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Eurasia Security Watch - No. 182

Edited by Jeff Smith
August 9, 2008


RETOOLING THE CONSTITUTION IN TURKMENISTAN
Turkmenistan’s constitution is getting a makeover, Chinese-style. Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has announced plans to tweak the constitution of his former Soviet republic in order to streamline the government bureaucracy and make “more efficient use of the capacity for democratization of society and state.” Publicly, the president is touting the changes as essential for strengthening the rule of law, property rights, and economic freedoms. The reality is somewhat different. Powers resting with the Halk Maslahaty, a 2,500-member “People’s Council” best known for rubber-stamping decisions of Turkmen presidents, will be folded into an expanded 125-member national parliament and to the president, who will reclaim the right to directly appoint (and dismiss) governors and mayors.

Dierdre Tynan, a freelance journalist specializing in Central Asian affairs, is not convinced of the president’s new reform effort: “Berdymukhamedov seems intent on sharing just enough of the state’s energy wealth – through pledges to boost pensions, subsidies and restore some forms of entertainment, such as the opera – to contain popular discontent and keep his authoritarian system running smoothly.” (eurasianet.org, July 28, 2008)

A COMEBACK FOR IRAQI OIL

Bolstered by growing output, Iraq’s oil industry is showing signs of life again, giving a much needed jolt to Baghdad’s finances. A $34 million project designed to protect a northern pipeline extending to Turkey has proven a wild success, according to a report by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, noting the facility had been free of any insurgent attacks over the past year. Over the past year output from the pipeline has risen more than tenfold, from one million barrels a month to thirteen, netting the Iraqi government an $8 billion windfall. (New York Times, July 26, 2008)

ANOTHER SYRIAN MURDER MYSTERY

In what is becoming a typical occurrence in this isolated dictatorship, the assassination of an extremely well-connected Syrian general has raised serious questions about the internal security – and basic stability - of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus. Details of the killing are murky, but Brig. Gen. Mohammed Suleiman was known to be a senior army general and top aide to the president, though many suspect he was also Syria’s top arms liaison to Iranian-backed Hezbollah and the chief of Syria’s (now defunct) nuclear program. Gen. Suleiman was killed on August 1 by gunfire at the Tartous beach resort, although accounts of his demise differ; some reports claim it was four shots of sniper fire from the sea, while other suggest a close-range hit-job. (Washington Post, August 5, 2008)

[Editor’s Note: Like many of the region’s melodramas, the true story – including whether this is linked to, or payback for, the puzzling assassination of terrorist icon Imad Mugniyeh in Syria last year, where he enjoyed safe-haven for years; part of an internal power struggle between the Ba’ath party’s various factions; or, though denied, Israeli retribution for Suleiman’s support to terrorists – is likely to remain a mystery to all but a few regime insiders.]

SADR IN RETREAT
Radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has announced a fundamental restructuring of his once-feared Mahdi Army militia into a “social-services organization” dedicated to “cultural and scientific jihad.” The event marks a dramatic turnaround for a cleric once hailed as political kingmaker in Iraq, and for a militia that only recently ruled large swathes of Iraq with an iron fist. Power and influence, it is agreed, corrupted the Mahdi Army, which exploited, robbed, kidnapped, and murdered many of the civilians it was claiming to protect -- and Sadr’s influence dwindled along with it. The cleric’s decision to flee to Tehran in 2006 reinforced his disconnect from the people while factional infighting and an aggressive campaign by the refurbished Iraqi Army clipped the Mahdi Army’s wings, probably for good.

According to a to a two-page flier distributed by Sadr’s representatives, the cleric now “forbids using weapons, ever.” The bulk of the Mahdi Army will take up the mission of “intellectual and social work” while a small portion will commit to the “resistance project.” In the run up to his announcement, Sadr had been placing an increasing number of restrictions on his fighters, insisting there was no religious permission for attacking civilians or government targets, even if they are “unjust.” (Wall Street Journal, August 5, 2008; ABC News, August 7, 2008)