MENASource|News, Analysis, Perspectives

February 9, 2016
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Monday that Canada will pull out six jets that have been bombing targets in Iraq and Syria, ending a controversial combat role in the fight against ISIS that began under the previous Conservative government. Canada will end its bombing missions by February 22 but keep two surveillance planes in the region as well as refueling aircraft, and triple the number of soldiers training Kurdish troops in northern Iraq to about 200. The US Department of Defense has praised Canada’s decisions to boost training troops in Iraq, double intelligence efforts, and continue humanitarian and development contributions. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reports that, “[Defense Secretary Ash Carter] sees these as significant contributions, and he greatly appreciates the decision by the [Prime Minister Pierre] Trudeau government to step up Canada’s role in the campaign at this critical time.” US President Barack Obama spoke by telephone on Monday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about Canada's role in the international effort to combat ISIS and the two are set to meet next month. [Reuters, 2/8/2016]
EGYPT | LIBYA & THE MAGHREB | SYRIA AND ITS NEIGHBORS | IRAQ | YEMEN & THE GULF | ECONOMICS
EGYPT

Egypt’s Foreign Minister says reported number of political prisoners is a 'lie'
Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Monday in an interview with Foreign Policy that the circulated figure of 40,000 political prisoners in Egypt is a lie. Shoukry--in Washington since Sunday for a three-day visit--dismissed criticism of arrests made by Egyptian security forces following Morsi's ouster, saying the figure was repeatedly reported until it became regarded as a fact. "Are we to return to the ideologies and the practices of Goebbels, where he says that if you repeat a lie sufficiently it becomes a truth?” he asked, in reference to the renowned Nazi propagandist. The figure, which has been reported by Human Rights Watch and a number of media outlets, comes from a report by The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights. Shoukry also rejected allegations of involvement by security forces in the death of Italian student Giulio Regeni. Shoukry added that journalists reporting on the story are “jumping to conclusions and speculation without any authoritative information or authentication of what is being alluded to.” Similar statements have been made by Egypt’s Interior Minister. More than 4,600 academics from across the globe have signed an open letter protesting against Regeni’s death and demanding an investigation into the growing number of forced disappearances in Egypt. [Ahram Online, 2/9/2016]

EU Parliament delegation and Sisi discuss mutual security concerns
An EU delegation led by German MP Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament committee on foreign affairs, and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met Sunday in Cairo to discuss regional and international security measures, border control, and Egypt’s role in assisting in the migrant crisis brought on by regional turmoil. Sisi noted Egypt’s effort to fight terrorism and to maintain stability in the Middle East and southern Europe, especially after the influx of Syrian refugees to Europe, according to a statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In a press conference after the meeting, Brok added that the EU parliament delegation discussed the situation in Libya and the impact of the increasing number of refugees. British Ambassador to Egypt John Casson, meanwhile said the United Kingdom is in pursuing negotiations with Egypt concerning airport security improvements that will eventually lead to resuming British flights to Sharm al-Sheikh. [DNE, 2/9/2016]

Parties, NGOs, syndicates to form Front to Defend Freedoms
At a press conference on February 11, the Press Syndicate’s Freedoms Committee has said it will announce the formation of the Front to Defend Freedoms, together with a number of political parties and NGOs. The parties participating in Thursday’s conference include the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP), Dostour, the Socialist Popular Alliance, Karama, Adl, and Bread and Freedom parties. The Press Syndicate also issued Sunday its first annual report reviewing violations against journalists, with head of the Freedoms Committee Khaled al-Balshy confirming that “more than 50 percent of violations are committed by the Ministry of Interior.” Meanwhile, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) published a study Sunday suggesting the banning of foreign researchers from entering Egypt is largely based on their anti-government stances. AFTE’s study highlights a number of situations in which researchers have been prevented from entering the country due to their political views. AFTE highlighted similarities across all multiple cases dating back to October 2014, notably the detention, interrogation and “psychologically pressure” exerted by authorities, who often only inform researchers they have been denied entry after hours of detention and interrogation. On Monday, 20 local human rights NGOs released a statement condemning the recent string of travel bans issued against a number of political activists and human rights defenders. The signatories include AFTE, El Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and several other groups. [DNE, 2/9/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource

