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NightWatch 20120131


For the night of 31 January 2012

India-France: Aircraft deal. India awarded a $10.4 billion contract for a medium multi-role combat aircraft, the so-called "bridge" fighter, to the French company Dassault Rafale. The French bid was lower than the other contestant, the Eurofighter Typhoon. Through the deal, India will purchase 126 Rafale fighter aircraft.

Special Comment: The Indian requirement is for 126 combat aircraft to fill a gap in projected Indian Air Force combat capabilities between the present force and the future force comprised of "made-in-India", indigenously manufactured fighters. Specifically, the Rafale purchase will enable India to retire its obsolescent and increasingly accident-prone, upgraded MiG-21 fighter force by 2016. Even with extensive upgrades, the MiG-21 airframe represents more than forty-year old ideas about aircraft in combat.

The selection of a French fighter makes sense in an Indian context. The air force likes its French Mirage and Jaguar combat aircraft with which it has long, exemplary experience and for which it has an established support infrastructure. The Indians went with what they knew, plus in 640 Indian technical paramters, Rafale beat out its US, Russian and Swedish competitors.

The air force also has a longstanding relationship with the Russians for supporting the bulk of India's most advanced frontline fighters. The Indians were tempted to buy American fighters. The American piece of Indian Air Force modernization will be transport aircraft. The most able and reliable Indian Air Force transports will be US.

Until India achieves a fully indigenous fighter manufacturing capability, it must rely on foreign suppliers for spare and repair parts and technological assistance. While a single external source would make good business and logistics sense, during a crisis with China or Pakistan for example, India would be captive to the good will and the policy position of that single source.

Thus, India continues to maintain multiple and essentially incompatible external support relationships for its first strike and primary air defense aircraft and transports so that during a crisis its air force never becomes a hostage to the decisions or policies of one of its suppliers. The Indians have made these relationships work in India's advantage most often.

Many countries in Southeast Asia, lacking an indigenous manufacturing capability, follow the Indian strategy rather than place all their defense requirements at the mercy of a single supplier.

Afghanistan-Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia is hesitant to host talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban without Taliban concessions, which include renouncing ties to al Qaida, Riyadh and Kabul government sources said on 31 January.

Comment: The significance of this statement is that it hints that the Saudis are asserting themselves as the leaders of all Sunni believers. The Saudis are supporting the Syrian opposition. They are supporting containment of Iran, evidenced by today's report that Saudi Arabia has begun pumping enough oil to offset any loss of supply from sanctions on Iran. Now they are dictating terms to Mullah Omar.

Omar is a semi-literate Pashtun fighter and imam. His credentials as a fighter are superior to those as an Islamic scholar. The pressure from Saudi Arabia, the center of Islam, stands a better chance of inducing compliance than all other alternatives. Religion is politics and Omar risk losing all external monetary support if he makes no concessions to Saudi terms.

As for Saudi Arabia, the King appears to be fed up with pointless and prolonged fractiousness in the international Sunni community, the ummah.

Syria-Iran: The Iranian news agency reported Ayatollah Khamenei on Tuesday criticized the US for interfering in Syria's internal affairs, but said Iran would accept political reforms in Damascus. Khamenei said, "Iran's stance towards Syria is to support any reforms that benefit the people of this country and oppose the interference of America and its allies in Syrian domestic issues.

Special Comment: The NightWatch hypothesis is that a consortium of interests has coalesced to deliver a strategic setback to Iran, not over nuclear issues, but in Syria. In this hypothesis, the nuclear issue is less immediately significant for Iran than the probability that the Alawite government in Damascus is nearing its end.

The Syrian government, which is an ally of Iran, has been key in facilitating Iranian communications with and support to its proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. If the Sunni Arab opposition take power in Damascus, Iran's connection to the Mediterranean would be broken. Iran's apparent objective of achieving an outlet in the Mediterranean through friendly, Shiite states would be thwarted.

The Sunni Arab interests that back the Arab League and are arrayed against the al Asad government in Damascus seem to have decided that the westward expansion of the Shiite heresy and the proliferation of pro-Iranian states and groups in traditional Arab regions must stop at the western border of Iraq. Their bridgehead in Syria must be eliminated by the installation of a Sunni government in Damascus in order to consolidate the Sunni Arab community, or ummah.

The implications for Iran and its proxies are worth considering. For example, if Iran cannot protect its most loyal allies in Damascus, then its aspirations to regional leadership are not credible, regardless of its nuclear program. The fragility of the Syrian security situation also presents Iranian leaders with the choice of escalating Iran's direct intervention in Arab affairs to try to save the al Asad government or accepting the loss of Syria, including the disruption of the supply route to Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas.

Expect more Iranian support for Damascus and more Iranian Islamic Republican Guard Corps personnel to show up in Syria and in southern Lebanon. The Iranians do not appear ready to abandon Syria yet. If increased Iranian support for Syria does not become apparent, that would mean that Iran has accepted that it cannot prevent the strategic setback resulting from the loss of Syria to the Sunni Arabs. One important unknown is how the Baghdad government might be pressured into supporting Iranian strategic goals.

The international media focuses primarily on the Iranian nuclear program, the UN and the sanctions regime against Iran. In this analysis, the international attention on Iran's nuclear program provides cover and time for Iranian leaders to decide what to do about Syria. Both crises threaten to dim Iran's vision of itself as the regional power in the Middle East.

Somalia: Islamist al Shabaab commander Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys was kidnapped -- with the complicity of his guards -- while attending a meeting of senior al Shabaab leaders in Somalia, witnesses said, according to Somali press sources.

Comment: The press reports have not yet been confirmed by more authoritative government sources. If confirmed, the absence of Awes will help clarify whether al Shahaab is a band of armed criminals dependent on the physical presence of its leader or an Islamic or clan-based insurgency.

In other words, it will help diagnose the real nature of al Shabaab. For example, if attacks decline during Aweys' absence, then al Shabaab is more like an armed criminal gang than like an ethnic uprising, a religion-driven jihad or an insurgency by a handful of Somali clans against the government in Mogadishu that only claims to be acting in support of Islamic jihad.

If attacks continue as before, Aweys' leadership is less important than supposed and al Shabaab has roots in the Somali clans that support it. An accurate diagnosis is an essential condition for developing an effective set of policy responses.

End of NightWatch for 31 January.

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