Top News: Libya’s presidential council announces revised unity government

Libya’s UN-backed Presidential Council announced the formation of a revised national unity government on Sunday. One of the council’s members, Fathi al-Majbari, said in a televised statement that the list of 13 ministers and five ministers of state had been sent to Libya’s House of Representatives (HOR) for approval. In a sign of continuing divisions, two of the council’s nine members refused for a second time to put their signatures to the proposed government, according to a document posted on the Presidential Council’s Facebook page. Prime Minister-designate Fayez Serraj told reporters on Sunday that the latest appointments took into account “experience, competence, geographical distribution, the political spectrum, and the components of Libyan society.” Many of the names on Sunday’s list were different from last month’s proposal, though the nominee for the key post of Defense Minister, Mahdi al-Barghathi, was unchanged. A full list of the proposed ministers is available here. [Reuters, AP, AFP, Libya Herald (subscription), 2/14/2016]



Egypt seeks balance between security and freedoms, Sisi tells Albright and Hadley
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley that now that Egypt has finished its post 2013 transition period goals, Cairo is focused on development, adding that the country wants to create a balance between security and freedoms. Albright and Hadley visited with Sisi in Cairo on Sunday as part of an Atlantic Council delegation. The president’s Advisor on National Security Affairs Fayza Abul Naga also attended the meeting. Sisi said the current circumstances make it necessary for Egypt and the United States to develop their strategic relations, adding that Cairo and Washington must base their relationship on mutual interests and respect. The meeting also tackled regional challenges in the Middle East, especially in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. [Ahram Online, AMAY, 2/15/2016]

Sisi declares transfer of legislative powers to parliament
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the transfer of legislative powers from the executive authority to the House of Representatives in an address on Saturday morning, marking the end of Egypt’s legislative limbo. In his half-hour speech to the Parliament, the president’s first since its inauguration in January, Sisi said, “We will not allow anything to disrupt our path to growth and prosperity. I declare the transfer of legislative powers to the parliament and I wish you well.” Sisi talked about the economy, militancy in North Sinai, and repeated several times how Egypt had been fraught with challenges over the past year. Addressing the fight against extremist groups, Sisi said, “We were able to break terrorism in the [Nile] valley, in Sinai, on the Western borders . . . we are still continuing this fight [against terrorism] without languor or fatigue.” On the economy, Sisi said that one of the government’s current aims is to attract more foreign investment, which has the potential to increase growth. Sisi cited the construction of the New Suez Canal and the Suez Canal industrial development zones as examples that highlight his commitment to economic growth. He also urged parliament to prioritize education, health, media, and the renewal of religious discourse in its agenda. While Sisi was met by enthusiastic applause from many parliamentarians and cries of “long live Egypt,” his speech did not receive support from all. One video showed a woman waiting outside of parliament as Sisi arrived, who began screaming, “Have mercy on my son,” as the president made his way inside. The footage began to circulate widely on social media after Sisi’s speech, with many users criticizing the president and the current lack of justice in Egypt. [AMAY, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, Ahram Online, DNE, 2/13/2016]

Egypt court overturns sentences for policeman convicted in Sabbagh murders
Egypt’s Court of Cassation overturned on Sunday a 15-year jail sentence issued to a police officer for the fatal shooting of protester Shaimaa al-Sabbagh during a peaceful march last year in downtown Cairo. The court ordered a new trial of the Central Security Forces (CSF) officer Yaseen Mohamed Hatem in front of a different district court. The policeman’s lawyer, Farid al-Deeb, argued that the protest took place under “exceptional” circumstances and that the protest did not obtain prior permission from the Interior Ministry as per the protest law, leading officers securing the square to panic. The appeal court’s prosecution recommended amending the charges to “beating to death” instead of “premeditated murder.” In related news, Alexandria criminal court acquitted on Tuesday former national security officer Hossam al-Shennawy in a retrial on charges of torturing to death detainee Sayed Bilal. Shennawy was sentenced to 15 years in prison before he was granted a retrial. The sentence can still be appealed by the prosecution. [Ahram Online, DNE, AMAY, AP, Reuters, Mada Masr, The Guardian, 2/16/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Libya’s neighbors plan urgent meeting on border controls
Libya’s neighbors, afraid of the country’s further descent into chaos, are planning an urgent meeting to coordinate border controls and tamp down the unrest they fear will spread. A senior Algerian diplomat, Abdelkader Messahel, called Sunday for the meeting in Tunisia. He said Libya should install its newly proposed government quickly and restore order to the country. Tunisia has suffered multiple attacks at the hands of extremists trained in Libya, and officials fear contagion from Libya’s instability. Algeria also has fought ongoing battles with Islamic extremists, and both countries fear Western military intervention will exacerbate the problem. [AP, 2/15/2016]

