Top News: Congress to Review Arms Shipments to Saudi Arabia

The US Senate is using new oversight powers for the first time to track American weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. The move signals growing unease on Capitol Hill with the Saudi-led war effort against Houthi rebels in Yemen, a conflict the United Nations says has killed more than 5,700 and forced another 2.3 million from their homes. The oversight effort, initiated by the two senior members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, follows an intense lobbying effort by US-based humanitarian aid groups opposed to the pending sale of nearly $1.3 billion in bombs and other warheads to Riyadh. The sale, which the State Department approved last month, is expected to clear congressional hurdles this week. While the Senate will not be able stop the sale, it may force more oversight of arms sales. A State Department official defended the arms sales Thursday, calling it part of US efforts to maintain security and diplomatic ties “that are essential to promoting peace and stability in the Gulf region.” [Foreign Policy, 12/11/2015]



Civil society organizations document 625 torture cases from January to November
Fourteen Egyptian rights organizations, among them the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), the Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), and the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) issued a statement on the occasion of international human rights day condemning Egyptian security forces for committing grave, and often deadly, human rights abuses. In a press conference which took place hours after the statement was issued, the civil society organizations shared documented cases of torture in police stations and forced abductions committed by security personnel, as well as other allegations of rights violations perpetrated by the government. They documented 625 torture cases in Egyptian prisons, including 51 cases of collective torture, between the period of January and November 2015. According to the groups, 37 people died as a result of torture while in custody over the past 11 months. Susan Fayad of El Nadeem Center added that the number of “enforced disappearance” cases over the past year are estimated to be in the hundreds as a result of what she described as “the poor political system” in Egypt. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a statement on the occasion of human rights day, saying Egypt is fully committed to the International Declaration of Human Rights. [Mada Masr, Aswat Masriya, 12/10/2015]

Egyptian police officer sentenced to five years for beating man to death in Beheira
Damanhour Criminal Court sentenced on Thursday a police officer to five years in prison for beating a citizen to death in May at a police station in Beheira governorate. The court acquitted two other low ranking policemen who were also facing charges in the death of the victim, Sayid al-Kassabry. The sentence can still be appealed. [Ahram Online, Cairo Post, 12/10/2015]

Egypt receives Type-209 submarine from Germany
Egyptian Navy Commander in Chief Rear Admiral Osama Mounir Rabie said Thursday it was a day of honor for Egypt as the first German-Type 209-1400 submarine was launched. Speaking to state news agency MENA, Rabie added that the submarine was a technologically advanced addition to the Egyptian navy, further boosting its ability to maintain Egyptian national security at sea. “We are satisfied with the high-tech submarine, it is an addition to the potential of the Egyptian naval forces, and we can use it to protect our borders and coasts,” he said. Egypt has purchased a total of four submarines of the same type. Egyptian naval officers are currently in Germany to receive training on the use of the submarine according to a statement released by the official Spokesman for the Armed Forces. [Ahram Online, MENA, SIS, Cairo Post, 12/10/2015]

Riyadh talks are ‘step towards activating unified voice of Syrian opposition’ says Egypt
Talks between Syrian opposition groups in Riyadh which took place on December 8-10 are an important step toward activating a “unified voice” of the Syrian opposition, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said on Friday. “The Riyadh event was the warm-up step for further talks between the Syrian government and opposition, supervised by the UN,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. During closing statements, the participants agreed on the unity of Syrian lands, state sovereignty, that Syria should be a civil state, and on a commitment to democracy without discrimination. These articles, according to Egypt’s statement, are important, and were previously discussed during Cairo’s talks with the Syrian opposition. “This development could lead to a political settlement that opens the door for the return of stability, achieving the legitimate expectations of the Syrian people, and eliminating all kinds of terrorism in Syrian territories.” [Ahram Online, 12/11/2015]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Libya’s rival factions set December 16 as target date for UN deal; Kerry in Rome Sunday for Libya talks
Libya’s rival factions have agreed to December 16 as a target date for signing a United Nations-backed national unity government agreement, UN Special Envoy for Libya Martin Kobler said on Friday after talks in Tunisia. Libya’s rival parties met Thursday and Friday in Tunis for talks focused on moving the UN-negotiated dialogue process forward ahead of an international meeting on Libya on Sunday in Rome. Kobler and representatives of Libya’s two rival parliaments took part in the discussions. US Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Rome on Sunday to co-chair the meeting on forming a unity government in Libya, aState Department spokesman said on Thursday. “The ministerial will demonstrate the commitment of the international community to helping Libyans move forward rapidly to form a united Libya[n] government,” Spokesman Mark Toner said. [Reuters, AFP, Libya Herald, UNSMIL, 12/11/2015]

