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Terrorism & Security

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Far from the violent protests in Kiev, western Ukrainians took over the regional governor's office in Lviv on Thursday, and forced the governor to write a letter of resignation. (Pavlo Palamarchuk/AP)

In Ukraine, stakes rise sharply as unrest spreads (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.24.14

A daily roundup on terrorism and security issues.

Antigovernment protesters in Kiev began strengthening barricades and seized a new government building early this morning after talks last night between opposition leaders and the Ukrainian president resulted in "not much."

The fragile truce installed yesterday during negotiations is still holding in Kiev. But protesters began expanding their camp in Independence Square and took over the Agricultural Ministry building without resistance after the talks failed to yield any concessions from the government. The negotiations followed an outbreak of violence on Wednesday that left at least two people dead and hundreds injured amid clashes between riot police and radical protesters.

The Associated Press (AP) reports that opposition leaders said the talks would continue, though they offered a mixed take on their progress. Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told the crowd that "there is a really good chance" of stopping the bloodshed, but boxing champion and Udar party leader Vitali Klitschko was decidedly more pessimistic.

"The only thing we were able to achieve was not much," a grim Klitschko told the crowd.

He urged protesters to refrain from violence and continue peaceful protests to avoid further bloodshed.

"I am afraid, yes, I am afraid of human losses," Klitschko said. "We will be widening the territory of the Maidan [square] further until these guys start reckoning with us."

Vladimir Paniotto, director of the Kiev Institute of Sociology, also expressed pessimism in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, though he suggested there was still hope for progress. "The process is unpredictable but unless there are substantial and ongoing talks, it will lead nowhere," he says. "I want to hope that a compromise will be reached. The opposition doesn't control radical elements now and it has no ability to control them. All this might have been prevented some time ago. Even now there are still chances."

Radio Free Europe reports that according to opposition leaders, Mr. Yanukovych promised that the government would release protesters detained by police and would halt further detentions. But Mr. Klitschko said Yanukovych also ignored one of the protesters' key demands: the resignation of the president and his government.

Klitschko called on protesters to "lay the pressure on so that the government resigns," RFE adds.

AP notes that Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko issued a statement guaranteeing that police would not take action against the Independence Square protesters, and called on police to exercise calm.

Protesters expressed their disappointment in the talks to Agence France-Presse, and indicated they were prepared for a fight with the government.

"I feel deceived. We waited all day for a result of the negotiations and we got nothing," said protester Yevgeny, 26, wearing a helmet.

"I have fear now but have even more fear for the future," he added.

Lyubov, a protester from Ivano-Frankivsk in west Ukraine who had travelled to Kiev, added: "We know the authorities do not want to compromise, we have known this for a long time."

Pavlo Movchan, parliamentary deputy with the BYuT party of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, expressed hope that the parliament, which is scheduled to meet next Tuesday, will cancel draconian new antiprotest laws and agree to parliamentary elections – moves that could promote calm. But equally important, Mr. Movchan told the Monitor, is addressing the widespread opposition belief that Russia is behind the unrest.

"The authorities need to break with Russia; further escalation might continue for as long as Vladimiar Vladimirovich [Putin] needs it," he says. "We know that there are Russian Black Sea special forces taking part in beating the protesters."

Violence also spread on Thursday to western Ukraine. AP reports that protesters stormed several government offices, most notably in the second city and opposition stronghold of Lviv, where antigovernment demonstrators forced the Yanukovych-appointed regional governor to sign a resignation letter. The governor later denied the letter was valid, as it had been signed under duress.

Yanukovych also found himself under increasing pressure from Western powers to end the violence and roll back antiprotest laws his government implemented on Tuesday. The Wall Street Journal reports that European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and US Vice President Joe Biden both independently warned Yanukovych on Thursday of consequences to Ukraine's relationships with the EU and US if there were further bloodshed. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday that she was "furious" over Ukraine's treatment of the Kiev protesters.

The sharp escalation in the protests and violence is prompting many observers to openly discuss what was once unthinkable: the breakup of Ukraine. 

"What we are seeing in Ukraine today is not a political crisis, or an East-West divide, but the collapse of the model of Ukrainian statehood that's existed since the end of the USSR," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. "It can't go on as it has for two decades. It's clear there must be fundamental changes."

Talks are scheduled to continue today.

Fred Weir contributed reporting from Moscow.

A protester stands at a burning barricades between police and protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday. Thick black smoke from burning tires engulfed parts of downtown Kiev as opposition leaders negotiated with the government during a 'truce' in the street clashes on Thursday. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Kiev holds breath as protest leaders, government negotiate amid truce (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.23.14

A daily update on terrorism and security issues 

A day after Ukraine's two-month-long demonstration saw its first fatalities amid clashes with police, antigovernment protesters agreed to a short truce with President Viktor Yanukovych’s administration during negotiations to resolve the crisis. But the protest leaders warned they may "go on the attack" if they do not receive concessions from the government – heightening concerns that the violence will continue.

