickly in northern Syria that it’s been difficult to keep up–and, in fact, I feel compelled to say that I’m writing this late Monday night, so that, if none of it makes sense by the time it posts on Tuesday morning, you’ll know why. I’ll update tomorrow morning.

As I am on for-real light posting this week I don’t have it in me to get into the weeds, but the upshot is that, as you know, Turkey invaded northern Syria last week, ostensibly to help Syrian rebels (allegedly Free Syrian Army but it’s hard to know these days) drive ISIS out of the city of Jarabulus, but really to keep the Kurds (specifically the YPG, covered by its multi-ethnic “Syrian Democratic Forces” fig leaf) from driving ISIS out of Jarabulus. If the YPG were to take Jarabulus it would bring it one step closer to its goal of controlling the entire stretch of land on the Syrian side of the Syria-Turkey border, an outcome that Turkey will do pretty much anything (including, we now know, invading Syria) to prevent. The Turks then essentially publicly begged the YPG to give them an excuse to drop the pretense that they were there to fight ISIS and get to their real purpose for being in Syria, to fight the YPG.

Turkey’s invasion, dubbed “Operation Euphrates Shield,” I guess because the Turks figured that name would generate just the right amount of eye-rolling around the world, occurred relatively simultaneously with US VP Joe Biden’s official visit to Turkey. Continue reading

Today in European history: the Battle of Mohács (1526)

and that's the way it was

First of all, let’s not confuse this battle with the 1687 Battle of Mohács, which we’ve previously mentioned. Aside from the fact that the two battles are ~160 years apart, they also led to two completely different outcomes. That Battle of Mohács was a decisive Ottoman defeat that caused Hungary to come under the control of the Habsburgs, cost the life (thanks to a subsequent Janissary mutiny) of the Grand Vizier at the time, and ultimately resulted in the deposition of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV. This Battle of Mohács was a decisive Ottoman victory that brought a big chunk of Hungary under Ottoman control for the next 160 years, ended the royal line of the Jagiellonian dynasty that ruled Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia, and ultimately brought those kingdoms into the Habsburg orbit (at least nominally, since Croatia and much of Hungary were under Ottoman control). Basically, Mohács saw…

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Taking more of a break

This is just a reminder that this blog is still on hiatus through Labor Day (and a little beyond that, actually–see below). Although I still kept posting stuff last week, albeit at a reduced pace, this week I’m actually traveling, and between that and the fact that I’m continuing to interim edit LobeLog I’m not going to have much time left to post anything of substance here. Most of our precious content this week will consist of me reblogging some “this day in history” material and flagging interesting reads from other venues (we’ve got a couple of pieces coming up this week on LobeLog that I am particularly excited about).

So, about the “beyond Labor Day” thing I mentioned above. Here’s the thing: I had intended to use part of the time I was stepping away from the blog to work on an idea I’ve had in my head for a few weeks now, one I’m not going to talk about in detail unless it actually comes to fruition. But I just didn’t have time to do that last week, and this week is almost certainly a no-go. So at this point I am probably going to push my “full-time” return to blogging back one more week so that I have next week, when I’m back to being a LobeLog contributor rather than its editor, to think about this other thing. Thanks for your indulgence.

The limits of international bromance

It’s hard to find a lighter side to the civil war in Syria, but damned if Russia and Iran haven’t given it their best shot over the past couple of weeks. Last week, the Russian government announced that it was flying bombers out of an air base in Hamadan, Iran, against targets in Syria. This might seem like a relatively minor deal, akin to the US flying missions out of Turkey’s Incirlik base (which itself is not all that minor a deal, to be honest, but it isn’t the kind of thing that makes for a big public outcry–or, at least, it wasn’t before the failed coup attempt in Turkey), but actually it was a pretty major event from the standpoint of Iranian public policy. Iran’s constitution forbids, pretty explicitly, the establishment of any foreign military bases on Iranian soil, and while you could say that the Russians were simply using an Iranian base, that’s splitting hairs. It’s still allowing a foreign military presence within Iran’s borders, violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the constitution’s very clear prohibition, which is in place to preserve Iranian independence from any potentially encroaching foreign powers. Iran presumably decided to bend the rules either because circumstances in Syria dictated putting Russian bombers closer to the action or because Tehran wanted to do something nice for Moscow to strengthen their alliance.

Well, it took all of about a week after the Russians announced that they were using the Hamadan base before the Iranians yanked it out from under them. Why? Did Assad finally win the war? Well, no. According to Iran, it’s because Russia went and blabbed about the deal publicly:

But Iran’s minister of defense, Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, accused Russia of having publicized the deal excessively, calling the Kremlin’s behavior a “betrayal of trust” and “ungentlemanly.” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, told reporters in Tehran that the permission had been temporary and “it is finished, for now.”

Russia’s story was slightly different, and this is where it really started to get funny:

In response to the annulment, the Russian military issued a statement saying its planes had already completed their missions.

“The Russian military aircraft involved in launching airstrikes from the Iranian Hamadan base against terrorist sites in Syria successfully accomplished the tasks they had set out to complete,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement. “All aircraft involved in this operation are now on Russian territory.”


“Also, when I cut my finger in the kitchen yesterday, it was because I had too much blood inside of me and I needed to let some out. It was definitely a deliberate thing.”

I mean, come on guys. As propaganda goes, “you can’t fire me…I quit!” doesn’t even meet minimum basic competency standards. Do better.

The Iranian explanation actually holds some water here. Letting an outside power establish a base or use an existing base on your territory is a dicey thing that risks making it look like you’re the junior partner in your relationship, and that’s the kind of thing the Iranian government (and Iranian public) can really get chapped about. To make matters worse, as GMU Professor Mark Katz points out, while Iran and Russia are allies these days, these are two countries that have a really bad history with one another: Continue reading

Today in Middle Eastern/European history: the Battle of Manzikert (1071)

and that's the way it was

We’re in kind of a high season for major historical battles in the Middle East, like Yarmouk, Chaldiran, and Marj Dabiq (there’s another one coming next week). You could argue that Manzikert is the biggest of the bunch, because although it took another 400 years to finally come to fruition, Manzikert set in motion the eventual collapse of the Byzantine (AKA Roman) Empire.

After Yarmouk, the Byzantines retreated to the opposite side of the Taurus Mountains, which separate Anatolia from the Syrian plains to the south, and relied on those mountains, plus the Caucasus in the east, to protect them from further caliphal incursions. And for the most part, this strategy worked; caliphal armies made several campaigns into Anatolia and even besieged Constantinople on a few occasions during the caliphate’s first couple of centuries, but keeping an army supplied for an extended stay on the other side of…

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