Top News: Rebels in Southern Syria on the Brink of Turning on Each Other

Moderate opposition factions and Islamist rebels from the Nusra Front were on the brink of going to war with each other on Sunday night. Mediation efforts, under way since last Saturday’s capture of Ahmed Nehmeh, a commander in the western and Gulf-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), were continuing in northern Jordan in a final attempt to avert an outbreak of open hostilities among rebels. A deadline set by the FSA for Col. Nehmeh to be handed over to an independent court to face allegations of treason was due to expire at midnight. Nusra has insisted he face trial by a court in which they and two other allied Islamist factions—Harakat al-Muthanna and Ahrar al-Sham—sit in judgment. [The National, 5/12/2014]



Egypt parliament expands, to include 630 MPs
Egypt is set to increase its members of parliament by almost 30 percent under a new draft election law expected to be finalized in two months, an official has said. A revised law setting new rules for the upcoming parliamentary elections will increase the lower house seats to 630 from 444 under ousted president Mohamed Morsi, spokesperson of the law drafting committee Judge Mohamed Fawzy said. Thirty members–as compared to ten previously–will be named by the head of state while the rest will be elected in the parliamentary poll, Fawzy said. [Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, 5/12/2014]

Seven Brotherhood supporters sentenced to life for blocking road
The Banha Criminal Court sentenced on Saturday seven defendants to life in prison for blocking the ring road on August 14, after the forcible dispersal of two pro-Mohamed Morsi encampments in Cairo. The defendants were referred to trial last March on charges of assembly, thuggery, disrupting traffic, resisting the authorities, possessing weapons and attacking citizens. [Aswat Masriya, DNE, 5/12/2014]

Interior minister says forty terror cells discovered since April
At a press conference Monday, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said security forces have uncovered forty “terrorist cells” since April and proclaimed that authorities are in a “decisive stage in curbing terrorism.” He aired the confessions of five alleged militants, saying they had masterminded a number of attacks. Some of their plots were foiled, Ibrahim said, but others were carried out, killing five senior police officers by planting explosives in their vehicles or posts or by drive-by shootings in the greater Cairo area. In the confessions, one of the militants, who identified himself as Abdullah Hussein, said he had fought in Syria’s civil war alongside Ahrar al-Sham, a member of an umbrella group of Islamist rebel factions in Syria. He said he trained there in weapons and explosives, then returned to Egypt three months ago and plotted the attacks on police and military. The contents of the confessions could not be independently confirmed. [AP, 5/12/2014]

Egypt’s tax hike on wealthy to last three years
A new 5 percent surtax on the incomes of wealthy Egyptians will last for three years, the finance minister said on Saturday, less than three weeks before the country elects a new president. Hany Dimian said the tax, approved by the cabinet last week, would apply to those earning more than one million Egyptian pounds annually in 2014, 2015, and 2016. He said the first payment would be due in January 2015. Those subject to the tax would be given the choice of whether their funds should go towards public projects in education, health, agriculture, housing or infrastructure. The temporary tax had been under discussion for several months, but its approval comes shortly before presidential elections. [Reuters, 5/10/2014]


February 17 brigade ordered to leave its Benghazi headquarters
Justice Minister Salah Marghani has ordered the February 17 Brigade to move out of its headquarters in Benghazi following the killing of four protesters outside its gates early Saturday. The premises are to be turned into a community center for the city. He referred to demonstrators, who had been protesting the security situation and presence of militias, as “martyrs,” calling violent means to stop peaceful protests “unacceptable.” Meanwhile, a spokesman for the February 17 Brigade called on the media and city officials to visit the headquarters to in an effort to dispel rumors of underground prisons and foreign fighters within the brigade’s ranks. [Libya Herald, 5/11/2014]

At least forty die after migrant boat sinks off Libya
At least forty people died and fifty-one others were rescued after a boat carrying mostly sub-Saharan African migrants sank off Libya’s coast east of Tripoli, the Libyan government said on Sunday. Libya’s porous borders with its sub-Saharan neighbors and its proximity to Italy and Malta across the Mediterranean have made the North African country a common transit route for migrants trying to reach Europe. Libya seeks more help from Western partners to stem the flow of illegal migrants, as its coast guard and naval and armed forces are ill equipped and still require significant training. [Reuters, 5/11/2014]

