December 10 - 24
Hello, and welcome to the Final Dispatch for 2012!
The Russian Government signaled they see an outcome in Syria which doesn’t include Assad for the first time, a major diplomatic shift, though a couple days later Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, made clear his country wouldn’t be involved in ousting the Syrian leader. Mr. Lavrov also said the Syrian government was working to safeguard its chemical weapons, an assertion Israeli officials tentatively agreed with.
On Dec 16th, the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn wrote an excellent piece from Damascus, where he has been for ten days. He makes three assertions, which broadly square with other reports I’ve read. First, he expresses alarm at the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, due mostly to growing populations of extremists in the opposition (including the al-Nusra front, which the US labeled a terrorist organization, describing the group as a franchise of al-Qaeda in Iraq). I’ve read mixed reports of the degree to which the majority of rebels are genuinely Islamist - apparently the easiest way to get funding and weapons from the Qataris and Saudis is to grow a beard and hold a Koran - but it’s definitely present and it’s definitely a problem. Second, he asserts the government is not nearly as close to collapse as rumored - much of the rebel gains have been due to a change in the government’s military strategy that involved abandoning remote posts. Cockburn says Damascus itself feels relatively secure, and even Homs is in better condition than reported. Again, that squares with what I’ve read - the regime isn’t collapsing yet, and his talk about the rebel’s gains being illusory mirrors some of what I’ve seen, but frankly, nobody chooses “abandon remote outposts” as strategy “A”, and the government’s tactics seem largely limited to aerial bombardment, which is completely insufficient for dealing with an insurgency. His final complaint is against the media coverage, and I’m absolutely on his side on that one - the day-to-day reporting on Syria has been atrocious, and it’s only been through the hard work of a few very talented journalists that it’s been possible to get anything of a reasonable picture of the situation on the ground.
My longer-term forecast remains the same - at some point (and I’d wager within the next few months), the Assad regime will fall because there’s enough money and pressure on the side of the rebels to keep the war going and very little still propping up the Assad regime. Cockburn’s article, though, is a sober reminder that optimism is not a substitute for facts.
On Dec 11, North Korea successfully launched a satellite into orbit, a major accomplishment following two prior failures. South Korea and the west called the launch a missile test in disguise, and US naval vessels were on hand to intercept the rocket if it veered towards Japan. The satellite reached orbit, but appears dead, with an erratic orbit and no signals detected. Later analysis of debris from the rocket launch showed signs that the rocket’s design was military in nature.
The evidence collected by the South Koreans is the missile was basically glued together out of other rocket engines the North Koreans already have. Whatever it is, though, it’s estimated to have a several thousand mile range, which is a pretty substantial upgrade from their previous rockets - as they say, if it’s stupid but it works, it’s not stupid. The consensus of the intelligence community is that North Korea’s “space” program is a thinly-veiled missile program, the proceeds of which are currently being sold to Iran (Iranian observers were on hand for the failed April launch). China’s silence after the launch is a bit curious, though - While they’re N.Korea’s only real ally in the region, they’ve expressed their anger before for these sort of tests, which they see as potentially destabilizing to the region. Everyone else seems to have shrugged their shoulders, though, so the Chinese may be fine to let this one slide.
Egypt - Referendum
In two rounds of voting, the Egyptian Draft constitution was approved, garnering around 64% of the vote. The turnout was exceptionally low, though, at around 30% of eligible voters.
NightWatch did the math and concluded that, in a country of 82M, the referendum garnered 5.5M votes. There’s an urgency in Egypt to get a constitution in place, but a poorly written document passed by barely 7% of the country (or 20% of eligible voters) isn’t going to satisfy anyone and certainly isn’t going to have the legitimacy to draw together the fractious parties that make up the Egyptian government.
Prime Minister Mario Monti, who took office in November 2011 after former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi resigned in disgrace, announced his resignation on December 9th after losing the backing of Silvio Berlusconi’s party. Berlusconi, who was convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to nearly four years in prison in September, expressed interest in running in the next elections, but has not yet fully committed.
With less than a week to go before the “Fiscal Cliff,” House Speaker John Boehner threw in the towel after one last attempt to get a “Plan B” measure passed in the house failed in the face of defections from his own party.
It’s extremely unlikely Boehner will lose his speakership, but it would certainly be nice to have a Speaker of the House that can actually speak for the house. Boehner’s spent the last two years being kneecapped by his own party, which means the negotiating process is A) negotiate with Boehner B) Agree to a deal C) Boehner gets shot down by his own party D) and calls you an asshole for suggesting the bill he agreed to.
Secretary of State
President Obama nominated Senator John Kerry as Secretary of State to take over after Hillary Clinton resigns. Kerry’s nomination was widely expected after UN Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew from consideration.
This wraps up an entire year of Dispatches - thank you for reading, I hope they’ve been informative! There will be two more posts in the next week - a wrap-up of 2012, and my prospectus for 2013 (similar to last year’s first post), which I intend to have out on the 30th and the 1st.
Thank you for joining me, and Happy Holidays!