Top News: Putin says groups in Syria ready to comply with ceasefire; Russian air strikes intensify

All parties expected to take part in a cessation of hostilities in Syria have said they are ready to do so, President Vladimir Putin said on Friday, warning the peace process would be difficult nonetheless at a meeting with the FSB security service in Moscow. Under the terms of the ceasefire, the Syrian government and its allies will be permitted to continue strikes against ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked group, the Nusra Front. On his part, US President Barack Obama said on Thursday the United States would do everything it could to make a ceasefire in Syria succeed in order to reduce violence, get food and aid to Syrians who are suffering and lead to negotiations to end the civil war. Despite support from all sides for the ceasefire, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported heavy Russian air strikes on the suburbs of Damascus and in Aleppo hours before it is to go into effect. Putin has denied strikes against rebel-held areas, saying that the Russian warplanes were targeting “terrorist organizations.” [Reuters, AFP, AP, BBC, 2/26/2016]



Kerry defends US stance on Egypt
Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged a deterioration in Egyptian freedoms in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee Thursday, but defended the administration’s decision to waive human rights conditions on aid to the country. He pointed to Egypt’s strategic importance to the United States, the competition among global players for influence in Cairo, and the difficult security environment there. “There is a major challenge of extremism, bombs that have been going off in Cairo, bombs that have gone off in Sharm al-Sheikh, different challenges.” On Wednesday, he told the Senate Appropriations Committee, “We have to try to work and thread a needle carefully that can balance the various interests that exist.” Kerry offered two reasons explaining the administration’s shift on Egypt over the past few years. The first had to do with regional influence. He pointed out that while the United States allocated $1.3 billion in military aid and $150 million in economic aid for Cairo every year, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have channeled over $20 billion into Egypt in the last few years. “Let me ask you who has leverage, who are they going to listen to, where do they think their help is coming from,” Kerry said. The second reason had to do with the viral spread of violence and extremism in a borderless world and the way in which radical groups in Syria can mobilize disaffected young people in places like San Bernardino, California. That environment argues for doing everything possible to address failed and failing states and for promoting stability, Kerry said. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) agreed with Kerry, saying, “The nightmare of all nightmares is if Egypt fails.” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) however, worried that Egypt’s leaders were taking some of the same steps that created their problems in the past. [CNN, 2/26/2016]

Turkish Foreign Minister says does not mind holding bilateral talks with Egypt
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told Turkish state media on Thursday that Egypt’s participation in the upcoming Islamic Conference should be perceived as participation in an international event and not a bilateral meeting between Egypt and Turkey. However, he said Turkey does not mind holding those bilateral talks. “We meet many Egyptians officials in international forums,” he said. Cavusoglu also said Egypt’s role is important for the entire region but due to its internal situation it is not able to meet its expected role. This week, Ankara also welcomed Cairo’s participation in an international working group to resolve the crisis in Libya. This follows reports that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has authorized renewing contacts with Egypt at the ministerial level. [DNE, VOA, 2/26/2016]

Health Minister sues Doctors Syndicate
Health Minister Ahmed Rady is suing the Doctors Syndicate to overturn a series of resolutions they passed during an extraordinary general assembly meeting earlier this month, calling their decisions invalid and unlawful. Over 10,000 doctors turned up for the February 12 meeting and voted in favor of 18 resolutions, including demanding the removal of the Health Minister and referring him to the syndicate’s disciplinary committee. The Doctors Syndicate detailed the minister’s lawsuit in a statement released Thursday. Rady reportedly claimed the syndicate has no power to remove him from the ministry, as this is a political process that must follow certain legal procedures. The doctors had also voted in favor of the right to conditionally refrain from working until medical facilities are secured. In his lawsuit, Rady said this would violate the doctors’ sworn oath to provide services to any patient in need.
The minister further accused the syndicate of inciting doctors to strike, a criminal offense that puts patients’ lives at risk. Rady also stated that the demand to refer officers implicated in the Matariya case to a criminal court is unlawful, as it represents an infringement on prosecutorial authority. [Mada Masr, 2/25/2016]

