Top News: Car bomb strikes military convoy in Ankara; Turkey blames Syrian Kurdish militants

Assailants on Wednesday exploded a car bomb near vehicles carrying military personnel in the Turkish capital, killing at least 28 people and wounding 61 others. In his official statement, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “Our determination to respond in kind to attacks taking place inside and outside our borders is getting stronger with such acts. It must be known that Turkey will not shy away from using its right to self-defense at any time, any place or any occasion.” Turkish parliament failed to release a joint declaration condemning the attack due to objections raised by the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, “It has been determined with certainty that this attack was carried out by members of the separatist terror organization together with a member of the YPG who infiltrated from Syria,” identifying the bomber as Syrian national Salih Neccar. Leader of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) Salih Muslim rejected Davutoglu’s accusation that the organization carried out the attack. Ambassadors of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council were summoned separately on Thursday to be briefed on the incident. Davutoglu warned Turkey will not tolerate its NATO allies’ relations with the YPG and that those countries that support the YPG will risk losing their status as friends. [Reuters, AP, NYT, Hurriyet, 2/18/2016]



Egyptian authorities move to shut down torture watchdog
The Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence was nearly shut down on Wednesday by an interagency task force, reportedly at the orders of the Health Ministry’s Department for Private Medical Treatment. Al-Nadeem is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization headquartered in central Cairo that provides counseling services, legal support and other forms of assistance to torture victims. “Two policemen … turned up today at the center with an administrative decision from the Health Ministry to close [it],” said Aida Seif al-Dawla, one of its founders. “The decision did not give any reasons,” she said. “We managed to persuade them to postpone the closure until we went to the health ministry on Monday to understand the reasons.” A spokesman for the Health Ministry said the center’s closure was due to it holding “activities other than the activity allowed in its permit” but did not specify the nature of these activities. The Nadeem Center published a statement Thursday noting a ministry employee visited the center three weeks prior to the incident. “[She] came to inspect the center based on an order, given by phone, from the Minister of Health himself, to check the activity of the center. She did not have official papers. Still she inspected the clinic and took a copy of our license, and did not make any comments regarding any breaches,” the statement said. The move has been condemned by international rights organizations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. [Ahram Online, Reuters, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, AFP, 2/18/2016]

Four judges forced into retirement, 40 Police Academy cadets expelled over Brotherhood ties
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued an official decree on Thursday forcing four judges in the State Litigation Authority (SLA) into early retirement for their alleged links to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The decree, published in the Official Gazette on Thursday, instructed Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zind to implement the presidential order and force the four judges into early retirement. While the decree did not provide a reason, this decision appears to be an official approval of a previous order by the SLA’s disciplinary committee in December 2015 against the four judges. The names of the judges appeared in investigations into the Judges for Egypt group, which is accused of being aligned with the Brotherhood. In related news, Egypt’s Police Academy Council expelled 40 students after accusing them of allegiances to the Muslim Brotherhood. The head of the academy, General Amr al-Asar, said the investigations revealed that the students had first- and second- degree relatives who are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, or participated in pro-Brotherhood protests. Asar said periodical investigations are run on the entire ministry’s staff including officers, students, or conscripts to ensure no security personnel have any leanings towards political groups or parties. [Mada Masr, DNE, 2/18/2016]

‘Nation without torture’ student referred to Egyptian state security prosecution
Mahmoud Mohamed—the 20-year-old held in pretrial detention for more than two years for wearing an anti-torture T-shirt—was referred to State Security Prosecution on Wednesday. The East Cairo prosecution referred the case to State Security prosecutors, citing lack of jurisdiction, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) said in a statement posted on Facebook. Typically, State Security prosecutors look into cases that affect national security. Wednesday’s decision was a move to buy time, Mohamed’s lawyer, Mokhtar Mounir said. “They’re procrastinating,” he argued. “After two years, the public prosecution discovered [now] that Mahmoud’s case falls outside its jurisdiction?” If State Security Prosecution accepts the case, Mohamed could face trial before the Criminal Court’s terrorism division. [Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, Ahram Online, 2/17/2016]