EBRD to vote on membership for Libya
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) said it would vote at its annual meeting this week on admitting Libya as a member. Libya has struggled to rebuild its economy following the 2011 revolution and has asked to be a member of the bank as a first step to receiving finance. The EBRD’s shareholders, the biggest of which are G7 governments, are expected to approve the plans when they meet in Warsaw on May 14-15. The bank, which focuses on private-sector funding, said it will urge further reforms in the emerging Europe and North Africa region in which it operates. [Reuters, 5/9/2014]

Judicial police go on strike
The judicial police went on strike on Sunday, demanding a formal inquiry into the killing of five of their colleagues last week. A contingent was attacked in the Warshefana area after it had gone there to retrieve a stolen vehicle. In a letter to Justice Minister Salah Marghani, they demanded that those responsible for the killings be brought to account. In their letter, they also demanded that they be issued with arms and ammunition for their defense. Similar demands have been made before, as judicial police have come under attack on several occasions. A Libyan diplomat has also been kidnapped in Derna, and Benghazi experienced more violence as three separate shooting incidents claimed the lives of four security officials. [Libya Herald, 5/11/2014]


Assad presidential campaign in full swing; France and German block expat voting
Campaigning began Sunday for the June 3 presidential election expected to return Bashar al-Assad to power. In Damascus, public spaces have been transformed into a glorification of Assad, with his campaign posters plastered everywhere in the capital city. Polling will be held only in government-controlled territory, excluding large areas held by rebels, and refugees who fled through unofficial crossings are barred from voting. The foreign ministry said Monday that France and Germany intend to prevent Syrians living in their countries from voting in the presidential election. French foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal implicitly confirmed the decision. [Naharnet, 5/11/2014]

Iran and Assad have won in Syria, say top Tehran foreign policy figures
Iran and its close ally President Bashar al-Assad have won the war in Syria, and the US-orchestrated campaign in support of the opposition’s attempt to topple the Syrian regime has failed, senior Iranian officials said. In a series of interviews in Tehran, top figures who shape Iranian foreign policy said the West’s strategy in Syria had merely encouraged radicals, caused chaos, and ultimately backfired, with government forces now on the front foot. “We have won in Syria,” said Alaeddin Borujerdi, chairman of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee and an influential government insider. “The regime will stay. The Americans have lost it.” [The Guardian, 5/11/2014]

ISIS slams al-Qaeda chief, refuses to quit Syria
As part of its escalating conflict with the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on Sunday sharply criticized al-Qaeda’s leader in a statement, rejecting his call for ISIS to leave the war-ravaged country and demanding the removal of Nusra’s leader. “Sheikh Osama gathered all the mujahedeen with one word, but you divided them and tore them apart,” Adnani said in the audio statement posted Sunday, referring to Zawahiri’s predecessor Osama bin Laden. Adnani called on Zawahiri to replace Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, warning, “Either you continue with your mistake and remain stubborn, and the division and fighting among the mujahedeen will continue, or you confess to your mistake and correct it. You make the mujahedeen sad.” Adnani also rejected the latest of Zawahiri’s multiple calls that ISIS restrict its activities to Iraq, stating that this was “impossible because it is unreasonable, unrealistic and illegitimate.” [AFP, 5/12/2014]

First civil courts established in Idlib province
The first purely “civil” courts in rebel-held areas have been established in Idlib province, a pro-opposition TV station said Saturday. An Orient News correspondent visited the town of Bara, which was until recently in the hands of ISIS. The court is one of three in the region under the supervision of the Syria Rebel Front, led by Jamal Maarouf. A court official said, “We have a view of Islam and religion that might differ from those of others. In general, the court’s authority is derived from revolutionary groups and from the local [social] environment,” and not religious principles. A sheikh justifies the lack of a religious basis for the court by arguing that Quran-based punishments are “suspended” during times of civil conflict. [The Daily Star, 5/12/2014]


Fuel smuggling thrives across Libya-Tunisia border
The border crossing of Ras Jedir is synonymous with illicit trafficking Since the 2011 revolution, smuggling and informal trade has significantly increased in Tunisia. From Algeria and Libya, networks of transporters and merchants bring in everything from cigarettes, cheap fuel, and kitchen accessories to weapons and drugs. In these border regions, smuggling is a way of life, a leading form of employment in Tunisia’s largely underdeveloped south. The World Bank, in a December 2013 report, estimated total illegal trade into Tunisia from Libya and Algeria to be between 1.8 and 2.4 billion Tunisian dinars ($1.1-$1.4 billion). [Tunisia Live, 5/12/2014]