France says efforts to crush ISIS will extend to Libya; Russia says no plans to bomb Libyan ISIS targets
International efforts to crush the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) will increasingly have to extend to Libya, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Friday. “We are at war, we have an enemy, Daesh, that we must fight and crush in Syria, in Iraq, and soon in Libya too,” Valls said, using an alternative name for ISIS. French planes carried out surveillance flights over Libya last week. Russia, on the other hand, has no plans to carry out air strikes against ISIS targets in Libya, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “This is not in our plans. We have had no requests of this kind from the government of Libya… and there is no government of Libya as such,” Lavrov said during a visit to Italy. [AFP, Reuters, 12/11/2015]

Former Qaddafi central bank chief appointed as Libya’s sovereign fund trustee
Farhat Bengdara, who served as Libya’s Central Bank Governor under the Qaddafi regime, has been appointed as a trustee to the board of the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), according to a leaked document. The document was sent from the cabinet office of Libya’s eastern, internationally recognized government in Tobruk. Bengdara defected to the anti-Qaddafi side during Libya’s civil war. The LIA’s assets were valued at around $67 billion at end-December 2012, but a significant proportion remains frozen under sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council. [Reuters, 12/10/2015]

Tunisia to recover fraction of assets stashed in Switzerland
Switzerland will return a part of Tunisia’s stolen assets in the coming two weeks. Significant steps were made after a legislative overhaul in Switzerland, and Tunisian authorities are no longer required to present evidence to prove the dubious origins of funds. However, Tunisian anti-corruption watchdog organization I Watch has urged the Tunisian government to refuse the Swiss offer of 60 million francs in final settlement of the funds thought to have been embezzled by the former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family. I Watch stressed that the 60 million francs equates to around 121 million Tunisian dinars, a fraction of the estimated overall sum. [TAP, Tunisia Live, 12/10/2015]

Morocco issues arrest warrant for Paris attack suspect
Moroccan authorities have issued an arrest warrant for Salah Abdeslam, the Paris attack suspect at the center of an international manhunt, according to the Moroccan police. But a Moroccan security source said it was not clear whether Abdeslam had fled to Morocco or North Africa. Last month, German police launched a search after a tip-off that he was there. Abdeslam, whose brother blew himself up in the Paris attacks that killed at least 130 people, has been on the run since November 13. As a French citizen, he can travel freely in the European Union’s Schengen area where there are no border controls. [Reuters, 12/11/2015]


Islamic State oil is going to Assad, some to Turkey, U.S. official says

Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants have made more than $500 million trading oil with significant volumes sold to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and some finding its way to Turkey, Acting Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the Treasury Department Adam Szubin said Thursday. He said ISIS is selling as much as $40 million a month of oil, which is transported on trucks across the battlelines of the Syrian civil war. The “far greater amount” of ISIS oil ends up under Assad’s control, while some is consumed internally in ISIS-controlled areas. Some ends up in Kurdish regions and in Turkey, he said. “There is no question that better security, closing the Turkish border to flows is a key component right now and we are looking to the Turks to do more in that respect,” Szubin said. “It’s not just a financial issue—it is about foreign terrorist flows, it’s about weapons and it’s about financing.” [Reuters, 12/11/2015]

Kurds report ISIS bombs kill 50 people in northern Syrian town
A triple truck bomb attack claimed by ISIS in northeastern Syria killed at least 50 people and wounded 80 others, a spokesman for the Kurdish militia that controls the area said on Friday. The town in the northeastern province of Hasaka is controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has been battling ISIS with the support of US-led air strikes. The three blasts, carried out by at least two suicide bombers, struck outside a hospital, a marketplace, and in a residential area in the town of Tel Tamer late on Thursday. [Reuters, 12/11/2015]

