Top News: Iran to Join International Syria Talks

On Wednesday, Iran’s state TV and semi-official news agency said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will attend the international Syria talks, set to begin Thursday and Friday in Vienna. US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and several top European and Arab diplomats will be attending. In a telephone conversation Tuesday, President Barack Obama and Saudi King Salman spoke about cooperating closely to fight the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and “establish the conditions for a political transition in Syria,” according to a White House statement. The statement did not mention Iran. The United States and its partners say Assad can participate in a political transition, but would have to leave power at the end of the process, which Russia and Iran reject. Other sticking points include the length of the transition and what a new constitution and future elections might look like. This week’s gathering will include Britain, France, Germany, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Iraq’s Deputy Foreign Minister Nazar al-Khairalla, and Lebanon will also attend on Friday. A senior member of Syria’s Western-backed political opposition on Wednesday spoke against Iranian participation in Syrian peace talks in Vienna, saying it would undermine the process. [AP, 10/28/2015]



Egypt to attend Syria talks in Vienna on Friday
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry will attend international talks on the Syrian conflict taking place in Vienna on Friday, the state news agency said. Russia had asked for participation in the talks to be widened to include both Egypt and Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s closest regional ally. Egypt’s decision to take part in the talks is the latest signal of warming relations between Russia and Egypt. Cairo has publicly come out in support of Russian air strikes in Syria, saying they would curtail the spread of terrorism and deal a blow to Islamic State, whose local affiliate is battling Egyptian security forces in the Sinai Peninsula. However, Egypt has avoided showing direct support for Assad, a leader whom Saudi Arabia, a close ally and financial supporter of Egypt, believes should be removed from power. The decision to join the talks follows a visit by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir to Cairo on Sunday. At a joint press conference, Shoukry made no comment on the Russian invitation and denied the two allies were at odds over Syria, where Saudi Arabia has backed some rebel groups. [Reuters, 10/28/2015]

Mistral warships to be delivered to Egypt in the first half of 2016
France is to deliver two Mistral warships most likely in the first half of the 2016, the French Ambassador to Egypt Andre Baran told state news agency MENA on Monday. Baran said that France is about finalize all issues related to the deal, but he believes that the delivery of the warships will not take place before the end of 2015. Egypt signed the deal with France to buy the two Mistral warships at a joint press conference in early October. [Ahram Online, 10/28/2015]

Egyptian state committee freezes assets of twenty-five Brotherhood members
A state committee responsible for appraising Muslim Brotherhood assets has frozen the assets of twenty-five alleged members of the group, a Monday statement read. The committee’s secretary-general, Mohamed Yasser Abul-Fotouh, also said the committee had decided to seize Horus tourism company, owned by Emad al-Gelda. The company will now be managed by the state-owned Misr Travel Company. The committee also rejected requests by Mowasaah Hospital in Tanta, the British Exchange Company in Alexandria to unfreeze their assets, and rejected petitions from the executive managers of five companies to unfreeze their bank accounts. [Ahram Online, AMAY, 10/27/2015]

Low to medium turnout in parliamentary elections runoff
Run-offs of phase one of Egypt’s House of Representatives elections saw a low turnout in most provinces inside Egypt Tuesday, and abroad where voting started on Monday. The first day of runoffs witnessed almost the same problematic circumstances as last week’s, in terms of participation turnout and electoral violations. High Elections Committee (HEC) Spokesman Omar Marwan said as many as 20,000 Egyptian expatriates participated in the run-off votes of the first phase of parliamentary elections as of Tuesday evening. Local reporters, meanwhile, submitted reports at the end of the day Tuesday from all governorates. In Alexandria, reporters quoted Judge Abdullah al-Khouly, the head of the High Elections Committee (HEC), saying turnout on the first day was 5 to 6 percent. In Assiut, al-Hayat TV’s reporter said that on average in every polling stations of around 2,000 registered voters, nearly 200 participated. A number of judges halted the voting process at thirteen polling stations in Fayoum after one of them quarreled with security forces protecting his station. Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has directed government agencies to give their employees half-day leave on Wednesday to boost voter turnout. [DNE, AMAY, Aswat Masriya, 10/28/2015]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Helicopter crashes in Libya with twenty-three on board
On Tuesday, a helicopter with twenty-three people on board crashed near Tripoli. Several military commanders from the Tripoli-based government were killed in the crash, which is said to have been the result of shots fired by another of the country’s armed factions. Colonel Mustafa al-Sharkasi, spokesman for the Tripoli government’s chief of staff, said the helicopter had been returning to the capital when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed into the sea near al-Maya. Security sources said thirteen bodies had been recovered out of the twenty-three people on board. The helicopter came down near the town of Zawiya, around forty-five kilometers west of Tripoli. Fierce clashes erupted immediately after the crash between armed brigades from Zawiya, which support the Tripoli government, and Libya National Army (LNA) supported Warshefana forces. LNA spokesman Mohamed Hejazi later confirmed local claims that the aircraft was shot down by government forces, but the LNA Tripoli operations room based in Zintan has denied any involvement. [Reuters, AP, Libya Herald, AFP, 10/27/2015]

