Top News: ISIS Seizes Central Syrian Town

The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) on Thursday seized the heavily populated town of Qaryatain in southwestern Syria after heavy clashes with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. ISIS’s capture of the town, which is its biggest advance since capturing Palmyra in May, will allow the group to link areas under its control in Palmyra with areas in the Qalamoun mountains and the Damascus province. A monitoring group reported that ISIS seized the town Thursday after three suicide bombers targeted army checkpoints at the entrance on Wednesday. ISIS-affiliated websites showed photos of its fighters “liberating” the town using a tank allegedly seized from the Syrian army. [AP, 8/6/2015]



International delegations arrive in Egypt for new Suez Canal ceremony
International delegations continue to arrive in Egypt to attend the inauguration on Thursday of the new Suez Canal. Early on Thursday, commander in chief of the Russian Navy Admiral Viktor Chirkov arrived in Cairo. President of Angola José Eduardo dos Santos, Deputy Prime Minister of Lesotho Mothetjoa Metsing, and deputy chairman of African Union Commission Erastus Mwencha all arrived in Cairo on Thursday. Other African heads of state from Niger, Congo, Togo, Mauritania, Mali, and Ethiopia arrived on Wednesday to participate in the ceremony. Also on Wednesday, a US congressional delegation headed by Darrell Eisa, arrived in Cairo. Gulf guests include a Bahraini delegation headed by King of Bahrain Hamed bin Isa Al Khalifa, Qatari Minister of Transportation Jassim Saif Al Sulaiti, and the deputy speaker of Kuwait’s national assembly. Arab delegations from Lebanon, Tunisia, Oman, Algeria, and Palestine, also arrived, as well as delegations from China and the Philippines. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrived at the inauguration site for the “New Suez Canal” in army fatigues, on Thursday afternoon. Follow live updates here. [Ahram Online, AP, 8/6/2015]

Sinai State threatens to execute Croatian abducted in Egypt
An Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) affiliate in Egypt has threatened to kill a Croatian citizen within forty-eight hours if “Muslim women” jailed in Egypt are not freed. Croatia’s foreign ministry reported on July 24 that a group of armed men had abducted a Croatian citizen in Egypt. In the video, titled “A Message to the Egyptian Government” and which was posted on online forums, a man is seen kneeling and wearing a short-sleeved orange jumpsuit. He identified himself as Tomislav Salopek, 30-years-old, from Croatia, who worked for French company CGG. The authenticity of the video could not be immediately verified. If confirmed it would be the first known video featuring a Western hostage held by Sinai State, which changed its name from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis after it pledged allegiance to Islamic State. [AFP, Reuters, The Guardian, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, 8/5/2015]

RSF asks French president to raise press freedom concerns while in Egypt
A day before his scheduled attendance at the inauguration of the New Suez Canal, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement calling on French President François Hollande to raise the issue of increasing violations against journalists in Egypt with his counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The Paris-based international media watchdog highlighted that the Egyptian State ranked 158 out of 180 countries in terms of their press freedom index for 2015, adding, “Egypt is now the world’s fourth biggest prison for journalists, after China, Eritrea and Iran.” The statement read, “We hope you will take advantage of your visit to raise the crucial issue of media freedoms, including the situation of many imprisoned journalists, with the Egyptian president.” RSF claims that at least fifteen journalists and media workers are presently being held behind bars in Egypt. [Mada Masr, 8/6/2015]

Minister says tougher laws on illegal emigration to modernize Egypt
The new draft law on migration will serve as the main bridge for Egyptian citizens to catch up with the international standards, said Manpower and Migration Minister of Nahed al-Ashry. Ashry added the draft law attempts to solve the problem of emigration from Egypt, including its legal, social, political and economic repercussions, pointing out that the bill is the first of its kind to regulate the migration of Egyptians. The private sector will help the state in overcoming the negatives effects of illegal migration through the elimination of illegal smuggling gangs which operate undercover, according to Ashry’s statement on Wednesday. Only joint-stock companies will be able to work in the field of migration in accordance to the new bill, Ashry mentioned. Those who help illegal migrants against the law would be be fined and detained, Ashry said. The punishment would be harshened in case migrants died as a result, she added. [Egypt Independent, 8/6/2015]

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367 migrants rescued and twenty-five dead off Libya coast
A fishing boat crowded with migrants overturned yesterday off the coast of Libya as rescuers approached. The Italian coast guard and Irish navy said at least 367 people were saved and twenty-five bodies were found. Coast Guard Commander Filippo Marini said the rescue operation, involving seven ships, was still underway several hours after the capsizing. He added that the survivors indicated that between 400 and 600 people were aboard the smugglers’ boat. Military vessels and aircraft from a multi-nation operation continue searching waters for more survivors. [AP, ANSAmed, 8/6/2015]

