Top News: Arab Foreign Ministers Agree to Form Joint Military Force

Arab foreign ministers agreed on Thursday to form a joint Arab military force to counter growing security threats in the region, the Arab League’s chief Nabil al-Araby has said. A related draft resolution is to be submitted to Arab leaders for endorsement at an Arab League summit to be held in Sharm al-Sheikh next week. Araby’s statements come days after a Saudi-led regional coalition launched air strikes against the Houthi rebels that have taken control of large parts of Yemen. Araby added that the regional military intervention in Yemen was to defend the rights of the Yemeni people and the legitimacy of its government. Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi left Aden for Egypt on Thursday, and is scheduled to attend the summit on Saturday, a few days of the country. Libya will also participate in the upcoming Arab League Summit with a delegation led by the head of the Libyan House of Representatives, Aqila Saleh. [Ahram OnlineAswat MasriyaReutersSISAP, 3/27/2015]



UNHRC approves Egypt’s draft resolution on effects of terrorism on human rights
The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva approved a draft resolution on the effects of terrorism on the enjoyment of human rights presented jointly by Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Badr Abdel Atty said that twenty-five countries voted for the draft resolution, sixteen against it, and six abstained. The draft resolution urges the international community to “take measures, including through education, awareness-raising, the media and human rights educational activities and training, to effectively address the root causes of terrorism and the factors that make individuals and groups more vulnerable to the effects of terrorism and increase their propensity to be recruited by terrorists.” Twenty-one non-governmental organizations, among them the Cairo International Human Rights Society, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, had submitted an open letter to the UNHRC urging it not to support the draft resolution. [Shorouk (Arabic), 3/27/2015]

Egyptian drops lawsuit to declare Hamas ‘terrorist group’
An Egyptian lawyer withdrew on Friday his lawsuit against Hamas, despite achieving a ruling in the case declaring the Palestinian faction a terrorist group under Egyptian law. Samir Sabry had hailed the February verdict against Hamas as historic and criticized the government’s appeal against it, but on Friday said he would drop the suit so that the verdict would not be “an obstacle to Egypt’s reconciliation efforts” between Palestinian factions and Israel. Sabry’s case withdrawal does not automatically cancel the verdict, which was based on two separate suits filed by Sabry and lawyer Ashraf Saeed. The Cairo Appeal Court for Urgent Matters will decide on the matter on Saturday. [Ahram Online, 3/27/2015]

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Libyan parties need more time to agree on unity government; UN remains optimistic
Libya’s rival Tobruk-based and Tripoli-based governments said that they need more time to agree on a unity government to end the growing conflict and chaos in the North African nation. UN Special Representative to Libya Bernardino Leon sounded a positive note and maintained that progress had been made by narrowing the discussions down to a UN proposal, creating a presidential council and keeping the Tobruk-based House of Representatives as the legitimate legislative body. Leon also noted that the two sides have agreed on the scope of issues and institutions within the unity government. [Reuters, AP, Libya Herald, 3/26/2015]

Libyan parliament votes to accept eight previously boycotting members
The House of Representatives (House) has voted to accept the return of eight representatives that had previously boycotted its sessions in Tobruk. Seventy-two representatives out of the eighty present at the session voted in favor of allowing the boycotters to take up their seats. Despite strong opposition from some House members, the overall assembly believed that showing a conciliatory move would strengthen the House’s claim as the legitimate representative body in the UN-led negotiations. [Libya Herald, 3/26/2015]

Tunisia signals local al-Qaeda links to Bardo museum attack; Fifteen arrest warrants issued
Tunisian officials said that members of the cell that attacked the Bardo museum are linked to Okba Ibn Nafaa (Okba) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, while most of them originally came from Ansar al Sharia. Okba is mainly based in the Chaambi Mountains bordering Algeria and has also released ambiguous messages in support of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Meanwhile, eighteen suspects involved in the museum attack were presented to the investigating judge in charge of the case. After hearing the suspects, the judge ordered arrest warrants for fifteen and released the remaining three. [Reuters, TAP/All Africa, 3/26/2015]

