Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Analysis: U.N. mission does nothing to change endgame in Syria

watson-syria-truce-unrest-00003710-story-top The beginning of the U.N. observer mission to Syria heralds a new phase in more than a year of upheaval across the country. Success, however unlikely, could open the door to some form of dialogue between the regime and its opponents. But such is the polarization in Syria that most analysts see the mission as the least worst option before violence sets the agenda again.

It's not as though any "cessation of violence" has yet taken hold. The ceasefire was meant to begin last Thursday, but in the past few days the regime has continued to shell restive city neighborhoods, according to opposition activists and U.N. officials. U.N. human rights officials reported Monday "the shelling of the Khalidiya neighborhood and other districts in Homs by government forces and the use of heavy weaponry, such as machine-guns in other areas, including Idlib and some suburbs of Damascus."

One of the most important parts of the plan devised by Kofi Annan is that tanks, troops and heavy weapons be withdrawn from populated areas, but this has clearly not happened.

Monitoring missions can only work when the parties to a conflict have had enough of fighting or can be coerced into negotiation by outside powers. The Arab League mission members in Syria earlier this year were little more than bystanders, unable or unwilling to operate amid the government crackdown.

Twenty years ago, the U.N. agreed to deploy a mission to monitor a ceasefire in Sarajevo, the besieged capital of Bosnia. But the ceasefire never took hold as both Serbs and Muslims quarreled over its terms. Aid convoys were attacked and looted as U.N. monitors looked on.

By the middle of 1992, more than a million Bosnians were homeless, similar to the number of Syrians displaced today. Despite the subsequent expansion of the U.N. presence in Bosnia, there was no mandate for more forceful intervention until the Srebrenica massacre -- more than three years after the conflict began.

The parallels are not exact but "there is a certain deja vu quality" to events in Syria, admits Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for Annan.

"The United States is leaving it in the hands of Kofi Annan, as is the rest of the world," Fawzi told McClatchy newspapers. "We're the only path in town. There is no alternative." That in itself illustrates how few options there are for the West to influence events in Syria.

It seems that both Russia and the United States are already preparing for the mission's failure. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday that some foreign powers hoped to scupper the Annan plan by smuggling weapons to the rebels, while U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice says that regime infractions "will call into question the wisdom and the viability of sending in the full monitoring presence."

Even the terms of the U.N. monitors are still a matter of dispute. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Monday that the government must guarantee freedom of access. The monitors "should be allowed to freely move to any places where they will be able to observe this cessation of violence," he said.

The government has made it clear that the observers won't have free rein and it "will be involved in all steps on the ground." It's also demanding that rebels lay down their weapons, which one opposition activist said was like telling them to write a suicide note.

Even 250 monitors -- the maximum currently envisaged -- would be hard pressed to cover all Syria's hotspots, as Ban himself acknowledged Tuesday.

If it took hold, the presence of U.N. observers might, ironically, provide a respite for both sides. Syria's military has seen a year of relentless operations (and growing defections). The Syrian Free Army has been on the back foot, short of weapons and training. One FSA commander acknowledged he was preparing for the next stage on the assumption the Annan mission would fail.

According to Annan's six-point plan, the Syrian government would have to make significant concessions -- allowing the international media into the country, releasing detainees and allowing peaceful protest. It has shown no sign of making such concessions. The protest movement has endured for months despite arbitrary killings, detention and torture. In a state renowned for its secret police, the shackles of fear were broken and cannot be clamped on again. So for the regime to give free rein to protest would be tantamount to giving up control of sizable cities like Homs, Hama and Idlib. In such places Local Coordination Committees set up by the opposition have already become mini-governments, organizing food deliveries, providing shelter, settling disputes. In addition, the size of an international humanitarian aid effort also mandated by U.N. resolution would de facto deprive the regime of the control it has struggled to reassert.

The arrival of the U.N. monitors does nothing to change the endgame in Syria, which is essentially about the survival of the al-Assad regime. Russia and al-Assad's ally, Iran, apparently believe that Syria can weather the storm; Europe, Turkey and the United States that it is ultimately doomed. The Syrian government appears to have calculated that by accepting if not adhering to the U.N. plan -- for now -- it can alleviate the pressure on it, and that its concessions won't tip the balance toward its opponents, who are disorganized, divided and lack the weapons to challenge the security apparatus.

