Top News: Russia says ISIS use of chemical weapons likely

A fact-finding mission by the UN chemical weapons watchdog has found that some people in Syria may have been exposed to sarin or a sarin-like gas, according to a report released Monday. The mission by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said it was investigating 11 incidents of the use of toxic chemicals reported by the Syrian government. The report did not say when the 11 incidents took place or specify any location. “In one instance, the analysis of some blood samples indicates that individuals were at some point exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance … Further investigation would be necessary to determine when or under what circumstances such exposure might have occurred,” said the OPCW report sent to the UN Security Council last week. The UN Security Council is due to discuss Syria’s chemical weapons use during a meeting on Tuesday. In related news, Russian media reported that the head of Russia’s Foreign Ministry Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control Mikhail Ulyanov indicated that Moscow sees a high probability that the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) is using chemical weapons in Syria and called for an investigation into possible supplies of sarin components from Turkey to Syria. [AFP, Reuters, BBC, 1/5/2016]



Military reportedly signs deal with Russia for 46 attack helicopters
Egypt’s Armed Forces reportedly signed a deal with the Russian Rosoboronexport armaments company for the sale and delivery of 46 attack helicopters. This arms export deal is said to compliment its purchase of two French-made Mistral naval helicopter carriers last year. The London-based Flightglobal website reported Monday that the Egyptian Armed Forces is in the process of acquiring 46 Kamov Ka-52 attack helicopters to equip its new Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. According to Flightglobal, the Russian helicopters and French navy vessels are still several months away from delivery, stating that Egypt is likely to receive the two helicopters by mid-year, although no official time frame for delivery has been released., also reported that Egypt is due to receive its two Mistral ships in the first half of 2016. [Mada Masr, 1/5/2016]

NCHR delegation inspects Aqrab prison
A delegation from the National Council for Human Rights, headed by George Ishaq, visited the heavily guarded Aqrab prison on Tuesday to inspect the health and living conditions of prisoners and to ensure the prison is conforming to international standards and domestic laws. The delegation will meet with prison officials and inspect a number of prison wards to investigate a number of complaints received by the families of prisoners. Ragia Omran, a lawyer and NCHR member, said that she was prevented from entering the prison this morning as part of the council’s delegation. Omran said that in cases where certain members of the delegation are prevented from entering, the visit may still go ahead, with prison authorities allowing those visitors who enter to speak with certain prisoners who have been selected for the task. “What is even worse is the threats made against those [inmates] in case they speak truthfully about the reality inside the prison,” she said. [AMAY, 1/5/2016]

Cairo court hands prison sentences to 11 Azhar University students
Cairo Criminal Court sentenced four al-Azhar students to five years in prison, six students to three years, and one student to a year in prison on Tuesday. The defendants were also collectively fined a total of EGP 2,160,000.  Public prosecutors charged the defendants with gathering with the purpose of deliberate destruction of public and private property, threatening public officials, and the use of force. The defendants will serve their terms in maximum security prisons. [Aswat Masriya, 1/5/2016]

Endowments Ministry instructs imams to prohibit participation in January 25 protests
The Religious Endowments Ministry distributed a leaflet to mosques on Monday instructing imams to prohibit participation in January 25 protests during Friday sermons. The leaflet quoted a fatwa issued by Dar al-Iftaa that says protesting on that day violates Islam and is forbidden in accordance with Islamic teachings. The leaflet said the call for protests on January 25 aimed to bring about “sabotage, murder, and destruction in the country.” The fatwa also accused calls for protests as a desire to “get Egyptians implicated in violence and terrorism to serve the enemies of the homeland.” According to Al-Masry Al-Youm, Endowments Minister Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa instructed Endowments departments nationwide to provide the names of imams who do not abide by the instructions, so that they are blacklisted by the ministry and deprived of a EGP10,000 bonus disbursed to imams at the end of January. [AMAY, 1/5/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


ISIS militants target Libya’s Es Sider oil port for second day
Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants resumed shelling near the Libyan oil port of Es Sider on Tuesday and an oil storage tank in the port was hit by a long-range rocket causing a fire, a Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) spokesman said. Spokesman Ali Hassi said the militants were 30-40 km from the port, which they also targeted on Monday in an attack that left seven guards dead and 25 wounded. The National Oil Corporation (NOC) said the oil tank fire had started just as firefighters were close to bringing under control another fire at an oil tank in the nearby port of Ras Lanuf. On Monday, suicide car bombers from the militant group struck near Es Sider and there were clashes between its fighters and PFG forces. The tank that was hit by a rocket on Monday in Ras Lanuf was holding about 400,000 barrels of oil and owned by Harouge Oil Operations. ISIS said it had attacked Es Sider after taking the nearby town of Ben Jawad. However, there was no independent confirmation of its capture. ISIS has issued a statement on the identities of those who took part in the suicide attack, all four of whom were Sudanese. [Reuters, AFP, Libya Monitor (subscription), Libya Herald, 1/5/2016]

