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NightWatch 20120511

NightWatch

For the Night of 10 May 2012

China-Philippines: China warned its nationals against traveling to the Philippines, canceled tours and raised trade barriers on imported pineapples and bananas as the squabble over disputed fishing grounds in the South China Sea grew more intense.

Comment: The dispute over claims to islands and waters in the South China Sea shows no signs of easing. The Chinese warning coincided with the announcement of an increase in US Navy deployments to the Philippines.

Syria: The Interior Ministry reported the two terrorist bombings were consecutive and happened one minute apart, via two booby-trapped cars loaded with large quantities of explosives and driven by two suicide bombers. The toll from the two terrorist bombings stands at 70 killed and 372 wounded, including civilians and military personnel, in addition to 15 body bags filled with human remains.

The Ministry said it will pursue the criminals and killers, and whoever harbors them in their dens and will spare no effort in pursuing the terrorist groups and uprooting those who tamper with the security of the Syrian society.

Comment: No group has claimed responsibility, including the Free Syrian Army which explicitly denied it. Some analysts have suggested that foreign Islamist fighters from al Qaida in Iraq, Libya and Saudi Arabia are responsible because suicide bombings have not been signature tactics of the Syrian opposition until quite recently. They have a history of not cooperating with UN or other entities in stopping violence.

The bombings are important because of the destruction and loss of life, but also because of the lapse in security. Since March 2011 Syrian security forces have been quite competent in preventing violence from reaching Damascus, with a few exceptions.

As NightWatch has reported in connection with Afghanistan, if the security forces cannot hold the center, the center will not hold. The test of the strength of the center is manifest by sustained opposition activity. These bombings do not signify a fatal weakness in Damascus, but they reset the cycle for judging whether the opposition has developed the capability to threaten the center.

Egypt: Update. As expected, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces appointed four new cabinet ministers on Thursday in a mini-reshuffle that fell far short of the demands of the Islamist-dominated parliament for a change of government.

Somalia-UK Anti-piracy patrol: For the record. Austerity cuts to the defense budget will result in the termination of continuous British naval deployments to the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. While the US, France, Italy, Denmark and other countries still send frigates, Britain has quietly withdrawn its ships, according to a press report. The UK can now only deploy two frigates for contingency operations east of the Suez Canal, with neither able to be committed to piracy full time.

Four frigates had been dedicated to Somalia, deployed on rotation to give year-round support. However, four frigates were scrapped in Ministry of Defence cuts. The Navy's fuel and supply ship, the Fort Victoria, also has been supporting the counter-piracy operation since last year but it is unclear whether this will continue beyond the summer.

Greece: Wrote too soon. The third attempt at government formation began on 10 May, not on 9 May as reported yesterday. After the first two parties failed to find coalition partners, former finance minister Mr. Venizelos met President Karolos Papoulias to receive the mandate to try to form a government. "It was clear that in the current stage of this process we cannot reach a solution but that we must continue this effort," Mr. Venizelos told the press.

Comment: Venizelos was relatively upbeat about his prospects late on the 10th. If he fails, President Carolos Papoulias will have to call on parties to form an emergency coalition. If that cannot be done by 17 May, new elections will be called.

Algeria: Less than half of Algeria's registered voters turned out for parliamentary elections Thursday. The government advertised this vote as the freest in decades and campaigned for months to obtain a respectable turnout.

The government announced late Thursday around 42 % of registered voters cast ballots, a substantial increase over the 36 % who voted in 2007 elections. Final results are expected Friday.

Comment: Algerian press comments said that a coalition of Islamist parties hoped to replicate the election successes of other Islamists across North Africa in the so-called Arab Spring countries, but that is highly unlikely. President Bouteflika has promised new reforms. In the context of electoral reforms in other Arab spring states, that might have contributed to a larger turnout. Nevertheless, given the history of Islamist insurrections in Algeria, Bouteflika and the armed forces leadership are not likely to make the mistakes the Egyptian army has made in losing control of the reform process.

End of NightWatch for 10 May.

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