Tripoli plans assault in Warshefana area following helicopter deaths
The Tripoli government intends to launch a military assault in the Warshefana district in response to the helicopter crash west of Tripoli that killed many on board, including top ranking Libya Dawn military officials, said to be Suhaib Shaba, head of Zawiya Martyrs’ Brigade, and Colonel Hussain Budaya, the General National Congress’ (GNC) western region commander. Staff supporting the Tripoli-based government has declared the area a military zone, advised civilians to leave, and called for “revolutionaries” to mobilize and join the fight. Libyan National Army (LNA) spokesman Mohamed Hejazi confirmed that Warshefani fighters have been accused of shooting the helicopter down. [Libya Herald, 10/28/2015]

EU anti-migrant smuggler operation “needs Libya access”
Europe’s military operation to seize and destroy boats used by migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean will not work unless it has access to Libyan territory, its deputy commander said Tuesday. For the past three weeks, Operation Sophia has been operating in international waters, charged with arresting smugglers and seizing their vessels as Europe tries to stem the flow of migrants. But it has so far not seized any vessels or made any arrests and its number two Rear Admiral Herve Blejean said that until the operation takes to Libyan waters—which it is currently not allowed to do—it will have little impact. Any intervention in Libya would require a UN Security Council endorsement and the green light from the Libyan government—neither of which appear forthcoming. [AFP, Libya Herald, 10/27/2015]

Italy court refuses to extradite museum attack suspect to Tunisia
An Italian court on Wednesday refused to extradite a Moroccan man suspected of having supplied weapons for the attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunisia earlier this year because he might face the death penalty in the case. Italy refuses to extradite suspects to any country if there is a risk they could be executed for the crime. Moreover, Milan prosecutors asked that the investigation into Abdelmajid Touil’s alleged connection to the March 18 attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis be dropped for lack of evidence, judicial sources said. President of the Milan Court of Appeals Giovanni Canzio, who ordered the release of the Moroccan after more than five months in custody, said that Tunisia had not given Italy any guarantee that Touil would not face the death penalty. [Reuters, 10/28/2015]

Committee to Protect Journalists releases report on press freedoms in Tunisia
The Committee to Protect Journalists, (CPJ) has released a report that characterizes press freedoms in Tunisia as “squeezed between terrorists and those who purport to fight terrorism.” While Islamist militants threaten the media, the report says, the government introduces restrictive legislation and security forces legally harass and even assault journalists. The report added that this climate, which is further restricted by regulatory disputes, has led some news outlets to resort to self-censorship. The international advocacy group’s report, which launched in Tunis on Tuesday, goes on to detail the physical and legal threats to journalists in an environment increasingly focused on security. [CPJ, Tunisia Live, 10/27/2015]


ISIS advances on regime town in north Syria
On Tuesday, ISIS forces advanced to the outskirts of a major government military stronghold in northern Syria, activists report. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said ISIS had entered the northeastern edges of Safira, a town which lies southeast of Syria’s Aleppo. “ISIS has broken the defensive lines of the regime in Safira, which is the most important military bastion for the regime in the southern parts of Aleppo province,” Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said. He added that the regime controlled several weapons depots inside the town and that ISIS fighters and government forces were locked in fierce clashes on the city’s outskirts. ISIS published a statement online saying, “The regime’s primary defensive lines have fallen [around Safira].” It claimed that fighters from the militant group had seized several neighborhoods inside the town. A Syrian military source confirmed that Syrian troops had lost control of territory around Safira “as a result of a Daesh attack,” using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. [Daily Star, 10/28/2015]