Egyptian businessman Salah Diab sentenced to 6 months for insulting Mortada Mansour
The Economic Appeals Court sentenced businessman and founder of independent newspaper Al Masry Al Youm, Salah Diab, to six months in prison on Wednesday for insulting parliamentarian and chairman of the Zamalek Club Mortada Mansour in a phone call. Diab, who was referred to court in April 2015, was also convicted of harassing Mansour by repeated phone calls, was fined EGP20,000 (around $2,550). A previous verdict in December 2015 fined Diab EGP10,000 (around $1280) but Mansour appealed the sentence. During the retrial, Diab claimed that Mansour did not have permission to record the phone call in question, that the recording itself had been tampered with, and that he had only made the call after Mansour had contacted and threatened him first. The verdict can be further appealed in front of the Court of Cassation. However, Diab was sentenced in absentia and can get arrested before filing an appeal. [Ahram Online, Mada Masr, 2/17/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Leaked document indicates greater EU naval involvement in Libya
The European Union is planning an extension of its military operation against human traffickers, known as Sophia, which could eventually include sending ground troops to war-torn Libya. According to a leaked document, the Sophia mission is ready to move into Libyan territorial waters to stop people smugglers there, but it will not do so until it is invited by Libyan authorities. The document, a report addressed to the European Union Military Committee and the Political and Security Committee, written by the Italian officer commanding the Sophia force, also makes mentions of a “Phase 3” of the operation. That may refer to the eventual presence of EU troops in Libya. According to the report by Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino dated January 29, it is a question of when, not if, Sophia will move to Libya. According to the EU source, local authorities have said they would not tolerate a possible European operation on Libyan soil. [Vice News, 2/17/2016]

Obama turns down military plan for ISIS in Libya
The Obama administration has turned down a US military plan for an assault on Islamic State’s (ISIS or ISIL) Libyan affiliate in Sirte, three defense officials told The Daily Beast. In recent weeks, the US military—led by its Africa and Special Operations Commands—has pushed for more airstrikes and the deployment of elite troops. The airstrikes would target ISIS resources while a small band of Special Operations Forces would train Libyans to eventually be members of a national army, the officials said. “There is little to no appetite for that in this administration,” one defense official explained. Instead, the US will continue to do occasional strikes that target high value leaders, like the November drone strike that killed Abu Nabil al-Anbari, a reported high-level ISIS leader in Libya. [Daily Beast, 2/18/2016]

Reported airstrikes on ISIS in Sirte
Local Libyan media has reported that more than a dozen members of Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) have been killed following airstrikes upon the Libyan coastal city of Sirte. The strikes are reported to have taken place last night. Of those killed, media report the majority as being Tunisian, with the remaining coming from Chad and Libya. At the time of writing, there has been no official confirmation of the airstrike and no country has claimed responsibility. [Tunisia Live, 2/17/2016]

Tunisian municipal workers announce two-day strike
Tunisia’s General Federation of Municipal Workers, an affiliate of the Tunisian General Labor Union, met yesterday and announced a call for a strike on March 15-16. The federation denounces the refusal of President Beji Caid Essebsi to implement a set of agreements reached in 2015 to improve the situation of municipal employees, said General Secretary of the General Federation of Municipal Workers Naceur Selmi. [Mosaique FM (French), 2/18/2016]


Syria rebels cross from Turkey to join Aleppo battles
Syrian rebels have brought at least 2,000 reinforcements through Turkey in the past week to bolster the fight against Kurdish-led militias north of Aleppo, rebel sources said on Thursday. Turkish forces facilitated the transfer from one front to the other over several nights, covertly escorting rebels as they exited Syria’s Idlib governorate and reentered Syria to support the embattled rebel stronghold of Azaz. “At least 500 rebels have crossed the Bab al-Salam border crossing on their way to Azaz, from which they want to help the insurgents in the face of gains made by Kurdish forces in the north of the province,” said Head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) Rami Abdel. The fighters are expected to head to frontlines near the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has in recent days seized several former rebel bastions in Aleppo province. Almost 350 rebels were also reported to have passed through the Atme border crossing on February 14 armed with heavy and light weapons. [Reuters, AFP, Guardian, SOHR, 2/18/2016]

