Top News: Syria army excludes rebel town near Damascus from truce

On Wednesday, Syria’s army said it would exclude an important rebel bastion near Damascus from a ceasefire set to begin at the weekend because rebel forces there include jihadists. According to the agreement announced by the US and Russia, the truce does not apply to jihadists from the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) or al-Qaeda’s affiliate, al-Nusra Front.One-fifth of rebel fighters in Darayya are al-Nusra militants.”The Syrian army is committed to the decision of the Syrian leadership when it comes to the ceasefire, which will not include areas where al-Nusra Front and Daesh [ISIS] are fighting,” an army general said. “Therefore, Darayya is not included in the cessation of hostilities agreement, because al-Nusra Front is one of the factions inside the town,” he said. The general estimated between 1,000 to 2,000 anti-government combatants remained in the town. Darayya is the largest rebel bastion west of Damascus where fighting is still taking place, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitoring group. “It’s an essential opposition stronghold that has been out of regime control for nearly four years,” Abdel Rahman said. [AFP, AP, 2/25/16]



House panel passes bill to call Muslim Brotherhood terror group
The Republican-led House Judiciary Committee has approved legislation calling on the US State Department to label the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization. Lawmakers voted Wednesday along party lines, 17-10. Supporters say if the measure is signed into law, the United States would have to deny admittance to individuals who are tied to the Brotherhood but are not US citizens. Individuals who provide material support to the group would face criminal penalties. The bill would allow the Treasury Department to require US banks and financial institutions to block transactions involving assets held by the Brotherhood. The bill, while it has little chance of becoming law, is nevertheless sure to be welcomed by Egypt. The bill’s sponsor Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said that he was not directly lobbied by either the UAE or Egypt on the issue. Republican candidate Ted Cruz has introduced identical legislation in the Senate. [AP, Egypt Independent, Al Monitor, 2/25/2016]

Italy seeks more access to Egyptian probe into student murder
Italy on Wednesday said Egyptian investigators should hand over the evidence they had uncovered in the death of an Italian graduate student who was tortured and killed in Cairo. “Cooperation with our investigative team can be and must be more effective. It cannot be only formal,” Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said. He added that Italy wanted access to specific evidence. “Italian investigators must have access to audio and video documentation, medical test results and the legal documents from the Giza prosecutor’s office,” he said. Giulio Regeni’s family, meanwhile, will commemorate his death in a sit-in in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Rome Thursday, marking one month since the disappearance of the Italian student in Cairo. [Reuters, 2/24/2016]

Anti-torture NGO Al-Nadeem rejects Health Ministry’s reasons for shutdown
Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence issued a statement Thursday responding to reasons cited by the Health Ministry to shut down the nongovernmental organization last week. On Wednesday, the Health Ministry issued a statement, published on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Facebook page, saying the NGO committed two violations: changing its name from a ‘clinic’ to a ‘center,’ since the licenses are different for each, and changing the center’s activities from ‘medical’ to ‘human rights-related.’ The Health Ministry said that a warning was previously directed at Al Nadeem to take corrective action but the center did not respond in time, which necessitated the shutdown order. Al Nadeem denied this in its statement, adding that its doctors will go to the center’s headquarters on Saturday, and will continue to issue reports. Commenting on the ministry’s statement, Al-Nadeem Director Magda Adly said that the center operates legally as both a clinic and a rehabilitation centre for victims of violence and torture. [Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, DNE, 2/25/2016]

Egypt sentences Coptic students to five years in jail for ‘insulting Islam’
An Egyptian court convicted four Coptic Christian teenagers for contempt of Islam on Thursday, sentencing three to five years in prison, the maximum penalty for blasphemy. A fourth student, who is under 18, was referred to a juvenile detention facility. The four 16-17 year-olds made a video about the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) that was later posted by their teacher online, causing a backlash in their local neighborhood that resulted in the arrest of both the teenagers and their teacher in April 2015. The teacher was sentenced to three years in prison for insulting Islam in a separate trial. The teenagers’ lawyer, Maher Naguib, said his clients, who are high school students in the southern province of Minya, have not been detained and did not appear in court for the trial. According to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, this is not the first incident of minors convicted of blasphemy-related charges, but it is the first time they have been handed the maximum penalty. [Ahram Online, DNE, AP, Mada Masr, 2/25/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Libya MPs voice support for unity government
Following the further postponement of a House of Representatives (HOR) vote on Libya’s proposed unity government, 100 of the parliament’s 196 members signed an unofficial document supporting the Government of National Accord (GNA). The document was notable in that it had signatures of members spread across Libya’s political and geographical divides. Legislators said they were “forcibly prevented” from holding a confidence vote on the lineup of a new unity administration on Tuesday, when parliament lacked a quorum. The United States has backed the lawmakers, releasing a statement that welcomed the endorsement of the new cabinet and condemned all attempts to obstruct the Libyan political process. UN Special Envoy for Libya Martin Kobler called for an immediate step to formalize the parliamentary approval of a national unity government. [Libya Herald, AFP, AFP, UN News Center, UNSMIL, 2/24/2016]

