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NightWatch 20110329

NightWatch

For the Night of 29 March 2011

South Korea-North Korea: Thirteen North Korean delegates, including three volcano specialists, met South Korean counterparts at Munsan to discuss volcanic activity at Mount Paektu. After a day of talks, the delegates agreed to meet again next month.

Comment: Mount Paektu is the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula and is located in northeastern North Korea on the border with China. Its last volcanic eruption occurred more than 100 years ago. The talks are a response to the Japanese earthquake. They also are a sign of thaw in South-North contacts. The last contacts were the failed military talks in February.

India-Pakistan: Indian Home Secretary G.K. Pillai and his Pakistani counterpart, Qamar Zaman, have agreed to establish a hotline between the ministries to share information on militant threats in real time.

In a joint statement the officials said, "Pakistan conveyed its readiness, in principle, based upon the principle of comity and reciprocity, to entertain a commission from India with respect to Mumbai terror attack investigations," it said. Details of the visit still have to be worked out. India also is ready, in principle, to receive a Pakistani team responsible for investigating the Mumbai attacks.

During the talks, India provided information on the Samjhautha Express railroad blast investigation. The Coast Guard of India and the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency also will establish a system similar to that on land for the release of inadvertent crossers and their boats. Visa procedures also will be studied.

The move is being called a breakthrough, according to the BBC.

Comment: The Secretaries' talks provide an upbeat atmosphere for the Cricket World Cup semi-finals on 30 March. Aside from the hotline on "militant threats", the so-called great breakthrough is, in fact, a couple of agreements in principle. In parliamentary systems, ministers, not top civil servants, get credit for political breakthroughs.

Bahrain: Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa on 29 March accused the country's predominantly Shiite protestors of having links to Lebanon Hezbollah, as evidenced by their methods of demonstration and statements expressing support from Lebanese Shiite groups and Iran.

Comment: The Minister once again missed an opportunity to provide credible evidence to back up his allegations. Behavior and statements with no context, presumptions, patterns, linkages or expectations of normal behavior have no value as evidence. If this is the best the Ministry can provide, its staff needs to go back to law school to learn about evidence. The accusation is an act of political intimidation of the Bahraini Shiites.

Yemen: The death toll from a massive blast and fire at an ammunition plant in south Yemen that was looted by Al-Qaida has risen to 150, a local official said on Tuesday, 29 March. Eighty people have been injured.

Comment: The district is one of several that the government no longer controls. Unidentified witnesses said some 30 armed and hooded gunmen looted the factory on Sunday and fled in four vehicles with cases of weapons. They left the factory open to locals to help themselves to ammunition and guns. Explosive powders ignited and triggered the blasts… best guess is the locals were smoking in a gun powder factory.

Syria: President Bashar al-Asad today accepted the resignation of the government of Mohammed Naji Otari and designated it to act in a caretaker capacity pending the formation of a new cabinet, probably within 24 hours, according to Syria's news agency SANA. The next government will face the task of implementing a string of reforms promised by the state in response to protests demanding more freedoms.

President al Asad is expected to announce reforms in a speech on 30 March.

Comment: Among the reforms is likely to be a repeal of a 50 year old emergency act that permits harsh, arbitrary crackdowns on political expression. Bashar's ability to implement reforms will test his autonomy from the Alawite oligarchs that run Syria. He has been a figurehead up to this point.

NightWatch expects cosmetic changes at most. Thus, even if the emergency act is repealed, the governing system has sufficient redundancy to ensure the government loses no power.

Meanwhile in Damascus, hundreds of thousands of Asad supporters turned out for a massive rally at the Sabeh Bahrat ("Seven Fountains") square on Tuesday, in a state-organized popular show of force.

"The people want Bashar al-Asad," they chanted at the rally, under a massive picture of the president on Syria's central bank. State-run Syria Television also showed footage of massive crowds gathered in other governorates, including Aleppo and Homs, under the headlines: "Syrians confirm their adherence to national cohesion and stability" and "Popular rallies affirm support for President Bashar al-Asad's leadership.

The US and western governments have tried to wean Syria from its reliance on Iran, relying on Bashar's British education, advanced degrees and modernizing inclinations. Those efforts have failed to date. For example, Hezbollah, a Syrian and Iranian proxy, is stronger in Lebanon than ever.

It is sophomoric to expect that political reform will flourish when the minority Alawite governing structure is under stress from the Sunni majority. A few sops to international public opinion are likely, followed by more brutality, but no top-down revolution led by Bashar.


Egypt: Egypt will begin a new phase in foreign relations, including ties with Iran, Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby said in a news conference on 29 March. Iran and Egypt historically are not enemies, Elaraby said. He also said Hezbollah was considered part of Lebanon's political and social makeup and he welcomed communication with the group.

