Top News: Only Handful of US-Trained Syrian Rebels Still Fighting

Only four or five US-trained Syrian rebels are still fighting in Syria, US General Lloyd Austin told Congress on Wednesday, a stark admission of setbacks to a fledgling military program that critics have already pronounced a failure. Congress approved $500 million to train and equip around 5,000 rebels as a US strategy against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). However, the first fifty-four graduates were routed by an al-Qaeda affiliate, Austin told lawmakers. Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said the number remaining was a “joke.” Republican Senator Jeff Sessions said, “We have to acknowledge this is a total failure. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the fact.” [BBCReuters, 9/17/2015]



Detained photojournalist’s brother says court date set for December 12
The brother of a detained photojournalist says Egypt has set a date for the first session of his trial, more than two years after he was taken into custody. Mohamed Abou-Zeid said Wednesday that the trial of his brother Mahmoud, known by his nickname Shawkan, is set to start on December 12, with charges including murder, attempted murder, and possessing a firearm. More than 700 defendants are included in the case, accused of rioting during the dispersal of the pro-Mohamed Morsi Raba’a al-Adaweya sit-in in August 2013. Shawkan was covering the dispersal when he was arrested, and has only recently been charged. Judicial officials could not immediately be reached for comment. [AP, Cairo Post, DNE, 9/16/2015]

HEC receives parliamentary candidate appeals; Strong Egypt confirms boycott
Egypt’s High Elections Committee (HEC) has started to receive appeals against its decision of which candidates will stand in the upcoming elections, the committee announced Thursday. Any citizen can appeal including those who have been rejected. The HEC will consider appeals between September 19 and 27 before finalizing its decisions, HEC Spokesman Omar Marwan said. He added that electoral campaigning will begin on September 29 and last eighteen days. Meanwhile, the Strong Egypt party, led by former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, confirmed they will boycott the elections. “We can’t participate under an umbrella of disfigured laws and legislative chaos, created to weaken any chance of building a healthy political life,” the party said in a statement. “We can’t participate in an unethical political atmosphere, where the opposition is oppressed and the state is biased to certain candidates,” the statement added. [Ahram Online, 9/17/2015]

Egypt imposes gag order on attack on Mexican tourists
The office of Egypt’s top prosecutor has issued a gag order on the investigation into the deadly attack this week in which Egyptian forces mistakenly killed eight Mexican tourists and four Egyptians on a desert safari. A statement from the prosecutor’s office released on Wednesday evening says the ban applies to all media — print, radio, online, and television, both domestic and international. The ban will remain in effect until the investigation by the Egyptian authorities into the incident is concluded and does not include statements from the top prosecutor’s office. Meanwhile, during a joint press conference Wednesday with Mexican counterpart Claudia Ruiz Massieu, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that the killing of twelve people in the accidental attack was “regrettable,” but refused to comment on the ongoing investigation into the incident. Ruiz Massieu said Mexico will wait for the results of an Egyptian government investigation into the mistaken attack before determining what action to take. [AP, Aswat Masriya, DNE, 9/17/2015]

ISIS claims fatal drive-by shooting of police general in Sinai
A senior Egyptian police officer was shot dead in the city of al-Arish in North Sinai, the Ministry of Interior said in a statement. This is the latest in a string of attacks on security forces. Assailants opened fire on General Khaled Kamal on Wednesday night from a passing vehicle while he manned a security post, a gunfight ensued between security forces and the assailants, who got away. On Thursday morning, Sinai State, the peninsula’s Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) affiliated militant group claimed responsibility [Ahram Online, AP, DNE, 9/17/2015]

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Leon’s enduring confidence over final deal
The Libyan political dialogue is due to start discussing the leadership of the Government of National Accord today, UNSMIL chief Bernardino Leon said yesterday in the Moroccan city of Skirhat. Selecting the posts of premier and two deputies may be challenging as only part of the eastern House of Representatives delegation is currently present at the negotiations. Two members reportedly returned to Tobruk for consultations. Additionally, the four members of the team from the Tripoli-based General National Congress were reportedly delayed by problems with the United Nations airplane in Tripoli. Leon said he hoped that all parties would be ready to start the discussions today. “We have still two, three days ahead of us, and it is important that we use them to make progress in these talks and to try to be ready as we have reiterated by the 20th of September.” [Libya Herald, 9/16/2015]