Militants shoot down Libyan fighter jet
The Air Force Chief of Staff of Libya’s eastern government says a fighter jet was shot down while carrying out airstrikes against Islamist militants. Brigadier General Saqr al-Jaroushi said that a Libyan MiG-32 came under fire by militants’ anti-aircraft guns in the eastern city of Benghazi on Friday. He says the pilot ejected and landed safely. Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) claimed its fighters downed the plane, according to SITE Intelligence Group. Jaroushi said that the army is investigating whether terrorists have acquired new weapons. [AP, AFP, 2/12/2016]

Libyan naval forces in Tripoli say have seized foreign tanker
Libyan naval forces have seized a Sierra Leone-flagged oil tanker on suspicion of illegally entering Libyan waters in an attempt to smuggle gasoline, authorities said on Saturday. The vessel was stopped in Libyan waters on Friday night carrying 1.6 million liters of gasoline, said Ayoub Qassem, a spokesman for the naval forces allied to Libya’s Tripoli-based government. He said it was a sailing under a Sierre Leone flag with a crew of nine including nationals of Turkey, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan. [Reuters, 2/13/2016]

New prospects in Tunisian-Swiss relations
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi will pay a state visit to Switzerland on February 18. This visit was previously postponed following a deadly attack on a Tunisian presidential guard bus in November 2015. According to the Office of the Presidency, a set of cooperation agreements in areas including political consultation, higher education, the fight against extremism, and recovery of frozen Tunisian assets in Switzerland will be discussed during this visit. In the aftermath of Tunisia’s revolution, Switzerland expressed willingness to assist Tunisia in recovering the funds embezzled by the former president and his relatives, estimated at about $60.6 million. [TAP, 2/16/2016]


Missiles in Syria kill 50 as schools and hospitals hit
Pro-government forces fought fierce battles against rebels in northern Syria on Monday and UN officials said nearly 50 civilians were killed in missile attacks on at least five medical facilities and two schools in the region. The attacks “cast a shadow on commitments” made by world leaders meeting in Munich, Germany, last week to pursue what was described as “a cessation of hostilities” in Syria, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said the attacks included Russian warplanes that struck an Idlib hospital. The medical charity Doctors Without Borders reported at least seven people killed and eight presumed dead in the strike. “The destruction . . . appears to be a deliberate attack on a health structure,” said the group’s head of mission in a press release. US State Department spokesman John Kirby also condemned the strikes on civilian targets in a statement released Monday. Russia denied claims that its warplanes struck hospitals. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday, calling such reports “unsubstantiated accusations.” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry on Monday said the strikes amounted to Russia carrying out an “obvious war crime.” Meanwhile, Syrian Ambassador and Envoy to Moscow Riad Haddad accused the United States of destroying a hospital. [Reuters, NYT, LA times, CNN, Al Jazeera, 2/16/2016]

Kurdish-led forces seize rebel town in Aleppo
On Monday Kurdish-led forces seized a key rebel bastion in Syria’s Aleppo province, extending the opposition’s losses in the region after a major regime operation there. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, seized control of Tal Rifaat from mostly Islamist rebel forces on Monday night, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitor said. The SDF capture came despite Turkey shelling the town to try to halt the alliance from advancing after several days of attacks on the one-time rebel stronghold. It left the rebels in Aleppo with only a few remaining bastions, including the town of Marea, just east of Tal Rifaat, and the border town of Azaz to the north. [AFP, Al Arabiya, 2/15/2016]