Protesters gave President Yanukovych an ultimatum today, demanding that he call early snap elections and drop harsh legislation targeting protesters. A law went into effect on Wednesday that banned all public protest and spurred the violent escalation between protesters and police, reports The Associated Press.

Downtown Kiev has been described as a “virtual warzone,” with police chasing protesters and using rubber bullets and tear gas, reports Agence France-Presse. Protesters have set piles of tires ablaze and used deadly Molotov cocktails against the police.

AP reports that at least 70 protesters were arrested on Wednesday, and police shot at activists, journalists, and students. AFP adds that according to medical personnel at the protest site, some 300 people have been injured and five people have been killed in the fighting, four reportedly from gunshot wounds.

Late last night, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko asked protesters to take a step back from the clashes for a brief “truce” today while he and other leaders engage in talks with Yanukovych, reports AFP.

"Keep the barricades in place but [be] calm until the talks finish," Mr. Klitschko said, noting that he would inform protestors of the results of discussions with the president by 8 p.m. today (1 p.m. EST). He and other opposition leaders have been accused of giving impassioned speeches that have not helped to tamp down anger or moves toward violence.

If Yanukovych doesn't step down and call elections, Klitschko said protesters would go "on the attack" against the government. "We will go forward together. And if it's a bullet in the forehead, then it's a bullet in the forehead, but in an honest, fair and brave way," one protest leader, Arseny Yatsenyuk, added on Wednesday.

A violent turn

The violence came as a surprise to many who, after the largely peaceful 2004 Orange Revolution, regarded Ukraine as a model of protest nonviolence.

Protests began in November after Yanukovych turned down a deal that would have strengthened ties with the European Union in favor of closer relations with Russia. The Kremlin maintains that the unrest was instigated by “the West meddling in Ukraine’s affairs,” reports the AP.

Bloomberg reports that the president “is still in control of the situation because the police and military are not switching sides. A crackdown on the protesters appears to be the most likely scenario, but the situation is changing rapidly and events can take any turn.”

"This is a battle for democracy. Ukrainian citizens are demanding that the authorities listen," Olga Bodnar, an opposition parliamentary deputy told The Christian Science Monitor.

The turn toward violence has been concerning for observers, who see an increasing extremist divide among antigovernment protesters, writes The Christian Science Monitor’s Fred Weir:

Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant, says that the consequences of the violence – whoever may be provoking it – may be catastrophic.

"There has always been a consensus, across Ukraine's political spectrum, that a Ukrainian quarrel is different from a Syrian, or even a Russian one. After all, this is a country that went through the 'Orange Revolution' in 2004, without a single instance of violence," he says.

"There are now different agendas in play. The opposition has split between moderates and radicals, and the radicals are already rejecting the authority of moderate opposition leaders such as Vitali Klitschko, Yuri Lutsenko, and Arseny Yatsenyuk," Mr. Strokan says. "The moderates might be willing to hammer out a deal with Yanukovych, especially if it would lead to early elections. The radicals are apparently not interested at all in talking with the government, or compromising with it, but want to overthrow it. Yanukovych would like to restore order, but he no longer has any idea how to do this. This situation is fraught with danger."

Some experts say the violence is increasing public support for the radicals, and the longer it goes on, the greater the danger that Ukraine's delicate political balance will be permanently destabilized. 

There have been calls for sanctions against the Ukrainian government, and the European Union has said it would reassess its relationship with Ukraine if there was a "systematic violation of human rights, including shooting at peaceful demonstrators or serious attacks to the basic freedoms," reports the BBC. The US has already begun revoking visas to officials with ties to the violence.

Russia said it would not intervene. "We consider we do not have the right to intervene in any way in the internal affairs of our brother Ukraine. That's unacceptable and Russia has not done this and will not do it," Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said in an interview published on the website of Komsomolskaya Pravda daily, reports Sky News.

UN special envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi speaks to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the opening of the Geneva-2 peace conference in Montreux January 22, 2014. Syria's government and opposition, meeting face to face for the first time at a UN peace conference, angrily spelled out their hostility on Wednesday as world powers also restated contrasting views on the future of President Bashar al-Assad. (Jamal Saidi/Reuters)

Dueling opinions aired at Syrian peace talks

By Staff writer / 01.22.14

A daily update on terrorism and security issues 

"The aim is ambitious, but the expectations are low," wrote CNN. The talks are "a study in low expectations," according to USA Today. "Expectations are low, very low. Even the most optimistic diplomat is not expecting a resolution of the conflict at Geneva," the Guardian writes

The pundits' pessimism appears to be warranted. The Syrian opposition and the Syrian government are at odds even on the basic premise of UN-sponsored peace talks in Switzerland against a backdrop of continued fighting in Syria

Analysts say the difference of opinion is straightforward and yet hard to reconcile. Syrian government representatives maintain that no foreign powers have the right to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, while the opposition insists that the whole point of the peace conference is to begin discussing a transitional government that does not include Mr. Assad. 