Aid deliveries begin to five besieged Syrian towns
The United Nations plans to make its first airdrop of food aid in Syria to Deir Ezzor, a town of 200,000 besieged by Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants, the chair of a UN humanitarian task force said on Thursday. UN aid agencies do not have direct access to areas held by ISIS, including Deir Ezzor, where civilians are facing severe food shortages and sharply deteriorating conditions. On Wednesday the bulk of 100 trucks carrying food and medical supplies delivered the aid to the opposition-held Damascus suburbs of Madaya and Moadamiya, and also reached pro-government northern villages of Fuaa and Kafraya. Another town, Zabadani, is also due to receive aid. Almost 500,000 people live in besieged areas in Syria, according to the UN. [Reuters, NYT, WSJ, BBC, 2/18/2016]

MSF seeks independent probe into bombing of Syria hospital
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it took the decision not to inform Syria’s government and its Russian allies about the location of some medical facilities such as the one hit by a deadly air strike this week. MSF says repeated attacks against health facilities during Syria’s five-year civil war have led medical staffers to ask the group not to provide the GPS coordinates of some sites. This was the case of the makeshift clinic run by the charity in Maarat al-Numaan, which was hit four times in attacks on Monday, killing at least 25 people. Liu said the group has no certainty about who was responsible for the strikes, but the “probability” was that Syrian or Russian air power was to blame. Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Ministry continues to deny involvement for air strikes saying that Western nations “have neither direct nor indirect evidence” to prove their allegations. On Thursday, MSF released a report with more than 60 health facilities in Syria hit in attacks last year, with a dozen completely destroyed. MSF warned Syria’s health infrastructure “has been decimated” in violation of international law. [AP, Reuters, AFP, SOHR, 2/18/2016]

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


Turkish army bombs Kurdish PKK camps in northern Iraq
Turkish warplanes bombed camps belonging to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq late on Wednesday, Turkish security sources said. These air strikes come after a car bomb, reportedly detonated by Syrian Kurdish PKK militants, killed 28 in Ankara on Wednesday afternoon. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has vowed retaliation against the PKK in both Iraq and Syria. [Reuters, 2/18/2016]

ISIS believed to have used chemical weapons in Iraq
US Department of State spokesman Mark Toner said that the United States believes that ISIS was responsible for mustard gas attacks in Iraq, the first known use of chemical weapons since the fall of Saddam Hussein. A source at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed that laboratory tests were positive for sulfur mustard after 35 Kurdish troopers were sickened on the battlefield in August. This week, Kurdish military sources and doctors on the ground said that there is evidence of ISIS firing mortar shells filled with a chemical substance, possibly chlorine, at Peshmerga troops close to the Iraqi town of Sinjar. Nine Peshmerga soldiers were admitted to Azadi Teaching Hospital in the city of Dohuk last Friday with symptoms including vomiting, nausea, shortness of breath, and itching, according to hospital director Dr. Afrasiab Mussa Younes, who took samples from the soldiers’ clothes for further analysis. [Reuters, AP, 2/18/2016]

Radioactive material stolen in Iraq raises security fears
Iraq is searching for “highly dangerous” radioactive material stolen in November 2015, according to an Environment Ministry document and seven security, environmental and provincial officials who fear it could be used as a weapon if acquired by ISIS. The material, stored in a protective case the size of a laptop computer, went missing from a storage facility near the southern city of Basra belonging to US oilfield services company Weatherford, which has denied responsibility for security at the site. The material, which uses gamma rays to test flaws in materials used for oil and gas pipelines in a process called industrial gamma radiography, is owned by Istanbul-based SGS Turkey, which has also denied responsibility for security at the site. The US Department of State said it was aware of the theft but has seen no sign that ISIS or other groups have acquired it. [Reuters, 2/18/2016]

