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NightWatch 20110428

NightWatch

For the Night of 27 April 2011

North Korea-Carter delegation: Former U.S. President Carter and three European ex-leaders met North Korea's Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, Kim Yong Nam, who serves as the ceremonial head of state, in Pyongyang on Wednesday as part of their troubleshooting mission aimed at reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, restarting the six-party nuclear talks and alleviating food shortages in North Korea.

Carter said North Korean officials consistently told him that the country ''wants to improve relations with America and is prepared to talk without preconditions to both the U.S. and South Korea on any subject.'' ''The sticking point -- and it's a big one -- is that they won't give up their nuclear program without some kind of security guarantee from the U.S.,'' he wrote in a blog posted Wednesday.

Comment: The international team missed the nuance in the North Korean usage of the term "without preconditions." For the North, that means ignore the past and start anew. The North deliberately exploits its understanding of the American sense of fair play in order to persuade an American-led delegation that the North's intentions are open and sincere.

Nevertheless, the North Korean slate is not clean and its intentions are far from sincere. The North wants to start a new cycle of aid requests without accounting for its unprovoked provocations last year -- the sinking of a South Korean patrol ship and its coastal artillery fire that killed South Korean civilians on a South Korean island.

Aside from a tainted offer, the North's leaders never will trust security assurances from the US. To do so would contravene "juche" -- self-reliance - the national mythology. No US security guarantees would ever be adequate.

Juche has always been a myth because the survival of North Korea always depended on aid and concessions from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact states, now NATO members. As presently constituted, the North Korean state cannot sustain itself or even feed its people, despite generations of hard work by the "workers." But the Kim family can live well.

Denuclearization, if it means anything, means a change of government system in North Korea. That is precisely how the Kim family understands denuclearization.

North Korea-South Korea: A North Korean patrol boat crossed 700 meters (about 765 yards) into South Korean territorial waters on 27 April. A South Korean patrol boat intercepted it, fired eight warning shots and broadcast warnings for the North's boat to withdraw, which it did.

Comment: The North's shallow incursion looks like a test of the South's readiness, though it might have just been a fishing expedition. The North Korean Navy units are required to provide a substantial portion of their own food from fishing or piracy.

South Korea's Red Cross proposed to its North Korean counterpart that North and South officials meet at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom on 4 May to discuss the ongoing dispute over the statues of four North Korean sailors who chose to stay in South rather than return with 27 others, as well as the issue of South Koreans held by Pyongyang, South Korean officials said.

Comment: This South Korean initiative appears to be a direct test of the atmosphere for talks, after the positive talks in Beijing.

China-Burma (Myanmar): The Myanmar Union Ministry of Rail Transportation and China Railways Engineering Corporation signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, on 27 April for a joint rail transport construction project, Xinhua reported. The rail will run between the border town of Muse and the port city of Kyaukpyu in Myanmar.

The first phase of the project will extend 126 km (78.3 miles) from Muse to Lashio, Shan State, according to the MoU. The project is expected to be completed within three years and implemented with a China-Myanmar gas pipeline project from Kyaukpyu through Muse to Kunming, Yunnan province, in China.

Comment: The rail line will follow the natural gas pipeline route and both will terminate in the Indian Ocean, bypassing the Malacca and Singapore Straits and the South China Sea. Aside from the reduced shipping costs, the new arrangement will reduce China's vulnerability to US and Indian naval forces in a time of stress or crisis.

Afghanistan: An Afghan air corps pilot opened fire and killed eight U.S. military personnel and a US defense contractor. Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimi said the Afghan pilot was a 20-year veteran and was killed in the incident and promised an investigation.

One explanation for the atrocity is that it resulted from an argument involving the Afghan officer and one or more US officers inside the Afghan air corps headquarters at the Kabul airport.

An alternative explanation, provided by a single news source, is that the Afghan pilot was outraged by the burning of the Quran in the US and felt called to defend it. No witnesses or family members reported he had fundamentalist or pro-Taliban inclinations.

Yemen: The foreign ministers of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) seek to finalize their plan for a power transfer in Yemen at a meeting on 1 May, a GCC official said.

Comment: The fix is in. The Yemen revolution appears to be following the path of Tunisia and Egypt whereby the leader departs but the old system endures.

Turkey-Syria: For the record. Turkey is developing plans to reduce the risks from spreading instability in Syria. Several news sources reported that Turkish policy makers are to discuss plans for a potential Syrian civil war and an influx of refugees. Turkey has designated areas for refugee camps and hospitals in the cities of Hatay, Kilis, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa and Mardin.

Comment: The preparations indicate the Turkish government has concluded that the Asad regime in Syria will not be able to maintain security along the border and that internal instability will persist.

