Top News: Nearly 40,000 Syrians flee regime’s advance on Aleppo

A regime offensive near Aleppo continues from Monday with Russian air support, accompanied by Iran-backed Shia militias and Hezbollah forces, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) on Thursday. The operation broke an opposition siege on two regime held towns. The main rebel supply route into the city has been severed and Turkey’s policy of bolstering rebels appears to have been defeated entirely. As a result, nearly 40,000 civilians fled the offensive. In London, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, also voiced concern at the huge numbers fleeing. “Now 10,000 new refugees are waiting in front of the door of Kilis because of air bombardment and attacks against Aleppo,” he said, referring to a Turkish town on the Syrian border. He added that “60 to 70,000 people in the camps in north Aleppo are moving towards Turkey.” Others have taken refuge in the west of the province, with the towns hosting them overwhelmed and some forced to sleep in the open. Thousands more have fled to the northern town of Azaz or were sleeping in nearby fields along the border with Turkey, which is currently closed. [AFP, AP, Business Insider, 2/4/2016]



Italian student Giulio Regeni found dead in Cairo ‘with signs of torture’
Egyptian officials released conflicting reports as to the cause of Italian PhD candidate Giulio Regeni’s death on Thursday, days after the Italian government announced it was growing increasingly concerned about his disappearance. The prosecutor leading the investigation team on the case, Ahmed Nagi, said Regeni’s body had been found with stab wounds, cigarette burns, cuts to the ears and signs of beatings and a “slow death.” Officials from the Interior Ministry’s Giza Security Directorate gave different accounts of the possible reasons for Regeni’s death. The Deputy Head of Criminal Investigations in Giza, Alaa Azmi said earlier that an initial investigation showed Regeni was killed in a road accident, adding that the preliminary forensic report had not mentioned any burns. “We have to wait for the full report by forensic experts. But what we know is that it is an accident,” Azmi said. In Rome, Italy’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Egyptian ambassador to express concern over Regeni’s death. Italy called for the immediate opening of a “joint investigation with the participation of Italian experts,” the Italian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. A business delegation from Italy also cut short their visit to Egypt when news of Regeni’s death was confirmed. Egypt’s Industry Ministry had said “significant economic accords” were due to be signed during the visit, without giving details. [Mada Masr, Ahram Online, AMAY, AP, Reuters, The Guardian, 2/4/2016]

Port Said MPs oppose Sisi’s appeal to Ultras
Parliamentary members from Port Said voiced their objection to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s call for dialogue with the Ultras football fan groups. Meeting with Prime Minister Sherif Ismail late Wednesday, the MPs asked to convey their opposition to Sisi, pointing out that “a state of tension among the people of Port Said that requires the president to deliver a statement elaborating on his initiative or pay a visit to the province.” In a phone interview on Monday, Sisi said “I call on the Ultras to select ten of their members whom they trust to be part of a committee to look into all the details concerning this case and determine what more can be done,” in reference to the 2012 Port Said disaster in which 72 Ahly Ultras were killed. Future Party Spokesperson Ahmed Hosni called for the prosecution of those responsible for the disaster, and welcomed the Ultras’ response to Sisi’s statement, describing it as positive and rational. [AMAY, 2/4/2016]

Egyptian rights activist Gamal Eid banned from travelling
Prominent Egyptian activist and lawyer Gamal Eid has said that security officials prevented him from travelling from Cairo to Athens early Thursday morning amid what he describes as a campaign against rights campaigners critical of authorities. Eid, a manager at the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said in a social media statement that he found out about the travel ban decision while he was at the airport. He was barred from leaving on a dawn flight bound to Athens after his name was found on a no-fly list, airport officials told Aswat Masriya. Eid said that he was not provided with a reason for the ban by the airport authorities. The officials said that the ban comes from a decision by the country’s top prosecutor on the grounds that Eid is involved in an ongoing trial. “His luggage was discharged off the plane and he was allowed to leave,” one of the officials said. [Ahram Online, AMAY, Aswat Masriya, 2/4/2016]

