Top News: Russia and Syria signed open-ended agreement on military presence

The Russian government on Thursday released the text of an agreement signed in Damascus on August 26, 2015, more than a month before Russia launched a bombing campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and other “terrorists” at the request of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. The agreement was for “an open-ended period of time,” and Russia’s deployment of warplanes and personnel in Latakia in Syrian government-held territory came under its terms. The deal was made to defend the “sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of the Russian Federation and the Syrian Arab Republic,” according to the document. [AFP, 1/15/2016]



Multiple arrests reported ahead of January 25 anniversary
Egyptian authorities are rounding up activists ahead of the fifth anniversary of the January 25 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak and have detained at least five people this week. Doctors’ Syndicate member Taher Mokhtar and his two roommates, Ahmed Mohamed Hassan and Hossam al-Din Hamad, were arrested Thursday following a raid on their downtown apartment. Mokhtar is an activist who has demanded for health care reform while Hassan is against compulsory military service. Mokhtar and his housemates are charged with possession of printed material that calls for the overthrow of the regime. Also on Thursday, Poet Omar Hazek, was detained at Cairo Airport. He was released but banned from leaving the country due to security reasons. Managing Editor of the privately owned Masr al-Arabia news website Ahmed Abdel-Gawad was detained after security forces raided its office on Thursday. He was released on Friday. The prosecution also dismissed as unfounded the allegations that led to the raid on the publication’s offices, which were accused of spreading false news. In related news, a surprise inspection by the Office of Artistic Production Police Department took place at performance arts center Studio Emad Eddin’s downtown Cairo premises on Tuesday. The studio confirmed that none of its locations were subject to closure. [Egypt Independent, AP, Mada Masr, 1/15/2016]

Army Spokesperson says four army personnel, 30 militants killed in North Sinai
The Egyptian Armed Forces killed 30 militants and injured ten on Thursday in North Sinai, Egypt’s Army Spokesperson, Brigadier General Mohamed Samir said in a statement. Samir announced on Thursday that a militant attack on a security checkpoint near the North Sinai city of Sheikh Zuweid resulted in the death of four army personnel. Eight more army personnel were injured in the attack and three armed forces vehicles were destroyed by IEDs. It is unclear whether the 30 militants were all killed during the assault on the checkpoint or in retaliatory attacks by the army. Samir added that military forces destroyed eight farms used as hiding spots for militants. [Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, Cairo Post, 1/15/2016]

State-sanctioned Friday sermon mandates ‘blessing of security’
The Ministry of Religious Endowments published Tuesday the prescribed subject of the weekly Friday sermon for Islamic preachers to follow in the upcoming prayer, titled the “Blessing of Security.” In alignment with the Egyptian’s state’s continued effort to bring Egypt’s Islamic institutions under the state’s auspices, the topic of the sermon linked state security efforts to religious necessity. The ministry’s announcement equated security with “food and water,” calling it an element without which humans cannot prosper. The script provided several verses from the Qur’an, wherein the text purports the Muslim Prophet argues for the need for security and order in a society. [DNE, 1/13/2016]

Egyptian state newspaper Al-Akhbar apologizes to Brotherhood leader for insulting headline
An Egyptian state-owned newspaper apologized for using a derogatory term about the jailed spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Badie in a story about his health. Yasser Rizq, Editor-in-Chief of the state-owned daily al-Akhbar wrote in a note published in the newspaper on Thursday that “gloating about a person’s illness does not fit either my own morals or Al-Akhbar’s editorial policy, which is widely known for its credibility and impartiality.” An article published in the newspaper last week gave an update about the health of the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, using a term that is considered derogatory in Egyptian Arabic to describe his hernia operation. “Although this headline made some readers happy,” Rizq wrote, he decided to apologize as he found it being interpreted as insulting. “I condemned the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and I criticized former president Mohamed Morsi’s regime, but at the same time Badie is behind bars and he is helpless,” he wrote. [Ahram Online, 1/15/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


UK’s David Cameron defends Libya decisions
The prime minister promised, in September 2011, that he would not allow Libya to turn into another Iraq, but that, said senior Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, is effectively what has happened in the four years since the toppling of long-time leader Muammar Qaddafi. Cameron was accused by MPs on the Commons liaison committee of failing to learn lessons of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with poor post-conflict planning creating the conditions for the rise of Islamist extremism. Cameron said the “Libyan people were given the opportunity” to build a stable democracy—and it was a matter of “huge regret” they had not taken it. Libya now had another chance to build a stable democracy, he said, a reference to the UN sponsored peace deal signed by the two rival Libyan governments in December. The UK is reportedly preparing to send 1,000 “non-combat” troops to help the new government stabilize Libya and stem the advance of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) but the UK Ministry of Defense said, “No decisions have been made about the future deployment of any British military forces to Libya as part of an international coalition force.” [BBC, 1/15/2016]

