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NightWatch 20110325

NightWatch

For the Night of 25 March 2011

North Korea-US: For the record. The head of the North American affairs bureau of the North Korean Foreign Ministry, Ri Gun, departed China and arrived in Berlin to attend a closed-door forum between U.S. and North Korean officials.

South Korea: National Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin said North Korea will provoke the international community again and Pyongyang is currently planning a second or third provocation beyond the 2010 sinking of the South Korean navy corvette Cheonan. In a directive to the armed forces, Kim ordered the forces to maintain combat preparedness against another attack and promised Seoul will respond strongly to any provocations.

Comment: The twin themes of talks and provocations often run together in dealings with the North. Whenever the North's leaders agree to talk, their fundamental insecurity and paranoid fear that talks will be perceived as a sign of weakness activate a provocation reflex.

The angst is intensified when the powers of the world are focused away from North Korea, as now. Minister Kim's precaution is wise and deeply rooted in dealing with the North. Expect a provocation, but the size and location are not yet clear in open source information.

Bahrain: Sheikh Isa Qassim, a prominent Shiite cleric in Bahrain, said "brutal force" used against protestors will not keep them from continuing to demand rights and dignity. Qassim spoke at a Friday sermon in Duraz, a Shiite village and opposition center northwest of Manama. Thousands attended, despite a ban on public gatherings. Police and army maintained tight security.

Bahrain Social Development Minister Fatima al Beloushi said demonstrators who ran over unarmed policemen and beat up patients in a hospital have a foreign agenda and links to a neighboring country and Hezbollah. Al Beloushi said the government has direct proof the acts were instigated by a foreign country and Hezbollah provided training for the demonstrators.

Bahrain made a formal complaint to the Lebanese government over Hezbollah's offer of support to the mainly Shiite anti-government protestors in Bahrain. Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said Manama will not tolerate threats from a militant group and will consider lodging a complaint with international entities if Lebanon does not act. He said the decision to make a formal complaint was made in consultation with the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid also had a warning for Iran, to stop meddling. He said," The threat from Iran could increase 'to any level' at a time of deep divisions between Iran and its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf region…. They could make mistakes in causing a conflict," Sheik Khalid said. "The campaign against us from Iran at this stage is political, but it could have a different posture at any time."

Comment: Bahrain and the Gulf Cooperation Council thus far have failed to present any evidence of Iranian or Hezbollah meddling. Some evidence, a trial or email exchange even, would strengthen the case for outside military intervention as well as begin to undermine the protest movement.

The complaint to the Lebanese government implies Bahrain at least believes its accusations against Hezbollah. It needs to produce an outside agent for the international press.

Special Comment: The intervention by the Shield Force has not secured the monarchy. The Shiite clerics sense the monarchy has been weakened by the secular youth protests which now have been suppressed. That provides them the opportunity to expand their influence, if not weaken the monarchy, by stoking unrest.

Thus, they have begun to emerge as the spokesmen for political change and the inciters of the next round of protests. The internal security problem is no longer an Arab youth event in Bahrain when the clerics get involved. Their involvement will reshape the security situation in ways that could invite more and more overt Iranian meddling, over time.

Saudi Arabia: Hundreds of people demonstrated, demanding the release of prisoners in the town of Rabiae in Qatif Province, Saudi Arabia,

Comment: The protests persist in defiance of a government ban. They all are located in eastern Saudi Arabia where the Shiites are the majority.

This situation is heading slowly in the direction of fragmentation. If the protests grow and become difficult to control, the Shiites will want greater autonomy in the provinces in which they are the majority of the population. That is the first stage of a fragmentation scenario.

Yemen: Today the "Day of Departure" protests took place in Yemen, after Friday prayers. By some accounts, hundred of thousands of protestors gathered in Sanaa. Soldiers fired warning shots to prevent regime loyalists, excited by a speech by President Saleh, from attacking protestors. Large rival crowds had assembled on the streets.