Militants killed in Cairo planned attacks against police says MOI
Egypt’s Interior Ministry said in a statement that the two militants killed on Wednesday in the Cairo suburb of Maadi were planning attacks in response to the earlier killing by authorities of an Ajnad Masr militant group leader, Ahmed Galal Ahmed Mohamed Ismail. The circumstances surrounding Ismail’s death remain unclear. Ismail’s family says he was arrested at a police checkpoint in Maadi on January 19 then forcedly disappeared. His corpse was found with a gun shot in the head earlier this week. Earlier this week, Egypt’s semi-official National Council of Human Rights asked the ministry to investigate Ismail’s death. The ministry said that the militants were planning to target several public figures, including politicians, and army and police members, adding that the pair was involved in several terrorist operations. The ministry said the attacks included the murder of an army conscript on the Autostrad road in Cairo; the killing of two low ranking policemen in Helwan; the bombing of a policeman’s car in Helwan; and the assassination of North Sinai’s Sheikh Khaled Khalaf al-Menei, who was killed for allegedly collaborating with the security apparatus in the troubled governorate. [Ahram Online, 2/3/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


United States will act against ISIS in Libya if needed
US President Barack Obama will continue to receive updates on the risks of the spread of Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) to Libya, and the United States will take action to counter those threats if necessary, the White House said on Wednesday. “If there is a need for the United States to take unilateral action to protect the American people, the president won’t hesitate to do that,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. Earnest declined to comment on whether Obama had made any decisions regarding the possibility of sending ground troops into Libya. On Thursday, Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti told reporters that military intervention in Libya is not imminent and emphasized instead international support for Libya’s ongoing political process. [Reuters, 2/3/2016]

EU appeals for Libyan unity government, warns of chaos
The European Union is urging Libya’s factions to support a broad-based unity government or face the prospect of more chaos. Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said Wednesday that the European Union hopes Libyan decision makers will realize that the only alternative is chaos, especially as the country is on the brink of economic catastrophe. Koenders warned of the dangers posed by ISIS and uncontrolled migration, pointing out the close proximity of Libya to European countries. [AP, 2/3/2016]

Thirty-five Egyptians released in Libya
Egyptian authorities negotiated the release of 35 Egyptians detained in eastern Libya over charges of illegal immigration and vagrancy, Egypt’s ambassador to Libya Hisham al-Naqib said on Wednesday. The Egyptian nationals arrived on to the Tunisian border crossing of Ras Jedir on Tuesday evening, before bussing to Tunis to return to Cairo. According to a 2010 report by the International Organization for Migration, nearly 1.5 million Egyptians were working in Libya before the country’s revolution. However, the number of Egyptian expatriates in the country fell sharply in 2011.  [Ahram Online, TAP, 2/3/2016]

Tunisia lifts nationwide curfew imposed after unemployment protests
Tunisia is lifting the curfew that was imposed last month in response to demonstrations against unemployment around the country. The Interior Ministry announced Thursday that the security situation had improved. The unrest was touched off by the death of a young man who lost out on a government job and climbed an electric transmission tower in the Kasserine region. Protests spread to several regions, including Tunis. [AP, AFP, 2/4/2016]

Tunisia votes to assure prisoners’ right to legal representation
On Tuesday, Tunisia’s parliament voted to guarantee detainees the right to an attorney. Ninety-six assembly members voted unanimously in favor of a revision to Article 13 of the Penal Code that will give prisoners access to legal representation upon arrest. Law professor Kais Said said the move is set to put the country on the right path when it comes to protecting prisoners and will likely help prevent future instances of torture. The country has recently witnessed several high-profile cases of police brutality, including that of a Sfax resident who was beaten by security forces for violating a nation-wide curfew. The changes to Article 13 are scheduled to take effect in July 2016. [Tunisia Live, 2/3/2016]


Kerry demands Russia halt Syria bombing after talks suspended
Secretary of State John Kerry demanded Thursday that Russia stop bombing the Syrian opposition, implicitly blaming Moscow for the collapse in peace talks. Alongside Britain’s Foreign Minister Phillip Hammond, Kerry read out sections of UN Security Council resolution 2254, passed in December, calling for an immediate ceasefire. “Russia has a responsibility, as do all parties, to live up to it,” he said. “So I had a conversation this morning with Foreign Minister Lavrov. We discussed, and we agreed, that we need to discuss how to implement the ceasefire.” Russia said it regretted the suspension of Syria peace talks and expressed hope the negotiations could continue after the West accused Moscow of seeking a military solution to the war. He said that the Kremlin hoped that it would “soon” become clear when and how the talks would resume. Kerry also said that both parties to the conflict—the rebels as well as the regime and its allies—must allow access to besieged areas for humanitarian aid. [AFP, 2/4/2016]