Russian strategists play big role in Syria
While Russian fighter planes pound rebel positions on the battlefield in Syria, Russian military strategists are playing a far more subtle role in support of President Bashar Assad. Several sources on both sides of the battle lines have said that Russian advisers have been involved in drawing up plans to secure Damascus, Assad’s seat of power. Russia’s plans to buttress Damascus involve weakening rebel forces in the south of the country between the capital and Jordan, according to different sources. The aim is to reduce the rebels’ chances of launching a major offensive. Russia has said it has no ground troops in Syria beyond those protecting its bases. Russia does concede it has trainers and advisers on the ground, but only in an educational and advisory capacity. Russian warplanes have helped the Syrian Army make broad advances and close in on the country’s biggest city, Aleppo. Meanwhile, the Western-backed opposition is fractured and weakened. Russia will continue its air strikes around Aleppo even if a ceasefire agreement in Syria is reached, said a Russian Foreign Ministry official. Public support in Russia for the country’s air strikes in Syria has slipped since the Kremlin launched its air campaign more than four months ago, a poll showed on Monday, but a comfortable majority still back the bombing. The survey by the independent Levada Center showed that 59 percent of Russians support Moscow’s air campaign in Syria compared to 27 percent who were opposed. [Reuters, 2/16/2016]

Merkel backs no-fly zone in Syria
German Chancellor Angela Merkel Monday backed a call from Turkey for a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, saying it would alleviate the situation of displaced Syrians. “In the current situation it would be helpful, if there could be such an area, where none of the parties are allowed to launch aerial attacks, that is to say, a kind of no-fly zone,” she told the daily Stuttgarter Zeitung, when asked about opening up such areas to host people fleeing fighting in the war-torn country. She acknowledged that it was impossible to negotiate with “terrorists from the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL)”, “but if it’s possible for the anti-Assad coalition and the Assad-supporters to come to an agreement, that would be helpful.” [AFP, 2/15/2016]

Turkey seeks allies’ support for ground operation as Syria war nears border
Turkey is asking allies to take part in a joint ground operation in Syria, raising the possibility of direct confrontation between the NATO member and Russia. A large-scale joint ground operation is still unlikely, as Washington has ruled out a major offensive. But recent Syrian Army advances, supported by Iranian-backed Shia militias and Russian air strikes, has brought troops to within 25km of Turkey’s frontier. Kurdish fighters, regarded by Turkey as hostile insurgents, have also exploited the collapse of other rebel groups to seize ground and extend their presence along the border. Turkish artillery returned fire into Syria for a fourth straight day on Tuesday, military sources said, targeting the Kurdish YPG militia. The shelling came after Davutoglu said on Saturday that Ankara would, if necessary, take military action against fighters from the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). The UN Security Council will discuss Turkey’s shelling of targets in Syria at the request of Russia and Syria’s Foreign Ministry. Turkey has responded by pointing to Russian air support as the heart of the problem. [Reuters, AFP, Guardian, Today’s Zaman, Al Jazeera, 2/16/2016]

Turkish media say Saudi Arabia, Turkey may strike in Syria
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday that Turkey and Saudi Arabia may launch ground operations against the Islamic State group in Syria. After taking part at a security conference in Munich, Cavusoglu said Saudi Arabia was “ready to send both jets and troops” to Turkey’s Incirlik air base. “Turkey and Saudi Arabia may launch an operation [against ISIS] from the land,” he added. On Sunday, Turkish MP Yasin Aktay confirmed Saudi warplanes will act together with the coalition forces in the fight against the ISIL. Recent reports on the expected arrival of the jets are conflicting, however, and Turkish officials have not confirmed that action will be taken by the two countries alone. Although a Saudi diplomat said Sunday that Saudi Arabia was serious about sending ground troops, the two countries appear to be waiting to see if a planned ceasefire transpires and for a sign-off from the US led coalition. [AP, Reuters, Al Jazeera, Rudaw, Independent, 2/15/2016]

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


Iraq’s Sadr calls for technocratic government, swift reform
Powerful Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said on Saturday the country needed a technocratic government, threatening to quit politics if Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi failed to carry out promised reforms. The remarks by Sadr, whose Al-Ahrar bloc holds 34 seats in parliament and three cabinet posts, were the first high-level reaction to the premier’s call earlier in the week for politically appointed ministers to be replaced with technocrats. Sadr further called for Iraq’s powerful Shia militias to be formally incorporated into Iraq’s existing security forces. This would also include Sadr’s own militia, Saraya al-Salam, which was formed following the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June 2014. Hundreds demonstrated in support of Sadr’s statements in Baghdad on Saturday. [Reuters, AP, 2/13/2016]

