Top News: Syria peace talks hit trouble after Damascus blast kills 60

Syria’s main opposition group met UN mediator Staffan de Mistura for the first time on Sunday, but the peace process ran straight into trouble after Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) bombers killed more than 60 people near the country’s holiest Shia shrine. Representatives of the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiation Committee, which includes political and militant opponents of President Bashar al-Assad, warned they may yet walk away from the Geneva talks unless the suffering of civilians is eased. The head of the Syrian government delegation retorted that the blasts in Damascus, which the Interior Ministry blamed on a car bomb and two suicide bombers, merely confirmed the link between the opposition and terrorism even though ISIS has been excluded from the talks. [Reuters, Al Arabiya, 1/31/2016]



Cartoonist released after one night in detention; NGO founder detained at airport
Cairo prosecutors ordered on Monday the release of Egyptian cartoonist Islam Gawish without filing charges against him a day after he was arrested. The Ministry of Interior said Gawish, the owner of a satirical caricature Facebook page, was arrested Sunday at the headquarters of the news website, Egypt News Network (ENN), which they raided after official investigations revealed that it was publishing news without a license. An ENN accountant was also arrested but released on the same day. The prosecution on Monday determined that Gawish had nothing to do with the content of news website ENN, and that his relationship with website was only technical. The prosecution added that Gawish is not a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood nor any other terrorist organization. Gawish’s colleague, however, had told Mada Masr that the complaint and arrest warrant were issued by the artistic products police department against the manager of the company where Gawish works, but he was arrested for possession of drawings offensive to the state. [Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, 2/1/2016]

Egyptian Christian students stand trial for insulting Islam
Three Coptic Christian students facing charges of insulting Islam are standing trial this week after appearing in a video mocking Muslim prayers, one of a series of court cases that reflect lingering religious intolerance and Muslim-Christian tensions in Egypt. The trial began Thursday and was postponed on Saturday to February 4. Their teacher was previously sentenced to three years in prison in a separate trial on the same charges, according to lawyer Maher Naguib. The teacher is currently out on bail awaiting an appeal. The four 16 and 17 year-olds reportedly made a video about the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) causing a backlash in their local neighborhood, resulting in their arrest. [AP, Mada Masr, 2/1/2016]

Foreign Ministry says will not comment on HRW report
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zaid said that government will not comment on the annual report issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as it is issued by a “biased and unobjective” organization. “The report is a compilation of previous reports, that we have reviewed individually and found inaccurate,” he said. Abu Zaid added that the report contains contradictions; an example being that the report states that “the Egyptian government uses terrorism as an excuse [for violations] and in the same report it points to increasing terrorism.”  The report included claims that at least 3,000 people were charged or sentenced before military courts, and detailed the situation on a number of issues, including armed groups, counterterrorism, security force abuses, accountability, arrests, mass death sentences, freedom of association, expression, assembly and religion, women’s rights, LGTB rights and refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants. [DNE, 1/30/2016]

High Administrative court says it has no jurisdiction over protest law
Egypt’s High Administrative Court declined to hear an appeal on Monday against the controversial protest law, citing “lack of jurisdiction.” The court said all state council courts have no authority to review the law, reasoning that the 2013 law was a legislative rather than an administrative decision. The law was first challenged last year in front of a lower administrative court, which declined to rule in the case, opting to refer it to the high administrative court. Egypt’s constitutional court is currently looking into another lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law. [Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, 2/1/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


White House says United States will support efforts to resolve political chaos in Libya
The United States strongly supports efforts to diplomatically resolve political issues in Libya as part of its strategy toward ISIS, the White House said on Friday. In a briefing with reporters, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States is concerned about security in Libya and mindful of the risk ISIS poses to areas of political chaos. “We’re going to confront [ISIS] and continue to confront it in the way that we have now for many months,” he said. [Reuters, 1/29/2016]

African Union to name team to tackle Libya conflict
African Union leaders have named a taskforce of five heads of state to address the conflict in Libya, where Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) is gaining ground, a top AU diplomat said Sunday. Effective action in Libya will only be possible “if we have a government in place,” AU Peace and Security Council Chief Smail Chergui told reporters, adding that the African Union does not believe in a military solution to Libya’s crisis at this time. Instead, AU presidents have decided to relaunch the High Level Contact Group on Libya, a team of five heads of state. The team has not yet been named. [AFP, Libya Herald, 1/31/2016]