LIBYA & THE MAGHREB

Libya seeks extra week to form unity government
Libya's Presidential Council said Monday it needs one more week to form a national unity government.
The Council, chaired by Prime Minister-designate Fayez al-Serraj, was due to submit the name of a new unity government on Sunday for approval by the House of Representatives (HOR). A 32-member unity government was announced on January 19, but the HOR rejected the line-up, saying it was too large, and set a ten-day deadline for a smaller cabinet. On Monday, the Presidential Council said it had asked the legislature to grant it an extra week. Reportedly, the main sticking point remains the post of defense minister and the future role of General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army. [AFP, Libya Herald, ANSAmed, 2/8/2016]

Libyan fighter jet downed in Derna
Libya's Air Force Chief of Staff says a fighter jet was shot down while carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants in the eastern city of Derna. Brigadier General Saqr al-Jaroushi said that a Libyan MiG-32 was striking the positions of ISIS and other militias in Derna when it came under fire by anti-aircraft guns on Monday, although local spokesman Abdulkareem Sabra attributed the crash to a mechanical failure. Both say the pilot ejected and landed safely. The spokesman for a coalition of Islamic militias in Derna, Abdul-Moneim al-Shairy, reportedly confirmed that his group fired at the jet. Additionally, a Twitter account attributed to Ansar al-Sharia in Derna, part of the militant coalition, has claimed responsibility. [AP, AFP, Libya Herald, 2/8/2016]

Obama, Italy's Mattarella discuss fight against ISIS in Libya
US President Barack Obama and Italian President Sergio Mattarella met on Monday in the White House and discussed efforts to work together to combat the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in Libya. Obama and Mattarella reviewed plans to support a Libyan unity government. “[With a stable government in place,] that will allow us then to help them build up their security capacity and to push back against efforts by ISIL to gain a foothold," Obama told reporters after the meeting. Italy has said it would take the international lead in providing security support, along with help from the United States, should talks to form a single government succeed. [Reuters, AP, 2/8/2016]

Corruption indicators increasing in Tunisia
President of Tunisia’s National Anti-Corruption Authority Chawki Tabib said on Monday that corruption indicators have increased in Tunisia in the last five years, emphasizing that Tunisia’s January 2011 revolution broke out in reaction to the proliferation of corruption. He said that the authority needs, at a minimum, TD 6.5 million in 2016 to operate effectively. He also announced the authority’s intention to work with civil society to establish a national anti-corruption plan that involves all stakeholders, including the House of People’s Representatives. MPs pledged to support the authority. [TAP, 2/8/2016]

Rubinstein calls for a revival of talks on a US-Tunisia free-trade agreement
US Ambassador to Tunisia Daniel Rubinstein on Monday urged Tunisia to work to revive talks on the free-trade agreement with the United States. At a meeting with Minister of Trade Mohsen Hassen, Rubinstein suggested the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) scheduled for March 2016 in the United States as an ideal time to revive talks on this agreement. The Ambassador stated US willingness to help Tunisia identify the most competitive sectors to capture the US market and other markets. Rubinstein also announced that an expert group of the Office of the US Trade Representative will soon visit Tunisia to meet with Tunisian businessmen. [TAP, 2/8/2016]