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said Wednesday from the podium in Montreaux that no one but the Syrian people had the right to remove their leader, then implied that members of the opposition -- who sought to do just that when they launched their uprising in March 2011 -- were terrorists.

"The West claims to fight terrorism publicly while they feed it secretly," he said, according to the Associated Press. "Syrians here in this hall participated in all what has happened, they implemented, facilitated the bloodshed and all at the expense of the Syrian people they claim to represent."

Meanwhile,  Amhad al-Jarba, the head of Syria's Western-backed Syrian National Coalition said that any discussion of allowing Assad to remain in power would end the talks. A transitional government "is the only topic for us."

Using strong language, US Secretary of State John Kerry echoed this point. "We really need to deal with reality. Mutual consent, which is what has brought us here for a transition government, means that that government cannot be formed with someone who is objected to by one side or the other. That means that Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government," he said.

"There's no way, no way possible in the imagination that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people can regain the legitimacy to govern," Kerry said today in Montreaux (video).

But, according to CNN, the Syrian government delegation has arrived with the goal of arranging a cease-fire in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, that could then be extended to other parts of the country. This is a very different goal than that of the opposition and most of the parties at the conference who are focused on a political deal for ending the conflict. A previous peace conference held in 2012 laid out a framework for a transitional government in Syria. 

The conference became rancorous in its first hours, according to an account from CBS:

In a sign of the tension within the conference, Muallem exceeded the time allotted to him for his opening speech, but when challenged by [UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon], he refused to stop short, telling the UN Secretary-General, "you live in New York, I live in Syria," and demanding time to finish his remarks. 

"Our mandate here is to transmit the will of the Syrian people, and not to determine their fate," said Muallem. "The Syrian people are the ones who have the right to determine their fate and to decide on who governs them."

When Muallem finally concluded his speech, Ban lamented that "the constructive mood which I set has been broken," and he pleaded with Ahmed Jarba of the SNC, who was to speak next, not to match Muallem's tone with accusations aimed at specific governments or extensive anecdotes of atrocities. 

Jarba returned fire without hesitation, accusing the Assad regime of being the "terrorists" and asking the conference attendees "who do you trust?"

The government delegation speaks in Montreaux from a position of strength, writes Joshua Landis, who runs the prominent blog Syria Comment, in an op-ed for Al Jazeera America. The loyalty of the Syrian Army, superior weapons, and fragmentation of the rebel forces have all combined to make Assad stronger than he was two years ago, he explains. This is why he can afford to brush off demands for a transitional government.

Instead, Assad has said Syria will hold elections this year and that he saw no reason why he wouldn't take part. Landis says Assad made a calculated bet on a violent putdown of a popular uprising in 2011. 

Assad's game plan was to confront unarmed civil disobedience with gunfire, betting that turning the uprising into an armed rebellion would push extremist forces to the fore, which would alienate key Syrian and foreign stakeholders. He prioritized geography, withdrawing from the regions that hold less strategic value or are ungovernable by his regime in order to consolidate his hold on core geographic assets, such as Damascus, Homs, Hama and the highways linking them to the Alawite population centers on the coast. Although he ceded control of the poorest and most heavily Sunni provinces of northern and eastern Syria, his army has been able to retain bases in every major northern city. Government artillery and aircraft continue to bombard rebel-held areas at will, creating chaos and sowing dissention.

So, although Assad’s representatives have gone to the negotiating table in Switzerland, it is not clear they are there to seek compromise. But others might.

Striking a slightly more optimistic note, Ken Sofer of the Center for American Progress writes at Foreign Policy that the more significant conversations are happening on the sidelines of the conference.

The conventional wisdom is that under these circumstances, the US push to build consensus and find common ground between the Assad regime and the deeply fractured opposition is deeply naïve and divorced from realities on the ground. But for all the talk about regime-opposition negotiations, the most important conversation at Geneva this week doesn't involve anyone from Syria. Instead of trying to build consensus for a political solution on Syria from the inside-out, the United States, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, appears to be trying to build consensus for a deal from the outside-in. By working out a deal between the key power brokers on Syria's future, first the United States and Russia, and then widening the circle to include critical regional players, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, the international community can eventually force a deal on the belligerents to end the Syrian civil war.

The UAE, Turkey, and Qatar, who armed Assad's opponents, are coming around to the idea that "Syria will be solved politically, not militarily," Sofer writes; Saudi Arabia is also alarmed by the rise of terrorist groups. Meanwhile, he claims, Iran's negotiations with world powers over its nuclear program have made Iran more willing to work with the international community on other issues. The targeting of Iranian officials by Al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria may also persuade Tehran that a political settlement is desirable.

And while a "wide gap" remains between the US and Russia on what a solution looks like, they at least agree that a political solution is needed, Mr. Sofer argues. 

