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NightWatch 20141204

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NightWatch

For the night of 4 December 2014

Syria: Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) attacked the Syrian airbase near Deir el-Zour. This is the only major Syrian military base in the region still under Syrian control. Clashes began with a suicide bomb attack on a Syrian military position near the airbase. At least 19 government soldiers and seven ISIL fighters have been killed in the fighting.

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Comment: The latest ISIL offensive against the base implies that Syrian air attacks from that location have justified another ISIL surge effort to capture it. Thus, far government forces have been unable to retain control over remote bases in the interior under sustained ISIL pressure. The ISIL main base in Syria is at Raqqah. The Syrian airbase relies on support from Damascus.

If Syria loses this base, its capture would free ISIL forces for deployment on other fighting fronts and consolidate ISIL control of most of eastern Syria.

Russia: On 4 December Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state of the nation address to the Federal Assembly, the two chambers of Russia's parliament. The state of the nation address is a basic document, which outlines the president's positions on major directions of the Russian policies not only for the coming year, but also for future.

Comment: Most analysts described the speech as rambling and unclear. Putin was defiant towards the US and the West. He provided few details about the state of the nation. He did call on Russians to expect hardship in 2015 because of the drop in world oil prices.

Russia and a handful of other countries rely on oil and natural gas exports for 90% or more of their export income. US investment portfolio managers judge that the oil bubble - the trading assumption that oil prices would never decline significantly - has burst. The consequences will be global and lasting, they predict.

At least six OPEC members will suffer severe reductions in national income accounts. In some there will be riots and other forms of internal instability, once the cuts start to bite. Venezuela's government already announced a 20% reduction in government spending. That is a catastrophe in a socialist, entitlement state.

Russian plans for military modernization must be trimmed. Its ability to influence crises on its borders also will decline because its oil wealth just decreased by about 50%.

Russia is a good example of the intersection of economics and social science, the point at which economic hardships generate rioting. Readers are warned to pay attention to news about micro-economic conditions, vice macro-economic conditions. Citizens riot and overthrow governments when no amount of labor can make ends meet. Macro-economic metrics never expose that condition.

Ukraine: correction. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is not a participant in the Joint Center for Control and Coordination (JCCC) in eastern Ukraine. However, some Russian press outlets regularly report that the JCCC is a joint operation with the OSCE, which is untrue. The US has protested that members of the JCCC sometimes pose as OSCE observers, wear OSCE patches and use OSCE vehicles. Thanks to feedback for the correction.

Nigeria: On 4 December Boko Haram gunmen attacked towns in Gombe State in northeast Nigeria. They raided banks and burnt government buildings, political party offices and homes.

Early this morning scores of gunmen dressed in military uniform arrived in Bajoga, 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Gombe City in a convoy of 20 vehicles. Gombe City is the state capital.

Nigeria soldiers managed to repel the attackers who then drove northeast to attack a second town in Gombe State. A police spokesman confirmed the attack and said the police killed three terrorists.

According to Nigerian press services, a senior Nigerian official source said: "These insurgents are desperately out to take control of Maiduguri and Damaturu. They are looking for state capitals from which they can administer as a 'rebel government.' They were curtailed before but they have suddenly renewed agitation for the two state capitals."

"In the last 48 hours, we have killed more than 150 insurgents. We are actually taking the battle to them now.

In an updated report, more than 150 people, including 38 police, died in a Boko Haram raid on Damaturu this week, police officers and other officials confirmed.

Comment: This has been a bloody week for northeastern Nigeria. The senior official accurately described the recent pattern of attacks as aimed at capturing multiple state capitals. Seizure of Bajoga is necessary for mounting an attack on Gombe City, the capital of Gombe State. Seizure of Damaturu is necessary for capturing Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state.

Violent instability is always centripetal, but in two senses. In most instability problems -- Afghanistan is typical - the insurgents seek to capture the capital. Thus they try to build pressure and capture administrative centers in the outlying regions as stepping stones to capturing the center of national power.

There is another pattern. It is called fragmentation, which means the creation of an alternative center of power through secession by force. This is the pattern that Boko Haram - and ISIL -- is following. The attacks in northeastern Nigeria are part of Boko Haram's offensive to capture and control a three-state region that it intends to declare an independent Islamic state.

Apparently ISIL has served as a guide for Boko Haram. Most of Boko Haram's activities have seemed pointless and little more than violent organized crime and mindless terror. That is no longer the case in the sense that the attacks appear to support the larger purpose of breaking the federal Nigerian state.

The Nigerian security forces routinely are overwhelmed by the tactics and the numbers of Boko Haram and the amount of geography its fighting convoys can cover.

Nigeria has no effective answer to Boko Haram. It is easy and accurate to attribute the failings of the Nigerian forces and government to malfeasance and corruption. However, Nigeria has received extensive military advice, aid and training. At some point, it is appropriate to revisit whether the Western advice and aid is and has been relevant to Nigeria's fight against Boko Haram.

End of NightWatch for 4 December.

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