SYRIA & ITS NEIGHBORS

Car bomb in Syrian capital kills several
A car bomb driven by a suicide attacker exploded Tuesday near a police officers' club and market in the Syrian capital Damascus, killing several people and causing wide material damage. The state-run SANA news agency said Tuesday the blast went off near a vegetable market in the northern neighborhood of Masaken Barzeh. The opposition's Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said the blast killed eight policemen and wounded 20 after it was detonated in the parking lot of the officers' club. The blast came a day after international group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Syrian government forces and the Russian military have been carrying out daily cluster bomb attacks over the past two weeks in Syria, killing 37 people. The HRW report, released Monday, said that cluster munitions, which are widely banned, have been used in at least 14 attacks across five provinces since January 26, killing at least 37 civilians, including six women and nine children, and wounding dozens. HRW said the International Syria Support Group that will meet in Germany on Thursday "should make protecting civilians and ending indiscriminate attacks, including with cluster munitions, a key priority." [AP, AFP, BBC, WSJ, 2/9/2016]

Russia says no evidence of civilian deaths in its Syria bombings
On Tuesday, Russia said there was no credible evidence of its air strikes causing civilian deaths in Syria, rejecting German Chancellor Angela Merkel's criticism of the bombing campaign. Merkel said on Monday that Russian bombing had forced tens of thousands of Syrian civilians to flee, suggesting that the attacks violated a UN Security Council resolution that Moscow itself signed in December. European Council President Donald Tusk added to the pressure, saying the Russian actions were helping the "murderous" government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Responding to Merkel's statement, made during a trip to Turkey, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists: "Despite a huge number of such statements, no one up to now has presented a single (piece of) credible evidence as proof of these words." [Reuters, 2/9/2016]

United States, Saudi push ceasefire ahead of Syria talks
The United States and Saudi Arabia will push for an immediate ceasefire in Syria at international talks later this week, their top diplomats said Monday. US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met in Washington to prepare for broader negotiations in Munich in Thursday. There, the 17-nation International Syria Support Group will debate ways to restart a struggling UN-led effort to get Syria’s warring parties to the table. Kerry and Jubeir said they hoped the contact group, which includes the Syrian regime’s allies Russia and Iran, would agree to a rapid ceasefire on the ground. “We have a tremendous stake in trying to resolve the problems in the region before they consume all of us,” Jubeir said, giving brief remarks with Kerry. Both Kerry and Jubeir cited UN Security Council resolution 2254, which calls for a ceasefire and humanitarian access to besieged Syrian towns. “And we hope that when we meet in Munich in the next few days, we’ll be in a position where we can make progress on that goal,” Kerry said. [AFP, Reuters, 2/8/2016]

More than 1 million are besieged in Syria
A new report says more than one million Syrians are trapped in besieged areas, in a challenge to the United Nations, which estimates just half that amount and has been accused by some aid groups of underplaying a crisis. The new Siege Watch report, issued Tuesday by the Netherlands-based nonprofit PAX and the Washington-based Syria Institute, comes a month after images posted online of emaciated children and adults led to an international outcry and rare convoys of aid to a handful of Syrian communities. The Siege Watch report says 1.09 million people are living in 46 besieged communities in Syria, far more than the 18 listed by the United Nations. It says most are besieged by the Syrian government in the suburbs of Damascus, the capital, and Homs. In the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, about 200,000 people are besieged by both the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and the Syrian government. The report lists two communities besieged by armed opposition groups. Deaths have been reported from malnutrition, disease, hypothermia, and poisoning while scavenging for food. [AP, 2/9/2016]

UN urges Turkey to open borders to Syrians
The United Nations says hundreds of thousands of people in Syria's largest city could be soon cut off from humanitarian aid amid blistering Syrian and Russian airstrikes. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is calling on Turkish authorities to open the border to help those fleeing the violence. The UN humanitarian office (OCHA) says 300,000 people could be cut off from aid if the Syrian government and allied forces encircle Aleppo and deprive those fleeing from their last way out. Local leaders believe up to 150,000 people could try to flee to nearby Afrin and the surrounding countryside. Camps for the displaced along Syria's border with Turkey are at full capacity, aid workers say. Tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing a Russian-backed government advance on Aleppo have remained stranded near the Turkish border over the weekend, with no sign that the authorities in Ankara will respond to mounting international pressure to allow in more refugees. Turkey insists that it has an open-door policy toward Syrians escaping conflict but has still kept a key border crossing closed for days. [AP, Reuters, Hurriyet, 2/9/2016]

For more in-depth Syria news and analysis, please visit SyriaSource.