A Swiss police officer stands guard as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrives ahead of the Geneva II conference, at Geneva International Airport January 21, 2014. Ban withdrew a last-minute invitation to Iran to attend peace talks on Syria on Monday after the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott this week's conference if President Bashar al-Assad's main sponsor took part. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Reuters)

Alleged Syrian detainee torture photos called a 'smoking gun' (+video)

By Chelsea SheasleyStaff writer / 01.21.14

A daily update on terrorism and security issues 

A team of former war crimes prosecutors claim to have found a “smoking gun” that proves that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad tortured and killed its opponents.

In a report released Monday to the Guardian and CNN, the prosecutors said they found “direct evidence” of “systematic torture and killing,” based on the analysis of over 26,000 images smuggled out of Syria by a defector who says he was a military police photographer.

The pictures show thousands of dead prisoners, many of whom appeared to be emaciated, strangled, or beaten.

Among the authors of the report were three former chief prosecutors for the Sierra Leone and former Yugoslavia tribunals, and forensic and digital imagery experts. The team was commissioned by a London law firm that was in turn hired by the government of Qatar, a sponsor of the Syrian opposition, according to the report’s authors. 

The chairman of the panel and prosecutor of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, Sir Desmond de Silva, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the work of the panelists was impartial, despite the funding.

"Ultimately, the validity of our conclusions turn on the integrity of the people involved," he said. "We, the team, were very conscious of the fact there are competing interests in the Syrian crisis – both national and international. We were very conscious of that."

"We approached our task with a certain amount of skepticism, bearing that in mind." 

The man who provided the pictures is identified by the pseudonym Caesar. The Guardian reports that Caesar “smuggled the images out of the country on memory sticks to a contact in the Syrian National Movement.”

The anonymity “reminded some skeptics of Curveball, the code name assigned to the Iraqi defector Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, whose bogus claims about mobile biological weapons labs formed a central part of the case for the American invasion of Iraq,” the New York Times reports.

“In 2011, just before the first street protests against President Assad’s Baathist dynasty, Mr. Janabi admitted to The Guardian that he had lied to German and American intelligence officials.”

CNN said it could not independently verify the authenticity of the photographs, but relied on the conclusions of the team behind it.

"This is a smoking gun," David Crane, one of the report's authors, and the former chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone told CNN. "Any prosecutor would like this kind of evidence – the photos and the process. This is direct evidence of the regime's killing machine."

Human Rights Watch separately criticized the international community’s response to Syria today, saying in a report that “the desire to bring President Bashar al-Assad’s government to the negotiating table should not become a pretext for failing to protect civilians caught up in the almost three-year civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives,” according to the NY Times.

As the Geneva II peace talks begin, with uncertain prospects of success, they shouldn’t become the latest excuse to avoid action to protect Syrian civilians,” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, which has its headquarters in New York, said in a statement. “This requires real pressure to stop the killing and allow the delivery of the humanitarian aid they need to survive.

The two reports come just before the start of international negotiations on Syria, known as Geneva II, begin in Switzerland. As The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday, the process of determining which parties will be included in diplomatic negotiations has been a fraught one.

Getting the Syrian opposition to the table was a tremendous challenge, and they only voted Saturday to attend the talks in Geneva, known as Geneva II. 

The last minute invitation and subsequent withdrawal of an invitation for Iran to participate in the talks added last-minute drama.

Iran has been one of the Syrian regime's most crucial backers, and is believed to be offering support in the form of weapons, money, and even fighters on the ground. It is also a backer of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant organization that has openly sent thousands of fighters across the border to fight alongside regime forces.

But it will also be a crucial player in any lasting Syria agreement, many observers would argue.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad (c.) meets with the official delegation tasked with participating in the international conference on Syria, in this January 20, 2014 handout photograph released by Syria's national news agency SANA. (Handout/SANA/Reuters)

Syrian opposition gives UN ultimatum on revoking Iran's peace talks invite

By Staff writer / 01.20.14

A daily update on terrorism and security issues

The Syrian opposition has given the United Nations an ultimatum: Revoke Iran's invitation to the Syria peace talks this week, or they will boycott the talks.

Getting the Syrian opposition to the table was a tremendous challenge, and they only voted Saturday to attend the talks in Geneva, known as Geneva II. The opposition gave the UN a deadline of 2 p.m. today to take back Iran's invitation. If not met, the Syrian National Coalition has said it will not attend the talks, the first direct talks between the government and opposition.

“We cannot attend if Iran is there, and the coalition is united on this point,” coalition member Hadi al-Bahra said, according to the Washington Post.

Iran has been one of the Syrian regime's most crucial backers, and is believed to be offering support in the form of weapons, money, and even fighters on the ground. It is also a backer of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant organization that has openly sent thousands of fighters across the border to fight alongside regime forces.

But it will also be a crucial player in any lasting Syria agreement, many observers would argue.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters Sunday that Iran had been invited to the talks after agreeing that the premise of the talks be the formation of a transitional government that would not include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham said later that day that Iran will attend the conference without preconditions, an Iranian news agency reports.

