Top News: ISIS to cut fighter salaries by 50 percent

The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has announced plans to halve the monthly salaries of its members in Syria and Iraq. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) published what it said was an official statement from ISIS announcing the cuts. “Because of the exceptional circumstances that the Islamic State is passing through, a decision was taken to cut the salaries of the mujahedeen in half,” the statement said. “No one will be exempt from this decision no matter his position, but the distribution of food assistance will continue twice a month as usual,” it added. According to SOHR, the salary cuts meant Syrian ISIS fighters would see their salaries drop to about $200 a month. Foreign fighters, who are paid double compared to Syrian militants, would have their monthly income reduced to $400. The financial strain could be a result of intensified air strikes on its oil infrastructure in Syria and Iraq. [The Guardian, CNN, Daily Mail, 1/19/2016]



German think tank pulling out of Egypt over restrictions
A well-known German think tank says it is moving its Mideast operations out of Egypt, maintaining that ever-stricter government restrictions have made it impossible to carry out its work. Wolfgang Gerhardt, chairman of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, which has links to Germany’s Free Democratic Party, told the DPA news agency Wednesday the he was moving the organization’s operations to Amman, Jordan.  Gerhardt said “since today every political seminar, every conference that we organize with our Egyptian partners is misunderstood as a possible threat to the internal security of Egypt. We have no basis to operate.” [AP, 1/20/2016]

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Egypt visit aims to strengthen strategic, economic ties
Chinese President Xi Jinping is starting his two-day visit to Egypt on Wednesday, discussing bilateral ties and regional matters with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. His visit comes as part of a 10-day tour in the Middle East which includes stops in Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two presidents will meet for talks on Wednesday. According to Minister Counselor of the Chinese Embassy in Cairo QI Qianjin‏, Egypt and China plan to sign cooperation agreements worth $10 billion during the visit. Also on Wednesday, Xi will address the newly elected Egyptian House of Representatives, according to the parliament’s speaker, Ali Abdel-Aal. “By paying this visit, I think the Chinese president wants to send a message to the world that China is supporting Egypt and wants to build a strategic relationship with it at all levels,” said Abdel-Al. Xi is the first foreign official to visit the House of Representatives. He will also give a speech directed to the Arab world at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, which will set out China’s policy towards the Middle East, and its desire to support peace and development in the region. [Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, 1/19/2016]

Egypt prosecutor issues media gag order on corruption watchdog claims
Egypt’s top prosecutor issued on Wednesday a media gag order regarding the corruption allegations made by the head of the country’s main corruption watchdog organization. Prosecutors are investigating recent claims by Hisham Geneina, the head of the Central Auditing Organization (CAO), that corruption within government institutions has cost the Egyptian treasury over EGP600 billion in four years. On Wednesday, a statement by the prosecutor-general’s office said the gag order will remain in place until the investigation into the case is complete. The parliament is set to investigate the allegations next week after a number of MPs accused Geneina of misleading the public and demanded a fact-finding committee be formed to look into the issue. [Ahram Online, 1/20/2016]

Egypt courts acquit 29 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters
Two Egyptian courts acquitted 29 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters charged with inciting violence on Tuesday. Twenty-two of the defendants were charged with inciting violence and damaging public and private property in Suez during events that date back to 2014, when clashes broke out between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and citizens. Out of the 22, 11 were in prison and 11 are at large. A Giza court also acquitted seven alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters charged with inciting violence. [Aswat Masriya, 1/19/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Tunisia police, protesters clash in interior region over jobs
Tunisian police firing tear gas clashed with hundreds of protesters demanding jobs in at least four towns in the western region of Kasserine, several days after a young unemployed man committed suicide. After talks between protesters and the region’s governor broke down, protesters blocked roads with burning tires, prompting police to use tear gas to disperse the crowd. A local health director says the clashes left 20 protesters and three policemen injured. The Interior Ministry later announced a curfew in Kasserine. Residents said people also took to the streets on Wednesday in Seliana, Tahaa, Fernana and Sbiba, El Fahs, Meknasi, Kairouan, Sousse, and Tunis, where several hundred marched on the city’s central Habib Bourguiba Avenue. Prime Minister Habib Essid removed the First Delegate of the Governorate of Kasserine from his post and the Speaker of the Assembly of People’s Representatives Mohamed Ennaceur received a delegation of MPs from Kasserine to discuss a parliamentary delegation to the region. [Reuters, Business News Tunisia, Tunisia Live, AP, France24, Jeune Afrique, 1/19/2016]

