Top News: ISIS bombings kill nearly 130 people in Syria

Bombings claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in the Syrian cities of Damascus and Homs killed nearly 130 people on Sunday. A series of blasts ripped through the Sayyida Zeinab suburb of Damascus, killing at least 83 people and wounding more than 170, the official SANA news agency said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said the blasts killed 62. SANA said the bombs went off near schools during the afternoon rush hour. The neighborhood is home to one of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines, which his heavily guarded by Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and other Shia militiamen from Iraq and elsewhere. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV said the blasts were caused by a car bomb and two suicide bombers. The bombings in the central city of Homs killed at least 46 people and wounded dozens, according to Syria’s Foreign Ministry. SOHR said 57 people, including 11 women, were killed by two car bombs set off in a mostly Alawite neighborhood. The Russian foreign ministry said Monday that ISIS’s attacks were aimed at undermining the peace process. [AP, WSJ, AFP, 2/22/2016]



Novelist Ahmed Naji handed two years in prison after initial acquittal
An Egyptian court has sentenced an author to two years in jail for public indecency after excerpts of his sexually explicit novel were published in a literary newspaper. A chapter from Ahmed Naji’s novel Istikhdam al-Hayat, or Using Life, was serialized in a state-owned literary newspaper and a case was brought against him last year by a private citizen who claimed the excerpt caused him distress and heart palpitations. Naji was initially acquitted in January, but the prosecution appealed the ruling. Naji was immediately arrested from the courthouse after receiving the maximum penalty. The magazine’s editor-in-chief Tarek al-Taher, who faced charges in the same case, was fined EGP 10,000. Naji’s lawyer, Mahmoud Othman, filed an appeal against Naji’s sentence, saying it is unconstitutional and based on an incorrect application of the law. Egypt’s Press Syndicate also presented on Sunday a petition to the top prosecutor demanding Naji’s release. A group of journalists from Akhbar al-Adab filed a third appeal against the verdict. Thirteen organizations including the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, issued a statement Sunday condemning the verdict, as did the original publisher of the novel, Dar al Tanweer, and a group of independent media outlets including Zahma, Mada Masr, Qoll, and Zaed 18. Press Syndicate Board Member Mahmoud Khaled told Mada Masr that the prosecution has also threatened Naji with drug charges in relation to the novel’s main character. Columnist Ibrahim Eissa expressed outrage over the verdict. [DNE, Reuters, The Guardian, Mada Masr, Aswat Masriya, 2/21/2016]

Police reform tops Ministry of Interior and parliament’s agenda
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for new security legislation that will regulate the behavior of security forces on the streets and ensure they are punished for violations, calling on the minister to submit recommendations to the parliament within 15 days. Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar told police officials on Friday that it has become necessary to firmly deal with some police elements that give the ministry a “bad name” in the wake of a policeman shooting dead a taxi driver, a Saturday ministry statement read. Abdel Ghaffar ordered that all laws addressing the treatment of citizens by policemen be amended ahead of being presented to parliament. The anticipated amendments will see changes to the type and severity of penalties that police officers would be subjected to, including “disciplinary councils.” The taxi driver’s death last week also led Egypt’s parliament to devote its Sunday morning session to review the performance of the Interior Ministry, at the request of 100 MPs. Although MPs agreed that the ministry should be reformed to allow greater respect for human rights and impose control on the alleged abuses of the security apparatus, they were divided into two camps on how to achieve these goals. The liberal camp insisted that Abdel Ghaffar should resign. Outspoken independent MP Mortada Mansour, however, said that “those who call for reforming the interior ministry are in fact trying their best to undermine the Egyptian state.” [Ahram Online, 2/21/2016]

Defense Minister meets high-ranking US military official
Minister of Defense Sedki Sobhi met with US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph F. Dunford, the highest-ranking US military officer, in Cairo on Saturday to discuss the security partnership between the two countries. According to a statement from the US embassy in Cairo, Dunford affirmed his intent to maintain a strong military relationship with Egypt as a partner in the shared fight against terrorism. The meeting was also attended by a number of military officials from Egypt and the US.
Military spokesperson Colonel Mohamed Samir said the meeting addressed military cooperation in the areas of training, exchange of expertise, and supporting the combat and technical capabilities of the Armed Forces. [DNE, 2/20/2016]