Further exacerbating the disagreement, Mr. Assad said in a rare interview with Agence France-Presse that he expects to run for president again.

"I see no reason why I shouldn't stand," he said of presidential elections in June.

If there is "public opinion in favour of my candidacy, I will not hesitate for a second to run for election."

"In short, we can say that the chances for my candidacy are significant."

(Full write-up of AFP interview here.)

The Syrian National Coalition, the main representative of the opposition, has been divided over whether to attend the talks for months, and the Washington Post reports that fewer than half of its members approved the decision. "The unexpected inclusion of Iran at the conference put those who had supported attending the conference 'in a very bad position,' " said coalition member Abdulrahman Haj, one of those who approved attendance. “They are very weak now," he added. 

The first opposition delegates were scheduled to leave for Geneva at 10 a.m. local time today, but postponed their departure, coalition secretary general Badr Jamous told Bloomberg Businessweek. 

It is unclear whether talks could go ahead without the coalition in attendance, according to the Post:

Diplomats have said there has been no discussion of how to proceed should the opposition boycott an event regarded as the only hope for a settlement to Syria’s devastating civil war.

The United States appeared as surprised as the Syrian Opposition Coalition by the United Nations’ announcement of the invitation to Iran, which came only three days before the conference is set to begin in the Swiss town of Montreux.

The State Department also said the invitation should be withdrawn unless Iran endorses the conference’s terms, which are spelled out in a communique known as Geneva 1 that was agreed by Russia and America in 2012.

“If Iran does not fully and publicly accept the Geneva communique, the invitation must be rescinded,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Anonymous US officials also came out vehemently against the invitation in an interview with the Associated Press today, saying that Iran has not met the criteria for participation.

Speaking to reporters in a conference call, the officials said public statements from Iran since it was invited to the conference by the United Nations on Sunday fall "well short" of what is required for Tehran's participation. They said that they expect the United Nations to reevaluate and reverse its decision unless Iran changes course. The officials declined to speculate as to what would happen if Iran does not meet the criteria and the invitation is not withdrawn. However, they said the United States would not see the point in holding the conference, known as Geneva II, unless all participants accepted its goals.

The officials said the UN had been told of the US position both privately and publicly and that Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken several times with UN chief Ban Ki-moon several times over the weekend.

The US officials told AP that Iran must accept the plan for a transitional government in Syria that would not include President Bashar al-Assad himself, and criticized Iran for taking an active role in the war by arming regime forces and sending Iranian forces to fight alongside them.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Iran's participation is essential, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reports.

“Forty countries have been invited to the Geneva II talks … And if Iran is excluded from the list then the conference will resemble something profane,” he said. “Iran, of course, along with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq, is one of the countries interested in resolving the situation without further damaging the stability of this important region of the world.”

Thai anti-government protesters pack a street during a rally Friday in Bangkok, Thailand. Dozens of people were wounded in Thailand's capital Friday when a grenade exploded in a crowd of demonstrators, raising tensions in the country's political crisis. (Wason Wanichakorn/AP)

What does Bangkok explosion mean for antigovernment protests?

By Staff writer / 01.17.14

An explosion during an antigovernment march in Bangkok today wounded at least 36 and raised concerns about escalating violence after the protest movement appeared to be losing steam in recent days.

Police told Reuters that an explosive device was thrown at a crowd marching with protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban near Chulalongkorn University in downtown Bangkok.

So far, no one has taken responsibility for the blast; the government and the protest movement blamed each other for the attack, which was likely caused by a grenade, AFP reports.

A spokesman for the protest movement told Reuters that Mr. Suthep was about 100 feet away from the explosion and was unharmed.

Antigovernment demonstrators have been attempting to “shut down” Bangkok since Monday by blocking major intersections and staging rallies throughout the city. They have vowed to occupy the city until Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra resigns and they have rejected her call for an election on Feb. 2.

So far, Prime Minister Yingluck’s government has “been praised for a restrained response to a political crisis that has been percolating for several months,” as The Christian Science Monitor’s Bangkok correspondent reported yesterday:

Police have put up no resistance to protesters blockading major intersections in Bangkok and government ministries have quietly relocated to temporary offices in response to threatened occupations.  

At least eight people have been killed and hundreds injured since the latest unrest broke out. However, none of the incidents have directly involved Thailand's influential and coup-prone army, which has called for restraint from both sides.

But the Monitor’s correspondent also noted that progovernment supporters in Bangkok are ready to act if their leaders ask them to protest and that some hardcore supporters have stockpiled ammunition and weapons.

The Council on Foreign Relation’s Joshua Kurlantzick warned earlier this week that “Many currents of tension run just below the surface of the situation in Bangkok, and were visible even on the peaceful first day of protests.”

Risk analysis firm Maplecroft and the International Crisis Group have issued warnings this week that the window of opportunity for a peaceful solution to Thailand’s conflict is narrowing.

