Night Watch

North Korea: Update. Last Friday Asian blogs obsessed about an unconfirmed and unsourced posting that Kim Jong-un had been assassinated.

Comment: No reporting from any credible source and no North Korean media behavior supports the blog posting, which looks like a prank. Coincidentally, the first report of an assassination attempt against the late Kim Chong-il emerged six weeks after his father's death in 1994. It proved to be a real attempt. Expect more rumors, including some based in fact.

Syria: Update: The US government released to the press late last week imagery showing Syrian armored and rocket forces deployed in positions around the town of Homs on 6 and 7 February. Media services over the weekend reported the major government offensive against Homs, led by armor, continues.

Comment: The imagery release provided credible evidence of the extent of the Syrian operation. It looks superficially like the start of the destruction of Hama in 1982. If so, Syrian forces are racing the international pressure building against the regime, especially from Sunni Arab countries.

To buy time and try to unhinge international opposition, the Alawite generals and political leaders might sacrifice Bashar al Asad. There is precedent for such a move - that is how Bashar's father Hafez al-Asad came to power - but the timing is not yet right, owing to the Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN. Thus, Asad rejected the Arab League's proposal for an Arab peacekeeping force in Syria under a UN mandate.

Until the fighting reaches and persists in Damascus, the regime can survive.

Syria-Iran-Anonymous: The Israeli news service Haaretz published two Syrian Presidential emails leaked by Anonymous on 7 February. Supposedly they were the first of a series to be published. Anonymous hacked 78 email accounts of senior officials, including President al-Asad, using passwords such as "1234" and "12345".

Comment: Other news services claim the leaked documents contain evidence that Iran has been bypassing international sanctions to help Syria. Evidence of Iranian assistance for Syria would be no surprise, though the details would be of interest and possibly sensational. Syrian and Iranian use of non-secure emails as a channel for exchanging such information and advice would be extraordinary, assuming subsequent leaks contain that information.

The embarrassment is condign punishment for Syria because Anonymous hacked the Syrian Ministry of Defense last August and took control of the Syrian government's web site last September. Anonymous also attacked Iranian web sites last year.

Egypt: The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces broadcast a statement on Friday, 10 February, restating its promise to return the country to an elected president. . "We are ready to complete our promise, as it was announced that candidacy for the presidential election will open on 10 March, and the presidency will be handed over to the president of the republic after holding the polls (sic)," the statement said.

Comment: The statement did not mention the date of presidential polls. More importantly, the statement clearly placed more stress on the election of the president than on parliament. That implies that the armed forces have not embraced a change of government system. Mubarak was a former air force commander and embodied the military-backed presidential style of government.

Tunisia: Update. Five secular Tunisian political parties announced 11 February that they would merge into a single coalition in an effort to counter the moderate Islamist Ennahada party.

Comment: As in Egypt, the Tunisian Islamists were better prepared for free elections and a more open political atmosphere than were the secular parties. The secular parties in Tunisia appear to be learning.

Greece: Update. Greece needs to restructure its debt through a bond swap with its private creditors by 17 February or face bankruptcy, Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos told Parliament on 12 February. His statement appears to have had the intended effect. The Greek Parliament passed by a majority the austerity bill needed to secure the EU and International Monetary Fund bailout.

Nevertheless, thousands protested in Athens on the 12th, setting fire to at least ten buildings, including a movie theater, a bank, a mobile phone store, a glassware store and a cafeteria, according to the local fire department. Police said about 25,000 protesters demonstrated outside of the Parliament building.

Comment: The approval vote was expected, despite the withdrawal of members of the interim governing coalition to protest the new requirements. On Friday, 10 February, Prime Minister Papademos told the Cabinet that anyone objecting to the terms of Greece's new bailout would have no place in the government, stressing that the alternative to the rescue plan agreed with foreign creditors was a catastrophic default that must be avoided at all costs.

"We cannot allow the country to go bankrupt," Papademos said in a televised speech to the Cabinet. A Greek bankruptcy would inevitably lead to an exit from the eurozone "and the country would be dragged into a spiral of recession, instability, unemployment and misery," he said.

"The priority now is to do whatever it takes to approve the new economic program and move forward with the new loan agreement," the premier said. Papademos added that "whoever disagrees and does not vote for the new program cannot stay in the government," setting the stage for a reshuffle.

Greek political sources expect a cabinet shakeup in which Papademos strengthens his interim government. All the doubters withdrew on Friday.

Despite the action by the Greek government, some EU members remain reluctant to approve the bailout because Greece has failed to keep past promises. The survival of the deal and the government hinges on the demonstrators.

End of NightWatch

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Night Watch

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