Germany and Tunisia talking deportations
Germany is debating measures to speed up the deportation of rejected asylum seekers from North Africa. Tunisia has agreed to support the government and asked for Germany to downgrade its travel warnings. Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui told journalists in Berlin on Tuesday that the country would do its utmost to “help our German friends.” A German delegation made up of experts would soon travel to Tunis to discuss the details, he added. [Deutsche Welle, 1/19/2016]

UN Secretary General and United States welcome Libya agreement
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the announcement of the creation of a Government of National Accord in Libya as marking an important step towards the implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement and ending the crisis in the country. State Department Spokesman John Kirby said that Washington similarly welcomed the Presidency Council’s announcement and urged the House of Representatives to endorse the Government of National Accord without delay. He added that that United States remains committed to providing the unified government full political backing and technical, economic, security, and counterterrorism assistance as requested. [ANSAmed, US Department of State, 1/20/2016]

Libya lawmaker says unity government likely to be rejected
Libyan lawmaker Abu Bakr Beira has said the House of Representatives (HOR) is unlikely to approve the proposed unity government lineup. A 32-member cabinet was announced Tuesday and supporters have ten days to secure approval from the HOR. Beira said on Wednesday that the HOR will not “cave” to international pressure to endorse the deal. He also said the peace deal “has no support in the east,” and described the new cabinet as “nonsense.”  [AP, 1/20/2016]


ISIS frees 270 civilians captured in eastern Syria
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said on Tuesday that the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) released 270 people it captured during intense fighting with Syrian government forces in Deir Ezzor. The SOHR said on Wednesday that ISIS is still holding 50 additional civilians. The freed civilians were released to the village of al-Baghalieh, north of Deir Ezzor. ISIS tightened its siege on Deir Ezzor after a deadly assault on the city, killing over 100 people. ISIS jihadists overran al-Baghaliyeh, one of the last agricultural areas on the city’s outskirts known for producing food. The extremists now control 60 percent of Deir Ezzor. [AP, AFP, 1/20/2016]

Kerry and Lavrov try to settle differences over Syria talks
Differences over which Syrian opposition groups should be labeled terrorists and barred from the negotiations have threatened to delay the talks, the first step in a proposed 18-month political transition for Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met on Wednesday in hopes of resolving differences before UN-mediated peace talks for Syria begin next Monday. Kerry will travel to the Swiss resort town of Davos for the World Economic Forum and speak with the UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, who plans to convene the Syria talks in Geneva. [AP, AFP, 1/20/2016]

Syria’s opposition says cannot attend talks if third party joins
A Syrian opposition council backed by Saudi Arabia said on Wednesday it will not attend next week’s peace negotiations with the government if a third group takes part, a reference to a Russian bid to widen the opposition’s team. Riad Hijab, who heads the council formed in Riyadh last month, accused Russia of hindering negotiations and told a news conference in Riyadh that the opposition could not negotiate while Syrians were dying from blockades and bombardment. In his statement, Hijab announced the names of opposition figures that would negotiate on behalf of the council in any talks. which included Mohamed Alloush, a political figure in the Jaysh al-Islam rebel group that is deemed a terrorist group by Damascus and Moscow. “The opposition delegation is now ready,” George Sabra, an opposition politician also named as a negotiator, told opposition channel Orient TV. Asaad al-Zoubi was named the head of the negotiating team. [Reuters, 1/20/2016]

Russia shows military might, air strikes in Syria kill 3,000 people since September
Russian warplanes were taking off on Wednesday from their base on Syria’s coast, which was bustling with activity. Helicopter gunships were sweeping in the province of Latakia to prevent any possible attack. Since Russia launched its air campaign in Syria on September 30, its warplanes have flown nearly 6,000 missions despite a compact force comprising just a few dozen warplanes. Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Tuesday that Russian warplanes had flown 157 sorties striking 579 targets in six Syrian regions over four days and the pace showed no sign of letting up Wednesday. At least 3,000 people, including more than 1,000 civilians, have been killed in Russian airstrikes in Syria since September 30, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) on Wednesday. The SOHR said that 893 ISIS members were among those killed in the strikes. [Reuters, AFP, 1/20/2016]

According to Amnesty report, Kurds waging campaign to uproot Arabs in north Iraq
Peshmerga forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Kurdish militias in northern Iraq have bulldozed, blown up, and burned down thousands of homes in an apparent effort to uproot Arab communities in revenge for their perceived support for ISIS, said Amnesty International in a new report published on Tuesday. The report is based on field investigation in 13 villages and towns and testimony gathered from more than 100 eyewitnesses and victims of forced displacement. It is corroborated by satellite imagery revealing evidence of widespread destruction carried out by Peshmerga forces, or in some cases Yazidi militias and Kurdish armed groups from Syria and Turkey operating in coordination with the Peshmerga. Arab residents who fled their homes are also barred by KRG forces from returning to recaptured areas. [BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera English, 1/20/2016]