UN gathers Libya war crimes evidence, calls for ICC action
All sides in Libya have committed war crimes and other human rights abuses in the past two years and those responsible should face investigation and prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), a United Nations report said on Thursday. An investigation by six UN human rights officers compiled evidence of executions of captives, arbitrary detention, assassinations of prominent women activists, widespread torture, sexual crimes, abductions, indiscriminate military attacks on civilian areas, and abuse of children since the start of 2014. “One of the most striking elements of this report lies in the complete impunity which continues to prevail in Libya and the systemic failures of the justice system,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement. The 95-page report is based on interviews with 200 witnesses and victims and 900 individual complaints. [UN OHCHR, Reuters, AP, 2/25/2016]

Libyan militia says it arrested ISIS leader
A Libyan militia affiliated with the country’s western government says it arrested the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) branch in the western city of Sabratha. The Special Deterrent Force (Rada) said in a Facebook post Thursday that it detained ISIS leader Mohammed Saad al-Tajouri and killed dozens of ISIS members in a gun battle. Al-Tajouri was also known as Abu Sulieman. Rada says he was sent by ISIS leaders in Sirte, a central city controlled by ISIS, to take charge of Sabratha. The militia says it will release videos of the arrest and al-Tajouri’s purported confessions. [AP, Libya Herald, 2/25/2016]

Tunisia police protest over pay, work conditions
Several thousand Tunisian policemen protested in front of the Prime Minister’s office on Thursday, chanting and demanding more pay and better working conditions. Chanting “Leave” and “Give us our rights,” protesters gathered near the premier’s office in the second rally by police in recent weeks. “We’ve come out a second time because the government does not want to understand. We are demanding our financial rights, and a better salary and risk premiums we deserve,” said Police Union Secretary-General Chokri Hamada. [Reuters, Mosaique FM (French), 2/25/2016]

Moroccan unions hold one-day general strike, aim to block pension plan in parliament
Morocco’s main trade unions, whose members control a sixth of the seats in parliament’s upper house, held a one-day strike on Wednesday, before saying they would seek to block a government draft bill to reform pensions. Public and private sector workers in Morocco’s four largest labor unions went on strike for 24 hours in protest at government efforts to overhaul spending on pensions and subsidies. The strike disrupted the port of Casablanca, Morocco’s biggest city, as well as transport and other sectors. The pension bill reached the second house of Morocco’s parliament last month but the government has so far failed to get it discussed. [Reuters, AP, 2/24/2016]


UN has high hopes for aid from Syria truce but airdrop flops
The UN’s first aid-drop over the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, part of which is under siege by ISIS, may have been off-target. UN aid chief Stephen O’Brien told the UN Security Council (UNSC) that initial reports from Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) teams on the ground suggested that the first cargo of 21 tonnes of aid dropped over Deir Ezzor had landed in the target area as planned. Wednesday’s operation faced technical difficulties and “adjustments” were needed, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said. It added that it would try again when possible to deliver aid to the 200,000 civilians who have been trapped in a government-held area since March 2014. The Justice for Life Observatory in Deir Ezzor, said the cargo was significantly damaged and that the SARC had only been able to collect three of six containers because half had fallen into inaccessible areas. Of the 21 palettes dropped by parachute, four were damaged, seven landed in areas that cannot be reached in a “no man’s land”, while ten remain unaccounted for, Bettina Luescher of WFP said. [Reuters, AFP, BBC, 2/25/16]

Syrian army recaptures town in Aleppo province from ISIS
On Thursday, the Syrian army retook a strategic town from ISIS in the Aleppo province. This area includes the sole supply route cut off by ISIS for the city residents of Aleppo. SOHR said troops still needed to clear the jihadists from hills overlooking the key highway before it could be fully secured. The road through the town of Khanasser is the sole link between government-held areas in and around Aleppo, and those in the rest of the country. State news agency SANA hailed its recapture just two days after its fall to the jihadists. The army’s counteroffensive was backed by Russian air strikes which killed 20 ISIS fighters, said SOHR. The victory is key for Syria’s military access to the provincial capital, Aleppo city. ISIS seized Khanaser and surrounding hills on Tuesday, cutting the government’s main land route to the city. SOHR says the army and pro-government Shia militias were backed by Russian air strikes in the push on Khanaser. [AFP, AP, 2/25/16]