Two protesters killed during clashes with police in Damietta
Two protesters were shot dead Friday in Damietta after clashing with riot police, the Ministry of Interior said. Another protester was injured and two policemen also sustained injuries. The demonstration reportedly began after Friday prayers, but the protesters were confronted by police before the protest could gain momentum. Police claim the protesters were armed and exchanged fire with security forces. The Ministry of Interior claimed that the two protesters, al-Sayed Abu al-Maaty and Mohamed al-Badawi, were “members of the terrorist group, the Muslim Brotherhood.” The injured policemen are employees of National Security Apparatus and the Investigation Bureau of Damietta. Heavily armed security forces were deployed to Damietta following the clashes, in anticipation of more protests. [DNE, AMAY (Arabic), 2/23/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Eastern Libyan government denies presence of French forces
Libya’s eastern government has denied reports that French Special Forces had been fighting the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in the North African country. “[The eastern government] didn’t allow and won’t allow any foreign forces to enter Libyan territories,” government spokesman Hatem al-Ouraybi told local media. Libyan National Army leadership also denied any French forces were with their forces in Benghazi. However, in Benghazi the Libyan Special Forces Commander Wanis Bukhamada said that French military advisers have been helping coordinate Libyan forces fighting ISIS insurgents, although the French advisers were not fighting. France’s Le Monde newspaper on Wednesday said French special forces were present in Libya for “clandestine operations” against ISIS. [AFP, Reuters, 2/26/2016]

Libyan forces battle ISIS in Sabratha, three killed
Libyan forces battled to clear ISIS insurgents from the western city of Sabratha on Thursday in fighting that killed at least three Libyans and one of the militants, officials said. Fighting began in Sabratha on Tuesday, when militants stormed the city, beheading 11 local security officers before retreating after clashes with local Sabratha brigades. A militant commander was captured on Thursday, said Sabratha’s mayor, Hussein al-Thwadi. [Reuters, 2/25/2016]

US spy chiefs expect continuing problems in Libya
US spy agencies expect continuing upheaval in Libya and Ukraine, top intelligence officials told Congress on Thursday. James Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, told a House of Representatives Intelligence Committee hearing that the United States has hope that a new government of national accord will soon be formed in Libya. But CIA chief John Brennan acknowledged that the United States was pursuing a two-track policy in Libya, in which it engaged both in a diplomatic effort to reconcile Libyan factions while also conducting counterterrorism operations against ISIS militants. US officials privately acknowledge that efforts to bring together rival government factions are moving slowly at best. Italy, meanwhile, is resisting pressure to allow attacks on ISIS in Libya from its territory, saying on Thursday that direct Western military intervention without a request from the Libyan government was unthinkable and would only stoke ISIS’ popularity. [Reuters, 2/25/2016]

Tunisia to adopt municipal elections law in April
At a press conference Friday, President of the Assembly of Representatives of the People (ARP) Mohamed Ennaceur announced that the draft law on municipal elections will be adopted in April. Head of the General Legislation Committee Kalthoum Badreddine said on Thursday that the committee had completed its review of the draft law, and that the law will now be presented to the parliament for feedback from MPs and civil society before submitting the final version for a vote. [Mosaique FM (French), 2/25/2016]

Morocco suspends contacts with EU over court ruling on farm trade
Morocco said on Thursday it had suspended contact with European Union institutions over a court ruling invalidating their farm trade accord with Rabat and saying it should exclude the disputed territory of Western Sahara. The European Union lodged an appeal last week against a European Court decision announced on December 10 to void the trade deal with Morocco in response to a suit filed by the Polisario Front, which wants independence for the Moroccan-controlled territory. The complaint, brought to the court in 2012, involves trade of agricultural products, processed agricultural products, and fisheries. Thursday’s statement, issued after the weekly cabinet meeting, said Morocco rejects the court ruling as against international law and UN Security Council resolutions. [Reuters, 2/25/2016]


