Top News: Nusra Front vows new offensive after Russian pullout

Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate al-Nusra Front is preparing to launch a new offensive, a jihadist commander said Tuesday, after Russia announced the withdrawal of its forces from the war-torn country. “It is clear that Russia has suffered defeat, and within the next 48 hours al-Nusra will launch an offensive in Syria,” a commander of the group said via Skype. “The Russians withdrew for one reason, and it is because while they were backing the regime, the regime was unable to hold onto the territories that it took over,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Had it not been for the Russian warplanes, we would have been in Latakia,” he said, referring to the provincial capital of the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect. [AFP, 3/15/2016]



Parliamentary affairs minister to act as Egypt’s interim justice minister
Egypt’s Prime Minister Sherif Ismail mandated on Monday that Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Magdi al-Agati act as a caretaker justice minister until a new minister is appointed, replacing recently sacked Ahmed al-Zind. Ismail said that there are no candidates yet for the position, though a new minister will be appointed within days. Ismail thanked Zind for his service, saying, “Zind has acted fully within his role, and we thank him for his efforts while in office.” Denying news of a cabinet reshuffle, Ismail said a new justice minister would be appointed within a few days. The Judges’ Club, meanwhile, said Monday it would welcome any new justice minister. “We won’t interfere in the executive power’s work, and the government didn’t ask us to provide candidates,” head of the Judges’ Club Abdullah Fathi said. The club, previously headed by Zind, had strongly condemned his dismissal. Zind’s dismissal sparked a debate on whether the move was constitutional or if it bypassed parliament’s functions stipulated in the constitution. [Ahram Online, AMAY, 3/15/2016]

Journalist watchdog says 53 violations documented in February
Journalist against Torture Observatory (JATO) released its monthly report in which it listed 53 violations against journalists documented in February. The report listed 12 types of violations against journalists by the government, and ministries of interior and justice in February 2016. The report highlighted 32 cases of journalists prevented from covering events and the removal of content on their cameras. JATO added that journalists faced four cases of verbal harassment, two cases of assaults, and two cases in which a fine was imposed. According to the report, six lawsuits were filed against journalists. Other cases included preventing broadcast and temporary off-air orders, arrests, assault, injures inside detention, and the confiscation of material planned for publication. JATO said the majority of the violations occurred in the Cairo governorate. [DNE, 3/14/2016]

Sinai State publishes ‘video evidence’ of Sinai attacks
The Sinai State, Egypt’s Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) affiliate, claimed responsibility for two attacks that purportedly occurred on Monday in Sinai. The militant group published a video showing an explosion that occurred when an IED detonated near an armored personnel vehicle south of Sheikh Zuweid in North Sinai. The Sinai State also published photos allegedly showing the official uniforms, laptops, and explosive detection devices of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The group said the photos were evidence of a raid on an Armed Forces checkpoint in Central Sinai. The photos also showed the identification documents of an army officer. In a separate incident, an officer was shot dead by unknown assailants near a police station in North Sinai’s al-Arish, Interior Ministry Spokesperson Abu Bakr Abdel-Karim said Monday. The assailants opened fire near the police station, killing officer Mohamed Sayed Hafez, who was in charge of securing the facility. [DNE, Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, 3/14/2016]

ISIS reportedly abducts 15 Egyptians in Libya
Approximately 15 Egyptian workers have reportedly been kidnapped by ISIS in Libya, the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm reported on Tuesday. Mada Masr reports that 12 of the 15 kidnapped are Egyptian, while 3 are Tunisian workers. Lawyer Rami Magdi from Mahalla in Gharbiya governorate has demanded the rescue of the workers, who were apparently abducted at noon on Monday as they returned home from work in Tripoli. According Aswat Masriya, Magdi’s father and 14 other Egyptian workers were kidnapped by ISIS in Tripoli approximately four days ago. Magdi received the news of his father’s kidnapping from his brother, who also lives in Libya. Although Magdi says it is widely believed the hostages were taken by the Islamic State, this has not been confirmed by the group itself. Magdi added that Mohamed Abu Bakr, Egypt’s ambassador to Tripoli, has been contacted. Abu Bakr speculates that there are four places where the kidnapped workers could be, and that there are currently negotiations with the kidnappers to free the workers. The daughter of one of the kidnapped workers, Fairouz Magdy, called on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to intervene directly, as she told the privately owned Al-Wafd newspaper that her father went to Libya because he couldn’t find work in Egypt. The majority of the kidnapped Egyptians are believed to be construction workers from Sohag, Daqahlia and Alexandria, who had been in Libya for six months. [AMAY, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, 3/15/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Mogherini says EU readying Libya sanctions
The EU has started work on sanctions against Libyan figures who continue to hold up agreement on a national unity government, EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini said Monday. Mogherini, speaking after an EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels, said it was clear Libya needed a functioning government as soon as possible to restore peace and begin reconstruction. The United States and key European allies led by France warned on Saturday that those preventing Libya’s new unity government from moving quickly to take up office in Tripoli should be hit with punitive measures. A European diplomatic source said that EU sanctions—travel bans and asset freezes—would likely target Aguila Saleh, speaker of the Tobruk-based parliament, Nuri Abu Sahmain of the Tripoli-based General National Congress, and its head of government Khalifa Ghweil. [AFP, 3/14/2016]