In his speech, President Saleh said he was willing to relinquish power, but only "to safe hands." He said he does not want power, that he is against "firing a single bullet," and that concessions are given to ensure that there is no bloodshed.

Comment: Today's statement is Saleh's third major concession to the crowds. First he said he would resign at the end of his term in 2013. Last week he said he would resign by the end of 2011 in a constitutional process. Today, he said he would pass power to someone with "safe hands," apparently at any time.

Today's statement not only encouraged the opposition to demand more immediately, it also reinforced that Saleh has given up and is looking for an exit strategy. The pattern is always the same. Concessions encourage the opposition.

Only overwhelming force will stop these protests, but there is a catch. The only sure way to determine whether the application of force was overwhelming is if the protests stop.

Possibly the most significant silence is that of Saudi Arabia. Earlier this week a scholar assessed that Saudi behavior indicates it is content to have Saleh overthrown and replaced. Saudi Arabia has made no public statement supporting Saleh and that is a certain sign that his time is very short.

Jordan: Six people were injured and one killed when supporters of the government pelted a group of protestors with stones in central Amman. The protestors -- approximately 1,000 in number -- demanded the firing of the prime minister and the dissolution of parliament.

Comment: Unlike Bahrain, the Jordanian protestors are not anti-monarchy. Should they become anti-monarchy, Jordan risks a civil conflict between the city folk and the Bedouin who back the King.

Syria: Unprecedented, illegal protests occurred after prayers today in Damascus, Duma, Latakia, Homs, Reka, Dar'a, Hamah and Tel. Across the nation, at least 23 people were confirmed killed by security forces. In Damascus, witnesses reported at least three killed in fights between supporters of the al Asad regime and its opponents.

Security forces killed at least 20 people in Sanamein, near Dar'a in an attempt to control anti-government demonstrations. One estimate assessed the crowd in Dar'a as 50,000 people. Protestors burned a statue of the late President Hafez al Asad in Dar'a, a witness said.

In Qatar, a "highly influential" Sunni Muslim cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi, mentioned the unrest in Syria in a sermon that was broadcast on al-Jazeera and posted on YouTube. "Today the train of revolution has arrived at a station that it was destined to reach, the Syrian station," he said. "It isn't possible for Syria to detach itself from the history of the Arab nation."

Comment: The train or street car metaphor, favored by Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan, is being repeated widely in the Arab world. When spoken by a cleric, it means democracy is a station stop, not a terminal point, in Arab history.

The violence is a very good indicator that Bashar al Asad is not in control. The military and security chiefs are running this show.

Syria is a flip-flop version of Iraq under Saddam. In Iraq, the Sunni minority governed a Shiite and Kurdish majority. In Syria an even smaller Shiite sect - the Alawites -- govern a large Sunni majority with a steel fist.

The al Asad's are Alawites as are all the top leaders. Alawite generals are ruthless in handling internal security problems, because a mass uprising would destroy their regime and result in the massacre of their sect, if the Alawites ever lost control,

As long as the Alawites retain the loyalty of the army and can hold Damascus, unrest in outlying towns is not directly threatening. Dar'a is a long way from Damascus. Unrest is centripetal and will move to Damascus, if it has roots. When it reaches Damascus and the Alawite-led security forces prove unable to suppress it, then Asad's regime is in trouble.

Most officers are Alawites, so analysts should look for defections from the Sunni enlisted ranks. They also need to watch capital flight. Syria is run by an oligarchy that will be prone to bolt fast when the risks increase.

Finally, internal instability in Syria is a setback for Iran, Syria's most important ally, and for Hezbollah, one of Syria's beneficiaries and an Iranian proxy. Hezbollah warned its members to halt weekly trips to a shrine in Damascus and to avoid travel to Syria.

It is a potential boon for pro-western groups in Lebanon because Syrian attention has turned inward for now.

Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel stands ready to act with great force and determination to end the recent acts of terror and rocket attacks. Netanyahu said any civilized society will not tolerate wanton attacks on its civilians.