Kerry says “kinks” in Syrian opposition framework
Speaking Friday on the sidelines of global climate talks outside Paris, US Secretary of State John Kerry said there are some questions and “kinks to be worked out” in the agreement put together at an opposition meeting in Saudi Arabia. Those must be addressed if a planned high-level diplomatic conference is to be held as scheduled at the United Nations later this month. Syrian opposition factions agreed Thursday on a framework that would guide proposed UN-backed peace talks with the government. Members of Syria’s opposition groups agreed Thursday to enter peace talks with the regime on the condition that the negotiations lead to President Bashar al-Assad giving up power—a stance expected to face strong resistance from regime allies Russia and Iran. The agreement, following a day of talks in Saudi Arabia with more than 100 members of various opposition groups, calls for the creation of a Riyadh-based committee that would choose delegates to represent the opposition at UN-mediated negotiations with the regime. However, one powerful insurgent faction, Ahrar al-Sham, pulled out of the talks to protest the role given to groups it said are close to the Syrian government. [AP, WSJ, 12/11/2015]

UN aid chief to visit Syria over the weekend
UN Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien will travel to Syria this weekend to meet senior government officials to discuss how to boost aid to 13.5 million people in need of assistance. As well as visiting Damascus, O’Brien may make field visits depending on the security situation, his spokesman Jens Laerke said. He last went to Syria in August, shortly after taking up his post. “He is going there of course to see for himself the situation on the ground, what aid agencies are doing and particularly to try to refocus the world’s attention on the plight of some 13.5 million people inside Syria who are in desperate need of aid and protection,” Laerke told reporters in Geneva. O’Brien told Reuters that he is hopeful of seeing more local ceasefires similar to a deal agreed this week to end fighting in the Waer district of the city of Homs. [Reuters, 12/11/2015]

Putin urges military to destroy threats to forces in Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday vowed to further modernize Russia’s military and said that its forces in Syria will “immediately destroy” any target threatening them, a strong warning to Turkey following its downing of a Russian warplane at the Syrian border. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country is refraining from responding to Russian efforts to hit back at Turkey, but says the country’s patience is not without limits. Cavusoglu said Friday that Turkey wants to overcome tensions with Russia but that Moscow is using “every opportunity” to hit at Turkey. [AP, 12/11/2015]

Over 600 migrants seized by police in western Turkey
More than 600 migrants have been seized by security forces in western Turkey over the past two days, as well as at least 12 human traffickers. The number of migrants saved after making failed attempts to cross via sea from Turkey into Europe has increased by over 500 percent in 2015 compared to last year. A total of 79,489 migrants have been rescued by Turkey’s coast guard and local institutions in 2015 in 2,133 incidents. [Hurriyet, 12/11/2015]

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric speaks out against Turkish troops
Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has spoken out against the presence of Turkish troops at a military base near the ISIS-held city of Mosul. His representative Ahmed al-Safi relayed the message during a Friday sermon in the city of Karbala. Sistani admonished Turkey, saying it should not have sent “troops to the territory of another state under the pretext of supporting the fight against terrorism” and called on the Iraqi government to “protect the sovereignty of Iraq.” Turkey has had troops near Mosul since last year but the arrival of additional troops last week sparked an uproar in Baghdad. Ankara subsequently halted new deployments. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkish troops are deployed in Iraq for training purposes in the fight against ISIS that that their pullout is “out of the question.” However, Turkey has decided in talks with Iraqi officials to “reorganize” its military personnel at the Bashiqa camp near Mosul, the prime minister’s office said on Friday. [AP, 12/11/2015]

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


Locust disaster facing Yemen could heighten famine woes
As civilians recover from last month’s unprecedented cyclones, the United Nations is now warning of a further serious threat to the Yemen’s worsening humanitarian situation, a swarm of desert locusts. Experts say Yemen is already in a state of emergency, as the country faces widespread famine, making the country even more reliant on external help. World Food Program Regional Communications Officer Reem Nada said “ten Yemeni governorates out of the 22 are now one step away from famine.” The locust incursion is expected to take from early January to March across the coastal areas of al-Hudaydah and the Gulf of Aden. The effects of a locust plague can be devastating on crops and pastures, and thus threaten food security and rural livelihoods. [Al Arabiya, 12/11/2015]