Suspected militants stage attack near key east Libya oil field
Suspected Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants staged an attack on a water plant about 80km from the major Sarir oil field in eastern Libya late on Monday, plant officials and an oil facilities guard said. Security forces foiled an attempted suicide car bombing by killing the driver before engaging the attackers in clashes, the guard said. Any threat to the Sarir area would cause particular alarm because more than half of Libya’s remaining oil production comes from the region. No group immediately claimed the attack, but ISIS fighters have previously targeted oil installations in Libya. There was no damage to Sarir but a crisis committee was being convened on Tuesday to address the growing threat, said Omran al-Zwai, a spokesman for Arabian Gulf Oil Co (AGOCO), which runs production from the field. A spokesman for the company that manages the plant, Toufik Shwaihdi, said attackers had used rockets, damaging offices and vehicles, but that the system had not been affected. [Reuters, 3/15/2016]

Russia willing to expand counterterrorism cooperation with Tunisia
Tunisia and Russia have agreed to expand bilateral cooperation in the fight against terrorism, said a statement from Tunisia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released Monday during visit by Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui to Moscow. Jhinaoui and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov affirmed the need for further coordination at bilateral and international levels, particularly with regard to counterterrorism. They also talked about the deteriorating situation in Libya and discussed the events in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The two ministers emphasized the common will to bolster bilateral relations to the level of strategic partnership. The sixth session of the Tunisian-Russian joint commission meeting, to be held March 29 – April 1 in Moscow, may be an opportunity to boost economic and trade cooperation and identify opportunities for partnership and investment. [TAP, 3/14/2016]

UN chief furious with Morocco over Western Sahara demonstration
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar on Monday he was angered and disappointed by a demonstration in Rabat that he called a personal attack on him, over remarks he made about the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Tens of thousands of Moroccans marched through the capital on Sunday to protest Ban’s position on Western Sahara and rally support for the king. Rabat accused Ban last week of no longer being neutral in the Western Sahara conflict, saying he used the word “occupation” to describe Morocco’s presence in the region. [Reuters, AP, 3/14/2016]


Moscow says Russian warplanes have started to leave Syria
Putin on Monday ordered the withdrawal of the “main part” of Russian forces in Syria, a surprise move that reflected what he called the Kremlin’s achievement of nearly all its objectives in the war-torn country. The news upended expectations in Western capitals and among ordinary Syrians, setting off fevered speculation about Russia’s intentions, much as Mr. Putin’s unexpected military plunge into the Syrian battlefield five months ago changed the course of the war. A first group of Russian military planes on Tuesday left Moscow’s base in Syria heading for home, the Defense Ministry said. “The first group of Russian planes has flown out of the Hemeimim air base for their permanent bases on the territory of the Russian Federation,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that they included Su-34 bombers and a Tu-154 transport plane. Putin said Russian forces had largely fulfilled their objectives in Syria. But he gave no deadline for the completion of the withdrawal and said forces would remain at a seaport and airbase in Syria’s Latakia province. Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said Monday that Russia’s decision to begin withdrawing from Syria will help Moscow’s push to reach a political settlement. [AFP, AP, Reuters, NYT, WSJ, BBC, 3/15/2016]

Russian jets help Syrian army advance near Palmyra
A Syrian opposition monitoring group is reporting intense airstrikes in and around the historic town of Palmyra amid fighting between pro-government forces and the Islamic State group. Syrian troops backed by Russian air power made major gains to the west of the ISIS-held city of Palmyra, Hezbollah’s al-Manar television station reported Tuesday. It said the Syrian troops were supported by “heavy air cover from Russian jets.” The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says there were casualties on both sides in Tuesday’s battles, without providing a precise figure. Al-Manar TV, run by Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group, says Syrian troops and their allies captured “Hill 900,” which is the highest in the area and overlooks Palmyra. [AP, Reuters, 3/15/2016]

UN convoys trying to reach besieged Syrian towns this week
United Nations aid convoys were unable to deliver life-saving supplies to four besieged Syrian towns of Zabadani, Fuaa, Kefraya and Madaya, on Monday due to “security concerns” but will try again on Thursday, a UN spokesman said. Jens Laerke, spokesman of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said a separate aid convoy would go to the town of Bloudan in rural Damascus on Wednesday. [Reuters, 3/15/2016]