Tunisia’s Writers Union demands Egypt apologize for denying entry to researcher
On Monday, the Tunisian Writers Union decried Egypt’s refusal to allow the entry of researcher Amel Grami at Cairo International Airport, who was sent back to Tunisia. The union called on the Egyptian authorities to issue a formal apology. Grami was headed Alexandria on Saturday to attend a conference on terrorism and extremism. She told local media that she had obtained a visa three months prior to her arrival. She added that Egyptian authorities treated her as a “detainee” and questioned her for over ten hours. Egyptian authorities have not commented on the incident. [Ahram Online, 1/5/2016]

Tunisian forces kill suspected extremist
Security forces in Tunisia have killed a suspected foreign jihadi during an operation in the northwest of the country, the Interior Ministry said. National Guard units shot the armed man between Mount Serj and Mount Ballouta in Siliana province on Sunday, according to ministry spokesman Walid Louguini. They seized a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a hand-grenade, and another explosive device, he said. [AFP, 1/4/2016]

Algerian government lays out draft constitutional reforms
Algeria’s government on Tuesday unveiled draft constitutional reforms, including a two-term presidency limit, an obligatory consultation with parliament to name prime ministers, and making local Amazigh an official language. The proposed reforms, which President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s Cabinet Director Ahmed Ouyahia presented to reporters, will go for approval this month before parliament, the last hurdle before its adoption into the constitution. The president’s allies have a strong majority in parliament. When the proposals were discussed last year, they included delegating more executive authority to the Prime Minister, more powers for opposition parties in parliament, press reforms, and anti-corruption measures. [Reuters, 1/5/2016]


United States expects Syria meetings despite Saudi-Iran tensions
The United States expects the next round of Syria meetings planned for this month to go forward despite a flare-up in tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the US State Department said on Monday. “We still hope and expect that meetings between opposition groups and regime can happen this month,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said. Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN Secretary General, echoed similar hopes stating, “[The United Nations] will be pushing forward and very much hoping that the current tensions will not impact negatively on the two peace processes,” referring to those of Syria and Yemen. The Saudi Envoy to the United Nations indicated that the tensions should have no impact on peace efforts in Syria and Yemen. “From our side, it should have no effect because we will continue to work very hard to support the peace efforts in Syria and Yemen,” Saudi Ambassador Abdallah al-Mouallimi said on Monday. A member of the Syrian opposition-in-exile Samir Nashar, however, indicated that this crisis could threaten already fragile diplomatic efforts. “The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia will definitely have a negative impact … The negotiations were already difficult, if not impossible, and this conflict is only going to lead to positions becoming more entrenched.” [Reuters, 1/5/2016]

Syrian opposition to demand confidence-building moves before talks
Syria’s opposition wants to see confidence-building steps from Damascus including a prisoner release before negotiations due this month, officials said on Monday, a demand that could complicate efforts to start the talks. Opposition leaders including rebels plan to deliver that message to the UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura when they meet him in Riyadh on Tuesday. George Sabra, a member of the political opposition, said the talks must be preceded by “real steps on the ground that express not only good will but also confidence-building measures such as releasing political detainees and stopping the bombardment of towns and cities by heavy artillery and jets.” A second official said the opposition leaders would tell de Mistura “they can’t go to negotiations without Assad doing something serious such as a ceasefire or releasing detainees.” De Mistura is expected in Iran later this week and in Damascus on Saturday, according to UN sources. [Reuters, 1/4/2016]

Istanbul police raid 16 suspected ISIS locations
Twelve people suspected of having links to Daesh were taken into custody on Monday in an anti-terror operation in Istanbul, and police said they are continuing to work to capture five other suspects, who were not found in the operations. One of the suspects was remanded in custody by the court to await trial. Three others have been released but must report regularly to police. Eight other suspects have been freed pending trial. [Anadolu Agency, 1/5/2016]

Turkey to report to ECHR on curfew southeastern towns
The Justice Ministry is preparing a report for the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on the situation in southeastern towns where clashes with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) continue to rage under military curfews. The ECHR asked three particular questions to Ankara over the issue: The legal basis for the curfews; whether the needs of locals living in curfew-hit towns are met, including health services; and whether the state can provide a safe exit route to locals if they demand to leave areas under curfew. [Hurriyet, 1/4/2016]

Iraqi fighters killed while thwarting ISIS assault in Anbar
At least 25 Iraqi fighters have been killed repelling a major three-day offensive by ISIS in the region of Haditha in Anbar province, security sources said Tuesday. “We have given 25 martyrs in 72 hours,” a tribal commander, Sheikh Abdallah Atallah, said from Haditha, an area that includes a key dam and has held off ISIS since 2014. “It was one of the biggest offensives we have seen. It came from three directions,” he said, adding that dozens were also wounded. The mayor of Haditha, located about 200 kilometers northwest of Baghdad, confirmed the casualty toll. [AFP, 1/5/2016]

