Top News: New offensive by Assad’s forces overshadows Syria peace talks

Rebels said the new assault on Aleppo, backed by heavy Russian air strikes, was unprecedented and that the divided northern city might soon be encircled. Russia will not stop its air strikes on Syria until armed groups are defeated, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday. The talks faltered on Tuesday after the opposition canceled a meeting with the UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura in outrage at several hundred Russian air strikes since Monday. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that Russia should stop bombing opposition forces in Syria now that peace talks have started and urged Syrian opposition negotiators to remain in peace talks despite the bombardment. “Russian strikes will not cease until we really defeat terrorist organizations like Jabhat al-Nusra. And I don’t see why these air strikes should be stopped,” Lavrov said at a news conference in Oman. Lavrov also said it would be difficult to impose a ceasefire unless Syria’s border with Turkey was secured to prevent smuggling and the movement of fighters.Both the government and opposition have said that talks have not begun and fighting on the ground has continued. [ReutersAFPBBCNYT, 2/3/2016]



Egypt Foreign Minister says anti-ISIS coalition undecided on military intervention in Libya
The international coalition combating the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has not made a decision on whether to intervene militarily in Libya, Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid said in press statements on Tuesday. The statement came as Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was in Italy to take part in the Summit of the International Coalition against ISIS, which aims to devise a new strategy for the coalition’s members to combat terrorism in Syria and Iraq. [Ahram Online, 2/2/2016]

Ultras respond to Sisi’s call to form panel on Port Said massacre
The Ultras Ahlawy group has responded to a call by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to oversee the investigations of the 2012 Port Said massacre. “We can’t be the judge and the jury at the same time in the Port Said massacre trial, but presenting more facts and evidence to the public will help clarify the case and give it a better perspective,” Ultras Ahlawy group said in a Facebook statement on Tuesday. The statement was a response to Sisi’s call for them to oversee investigations of the incident. “The president’s invitation to the group to be part of the investigations is unexpected and shows that he is paying attention, while many media personalities are attacking young people, who are just in love with their club, describing them as terrorists,” the Ultras Ahlawy said. “What we need to do is bring charges against top security officials implicated in this massacre, and whose names were mentioned in the prosecution’s investigations. [They should be investigated] whether they participated by planning it or by negligence or by withholding evidence in the case,” the statement added. [Ahram Online, 2/3/2016]

Retrial ordered for 149 accused of police killings in Kerdasa
Egypt’s Cassation Court, headed by Judge Anas Ali Abdallah, has overturned the death sentences and ordered the retrial of 149 defendants previously convicted of killing 11 policemen in Kerdasa in 2013. The court also recommended that the defendants, who include one woman, be retried in a different court circuit. Last February, the Giza Criminal Court, headed by Judge Mohamed Nagy Shehata, sentenced 183 defendants to death, 34 of whom were sentenced in absentia. The 149 defendants who were present for the verdict will be retried on charges of assembling, premeditated murder, attempted murder, possessing unlicensed weapons including heavy weapons, killing eleven policemen from Kerdasa Police Station and two civilians, and dismembering their bodies. [Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, Cairo Post, AMAY, 2/3/2016]

Rights group says violations against journalists doubled in second half of 2015
Violations against the press and media personnel in Egypt doubled over the second half of 2015 compared to the first half, according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE). In its semi-annual report released Monday, AFTE’s Media Freedom Program documented 366 violations against journalists and media personnel in the second half of 2015, compared to 172 cases in the first half, marking a 112 percent increase in violations. Documented violations include preventing coverage, illegal detention, confiscation or breaking of equipment, beatings or causing injury, arbitrary dismissal, arrest, raids, and blocking printing of an issue, among others. Security forces were responsible for most violations, followed by the judicial authorities and government officials, according to the report. Press and media bodies themselves have been accused of violating rights of journalists, media personnel, and writers, totaling 50 of the cases. Meanwhile, detained journalist Abdel Rahman Yakout published a letter on Monday, providing an account of his life in Wadi al-Natrun prison. [DNE,Aswat Masriya, 2/3/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Britain rules out sending combat troops to Libya
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has ruled out sending combat troops to Libya, but said the UK could provide support in other ways. Hammond added that the UK does not think that putting combat troops on the ground is a helpful contribution, and that Libya has a greater need for organization, command and control, air-gathered intelligence, and strategic organization. The Italian government is taking the lead in drawing up a plan to support a new Libyan government. Discussions are still at an early stage and a military intervention is only one of more than a dozen options under consideration. Egyptian Foreign Minister spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said on Tuesday that the international coalition remained undecided about a military intervention in Libya. [Guardian, Reuters, 2/2/2016]