Education Minister Gideon Saar estimated that the Israel Defense Forces eventually will have to carry out a large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip, bigger than Operation Cast Lead.

Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Shaul Mofaz warned that continuing the stalemate in the peace process endangers lives and said the government should take the opportunity to advance on this issue. He said Israel is in need of a strategy that moves forward the diplomatic process with the Palestinians and talks with the Syrians, while simultaneously stopping rocket attacks. Palestinian militants crossed a red line recently, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must determine how to end the rocket attacks, Mofaz stated in a radio interview.

Comment: The words show a span of official opinion around a central theme: there will be a significant Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip.

Curiously, if the Palestinian militant attacks are diversions to suppress youth protests against the Hamas regime, as reported, the Israelis can undermine Hamas by encouraging and clandestinely organizing a Palestinian youth spring, but they probably are already working on that. Thus far Hamas is no more tolerant of internal dissent than Iran or Syria.

Libya: The main fighting areas remain essentially unchanged: Misrata, Ajdabiya and Zintan, plus coalition attacks around Tripoli. The rebels remain a rag tag, ineffective, boisterous mob, capable of wasting ammunition and gasoline. Encirclement and siege are the best tactics available to the rebels in the ground fight.

Libyan state television reported that Qadhafi promoted all members of his military units, including members of the general security forces and police, for their efforts against the European intervention. Al Arabiya TV broadcast that reports are true that Qadhafi's son Khamis was killed in an air attack. Khamis commanded one of the best units in the pro-Qadhafi forces.

Twelve fighter aircraft from the UAE are expected to join the no-fly zone enforcement force this weekend. Qatari fighters have begun flying no-fly zone enforcement missions over Libya.

Comment: If Qadhafi can hold Tripoli, this crisis will end in reconciliation talks within a few weeks.

Cote d'Ivoire/Ivory Coast: A civil war has resumed in the Ivory Coast over a disputed presidential election. The international community, including the United Nations and the African Union, has concluded that Alassane Ouattara won last October's vote but incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo refuses to step down from the presidency.

Ouattara's political base is the northern Muslims. Gbagbo's is the coastal Christians. Both have armed fighters who have begun terrorizing each other's populations for fun and profit. Fighting resumed in late February. News sources report up to a million refugees have fled Abidjan, the administrative capital.

Comment: This is a former French colony, the most prosperous and stable ex-colony in Francophone Africa for thirty years after independence in 1960. Since 1995 its history is marked by coups and a bloody civil war that ended in 2007, leaving the north divided from the south on tribal and religious grounds. The state remains fragmented, but still relatively prosperous.

The factional fighting resumed in February 2011 after months of futile talks to persuade Gbagbo that he lost the election. Gbagbo actually did lose the election, by all accounts but his own. His thugs rigged the final count to make it appear Gbagbo won - they disqualified ballots from major areas in the north. The issues are the perennial ones: tribalism wrapped up in religion, greed and power over people.

After the men with guns shoot up all their ammunition and exhaust their blood lust, quiet will return, but internal unrest only will have been recycled.

Troubling End Note: Asia Times Online on 24 March published an article by Syed Saleem Shahzad, who is an insightful commentator on South Asian affairs, as well as the publication's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He has studied al Qaida a long time.  He wrote that US intelligence has actionable information that Osama bin Laden has been "criss-crossing" the Pakistan - Afghanistan border region in northwestern Pakistan during the past few weeks.

Shahzad wrote that US officials are "stunned" by bin Laden's visibility and the frequency of his movements. Bin Laden's purposes are not known. Terrorist analysts reportedly think the new level of activity means bin Laden is planning another large attack, though the 9/11 planning was actually not done by bin Laden. The South Asia analysts think he is meeting with friendly Afghan warlords to bring the Afghan War to a favorable conclusion for the Taliban.

What is disturbing is how little mainstream media attention this article has received. Readers are encouraged to read it.

End of NightWatch for 25 March.

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