Libya’s Prime Minister-designate meets eastern army chief
Prime Minister-designate Fayez Serraj flew to Marj on Saturday for talks with Libyan National Army chief General Khalifa Haftar. Serraj was with two of his five deputies, Ali Gatrani and Fathi Majbar. Haftar had with him Air Force Commander Saqr Adam Geroushi and Army Chief of Staff Major-General Abdul Razzaq Nazhuri. Neither office released a press statement after the meeting. On Saturday, Presidency Council member Mohammed Ammari suspended his membership in the council to protest the meeting. Serraj’s trip also brought strong condemnation from Ahmed Maetig, one of the five deputy prime ministers-designate, who said he had only learned about the visit through the media. [Libya Herald, 1/31/2016]

Algeria parliament to adopt reform on presidential terms
Algeria’s parliament is to meet on Wednesday to adopt a draft revision of the constitution limiting the number of presidential terms to two, according to the president’s office. An official statement said President Abdelaziz Bouteflika signed a decree to that effect on Saturday. The revision would restore the two-term limit which was suppressed in 2008. Also on Saturday, the presidency confirmed the creation of a new intelligence organization following the dissolution of the powerful Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), which has been replaced by three security branches reporting directly to the presidency. Retired general Athman Tartag, an ex-security adviser to Bouteflika, is to head the new departments. [AFP, 1/30/2016]


Syria’s indirect peace talks likely to be delayed
A spokeswoman for UN envoy Staffan de Mistura Khawla Mattar says indirect talks between the Syrian government and the opposition are likely to be delayed. She did not elaborate, saying only that the talks are unlikely to begin Monday. Secretary of State John Kerry is imploring Syria’s government and rebels to take advantage of UN-sponsored peace negotiations. Kerry, the diplomatic effort’s main architect, says the nearly five-year war must end. He says a ceasefire would allow all to focus on defeating ISIS. The Higher Negotiation Committee says it will not engage in the talks until several preconditions are met. The rebels also have deep reservations about the negotiation process. Syria’s warring sides on Sunday exchanged accusations; the opposition accused President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of working to ensure Geneva talks fails. Mattar said it was necessary for de Mistura to meet with the opposition first and that a meeting with the government would happen later. [AP, 2/1/2016]

Russian air force continues bombing ‘terrorists’ in Syria
Russia’s air force has carried out 468 sorties in Syria over the past week, hitting more than 1,300 “terrorist” targets, Russian news agencies quoted Russia’s Defense Ministry as saying on Monday. The Defense Ministry also reportedly delivered more than 200 tonnes of humanitarian aid to the besieged Syrian town of Deir Ezzor in January. Russia is strengthening all types of reconnaissance in the Middle East to better locate terrorist targets and hit them faster, Defense Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov was quoted as saying. Meanwhile Russia’s air forces have destroyed a stash of oil products belonging to Islamist group Jaysh al-Islam in the Syrian province of Damascus, Konashekov stated on Monday. Russian air strikes on Syria have killed nearly 1,400 civilians since Moscow started its aerial campaign nearly four months ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said on Saturday. [Reuters, 2/1/2016]

Jordan PM links Syrian refugee admissions to foreign aid
Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour warned Saturday that it would be difficult to keep absorbing Syrian refugees unless his country receives significant economic aid and easier access to European markets. Ensour made the link between refugee admissions and aid on Saturday, during a visit to the UN-run Azraq refugee camp. He spoke ahead of next week’s Syria conference where pledges of $9 billion are being sought for 2016 to alleviate the fallout from the civil war. The number of Syrian refugees stranded on Jordan’s border and waiting for permission to enter has risen to 20,000, with 4,000 to 5,000 more arriving in the remote desert area every month. Jordan has recently only permitted several dozen refugees to enter each day, leading to rapidly growing crowds of Syrians, including women and children, who are stuck in two areas along the Syrian-Jordanian border. [AP, 1/31/16]

Turkey warns Russia after alleging new airspace breach
Turkey on Friday accused Russia of violating its airspace for the second time in recent months. Turkey’s foreign ministry said in a statement that a SU-34 Russian fighter jet entered the country’s airspace at 11:46 a.m. on Friday after radar units warned it to turn back in English and Russian. “We once again explicitly call on Russia to act responsibly and not to violate Turkish Airspace, which is NATO airspace,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. “We underline that such actions could lead to serious consequences, the responsibility of which will totally rest with the Russian Federation.” Russian officials have dismissed the claims as baseless propaganda and Defense Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov said, “There has not been a single violation of Turkish airspace by Russia air force planes in Syria. On Saturday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on Russia “to act responsibly and to fully respect NATO airspace.” He said, “Russia must take all necessary measures to ensure that such violations do not happen again.” [Al Jazeera, NYT, Guardian, AP, Hurriyet, 1/30/2016]