Libya’s Tripoli government captures Russia-flagged tanker smuggling oil
On Wednesday, military forces allied with Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli said they had captured a Russian-flagged oil tanker and its crew trying to smuggle oil from the port of Zawara. Twafik Alskir, a senior official with Tripoli-allied naval forces, said eleven Russian crew members were detained and taken to Tripoli port. Oil ports and fields are often caught up in the conflict for control of assets in Libya. Both the GNC and its rival, the eastern House of Representatives, claim to be the legitimate authority for the state-run National Oil Corporation (NOC), though international oil traders have mostly avoided breaking with current contracts with the NOC based in Tripoli. [Reuters, 9/16/2015]

Smuggler vessels off Libya would be seized under UN proposal
A proposed UN resolution would authorize the European Union (EU) and individual countries to take “enforcement action” on the high seas off Libya against vessels trying to smuggle migrants and refugees to Europe, including seizing and destroying the boats. It would also authorize the EU and member states “to use all necessary measures in confronting migrant smugglers or human traffickers.” Britain’s Ambassador to the United Nations Matthew Rycroft circulated the resolution Tuesday and presented it to the UN Security Council at a closed meeting on Wednesday. The proposed resolution emphasizes the need for an international response to “to prevent people from being exploited by migrant smugglers and human traffickers.” [AP, 9/16/2015]

110 Tunisian police dismissed over “terror” links
One hundred and ten members of the Tunisian security forces were dismissed due to suspicions about their links to banned groups. The suspects belong to the police, the National Guard, the army, and the customs service, according to Walid Louguini, Communications Officer at the Interior Ministry. “Their dismissal is tied to investigations surrounding allegations of belonging to terrorist organizations or harboring terrorist sympathies,” he added. He said the the investigations have been taking place “since the beginning of the year.” [Tunisia Live, 9/17/2015]


Syrian army stages air strikes on ISIS-held Raqqa
Syrian activists say the Syrian army has carried out a wave of airstrikes in the northern city of Raqqa, the self-declared capital of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Two Syria-based groups, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights say warplanes carried out at least twelve air strikes across the city Thursday. They reported casualties but had no specific figures. The airstrikes occurred as United Nations Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, was in Damascus. De Mistura met with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, who told him that fighting terrorism was the Syrian government’s priority. [AP, 9/17/2015]

Kerry says Russia proposes military talks on Syria
Amid increasing unease and uncertainty over Russia’s intentions, the Obama administration plans to accept an offer from Russia for direct talks on its military buildup in Syria that US officials believe is aimed at propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad. Seeking answers to questions about the reasoning behind Moscow’s recent deliveries of material and manpower to a base in northern Syria, US officials said they expect the administration to begin a military-to-military dialogue with Russia in the coming days. “We are currently evaluating. The White House, the Defense Department, the State Department are discussing the next steps in order to determine the best way forward,” Secretary of State John Kerry said. [Reuters, AP, AFP, 9/17/2015]

Historical sites in Syria are being looted ‘on an industrial scale’
ISIS is reaping profit from the looting and destruction of Syrian antiquities and historical sites “on an industrial scale,” Irina Bokova, head of UNESCO, said on Wednesday. “Limiting the trafficking in cultural property is a top priority because it finances the actions of the extremists,” she said during a conference. “The world expects…us to undertake decisive and uncompromising actions…to stop this source of funding for the extremists.” The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology estimates that more than 900 monuments or archaeological sites “have been looted, damaged or destroyed” throughout the civil war. [AFP, Newsweek, 9/16/2015]