UN hopeful of Yemen aid boom, helped by new shipping verification
Yemen’s peace talks next week provide an opportunity to bring in urgent humanitarian aid for millions of people who have been deprived of vital supplies, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said Thursday. He said there has been a significant increase in access to humanitarian supplies arriving at Yemen’s Hudaydah port. A new UN verification and inspection mechanism will also start “in days or weeks,” O’Brien said, which will allow unfettered access for commercial ships. Yemen relies on imports for almost all its food and medicine, but a near-total blockade has slowed shipments to a trickle. Saudi Arabia has inspected shipments in a bid to thwart any arms deliveries to the Iranian-linked Houthi rebels. Fuel has been in especially short supply, with a knock-on effect on electricity supplies, water pumping, hospitals and inflation. [Reuters, 12/11/2015]


Syria government scrapes barrel as economic woes bite
More than four years into a grinding civil war, the Syrian government is seeking to boost its revenues with everything from taxes on shawarma sandwiches to telephone lines. Experts say much of the $18 billion of foreign reserves Syria had when the war began has been used up, although it is impossible to know how much remains. Revenues have slowed to a trickle, particularly as the government has come under sanctions that prevent exports and has lost control of much of the country’s oil and gas resources. The oil ministry acknowledged some $58 billion in direct and indirect losses to the oil and gas sector. Syria’s 2016 budget projects a 31 percent deficit, prompting the government to rein in spending and impose new taxes. It has instructed all public administrations to reduce their energy consumption by 30 percent and to eliminate thousands of temporary government employee contracts. The state telecommunications company has also doubled monthly subscription fees for its 4.5 million subscribers. Property rents also face new taxes of between 500-1,000 Syrian lira a month, and the tourism ministry has begun taxing restaurants based on the number of diners they can accommodate. In other news, Islamic State militants have made more than $500 million trading oil, with significant volumes sold to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, senior US Treasury official Adam Szubin said. [AFP, Al Monitor, 12/11/2015]

Tunisia parliament approves 2016 budget law
Tunisia’s parliament has approved a 29.2 billion dinar ($14.5 billion) national budget for next year forecasting economic growth of 2.5 percent and a narrowing in the budget deficit to 3.9 percent. The bill was passed late on Thursday night even though most opposition parties walked out of the budget discussions to protest what they said were unconstitutional parts of the proposed law. The 2016 budget sees an increase in security spending in the defense and interior ministries. The government has said it will hire more troops and police. [Reuters, 12/11/2015]

Egypt plans talks with Gulf allies for more aid, official says
Egyptian authorities plan to hold talks with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates to secure more aid and investments, a government official said. The planned talks will focus on “areas of cooperation” including investments, development aid, possible foreign-exchange deposits at the central bank, and the supply of oil and non-oil products. The official, who asked not to be named, did not say when the talks will start or how much Egypt aims to secure. Fresh funds would provide crucial dollars needed for businesses to import capital goods and raw materials and help authorities avoid an uncontrolled currency devaluation. Meanwhile, Egypt’s total budget deficit rose to 2.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product during the first quarter of the 2015/2016 fiscal year as the government spent more money on subsidies. [Bloomberg, 12/11/2015]

In Turkey’s economic plan, investors see drive for votes, not discipline
Investors dumped Turkish assets for the second straight day on Friday, spurning a new government economic program. Financial markets had been looking for Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to deliver on promises to stick to fiscal discipline and outline plans to boost labor productivity and household savings. Instead, Davutoglu rolled out an economic plan on Thursday more in line with populist, consumption-led policies favored by President Tayyip Erdogan. Some critics see the measures as aimed at raising popularity ahead of a possible referendum on a new constitution that would increase Erdogan’s presidential powers. Investors sent the lira currency to its weakest since mid-October and the stock market down about 5 percent in two days. Although the net cost of the new policies has yet to be calculated, analysts said the plan signals a significant burden on public finance. [Reuters, 12/11/2015]

EU court annuls Morocco trade deal over Western Sahara
The European Court of Justice on Thursday annulled a farm trade deal between the European Union and Morocco because it illegally involved the disputed region of Western Sahara. The decision said the trade deal, signed in March 2012, failed to explicitly refer to Western Sahara, leaving open the possibility that the accord would apply in the disputed region. “We are examining the ruling carefully. We need to do that in order to consider carefully how to proceed further, including on the possibility of an appeal,” a spokeswoman for the European Commission said. The case was brought to the court by the Polisario Front, a movement in Western Sahara that has been campaigning for independence for decades with the backing of Algeria. [AFP, WSJ, 12/10/2015]