Russia says strikes hit 875 ‘terrorist’ targets in Syria this month
On Thursday the defense ministry said Russia’s air force hit 875 “terrorist targets” in Syria this month, after peace talks on ending the brutal war broke down. Planes conducted 237 combat sorties, striking 875 “terrorist” targets in the provinces of Aleppo, Latakia, Homs, Hama, and Deir al-Zor, the defense ministry said in a statement. A ministry spokeswoman said the strikes had taken place from Monday to Wednesday. Meanwhile a Russian military adviser was killed in Syria on Feb. 1 in a mortar attack, Russia’s defence ministry said on Wednesday. The Kremlin declined to name the Russian military trainer killed and said Russian servicemen were still not taking part in ground operations in Syria. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “We are talking about advisers. This is linked to teaching Syrian colleagues to operate equipment which is being delivered to Syria under existing contracts.” [AFP, 2/4/2016]

Russia suspects Turkey prepares to enter Syria
The Russian military says it has “reasonable grounds” to suspect that Turkey is making intensive preparations for a military invasion of neighboring Syria. Defense Ministry Spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Thursday in a statement that the Russian military has registered “a growing number of signs of hidden preparation of the Turkish armed forces for active actions on the territory of Syria.” He said images of a checkpoint on the Turkish-Syrian border taken in late October and late January show a buildup of transportation infrastructure that could be used for moving in troops, ammunition, and weapons. [AP, 2/4/2016]

YPG says it has crossed Turkey’s “red-line” in Syria
The Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG) have announced that they have extended westward from the Euphrates River in their fight against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). The spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Servan Derwes criticized repeated Turkish threats to crush the SDF-YPG forces were it to cross Turkey’s “red-line” in their fight against ISIS, which still occupies areas in a 60-mile wide strip of northwestern Syrian border territory west of the Euphrates, by pointing out that they are already west of that river. YPG Commander Simko on Monday described the Tishrin Dam the group seized from ISIS in December as the “gate to Afrin,” a reference to Syrian Kurdistan’s remaining unconnected westernmost canton. “By taking this dam, we have crossed west of the Euphrates and taken a historical step,” Simko added. [Rudaw, 2/3/2016]

Turkey bans Russian observation flight near Syria border
The Russian military says Turkey has violated an international treaty by barring a planned Russian surveillance flight. Defense Ministry official Sergei Ryzhkov says the Turkish military has refused to allow the mission intended to monitor the areas near Turkey’s border with Syria and air bases used by NATO warplanes. Ryzhkov accused Turkey of creating a “dangerous precedent of uncontrolled military activities” by breaching its obligations under the Open Skies Treaty. The agreement allows unarmed observation flights over the entire territory of its three dozen participants, which include the United States, Russia, and Turkey. The Turkish Foreign Ministry has dismissed accusations from the Russian Defense Ministry, saying, “An agreement could not be reached on the mission plan and the flight has thus not been conducted.” [AP, Reuters, Hurriyet , 2/3/2016]

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


Iraq building security wall around Baghdad
Baghdad Operations Command’s head Lieutenant-General Abdul Ameer al-Shammari said that Iraqi security forces have begun building a concrete wall surrounding the capital Baghdad in a bid to prevent attacks by ISIS. Shammari said that the purpose of the security barrier around Baghdad is to prevent ISIS from smuggling explosives and car bombs into the capital to target innocent civilians. The planned security barrier will surround the city from all sides and the preparatory work on the wall started on Monday. The wall will be built 20 miles from the city center and will reduce the number of checkpoints inside the city by 50 percent in six months. The walls and barriers around the so-called Green Zone are expected to remain, as this heavily fortified zone now houses the government, parliament and many embassies including those of the US and Britain. [Reuters, AP, NYT, 2/3/2016]