Major oil pipeline hit by blast south of Libya’s Ras Lanuf
An explosion hit a major oil pipeline south of the Libyan terminal of Ras Lanuf overnight between Wednesday and Thursday, a spokesman for Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) said. Spokesman Mohamed al-Harari said it was not clear what had caused the explosion at the pipeline, which runs from the Tibisti and Bayda fields and has been closed for more than two years. Mohamed al-Manfi, an oil official based in eastern Libya, said that the blast was a result of sabotage and oil workers were trying to isolate the pipeline to contain the damage. Eyewitnesses also said four of the company’s Libyan employees were abducted. Last week, ISIS militants attacked Ras Lanuf and the nearby terminal of Es Sider. They killed at least 18 guards and set fire to seven oil storage tanks. [Reuters, Libya Herald (subscription), 1/14/2016]

Tunisian ruling party dissidents to form new parliamentary group
Twenty-two members of Tunisia’s ruling party, Nidaa Tounes, resigned this week from their parliamentary group. The 22 have since announced the creation of a new parliamentary group, al-Hurra, chaired by Abderraouf Cherif. These defections from Nidaa Tounes radically alter the Tunisian political landscape, giving the majority to Islamist party Ennahda, which becomes the group with the most members in the parliament with 69 MPs. Al-Hurra with 22 members becomes the third parliamentary group, following Nidaa Tounes’ 64-member group. [ANSAmed, 1/15/2016]

Tunisia’s President Essebsi announces national youth conference
President Beji Caid Essebsi announced a national conference on youth problems, to be held next spring, to determine a strategy to help youth recover their rights and integrate more fully into the country’s political life. Essebsi announced the new initiative on Thursday at a ceremony at Carthage Palace marking the 5th anniversary of the revolution. The President also announced the establishment of an expert committee to review legislation, particularly the penal code, in order to make it more coherent with the liberal spirit of Tunisia’s 2014 constitution and to revise “all coercive laws that have become obsolete.” [TAP, 1/14/2016]


UNICEF confirms severe malnutrition in besieged Madaya
Aid was delivered this week to thousands of people affected by the months-long blockade. “UNICEF … can confirm that cases of severe malnutrition were found among children,” it said in a statement. UNICEF said that out of 25 children under the age of five screened by its staff and the World Health Organisation, 22 showed signs of “moderate to severe” malnutrition. Its staff also witnessed the death of a severely malnourished 16-year-old boy. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday said Syria’s warring parties, particularly the government, were committing “atrocious acts.” He condemned the use of starvation as a weapon of war in the nearly five-year conflict. The United Nations says there are some 450,000 people trapped in around 15 siege locations across Syria, including in areas controlled by the government, ISIS, and other insurgent groups. Aid deliveries to Madaya came as part of an agreement between warring sides. [Reuters, Guardian, 1/15/2016]

Russia says aid must be allowed into areas in Syria blockaded by militants
The Russian Foreign Ministry called on Friday for all sides in the Syrian conflict to use their influence to ensure that humanitarian aid was delivered to areas blockaded by militants. It said the situation in three places—Madaya, Fuah, and Kafraya—was particularly concerning, saying they were besieged or blockaded by various militant groups. The ministry said it had been working with the Syrian government to try to help resolve the situation and had been encouraging them to cooperate with the United Nations. Also on Friday, Russia announced its launch of humanitarian operations in Syria where it is carrying out a bombing campaign against ISIS, reporting it delivered aid to besieged Syrians in Deir Ezzor and claiming peaceful life was slowly returning to the war-torn country. [Reuters, 1/15/2016]

United States, Russia agree January 25 Syria talks must go forward
The United States and Russia agreed that January 25 Syria peace talks involving the government and opposition groups must go forward without preconditions, the US Department of State said. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a telephone call with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, expressed “deep concern” over attacks on civilians in Syria, State Department spokesman John Kirby said. [Reuters, 1/15/2016]

Iraqi force enters southern oil city to disarm tribal fighters
Iraq has sent an armored army division and a police strike force into the southern oil city of Basra to disarm residents amid intensified feuding among rival Shia Muslim tribes, local officials and security sources said on Friday. Forces had been deployed earlier to restore calm to rural areas running north of the city towards West Qurna and Majnoon oilfields on Wednesday, but a local official reassured foreign companies their assets were secure. “The oil companies and oil sites and the roads leading to them are completely safe. There are no concerns in this regard,” said Sabah al-Bazouni, head of Basra’s provincial council. The majority of crude exports from major OPEC oil producer Iraq come from southern oil fields around Basra. [Al Arabiya Arabic, Business Insider, Reuters, 1/15/2016]

Turkey detains academics who signed petition defending Kurds
Turkish police on Friday detained 18 academics who were among the 1,128 scholars who signed a declaration denouncing military operations against Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey. Prosecutors have launched investigations into the academics on possible charges of insulting the state and engaging in “terrorist propaganda” on behalf of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). If convicted, the academics could face one to five years in jail. The move deepens concerns about freedom of expression under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s as it came after Erdogan severely criticized the signatories, including linguist Noam Chomsky, and called on the judiciary to act against the “treachery.” The US Ambassador to Turkey John R. Bass criticized the arrests, saying they would have a “chilling effect on legitimate political discourse” about the violence in southeastern Turkey. The main opposition party released in its statement on Friday that “We, as the CHP Party Assembly, find these operations targeting freedom of expression of thought and independent judiciary, which are only be seen in undemocratic regimes, very dangerous and unacceptable.” [AP, Hurriyet, Guardian, 1/15/2016]