UN to announce new round of Syria talks
On Friday, the United Nations will name a new date for Syrian peace talks to recommence, the UN’s Syria Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura has said as plans for a ceasefire due to come into force at the weekend began to take shape. De Mistura was forced to abandon the first round of talks on February 3, saying more preparatory work was needed from the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), led by the US and Russia. Disputes over the composition of the delegations, the lifting of sieges and the agenda for the talks meant the first substantive talks in years failed to get off the ground. De Mistura said today he would brief the UN Security Council (UNSC) on Friday about his plan to reconvene the talks and announce a date, most likely March 4. Many expect the UNSC to endorse the terms of the new ceasefire in a resolution. [Reuters, AFP, Guardian, 2/25/16]

Saudi warplanes to arrive at Turkey’s Incirlik air base
Warplanes from Saudi Arabia are expected to arrive at Turkey’s Incirlik base on Friday to take part in missions in Syria. Two C-130 military cargo planes, carrying approximately 30 Saudi Air Force personnel and military equipment had already arrived at Incirlik on Tuesday to prepare for the deployment of fighter jets. Four F-15s will arrive at the base on Friday. With the arrival of the Saudi air support, there will be five foreign countries with aircraft at Incirlik for military missions in Syria. This is the first time a non-NATO country deployed military forces to Incirlik since the base entered into service in 1955. This will also mark the first time Saudi warplanes have been deployed at a Turkish base for military operations. [Hurriyet, Daily Sabah, Today’s Zaman, 2/25/2016]

Turkey says Syria ceasefire is not binding if it threatens security
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said the “cessation of the hostilities” agreement in Syria, which will begin on February 27, will not be binding for Turkey if the country’s security is threatened. Speaking in his hometown of Konya at a ceremony on Thursday, Davutoglu said Turkey would take necessary measures against the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as well as ISIS. Turkey considers the PYD a terrorist organization due to its ties with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Although classifying the PKK as a terrorist organization, the United States says that in its opinion the PYD is not a terrorist group. Davutoglu said on Thursday that the YPG is no different from ISIS or the Nusra Front. [Today’s Zaman, Reuters, Hurriyet, Daily Sabah, 2/25/2016]

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


Governor of Anbar province says liberation of Fallujah will be faster than Ramadi
Governor of Anbar Province Suhaib al-Rawi said on Wednesday that the local government has established safe paths and havens for the displaced ahead of the battle for Fallujah. Rawi, who has just finished a tour of camps belonging to Hashd al-Shaabi in Ramadi, expressed his confidence in the plans to retake Fallujah from ISIS. This comes as Iraqi security forces and tribal fighters set out to liberate key roads linking Fallujah to its surrounding areas. [Iraqi News, 2/25/2016]

Eight-fold increase in US contractors in Iraq amid anti-ISIS fight
According to a recent report by the Pentagon, the number of private contractors hired by the Pentagon in Iraq has increased eightfold over the past year as US forces continue to combat ISIS. The number of contractors grew to 2,028 from just 250 a year earlier, while the troop numbers have seen a more modest rise, going from 2,300 one year ago to 3,700 now. In addition to the Pentagon contractors, another 5,800 are employed by other agencies, including the US Department of State. [IB Times, Defense One, 2/24/2016]

Improvement in Erbil-Riyadh relations angers Iraqi Shia MPs
After a Saudi Arabian envoy arrived in the Kurdistan Region to officially open his country’s Consulate General in Erbil, some Iraqi Shia are concerned over the improving relations between Erbil and Riyadh. Mohammed Saihod, a Shia Member of Iraqi Parliament, claimed that Saudi Arabia is interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs by strongly standing with the Kurds while their relations with the central government in Baghdad is dimming. [Bas News, 2/24/2016]


UAE troops pull out, Aden airport shut
Yemeni officials said troops from the United Arab Emirates pulled out of the airport in the southern city of Aden on Wednesday, a day after it was stormed by disgruntled pro-government fighters from the country’s south. The authorities then shut the airport, the country’s main air hub for the internationally recognized government and the Saudi-led coalition, which is helping government forces fight Houthi militants in the north. [The Daily Star, 2/25/2016]

European Parliament calls for Saudi arms embargo
The European Parliament called on the European Union to impose an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia on Thursday, saying Britain, France, and other EU governments should no longer sell weapons to a country accused of targeting civilians in Yemen. EU lawmakers, who voted overwhelmingly in favor of an embargo, said Britain had licensed more than $3 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia since Saudi-led forces began military operations in Yemen in March last year. According to the United Nations, nearly 6,000 people have been killed, almost half of them civilians, since the coalition entered the conflict. [Reuters, 2/25/2016]