Second batch of US F-16 jets arrives in Iraq
Colonel Steve Warren confirmed on Wednesday that Iraq has received a second batch of two F-16 fighter jets from the United States. Iraq ordered 36 of the $65 million Lockheed Martin Corp planes, but initial deliveries were delayed because of security concerns after ISIS overran large areas of the country last year. The Iraqi Air Force now has a total of six F-16 fighter jets and is expected to receive more, though delivery of the planes is also limited by the training of Iraqi pilots, which can take up to two years. [Reuters, Iraqi News, 2/3/2016]

Slovenia to send military instructors to Kurdistan Region
Slovenia will offer military equipment and up to 15 military instructors to the global US-led coalition against ISIS, Defense Minister Andreja Katic confirmed on Wednesday. The Slovenian military instructors would start training Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Erbil, probably in the second half of the year. Details of the mission would be determined in March in coordination with other coalition members. This announcement comes after the Government of the Republic of Slovenia decided to strengthen its participation in the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS by assuming officer duties in the US Central Command in Tampa (US CENTCOM), donating firearms and equipment, and deploying members of the Slovenian Armed Forces to train the Peshmerga. [ARA News, Bas News, 2/3/2016]

To silence propaganda, Iraq seeks to take ISIS offline
Iraq is trying to persuade satellite firms to halt Internet services in areas under ISIS’s control, seeking to deal a major blow to the group’s potent propaganda machine, which relies heavily on social media. Mobile networks are largely inoperable in the ISIS-held parts of Iraq, so ISIS uses satellite dishes or V-sat terminals to connect to the web, or illicit microwave dishes that connect to broadband networks in government-held areas. As V-sat terminals allow for direct access to satellites and are nearly impossible to regulate, Iraqi authorities are in talks with satellite companies covering Iraq to halt Internet services to ISIS-controlled areas. The process to halt services in areas under ISIS’s control will be long and complex, requiring the participation and cooperation from numerous international companies. An Iraqi Communications Ministry official said only one company has so far agreed to cooperate with the request. [Reuters, 2/4/2016]


Top Al-Qaeda commander killed in Yemen drone strikes
A suspected U.S. drone strike on Thursday killed a top Islamist militant commander in southern Yemen who had run Al-Qaeda’s combat operations. Jalal Baleedi was killed by a drone strike as he was traveling in a car with two others in the coastal Abyan province. According to media reports and some analysts, Baleedi may have recently defected from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to become the chief of ISIS in Yemen. The US State Department said Baleedi was involved in planning attacks on Western diplomatic targets in Sana’a in 2013 and put a reward of up to $5 million for information that would bring him to justice. [Reuters, 2/4/2016]

Suicide attack in Yemen’s Aden wounds security chief
A suicide bomber blew himself up outside the home of the security chief of the Yemeni province of Lahej on Wednesday night, killing himself and wounding the official and six other people. The security chief, Brigadier General Adel al-Halemi, was in stable condition after the attack in the al-Mindara district in the eastern part of Aden. It was the latest in a string of attacks in the southern port city, where the Saudi-backed President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi and his government are trying to oversee a campaign to dislodge the Iran-allied Houthis from the northern half of the country they seized in 2014. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. [Reuters, 2/3/2016]

Airstrike at Yemen cement factory kill at least 15
An airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition hit a cement factory north of Sana’a on Wednesday evening, killing at least 15 people, including civilian workers in nearby businesses. The bombing of the factory, in Amran Province, came days after Saudi officials pledged to form a high-level committee to investigate strikes in Yemen’s civil war that have killed civilians, and to improve their military’s aerial targeting with advice from American and British experts. [New York Times, 2/3/2016]

Saudi Arabia orders women segregated from men in council meetings
Saudi Arabia has ordered the segregation of men and women in local council meetings, in a setback to women’s rights in the ultraconservative kingdom. Under the new rules, which follow the recent election of women to Saudi Arabia’s local councils, female representatives must now participate in the council meetings through a video link. The men will be able to hear their female colleagues, but not see them. Females represent a fraction of the council members—38 out of 2,106 officials—but the same-room ban is a reminder of the challenges women face in Saudi Arabia, where they still can’t drive or travel abroad without the permission of a male relative. [Wall Street Journal, 2/3/2016]