UN programs struggle to meet needs of Syrian refugees
The United Nations said Tuesday the worsening conflict in Syria has left 13.5 million people in need of aid and some form of protection, a figure including more than 6 million children. UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien told the Security Council that the figure represents an increase of some 1.2 million people in just ten months. With winter fast approaching, the situation for many families is likely to deteriorate. O’Brien said there are now some 6.5 million people displaced inside Syria, including well over 1.2 million so far this year and over 120,000 who have fled their homes in the country’s north since early October as a result of aerial bombardment and ground offensives. Meanwhile, the UN World Food Programme said it had resumed assistance to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan, a month after suspending aid over a lack of funds. [Daily Star, 10/28/2015]

Iraq says did not ask for US ground operations
The Iraqi government said Wednesday it didn’t ask for, and doesn’t need, the “direct action on the ground” promised by the Pentagon. The revelation came a day after Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the United States may carry out more unilateral ground raids like (last week’s rescue operation to free hostages) in Iraq to target Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) militants. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s spokesman told NBC News that any military involvement in the country must be cleared through the Iraqi government just as US-led airstrikes are. “This is an Iraqi affair and the government did not ask the US Department of Defense to be involved in direct operations,” spokesman Sa’ad al-Hadithi told NBC News. “We have enough soldiers on the ground.” The US currently has around 3,300 troops in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi forces and protect US facilities. [NBC, 10/28/2015]

ISIS behind October 10 Ankara massacre, says Turkey’s chief prosecutor
Turkish prosecutors say a local cell of the Islamic State group which took orders from extremists in Syria was behind the two suicide bombings earlier this month that killed 102 people at a peace rally. A statement from the Ankara Chief Prosecutor’s office Wednesday said that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) cell, based in Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, is also believed to be responsible for four previous attacks in Turkey since May. The statement said investigators had established a “regular flow of money” from ISIS in Syria to the cell. Prosecutors say the local cell had received ISIS “permission” to carry out attacks against Kurdish rebels and other groups in Turkey that are anti-ISIS. The statement added that the local cell sought ISIS permission for attacks on Turkey’s Jewish and Christian community. [AP, 10/28/2015]

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


Saudi-led coalition delivers weapons to pro-government fighters for Taiz offensive
Popular Resistance fighters and pro-government forces continue to fight the Houthi rebels in the the city of Taiz with the support of Saudi-led coalition, which reportedly air dropped military weapons to the fighters on Tuesday. While Saudi military deliveries in the past have primarily been limited to rifles such as assault rifles, a source on the ground said that this airdrop delivered particularly high quality weapons. The pro-government forces are allegedly making significant progress in the west of the city as they fight to restore President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi’s rule in Yemen. [Al Masdar (Arabic), Sahafa (Arabic), 10/28/2015]

Despite ongoing conflict, thousands of refugees arrive in Yemen by sea
The ongoing conflict and the growing humanitarian crisis in Yemen has not deterred nearly 70,000 refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants reaching the country by sea, causing the Yemeni population to bear the brunt, said the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) today. The refugees and migrants, mainly from Somalia and Ethiopia, have continued to arrive at the Yemeni shores even after the conflict erupted in the Yemen in March. The latest UNHCR estimates indicate that Yemen currently hosts 264,615 refugees, of which 250,260 are Somali. UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards warned that travelling to Yemen, especially by sea, is extremely dangerous, as eighty-eight deaths have been recorded this year between the Horn of Africa and Yemen. Houthi rebels are reportedly recruiting these refugees to join their militias in exchange for money. [UN News Centre, Sahafa (Arabic), 10/28/2015]

UN Secretary General calls for military operations to halt in Yemen after hospital strike
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon today condemned airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition that hit the Hayadeen Medical Hospital in the Sa’ada governorate in Yemen, which is run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). In his statement, Ban called for “a prompt, effective and impartial investigation in order to ensure accountability” and urged all parties in the Yemen conflict to immediately cease all operations, including airstrikes. Since the beginning of the Saudi-led coalition air campaign on March 26, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented more than two dozen airstrikes that appeared to violate the laws of war. While the Saudis initially denied responsibility for the hospital bombing, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United Nations admitted to the “mistake” on Tuesday evening, but faulted MSF, alleging they gave the coalition incorrect coordinates. The hospital strike marks the thirty-ninth health center hit since the Yemen conflict began. Despite its ongoing military operation, the Saudi government has agreed to provide $244 million in aid to the war-ravaged country. [UN News Centre, HRW, Reuters, VICE News, Gulf News, 10/27/2015]