On the other hand, Chulalongkorn University professor Pasuk Phongpaichit and historian Chris Baker write in The New York Times today that, despite today’s blast, the protesters are “losing ground with a constituency whose support they badly need: the urban middle class," and that could open up the path toward a solution:

...the demonstrations have threatened to become so disruptive to everyday life and the economy that even people who support the opposition are being turned off it. This is a significant shift, for it presents Thailand with an 11th-hour opportunity to find a peaceful resolution to the deadlock. 

The protests are the latest iteration of a cycle of violence between Bangkok’s middle class and traditional elite, and the largely poor and rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former premier who was removed in a military coup in 2006.  

Yingluck has called for early elections on Feb. 2, but the opposition vows to boycott the polls – expected to be easily won by Yingluck – in favor of establishing an unelected people’s council.

Protests were sparked in early October when Yingluck’s government attempted to pass an amnesty bill that would have brought her brother back to Thailand.

Anti-government protesters with national flags gather for a rally Thursday, in Bangkok, Thailand. Reporters on the ground say that protesters' numbers now, on the fourth day of demonstrations, appear to be decreasing in size. (Sakchai Lalit/AP)

Are Thailand's antigovernment protests waning?

By Staff writer / 01.16.14

Protests in Bangkok aimed at forcing the government to step down may be dwindling after four days, reports Reuters. But the political crisis is a fast-moving target with many forces in play – including a decision unveiled Thursday by an anti-corruption commission to investigate a government rice-subsidy scheme. The investigation will focus on the role of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and 15 others in administering the subsidy program. 

The street protests are the latest chapter in a long-running struggle between the middle class and traditional elite in Bangkok and the largely poor and rural supporters of Ms. Yingluck and her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Demonstrations flared in November, and reached another critical point on Monday, after opposition firebrand Suthep Thaugsuban led supporters to occupy parts of Bangkok.

Protesters want the prime minister, whose allies have won the previous five election cycles, to resign over charges of corruption, nepotism, and vote-buying. Yingluck dissolved parliament and called for fresh elections on Feb. 2 but demonstrators reject those polls and want her to resign unconditionally.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told Time magazine that “Thais grudgingly accept a certain level of graft, but the protesters believe Thaksin went beyond mere nest-feathering to the pursuit of 'a monopoly on power and wealth.'”

Protesters Thursday continued to march on government offices, this time the government revenue office, but reporters on the ground say that their numbers appears to have decreased. "People see that the requests of the protesters are impossible under the (law) and constitution," Yingluck told Reuters. "That's why the number of supporters is getting less."

 An apparent dispersal of protesters comes as The Washington Post published an editorial Thursday calling for a stronger rebuke from the US for marches that the paper says has “anti-democratic” aims:

"Popular Demonstrations against democracy are becoming an unfortunate trend in developing countries where elections have challenged long-established elites. The latest case is Thailand, where thousands of people took to the streets Monday to demand that the country’s freely chosen government step down, that an unelected council take its place, and that elections scheduled for next month be canceled,” notes the Washington Post. So far the government has stood firm but it could “use more support from the United States in rejecting an undemocratic outcome to the crisis.” 

It is unclear how the demonstrations will play out. The protests could be reinvigorated by the anti-corruption panel's investigation. At the same time, the government has called for the arrest of opposition leader Suthep. "It's the duty of the police to arrest Suthep because he is wanted for insurrection, otherwise police will face malfeasance charges," Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul told the AFP after meeting with the country's national police chief. 

Civilians and security forces gather at the site of a car bomb attack near the Technology University in Sinaa Street in downtown Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. (Karim Kadim/AP)

Maliki calls for world's help as bombs rock Iraq (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.15.14

A daily update on terrorism and security issues

Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki reiterated his call for international support to stem the rising violence in Iraq after bombings across the country killed at least 40. Although the United Nations and US have expressed concern about the growing insecurity, leaders have been firm that it is the Iraqis' job to bring calm.

Violence in Iraq has been on the rise, with the 2013 death toll reaching levels not seen since the height of the Iraq civil war in 2006-07. According to the BBC, nearly 8,000 civilians and just over 1,000 security forces were killed in Iraq last year, with 759 deaths tallied so far this year.

Today's targets included a bombing at a funeral tent north of Baghdad. The victims were mourning the death of an anti-Al Qaeda Sunni militiaman, reports the Associated Press. Another attack took place in a market in the capital, among other bombings this week.

Reuters reports that the Army is “locked in a standoff with Sunni militants who overran Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad, more than two weeks ago in a challenge to Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki's government.”

They are led by the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is fighting in western Iraq and Syria to carve out a cross-border Islamist fiefdom.

"The battle will be long and will continue," Maliki said on state television on Wednesday ... "If we keep silent it means the creation of evil statelets that would wreak havoc with security in the region and the world."

