Top News: Iraqi Troops Storm ISIS-held Ramadi

Iraqi security forces advanced Tuesday into the center of Ramadi for a final push aimed at retaking the city they lost to the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in May. The fighting in Ramadi is led by an elite Iraqi counterterrorism force, backed by US-led coalition airstrikes and supported by forces from the police, the army, and Sunni tribes opposed to the extremists. Spokesman for the counterterrorism service Sabah al-Noman said, “We went into the center of Ramadi from several fronts and we began purging residential areas.” He explained, “We did not face strong resistance, only snipers and suicide bombers and this is a tactic we expected … The city will be cleared in the coming 72 hours.” The fresh push was launched overnight and is meant to fully recapture Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s western province of Anbar. Footage on state TV channel Iraqiya showed soldiers driving down the deserted streets of the bombed-out city, entering homes carefully to spot possible booby traps, and retrieving shells and rockets from abandoned ISIS positions. [AFPAl JazeeraBBC, 12/22/2015]



Egypt’s president says he would not stay in office against the will of Egyptians
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi says he would not stay in office against the will of Egyptians during a speech at a Tuesday event organized by Egypt’s endowments ministry celebrating the birth of the Prophet Mohamed. “I came to office by your choice and not against your will,” Sisi said, addressing the people of Egypt. Addressing the “group calling for a new revolution” on the anniversary of the January 25 uprising, Egypt’s president asked if they want to “ruin this country and destroy the people.” The Egyptian president said he fears nothing and that he will not accept the destruction of Egypt. One call to protest on that date, has picked up momentum on social media. More than 45,000 people said they are joining the call on a Facebook event. Addressing the newly elected members of parliament, Sisi asked them to put aside any kind of conflict and to concentrate on the challenges currently facing the country. He also stressed that the upcoming parliament will play a crucial role in Egyptian society, more so than other parliaments. Meanwhile, during a meeting Monday with the head of Egypt’s semi-governmental National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) Mohamed Fayek, Sisi stressed that no one is above accountability when it comes to human rights violations. Sisi also pledged to support NCHR activities through field visits to Egypt’s prisons and to address any violations of human rights, Presidential Spokesperson Alaa Youssef said in a statement. [Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, 12/22/2015]

Media gag order imposed on Egyptian Dabaa nuclear project
A media gag order was imposed Monday on reports involving the Dabaa nuclear project in Egypt, state-owned MENA news agency reported. According to the order, nothing may be published about the Dabaa nuclear project in Egyptian media without gaining permission from security authorities or the office of the minister of electricity. No clear details have been revealed about the media gag, including the reason behind it or from where the order was issued. The gag order was issued shortly after a meeting between President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Minister of Electricity Mohamed Shaker where they discussed the latest developments regarding the Dabaa nuclear project. Critics have questioned the country’s capacity to operate the plant safely, and raised concerns about the site’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks. [Ahram Online, Mada Masr, 12/21/2015]

Interior Ministry organizes human rights competition
The Interior Ministry challenged police officers to find a balance between maintaining security and respecting human rights in a competition it organized, a statement on its Facebook page said Tuesday. Police officers in the different ministry sectors and different ranks were required to submit research papers on how to achieve this balance, the statement said. “This comes as part of the Interior Ministry’s effort to spread and support the principles and values of human rights in the different sectors,” the ministry said, “and guaranteeing citizens’ rights and freedoms.” The ministry has especially come under fire lately for the growing number of forced disappearances cases and arbitrary detentions, torture at police stations and poor conditions in places of detention. [Mada Masr, 12/22/2015]