Sinai State claims responsibility for bomb attack in North Sinai
The militant group Sinai State claimed responsibility Sunday for targeting a police patrol with explosives in Bear al-Abd, North Sinai. The group issued a statement on social media websites that included details of the attack. “Thanks to Allah, the soldiers of the Caliphate planted two bombs in an apostate police patrol that included an armoured car and 4×4 vehicles . . . This act led to the perdition to all who were involved in the patrol,” their statement said. The statement was circulated on social media by users claiming to support the group’s ideology. One civilian was killed and 16 were injured by the explosives, according to security officials. Photos of the aftermath showing the destroyed vehicles were also circulated on social media websites. In a separate incident, an 18-year-old university student was killed, and seven others were injured Monday when an explosive device detonated on Al-Bahr street in Al-Arish, state news agency MENA reported. Security sources said the bomb, which was placed by militants, was targeting security forces. [DNE, Ahram Online, 2/22/2016]

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Two abducted Serbs killed in US raids on ISIS in Libya
Two Serbian embassy staff members held hostage since November were among the nearly 50 people killed on Friday in US air strikes on a suspected Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) training camp near Sabratha, Serbia’s Prime Minister said. Sladjana Stankovic, a Serbian communications officer, and Jovica Stepic, a driver, were taken hostage on November 8 after their diplomatic convoy came under fire near Sabratha. The Pentagon said it was aware of reports that the Serbs had been killed, but had no information indicating that their deaths were a result of the strike carried out by US forces. Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said Serbian authorities had been negotiating their release. [Reuters, AP, AFP, DoD News, Libya Herald, 2/20/2016]

Libyan army claims advances in Benghazi and Ajdabiya
Military forces loyal to Libya’s eastern government said on Sunday they have pushed back Islamist fighters in several areas of Benghazi, seizing the strategic port of Marisa. The Libyan National Army (LNA) said it had also taken control of the town of Ajdabiya, about 90 miles south of Benghazi. Munthir al-Khartoush, a spokesman for the army’s Battalion 309, said that besides Marisa port, in Benghazi the army had taken control of al-Halis neighborhood and had advanced in the district of Boatni, which also saw heavy fighting on Saturday. Later, military sources said the army had also captured Al-Hawari hospital in northern Benghazi. At least three soldiers and 15 Islamist fighters were killed in Sunday’s clashes, the military said. [Reuters, 2/21/2016]

Libyan Prime Minister-designate presents new line-up to parliament
On Saturday, Libya’s Prime Minister-designate Fayez al-Serraj presented the program of his new national unity government before the House of Representatives (HOR) ahead of a confidence vote. It added that the session was adjourned after several hours of heated debate and plans to resume talks on Monday. UN Special Envoy Martin Kobler has traveled to Tobruk, the seat of the HOR, to help with a vote of confidence for the unity government. It is not clear if Serraj will attend Monday’s session. [AFP, 2/21/2016]

UN aid official says Libya funds to last only until end of March
A UN official is appealing to Arab League delegates for more funding for Libya, saying the current funds available for the North African country will barely last till the end of March. The UN official for humanitarian issues for Libya, Ali al-Za’tari, says 2.4 million people in Libya have been affected by the country’s deteriorating humanitarian conditions. Za’tari said in Cairo on Monday that his agency only received $4.4 million out of $166 million needed for this year. [AP, 2/22/2016]

Tunisia extends state of emergency another month
Tunisia’s President Beji Caid Essebsi has extended for another month the state of emergency that has been in place since an ISIS-linked suicide bombing in Tunis in November left 12 people dead. The decision to prolong the state of emergency was made Sunday by Essebsi, according to a government spokesman. The move gives the government emergency powers to forbid strikes and gatherings that could cause disturbances, and restricts the media. [AP, AFP, TAP, 2/21/2016]

Morocco, citing Arab disunity, says will not host summit
Morocco has decided not host the 2016 Arab League meeting, saying on Friday it wanted to avoid giving a false impression of unity in the Arab world. The group’s 27th annual meeting was initially set for on March 29 in Marrakesh, but had already been postponed to April 7 at Saudi Arabia’s request. “Amid the lack of important decisions and concrete initiatives to submit to the heads of states, this summit will be just another occasion to approve ordinary resolutions and to pronounce speeches that give a false impression of unity,” a statement from the Moroccan Foreign Ministry said. [Reuters, 2/19/2016]