Syrian arrested in Sweden for war crimes
A 45-year-old Syrian man with a Swedish residency permit has been arrested for alleged war crimes in northern Syria, officials said Tuesday. Haisam Omar Sakhanh, was arrested Friday and remanded in custody in Orebro, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Stockholm. He was detained on Monday night as part of an investigation into acts committed in the province of Idlib but the prosecutor gave no details of the alleged crimes. The Swedish daily Expressen said he is suspected of having participated in the execution-style murder of seven men in Idlib in April 2012. A video originally published by The New York Times in 2013 graphically shows the execution of the men with their hands tied behind their backs. It is alleged that Sakhanh was one of the executioners. [AFP, NYT, 3/15/2016]

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


Iraqi commander sees ISIS retrenching before Mosul battle
According to Nineveh Operations Commander Major General Najm al-Jubbouri, the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) is retrenching as Iraqi forces build up for an operation to retake the northern city of Mosul and some local militants desert the group. Although he described ISIS as depleted, Jubbouri said jockeying between the various forces preparing to take part in the battle for Mosul has benefited the militants, referring to disputes about the role Hashd al-Shaabi could play in the battle as thousands of Iraqi troops deploy alongside US and Kurdish forces in Makhmour. Kurdish and Iraqi military sources say the initial move will be westwards from Makhmour to the town of Qayyara on the Tigris River, which would sever ISIS’s main artery between Mosul and territory it controls further south and east. Jubbouri said the timing would hinge on the progress of military operations in the Euphrates Valley, where Iraqi forces have been advancing against the militants after routing them from Ramadi in December. [Reuters, 3/15/2016]

ISIS returns to Iraqi town of Rutba
According to Iraqi officials, ISIS returned to the desert town of Rutba in western Iraq on Monday, less than a day after vacating it. Imad Ahmed, the town’s mayor, warned when ISIS pulled out that the militant organization may just be testing the population’s allegiance by faking retreat to lure out members of the population secretly cooperating with the security forces. Military officials warned after the ISIS pullback on Sunday that the Iraqi security forces could not move in immediately to take over the town ISIS had abandoned and the head of the Security Committee for the Anbar Provincial Council confirmed that ISIS fighters have returned to Rutba. [AFP, 3/14/2016]

UNHCR voices concern over freedom of movement of displaced Iraqis
The United Nations’ refugee agency has expressed concern that Iraqis displaced from territory controlled by ISIS are being forcibly transferred to camps where their freedom of movement is restricted. A statement released on the UNHCR website summarizing comments made by UNHCR spokesperson Ariane Rummery read, “While recognizing the responsibility of authorities to undertake security screening of people fleeing territory controlled by extremist groups, we urge the government to set up clear procedures and facilities for this purpose that are separate from camps established to provide shelter and other humanitarian assistance to displaced Iraqis.” The UNHCR’s concerns are focused on camps under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq and of the central government north and west of Baghdad. [Reuters, 3/15/2016]

Pre-dawn ISIS attack wounds four Iraqi soldiers
ISIS bombers launched three suicide attacks at about 3:00 am on the Makhmour front, wounding at least four Iraqi soldiers. A Peshmerga commander reported that the foggy weather may have provided the attackers with good cover, though “two of the suicide bombers were killed before they detonated their payloads [while] the third managed to detonate his explosives.” Foggy conditions also reportedly helped ISIS launch another assault early Tuesday morning on Peshmerga front lines in southern Kirkuk, wounding five, including a commander. [Rudaw, 3/15/2016]


Airstrikes hit market in northern Yemen, wounding dozens
Yemeni health officials and witnesses say Saudi-led warplanes have bombed a busy market in a northern city, wounding dozens of people. They say at least two airstrikes hit the market in Mastaba on Tuesday. The city is in Hajja province, which is controlled by Shia Houthi rebels, but witnesses say there were no military targets near the market. An official with the international aid group Doctors Without Borders says at least 40 of the wounded were transferred to a nearby hospital, three of whom were in critical condition. [AP, 3/15/2016]

Humanitarian aid from Saudi Arabia reaches Saada
Food, medicine, and medical supplies (220 tons) reached Saada, a Houthi stronghold, from Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. The Saudi news agency SPA reported that the aid will assist the work at Salam Hospital, which provides services to all Yemenis in need. The report added that the relief was delivered in coordination with the Saudi-led coalition. Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asseri, the spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen, on Tuesday said the pause in the fighting on the border between the two countries was continuing, as was work on clearing land mines. Asseri was quoted as saying the pause in fighting was confirmed and that mediation between the sides by local tribes was continuing. [Al Masdar, Reuters, 3/15/2016]