UN Security Council aims to endorse halt in Syria fighting
Russia and the United States circulated to the UN Security Council on Thursday a draft resolution endorsing the planned halt in fighting in Syria and council diplomats said they hoped to adopt it as soon as possible. The “cessation of hostilities” agreed to by the United States and Russia is due to take hold on Saturday morning from midnight. But opponents of President Bashar al-Assad say they expect the government to press on with its advance, by branding opposition fighters al Qaeda militants unprotected by the truce. The joint draft resolution, which diplomats say the 15-nation council plans to put to a vote on Friday afternoon, would endorse the halt in fighting and demand that it begin as planned at midnight local time on Saturday morning. [Reuters, AFP, 2/26/2016]

Bombs hit Syrian hospitals, medical workers fear they are target
The hospital in the northern Syrian town of Maarat al-Noaman was not just grazed, or damaged, by the air strikes last week. It was destroyed, taking a direct hit that pancaked its three stories into one, entombing and killing 25 people, including nine staff members. It was struck twice just as day-shift workers and patients were arriving. As rescuers swarmed, another two explosions struck. That same morning, two more air strikes hit the National Hospital on the other side of town, which was treating nurses injured in the attack on the first facility. This detailed account, provided by the director of the hospital and corroborated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), is one example of why many Syrian medical workers in insurgent-held areas and human rights groups believe medical facilities are not just being hit by stray bombs or indiscriminate attacks, but have long been deliberately targeted by the Syrian government and its Russian allies. In 2016, there have already been 17 attacks on health facilities, including six assisted by MSF. [NYT, 2/26/2016]

Rights groups slam ‘shameful’ Russia deportation of Syrian refugees
Russia was set to deport three Syrian refugees on Thursday back to Damascus from a Moscow airport, rights activists said, in a move condemned as “shameful” by Amnesty International. “One has just called… they are being held under guard, under police escort,” head of the migrant rights group The Civic Assistance Committee. The three men could face deportation this evening on a flight back to Damascus from Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, she added. Mikhail Fedotov, the head of the Kremlin’s human rights council, was “trying to help” after she appealed to him over the case. Amnesty International in a statement condemned “Russia’s shameful approach to people in need of international protection.” [AFP, 2/25/2016]

United States sensitive to Turkey’s YPG concerns, but wants more information
The United States is “very sensitive” to Turkey’s concerns regarding the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military arm of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), said Secretary of State John Kerry Thursday. Kerry told lawmakers the United States had discussed with Turkey its dispute about the YPG in northern Syria. He said, “We have very strong concerns about PYD actions in northwest Syria … And of course we are very concerned about potential YPG military support from Syria to PKK elements operating in Turkey. When that is raised with me, I continue to ask for the details of the incidents in which Turkish government says it has stopped it from happening. I continue to ask for those details so that if those incidents are happening, then we can try to undertake efforts to address them or to reevaluate the very limited cooperation we have so far with the groups fighting [ISIS].” [Hurriyet, 2/26/2016]

Turkey has ‘serious worries’ about Syrian ceasefire
Turkey has serious worries about the Syrian ceasefire deal due to ongoing fighting, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aide and spokesman said on Friday, hours before the US-Russian deal was due to start. Speaking at a news conference at the presidential palace, İbrahim Kalın also said that while Turkey had no plans for a unilateral ground operation in Syria, it will respond to any incidents threatening its national security in line with its rules of engagement. Kalın said that the migrant crisis will continue if Syrian regime attacks and air strikes do not stop. “We would like to make it clear [to] those countries who tell [us] ‘open your doors to the Syrian refugees’ or ‘prevent refugee influx [to Europe]; there should be no doubt that migrant crisis will deepen further unless the air strikes and the attacks by Assad regime are stopped,” he said. [Reuters, AFP, Hurriyet, Today’s Zaman, 2/26/2016]