Egypt names UK-based Control Risks Group to review airport security
Egypt has hired British consultancy Control Risks to help boost airport security, almost two months after a Russian airliner crashed in the Sinai Peninsula, killing 224 people. CEO Andreas Carleton-Smith says Tuesday that the company’s objective is to make sure Egyptian airports comply with international aviation standards. “Our role will be to review all existing security processes and procedures against international best practice,” he said at a joint press conference with Egypt’s Civil Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal and Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou. “Ensuring safe and secure flights for everyone travelling to Egypt whether for business or pleasure, is a top priority of the Egyptian government. This is why we have taken immediate actions to ensure we possess a world-class, gold standard security,” Zaazou said. [Ahram Online, Reuters, AP, Aswat Masriya, 12/22/2015]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Twenty-four Libyan municipalities sign up to unity deal
The leaders of 24 Libyan municipalities on Monday signed the UN-sponsored agreement on the formation of a national unity government, in a move welcomed by UN Special Envoy Martin Kobler. Individual lawmakers from Libya’s two rival parliaments and other political figures last Thursday in Morocco signed a deal on a unity government, despite opposition on both sides. Municipal signatories included representatives of Sabratha, Zintan, Bayda, and Misrata. However, experts warn that the signatories represent only a quarter of Libya’s nearly 100 municipalities, and the Tripoli municipality, which will be crucial to the success of the deal, has not signed on. [AFP, Libya Herald, 12/22/2015]

ISIS in Sirte advertises Islamic police force
A local affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in Sirte, Libya has posted a propaganda video online showing its Islamic police force patrolling the city. The video footage opens with a shot showing a parade of men in blue uniforms with police badges on their left shoulders. All are wearing black balaclavas and most carry Kalashnikovs. Their leader speaks to them with a pronounced Tunisian accent, and tells the men, “The crime rate is close to zero in Sirte and this city is the safest in the world.” Later shots in the film show the gunmen on patrol and a police checkpoint at a road junction. [Libya Herald, ANSAmed, 12/21/2015]

Twenty-one deputies of Nidaa Tounes resign from the parliamentary bloc
Twenty-one deputies from Tunisia’s Nidaa Tounes party in the House of the People’s Representatives (HPR) confirmed their resignation from the parliamentary group on Monday. One of the resigning members, Sehbi Ben Fraj, indicated that other resignations will be announced in the next day. After the legislative elections in 2014, Nidaa Tounes group counted 86 deputies. The last few months have seen several defections following a leadership conflict between the party’s Secretary General Mohsen Marzouk and Hafedh Caid Essebsi, son of the party’s founder Beji Caid Essebsi. Marzouk has since announced his total break with the party. [TAP, 12/21/2015]

Tunisia dismantles cell recruiting women for Islamist militants
Tunisia said on Monday it has dismantled a cell in the northern region of Bizerte recruiting women to marry Islamist militants fighting abroad, arresting four suspects. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that anti-terrorist units led the operation to bust the “takfiri” radical Sunni Muslim network, without saying when the arrests took place. The suspects are accused of recruiting young people, especially girls, to send them to conflict zones for marriage to terrorist elements there. [AFP, 12/21/2015]


UN to host next Syria talks end of January in Geneva, plans ‘light’ monitoring of ceasefire
The next round of talks aimed at easing the violence in war-torn Syria will be held at the United Nations’ European headquarters in Geneva early next year, a UN spokesman said Tuesday. Director of the UN office at Geneva Michael Moller said of UN Syria Envoy Staffan de Mistura, “The intention is that he starts some time toward the end of January.” Following Friday’s Security Council resolution, the United Nations is mulling “light touch” options for monitoring a possible ceasefire in Syria that would keep its risks to a minimum, relying largely on Syrians already on the ground. UN planning for truce monitoring will seek to avoid repeating the “disaster” of a mission sent to Syria in 2012. Diplomats explained, that operation failed because the warring parties showed no interest in halting clashes. Under the light-touch mechanism under consideration, the United Nations would rely on Syrian “proxies” on the ground to report violations. This could possibly involve a small group of non-uniformed UN officials in Syria to carry out investigations of ceasefire violations. [AFP, 12/22/2015]

ISIS shelling of Syrian school area kills nine
ISIS militants shelled a school district in eastern Syria Tuesday, killing at least nine students and wounding around 20 others, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitoring group said. Syrian state media said nine girls had been killed and said “shells fired by terrorists” had hit the government-held area in the provincial capital Deir Ezzor city, which is mostly held by ISIS fighters. SOHR said the number of dead was likely to rise and said dozens of people had been killed and wounded in months in heavy shelling of Deir Ezzor. [Reuters, AFP, Al Jazeera, 12/22/2015]