Also in the regime's calculations, presumably, is that even if it has to resort to plan A, bludgeoning the revolt, the international community is too divided to contemplate military action. The International Crisis Group noted last week: "The West remains confused and ambivalent, having exhausted all sources of diplomatic and economic leverage, fearful of the future and tiptoeing around the question of military options."

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have spoken of arming the opposition, but have not followed through with the sort of hardware and cash that made a difference on the battlefield in Libya.

Looming over the tactical considerations of all sides is the very real damage done to the Syrian economy and people, with the U.N. estimating at least 1 million people displaced internally (not least because sectarian animosities have grown.) Nearly 100,000 Syrians have taken refuge in Jordan. Across the border with Turkey, the refugee camps are taking on a permanent air. Few of the thousands who fled expect to go home anytime soon, and the Obama administration continues to study a buffer zone on the Syria-Turkey border.

If the al-Assad dynasty is to survive, it will need a massive infusion of aid to repair infrastructure and revive an economy in freefall. Defectors have told CNN that government spending has largely been diverted to the military and the feared regime militia; there are shortages of gasoline and electricity. The value of the Syrian pound has halved and a shortage of hard currency is making imports difficult to finance. Reuters quotes French diplomatic sources as estimating Tuesday that Syria's hard currency reserves have dropped 50% in a year as sanctions have hurt the banking sector and the oil industry. In the long-term, against a background of hyperinflation and shortages, economic implosion may be the Syrian state's greatest threat.

But does the government have the will or capacity to repair the damage and deliver economic recovery? And would anyone help it do so?

Not while it's locked in a polarizing war of attrition, characterized by the massacre of entire families and bubbling sectarian hatred. As the International Crisis Group observed last week: "The fact is that the regime's behavior has fueled extremists on both sides, and, by allowing the country's slide into chaos, provided them space to move in and operate."

To most commentators, 250 blue berets are unlikely to reverse that dynamic.


IMF Optimistic About Global Economic Growth

ap_italy_financial_crisis_12Apr12-resizedpx480q100shp8 The International Monetary Fund is a little more optimistic about global economic growth as European nations have taken action to cope with their debt crisis, and the U.S. economy grew a little faster.

Speaking about IMF's  "World Economic Outlook" on Tuesday, research director Oliver Blanchard said the global economy has been on a "roller coaster" for the past six months, leaving an "uneasy calm."

The International Monetary Fund's report comes as officials from the many member nations of the IMF and the World Bank gather in Washington for talks this week.

Blanchard said the world economy will expand by about 3.5 percent this year, and a little faster next year.  The report says emerging markets will continue to grow faster than developed economies.  For example, the United States' economy will expand 2.1 percent in 2012, Europe will shrink by three-tenths of a percent, while China will expand more than 8 percent.

The IMF also says the United States must come up with plans to cut debt over the medium term, but avoid slashing spending or raising taxes so quickly that it hurts the current recovery.  The lender urges Europe to continue and expand efforts to boost its economy.

The global lender said Sub-Saharan Africa had another year of strong growth, and is one of the areas least affected by the recent financial turmoil. 

VOA News

U.S. strikes kill 6 in Yemen, say officials

120111063248-us-drone-story-top Five U.S. drone strikes killed six suspected al Qaeda militants in the southeastern Yemeni province of Shabwa on Monday, two security officials and one defense ministry official told CNN.

The drones targeted militant hideouts, checkpoints, training facilities and weapons warehouses in the Azzan districts, considered the stronghold for al Qaeda in Yemen, officials confirmed.

Al Qaeda took over Azzan district March of last year, from which it has launched numerous attacks in the south of Yemen. It was the first district to fall into the hands of Islamic militants in Yemen.

Residents told CNN that the explosions were powerful and were heard miles away. Two security officials expected the death toll to rise.

One of the strikes targeted a checkpoint run by militants near the entrance of the district.

"The attacks were fierce and we have not been able to get complete death tolls from the attacks due to the security situation in Azzan," one official not authorized to talk told CNN.

Dozens of militants blocked roads leading to the areas of the attack, residents said.

Experts are concerned that the growing number of U.S. strikes will cause a backlash and hurt the Yemen's efforts in fighting terrorism.

According to two Defense Ministry officials, at least 11 U.S. attacks were conducted on Yemeni soil over the last week alone.

"U.S. involvement is far more than ever in Yemen. We have no evidence that all those being killed are terrorists," Abdul Salam Mohammed, director of Abaad Strategic Center, told CNN.

"With every U.S. attack that is conducted in Yemen al Qaeda is only growing in power and we have to ask ourselves why that is happening."