Earlier this week, United Nations’s Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Iraq, calling for the government to address the “root causes” of its conflict. Mr. Ban encouraged the strengthening of Iraq’s “social fabric,” through political participation, respect for the law and human rights, and democratic processes. 

In response, Mr. Maliki said, "what is happening in Anbar has no relation to Iraqi problems," ruling out an attempt at dialogue with jihadists, according to Agence France-Presse. Maliki, a Shiite, has vowed to end the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), but says residents in the occupied, largely Sunni areas must force the group to leave.

Iraqi forces have surrounded Fallujah, about 45 miles west of the capital, but Maliki said on Sunday he is searching for a way “to end the presence of those militants without any bloodshed, because the people of Fallujah have suffered a lot.”

According to The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy, this comes down, in part, to politics in Iraq – which may not be a bad thing.

Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki from the Dawa Party, a Shiite Islamist political movement with close ties to Iran, has governed Iraq with intolerance and arrogance, stubbornly refusing to reach out to Iraq's disenchanted Sunni Arab majority and dismissing almost all of the community's political leaders who stand up to him as terrorists or friends of terrorists.

Though it may seem strange, this is good news. Because what's happening in Iraq at the moment is not some atavistic expression of "ancient" hatreds and irreconcilable cultural differences. Instead, it's a function of the failure of politics and power sharing in the modern era. And that's the kind of failure that can be rectified if Iraq's leaders, starting with Mr. Maliki, decide to change course from the politics of marginalization and exclusion. 

To be sure, there's been no sign of dawning wisdom yet.

Mr. Murphy goes on to note that when ISIS successfully ambushed Iraq’s Army north of Anbar Province in late December, the killings of senior officers “shocked the nation, with Sunni tribal figures in Anbar and elsewhere condemning the attack and vowing to stand with the Iraqi state against ISIS.”

It was a rare opportunity for the Maliki government to capitalize on a sense of national unity brought about by the death of the officers at the hand of Al Qaeda, Murphy notes.

The problem? Maliki used the attack as a pretense to go after Sunni Arab political protesters and political leaders.… All this had the thoroughly predictable result of infuriating Anbar's tribes and clans, and saw many make common cause with ISIS, which made its gains in Fallujah and Ramadi [last] week….

But this sad state of affairs also points to a way out. In 2007, after years of futilely trying to beat fiercely independent Sunni Arab tribes into submission, the US realized that encouraging cooperation with jobs, money, and promises of national respect was a better course. The Sahwa was born. That's a course that remains open to Maliki.

According to a separate Monitor story, some former US military officials are arguing that Al Qaeda's return to the region could offer a valuable opportunity to take on the group. A retired colonel claimed that Al Qaeda "has been kind enough to come out of the shadows and present themselves as a target.” 

Though US Secretary of State John Kerry has offered to help Iraq, he specified that this did not include US "boots on the ground."

"This is their fight, but we’re going to help them in their fight,” Mr. Kerry said earlier this month.

Turkey cracks down on charity suspected of arming Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.14.14

A daily update on terrorism and security issues

Turkey's anti-terror police have raided the offices of a local humanitarian organization providing assistance in Syria, accusing an individual working for the organization of having ties to Al Qaeda.

Turkey was an early supporter of the Syrian opposition, keeping its border open for refugees and aid, allowing the formation of camps along the border, and even allowing the Free Syrian Army to use the border region as an organizing base. But Turkey has also been accused of allowing foreign fighters allied with the opposition, including those from Al Qaeda-linked groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, to set up shop within its borders and is under international pressure to crack down.

Today police raided a satellite office of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), which came to prominence in 2010 as the organizer of the first Gaza flotilla, which was seeking to break the Israeli naval blockade on Gaza. 

Police officials told Reuters that the raid in Kilis was part of an operation in six cities to arrest individuals suspected of links to Al Qaeda. IHH rejected the accusation.

"IHH aid is delivered to Syrian babies, children and those who freeze in the cold ... This is an operation to change perceptions (about IHH) and stop aid from being delivered inside Syria," the group said in a statement, according to Reuters.

Turkish news outlet The Daily Hurriyet reports that 25 people were detained, including those taken in the raid on IHH, and that raids were carried out in Istanbul, Van, Kilis, Adana, Gaziantep, and Kayseri Provinces.

"They are trying to show the İHH as if it is related to terror organizations,” General Secretary Yaşar Kutluay said, calling the operation an "attack" on the NGO, reportedly the biggest organization in Turkey sending aid to Syria.

The Daily Star reports that the group has also been accused of smuggling arms into Syria. On Jan. 1 Turkish media reported that a truck loaded with weapons and ammunition had been stopped at the border and that the drivers said they were transporting for IHH. The group called the claim "slanderous."

Turkey has repeatedly denied any involvement in channelling weapons to the Syrian rebels, but in December local media, citing UN documents, reported it had shipped 47 tons of arms since June 2013, according to The Daily Star. And on Friday, two buses were seized that were carrying weapons and ammunition in the baggage hold.