Iraq court sentences 40 to death over 2014 Tikrit massacre
Iraq has sentenced 40 men to death for the 2014 massacre of 1,566 mostly Shia military cadets in Tikrit near former US Army base Camp Speicher. Iraq’s judiciary spokesman Abdel Sattar Bayraqdar said in a statement that the sentences were handed down under Article 4 of Iraq’s anti-terrorism law, which states that anyone who perpetrates, incites, plans, finances or assists acts of terrorism will be sentenced to death. Bayraqdar said that the court acquitted seven other defendants in the case for lack of evidence. The cadets were captured when ISIS seized Tikrit in June 2014 and propaganda videos showed the recruits dressed in civilian clothing being forced to lie on the ground and executed. After the city was retaken in April 2015, investigators uncovered mass graves containing the remains of the recruits. [AFP, International Business Times, 2/18/2016]

ISIS claims responsibility for downed Iraqi helicopter
An Iraqi army helicopter crashed on Wednesday due to “hostile fire” in the Fuhailat area, a frontline area 10 miles southeast of ISIS stronghold of Fallujah, according to a police officer from the nearby town of Amriyat Fallujah. The Bell helicopter was apparently shot down with a Dushka heavy machine gun, killing one crew member and wounding a second, who was rescued by another helicopter. Lieutenant Colonel Arif al-Janabi, the police chief for Amriyat al-Fallujah, said that ISIS shot the helicopter down and a statement from ISIS on social media claimed responsibility. [AFP, Reuters, 2/17/2016]

Kurds doubt Baghdad can pay salaries in oil-for-salaries trade
In a statement, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has challenged Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to deliver on an offer from earlier this week to pay the cash-strapped region’s bloated public payroll in exchange for Kurdish oil. KRG spokesman Safeen Dizayee told Reuters on Wednesday that if Abadi were serious about the offer, he would have raised it at a recent meeting in Baghdad instead of during a TV interview. [Reuters, 2/17/2016]


Yemeni government forces seize al-Misrakh
The Yemeni army and pro-government forces took complete control of al-Misrakh in the Taiz district after fierce battles with Houthi militants and forces loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Saudi-led coalition targeted Houthi positions with airstrikes west of Taiz and south of Sana’a in support of government forces. [Al Masdar, Shabwaah Press, 2/18/2016]

UN Yemen envoy says divisions over truce preventing peace talks
The United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said on Wednesday he was unable to call another round of peace talks because the warring parties are deeply divided over whether there should be a ceasefire to coincide with a new round of negotiations. “Deep divisions persist that prevent me from calling for the next round of talks,” Ahmed told the UN Security Council. “I have not, unfortunately, received sufficient assurances that a new cessation of hostilities, should I call for one, would be respected.” [Reuters, 2/17/2016]

United States adds visa restrictions to Libya, Yemen, Somalia travelers
The United States added Yemen, Somalia, and Libya as “countries of concern” under its visa waiver program, the US Department of Homeland Security said on Thursday. The move limits travel for individuals who have visited those countries in the past five years. The three additional nations join Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria as countries subject to restrictions for those seeking to travel to the United States. [Reuters, 2/18/2016]

US journalists safe and in good health after Bahrain release
An American journalist said Wednesday she and the three members of her camera crew were safe and in good health after being released from detention in Bahrain, where they had been accused of participating in an illegal gathering in the US-allied Gulf kingdom. “My team and I feel very fortunate to have been permitted to leave Bahrain last night,” Anna Day, a freelance journalist who has reported for numerous media outlets, said in a statement issued by two journalist colleagues. [Reuters, 2/17/2016]