Kerry and Lavrov reach provisional deal on ceasefire
Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday he and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, had reached a provisional agreement on terms of a cessation of hostilities in Syria and the sides were closer to a ceasefire than ever before. “We have reached a provisional agreement in principle on the terms of a cessation of hostilities that could begin in the coming days,” Kerry told a news conference in Amman with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. “The modalities for a cessation of hostilities are now being completed. In fact, we are closer to a ceasefire today than we have been,” said Kerry, who was also to meet King Abdullah. The Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said in a statement it would agree to a temporary truce that we reached “with international mediation and with guarantees obliging Russia, Iran and sectarian militias and mercenaries to stop fighting.” The HNC gathered in Riyadh on Monday for further discussions. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Saturday he was ready for a ceasefire, on condition “terrorists” did not use a lull in fighting to their advantage and that countries backing insurgents halted support for them. [Reuters, AFP, 2/22/2016]

Extremists cut government supply route to Syria’s Aleppo
ISIS and other extremists Monday cut a vital supply route linking the west of Syria’s second city Aleppo with other government-held territory, according to SOHR. The road between Aleppo and the town of Khanasser to the southeast was the only way government forces and civilians living in government-controlled neighborhoods of the city could travel to surrounding provinces. If government forces are unable to recapture the road, it could slow an offensive they launched in the countryside around Aleppo earlier this year and could worsen severe shortages of food and water for civilians. “Jihadists from the Caucasus and from [China’s mainly Muslim region of] Xinjiang, as well as the jihadist group Jund al-Aqsa, cut the route from the south after a surprise attack,” said SOHR Head Rami Abdel-Rahman. “And fighters from [ISIS] cut off a different part of the route from the northern side at the same time.” [AFP, 2/22/2016]

Kurdish militant group TAK claims responsibility for Ankara car bomb
A breakaway faction of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has claimed responsibility for the bombing in the Turkish capital Ankara that killed 28 people last week, according to a statement on its website. The Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) says Wednesday’s bombing was in response to the policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the military operations going on in the country’s southeast. “On February 17 in the evening a suicide attack was carried out by a sacrifice warrior on a military convoy of the fascist Turkish Republic in Ankara. …The attack was realized by the Immortal Battalion of the TAK,” the statement said. TAK also said in its statement on Friday that it would continue its attacks. While the government identified the bomber as a Syrian Kurd named Salih Necar shortly after the attack, Van resident Musa Sonmez has identified the perpetrator in the photograph as his son and has been summoned to Ankara to give a DNA sample. [AP, Today’s Zaman, Al Jazeera, 2/22/2016]

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


Former Iraqi grain board chief to be investigated in graft case
Iraq’s acting Trade Minister Mohammed al-Sudani has referred former grain board chief Saad al-Hamdani and 16 unnamed individuals for investigation over suspected transportation of illegal wheat shipments. A ministry investigation disclosed that Hamdani, the silo manager of Khan Dhari in western Baghdad and 15 other employees were implicated in “forging transportation documents” for wheat cargoes. The move comes three months after al-Sudani sacked the head of the grain board and six other officials over graft allegations. [Reuters, 2/20/2016]

Missing radioactive material found dumped in south Iraq
Radioactive material that went missing in Iraq has been found dumped near a petrol station in the southern town of Zubair, 9 miles southwest of Basra, ending speculation it could be acquired by ISIS and used as a weapon. The chief of the security panel of the Basra provincial council Jabbar al-Saidi said, “A passerby found the radioactive device dumped in Zubair and immediately informed security forces which went with a special radiation prevention team and retrieved the device . . . after initial checking I can confirm the device is intact 100 percent and there is absolutely no concern of radiation.” [Reuters, 2/21/2016]

UN says ISIS bombs in Ramadi hinder return of displaced
The UN Assistance Mission in Iraq said in a statement released on Monday that bombs planted by ISIS are hindering the return of displaced families to the country’s western city of Ramadi, nearly two months since Iraqi forces, aided by US-led coalition airstrikes liberated the city. UN development official Lise Grande said that unexploded bombs killed eight people in the past two weeks. “People who have been displaced want to return home as quickly as possible . . . Making sure they can do so safely is everyone’s responsibility. Booby-traps and IEDs have to be cleared first,” Grande said in the statement. [AP, 2/22/2016]