378 Libyans disappeared without trace in past year, says Amnesty International
Amnesty International says that Libya is suffering an epidemic of kidnappings, with 378 people having vanished without trace in the past year. In its report, Vanished off the face of the earth, published yesterday, Amnesty says Libyans are being abducted in unprecedented numbers. Amnesty says 49 foreign nationals are among those captured, including 21 Christians kidnapped and executed by ISIS near Sirte this year. The report says “civilians, including children, are usually abducted from their homes, workplaces, gas stations, checkpoints and the street…Among those abducted are journalists, activists, members of the judiciary targeted for their activities, public officials, civil servants aid workers, and foreign nationals abducted on account of their religion, race, or nationality.” [Libya Herald, 8/5/2015]

ISIS kills captured Libyan judge
The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) reported that it killed a Libyan judge it seized a week and a half ago. A body, claimed to be that of Salem Mohammed al-Namli, a member of Khoms’ Court of Appeal, and wearing the distinctive orange ISIS execution suit, was found yesterday morning dumped near a cemetery south of Sirte. ISIS forces kidnapped Al-Namli on July 25. There have been conflicting reports on how he died. One of the reports says that al-Namli was shot while another says that he was beheaded. [Libya Herald, 8/5/2015]

Tunisia to reopen airspace with western Libya
According to Tunisia’s Transport Minister Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, the country plans on allowing flights to Tripoli and Misrata. Ben Romdhane said, “We are coordinating with Libyan authorities to open airspace for Libyan carriers to fly flights to Tunisia as a first step and later we hope, after insuring safety of Libyan airports, that Tunisian carriers start flights to Libyan airports.” He said he hoped that this would happen as soon as possible, possibly next week or the week after. [Libya Herald, Libya Monitor (subscription) 8/6/2015]


ISIS seizes central Syrian town
The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) on Thursday seized the heavily populated town of Qaryatain in southwestern Syria after heavy clashes with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. ISIS’s capture of the town, which is its biggest advance since capturing Palmyra in May, will allow the group to link areas under its control in Palmyra with areas in the Qalamoun mountains and the Damascus province. A monitoring group reported that ISIS seized the town Thursday after three suicide bombers targeted army checkpoints at the entrance on Wednesday. ISIS-affiliated websites showed photos of its fighters “liberating” the town using a tank allegedly seized from the Syrian army. [AP, 8/6/2015]

United States launches first drone strike against ISIS from Turkey
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Wednesday that the US military launched its first strike against ISIS from Incirlik air base in southern Turkey on Tuesday. He declined to provide additional information about the specific target or if the strike was successful. A Turkish official reported that the US drone strike hit an area near the ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa. According to media reports, thirty US fighter jets and 300 US military personnel are due to arrive at Incirlik air base in the next week. [WSJ, AFP, 8/5/2015]

United States and Russia agree to act on Syria chemical attacks
Two UN Security Council (UNSC) diplomats said Wednesday that the United States and Russia have agreed on a draft UN resolution aimed at identifying the perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks in Syria so they can be brought to justice. They told reporters that the final draft has been circulated to all fifteen UNSC members and that the group has until mid-morning Thursday to raise any objections. If there are no objections, the resolution could be put to a vote as early as Friday. US Secretary of State John Kerry said at a meeting in Malaysia Thursday that the resolution would include an investigative mechanism to determine who is responsible for chemical attacks and “will create a process of accountability which has been missing.” [AP, Reuters, 8/6/2015]

Iran to present Syria peace deal to UN
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdullahian said Wednesday that Iran will submit a new peace plan for Syria to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The draft is reportedly an amended version of an Iranian initiative presented last year and is, according to Abdullahian, “one of the most effective and serious plans on the agenda of the United Nations and international players.” Abdullahian also said there had been a strategic change in the attitude of regional players with regard to Syria. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the phone Wednesday that Iran and Turkey “should achieve a joint plan and a practical solution, with each other’s help, for uprooting terrorism in the region.” [AFP, 8/5/2015]

Syrian rebels advance on posts near regime bastion
A Syrian rebel coalition including the Nusra Front fought Wednesday to advance on a key military headquarters in the village of Jureen in the Hama province. Rebels reportedly seized the nearby Bahsa village amid fighting Wednesday, which left at least nineteen rebels, seventeen regime troops, and five villagers dead. The Syrian military and its Hezbollah-affiliated allies set up a military headquarters in Jureen to oversee the battle in the nearby Sahl al-Ghab plain. Monitoring groups also reported that there have been calls for Alawite youth to take up arms and defend the areas surrounding Jureen, as rebel success in capturing the village would grant it access to Alawite communities along the coast. [AFP, 8/6/2015]


Suicide bombing in Saudi Arabia leaves at least ten dead
A suicide bomber detonated an explosive in the southern Saudi city of Abha on Thursday, targeting a mosque used by state police. According to state-run media agencies, the attack is already being labeled as a terrorist action and has killed up to seventeen people. The Saudi Interior Ministry has acknowledged the attack, but has thus far claimed that the death toll is slightly lower, with only thirteen casualties. The victims of the attack were members of a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, which focused on domestic security. [AFP, 8/6/2015]