EU allocates 25 million euros to Tunisian interior ministry to fight terrorism
The European Union (EU) is launching a support program for Tunisia’s ministry of interior that provides 25 million euros to aid in fighting terrorism. There is also another ten million euro program aimed to help the ministry of culture and heritage preservation. Laura Baeza, the Ambassador of the EU Delegation to Tunisia, also said that all tourists should travel to Tunisia and visit the Bardo museum. [L’Economiste Maghrebin (French), 3/26/2015]

Tunisians assure Stars Wars sets are safe from ISIS
After reports that the sets of the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII film were in danger from Islamic State militants, Tunisian officials were quick to dispel such worries. Reports suggested that the sets were vulnerable after recent arrests and weapons caches were discovered near the town of Tatouine, which lent its name to the iconic desert planet from the original film series. Officials reassured that their forces were strong near Tatouine and the area is frequently patrolled. Fears rose of a potential threat after the Bardo museum attack, however, the main sets for the film are on the western side of the country in Tozeur. [AP, 3/26/2015]


President Bashar al-Assad says he is open to dialogue with the United States
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says he would be open to a dialogue with the United States, but that it must be “based on mutual respect.” Assad made the remarks in an interview with Charlie Rose for CBS News’ 60 Minutes. A short excerpt of the interview was posted online late Thursday. In the clip, Assad said that, in principle, “Every dialogue is a positive thing, and we are going to be open to any dialogue with anyone, including the US.” He said there is no direct communication so far with Washington. He also dismissed allegations that his troops used chlorine gas in the fight against rebels, calling it “malicious propaganda against Syria.” In a separate interview with Russian media, Assad accused the West of trying to weaken Russia by turning Ukraine into a puppet state, a tactic he said had also been used against his own country. Assad also lauded the Russian initiative to nurture talks between Syrian government representatives and the opposition in Moscow. In related news, the United States and Syrian governments are engaged in direct talks concerning the whereabouts of Austin Tice, an American freelance journalist and photographer who disappeared in Syria more than two and a half years ago. [AP, AFP, 3/27/2015]

Iraqi Shia militias pulled back from Tikrit
General Lloyd Austin, head of US Central Command, says Iranian-backed Shia militia in Iraq are no longer leading the operation to recapture Tikrit from the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and that Iraqi special forces and police are now clearing Tikrit. Austin confirmed previous comments by officials that a US condition for air strikes against ISIS in Tikrit was that the Iraqi government be in charge of all forces in the assault on the town. He said the offensive to take back Tikrit, launched on March 2, “stalled because the wrong approach was taken” and that some of the forces in the operation were “not supervised” by the Iraqi government. [NY Times, AFP, BBC, 3/26/2015]

OPCW to investigate Syria chlorine gas attack claims
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will investigate allegations of chlorine gas attacks in Syrian villages that killed six and wounded dozens this month in Idlib province. A fact-finding mission will examine reports of several barrel bombs in Idlib province. The deadliest attack in the village of Sarmin saw a barrel bomb hit a home, reportedly releasing the gas that killed two children and their parents and wounded ninety residents. The OPCW’s fact-finding mission concluded last year that the use of chlorine gas is systematic. Both sides have denied using chlorine barrel bombs, which the OPCW said are dropped out of helicopters. [Reuters, 3/27/2015]

US-led program to train Syrian opposition in Turkey suffers delay
A US-led program to train Syrian opposition forces to fight ISIS has experienced a minor delay, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Friday, stressing that the delay is due to “the [geographic] distance [from the US to Turkey] … everything is fine both politically and technically.” US officials have said they plan to train about 5,000 Syrian fighters annually for three years under the program, which was due to begin in March after Washington signed a deal with Ankara. [Reuters, 3/27/2015]

The United States drops thousands of leaflets on Raqqa
The US military has dropped 60,000 leaflets on ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa in northern Syria showing a grisly depiction of extremist recruits being fed into a meat grinder. A fighter jet last week unloaded a canister containing the graphic leaflets.”The message of this leaflet is: if you find yourself recruited by Daesh [ISIS], you will find yourself in a meat grinder—and it’s not beneficial to your health,” said Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren. Members of Military Information Support Operations produced the leaflets. [AFP, 3/27/2015]