Qatar reforms residency rules for large foreign population after international criticism
Qatar has issued new legislation aimed at reforming residency policies for its large population of migrant workers, whose treatment in the energy-rich nation has come under scrutiny by international human rights advocates. The residency sponsorship system currently only allows workers to leave the country with the approval of their employer while the new rules will allow foreign workers wishing to leave Qatar to apply for permission at least seventy-two hours beforehand to the Interior Ministry. The changes also allow foreign workers to switch jobs at the end of a fixed-term contract whereas currently workers who leave a job at the end of a contract have to wait two years to return to Qatar to take up a new position. This new legislation will affect 1.8 million workers in the country. [Washington Post, Gulf News, 10/28/2015]


World Bank releases 2016 Doing Business report
The World Bank launched its latest annual Doing Business report on Tuesday. The 2016 report ranks the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at the top of countries in the Middle East and North Africa for ease of doing business. While the UAE’s global ranking fell to 31 out of 189 from 22 last year, it ranks far ahead of its regional peers including Qatar (68), Saudi Arabia (82), Algeria (163), Egypt (131), Iran (118), Morocco (75), and Tunisia (74). Morocco moved up five places from last year’s report, while Egypt’s ranking fell by the same amount. The report finds that eleven out of the region’s twenty economies implemented a total of twenty-one reforms that facilitated the ease of doing business in the past year, marking an increase from the annual average of sixteen reforms over the past five years. Manager of the Doing Business project Rita Ramalho noted that the share of economies reforming in the Middle East and North Africa remains lower than the global average. [World Bank, 10/27/2015]

Syria war costs oil industry over $50 billion
Syria’s oil, gas, and mineral resource industries have suffered losses totaling more than $50 billion since the country’s conflict erupted in 2011, Oil Minister Suleiman al-Abbas said on Tuesday. Al-Abbas told Syria’s Al-Watan newspaper that attacks carried out by terrorist groups and US-led air strikes on jihadists have severely damaged the country’s infrastructure. The figure is more than double the government’s previous announcement that came in June 2014, when it said Syria’s oil and gas industries had lost $21.4 billion. Before Syria’s civil war, the country produced 385,000 barrels per day (bpd) of oil. Now, the government produces an average of 9,688 bpd and 14.8 million cubic meters of natural gas daily, according to Al-Watan. [AFP, 10/27/2015]

Emir of Kuwait urges spending cuts as oil slumps
Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah urged the cabinet and parliament on Tuesday to cut state spending in response to falling oil prices, warning that any delay would increase the damage to the government’s finances. The emir’s remarks appeared to be aimed at setting the stage for politically difficult economic reforms that could be implemented next year, including cuts in energy and food price subsidies. ”Oil prices have caused state income to drop 60 percent, but public spending has not been cut, causing a state budget deficit which is a burden on our development aspirations,” he said. He asked the cabinet and parliament to adopt urgent reform measures that would include spending reductions and efforts to find non-oil sources of income. Local media has reported that a range of subsidy cuts is under consideration and the government said it plans to impose corporate taxes on local firms. [Reuters, 10/27/2015]

Iraq’s southern oil exports head for another record in October
Iraq’s southern oil exports have risen to 3.10 million barrels per day (bpd) so far in October, setting shipments on course for a monthly record. The boost is an indication of continued high output from major members of the the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which has contributed to a global oil glut and downward pressure on prices. If sustained, southern oil exports this month would beat the existing record of 3.064 million bpd reached in July. While Iraq’s actual southern exports are lower than the 3.68 million bpd it aimed to load this month, the country tends to allocate more crude than it can supply each month. Meanwhile, independent Iraqi Kurdistan exports averaged 510,000 bpd so far this month. [Reuters, 10/27/2015]

EgyptAir to launch ten year restructuring plan
EgyptAir, Egypt’s state-owned flag carrier, is in final stages of launching an overhaul and expansion plan that will reverse its downturn and propel it toward growth. “We’re developing a ten year restructuring plan, which should be finalized by mid-December,” EgyptAir Chairman and Chief Executive Sherif Fathi Attia said. Attia is optimistic that the plan, which includes network and fleet expansion, will receive government approval. He said the airline could place aircraft orders in the first quarter of 2016. He said wide-body aircraft would account for 20 to 30 percent of the total order. EgyptAir last reported an annual loss of EGP 2.2 million in 2011. The overhaul project, which could see changes in middle management, aims for profitability at the end of the current fiscal year. [Reuters, 10/27/2015]