Libyan lawmakers sacked for signing UN-backed deal
Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) on Tuesday dismissed eight lawmakers who signed a UN-brokered deal in Morocco in December, including GNC Second Deputy President Saleh al-Makhzoum. Those parliamentarians were not authorized by the GNC to ratify the deal and were expelled under accusation of violating the 2011 constitution, according to First Deputy President Awad Abdul Saddeq. Abdul Saddeq did not disclose how the GNC came to its decision—when the session took place, who voted, who was summoned to it, or whether the decision came directly from GNC President Nuri Abu Sahmain. [AFP, Libya Herald, Libya Monitor (subscription), 2/3/2016]

Algeria court convicts eight in high-level oil corruption case
An Algerian court has fined German and Italian companies and convicted eight people of corruption or related crimes in a vast corruption case involving state energy firm Sonatrach. The court in Algiers sentenced them to terms ranging from an 18-month suspended sentence to six years in prison. Seven people were acquitted in Tuesday’s verdict. The charges against the defendants included corruption, money laundering, awarding contracts contrary to the law and regulations, and hiking the prices of contracts. Germany’s Funkwerk Plettac was fined 5 million dinars ($47,000), while Italian company Saipem Contracting Algeria was fined 4 million dinars ($37,000), as was German-Algerian company Contel-Funkwerk. Among those convicted were a Sonatrach former vice president and ex-state bank chief. [AP, Reuters, 2/3/2016]

Algeria moves forward with disputed constitutional reforms
Algeria’s parliament will meet from Wednesday to consider a package of constitutional reforms that authorities say will strengthen democracy but critics have denounced as window dressing. Algeria’s lower and upper houses, both dominated by Bouteflika supporters, are expected to adopt the reforms on Sunday after the full package is presented by Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal on Thursday. The main political reforms include the reintroduction of two-term limits on the presidency—lifted in 2008 to allow Bouteflika to run for a third time—and a provision requiring the president to nominate a prime minister from the largest party in parliament. The Front of Socialist Forces opposition party’s 30 lawmakers say they will boycott the vote on the reforms. [AFP, 2/3/2016]

New Algerian law punishes violence against women
A new Algerian law came into effect this week punishing violence against women and sexual harassment in a victory for feminist groups that have fought for years for the legislation. The law, effective from Monday, was blocked by the Senate for eight months. The article has the potential to be extremely robust in handing down heavy penalties for acts of domestic violence and for cases of street harassment. Officials cite 7,500 cases of violence against women reported in 2015, but stipulate that these likely represent only 20 percent of the real number, as women are often unwilling to bring forward allegations of sexual violence or harassment. [AP, 2/2/2016]


Jordanians ‘at boiling point’ over Syria refugees
Ahead of a donor conference on Syria, King Abdullah of Jordan said that there was enormous pressure on Jordan’s social services, infrastructure, and economy. “Sooner or later, I think, the dam is going to burst,” he warned. He said the international community would have to offer more help if it wanted Jordan to keep taking refugees. Various sources estimate there are between 630,000 and 1.27 million Syrian refugees in the country. [BBC, 2/3/2016]

Donors face record request of $9 billion to aid Syrians
International aid to the victims of Syria’s five-year war has persistently fallen short, but organizers of Thursday’s annual Syria pledging conference in London hope for greater generosity this time around, despite a record request of close to $9 billion for 2016. The expectations are partly based on the reframing of the aid debate over the past year, following the chaotic migration of hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrians to Europe. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has said to British Prime Minister David Cameron that the United States will soon announce “significant new contributions” to assist Syria’s humanitarian crisis. [AP, Guardian, 2/3/2016]

Turkey-Syria border nearly ISIS-free, says Kerry
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday, during a press conference at the anti-Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) coalition meeting in Rome, that the US-led coalition has conducted over 10,000 air strikes against the ISIS terrorist group in Syria, which have crushed the terrorist’s financial mechanisms and oil refineries, and that the coalition has nearly full control over the Syria-Turkey border. One of the remaining obstacles in the anti-ISIS fight in Syria is the group’s hold on several towns close to the country’s border with Turkey in the north. The US and Turkey are working to accelerate efforts to dislodge ISIS from the northern Syrian town of Jarablus, just next to the Turkish border. [Daily Sabah, Today’s Zaman, 2/3/2016]