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


Shia cleric says Prime Minister’s position at stake unless he reforms
Nearly a million Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad Friday morning to protest against corruption and the government’s backtracking on reform plans. Prominent Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for the protests and as he addressed the crowd, he said that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi must take decisive action to root out corruption and implement promised reforms or risk losing power. “Today the (position of the) prime minister is at stake, especially after the people have revolted,” Sadr, whose Al-Ahrar bloc holds 34 seats in parliament and three cabinet posts, told supporters. Abadi promised political and economic reforms last summer after mass street protests but quickly ran into legal challenges and systemic resistance to change. This month he vowed to appoint technocrats to replace ministers appointed on the basis of political affiliations but that promise also remains unfulfilled. [Reuters, Rudaw, IB Times, 2/26/16]

According to recent IOM report, number of Iraqi IDPs exceeds 3.3 Million
According to the latest report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), from January 1, 2014 through February 4, 2016, 3,320,844 Iraqis (totalling 553,474 families) have been displaced from their homes due to violence in the country. IOM Iraq Chief of Mission Thomas Lothar Weiss said, “The massive humanitarian crisis in Iraq exceeds humanitarian actors’ current capacity to provide the needed levels of humanitarian assistance. Additional funding, human resources and support are critically needed to alleviate the deprivation and challenging living arrangements displaced Iraqis encounter. IOM will continue cooperating with the UN Humanitarian Country Team (UNHCT), humanitarian partners, government authorities and our donors, to offer aid to displaced Iraqis throughout the country.” [Bas News, 2/25/2016]

Teenage girl rescued from ISIS returns to Sweden
Marilyn Nevalainen, the Swedish teenager rescued by the Peshmerga from Mosul, has returned to Sweden, the country’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Veronica Nordlund said, “We can confirm that a Swedish minor is back in Sweden . . . Her return was brought about by a collaboration with various agencies in Sweden.” Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Swedish police said where Nevalainen was staying or whether she was in protective custody, but Thomas Strand, an official with the social services office in the municipality of Mark, where she lived before leaving the country, said that in such cases a minor would usually be held for questioning by the police. [NYT, 2/26/2016]

Two suicide bombers kill 15 at Shia mosque in Baghdad
Two suicide bombers targeted a Shia mosque in the Shuala district of Baghdad on Thursday, killing at least 15 people in an attack claimed by Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). The first bomber detonated his vest inside the mosque and the second blew himself up when security forces gathered at the site after the initial blast. Fifty other people were wounded in the blast, police and medical sources said. [Al Jazeera, BBC, Reuters, 2/26/16]


Saudi jets arrive in Turkey to strike ISIS
Saudi jets on Friday arrived at a Turkish base to join the air campaign against ISIS (or ISIL) in Syria only hours before a ceasefire is to take force, local media reported. Four F-15 jets landed at Incirlik air base in the Adana province in southern Turkey, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported. The base is already hosting US, British, and French warplanes taking part in the strikes against ISIS fighters in Syria. Saudi Arabia’s air force sent ground personnel and equipment aboard C-130 Hercules military transport planes early this week. [AFP, 2/26/2016]

Gunmen kill senior officer in south Yemen
Unidentified gunmen shot dead Friday a senior Yemeni intelligence officer in Aden, the violence-hit southern port city serving as a base for the Saudi-backed government. Colonel Adham al-Jaari was killed when gunmen in a car opened fire at him in Khor Maksar central district. The killing is the latest in a series of attacks that have targeted government officials and military officers in the city. [AFP, 2/26/2016]

Saudi Arabia blacklists four firms, three Lebanese men over Hezbollah ties
Saudi Arabia said on Friday it blacklisted four companies and three Lebanese men for having links to Lebanese Shia Muslim militant group Hezbollah, a close ally of Riyadh’s arch regional adversary Iran. “The kingdom will continue its fight against the terrorist activities of the so-called Hezbollah with all available means,” the Saudi Interior Ministry said. The Sunni Muslim kingdom last week suspended aid worth $3 billion to the Lebanese army over the Beirut government’s failure to condemn attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran. The ministry identified the four companies as Vatech SARL, Le-Hua Electronics Field Co. Limited, Aero Skyone Co. Limited, and Labico SAL Offshore. The men were identified as Fadi Hussein Serhan, Adel Mohamad Cherri, and Ali Zeaiter. [Reuters, 2/26/2016]