Saudi Arabia urges Lebanon to act on Hezbollah in Yemen
A Saudi military spokesman urged Lebanon on Wednesday to stop the Shia Lebanese movement Hezbollah from exporting its “mercenaries” to Yemen and Syria. Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asiri said participation of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters violated UN Resolution 2216, which demanded an end to violence in the southern Arabian Peninsula country. Asiri made his statements after the internationally recognized Yemeni government said it had evidence that Hezbollah is backing Houthi militants. [Al Arabiya, 2/24/2016]

Turkish aid ship arrives in Aden
The Turkish relief ship Izmir arrived at the port of Aden on Wednesday. The ship contained 5,300 tons of food and medical supplies to be delivered to Yemenis affected by the war. The Turkish Foreign Ministry said Turkey will continue to stand by Yemen and will mobilize its humanitarian institutions to deliver aid quickly and effectively to areas in need throughout the world. [Al Masdar, 2/25/2016]


Gulf states to introduce VAT in 2018
Emirati Minister of State for Finance Affairs Obaid al-Tayer said the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are expected to agree on a framework for a value-added tax by June, with implementation starting January 1, 2018. The GCC states have been working on a plan to introduce a VAT of about 5 percent, which will exclude about 100 staple food items and health and education costs. Speaking at a joint press conference with Tayer, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Christine Lagarde called on Gulf governments to go beyond subsidy reforms and diversify revenue streams by raising VAT, corporate, property, and excise taxes. “In the absence of the natural taxation of high (oil) prices, clearly VAT and possibly corporation tax are certainly good avenues to pay for the services expected by the population, such as security, health, and education,” she said. Tayer welcomed the IMF’s recommendations, noting that while a possible corporate tax is being studied, the United Arab Emirates is not considering implementing an income tax. [FT, The National, Gulf News, 2/24/2016]

Egypt launches final sustainable development strategy for 2030
Egypt launched the final draft its sustainable development strategy for 2030 on Wednesday. The strategy aims to raise gross domestic product (GDP) growth to 12 percent in 2030, up from 4.2 percent last year, reduce the budget deficit to 2.28 percent from the current 11.5 percent, and reduce the unemployment rate to 5 percent from 12.8 percent. The strategy was first announced last March last year during the Economic Development Conference in Sharm al-Sheikh. “The sustainable development strategy incorporates economic, social, and environmental dimensions in addition to knowledge and innovations,” Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said. According to Ismail, the plan will also raise the private sector’s’ contribution to GDP to 75 percent from 60 percent. Egypt will continue to make the best use of aid from Arab Gulf countries and issue new securities to finance projects and international bonds, he added. Governor of the Central Bank of Egypt Tarek Amer said the bank’s main objective in the upcoming years is to boost the growth of small and medium enterprises. The CBE aims to finance 350,000 businesses and create 4 million new jobs. The government is also working to finish building  656,000 affordable housing units over the next two and a half years.  [Ahram Online, 2/24/2016]

European parliament backs duty-free olive oil imports from Tunisia
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have backed emergency plans to allow an additional 70,000 tonnes of Tunisian olive oil to be imported duty free into the European Union (EU) in 2016/2017. French politician and MEP Marielle de Sarnez said it was crucial that the EU “express its solidarity with the Tunisian people” by supporting the country’s economy. The MEPs are also requiring that the European Commission track the additional imports and conduct a midterm assessment of their effects in order to allow for revisions should they harm EU olive oil producers. They also rejected the possibility of extending the emergency measure beyond two years. In a separate resolution, MEPs welcomed the free trade talks launched with Tunisia in October 2015, calling for a “progressive and asymmetrical” agreement to contribute to Tunisia’s stability and economy. The resolutions come as Tunisia faces increasing unrest over economic grievances. On Thursday, several thousand policemen protested in front of the prime minister’s office to demand more pay and better working conditions. [European Parliament, 2/25/2016]

IMF upgrades Turkey’s growth forecast for 2016
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) upgraded its 2016 growth forecast for Turkey by 0.3 points to 3.2 percent in a report released Wednesday. Growth in 2017 was also revised down to 3.6 percent from 3.7 percent. The report warned that the global economy is “highly vulnerable” to adverse shocks. Heightened risk aversion has triggered global equity market declines and brought a tightening of external financial conditions for emerging economies. Strong policy responses both at national and multilateral levels are needed to contain risks and help the global economy reach a “more prosperous path,” the IMF said. [Hurriyet, Anadolu Agency, 2/25/2016]