Refugees maintaining pressure on Turkish border with Greece, Bulgaria
Hundreds of mostly Syrian refugees continued to wait at the Turkish border with Greece in Edirne, trying to reach Europe by land. Governor of Edirne, Dursun Ali Şahin, announced today that the nearly 2,000 refugees who have remained will be forcibly removed in three days if they do not leave. A reported 8,000 have come to the border since last Thursday. This move comes after bus services from Istanbul to the Bulgarian and Greek borders was suspended last week, prompting many to go on foot. Bulgaria has also increased its border defenses, sent in fifty soldiers, and made available an additional 160 soldiers. [Guardian, 09/17/2015]

Erdogan comments on PKK conflict in interview
In an interview aired late Wednesday night on Turkish television, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to the current conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), his relationship with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and his stances on media freedom. Erdogan likened his link to the AKP to a parent’s affinity for a child. Erdogan responded to criticism over his apparent influence over the party Congress held last weekend saying, “I cannot see anything more natural than [Prime Minister Ahmet] Davutoğlu meeting with me before the congress and me sharing my convictions with him.” Erdogan further commented on his commitment to engaging in the peace process with the PKK, and publically acknowledged the administration had instructed governors to not carry out military operations targeting PKK militants during talks. He also criticized the editors of Turkish magazine Nokta, which was raided by police over its latest issue showing Erdogan taking a selfie in front of a soldier’s coffin. Ergodan commented, “this cannot be called freedom of press. I’ve never even taken a selfie [in] my life,” and called the magazine “despicable and dishonorable.” [Hurriyet, 09/17/2015]


US to send $89 million in humanitarian aid to Yemen
The United States is providing $89 million in humanitarian aid to help people affected by the conflict in Yemen, USAID announced on Wednesday. Escalating conflict in the country has left eighty percent of the country’s population in need of urgent aid. This new funding will help pay for food, clean drinking water, better shelter, and improved sanitation, among other necessities. It includes nearly $32 million in food assistance, as nearly 13 million people in Yemen are facing food shortages and 1.8 million children are likely to suffer from malnutrition in 2015. This latest commitment brings the total US humanitarian assistance for this crisis to nearly $170 million in fiscal year 2015. US assistance will be delivered by “implementing partners” through Yemen’s sea and airports and through distribution networks inside the country. While the United States has committed to more humanitarian aid, the United Nations is still trying to coordinate peace talks between the Houthi rebels and exiled Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi, who will not meet with the rebels until they accept UN Security Council resolution 2216. Around 5,000 Gulf Arab troops are now stationed in Yemen in attempt to retake key Houthi controlled locations, including the capital city, Sana’a. Conflict in the country has led to the death of 4,500 Yemeni civilians. [The White House, Reuters, 9/17/2015]

Saudi diplomat accused of rape leaves India under immunity
A Saudi diplomat accused of holding captive, beating and repeatedly raping two Nepali women hired as domestic servants in his luxury apartment near New Delhi has left India under diplomatic immunity. Indian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Vikas Swarup issued a statement on September 16 saying the diplomat, identified as Majed Hassan Ashoor, “who is allegedly accused of abusing two Nepali maids has left India.” The diplomat was protected by the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, under which diplomats are immune from criminal prosecution in the country where they are posted. The two women said last week that they had been repeatedly raped, abused and threatened by the diplomat and other men at his home in Gurgaon, a city near Delhi. They have since returned to Nepal. Since the allegations became public last week, India has been treading carefully on the matter. Nepal is India’s neighbor and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been trying to deepen ties with the Himalayan nation that is also being wooed by its other giant neighbor, China. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is India’s second biggest oil supplier and close to 2 million Indians working in the Gulf kingdom send a large chunk of remittances back home. [NYT, The Telegraph, BBC, 9/17/2015]