Clashes in Fallujah halt after residents seized
Clashes between Iraqi tribesmen and ISIS in Fallujah have halted after the militants detained dozens of residents, officials said Sunday. Tribesmen in three areas of the city “withdrew from the clashes [with ISIS], fearing for the fate of the detainees,” an army lieutenant colonel told AFP on condition of anonymity. Issa Sayir and Raja Barakat, members of the provincial council in Anbar, expressed their worry that the recent clashes will prompt ISIS to restore security by executing those detained and violently imposing security restrictions on the residents. [AFP, Radio Free Europe, 2/21/2016]

Indian, Bangladeshi families still searching for loved ones missing in Mosul
Family members of 40 Indian workers and 52 Bangladeshi workers kidnapped in Mosul by ISIS have been searching for their loved ones, having received no news from them in two years. The Indian government says it is working from Erbil, trying to piece together the fate of the workers, if they have been killed or if they are still alive. When ISIS took over Mosul, the workers were trapped at the construction site of University Lake Towers in Mosul where they had been contracted by the Tariq Noor al-Huda firm in Baghdad to build 1,000 flats, a mosque, schools, roads and a sports stadium in the Jamia district of the city. [Rudaw, 2/22/16]


Yemen army commander shot dead in Aden
A gunman killed a senior Yemeni army officer in Aden on Monday, as violence in the southern port city and headquarters of the Saudi-backed government continued, military sources said. The motorcycle gunman killed General Abedrabbo Hussein as he was leaving his home in the Sheikh Othman district of the city. Hussein was commander of the 15th Infantry Brigade which operates in Abyan province, west of Aden, where Al-Qaeda has seized several large towns in recent weeks. [AFP, 2/22/2016]

International conference on Yemen crisis begins in Doha
A conference organized by the Qatar Charitable Society to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Yemen kicked off on Monday. Ninety international and regional humanitarian organizations and 150 experts in humanitarian sectors such as education, health, water, and economic empowerment are to participate in the first regional conference on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Yemen. The goal of the conference is to unite the visions of its participants through the exchange of information and to strengthen follow-up mechanisms for determining the basic needs of Yemeni citizens as well as launching a number of humanitarian initiatives. [Al Masdar, 2/22/2016]

Al-Qaeda seize southern Yemen town
Al-Qaeda militants took control of the southern coastal town of Ahwar in on Saturday. According to local residents in Ahwar, Al-Qaeda militants were deployed at the eastern entrances to the city and mounted the rooftops of government buildings, where they fought with forces loyal to President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi. A local resident said Al-Qaeda gunmen “clashed with the Popular Resistance forces, killing three of them. They attacked the sheikh in charge of the area and after he escaped setup street checkpoints and planted their black flag on government buildings.” [Al Arabiya, 2/20/2016]

Saudi Arabia puts Shias on trial for spying for Iran
Saudi Arabia has put 32 people on trial, including 30 members of its own Shia Muslim minority, accused of spying for Iran, several local newspapers and television reported on Monday. The 32, including an Iranian and an Afghan, were detained in 2013 sparking expressions of concern among Saudi Shias who said that several were well known figures in their community and not involved in politics. The trial is the first in recent memory for Saudis accused of spying and may stoke tensions between local Shia and Sunni Muslims and with Iran, which strongly denied the accusations at the time. [Reuters, 2/22/2016]

Saudi prince stresses need to revitalize Saudi-Iran dialogue
Former Saudi intelligence minister Prince Turki al-Faisal stressed the importance of dialogue between his country and Iran during the Beirut Institute Summit. The prince made the comments during a press conference on Sunday, announcing some of the policy recommendations that came out of the Beirut Institute Summit held in Abu Dhabi last year. “We support the notion of regular discussions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The bilateral relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran arguably represents the single most important driver of the evolution of the Middle East geopolitically, economically, and socially,” he said. [Gulf News, 2/21/2016]

Bahrain adopts steps to counter Iran ‘interference’
Bahrain on Sunday adopted measures including travel curbs and monitoring of money transfers to counter Iran’s “interference” in the kingdom. Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid al-Khalifa spoke of the “dangers of Iran’s interference in the internal security” of Bahrain during a meeting with clerics, MPs, and newspaper chiefs. “We have taken a series of measures to confront the dangers of terrorism,” Sheikh Rashid said. These include forming a committee to monitor money transfers and donations to combat the “financing of terrorism” and imposing travel restrictions on citizens, especially aged between 14 and 18, to “unsafe countries.” [AFP, 2/21/2016]