Turkey’s Davutoglu condemns Russian strikes on Idlib; black box from Russian jet unreadable
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu Tuesday condemned an attack on the rebel-held Syrian city of Idlib, believed to have been carried out by Russian jets, and said Syria will not be part of “Russian imperialist goals.” This weekend’s air strikes killed scores of people in the center of Idlib in northwest Syria on Sunday, rescue workers and residents said. Relations between Ankara and Moscow are already at their worst in recent memory after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over Syria last month. On Monday, the Russian military said aviation experts so far have failed to retrieve information from a flight data recorder from the downed warplane. A Deputy Head of the Russian military’s flight safety service Lt. Gen. Sergei Bainetov said an inspection of the recorder has revealed that thirteen of sixteen microchips on its data board are nearly ruined and the remaining three are damaged. He said experts will attempt to retrieve information from them, but the effort will take a long time. [Reuters, 12/22/2015]

Turkey police kill two ‘female terrorists’; Kurdish fighters kill two Turkish soldiers in bomb attack
Turkish police killed two female “terrorists” in a predawn raid Tuesday on a cell of suspected militants in Istanbul, media reports said. The Dogan news agency said the clash, which also left four police lightly wounded, took place in the Gaziosmanpasa district in the north of the European side of the city. The report did not specify with which organization the two suspects were affiliated. Gaziosmanpasa is known as a stronghold for supporters of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the ultra-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C). The report said the pair were part of a cell linked to a mysterious bomb attack on December 1 near an Istanbul metro station that wounded up to half a dozen people, though no group ever claimed the attack that appeared to have targeted a passing police vehicle. In related news, two Turkish soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb attack on their vehicle by Kurdish fighters in southeastern Bitlis province on Monday according to security sources. The sources said the bomb had wounded six other soldiers in the military vehicle, driving on a forested road near an area of clashes with PKK fighters. [AFP, 12/22/2015]

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


Saudi Arabia intercepts fourth Yemeni missile in four days, warns of reprisals
Saudi Arabia’s air defense systems intercepted another missile fired by the Yemeni army late monday night. The Yemeni Army is allied with the Houthi rebels and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemen’s state-run SABA news agency, currently captured by Houthi rebels, claimed that the missile was aimed at oil installations in Saudi Arabia’s southern Jizan province and that it was a direct hit. The Saudis denied any damage, which Aramco and local sources in Jizan corroborated. The Kingdom threatened severe reprisals for the attack within its borders. [Reuters, AFP, 12/22/2015]

UAE puts six on trial for supplying Yemen’s Houthi rebels
The UAE’s state news agency reported that six individuals were on trial on charges of supplying Yemen’s Houthi rebels with “communications devices and chemical materials,” according the to the prosecutor. “Six arab defendants, including a gulf citizen” stand accused. The UAE and its other Gulf allies participating in the coalition in Yemen believe the Houthis are being bolstered by Iran, which both Iran and the Houthi rebels deny. [Reuters, 12/22/2015]

The National Army and Popular Resistance close in on Sana’a
Citing tribal sources on the ground, Sky News Arabic reports that members of anti-Houthi cadres are the closest to the capital in Sana’a now than since the Houthis seized the capital in September 2014. The “forces of legitimacy” supporting exiled President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi have captured two locations in the mountains of the Nahm region, just 60 kilometers northeast of Sana’a. The advance comes amidst the end of peace talks due to continued violations of a temporary ceasefire. Negotiations are set to resume on January 14th. [Al-Masdar Online (Arabic), 12/22/2015]

Bahrain Jails five for life over bombing
A Bahraini court jailed five people for life Monday after convicting them of manufacturing and using explosives. The official BNA news agency said the five were guilty of causing an explosion on June 4 last year in the Budaya area west of the capital Manama. The attack was carried out using a homemade bomb which they made “to commit terrorist acts and kill police officers,” the agency said. The blast damaged homes but caused no injuries. Since Bahrain’s unrest began in 2011, scores of opponents have been detained, with many facing trial, while others convicted of involvement in violence have been handed heavy sentences, including loss of citizenship and life in prison. [AFP, 12/21/2015]


