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NightWatch 20110516


For the Night of 16 May 2011

Syria: Thousands protested in the Damascus suburb of Saqba on 16 May, demanding the government step down, Reuters reported. The protests occurred after the funeral of a 26-year-old protester who died of wounds caused by Syrian security forces. A witness said that the protests were held at night to avoid security measures usually taken during the day.

Comment: The writers at the Washington Post and other news services have tended to interpret every new protest as a sign of the weakness of the al Asad regime. The NightWatch methodology for studying violent internal instability leads to the opposite conclusion. The regime has survived the worst of the protests, remains in control with little risk of overthrow, and is still capable of manipulating external events. In short, the western media missed the point.

The news services describe the unrest in Syria as occurring for three months. While that is an accurate linear measure of the time since the first outbreak of unrest, it inaccurately describes the phasing and significance of the protests.

In the first month, Syria successfully controlled the unrest without police violence. Unapproved demonstrations are illegal, but restraint and scuffles stopped the demonstrations during most of February. That reset the instability problem.

The activists regrouped and tried again between 22 February and 6 April. This was the period of the regime's greatest peril. It experienced all three phases of under reaction, over reaction and concession. During this time President Asad ordered a harsh crackdown on 25 and 26 March, but backed down between 27 March and 6 April, reflected in a number of important concessions. The regime raised wages, released prisoners, promised to lift the emergency law, allowed female teachers to wear veils and closed the only casino in Syria.

Asad and his advisors waited just over two weeks to gauge whether the concessions, including lifting the emergency law, were enough to end the demonstrations. They were not. Since 22 April, the regime has used overwhelming force to suppress demonstrations and terrorize the population so as to deter it from supporting street protests.

This phase of overwhelming force is now approaching a month. Demonstrations are getting smaller. They continue, but mainly at the sufferance of the government. Asad ordered that no demonstrators be shot last Friday, and only three were. More than 100 were shot in prior protests after Friday prayers.

Last Friday's demonstrations were not a sign of defiance so much as a sign of compliance with the regime's rules. The activists won some leeway to protestt, but at the cost of close to 1,000 lives with possibly 8,000 missing.

What has not occurred is power sharing. The ruling Alawites and Baathists have conceded no authority to the activists nor have they invested them with the stature of negotiation partners. There are no talks and are not likely to be any, except on the government's terms.

Secondly, the Army units engaged in suppression operations consistently have responded to orders, including shooting protestors. The regime has a monopoly of armed force. There have been no significant military defections to the activists, as in Libya or Yemen.

Finally, the regime's ability to divert public attention by supporting Palestinian protests against Israel over the weekend is a demonstration of its vitality, not weakness, in the NightWatch hypothesis.

 As long as the Alawites remain united and the security forces are willing to kill lawbreakers - public demonstrations without permission are crimes -- the protestors will not be able to cause its collapse. Talks will occur eventually, but their purpose will be to present grievances to the Asad government, not arrange power sharing.

Israel-Palestinians-Syria: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on 16 May called for three days of mourning for 15 people killed in mass marches toward Israel's borders from Gaza, Syria and Lebanon. He said, "Their blood will not be spilled in vain" and the marches were for the freedom of his people.

Hamas and Fatah are meeting for three days in Cairo to discuss creation of a new government, Al-Masry Al-Youm reported, citing Fatah Central Committee member Azam al-Ahmad. Members of the two groups will later travel to Moscow at the invitation of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Al-Ahmad said other factions will be part of final talks in the Palestinian territories about the new government. He predicted a new government will be formed within four weeks.

Comment: The aim of all actions by the Palestinian political professionals - the leaders of Hamas and Fatah - is to build support in the international community for recognition of a Palestinian state to be proclaimed at the next UN General Assembly session in September.

The annual Palestinian demonstrations to protest Israeli independence were abetted by the cell-phone activists. Some Palestinians said that they did not want to look less politically active than other Arabs. However, Syria and other well-established entities supported them as well.

One of differences between the weekend demonstrations and other Arab protests is that the Palestinians demonstrated against the existence of Israel. The demonstrations were planned, according to most accounts, and organized. The Palestinian demonstrations were larger than in past years, but they were not substantially different otherwise.

The Arab youth in other countries demonstrated without order or organization for jobs, bread, opportunities and an end of corruption.

The Israelis used Syrian tactics for crowd control and containment, but were marginally more humane.

Egypt: Arab League Secretary-General and frontrunner in Egypt's upcoming presidential election Amr Moussa said he would maintain a strong, but more independent relationship with the United States, especially concerning Israel. Moussa said US-Egyptian relations must remain strong, but frank, without Cairo following Washington's lead.

Egypt's regional standing diminished under former President Mubarak, whose policies toward Israel and Washington were not supported nor well understood by the Egyptian people, Moussa said. He added that Egypt will open its border with the Palestinian territories, as any policy against the public mood or opinion is wrong on such sensitive issues. He said the 1979 treaty will not be changed, but the Palestinian cause is an Arab cause and will remain a priority.

Comment: Amr Moussa is considered a leading candidate for the presidency by many experts, but he is engaging in demagoguery. His statement betrays a revisionist interpretation of the Mubarak era that appeals to the imagination of young Egyptians who have forgotten or never learned about the sacrifices and humiliation of their elders in futile wars against Israel, backed by the United States.

The Egyptian Army and its leadership clearly understood and supported the policies of Anwar Sadat that Mubarak implemented and which made Egypt much more consequential in Middle Eastern political issues than siding with the Palestinians ever will.

Moussa wants to get elected and apparently will say whatever pleases the voters. One thing that is certain is that his path will diminish Egypt in the manner that he attributes falsely to Mubarak. With luck and good timing, the Egyptian Army will restrain those impulses.

End of NightWatch for 16 May.

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