IMF says confident Gulf oil exporters can adjust, urges taxes
International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde said Monday that she is confident the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) economies can implement the large fiscal adjustments they need to cope with low oil prices. Lagarde said oil exporters would have to reduce state spending and increase government revenues, but that they had shown the ability to adjust in the past and could do so again. “Oil prices have fallen by two-thirds from their most recent peak but supply and demand-side factors suggest they are likely to stay low for an extended period,” she said. She estimated that oil exporters in the Middle East and North Africa lost more than $340 billion of revenues last year due to low crude prices, or about 20 percent of their combined gross domestic product (GDP). She said Gulf economies “need to strengthen their fiscal frameworks and re-engineer their tax systems by reducing their heavy reliance on oil revenues and by boosting non-hydrocarbon sources of revenues.” Lagarde called for the introduced of a “harmonized regional” value-added tax, which she said could raise revenues by as much as 2 percent of GDP. She also called for “greater emphasis” on corporate income, property, and excise taxes. [Reuters, AFP, The National, WSJ, 2/22/2016]

Iraq revives $2 billion bond plan, will likely seek IMF aid
Iraq may raise $2 billion in Eurobonds this year and is likely to ask the IMF for more aid. Iraq may tap international bond markets in the second half of 2016, Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Monday. A planned sale was halted last year because investors demanded yields that the government deemed too high. The debt auction “is on the agenda,” he said. “We are in a better position this year to issue than last year, when interest rates were too high.” Zebari said the IMF and Iraq authorities will hold talks and that Iraq will “likely consider” asking for more assistance. He said it is too early to decide on the size of the possible loan. The IMF provided $1.25 billion in emergency assistance to Iraq last year. [Bloomberg, 2/22/2016]

Egypt signs $500 million facility agreement with Afreximbank to ease FX shortage
The African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) agreed to a $500 million facility with the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) to help Egyptian importers facing a foreign currency shortage. The deal, which was signed on Friday, will provide trade liquidity facility to Egyptian importers with a focus on imports considered strategic to the Egyptian economy. In November, Afreximbank offered to arrange a facility of up to $1 billion to improve Egypt’s foreign currency liquidity. On Sunday, CBE Governor Tarek Amer said the bank will not devalue the Egyptian pound until foreign reserves increase to $25 billion to $30 billion from the current $16.48 billion. He said Egypt’s economy will not be negatively impacted by the foreign exchange crises. In other foreign assistance news, the African Development Bank said it will offer Egypt $140 million to fund the new Administrative Capital project. [Reuters, Ahram Online, 2/20/2016]

Libya’s NOC warns of more Islamic State attacks on oil facilities
Libya’s oil facilities are likely to suffer further attacks unless a UN-backed unity government is approved, Head of the National Oil Corporation (NOC) Mustafa Sanalla said Monday. “If there is no new government I think the situation will get worse. I believe there will be more attacks on the oil facilities,” he added. “We are urging the [House of Representatives] to approve this government to put an end to these troubles we have regarding security in the oil industry.” Total current oil production stands at 360,000-370,000 barrels per day (bpd), but production sometimes drops to around 300,000 bpd due to technical problems. Sanalla said he was “optimistic” that Libya’s total production could recover quickly under a unity government, with an additional 400,000 bpd or more coming the El Sharara and El Feel oil fields in south-western Libya. He also said the new government should set up a unified security force to protect facilities. [Reuters, 2/22/2016]

Turkey announces plan to bolster tourism sector
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu unveiled a plan to support Turkey’s tourism sector on Monday. The government will seek to postpone 288 million liras ($98 million) of debt spread over three years, Davutoğlu said. It will offer an additional 255 million liras ($87 million) to the tourism industry and exporter benefits to tourism companies with $700,000 or more in annual sales, he said. The costs will be met with spare budget funds from the Finance Ministry. “Nobody should expect Turkey to become introverted or change its axis amid many tensions around. On the contrary, we’ll open abroad more,” he added. Tourism revenues in Turkey dropped 14.3 percent in the final quarter of last year. Tourism revenues fell 8.3 percent over the entire year. Davutoğlu said he expects Russian tourists to keep coming to Turkey, despite calls by the Russian government telling tourists to stay away. [Reuters, Bloomberg, Daily Sabah, Hurriyet, 2/22/2016]