Syria: Update. At least 30 Syrian Army tanks on tank transporters were seen in a convoy on Damascus circular highways in the early morning hours of 27 April. A witness said the convoy was moving from southwest Damascus near the Golan Heights frontier toward the northern Damascus suburb of Douma and the southern city of Daraa.

The Syrian Army said troops entered Daraa in response to citizens' requests to eliminate the "extremist terrorist groups" behind a spate of killings and sabotage, Agence France-Presse reported.

Thirty members of the Syrian Baath Party from the city of Baniyas in northwest Syria released a statement announcing their resignation in protest of the government's violent repression of dissent.

Another 203 members of the Baath Party also announced their resignations on 27 April to protest the deadly crackdowns on demonstrators. The latest group to resign was from the Houran region, which includes Daraa in southwest Syria.

Comment: Opposition blogs and Internet posting have reported multiple mutinies by Syrian Army soldiers and party members in the past ten days. The resignations by members of the Baath Party attest to significant stress within the Party but the numbers are too few to influence the government.

Potentially more important are the reports that military officers and personnel have defected to the opposition. These reports are suspect because almost all originate from opposition sources or rumors and because no unit with its base has mutinied. Individual desertions or defections have no significant impact on the situation.

A significant disincentive to defection is that there is no where to go that is safe in Syria, unless entire garrisons mutiny. Thus, there are significant personal consequences for guessing wrong about the longevity of the al Asad regime.

The next best gauge of the survivability of the government will be the size, number and spread of protests after Friday prayers.

Egypt-Palestinian Authority: Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas "signed initial letters" on a conciliation agreement on 27 April. Fatah Central Committee member Azzam al-Ahmad and senior Hamas member Abu Marzouk said the agreement addressed all contentious matters, including the formation of a transitional government, security arrangements and the restructuring of the Palestine Liberation Organization to permit Hamas to join it.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal are expected to attend the signing of the agreement in Cairo, a senior Egyptian intelligence official said.

Hamas and Fatah agreed to form a government composed of independent figures that will prepare the Palestinian territories for presidential and parliamentary elections, Fatah Central Committee member Azzam al-Ahmad said 27 April. Al-Ahmad said elections will be held near the end of 2011.

Senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar said the agreement between the two sides addressed elections, forming a unity government and combining security forces. Both sides also agreed to free each other's prisoners and may activate the Palestinian Legislative Council and Palestine Liberation Organization, al-Zahar added. The agreement may be implemented by 4 May, a Hamas spokesman said.

Senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar said April 27 that the unity pact between Hamas and Fatah does not include negotiations with Israel, Ynet reported. Al-Zahar said the interim national government will be unable to participate in or work on the peace process with Israel.

Comment: No news services have reported the factors that drove the substance and the timing of today's breakthrough agreement. Earlier reporting indicated that the leadership of Fatah and Hamas was concerned about the Arab youth uprising and sought ways to avert its spread to the Palestinians.

Fatah's economic enterprises in the West Bank are so tied to Israel that it is difficult to see how this conciliation agreement will last. Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. The press coverage of the agreement betrays no hint that Hamas has compromised its views, which implies that Fatah may have.

Under Mubarak, Egyptian mediation offers always failed. That raises a question why the latest mediation effort appears to have succeeded so swiftly and why reconciliation among the Palestinians holds such a high priority for the interim Egyptian Foreign Ministry. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry is restoring Egypt's pro-Arab credentials in Nasser-like terms. None of its recent initiatives promotes regional stability, which helps explain Iran's and Israel's reactions below.

Iranian reaction. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the agreement between Hamas and Fatah to form a unity government was a positive step toward reaching the goals of the Palestinian people and thanked Egypt for its role in mediating the deal. Salehi said unity among Palestinian factions and resistance to the Israeli occupation were the elements needed for the Palestinians to achieve their rights.

Israeli reaction. The reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah was a surprise in Israel, Israeli Cabinet ministers said, according to Ynet. Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said the agreement and establishment of a unity government showed the Palestinians are not interested in peace with Israel.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are preparing to hold a nationwide drill called the Turning Point 5 on 19 June to prepare the population for the possibility of war. An IDF spokesman confirmed that preparations have started but did not give further details. Government offices, police and military forces will drill responses to emergency scenarios like missile strikes and how to handle damage to strategic civil infrastructure.

Libya: Forces loyal to Qadhafi fired around 15 Russian-made Grad rockets into the center of rebel-held town Zentan, Reuters reported. citing a rebel spokesman in the town. Five houses were destroyed and there were no fatalities.

Comment: The above report indicates the rebels also still hold Zentan, in western Libya, in addition to Misrata.

End of NightWatch for 27 April.

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