Tunisia’s inflation rate rises to 5.2 percent
Tunisia’s annual inflation rate rose slightly to 5.2 percent in April, as food prices increased. Inflation had slowed to five percent in March, its lowest level since December 2011. Central bank governor predicted that the inflation rate would be between 5.2 and 5.3 percent by the end of 2014, down from an average inflation rate of 6.1 percent in 2013. [Reuters, 5/12/2014]

Minister of tourism questioned over Israeli visitor policy
Minister of Tourism Amel Karboul and Deputy Minister of Interior Ridha Sfar were questioned by the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) Friday over the decision to allow Israeli citizens to enter Tunisia. Members of the NCA accused the government of overstepping its mandate. Tourism companies, according to Karboul, have canceled trips to Tunisia over the NCA’s condemnation of Israelis entering the country. Over the weekend, the prime minister’s office denied that Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa made a statement or gave an interview to the Israeli media and emphasized that Jomaa has never spoken on the issue of normalization with Israel in his interviews with and statements to with the Tunisian and foreign media. [Tunisia Live, 5/9/2014]


Drone strike kills several in Marib as possible AQAP reprisal shakes Mukalla
A presumed US drone strike killed approximately five alleged militants Monday morning in Marib province. The attack comes in the wake of a large counterterrorism operation against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen’s south, in which the government claims “hundreds of al-Qaeda terrorists were killed and injured.” AQAP is thought to be behind recent attacks following the campaign, ranging from sporadic gunfights in the capital of Sana’a to a suicide bombing at a military police building in Mukalla that killed ten Yemeni soldiers and one civilian. [Reuters, 5/12/2014]

CIA and DoD continue to butt heads over drone strikes
The deadly US drone strike that struck a wedding caravan in December of last year is at the heart of a bitter feud between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Defense (DoD). Both agencies have separate drone programs and the CIA claims that their program has a more meticulous intelligence process that goes into each strike. DoD’s program–responsible for the deadly December strike–disputes that their process and criteria in any way deviates from President Barack Obama’s policy. The debate comes as legislators push to move the drone program out of the CIA’s purview and solely to the Pentagon. The Yemeni government, for its part, has asked the DoD program to cease strikes, but asked the CIA program to continue. [LA Times, 5/11/2014]

As Hadi meets with Sa’ada committee, prosecutor launches investigation on al-Houthi
President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi met with the committee dispatched to Sa’ada province to secure a lasting agreement between warring tribal factions and the Houthi group. Though violence has been minimal over the past month, the issue of the Houthis’ disarmament remains a central issue issue. A prosecutor has launched an investigation into the Houthi group’s leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi, as well as other senior Houthi figures, on charges of banditry. The charges relate to the destruction of a tribal sheikh’s house during the most recent round of fighting in March. Houthi militants allegedly looted money and weapons from the house before bombing the building. The punishment for banditry could be as severe as the death penalty. [Al-Masdar (Arabic), 5/11/2014]

Hadi approves accession to WTO
President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi approved a law on Sunday on Yemen’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Yemen’s parliament agreed to the move, finalizing a protocol originally signed with the WTO in December of last year. The government of Yemen had been in negotiations with the WTO for thirteen years. [Al-Masdar (Arabic), Saba News, 5/12/2014]


As coalition talks continue, violence sweeps Iraq and Fallujah campaign begins
Despite that Iraq’s parliamentary election results have yet to be announced, coalitions continue courting one another on possible majority alliances. Notably Maliki met with Kurdish parties in an attempt to repair a previous alliance that had deteriorated over the past few years. Violence, however, persists. The government began a major operation in Fallujah on Saturday, which had been under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and anti-government militias since January. Local journalists in Fallujah and Iraq allege that the government has employed barrel bombs on the city. ISIS is believed to be behind a series of attacks since the operation began, including a Saturday night raid on a military barracks where twenty soldiers were abducted and then killed. [Asharq al-Awsat, 5/12/2014]

Saudi Arabia, OPEC would cover for any Ukraine-related oil shortage
Top global oil exporter Saudi Arabia will step in to cover any potential shortage arising from the Ukraine crisis, its oil minister said on Monday. Saudi Arabia, the only oil producer which can significantly alter output in response to changing demand, has in the past two years played the leading role in cushioning against supply disruptions from Libya, Nigeria, Iraq and South Sudan. “We are willing to supply any shortage which may arise,” said Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi. He said the kingdom’s current output is around 9.6 million barrels per day (bpd), while it has a capacity of 12.5 million bpd. [Reuters, 5/12/2014]