Americans missing in Baghdad kidnapped by Iran-backed militia
Three US citizens who disappeared last week in Baghdad were kidnapped and are being held by an Iranian-backed Shia militia, according to two Iraqi intelligence and two US government sources. The US sources said Washington had no reason to believe Tehran was involved in the kidnapping and did not believe the trio was being held in Iran. “They were abducted because they are Americans, not for personal or financial reasons,” one of the Iraqi sources in Baghdad said. The three men are employed by a small company that is doing work for General Dynamics Corp, under a larger contract with the US Army, according to a source familiar with the matter. [Reuters, Rudaw, 1/20/2016]

Turkish Prime Minister calls for decisive influence over upcoming Syria peace talks
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is visiting London for talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron, claims Turkey has the right to influence the Syrian peace talks due to start next week in Geneva. He said, “No country has more to say on these peace talks than Turkey because 2.5 million Syrians are in Turkey. It is for us now a domestic issue if there is no well-established peace in Syria.” The prime minister pointed out that the EUR3 billion promised by the European Union in October to cover the cost of keeping the Syrian refugees and discouraging them from travelling to Europe had yet been provided. Davutoglu also insisted that the Kurdish Democratic Unionist Party (PYD) could not join the opposition delegation at the talks, claiming it was complicit with the Assad regime despite Russian calls for the Kurds to be represented. Davutoglu’s presence provoked a strong protest in Whitehall, with Kurds breaking through police lines and trapping some cabinet ministers for up to 30 minutes. [Guardian, 1/19/2016]

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


Authorities identify terrorist killed in attempted attack in Sana’a
Authorities in Yemen’s Houthi-controlled capital Sana’a identified one of the two terrorists who were killed while attempting to attack the residence of a senior military chief. A security official stated that the body of Emad Ahmed Mohammed Ismail Shas has been identified. Shas was the Emir of Al-Qaeda’s state in Sana’a and had been involved in acts of terror including targeted killings and bombings. The two were killed while they were attempting to attack the residence of the chief of the Third Presidency Protection Brigade. [Yemen Post, 1/19/2016]

President Hadi orders central bank governor to return to Sana’a
Yemeni Foreign Minister Abdulmalek al-Mikhlafi said on Wednesday that President Hadi is directing Central Bank Governor Mohamed Awad bin Hamam to return to Sana’a to avoid the collapse of the currency. The statement came during Mikhlafi’s meeting with British Ambassador Edmonton Brown in Riyadh. He said that despite government efforts, the Houthis have carried out major changes in the Finance Ministry, putting pressure on the banking sector. Mikhlafi stated that it would be difficult to recover from a currency collapse amid a severely hurting economy. [Al Masdar, 1/20/2016]

Yemeni PM says Houthis spend $7 billion on wars, confronting Islamist militants ‘inevitable’
Yemeni Prime Minister Khalid Bahah said on Tuesday that the Houthi militants and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh have spent about $7 billion in public funds for “their absurd wars against civilians.” He said that they have tampered with Yemen’s financial system since they seized power and the capital Sana’a in late 2014. Bahah also said that confronting Islamist militants in government-controlled regions of the war-torn country was inevitable. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) are both active in Yemen, but so far the Yemeni government and its allies have concentrated on battling Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels. Eliminating the extremism of the Islamist militant groups will not be resolved through dialogue, Bahah told reporters in Abu Dhabi. “A confrontation is inevitable, whether it takes place today or tomorrow,” he said. The Saudi-led coalition supporting the government with airstrikes and ground troops has so far not targeted the Islamist militants even though Al-Qaeda seized the southeastern port city of Mukalla in April. [Yemen Post, AFP, 1/19/2016]

China offers support for Yemeni government as Xi visits Saudi Arabia
China has signaled its support for Yemen’s government on the first day of a visit to Saudi Arabia by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who will also be heading to Tehran later in the week. Saudi Arabia and China said in a statement on Wednesday that the two countries affirmed their support for the unity, independence, and sovereignty of Yemen. The statement was released by China’s Foreign Ministry after Xi met Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz in Riyadh on Tuesday. All social, religious, and political groups in Yemen should maintain their national solidarity and avoid any decisions that may cause social disruption and chaos, it said. [Reuters, 1/20/2016]