IRAQ

Protests intensify in Iraqi Kurdistan amid economic crisis
Protests intensified in Iraq's Kurdistan region on Tuesday after the government unveiled new austerity measures to avert an economic collapse that officials warn could undermine the war effort against ISIS. Some Peshmerga fighters blocked the main road outside their base in the city of Sulaimaniyah and police and other government employees demanding their salaries also participated in demonstrations. Hit hard by the global slump in oil prices, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) last week said it would pay only part of state workers' salaries until its fiscal health improved. The new measures do not include employees of the Interior Ministry or Peshmerga who have pushed ISIS back in northern Iraq, but the KRG is already several months in arrears. Kurdish officials have warned that the economic crisis could increase desertions from the Peshmerga, and are asking foreign powers including the United States for financial assistance. [Reuters, 2/9/2016]

Iraqi military advance reconnects Ramadi to key army base
Iraqi forces recaptured territory from ISIS on Tuesday which links the recently recaptured city of Ramadi to a major army base in western Iraq. A statement broadcast on state television said the army, police and counterterrorism forces had retaken several areas including the town of Husaybah al-Sharqiya, about six miles east of Ramadi. "(Our forces) also managed to open the road from Ramadi to Baghdad which passes through al-Khaldiya," the statement added, referring to a highway that links the city to the Habbaniya base where US-led coalition forces are located. Tuesday's advance boosts government efforts to close in on Fallujah, ISIS stronghold located between Ramadi and Baghdad which is besieged by the army and Iranian-backed Shia militias. Furthermore, the Iraqi army announced on Tuesday that it has regained full control of Ramadi after weeks of battling remaining pockets of ISIS militants in the city after it was liberated from ISIS control in December. [Reuters, Iraqi News, 2/9/2016]

YEMEN & THE GULF

Yemeni forces clash with Al-Qaeda gunmen in Aden
Yemeni forces clashed Tuesday with Al-Qaeda militants in Aden as the Saudi-led coalition provided air cover, in a bid to drive the extremists out of the city. Al-Qaeda controls part of the southern port city which has become the temporary headquarters of the government of President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi as it battles to retake large parts of Yemen from Houthi militants. Forces loyal to Hadi laid siege early Tuesday to Aden's central Mansoura district and clashed with militants. At least two gunmen were killed in the fighting. [AFP, 2/9/2016]

Saudi Patriot intercepts Houthi ballistic missile
The Saudi-led coalition on Tuesday said it fired a Patriot missile to intercept a Scud fired from the Yemeni capital towards southern Saudi Arabia, the day after another Scud attack. Coalition spokesman Brigadier General Ahmed al-Assiri said debris from the destroyed Scud fell in the kingdom's Jizan border province, causing no injuries. On Monday, the coalition said air defenses intercepted a Scud fired at Khamis Mushait, a city near the King Khalid Airbase which is at the forefront of Saudi-led air operations against the Houthi militias and their allies, elite troops loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. [AFP, 2/9/2016]

Saudi Arabia says could send special forces into Syria
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on Monday announced the possibility of sending Saudi special forces into Syria as part of a US-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL). "There is a discussion with regard to a ground force contingent, or a special forces contingent, to operate in Syria by this international US-led coalition against ISIS. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has expressed its readiness to provide special forces to such operations should they occur," he said. Al-Jubeir spoke to reporters after he met for the second day in a row with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Their talks focused on conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Al-Jubeir declined to say how many troops Saudi Arabia might be prepared to send. Last week an adviser to the Saudi Defense Minister said Saudi Arabia was ready to participate in ground operations in Syria but did not specify the possibility of sending special forces. [Reuters, 2/8/2016]

