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NightWatch 20110531

NightWatch

For the Night of 31 May 2011

Pakistan: Special comment: On 31 May, the body of Asia Times on Line's Pakistan bureau chief Syed Saleem Shahzad was found near Gujarat, about 93 miles from Islamabad. He had been missing for several days. He was kidnapped, beaten and tortured, according to the police. Some observers have opined that his exposure of al Qaida or Pakistani Taliban infiltration of the Pakistan armed forces, the Navy in particular, prompted retaliation by Pakistani intelligence. No group has claimed responsibility for the murder.

Shahzad had sources on Afghanistan and Pakistan unlike any other journalists reporting on these countries. His insights were challenging and deserved careful consideration. His explanations always were thought-provoking. His predictions were spot on. He was one of the best analysts reporting on Pakistan.

According to the BBC, "human rights groups recently called Pakistan the most dangerous place in the world for journalists to operate, saying they were under threat from Islamist militants but also Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies."

Bahrain: King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa called for reform talks on 31 May without conditions. He called on everyone to push for development in all areas and to provide a solid base for the reform process, Bahrain News Agency reported.

Comment: The King appears serious about reforms and this might be the second best last chance the opposition has to make incremental improvements in its political stature. Some activists have written that the opposition missed a chance to make substantial political gains in February, when the monarchy made a similar offer.

What are not negotiable are the survival and ultimate powers of the monarch. Discussion of a republic in Bahrain is not part of the reform agenda. Plus the Peninsula Shield Force units remain in Bahrain.

Special thanks to Feedback from a brilliant and extremely well-informed Reader.

Yemen: Republican Guard troops loyal to President Saleh, commanded by Saleh's son, shelled with anti-aircraft weaponry the headquarters of a defected brigade led by Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar at a military camp in the al-Khamseen area, according to a military official.

Comment: This report contradicts yesterday's information that this Republican Guard unit defected to the opposition. It is difficult to credit because an internecine Army fight would be newsworthy.

In fact the lead news story is the fighting in Sanaa between government security forces and the fighters of the Hashid tribe, who are loyal to Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar. They claim to have seized the Interior Ministry building and adjacent government buildings. Despite government denials, the opposition appears to be contracting Saleh's control of Sanaa.

The other lead item was about the security developments in Taiz, south of Sanaa, on 30 May. UN sources reported 50 people killed when security forces opened fire on demonstrators.

Syria: President Bashar al-Asad issued a decree on 31 May that grants general amnesty to all members of all political movements, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, according to Syrian state television.

In addition, a committee for national dialogue will be established within 48 hours, ruling Baath party Assistant Secretary-General Mohammad Saeed Bkhaitan said on 31 May. Bkhaitan said that the committee's members would be drawn from a variety of areas, including people from political and economic life as well as society in general

Meanwhile, government security operations continued in Rastan in Homs Province. Government forces are continuing search and cordon operations in the city, and residents attacked a police station and stole weapons.

Comment: The two announcements today signal the onset of a concession phase in the three-phase cycle of violent internal instability. Internal and international pressure to halt the killing probably contributed to the two initiatives. They appear tailored to deflect international criticism of the continuing use of violence to control demonstrators.

The government also probably has determined that its position is sufficiently strong that it can afford to make a conciliatory gesture to see whether it will have any effect in reducing the unrest. It is worth noting that Bashar al Asad did not execute the 10,000 or so prisoners eligible for amnesty, as his father Hafez al Asad would have done. In the Alawite political dynasty, that borders on enlightened government.

The two moves are limited in that they require no sharing of authority and little risk to the government.

The shooting in Homs Province in western Syria indicates the political concessions do not signify the end of violent suppression operations, but they might become less aggressive. The government needs to take time to determine whether the uprising has abated. The size of the demonstrations on Friday after prayers will be the bench mark determining whether the government continues aggressive suppression operations or pursues a more lenient path.

Sudan: Northern and Southern Sudan have agreed to a demilitarized zone (DMZ) along their shared border, according to the African Union. The north and south will form a joint committee headed by each country's respective military chief of staff, defense minister, intelligence and police chief and other officials. The DMZ will be jointly monitored and patrolled, according to the African Union.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia volunteered to deploy several thousand troops to the disputed Abyei area in Sudan if north Sudan's army withdraws, Western officials from the Southern Sudanese capital of Juba said. A quick response is needed and the Ethiopian troops will remain until a permanent solution can be reached, the officials said.

Sudanese government spokesman Rabie Abdel Ati said many things are under discussion but nothing has been decided. However, a Western official close to the matter said both sides have privately agreed to the Ethiopian proposal, and Southern Sudanese army spokesman Philip Aguer said Southern Sudan's army will welcome Ethiopians as any part of the U.N. mission in Sudan.

Comment: The good news is that north and south Sudan are exploring options for avoiding combat in the border states. Nevertheless, the jointly patrolled DMZ creates another inherently unstable war zone. It would not make conflict inevitable, but it would guarantee constant tension and commitment of resources that have better alternative uses.

The Ethiopian proposal would favor the southern Sudanese, most of whom are not Muslims. The Muslim northerners will reject it.

End of NightWatch for 31 May.

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