Aid group urges West to halt arms to Saudis bombing Yemen
An international coalition of 100 aid and rights organizations urged Western countries on Friday to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia for its extensive air campaign against Houthi militants in Yemen. The Control Arms Coalition says the air campaign has caused heavy casualties. The group released a report listing 11 countries—including France, Britain, the United States, and Germany—that it says have sold arms such as drones, missiles, and bombs worth $25 billion dollars in 2015 to the Saudi Arabia. [AP, 2/26/2016]


Morocco suspends contacts with EU over court ruling on farm trade
Morocco said Thursday it had suspended contact with European Union (EU) institutions over a court ruling invalidating a farm trade accord. The EU lodged an appeal last week against a European Court decision announced on December 10 to void the trade deal with Morocco due to the deal’s inclusion of the Western Sahara. Last month, the Moroccan government suspended contacts with the EU delegation in Rabat. “Morocco cannot accept to be treated as a subject of a judicial process and to be buffeted between European institutions,” the country said Thursday. “Continuing in that position would deeply threaten the mutual trust and even the continuation of the partnership between the two sides.” An EU source said the December court decision would have no direct impact on trade pending a ruling on the EU appeal. However Morocco’s formal suspension of contacts could disrupt some EUR 1.03 billion ($1.12 billion) of EU grants to the country. [Reuters, AFP, 2/26/2016]

Egypt’s Central Bank allows mortgage firms to lend to poor, medium income housing
The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) will for the first time allow mortgage companies to provide financing for home buyers in order to ease the burden on existing lenders and expand the base of beneficiaries, the bank said in a statement. CBE Governor Tarek Amer said Wednesday that the Housing Ministry signed loans worth EGP 10 billion ($1.3 billion) with Egyptian banks to finance the construction of 450,000 units. The CBE also added two new tiers of interest rates to accommodate more borrowers. Low-income earners will now be offered an interest rate of 5 percent, down from 7 percent, and upper-middle income earners will be offered a rate of 10.5 percent. The CBE said the changes will encourage banks to grant financing to middle-income homeowners. [Ahram Online, DNE, 2/25/2016]

European Parliament approves starting negotiations on Tunisia trade agreement
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have adopted a resolution approving the opening of negotiations for a free trade agreement with Tunisia. “The European Parliament welcomes the opening of negotiations with a view to the conclusion of a free trade agreement between the EU and Tunisia,” the parliament said. The European Parliament urged negotiators “to conclude a progressive and asymmetrical agreement [that] takes account of the significant economic disparities between the parties.” It also said that transitional periods and quotas should be provided for “sensitive” sectors and products. The resolution added, “It is essential that Tunisia should receive substantial financial and technical assistance from the EU so that it can properly implement the provisions of the free trade agreement.” The first round of negotiations between Tunis and Brussels on a Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement (DCFTA) took place in October 2015. [TAP, 2/28/2016]

World Bank to launch project to support higher education in Tunisia
The World Bank Group’s Board of Executive Directors approved on Thursday a $70 million project to address unemployment among university graduates in Tunisia. The project will support ongoing reforms to improve the management of universities and the quality of education. It builds on previous World Bank projects aimed at linking higher education institutions to the private sector. One component of the project, a competitive grant scheme, will encourage higher education institutions to develop joint programs with employers to facilitate the transition into the workforce. “A closer relationship between higher education and the private sector will form part of the foundation of Tunisia’s new economic model,” said World Bank Country Manager for Tunisia Eileen Murray said. “Working together with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, the aim is to promote an entrepreneurial culture among young people, with higher education institutions that develop the skills needed in the labor market,” World Bank Operations Officer Karine Pezzani said. [World Bank, 2/25/2016]