Saudi-led coalition strikes hit six provinces in Yemen
Heavy airstrikes early Friday targeted Saada, the stronghold of the Houthis, focusing on locations where rebel leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi might be, military officials said. The strikes hit at least six provinces, including Marib and Taiz. The tribes in Marib joined the fight against the Houthis and released a statement declaring their support for the Saudi-led operation. In response to the strikes, Yemen’s Foreign Minister called for a “short, sharp campaign” to weaken the rebel group. Meanwhile, Abdul Malik has vowed not to surrender to “unjustified aggression.” [BBC, Al Jazeera, Reuters, AP, 3/27/2015]

President Hadi arrives in Riyadh
Yemen’s President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi has arrived in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, officials say, as a Saudi-led coalition continues to launch air strikes against Houthi rebels. It is the first confirmation of his whereabouts since Wednesday, when he fled rebel forces in the city of Aden. The officials say he will go to Egypt for an Arab league summit on Saturday. [BBC, Al Arabiya, Al Masdar, 3/27/2015]

Key Houthi leaders killed
A number of top Houthi military commanders were killed on Thursday after Saudi Arabia launched a military operation in Yemen. The three top military leaders leaders killed were Abdul Khaliq al-Houthi, Yousef al-Madani and Yussef al-Fishi. The deadly strikes led by the Royal Saudi Air Force were responding to a plea made Wednesday by beleaguered President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was holed up in the port city of Aden as Houthi militias closed in on the city. [Al Arabiya, 3/26/2015]

Houthis storm media agencies in Sana’a
Houthi gunmen stormed the locations of numerous media headquarters in Sana’a Thursday evening. Houthi run state news reported the reason for the intrusion was to shut down organizations that spread discord in the country. Houthi gunmen also kidnapped several Al Jazeera employees and took them to an unknown location. These moves came three hours after the Houthis stopped the broadcasting of three major news networks. These recent attacks are part of an escalation of Houthi aggression against journalists operating in Yemen. [Al Masdar, 3/27/2015]


Oil prices ease as market downplays supply threat from Yemen
Oil prices fell over a percentage point on Friday as traders estimated that the threat of a disruption to world crude supplies from Saudi Arabia-led air strikes in Yemen was low. Goldman Sachs further explained that the strikes in Yemen would have little effect on oil supplies as the country was only a small crude exporter and tankers could avoid passing its waters to reach their ports of destination. Closure of the strait could affect 3.8 million barrels a day of crude and product flows, but analysts said tankers could be diverted to travel around Africa, instead of passing by Yemen. [Reuters, 3/27/2015]

Iraq oil minister sees $70 crude by end 2015
Iraq’s Oil Minister Adel Abdel Mehdi predicted that world oil prices could reach $70 a barrel by the end of 2015 and played down the impact of the emerging conflict in Yemen on prices. A global slump in oil prices has slashed government revenue in Iraq, prompting the OPEC producer to renegotiate contracts with oil majors as it faces a costly military campaign against Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants. International firms operate in Iraq’s southern oilfields under service contracts, currently based on a fixed dollar fee for additional volumes produced–a formula that has seen Baghdad’s bills balloon just as its oil revenue collapses. [Reuters, 3/26/2015]

IMF postpones Yemen loan program for now
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Thursday said it was postponing its next review of its $553 million loan program to Yemen given the uncertain situation in the country. The IMF agreed in July to provide Yemen the loan over the next three years after the government pledged economic reforms. But the government’s plans have been derailed by an increasingly unstable political situation. [Reuters, 3/26/2015]

Saudi drawing down foreign reserves to cover deficit
Data from the Saudi central bank indicates that Saudi Arabia has begun drawing down its foreign currency reserves for the first time since 2009 to cover a record state budget deficit caused by the plunge in oil prices. Analysts believe that while some of the recent fall is due to the strong US dollar, which has eroded the value of non-dollar assets, Saudi Arabia has stopped putting new money into the reserves on a net basis and is instead taking out money. Saudi officials have insisted they will not cut spending sharply because of the need to keep the economy growing and sustain social welfare payments, which are key to maintaining political stability. [Reuters, 3/26/2015]