Saudi authorities arrest ten Egyptians on terror charges
Saudi authorities arrested ten Egyptians over terrorism related charges in a security raid that took place in the last five days, a Saudi newspaper reported Thursday. The newspaper said that security officials arrested 40 suspects, including 27 Saudis, ten Egyptians, two Yemenis and a Jordanian. Some media outlets reported last week that Saudi Arabia, which is a member of an international military coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), arrested 55 suspects on charges of association with extremists and radical groups. [Ahram Online, 2/4/2016]


EBRD plans EUR 900 million package for Turkey, Jordan
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) said Wednesday is planning to invest EUR 900 million euros ($986 million) as part of international efforts to tackle the refugee crisis. EBRD President Suma Chakrabarti said the financing will focus on infrastructure and private sector investment projects in Turkey and Jordan. “Among the countries where the EBRD invests, Turkey currently houses more than 2 million refugees from Syria alone, while Jordan has an estimated 1.4 million people who have fled their homes,” the EBRD said in a statement. Chakrabarti said the bank “would be able to finance up to EUR 500 million in new transactions subject to mobilizing an additional EUR 400 million in grants” from donors. The funding aims to create economic opportunities for refugees and host populations and to make the host economies more robust and resilient. Also on Wednesday, European Union countries approved a EUR 3 billion ($3.32 billion) fund for Turkey to improve living conditions for refugees. [AFP, Hurriyet, EBRD, 2/4/2016]

Iraqi Kurds to pay partial salaries due to economic crisis
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has announced it will pay only partial salaries to all government employees except security personnel as it struggles with an economic crisis. The decision was taken “in order to ensure the continued distribution of part of the monthly salaries and allowances,” the KRG said in a statement late Wednesday. Going forward, the unpaid portion of the salaries and previously unpaid wages from last year will be considered “loans remaining with the government and will be returned later.” The cabinet approved other measures aimed at cutting costs and raising revenues, including public auctions of oil and oil products not exported via pipeline and holding employees responsible for expenses associated with government-provided vehicles. Public employees said the new measures would hit them hard. [AFP, 2/3/2016]

International consortium approves $341 million loan to upgrade Egypt’s energy infrastructure
A consortium of international financiers has approved to lend Sonker, a private Egyptian storage and bunkering company, $341 million upgrade the country’s oil and gas infrastructure. The financing package includes a $72 million senior loan and $22 million mezzanine loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). The International Finance Corporation (IFC) will provide a $70 million senior loan along and a $22 million mezzanine loan. The IFC will also mobilize $52.5 million from other investors. Egypt’s Commercial International bank will also provide $102 million in financing, which includes a $44 million local currency loan and a $30 million credit support instrument. Sonker aims to construct and operate a bulk-liquids terminal at Ain Sokhna Port on the Red Sea for import and storage of gasoil, liquified petroleum gas, and liquified natural gas. The company’s new infrastructure will help accommodate the docking of two floating storage and regasification units, the EBRD said. [Ahram Online, 2/4/2016]

Morocco unveils solar power plant
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI is unveiling the first phase of Morocco’s Noor solar power plant on Thursday in the southern town of Ouarzazate. The first phase, in which the solar power complex was connected to the power grid in Morocco, cost $3.9 billion and is part of a larger project that is expected to provide 1.2 million Moroccans with power. The Climate Investment Fund, a major funder of the project, says it will be the world’s biggest concentrated solar plant. Noor is expected to have a combined capacity of 2 gigawatts by 2020 after all the units are complete. The complex will cost about $9 billion and will be spread over at least four locations in Morocco, according to the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy. [AP, Bloomberg, The Guardian, 2/4/2016]

North African drought threatens efforts to cut spending, boost growth
Abnormally dry weather across North Africa is threatening to cause more financial trouble for Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, as each country seeks to spur more economic growth and cut public spending. The three countries are among the world’s biggest wheat importers. Morocco’s planning agency estimates that a drop in agricultural output will drag down gross domestic product (GDP) growth to 1.3 percent this year, against a government projection of 3 percent, from an estimated 4.4 percent in 2015. The agency said a drought would also increase government spending this year, raising doubts over plans to cut the budget deficit. In Algeria, officials played down the impact of any rain shortfall on the country’s economy. In Tunisia, President of the Tunisian farmers organization Al-Majid Ezzar said it was too soon to gauge the implications of the dry weather. [Reuters, 2/4/2016]