Sisi says Egypt won’t hesitate to send forces to Gulf if needed
Egypt will not hesitate to send military forces into the territory of Arab Gulf allies to offer protection if asked by the leaders of those countries, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Wednesday. “The president made it clear that Egypt will not hesitate to send forces to brotherly Gulf countries to defend them if they face any direct threat or aggression,” the presidency said in a statement. Sisi made his comments at a briefing with Kuwaiti journalists on Wednesday. During the briefing, Sisi affirmed he would not interfere in Syria’s affairs, saying his country is working towards a political solution to end the more than four-year war. “Egypt does not interfere in the affairs of other countries…but it is capable of repelling any assault…on it or on its brothers,” Sisi was quoted as saying. [Ahram Online, Reuters, 2/18/2016]


S&P downgrades credit ratings of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman
Rating agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P) downgraded Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman’s credit ratings on Wednesday, citing pressures being created by the drop in oil prices. S&P downgraded Saudi Arabia’s credit grade by two levels to A- from A+. “The decline in oil prices will have a marked and lasting impact on Saudi Arabia’s fiscal and economic indicators given its high dependence on oil,” the ratings agency said. Oman’s credit rating was lowered to BBB- from BBB+. Bahrain was lowered to BB from BBB-, putting it two steps below investment grade. Bahrain said Wednesday it was talking with the lead managers of its latest sovereign debt offer after the S&P downgrade. “The Kingdom of Bahrain is discussing with its lead managers the next steps in relation to this announcement by S&P on the Kingdom of Bahrain’s bond transaction announced yesterday,” the Bahraini central bank said. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia said Thursday it plans to start issuing floating-rate bonds to encourage local banks to buy its debt as it seeks to finance a large budget. [Reuters, Bloomberg, 2/18/2016]

Iraq avoids committing to oil freeze
Iraq on Thursday stopped short of saying it would curb oil production to prop up low prices, saying that negotiations are still ongoing between members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Oil Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said Iraq supports any decision that will serve producers, prop up prices, and achieve balance in the crude markets. He did not explicitly say whether Iraq would curb its own oil output, but said any rapprochement between all sides to restrict crude output is a step in the right direction. “The deterioration of the oil prices has directly impacted the global economy and the historical responsibly of the producers requires great speed in finding positive solutions that will help prices return to the normal [levels],” Abdul Mahdi said. Meanwhile, OPEC member Libya said Thursday that it supports the production freeze but would like to increase its output when the situation allows. “Libya is not producing its quota. If conditions improved, naturally we would like to [increase production],” a Libyan OPEC delegate said. [WSJ, Reuters, 2/18/2016]

Iraq to shrink paramilitary forces due to shortage of funds
The Iraqi government has decided to cut the number of state-financed paramilitary forces due to a shortage of funds, Spokesperson for the Popular Mobilization Forces Karim al-Nouri said Thursday. Nouri said around 30 percent of paramilitary troops were expected to be laid off. Some 130,000 fighters in Iraq are affiliated with pro-government paramilitary forces. He said the decision would not affect the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), adding that the cuts would also cover non-combat troops providing administrative and logistical support. He did not provide details on how many combat troops will be laid off. In an interview with the state TV on Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi hinted that there is corruption inside the paramilitaries. He also met with officials from Iraq’s provinces to discuss the country’s economic crisis. [AP, 2/18/2016]

Egypt to remove electricity subsidies by 2025
Egypt will reduce energy subsidies by 50 percent by 2020 and cancel electricity subsidies by 2025, according to the Electricity and Renewable Energy Ministry. The ministry has prepared a long-term strategy to provide electrical power until 2035, with investments of up to $135.3 billion. The strategy aims to increase the size of generated electricity starting in 2019 through power stations that use coal as fuel and through nuclear power stations. It also aims to strengthen Egypt’s electricity grid and improve connectivity. The reduction of subsidies would lessen the burden on the government budget and provide opportunities for economic growth. The Central Bank of Egypt said that the country’s economic growth slowed to 3 percent in the first three months of fiscal year 2015/16, down from 5.6 percent in the same period a year earlier. [AMAY, 2/17/2016]