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NightWatch 20120330

NightWatch

For the night of 30 March 2012

Japan: Update. Japan's defense minister Friday ordered missile defense units to intercept and shoot down the North Korean space launch if the rocket or any fragments threaten Japan. The North Korea intends to conduct a launch on or around the date of Kim Il-sung's 100th birthday on 15 April. A US State Department spokesman indicated the US stood with Japan concerning this order.

North Korea: North Korea test-launched two short-range KN-01 anti-ship missiles from a west coast test range on Thursday, 29 March. The missiles are assessed to have a range of 74 miles.

Comment: North Korea routinely tests systems for reliability at the end of the month. However, it also times launches to show its displeasure, apparently in the belief that its enemies will take notice and understand the implied message. In context, these launches seem to represent the North's judgment about the nuclear security summit that just ended in Seoul. No one cares.

Afghanistan: A police officer in eastern Afghanistan shot dead nine of his colleagues as they slept Friday morning and then fled in a government vehicle full of guns and ammunition, according to Afghan and American officials. The nine had been drugged earlier

Comment: Fratricidal killings either are becoming more common or are not being covered up as well as in the past.

Syria: Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Friday said that the Arab and international effort to end the Syrian crackdown on the opposition has turned from demands for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to leave office to efforts at achieving a political settlement. Nasrallah said the Syrian rebels lacked the capability to overthrow Asad's regime and that foreign powers would not intervene.

Comment: Nasrallah's evaluation corresponds to the consistent NightWatch judgment for most of the last year. The high water mark of the opposition was late last year, when rumors suggested Alawite officials and Asad family members were fleeing the country. Those now appear to have been exaggerated or deliberately deceptive.

The opposition never secured a base and failed to carry the fight to Damascus, except sporadically. Fighting will continue, but the opposition will be reduced to a law and order problem, based on current trends. Asad will be the first civilian Arab leader to survive an Arab spring uprising.

The Arab leaders, except Saudi King Abdallah, appear to have concluded they would rather deal with the situation they know than face the uncertainty of a successor, likely fundamentalist, Islamist regime.

Mali: Update. Junta leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, on Friday confirmed the fall of the northern town of Kidal, hours after reports of its invasion by separatist Tuareg rebels. He claimed that he ordered soldiers to leave the city to spare the civilian population. Other sources said the soldiers threw down their guns and ran and the residents of Kidal welcomed the Tuareg fighters. The Tuaregs told the residents to continue business as usual, according to one account.

The junta leader made the confirmation when appealing for external help at a press conference, during which he said the army needed foreign assistance to secure its civilian population and territorial integrity from Tuareg rebels.

Other sources said Tombouctou (Timbuktu) is encircled by rebels and that Tuaregs are heading for Gao, both in the north.

Comment: Mali is in much greater danger of fragmentation than before the coup. If the Tuaregs secede in the north, the army will need to fight a civil war to try to restore national unity. Alternatively, a successor government may have to negotiate a Sudan-style solution, which resulted in independence for South Sudan.

Spain: Police clashed with protesters in a number of Spanish cities on 30 March during a second day of demonstrations against labor reforms. Unions said 800,000 people attended the protest in Barcelona, but police said 80,000 attended. Unions said 900,000 people protested in Madrid. The government did not offer any figures.

On Thursday, workers staged a general strike, the first since September 2010. Organizers said 77% of the 20 million workers honored the strike and a million participated in demonstrations in all major cities.

The government said 176 people were arrested, including 58 in Madrid. Despite violent clashes in Barcelona, only one person was reported injured.

The conservative Peoples' Party government under Prime Minister Rajoy announced on Friday its new austerity budget for the coming year. Finance Minister Montoro announced $36 billion in spending cuts and tax increases to reduce the deficit from 8.5% of gross domestic product to 5.3%. He announced increased taxes on large companies, increased court fees, higher electricity tariffs and another freeze on the salaries of civil servants.

New regulations that strike at union power will make it easier for companies to lay off employees and cut severance pay.

Comment: The most immediate problem for the conservative government is to correct the phony book keeping practices of its Socialist predecessor under Jose Zapatero who was voted from office last November. Only taking office did the new government learn that Spain failed to meet its EU-mandated deficit target of 6% last year, prompting this year's more severe austerity measures. 

Beyond that, unemployment is 23%, the highest of any eurozone member state. Among people under age 25, unemployment is reportedly 45%. Citigroup analysts predict the economy will contract by 2.7% in 2012. Spanish leaders are hoping to avoid a bailout, but many analysts think it is unavoidable.

The general strike in September 2010 had some effect in slowing labor "reforms" by the Zapatero government. Thursday's general strike had no immediate effect, but union leaders announced they will hold more strikes. Comparatively low consumer prices have helped, but that condition will not last if gasoline and other fuel prices continue to increase. When large numbers of workers cannot make ends meet no matter how hard they try, they will start to become more radicalized. More and more violent demonstrations are likely.

Meanwhile the Greek Prime Minister said he fears Greece will need a third bailout before the economy stabilizes.

End of NightWatch for 30 March.

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