In another development, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Egypt is reconsidering its policies toward the blockade of the Gaza Strip in an effort to improve the lives of the Palestinians there. According to Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby said there would be a shift in Egypt's position on the Rafah border crossing. Egypt's criticism of Israel's recent attacks on Gaza is an indication of such a shift, Zahar said.

Comment: Adoption of more pro-Iranian and pro-Palestinian foreign policies would come close to being the first genuinely revolutionary act of a post-Mubarak military regime. Such changes were not stated as high priorities for the Arab youth protestors, but the so-called Egyptian revolution has been taken from them.

It is not clear on what legal basis an interim caretaker government has the authority to make such significant policy changes, but they dismantle Egypt's firmly and strongly pro-US and pro-Israel policy architecture. And that is grounds for celebration by Iran and its proxies. It is a dark portent for Israel.

The same regime affirmed that parliamentary elections will be held in September, but announced that presidential elections will be postponed again, past June 2012.

Somalia: Uganda and Burundi will each send an additional 2,000 peacekeepers to Somalia by mid-2011 to raise the number from 8,000 to 12,000. The UN Security Council approved the increase last December. News reports from Mogadishu, the headquarters of the Transitional Federal Government, describe a return to normal living conditions, owing to the UN/African Union peacekeepers.

Elsewhere, the Islamist militant group al Shabaab captured 50 pirates in Harardheere, a coastal town in Mudug region, during a large-scale operation, according to Radio Voice of Mudug. The pirates are being held in a Harardheere prison, and al Shabaab militants continue to arrest more people. The pirates are based in Harardheere and are reportedly trying to wage a war against al Shabaab.

Comment: The pirates probably were holding out on al Shabaab which relies on pirate profit-sharing to fund its fight against the African Union and the Transitional Federal Government. Al Shabaab is not true to the Quran, as was the Islamic Courts Union which suppressed piracy.

Libya: Forces loyal to Libyan leader Qadhafi counter attacked the rebels who had been moving against the town of Sirte. The Libyan forces sent the rebel mob running for 100 kilometers.

Comment: The pro-Qadhafi Libyans are not particularly good fighters, but they are far better than the rebel mob. They have a sense of organization, logistics, some fire discipline plus command and control. They also are not necessarily deterred by Coalition air power. The disorganized rebel mobs drove into an obvious trap at Sirte and ran.

The rebel mob has no chance of beating the pro-Qadhafi forces, even with Coalition air support because they cannot -- do not even know how to -- hold ground. Moreover, Coalition air support for the rebels during an offensive or to protect them in retreat from a defeat both would seem to violate the terms of the UN Resolutions about protecting civilians. It also is a waste of effort, ordnance and money.

Politics. The opposition National Transitional Council released a two-page political document entitled, "A Vision of a Democratic Libya." Among its eight main points are the requirements for a national constitution separating the government into executive, legislative and judicial branches plus guarantees of freedom of expression, full individual political rights regadless of race or gender and social justice.

Comment: The "Vision" is an elegant statement of principles which promise a constitution-based government that guarantees a pluralistic, secular democracy. If implemented, it would be the foundation for the first genuine Arab democratic revolution this spring. It is far more sophisticated than a tribal society can tolerate.

The Transitional National Council also asked the international community for more and better weaponry. Spokesman Mahmoud Shamma said the request came at a conference organized in London.

Comment: The NightWatch view is that if the rebel shooters cannot take Tripoli, they don't deserve to have Tripoli. That failure means they do not represent a majority of the Libyans and are not the vanguard of a country-wide revolution.

Their weaknesses are not in weapons, so much as in hubris in the face of trained soldiers; lack of basic tactical training; lack of leadership; lack of organization; no logistics and also a lack of any evident appreciation that these capabilities are essential. They may be killers, but they are not soldiers.

Giving these undisciplined men weapons or even ammunition would be an irresponsible waste of resources that risks massacre of pro-Qadhafi civilians when pro-Qadhafi forces withdraw. Would the Coalition and NATO defend those civilians?

The Council in Tripoli, protected from attack by Coalition air cover, appears content to let the hotheads spend their energy in useless, disorganized forays against the Qadhafi forces to the west. Meanwhile, in Benghazi some semblance of a government arrangement has finally begun to emerge, without the annoying gunmen in pickup trucks.

This has become a very tricky power sharing arrangement, but the Vision is a basis for a negotiated settlement if the Qadhafis depart.

Libyan TV broadcast images purporting to prove that Khamis Qadhafi, commander of the family's most elite protection forces, is still alive.

End of NightWatch for 29 March.

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