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


Electricity supply in Iraq’s Kurdistan region hit by blast
A pipeline for gas used to generate around half the electricity in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region was blown up on Friday, knocking out power. The explosion struck the pipeline in the Qader Karam district of Kirkuk, according to police chief Serhad Qader, who said it was caused by two homemade bombs. The head of electricity distribution in Kurdistan, Omid Ahmed Mohammed, said the blast had initially reduced the region’s total electricity supply to around 400 megawatts (MW) from 2,850 MW, but authorities later managed to return it to around 2,000 MW by drawing on other sources. It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack. [Reuters, 1/29/2016]

UN asks for $861 million to help Iraq meet humanitarian bill
The United Nations appealed for $861 million to help Iraq meet a big funding gap in its 2016 emergency response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the war against ISIS. Baghdad, whose revenues have fallen as oil prices have plunged, has said it would manage to finance less than half of its $1.56 billion plan to assist ten million people in need. “With the expanding needs, the allocation through the federal budget will not be sufficient. We expect that the highly prioritized Humanitarian Response Plan will help cover part of the gap,” Minister of Migration and Displacement Jassim Mohammed al-Jaff said in a statement. UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq Lise Grande said she expected the crisis in Iraq to worsen in coming months due to the large numbers of civilians expected to flee Mosul when Iraqi forces mount an offensive to retake the city in the coming months. [Reuters, UN Iraq, IB Times, 2/1/2016]

Attacks on Iraq’s Sunnis could constitute war crimes
The abduction and killing of scores of Sunni civilians in eastern Iraq this month and attacks on their property by Iranian-backed Shia militiamen could constitute a war crime, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Sunday. HRW said members of the Badr Organisation and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, leading groups in the government-run Popular Mobilization Forces fighting ISIS, were responsible for numerous retaliatory attacks it described as serious violations of international humanitarian law. “Again civilians are paying the price for Iraq’s failure to rein in the out-of-control militias … Countries that support Iraqi security forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces should insist that Baghdad bring an end to this deadly abuse,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at the New York office of HRW. [NYT, ABC News, 1/31/2016]


Al-Qaeda militants seize southern Yemeni town
Dozens of Al-Qaeda militants reclaimed the town of Azzan in Yemen’s Shabwa province on Monday, residents said, exploiting a security vacuum in the country’s south as a civil war rages. Azzan is a major commercial hub of about 70,000 people in an arid and mountainous region and was controlled by Al-Qaeda for around a year until the group was ejected in 2012 by an alliance of tribesmen and armed residents loyal to Yemen’s since ousted central government. “Dozens of Al-Qaeda gunmen arrived in the early hours of the morning and set up checkpoints at the entrances to the town and in its streets. They planted their black flag on government buildings,” one resident who declined to be named said. “They faced no resistance or clashes,” the resident said, adding that tribal militia forces quit the area as it was being taken over. [Reuters, 2/1/2016]

Security chief assassinated in Aden
Yemeni Chief of Security Sheikh Saleh bin Farid al-Awlaki on Monday was assassinated by unidentified gunmen in Aden’s interim capital of Mansoura. Witnesses said two gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire on a vehicle carrying al-Awlaki, killing him instantly. [Al Masdar, 2/1/2016]

Minister of Planning says rebuilding Yemen could cost $100 billion
Yemeni Minister of Planning Mohammed al-Maitami said on Monday he expects the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to contribute 70 percent of the cost to rebuild Yemen, which is estimated to be $100 billion, over the next five years. Al-Maitami that the GCC is currently working on a plan for the reconstruction of Yemen through a field survey that will determine the cost of the destruction of roads, facilities, and public and private buildings. He added that the plan focuses on areas under government control and in providing basic services in the health, education, electricity, water, sanitation, and housing sectors. [Al Masdar, 2/1/2016]

Saudi-Turkish agreement to address Iranian interference
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Sunday that talks held by the Saudi and Turkish delegations during Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu’s visit to Saudi Arabia touched on addressing Iran’s aggression towards countries in the region. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz held official talks with Davutoglu in Riyadh where they discussed the strengthening of relations between the two countries and regional and international developments. Al-Jubeir said during a press conference that he held with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Riyadh that they also discussed the establishment of a strategic coordination council between Saudi Arabia and Turkey and the details of joint cooperation. He also stressed that Saudi Arabia supports Turkey’s position on defending its territories as it deems appropriate. [Asharq Al-Awsat, 2/1/2016]