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


Iraqi Kurdish leader calls for non-binding independence referendum
President Massoud Barzani said that Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region should hold a non-binding referendum on independence. The chaos created by ISIS’s occupation of swaths of Iraq and Syria has given Kurds a chance to further their long-held dream of independence, but the region is currently struggling to avert an economic collapse. In a statement released on his website, President Barzani said, “The time has come and the conditions are now suitable for the people to make a decision through a referendum on their future. This referendum would not necessarily lead to immediate declaration of statehood, but rather to know the will and opinion of the people of Kurdistan about their future and for Kurdistan’s political leadership to implement this will at the appropriate time and circumstances.” In recent years, Iraq’s Kurds have sought to maximize their autonomy, building their own pipeline to Turkey and exporting oil independently as relations with the federal government in Baghdad frayed over power and revenue sharing. [Reuters, Radio Free Europe, 2/2/2016]

Arabs, Kurds retake northern Iraqi village from ISIS
Sunni Muslim Arab fighters backed by Kurdish forces and US-led air strikes retook a village in northern Iraq. The offensive in the Makhmour district south of Erbil began early on Wednesday, resulting in the recapture of Kudila, part of a series of planned operations to clear ISIS from the area, Kurdish and Arab commanders said. Local Sunni Arabs have been training in the Makhmour area as part of the Hashd Shaabi (or Popular Mobilization Force), a coalition of mainly Shia Muslim militias in which Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi would like to include Sunni groups. “In coordination with the (Kurdish) Peshmerga and supported by coalition planes they have a plan to clear and liberate all the areas that the terrorists seized … [and] these attacks will continue,” said Peshmerga commander Qader Qader. [NYT, 2/3/2016]

US-led coalition aims to recapture ISIS capitals in Iraq, Syria
The US-led coalition fighting ISIS aims this year to recapture Iraq’s second city Mosul, working with Iraqi government forces, and drive the group out of Raqqa, their stronghold in northeast Syria. The strategy is to regain territory at the heart of ISIS’s cross-border state, take both its “capitals,” and destroy the confidence of its fighters that it can continue its territorial expansion. Hisham al-Hashemi, an ISIS expert who advises the Iraqi government, points out that as a result of last year’s setbacks “out of seven strategic roads between Iraq and Syria, they now have one; they cannot move with ease and Turkey has tightened the noose on them.” ISIS is under pressure across many other fronts apart from its ability to deploy. The collapse in oil prices has dented its revenue from oil smuggled, now through a less permeable Turkish border, from captured Syrian and Iraqi fields. [Reuters, 2/2/2016]

John Kerry discusses coalition strategy to defeat ISIS
Officials from 23 countries met in Rome on Tuesday to review the fight against ISIS, notably in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. US Secretary of State John Kerry lauded the US-led coalition strategy to defeat ISIS, saying “We have launched nearly 10,000 air strikes, we have interrupted their finance mechanisms, they have had to cut the salaries of their fighters, and we have interrupted their capacity to get revenues . . . and coalition members have trained nearly 20,000 regular Iraqi and Peshmerga soldiers as well as more than a thousand Iraqi police officers.” Tuesday’s meeting also covered stabilizing areas liberated from ISIS, such as the Iraqi city of Tikrit, as well as broader efforts to undercut its finances, stem the flow of foreign fighters and counter its messaging. [Reuters, Iraqi News, 2/2/2016]


Yemen president vows to liberate Sana’a
Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi said Tuesday that military operations against Houthi militias would not stop until the Yemeni capital was liberated. Hadi described the operation to recapture Sana’a as a “decisive battle that is irreversible,” in a phone call with the governor of Sana’a. Hadi said pro-government forces had achieved a number of victories in parts of Sana’a and that the military operation would not end until the Yemeni capital was “liberated from coup militias.” Meanwhile, Yemeni security officials and tribal elders said fighting has intensified outside Sana’a, killing at least 30 people in two days. [Al Arabiya, 2/2/2016]

Houthis demand international inquiry into coalition violations
The Houthis on Wednesday rejected the Saudi-led coalition’s proposal for an expert panel to investigate allegations of violations of international humanitarian law as a result of the coalition’s airstrikes. The Houthis called for a neutral international commission. Leader of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee Mohammed al-Houthi called for the inclusion of international parties in the makeup of the commission. He also called on the United Nations, the European Union, and independent organizations to pressure “aggressor states” to accept the formation of an impartial international commission. [Al Masdar, 2/3/2016]