AQAP encourages more attacks on Western soil
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has released two new messages praising lone wolf attacks on Western targets and exhorting followers to carry out more. “We urge you to strike America in its own home and beyond,” says a letter attributed to Ibrahim al-Asiri, who has headed the group since its former leader, Nasir al Wuhayshi, was killed in a US air strike earlier this year. The group sought to capitalize on its increased visibility on Wednesday, posting a video online in which senior member Khaled Batarfi praised a July attack in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and a second incident in Garland, Texas. [The Telegraph, 8/5/2015]

Saudi soldier dies in skirmish along Saudi-Yemeni border
A Saudi Arabian soldier was killed in shelling on the border with Yemen, military officials said Wednesday. According to officials, a projectile missile in the southwestern region of Jazan on the Yemeni border killed the soldier. Within the past week, four Saudi military personnel and one civilian have been killed in areas bordering war-torn Yemen. Fighting continued between Houthi forces and the pro-government Popular Resistance fighters in Yemen’s interior. A spokesperson for the Popular Resistance said that their group now controls 75 percent of Taiz. If confirmed, a victory in Taiz would further consolidate the anti-Houthi forces control in Yemen, after their success in the port city of Aden. [AFP, 8/6/2015]

Omani government to receive Syrian Foreign Minister in Muscat
Syria’s Foreign Minister is to head to Oman on Thursday in his first visit to a Gulf country since the beginning of his country’s brutal war in 2011. “Walid Muallem will head Thursday to Muscat, the Omani capital, for his first visit to an Arab state in nearly four years, at the official invitation of his Omani counterpart Yussef bin Alawi,” reported the Al-Watan daily, which is close to the government. Muscat has not cut diplomatic and political ties to Damascus, unlike other Gulf countries. The publication also wrote of a potential meeting in Muscat between top diplomats from Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Muallem would be traveling from Tehran, where he has been meeting with high-level Iranian officials, including President Hassan Rohani. The Syrian minister also met with Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister and special representative to the Middle East. [AFP, 8/6/2015]


Egypt opening Suez Canal expansion to high hopes and some doubts
Egypt opens an expansion to the Suez Canal today, the centerpiece of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s plan to revitalize the country’s economy. However, some analysts and economists say that the mega-project may fail to meet the great expectations. The estimated $8.2 billion expansion includes a 35 km parallel waterway flanking the existing waterway. It also includes a deepening and widening of 37 km of the existing canal. This will cut transit times for southbound ships and allow larger vessels easier passage. The Suez Canal Authority expects a windfall of additional revenue – $13.23 billion annually by 2023 compared with $5.3 billion in 2014. But some are skeptical of the official numbers and suggest that sluggish world trade makes it unlikely the project can deliver immediately on its promise. Economists say the promised rewards of the canal’s expansion depend on the same issues that are holding back the rest of Egypt’s economy. The hype about the canal project does little to ease the doubts of investors. [Reuters, NYT, Washington Post, Ahram Online, 8/6/2015]

Libya to get electricity from Egypt, Tunisia to ease blackouts
Libya will import electricity from Egypt and Tunisia and rent generators as it struggles with power outages that have plunged its main cities into darkness, the Tripoli government said. Outages in Tripoli lasting up to eighteen hours a day have forced Libya’s biggest steelmaker in the western city of Misrata to shut down. Libya will get 250 megawatts (MW) of electricity from Tunisia and 75 MW from Egypt, according to Khalifa al-Ghwell, Prime Minister of Libya’s Tripoli-based government, which is not internationally recognized. Al-Ghwell said his government had also rented generators with a capacity of 240 MW, adding that the closure of steel firm will would save 100 MW, which will be fed into the Tripoli grid. He did not say how the deliveries from Egypt and Tunisia would be funded. [Reuters, 8/5/2015]

Saudi Arabia plans $5.3 billion bond sale next week
Saudi Arabia plans to sell as much as 20 billion riyals ($5.3 billion) of debt on Monday as it seeks to plug its budget deficit following the plunge of oil prices plunged. The bonds will have tenors of five, seven, and ten years and will be placed with local banks. Saudi Arabia plans to raise $27 billion by the end of the year, in the starkest sign yet of the strain lower oil prices are putting on the finances of the world’s largest oil exporter. Governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency Fahad al-Mubarak said in July that Riyadh had already issued its first $4 billion in local bonds, the first sovereign issuance since 2007. The kingdom has drained $65bn of its fiscal reserves to maintain government spending since the oil price plunge began. [Bloomberg, FT, 8/6/2015]

Syria’s oil industry largely destroyed
Syria’s oil industry, like most of its industries, is in a state of collapse. According to analysts, even recent gains will not come close to reviving the industry. As long as the war drags on, no sector of the Syrian economy will recover fully, said Damascus-based political analyst Afif Dalla. Since the onset of the war, government oil production has nearly stopped, with current production estimated at less than 3 percent of pre-war levels. Some local authorities have reopened one of the country’s largest oil fields, more than doubling the country’s small output. But the move will not come close to rescuing the failed industry and will mainly serve surrounding villages, according to Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. [VOA, 8/5/2015]