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NightWatch 20110327

NightWatch

For the Night of 27 March 2011

South Korea-North Korea: South Korean authorities repatriated to North Korea 27 of the 31 fishermen who drifted into South Korean waters on 6 February and were taken into custody. Four men asked to remain in the South and have been given permission.

Comment: The North's media published nothing about today's event. It had demanded that all 31 men return to the North.

Qatar-Bahrain-Iran: A local news service learned that Qatari authorities seized two Iranian "cruisers" loaded with various weapons. The two ships reportedly were seized near Al-Zubarah, northeast Qatar, close to the common territorial waters between Qatar and Bahrain.

Comment: Details of the seizures, including their cargos and destinations, are not available. Exposure of clandestine weapons shipments from Iran to Bahrain would help strengthen the case that the unrest in Bahrain was instigated by Iran and its proxies.

Yemen: President Saleh said that democracy has been practiced in Yemen in a wrong way, adding that the participants in sit-ins have politicized their personal issues. He said the opposition keeps raising the ceiling of its demands every time he met these demands, adding that he will not make any decisions without consulting with the leadership and permanent committee of the ruling party, the GPC.

President Saleh also scrapped an offer to step down. Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said that a lot of information being circulated is not accurate and that he did not say a peaceful transition of power in Yemen would occur on 26 March, Al Jazeera reported.

Comment: Saleh evidently has come to appreciate that concessions make matters worse. He has had a change of heart and now appears prepared to remain in office until elections can be arranged. His change of heart portends more violent crackdowns.

Yemeni Islamic militants have taken control of a weapons factory in the southern city of al-Husn, setting up checkpoints and patrolling the area around the factory, a local resident said 27 March.

Comment: This is particularly dangerous because terrorists among the anti-government opposition almost certainly will have access to the factory.

Syria: Thousands of protesters that attended a funeral for a Syrian killed in anti-government protests burned a ruling Baath Party building and a police station on 26 March.

Syria's armed forces deployed additional personnel to Dar'a, the location of the largest anti-government protest demonstrations in the past week.

The parliamentary government is expected to resign on 29 March, Al Arabiya reported. In addition, the government reportedly will pass a new media law that will prohibit the imprisonment of journalists. The government also will amend Article 8 of the first chapter of the constitution, which designates the ruling Baath party as the leading party in the country. Finally, the government has decided to lift its state of emergency law that has been in place since 1963, according to an adviser to the Syrian President.

Comment: Syria has entered a concession phase. The government is doling out concessions in order to determine what will placate the anti-government protestors. If the Syrian opposition responds as its Yemeni counterparts have, the concessions will increase opposition demands and intensify the confrontation.

Egypt: The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces might postpone the presidential election until mid-June 2012, Al-Masry Al-Youm reported. The election originally was scheduled to take place by the end of 2011, might be postponed until after a "new constitution" is drafted, according to unnamed sources. Parliamentary elections still are scheduled to be held in September.

Comment: This is a single source report, but it is the first to relate that a new constitution is to be drafted. The recently completed constitutional referendum approved amendments to the existing constitution. A new constitution has not been a topic in the pubic discourse, until now. This looks like a reportage mistake or an unexplained new political turn.

The delay in presidential elections looks slightly more plausible. More later.

Libya: Rebel mobs entered a succession of towns over the weekend after pro-Qadhafi forces withdrew, under Coalition air attacks. A convoy of 20 Libyan military vehicles, including truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, was reported leaving Sirte and moving towards Tripoli. Rebels entered Ajdabiya, Brega, Bin Jawad, Ras Lanuf and Ugayla after Libyan forces withdrew, according to multiple news service reports. They remain more than 300 miles from Tripoli.

Comment: Aside from Coalition air strikes, ground fighting reports are few and sketchy. The rebels appear to have fought and won no battles, as before. There are no prisoners of war and no signs of ground fighting other than usual ammunition wastage.

The Qadhafi forces left these towns to avoid getting get cut off. That suggests Qadhafi's forces retain significant command and control capabilities.

Various news services have begun investigating the identity of rebel leaders and publishing their results. The accuracy of the reports is not clear, but most are uniformly worrisome. For example, the New York Times published an interview with a man who claimed to be a rebel leader and who admitted openly he had fought US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the interview, he expressed gratitude for Coalition air support.

On the other, hand some of the "leaders" are generals and ministers who served Qadhafi, but defected. None of these men were interviewed, apparently.

Another group of reports alleged that al Qaida extremists raided military arsenals in Cyrenaica, after the rebels ended up in possession of Benghazi. They were allowed to steal any advanced weapons, such as surface-to-air missiles. This theme has not been picked up by mainstream US media.

For many reasons, helping the rebels is advantageous, but the weekend interviews and reports about so-called rebel leaders commend caution about helping too much. Qadhafi said he would show no mercy to the rebels in Benghazi, but it is not clear that the rebels will be different should they enter Tripoli.

It is clear in Bahrain, Yemen and Libya that the secular youth characteristics of the initial uprisings have passed. The opposition movements have come under the influence of other, more sinister and more hostile interests in all three countries. A negotiated reconciliation agreement looks like an exit strategy that would enable the Arabs to sort out their own affairs.

End of NightWatch for 27 March.

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