Turkey has been under pressure to prove that it is monitoring its border closely and not allowing Turkey to become a safe haven for terrorists. The Christian Science Monitor reported in December that Western officials were skeptical that Turkey was willing to take action against such groups.

Last weekend, the BBC reported that foreign fighters are using safe houses in the border town of Reyhanli as a base from which to enter Syria, citing interviews with a French jihadist and a man running a safe house.

One Western diplomat expressed doubt that the Turkish government was fully cooperating with Western efforts to staunch the flow of fighters. "We are still experiencing operational difficulties, although we have seen signs that it is improving. As to whether a ‘shift’ ever occurred, that is still an open question,” the diplomat says.

Analysts and journalists familiar with the situation say Turkey has long been facilitating the arming and support of these groups by third parties as part of a policy of indiscriminately assisting rebels groups fighting in the Syrian civil war regardless of ideology. 

Turkey's open-border policies were based on the belief that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would fall quickly, and that if he didn't, the US would intervene, Aaron Stein, a fellow at the Royal United Service Institute in London, told the Monitor.

“This led them to make a number of short-sighted policy decisions intended to put as much pressure on the regime as possible, including opening the border,” Mr. Stein says. “As the foreign fighter problem became more acute, they did nothing to prevent it, and were an active participant in the transfer of arms and money to rebel groups.”

Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban speaks to his supporters Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, in Bangkok, Thailand. The protesters seized key intersections across Thailand’s capital on Monday, blockading major roads into the heart of Bangkok’s glitzy downtown districts at the start of a renewed push to derail elections next month and overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. (Sakchai Lalit/AP)

Bangkok shutdown: Thai protesters vow to occupy Bangkok for the 'long haul' (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.13.14

Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters have taken to the streets in a so-far peaceful demonstration in Bangkok, the Thai capital, to press for the removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Reuters reports that "police and soldiers kept a low profile" Monday as protesters occupied the streets of Bangkok as part of the opposition's "Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand" movement. The protest movement, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, an opposition leader, has rejected parliamentary elections due on Feb. 2, and is instead demanding a "people's council" seize power and revamp Thailand's democracy. Protesters claim that elections simply entrench the interests of Ms. Yingluck and her family, especially her self-exiled brother, billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was removed in a military coup in 2006.

Reuters writes that "the mood among protesters was festive, with many singing and dancing in the streets" on Monday.

Although major intersections that normally teem with cars and trucks were blockaded, city trains and river ferries were operating, most shops were open and motorbikes plied the roads freely.

But protesters said they were prepared for a long haul to tighten the noose on the capital, suggesting the crisis could drag on for days, if not weeks, threatening to inflict substantial damage on Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy.

At the same time, notes the BBC's Jonathan Head, the protests were "wearily familiar," and while certainly charged by strong emotion against the Shinawatras, may not be representative of much more.

Protesters "know about the idea of an 'appointed committee' to fix Thai politics, and they can all mouth the slogans 'Reform Before Election', and 'Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand'," he writes, "But asked what would happen if the prime minister resigned, but her own substantial support base outside Bangkok refused to accept this, no one had an answer."

"Well, it doesn't matter, because we are going to win anyway", was one woman's hopeful answer.

The longer these debilitating protests continue, the more likely a dramatic, perhaps violent, showdown between the two irreconcilable sides of Thai politics. ...

In a conversation with Anchalee Praireerat, one of the more hard-core protest leaders, she would not say exactly what she expected to happen. But she assured me it would all be over in three days, and that the protesters would win.

Despite their strong showing in Bangkok, protesters have far less traction outside the cities, The Christian Science Monitor's Simon Montlake noted recently, highlighting the urban-rural fault lines of the dispute.

The protesters are drawn from Bangkok’s middle classes, Democrat Party strongholds in southern Thailand, and elements of the bureaucracy. They represent a minority voice in Thailand that is used to having its way in how the country is run and where the spoils lie.

The protests have not spread outside the capital, unlike in 2010 when pro-Thaksin activists in northeast Thailand stormed town halls and blocked roads. The campaign has no traction in the north and northeast Thailand, underlining the country’s north-south fault line, as well as the urban-rural divide that has long been a factor in electoral politics.

The 800-pound gorilla in the scenario is the Thai military and the possibility of a coup – an all-to-familiar occurrence in Thai politics. United Press International reports that while the Army's deployment around Bangkok in anticipation of today's protests has heightened worries about a coup's likelihood, Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha denied a coup was in the works and asked the media to stop raising the possibility, according to comments made to The Bangkok Post.

He said posing the question of a coup every time reporters saw him could worsen an already tense situation.

"[A coup] isn't a topic we should be talking about every day," he said. "I don't know what that solution is, but we soldiers will do our best to ensure safety for the people."

Chan-ocha said he was concerned about possible violent confrontations between rival political groups during the rally which is expected to bring widespread disruption to the city.

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