Hadi visits Kuwait and Bahrain
Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi arrived in Kuwait on Tuesday to discuss the current situation in Yemen. Hadi met with the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Prime Minister Jaber al-Mubarak al-Hamad al-Sabah, and other government officials to discuss both countries’ national interests and current developments in the Yemen conflict. Hadi will visit Bahrain in a meeting with King Hamad bin Eissa Al Khalifa to discuss bilateral relations, current developments in the region, and in Yemen. [Al Masdar, BNA, 3/15/2016]

UAE court acquits Omani blogger
The Federal Supreme Court in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has acquitted an Omani blogger of charges relating to critical social media posts. The UAE’s official WAM news agency reported Monday that Muawiya al-Rawahi was found not guilty on charges of establishing and managing social media accounts that disseminated rumors and information that could disturb public order and that intend to ridicule and damage the reputation of the country. [AP, 3/15/2016]


Saudi Arabia orders 5 percent cut in contract spending
In a new austerity move, Saudi Arabia’s government has ordered ministries to cut spending on contracts by at least 5 percent. A document sent to all state bodies and ministries directs them to reduce the value of outstanding contracts signed to support their operations, as well as construction contracts included in the 2016 state budget, by “not less than 5 percent of remaining obligations.” It says the measures were proposed by the Minister of Economy and Planning and approved by the king to “rationalize spending and increase its efficiency.” The decision allows ministries to decide how to revise contracts to make the required savings. Another clause in the document forbids ministries and government bodies from signing any contracts without the approval of the Finance Ministry. Previously, senior officials could agree to small contracts without approval. [Reuters, 3/14/2016]

Kuwait approves corporate tax, other reforms as deficit widens
Kuwait’s cabinet has approved economic reforms including the introduction of a 10 percent tax on corporate profits to narrow the budget deficit, Finance Minister Anas al-Saleh said Monday. Saleh did not say when the tax would be imposed and that the cabinet had approved “repricing” some commodities and public services. He did not elaborate, but appeared to refer to cuts in price subsidies for fuel, food, and public utilities. Saleh also said that the government would seek to privatize state-owned assets including airports, ports, and some facilities of national oil giant Kuwait Petroleum Corporation. He outlined other reforms in a report to cabinet, which include allowing private citizens to own as much as 50 percent of public-private joint ventures, reforming the labor market and the civil service system and making the public sector more efficient by linking pay to production. [Reuters, 3/14/2016]

Egypt central bank to hold pound steady at new rate, holds auctions
The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) held the pound steady at 8.85 pounds per dollar at an exceptional foreign currency auction today for $200 million. The CBE said the auction, which sold $198.3 million, was meant to finance imports of essential goods. The CBE also said it plans to sell $1.5 billion at an exceptional auction tomorrow to cover temporary overdrafts of foreign currency at banks. “The central bank announces it will hold an exceptional auction for $1.5 billion on Wednesday to cover customer debts in foreign currency that were made in import operations,” it said. [Reuters, 3/15/2016]

Libyan officials meets IMF representatives
Tripoli-based Central Bank of Libya (CBL) Governor Saddeq al-Kabir met representatives from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Tunis on Sunday. A statement from the Tripoli-based CBL said al-Kabir discussed financial and monetary issues with the representatives. Also on Sunday, the Head of the Presidential Council and Prime Minister-designate Fayyez Sarraj met with the IMF and the World Bank. Sarraj discussed ways to provide economic and technical support to the unity government to tackle the current economic crisis. Earlier this week, the Torbuk-based CBL announced that Governor Ali al-Hebri would hold meetings with the IMF delegation in Tunis on Monday and Tuesday. [Libya Monitor (subscription), Libya Herald, 3/14/2016]

Algeria’s foreign reserves drop to $143 billion in 2015
Algeria’s foreign exchange reserves fell $35 billion in 2015 to $143 billion due to the drop in global oil prices, an IMF representative Jean-Francois Dauphin said Monday. Energy earnings, which make up 95 percent of Algeria’s exports and 60 percent of the budget, fell 41 percent to $35.72 billion last year. Officials expect them to fall to $26.4 billion this year. “The foreign exchange reserves remain, certainly, at a high level but they have fallen $35 billion in 2015 to $143 billion, against $194 billion in 2013,” Dauphin said. He said the impact of the oil price drop on Algeria has so far been “limited,” but that the budget and exterior trade balances had “considerably deteriorated.” Dauphin added that sustained fiscal adjustment and structural large-scale reforms are needed to reduce vulnerabilities of the Algerian economy. His comments come after a two week IMF mission to Algiers. [Reuters, 3/14/2016]