UAE tries Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda cell members
Separate trials have opened on Tuesday in the United Arab Emirates of three men accused of links to Lebanon's Shia Hezbollah movement and 23 others for ties to Al-Qaeda. The three Lebanese men charged with "forming and managing a group linked to Hezbollah without obtaining a permit" appeared Monday before Abu Dhabi's state security. In the other trial, 23 mostly Yemeni defendants were charged with forming a cell linked to Al-Qaeda as well as forgery. [AFP, 2/9/2016]

ECONOMICS

UAE plans to trim ministries, outsource most government services
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) plans to outsource most government tasks to the private sector and cut the number of ministries, Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum said Monday. The announcement comes as energy-rich Gulf Arab states have been hit by low oil prices, encouraging them to streamline institutions and attract more foreign investment. "We will have a road map to outsource most government services to the private sector . . . The new government will have a smaller number of ministries and more ministers to deal with national and strategic issues," the Prime Minister said on his official Twitter account. He announced the formation of a single education ministry, marking the abolishment of the Ministry of Higher Education, and fused several other state bodies into related ministries. No time frame was given for the changes. [Reuters, 2/8/2016]

Protests intensify in Iraqi Kurdistan amid economic crisis
Protests intensified in Iraq's Kurdistan region on Tuesday after the government unveiled new austerity measures to avert an economic collapse. Some Kurdish Peshmerga fighters blocked the main road outside their base in Sulaimaniyah on a third day of strikes and demonstrations by police and other government employees demanding their salaries. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) announced last week it would pay only part of state workers' salaries the region’s fiscal health improved. The new measures do not include employees of the Interior Ministry or peshmerga fighters who have pushed the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) back in northern Iraq. Kurdish officials have warned that the economic crisis could increase desertions from the Peshmerga and are asking foreign powers for financial assistance. The KRG has tried to make up the shortfall by increasing independent oil sales, but at oil current prices the region is still left with a monthly deficit of $717 million. [Reuters, 2/8/2016]

Egypt may not meet 2016 target to pay back oil arrears
Egypt may miss its target of repaying the $3 billion it owes to foreign oil and gas companies by the end of 2016, Egyptian Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said Tuesday. Ismail told reporters at the World Government Summit in Dubai that the debt will “at least [be reduced] to a very reasonable” level by the end of year. The Egyptian government previously said it would repay its arrears by mid-2015, before pushing the target date to mid-2016 and then the end of the year. Ismail declined to offer a new target date, emphasizing the Egypt’s aim to “finalize this by the end of this year.” Ismail also said the government expects to present a long-awaited value added tax bill to parliament at the end of this month. He expects the bill to be ratified into law in the second quarter of 2016. [Gulf News, 2/9/2016]

GM suspends Egypt operations due to currency crisis
General Motors has temporarily suspended its operations in Egypt due the country’s foreign currency crisis, a company source said. General Motors reportedly notified its 2,000 workers in Egypt that it would cease production - which requires about $35 million per month - until further notice or until it acquires the foreign exchange needed to import production components. "The entire sector has a currency crisis we can't make a car without some of the parts. We stopped production temporarily as of yesterday until we can clear the imports held up in customs," the source said. "There is still some leeway with the government and the banks to solve the issue." [Reuters, AMAY (Arabic), 2/8/2016]

EU proposes extra olive oil imports from Tunisia in 2016-17
European Commission Spokesman for Agriculture and trade Daniel Rosario said that the European Commission is considering a proposal for tax-free imports of 35,000 tons of olive oil from Tunisia per year in 2016 and 2017. “The temporary and limited increase of a quota of olive oil provisions from Tunisia is part of the EU's engagement in supporting the economy of the country,” Rosario said. The European Parliament is scheduled to discuss the proposal at a session on February 25. Meanwhile, Speaker of Tunisia’s House of People’s Representatives (HPR) Mohamed Ennaceur called on Monday for the European Union to establish a bailout plan for the Tunisian economy. Ennaceur said Europe should intensify its financial support for Tunisia’s development, transform Tunisia’s debts into investments, and help Tunisia recover capital illegally placed abroad, among other measures. [ANSAmed, 2/9/2016]

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