Samples confirm ISIS used mustard gas in Iraq
ISIS attacked Kurdish forces in Iraq with mustard gas last year, in the first known use of chemical weapons in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, a source at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source confirmed that laboratory tests had come back positive for the sulfur mustard, after around 35 Kurdish troops were sickened on the battlefield last August southwest of Erbil. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a specialist in biological and chemical warfare, said ISIS may have developed its own chemical weapons capability, and could be preparing to use it again, saying that he is “pretty convinced that the mustard [ISIS is] using in Iraq is made by them in Mosul … they have all the precursors at hand from the oil industry and all the experts at hand to do it.” OPCW’s Executive Council is expected to discuss the findings next month. [Reuters, BBC, 2/15/2016]

Iraq moving troops, preparing offensive to retake Mosul
Iraq’s military said on Friday it was mobilizing troops to prepare for an offensive the government has pledged to launch this year to retake the northern city of Mosul from ISIS. Hundreds of forces from the army’s 15th division reached Makhmour base, 45 miles south of Mosul, and more forces, including Sunni Muslim tribal fighters, were expected to arrive in coming days, said Brigadier-General Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the joint operations command. Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi told Reuters last month that Iraq would launch the Mosul operation in the first half of the year and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said 2016 would see the “final victory” against ISIS. Abadi recently declared that Iraq has already retaken half of ISIS-held territories as the fight against the group intensifies. [Reuters, 2/12/2016]

UN says nearly 5,700 buildings in Ramadi need repair
Around 5,700 structures in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi and its outskirts have incurred some level of damage since mid-2014 and almost 2,000 buildings have been destroyed, the United Nations said on Monday. The impact of ISIS bomb attacks and US-led coalition air strikes has been documented by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, which compared satellite imagery collected last month with images from July 2014. More than 3,200 structures in the city center have been affected, with 1,165 destroyed. [Reuters, 2/15/2016]

Turkey limits visas for Iraqis, citing illegal immigration
Turkey has restricted entry visas for Iraqis in a bid to limit foreign fighters reaching its territory and stem the flow of migrants and refugees to Europe. As of February 10, Iraqis can no longer obtain visas upon arrival and must now apply online, according to information obtained from the Turkish embassy in Baghdad. They must also undergo an interview at a Turkish mission in Baghdad or Erbil, but those with a valid EU Schengen area visa or an entry visa or residency for the United States, Britain or Ireland are exempted. [Reuters, 2/15/2016]


Hadi to visit Turkey for the first time since elected president
Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi travelled to Ankara on Tuesday in his first official visit to Turkey. Hadi will hold talks with Turkish President Erdogan to discuss regional and international developments. [Al Masdar, 2/16/2016]

Top officials escape assassination attempt in Yemen’s Aden
The governor and security director of the southern Yemeni city of Aden escaped a gun attack on their convoy on Tuesday in the latest string of militant attacks on the government. Three of the gunmen were killed in an exchange of fire, while two bodyguards and two civilians walking by were wounded. Governor Aidroos al-Zubaidi and Brigadier General Shalal Ali Shayyeh were unhurt. [Reuters, 2/16/2016]

Bahrain to free US citizens accused of illegal gathering
Bahrain’s public prosecution office said on Tuesday it had accused four US nationals of participating in an illegal gathering but ordered them freed pending further investigation. The media campaign group Reporters Without Borders said on Monday that they had urged their release of an American journalist and three members of her camera crew on Sunday. Journalist Anna Day has reported in the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, and Latin America for numerous media outlets, mostly American. The group’s lawyer, Mohammed al-Jishi, said they were being transferred to a police station and should be released soon. He said the public prosecutor had not issued any decision that would prevent them traveling. [Reuters, 2/16/2016]

WFP warns of famine in besieged Yemeni city
The United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) is warning of famine in the Yemeni city of Taiz, which has been besieged by Houthi rebels for months. The WFP said Monday, “[Taiz] is in the grip of severe food insecurity at ‘Emergency’ level – one step below famine.” The UN agency says it delivered enough aid to part of the city on Saturday to support 3,000 families for one month. [AFP, 2/16/2016]