Saudi Arabia warns against ‘nefarious activities’ by Iran
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Tuesday that the lifting of sanctions on Iran as a result of its nuclear deal with world powers will be a harmful development if it uses the extra money to fund “nefarious activities.” Asked if Saudi Arabia had discussed seeking a nuclear bomb in the event Iran managed to obtain one despite its atomic deal, he said Saudi Arabia would do “whatever we need to do in order to protect our people.” Jubeir’s comments were the first to directly address the lifting of sanctions on Iran, Riyadh’s regional rival, although Saudi Arabia has previously welcomed Iran’s nuclear deal as long as it included a tough inspections regime. But in private, officials have voiced concern that the deal would allow Iran greater scope to back militias and other allies across the region thanks to extra funds it can access after sanctions are lifted and because of reduced diplomatic pressure. [Reuters, 1/19/2016]


IMF backs Saudi Arabia, Gulf spending cuts amid slow growth
Cutting government spending and reducing subsidies are necessary steps for Gulf countries to adjust to the “new reality” of lower crude prices, although economic growth will be squeezed in the short-term, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF warned in October that Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Bahrain risked draining financial assets within five years if governments maintained their existing spending. Saudi Arabia’s fiscal consolidation has been more ambitious and speedier “than what had been anticipated earlier and one of the consequences will be to see dampening effect on non-oil growth,” the IMF’s Middle East Chief Masood Ahmed said. Non-oil economic growth in the kingdom is expected to slow to about 1 percent this year and just over 2 percent next year, compared with 3.5 percent in 2015, he said. “This consolidation, along with the other measures that have been signaled on privatization and restructuring of the economy, should also lay the basis for stronger growth,” Ahmed said. [Bloomberg, 1/20/2016]

Turkey’s central bank shelves monetary policy shift despite soaring inflation
Turkey’s central bank kept interest rates steady on Tuesday, delaying a long-promised policy shift for a second consecutive month as the lira hits record lows and inflation remains high. The bank’s Monetary Policy Committee said in a statement that kept the benchmark one-week repo rate at 7.5 percent and left unchanged its interest-rate corridor, ranging from the overnight borrowing rate of 7.25 percent to the 10.75 percent overnight lending rate. “Taking into account inflation expectations, pricing behavior and the course of other factors affecting inflation, the tight monetary policy stance will be maintained,” the bank said. After defying market expectations in December, the bank said it would embark on gradually scrapping the broad interest-rate corridor for a single benchmark rate when financial volatility decline. However, they omitted that clause from their statement on Tuesday. “The simplification process is shelved for now,” Chief Economist at Türk Ekonomi Bankası in Istanbul Selim Cakir said. “We maintain our assumption that the bank will hold the rates steady going forward.” [WSJ, 1/19/2016]

BP remains ambitious on gas in Egypt, despite weak oil prices
British Petroleum (BP) aims to double natural gas production in Egypt over the next four years despite weak oil prices. Egypt is attempting to ramp up oil and gas production by signing exploration contracts, renegotiating production prices, and lobbying companies to speed up projects scale back. Through joint ventures with Italy’s Eni and the Egyptian government, BP currently produces 10 percent of Egypt’s oil production and 30 percent of its gas. The company says it has no intention of backtracking on its pledge to speed up production at recent discoveries. “BP’s plan is to double our gas production in Egypt, before the end of this decade,” said BP North Africa Regional President Hesham Mekawi. BP currently produces around 1.4-1.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day in Egypt. Mekawi said Egypt’s energy sector growth could allow the country to become a regional hub. Egypt “has all the fundamentals – infrastructure, facilities, location … to be used both for the domestic market, which is huge, and for export,” he said. [Reuters, 1/29/2016]

Tunisia launches EU-funded mechanism to promote tourism sector
Tunisia launched on Tuesday a EUR 1.4 million mechanism funded by the European Union (EU) to promote the quality of the country’s tourism sector. The project, which provides for the exchange of expertise between Tunisia, France, and Austria, will help upgrade 20 tourism companies between now and September 2017. The project will later be expanded to other companies and will include hotels, travel agencies, restaurants, and information offices in airports and transit points. EU Ambassador to Tunisia Laura Baeza said, “Quality has become vital to resolve the crisis faced by the [tourism] sector after the tragic events that hit Tunisia in 2015.” Tunisian Minister of Tourism and Handicrafts Selma Elloumi said quality is central part of Tunisia’s tourism restructuring strategy. [TAP, 1/19/2016]