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


Two South Yemeni governors survive assassination attempt
Security sources said on Tuesday that two south Yemeni governors survived an assassination attempt by car bomb. Both Aidroos Zubaidi, governor of Aden, and Nasser al-Khabji, governor of Lahej survived after the car bomb exploded in the city of al-Mansoura. The explosion occurred after both governors left a meeting with military and security officials. This attack follows former Aden governor Jaafar Saad’s assassination in early December. [Al-Masdar Online, AFP 1/5/2016]

Al-Qaeda militant arrested in Aden; militants stone woman in Hadramawt
Security officials on Tuesday said that an Al-Qaeda leader was arrested in a raid in Aden. Mohammed al-Lahji was captured after a gunfight with security forces. This incident follows clashes on Sunday that killed 22 people. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda militants stoned a woman to death in Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt. A verdict issued by the Hadramawt court of Al-Qaeda’s Ansar al-Sharia stated that the woman had confessed to adultery. [AFP, 1/5/2016]

Saudi Arabia says Iran row will not hurt Syria, Yemen talks
Saudi Arabia has said its decision to break diplomatic ties with Iran will not affect efforts to negotiate peace in Syria and Yemen—where the two regional heavyweights support opposite sides. Riyadh on Sunday severed relations with Iran after its embassy in Tehran was set ablaze during protests against Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shia religious leader Nimr al-Nimr, who was put to death along with 46 other mostly Sunni convicts on terrorism charges. Abdullah al-Mouallimi, the Saudi Ambassador to the UN, said on Monday that the row with Tehran “should have no effect” on attempts to end the wars. [Al Jazeera America, 1/5/2016]

Kuwait recalls envoy to Iran
Kuwait on Tuesday recalled its ambassador to Tehran over an attack on the Saudi embassy. The move comes as Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have erupted this week into a full-blown diplomatic crisis, sparking widespread worries of regional instability. The UN Security Council strongly condemned the attack on the embassy and called for all sides to take measures to reduce tensions in the region. [Al Jazeera America, 1/5/2016]


Saudi Arabia to support Egypt with $3 billion of loans, grants
Saudi Arabia has agreed to provide Egypt with more than $3 billion in loans and grants to support the country’s economy. The kingdom will loan Egypt $1.5 billion to develop the Sinai Peninsula and $1.2 billion to finance Egypt’s oil purchases, Egyptian Minister of International Cooperation Sahar Nasr said. Egypt will also receive a $500 million grant to buy Saudi exports and product. Nasr said the loans will be signed on Tuesday. Last month, Saudi Arabia promised to invest $8 billion in Egypt through its public and sovereign funds. Nasr urged Saudi Arabia to expedite investment in energy, housing, and tourism. Also in December, Egypt announced it was negotiating $1.5 billion in loans for development in the Sinai with the Kuwait Fund for Development, the Abu Dhabi Fund, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, and the Islamic Development Fund. Nasr’s comments came as she arrived in Riyadh to chair the third meeting of the Egyptian-Saudi Coordination Council. [Bloomberg, Ahram Online, 1/4/2016]

Fitch says Saudi budget is positive but large deficit to remain
Fitch ratings agency said that Saudi Arabia’s 2016 budget shows a “commitment to reform” but warned that the country’s deficit will remain in the double digits due to low global oil prices. Fitch praised Saudi efforts to rationalize expenditure, increase non-oil revenues, and improve the fiscal policy framework. However, Fitch noted that the budget’s projected deficit of 13.5 percent of gross domestic product is “by far the largest fiscal deficit that the Saudi authorities have budgeted for” and suggests an oil price assumption of around $40 per barrel. This would mark the second successive year Saudi Arabia sees a budget deficit in the double digits. Fitch warned that the impact of reforms on the deficit “will depend on the pace and extent of implementation and the size of offsetting measures to allay the effect on low- and middle-income families.” [Reuters, FT, 1/5/2015]

Turkey sees $1.2 billion of extra revenue in 2016 after tax hikes
Turkey expects an additional 3.6 billion lira ($1.21 billion) of revenue this year after introducing tax hikes on alcohol and tobacco products, mobile phones, and some highway and bridge tolls, a senior official said Tuesday. “The tax hike on alcoholic beverages and tobacco products will bring in an extra 3 billion lira. Tax hikes on mobile phones and tolls are expected to generate 300 million lira in additional revenue each,” the official said. [Reuters, Hurriyet, 1/5/2015]

UAE says economy resilient to low oil prices
The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) economy is resilient to low oil prices, Economy Minister Sultan Saeed al-Mansouri said Tuesday. He said low oil prices have so far had a limited impact on the economy and major infrastructure projects, emphasizing the UAE’s policy of diversification and reduced dependence on oil revenues. “The UAE is the least affected country by low oil prices as non-oil sectors contributed nearly 69 percent of [gross domestic product],” al-Mansouri said. [Gulf News, 1/5/2015]