MPs call for immediate halt of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia
A group of MPs on Wednesday called for an immediate suspension of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and an international independent inquiry into the kingdom’s military campaign in Yemen. The call from the International Development Select Committee follows evidence from aid agencies to MPs warning that Saudi Arabia was involved in indiscriminate bombing of its neighbor. The UK government has supplied export licenses for close to $4.3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia in the last year, the committee said, and has also been accused of being involved in the conduct and administration of the Saudi campaign in Yemen. In their letter to International Development Secretary Justine Greening, they urged the UK to withdraw opposition to an independent international inquiry into alleged abuses of humanitarian law in Yemen. [The Guardian, 2/3/2016]

Saudi court commutes Palestinian poet’s death sentence
A Saudi court on Tuesday commuted the death sentence against a Palestinian poet convicted of apostasy to eight years in jail and 800 lashes, his lawyer said. Ashraf Fayadh was detained by the religious police in 2013. His conviction was based on evidence from a prosecution witness who claimed to have heard him cursing God, Islam’s Prophet Mohammad, and Saudi Arabia. He was also prosecuted for the contents of a poetry book he had written years earlier. Rights campaigners say he was targeted for speaking out on political and social matters. Fayadh’s lawyer, Abdul-Rahman al-Lahim, said that while the new court ruling had commuted the execution, it had reconfirmed Fayadh’s guilt for the crime of abandoning his Islamic faith. [Reuters, 2/3/2016]


Minister says UAE GDP growth seen at 3.5 percent in 2016
The economy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is expected to grow about 3.5 percent in 2016 as the country moves forward with strategic projects despite the global drop in oil prices, Economy Minister Sultan bin Saeed al-Mansouri said. The International Monetary Fund has forecast real GDP growth of 3.1 percent in 2016. Mansouri said that the decline in oil prices has had a limited impact on the UAE’s economy due to the non-oil sector’s large contribution to gross domestic product (GDP). “I do not expect a deficit in the [federal] budget even if oil prices continue to fall,” Mansouri said. He said the federal government and individual emirates are moving ahead with strategic projects announced in 2014 and 2015. “Housing programs for UAE nationals and infrastructure projects . . . will not be affected by any developments in world oil markets because they are being carried out under pre-allocated budgets,” he said. Mansouri also said that the UAE is in the final stages of drafting a foreign investment law that will allow up to 100 percent foreign ownership of businesses in some sectors, and that he expects the law to be issued “soon.”[Zawya, 2/3/2016]

Egypt’s non-oil business activity slows for fourth straight month in January
Business activity in Egypt shrank for the fourth straight month in January, the Emirates NBD Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for Egypt showed, as new export orders tumbled and output declined. PMI for the non-oil private sector slipped to 48 points in January from 48.2 points in December, remaining below the 50-point mark that separates growth from contraction. “January’s survey represents a marginal slowdown from December, with the export sector appearing to be the main source of weakness,” Senior Economist at Emirates NBD Jean-Paul Pigat said. “We expect economic activity to accelerate in the coming months, with our forecast for real GDP growth in FY2015/16 sitting at 3.9 percent,” he added. [Reuters, 2/3/2016]

Annual inflation nears double digits in Turkey amid hikes in taxes, food prices
The inflation rate in Turkey rose by 1.82 percent in January, triggered by persistently high food costs and tax hikes, raising the annual inflation rate to 9.58 percent from 8.81 percent, the highest since May 2014 and almost double the Central Bank’s official target. Finance Minister Naci Ağbal said rising prices of tobacco, alcoholic drinks, and food, as well as the recent increase in the minimum wage, pushed up the inflation rate. “We hope to decrease the inflation rate in 2016 through a number of measures,” he said. Central Bank Governor Erdem Başçı said on January 26 that inflation will not slow to the bank’s 5 percent target until 2018 and that policy makers are focused on trying to keep the rate under 10 percent. [Hurriyet, Bloomberg, 2/3/2016]

Saudi Aramco to keep same number of oil, gas rigs in 2016
State oil giant Saudi Aramco is expected to maintain the same number of oil and gas drilling rigs this year despite weak oil prices, industry sources said. Saudi Aramco has asked oilfield service companies and suppliers again this year for discounts due to a slump in global oil prices. Aramco managed to make big savings last year on drilling costs, the sources say. “It is a normal situation in drilling activity,” said one source. Saudi Aramco is currently operating around 212 oil and gas rigs. “They want to maintain activity but reduce costs, there might be some movements by replacing offshore rigs to land or oil to gas,” a second source said. Last year, industry sources said Aramco might raise its number of oil and gas drilling rigs in 2016 depending on oil prices. [Reuters, 2/3/2016]