Dozens of Houthi militants killed in Yemen
Saudi-led airstrikes and clashes on Monday have killed at least 59 Houthi militants, including prominent leaders, with dozens injured. Clashes took place in the southwestern governorate of Taiz, where the coalition targeted Houthi-held areas. Yahya Zafran, a Houthi leader, was among 29 militants reportedly killed. Sources said six Houthis militants were killed in clashes in Marib province, and a Houthi weapons depot was destroyed by coalition airstrikes. Ten Houthi militants were killed, including leader Yahya al-Mutawakkil Taha, in clashes with pro-government Sana’a. [Al Arabiya, 2/15/2016]

Twenty nations join major military drill in Saudi Arabia
Armed forces from around 20 countries were gathering in northern Saudi Arabia on Sunday for “the most important” military maneuver ever staged in the region. Sunday’s announcement comes as the kingdom deployed warplanes to a Turkish air base in order to intensify its operations against ISIS (or ISIL) in Syria. Among the countries participating in the military exercises are Saudi Arabia’s five partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Chad, Egypt, Jordan, Malaysia, Morocco, Pakistan, Senegal, and Tunisia. [AFP, 2/15/2016]


Saudi Arabia, Russia agree to freeze oil output
Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Venezuela announced a plan on Tuesday to freeze oil output at current levels after a meeting in Doha in an effort to help boost energy prices. Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi and his Russian counterpart Alexander Novak met with Venezuela’s Oil Minister Eulogio Del Pino, who has been pushing for a freeze on current production levels in recent weeks. The four countries agreed to freeze their oil output at January levels if other major oil exporters do the same. Naimi said that a freeze on producers’ output would be adequate to improve the oil market. “The reason we agree to a potential freeze of production is simply, it is the beginning of a process which we will assess in the next few months and decide if we need other steps to stabilize and improve the market,” he said. A Persian Gulf official said there is a “clear roadmap” of what countries to approach next to establish a more formal agreement on production. A source from the Iraq Oil Ministry also said the country is ready to commit to freezing its oil production at January levels if a deal is reached among the Organization of petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC countries. [Reuters, NYT, 2/16/2016]

Egypt raises deposit cap to $1 million for exporters
The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) on Monday raised the cap on foreign currency deposits at banks to $1 million a month for exporting companies to ease restrictions that have led to manufacturing components piling up at ports. The new regulations give firms three months to earn foreign revenues through their exports, equivalent to the sum they deposit, to finance imports of components. The decision comes after the CBE raised the monthly cap on foreign exchange deposits from $50,000 to $250,000 last month for essential goods. Meanwhile, a CBE official said Tuesday that the bank is not moving towards devaluing the pound or floating its currency. “Thinking in this direction is absolutely untrue,” an unnamed central bank official said in response to speculation that Egypt might allow the pound to weaken against the dollar. [Reuters, Bloomberg, DNE, 2/15/2016]

IMF to start talks with Tunisia over new loan program
A delegation from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will visit Tunisia on Thursday to begin talks on a new credit program likely to be worth at least $1.7 billion, a Tunisian official said. The new IMF program will succeed a two-year deal agreed to in 2013 that totaled about $1.74 billion. The deal had been extended by seven months in an effort to buy time for Tunisia to put banking and fiscal reforms in place. Under the program, Tunisia agreed to follow certain economic policies, such as keeping its deficit under control and making the foreign exchange market more flexible. On Saturday, Governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia Chedly Ayari met with Prime Minister Habib Essid to discuss Tunisia’s economic situation and preparations for the IMF visit. [Reuters, 2/15/2016]

Iraqi Prime Minister offers Kurds salaries for oil
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi offered to pay the salaries of employees of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) if it agrees to halt its independent oil exports. “Give us the oil and I will give every employee in Kurdistan [their] salary,” Abadi said in an interview with Iraqiya state television. Iraqi Kurdistan has been independently exporting crude via Turkey since a deal with Baghdad on oil and revenue-sharing collapsed last year. Abadi, who previously put Kurdistan’s oil exports at over 600,000 barrels per day, said this amounts to the region’s share of the federal budget, which Baghdad is withholding. “Exports from the region represent around 16 percent of the oil exported . . . from all Iraq, so the region has obtained its [share of the] budget,” he said. [AFP, 2/15/2016]