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


UN envoy fails to set new date for Yemen peace talks
The next round of negotiations between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels remains uncertain after UN Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed failed to set a new date for the peace talks.The United Nations had announced earlier this week to postpone the second round of Yemeni negotiations that were anticipated January 14. In his visit to Yemen, which lasted for several days, Ahmed met with the leadership of the Houthi militia and pro-Houthi officials. [Al-Masdar, 1/15/2016]

Houthis release Saudi religious teachers and Yemeni Defense Minister
Two Saudi religious teachers have arrived home after their release from more than nine months’ detention by Houthi militiaman in Yemen, official media reported on Friday. Abdul Rahman al-Sharari and Salem al-Gamdi landed in Riyadh on Thursday evening from Djibouti. They were accompanied by the Kingdom’s Ambassador to Yemen and UN Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, who on Thursday finished a five-day mission to the rebel-held Yemeni capital Sana’a. This comes after the Houthis released a detained minister and four activists on Thursday in a move aimed at bolstering peace talks to end over nine months of war. Ahmed said he received assurances from the Houthis about the wellbeing of detained Defense Minister General Mahmoud al-Subaihi, whose release and that of several other top officials remains a key demand of President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi’s government. [AFP, Reuters, 1/16/2016]

Saudi embassy reopens in Baghdad
Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad after a 25-year hiatus. The Kingdom’s ambassador submitted his credentials to Iraq’s Foreign Ministry. Saudi Arabia closed the embassy in 1990, after Saddam Hussein ordered an invasion of Saudi ally Kuwait. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on Thursday accepted the credentials of Ambassador Thamir al-Sabhan. Both diplomats underlined the necessity for their countries to boost bilateral relations in all fields. [AP, 1/15/2016]

Kerry and Jubair insist US-Saudi ties remain strong
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubair insisted Thursday that their countries’ ties remain strong despite recent tensions over Washington’s outreach to Iran. The top envoys met in London for talks on a variety of Middle East issues, including the wars in Syria and Yemen and the imminent implementation of the Iran nuclear deal.[AFP, 1/14/2016]


Qatar raises local gasoline price by 30 percent
Qatar raised domestic prices of gasoline by 30 percent at midnight on Thursday, the official Qatar News Agency (QNA) reported, as low oil and gas prices put pressure on the national budget. The government said last month that it expected a budget deficit of 46.5 billion riyals ($12.8 billion) in 2016, its first deficit in 15 years. The state fuel company Woqod made the announcement in a Twitter post late Thursday, though QNA and government officials did not immediately comment on the hike. QNA did not say how much money the government expected to save with the reform. The United Arab Emirates hiked gasoline prices in August, Saudi Arabia hiked gasoline prices last month, and Oman and Bahrain followed suit this week. Kuwait is expected to take similar action in the coming months. [Reuters, AP, 1/14/2016]

Egypt to receive $200 million grant from Saudi Arabia for SMEs
Saudi Arabia will grant Egypt $200 million to finance small and medium enterprises (SMEs), according to Egyptian International Cooperation Minister Sahar Nasr. The government will allocate $32 million from the grant to SMEs in Sinai. The rest will be distributed to governorates with the highest unemployment rates, Nasr said. The grant will be disbursed to investors as loans through the Central Bank’s recently implemented regulations. The agreement is set to be signed by January 24, Nasr said. Earlier this week, the central bank announced a new SME financing program as part of a plan by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to boost finances for small enterprises.[Ahram Online, DNE, 1/14/2016]

EU aid to Tunisia reaches EUR 217 million in 2015
The European Union provided Tunisia EUR 217 million in 2015 to fund new programs. “Cooperation between Tunisia and the EU has reached unprecedented amounts,” the EU delegation in Tunisia said in a statement. Tunisia is the first regional beneficiary of EU assistance as part of the European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI), the statement adds. The European Union has accelerated the adoption of the 2015 action plan, which includes six programs, namely culture (EUR 6 million), institutional support and integration (EUR 12.8 million), and recovery support (EUR 70 million). The EU also provided EUR 23 million to implement security sector reform. [TAP, ENPI, 1/14/2016]

Oman borrows $1 billion to fill gap left by falling oil prices
The government of Oman has borrowed $1 billion as the Gulf country tries to cope with strains on its finances as oil prices plummet. Oman raised the funds through a syndicated loan at 120 basis points over the London interbank offered rate, Undersecretary at the Ministry of Finance Nasser al-Jashmi said. Eleven banks took part in the five-year loan. The country has become the latest Gulf government to seek funds from either the international bond or loan market to address budget deficits. Oman began seeking the loan in November. The banks participating in the loan were Citigroup, Gulf International Bank, Natixis, the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, Societe Generale, Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, JP Morgan, Credit Agricole, Standard Chartered, and Europe Arab Bank. Oman has also talked about selling an international bond, which bankers expect to happen in 2016. [Reuters, 1/14/2016]