Qatar National Bank to buy Turkey’s Finansbank for $2.95 billion
The Gulf Arab region’s largest bank Qatar National Bank (QNB) has agreed to buy Turkey’s Finansbank from National Bank of Greece (NBG) for 2.7 billion euros ($2.95 billion). QNB, which is half-owned by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, has previously set out to become the largest bank in the Middle East and Africa by 2017. It said it was interested in buying Finansbank in October. “This transaction is a significant milestone in QNB’s vision to becoming a MEA [Middle East, Africa] icon by 2017 and a leading global bank by 2030,” QNB Chief Executive Ali Ahmed al-Kuwari said. In addition to the $2.95 billion payment, NBG said QNB will repay $910 million of debt that the Greek lender had provided to Finansbank. QNB said it will finance the purchase of the 99.81 percent stake through its own funds and will remain strongly capitalized after the acquisition. The closing of the transaction, which is subject to regulatory approval, is expected to be complete in the first half of 2016. [Reuters, WSJ, Bloomberg, 12/22/2015]

Turkish Central Bank keeps rates on hold, shocking market
Turkey’s Central Bank (CBRT) left interest rates unchanged on Tuesday in a surprise move that reignited concern about threats to the bank’s independence and put fresh pressure on the lira. Analysts and investors have repeatedly called for a rate hike to rein in inflation and put a floor under the lira. However, CBRT held rates for the tenth straight month. CBRT also said it would start to “simplify” policy after its next meeting in January if market conditions are stable enough, indicating a nod to investors who have urged the bank to return to a single interest rate system rather than the current complex system of multiple rates. “Monetary policy simplification could begin with the next meeting, if the decline in volatility seen since the start of global policy normalization is lasting,” CBRT said in a statement. The bank’s Monetary Policy Committee is set to meet next on January 19. [Reuters, WSJ, Bloomberg, Hurriyet, 12/22/2015]

Egypt’s Central Bank tightens import controls to boost local production
The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) will tighten import regulations starting in January in a bid to support local manufacturing and better preserve dwindling foreign currency reserves. The decision excludes imports of medicine, foods, and other essential goods like wheat. In a statement on Tuesday, the CBE said it aimed to “strengthen the national economy and promote local products, enhancing their competitiveness against foreign products.” Egyptian manufacturers have been pushing for stricter regulations to prevent importers from putting artificially low values on customs bills to avoid duties. The statement said that banks should obtain documents for imports directly from foreign banks instead of clients in order to stop any manipulation of receipts by importers. Importers will also have to provide 100 percent of the cash deposit on letters of credit for imports instead of the current 50 percent. Meanwhile on Tuesday, an unnamed official said the CBE has sold $7.6 billion in recent weeks to make it easier for importers pay for goods. [Reuters, 12/22/2015]

Libya’s Tripoli NOC says will take legal action on unapproved oil sales
Libya’s Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation (NOC) said it would take legal action to stop any export of the country’s oil outside of its own channels. A spokesman for the company said the Tripoli NOC sent a letter to the Egyptian petroleum authorities protesting a reported sale by its eastern rival in Tobruk of a 2 million barrel crude oil cargo directly to Egypt. “Any operations that are conducted outside the legal validity represented in the NOC whose headquarters are located in…Tripoli are considered an explicit breach of the law,” the Tripoli-based spokesman said. The NOC said it reserves “all rights to hold any party responsible for the entire legal liabilities and consequences arising thereof.” Meanwhile, chairman of the Tripoli NOC Mustafa Sanallah met with CEO of Italy’s Eni Claudio Descalzi in Rome to discuss Libya’s energy sector. “I am very pleased that the collaboration with such an important partner as Eni continues without interruption,” Sanallah said. [Reuters, Bloomberg, Libya Monitor (subscription), 12/21/2015]

EU provides EUR 70 million to support socioeconomic reforms, tourism in Tunisia
The European Union (EU) adopted the second part of its 2015 assistance package for Tunisia on Monday. It will provide Tunisia with EUR 70 million though the European Neighborhood Instrument to support socioeconomic reforms and tourism. The EU said the program aims to support Tunisia’s maintenance of short- and medium-term economic stability by enhancing the quality of public spending. The funds will also promote capacity building in the country’s institutions involved in public finance management, namely the Audit Authority and Finance Ministry. The assistance package will also help with the implementation of emergency measures for the country’s tourism industry in the wake of major terror attacks this year. The first part of the 2015 assistance package for Tunisia, totaling EUR 116.8 million, was released in July. [TAP, EU, 12/21/2015]