US officials say Americans not believed among militants detained by Saudis
US officials said on Sunday they did not believe nine US citizens were among 33 suspects detained on terrorism charges in Saudi Arabia over the past week, as reported by a Saudi newspaper. The English-language daily Saudi Gazette citing an unnamed source on Sunday reported that four Americans were detained last Monday, followed by another five in the following days. Saudi authorities also detained 14 Saudis, three Yemenis, two Syrians, an Indonesian, a Filipino, an Emirati, a Palestinian, and a citizen of Kazakhstan, the report said. US officials said that the US government could not confirm if any Americans were among the 33 suspects detained. [Reuters, 1/31/2016]

Saudi-led coalition says will work to reduce Yemen civilian deaths
A Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen regrets civilian deaths, which it says are unintentional, and is improving its targeting mechanisms with Western help, the alliance said on Sunday. “[The coalition] greatly regrets civilian casualties in Yemen,” it said in a statement posted by Saudi Arabia’s mission to the United Nations on its Twitter page. A UN report on Wednesday said the Saudi-led coalition has targeted civilians in Yemen, documenting 119 sorties it said related to violations of international humanitarian law. “The Arab coalition announces the formation of a high-level independent committee … to evaluate the events, identification and targeting mechanisms and developing them,” the Saudi mission’s statement said. [Reuters, 1/31/2016]


Baghdad and KRG agree to cooperate on economic reform
A delegation from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) met Sunday with the Iraqi government and agreed to cooperate on reforms aimed at addressing an acute economic crisis. The Kurdish delegation, led by KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other senior government officials. Abadi’s spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said further meetings with the KRG will be held on a regular basis. Iraqi Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said last week that the economic crisis is forcing the KRG to consider reviving a deal with Baghdad to reinstate the region’s budget share in return for exporting oil under state auspices. Iraq on Saturday expressed willingness to accept a decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC members to cut crude production. Meanwhile, the KRG said Monday that it will pay international oil companies according to their contractual entitlements in 2016. [Reuters, 1/31/2016]

Saudi Arabia willing to cooperate to support oil
Saudi Arabia wants to cooperate with other oil producers to support the oil market, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television reported on Sunday, quoting an unnamed Saudi source. The source also said that the kingdom was not the source of a proposal to cut oil production. Russia said on Thursday that OPEC had proposed oil production cuts of up to 5 percent. The Saudi source said that the proposal was not new. Saudi Arabia has said it is willing to act to stabilize prices, but that other higher-cost producers must also reduce their output. [Al Arabiya, Reuters, 1/31/2016]

IMF says Bahrain should cut deficit as oil prices fall
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Friday urged Bahrain to take “sizable” steps to reduce its growing budget deficit as falling oil prices have sharply reduced exports and government revenues. The warning followed the IMF’s annual consultation with Bahrain. The IMF said it forecasts Bahrain’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth will fall to 2.2 percent in 2016 from 3.2 percent in 2015 and 4.5 percent in 2014. The country’s budget deficit will remain high at 15 percent of GDP. “With the oil price decline expected to persist over the medium term, external and fiscal vulnerabilities have intensified, and consumer and investor sentiment has weakened,” the IMF said in its review. Finance Minister Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed al-Khalifa said Bahrain is planning austerity steps to cut its budget deficit in line with IMF recommendations. “Bahrain’s Government Action Plan, currently underway, includes wide-ranging measures that will ensure the sustainability of Bahrain’s financial resources and development, benefiting the entire country,” he said.[Reuters, 1/29/2016]

Egypt raises customs levy on imported goods
Egypt has placed new import duties on luxury goods, applying a presidential decree published in the official Gazette on Sunday aimed at steering demand toward local products. The affected goods include household appliances, consumer electronics, clothing, perfumes, pens, lighters, watches, and nuts. Customs tariffs were raised by as much as 100 percent on items like some fruits and nuts, while duties on other goods were increased between 25 percent and 50 percent. Head of Egypt’s Customs Authority Magdy Abdel Aziz said the new tariffs would help local industry and “lessen pressure on foreign currency” demand. “The decision to raise tariffs on 500-600 imported commodities will up the customs toll by EGP1 billion ($128 million) during the second half of fiscal year 2015/16,” he said. [AP, Bloomberg, Ahram Online, 1/31/2016]

Egypt to launch agricultural commodities bourse by year-end
Egypt plans to launch an agriculturally focused commodities trading exchange, the first of its kind in the Middle East, by the end of 2016, Supplies Minister Khaled Hanafi said Monday. Hanafi said its will protect small farmers from volatile price swings and help to connect their output to supply chains. “Egypt is the biggest importer of grains, and it will benefit from this, turning this from a point of weakness into a strength as Egypt becomes a point of exchange for the whole region,” he said. The next step is to draw up regulations and establish the electronic infrastructure that will connect traders with farmers, he added. Egypt announced plans to set up a global commodities center in 2014, but gave few details at the time. [Reuters, 2/1/2016]