On Monday, the Defense Ministry announced that seven al Qaeda militants were killed in Abyan province, where government forces have been clashing with militants for 11 months. Two of the killed were from Somalia, the ministry said.


Playtech down as it eyes deal with top shareholder

Playtech-down-as-it-eyes-deal-with-top-shareholder Playtech, the world's biggest provider of online gaming software, plans a string of acquisitions as it branches out into the social gaming market but news that it will be buying the businesses from its main shareholder unnerved investors.

The Estonia-based firm said on Tuesday that it planned to spend 95 million euros ($124.1 million) buying assets owned by Israeli billionaire Teddy Sagi who founded Playtech and still owns a 48 percent stake in the company.

Shares in Playtech, which is one of the biggest companies listed on London's junior AIM market, were down 4.4 percent at 335.25 pence by 1001 GMT having earlier fallen as much as 9.7 percent to 316.66 pence.

"Where concerns will be raised is that once again Playtech is acquiring assets from its founder and largest shareholder," Simon McGrotty, analyst at Davy Research, wrote in a note to clients.

"Ninety five million euros is a significant investment, especially in an area that is relatively unproven - there is no mention of the current profitability of the assets being acquired in this morning's announcement," McGrotty added.

Playtech said it had signed a memorandum of understanding to buy assets including social gaming products where people playing interactive games online can buy virtual currency, such as Facebook credits, to use as part of the game.

It also plans to buy what it called "play for real" products such as casino and mobile poker software for selling to online gaming firms and a 20 percent stake in a social gaming operation targeted directly at consumers.

Playtech said in a statement that the consumer-facing part of the deal would create an additional earnings stream in one of the fastest growing segments of the gaming industry.

Sagi, whose wealth is estimated by Forbes to be around $1.2 billion, has also provisionally agreed to become a company advisor ahead of Playtech's proposed move away from an AIM-listing to a prime market listing where it hopes to gain a place on the midcap FTSE 250 index.

Given the potential conflicts involved in buying assets from a major shareholder, Playtech said other shareholders would get to vote on the proposed deal.

"The market will be disappointed by the related party nature of the transactions," said Panmure Gordon analysts Simon French and Lindsey Kerrigan, who maintained a "hold" recommendation on Playtech stock.

Playtech also said it planned to buy or rent a new office worth 10.5 million pounds from a company in which Sagi has a beneficial interest and announced plans to accelerate payments for PT Turnkey Services (PTTS), a company which was also partially owned by Sagi before Playtech acquired it.

Playtech will get a 4.2 million euro discount on the PTTS deal price in return for the early payment. It described the unit's performance since acquisition as very strong and said the first quarter of 2012 had been outstanding.

The company, which operates a joint venture with Britain's biggest bookmaker William Hill, said in January the opening up of online gambling markets and relaxation of gambling laws across the world would present opportunities for global expansion.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Paul Hoskins)

Tokyo governor seeks to buy islands disputed with China

Tokyo-governor-seeks-to-buy-islands-disputed-with-China Tokyo's controversial governor wants to use public funds to buy islands disputed between Japan and China, a plan bound to infuriate Beijing.

The islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, have long been the centre of maritime territorial disputes between China and neighbors both citing historical and other claims over fishing areas and potential rich gas deposits.

Shintaro Ishihara, 79, announced the idea of buying the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea from private owners during his visit to Washington and the Tokyo metropolitan government confirmed the plan on Tuesday.

In a statement citing Ishihara, the Tokyo government said the islands were "extremely important" for Japan and offered great potential for development of natural resources and fisheries.

Japanese government spokesman said he was not aware of the plan and declined further comment.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry news official told Reuters by telephone it had "no information to offer" regarding the plan.

Diplomatic ties between Beijing and Tokyo hit a low point in late 2010 after Japan's arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain near the disputed islands, though they have improved since then.

In 2008, Beijing and Tokyo agreed in principle to jointly develop gas fields near the islands, but progress has been slow and Japan has accused China of drilling for gas in violation of the deal.

Kyodo news agency quoted Ishihara as saying that talks with owners were already under way and that a deal could be wrapped up by the end of the year.

Ishihara, elected for a fourth term a year ago, is no stranger to controversy, admired by some for his blunt style, a rarity in Japan, and lambasted by others for a tendency to offend.

Last year, he was forced to apologies for suggesting that the March 11 earthquake and tsunami were "divine punishment" for the "egoism" of the Japanese people.

(Reporting by Kaori Kaneko; Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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