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NightWatch 20120130


For the Night of 30 January 2012

North Korea: Kim Jung-un sightings. North Korea media coverage of the new leader has consisted mainly of factual reports about his visits to military units on 29 and 31 January. There are no reports of guidance, new decisions or meetings with foreign dignitaries. The regime is running on idle.

Comment: North Korea is still in mourning. After an initial period of excitement, Kim's handlers have fallen into a routine of public appearances mostly to military units. Military unit visits are more secure than those to civilian factories and enterprises. Kim's handlers - a mix of vice marshals, party leaders and family leaders -- also can manage him more discreetly. This is similar to the pattern adopted by Kim Chong-il after his father died in 1994.

Syria: Security situation update. Forces loyal to President Bashar al Asad took control of suburbs east of Damascus, activists said on 29 January. One of the opposition activists said that the Free Syrian Army has made a tactical withdrawal and that regime forces have re-occupied the suburbs. Reports on the 30th indicated continuing fighting in towns near Damascus.

Press also reported that Syrian security forces attempted to aid President Asad's wife, sons, mother and cousin in leaving Syria via Damascus, according to sources from the Syrian opposition.

Comment: The two reports above are related in that they both are signs that the security situation continues to deteriorate. After more than ten months, armed opposition activists have begun to force the government to defend the capital. That represents a significant escalation threshold for the opposition. All reporting on the fighting situation is affected by bias, but the opposition report on a setback is an admission against its own interests, which supports its credibility. Nevertheless, the setback is likely to be temporary. It means the government is having difficulty holding its defensive lines and that is a sign the end game is approaching.

No other sources have reported the attempted flight by Asad's family, but even rumors have a negative effect on regime morale. This is the first report of this development.

Syria-Syrian Opposition: Russian mediation initiative. Syrian authorities agreed to participate in mediation talks in Moscow. Russia hopes the Syrian opposition also will agree to take part. A Syrian opposition council member said that no invitation has been received from Moscow and that the council would refuse the invitation anyway.

Comment: The Syrian government repeatedly has offered reconciliation talks to the opposition as part of its co-option strategy. This is the first initiative to hold talks through a mediator, which signifies a willingness to negotiate some form of power sharing. That is a significant weakening of the government's political position because they invest the opposition with the stature of a negotiating equal. That occurs despite the obvious government effort to co-opt the opposition by another tactic.

European Union: European leaders gathered in Brussels on Monday to adopt an ambitious new treaty pledging governments to cut back on their dangerously high deficits or face sanctions from the European Union. The treaty, negotiated in a record time of three weeks, was designed to ensure European governments will never allow themselves to slip into another financial crisis like the one that has left Greece bankrupt and threatened to take down other heavily indebted countries across the continent.

Comment: These meetings are important in helping restore public confidence that political leaders are taking action to manage the financial crisis. Long term reform is essential but the measures will not be effective for years. They have no short term impact.

Belgium: Transport strike. Belgian union workers executed a national strike Monday as unions in a display of anger over austerity measures. They deliberately timed the strike to coincide with today's one-day meeting of European Union leaders Brussels. The rail network was shut down and flights were severely disrupted.

Comment: These kinds of displays pose little threat to the financial stability because they are aimed at influencing the system, rather than changing it. They are part of the larger political process at this time, but that could change suddenly.

End of NightWatch for 30 January.

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