Iran foreign ministry calls for Gulf states to reconcile themselves to the nuclear deal
Iran urged its Gulf Arab neighbors Thursday to reconcile themselves to the international rapprochement that led to its July nuclear agreement with world powers. Iranian Foreign ministry Spokeswoman Marizeh Afkham said that a joint statement issued by Gulf Arab foreign ministers on September 15 accusing Iran of interference in their countries’ internal affairs was the same baseless criticism they had been hearing for decades. “It is surprising that in the post-nuclear talks atmosphere, two or three of our southern neighbours… try to continue the failed policy of considering the Islamic Republic of Iran a threat,” she said. “Some Gulf Cooperation Council members who hindered the talks process are now angry over the success of diplomacy… and think they can undermine international support for dialogue by repeating the same threadbare allegations.” The Gulf states have accused Iran of meddling in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, and Lebanon, while Tehran believes that it is the Saudi coalition that is destabilizing the region though its support for rebels in Syria and its military interventions in Bahrain and Yemen. Five of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have troops fighting against Houthi militants in Yemen, who they accuse of being proxies of Iran. Only Oman does not. [Gulf News, 9/17/2015]


Saudi Aramco names new president and chief executive
Saudi Aramco’s Supreme Council has named Amin Nasser as President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the state oil company. Nasser has been acting president and CEO of Aramco since April, when his predecessor Khalid al-Falih was appointed Aramco’s Chairman and Health Minister. A statement by Saudi Aramco said the appointment was made after the company’s ten-member Supreme Council, which was created in April this year, held its first meeting in Jeddah. The council is chaired by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Aramco did not say who will replace Nasser as senior vice president of upstream operations. Aramco said the council also approved a five year business plan, but didn’t give any further details. [Reuters, WSJ, Bloomberg, The National, 9/17/2015]

Kuwait to start offshore oil exploration by 2017
Kuwait plans to start an offshore oil exploration program within two years, Kuwait Oil Company Manager of Planning Bader al-Attar said. In comments suggesting Kuwait will maintain energy investments despite plunging oil prices, al-Attar, was quoted as saying Kuwait aims to add a total of 700,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil production capacity from offshore and onshore areas. He did not identify the potential offshore locations. Most of Kuwait’s production is from the onshore Burgan field, the world’s second largest, in the southeast of the country. Al-Attar said Kuwait aims to boost production capacity to 3.5 million bpd by the end of 2015, from around the current 3.15 million bpd. He added that Kuwait seeks lift output capacity to 4 million bpd by 2020 and sustain this level until 2030. [Gulf News, 9/17/2015]

Egypt’s trade deficit widens in June, putting pressure on the pound
Egypt’s trade deficit grew to EGP 26.3 billion in June, jumping by more than 62.3 percent, compared to the EGP 16.2 billion trade deficit recorded in the same month last year. The widening deficit was driven by both an increase in imports and a decline in exports. During June 2015, state statistics agency CAPMAS reported that the value of Egypt’s exports to the world fell by more than 24 percent year on year. CAPMAS attributed the drop in exports to a decline in market prices for key Egyptian export commodities such as crude oil and petroleum products. Meanwhile, imports rose by 15.3 percent year on year. While foreign reserves grew in June, they fell in July and August, intensifying calls to devalue the Egyptian pound. Speaking at a conference last week, Investment Minister Ashraf Salman suggested that a devaluation was becoming inevitable. On Thursday, as expected, the Egyptian pound was held steady by the central bank. [Mada Masr, 9/17/2015]

Turkey’s economic worries mount as Fitch weighs rating
In the throes of a worsening conflict with Kurdish and Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants, looming elections and the potential fallout from higher US interest rates, Turkey is due for its scheduled checkup at Fitch Ratings this week. Already assessed as junk by Standard & Poor’s, any notion from Fitch that it too might consider cutting Turkey could add selling pressure from those investors limited to holding investment-grade assets. Fitch gave a glimpse into its thinking last week when it identified Turkey among the emerging markets “most exposed” to a higher Federal Reserve rate because of the large amount of foreign-currency debt owed by banks. A junk assessment could mean more pain for Turkey’s bonds and currency, which fell to a record low on Monday. [Bloomberg, 9/17/2015]