Top News: Syrian government forces open new battle with rebels in northwest

Syrian government forces launched an attack Wednesday to capture a rebel-held hill in northwestern Syria, a rebel official and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported, an expansion of operations that have continued in that area despite the ceasefire. Rebels said the assault on Kabani hill in the province of Latakia was supported by Russian air strikes.The hill overlooks the rebel-held town of Jisr al-Shughour in neighboring Idlib province and the Ghab Plain. “The regime and militias are trying to storm [the hill] under very fierce Russian air cover and artillery fire,” said Fadi Ahmad, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s First Coastal Division. SOHR Director Rami Abdulrahman said, “If the regime is able to capture Kabani hill, the insurgents will be in a difficult position.” [Reuters, 3/2/2016]



Military court confirms seven death sentences for Kafr al-Sheikh bombing
The Alexandria Military Court approved death sentences for seven defendants in the Kafr al-Sheikh stadium case on Wednesday in which three military academy students were killed. Five other defendants were sentenced to life, two received 15-year sentences, and two received three-year sentences. Six were sentenced in absentia. The sixteen defendants were on trial for charges of murder, committing acts of terror, and for belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The No to Military Trials for Civilians group issued a statement in anticipation of the verdict calling for the “annulment of death sentences already passed and the retrial of all civilians before a civilian judge with all guarantees for serving justice.” The court issued a preliminary death sentence to the seven defendants in February 2016. The sentences were referred to the Grand Mufti who upheld them. [DNE, Cairo Post, 3/2/2016]

Sinai State reportedly kills father, son in public square; three soldiers killed in Sinai blast
Journalists in North Sinai have said that a man and his son were killed by members of Sinai State in a public square in the city of al-Arish. Journalist and Arish resident Ahmed Abu Darea said, “Four masked people drove into al-Fakhwaryia Square after kidnapping the victims. They began firing their weapons as soon as they reached the square. They killed the son first and then slaughtered his father. All this happened in five minutes.” Activists reported that Egypt’s Islamic State affiliate, Sinai State, was behind the attack. Abu Darea said this was the first incident of its kind in Arish. The Ministry of Interior, however, issued a statement saying that Rady Soliman Abu Sabie and his son Soliman were killed by three men over a dispute. The statement made no mention of Sinai State. Sinai State sympathizers circulated a message on social media claiming the militant group killed the men for collaborating with the army. Sinai State has not released an official statement. Meanwhile, three soldiers were reportedly killed and at least one injured Wednesday in an attack on an army patrol near Sinai’s Sheikh Zuweid. The Armed Forces has yet to issue official details on the attack. The Sinai State claimed responsibility, circulating images of the attack on social media. [DNE, 3/2/2016]

Despite closure order, Nadeem reports Interior Ministry violations in February 2016
The Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Violence of Victims released a report Monday highlighting violations by the Ministry of Interior in February 2016. The center continued its work documenting violations via social media despite a warrant for closure from the Ministry of Health. The report stated 111 people were killed in February alone, including 65 extrajudicial killings, 35 air bombings, eight disputes with low-ranking police officers, one torture case, and one death from being thrown off a building. Eight people died in detention due to torture, medical negligence, and gas poisoning. Eighty-eight cases of torture and 42 cases of police brutality occurred in February according to the report, which also documented 155 cases of enforced disappearances and 44 cases of medical negligence in detention, including nine patients diagnosed with cancer. In a special report on al-Aqrab prison, the Nadeem Center highlighted several violations including poor living conditions, assaults by police, and denial visitation rights. In related news, seven members of the semi-governmental National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) inspected a Minya prison Monday. The NCHR statement made no mention of poor conditions in the prison, but said that ministry officials confirmed they would take the council’s advice into consideration, in accordance with prison laws. Egyptian journalists are staging a protest on Wednesday evening in front of the Press Syndicate to bring attention to the harsh conditions detained journalists are facing in prison. [DNE, 3/2/2016]

Forensic Authority, Justice Ministry deny reports about Italian student’s repeated torture
Justice Minister’s Forensics aide Shaaban al-Shamy said Tuesday that media reports about the repeated torture of an Italian student prior to his murder in Cairo are “lies.” The aide denied that Forensics Authority head Hisham Abdel-Hamid told prosecutors that the autopsy of 28-year-old Giulio Regeni showed torture in sporadic intervals spanning seven days prior to his death. Shamy added that Abdel-Hamid neither testified in front of the prosecution nor was he asked to. Abdel-Hamid said on Wednesday that he had not met with prosecutors or made statements to them regarding signs of torture on student’s body, as suggested by Reuters. He also denied making any statements that indicated that Regeni had been tortured over a period of several days in order to gain information. “That piece of news is totally fabricated and untrue,” he said in a statement on Wednesday, urging media outlets to be more careful in dealing with information relating to Forensics Authority reports. [Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, Cairo Post, 3/1/2016]

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UN human rights report on civilian casualties in Libya
In January and February 2016, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) documented 66 civilian casualties, including 28 deaths and 38 injuries, during the conduct of hostilities across Libya. Victims included five children killed and seven injured, 17 men killed and 31 injured, and six women killed. The majority of deaths and injuries were caused by shelling, including mortars, artillery and other indirect weapons (16 deaths, 26 injuries), while the next leading cause was gun shots (six deaths, 10 injuries) and explosive remnants of war (four deaths and one injury), aerial bombardments (two deaths) and suicide attack (one injury). UNSMIL documented 14 deaths and 14 injured in Benghazi, six deaths in Ajdabiya, three deaths in Derna, two deaths and 16 injured in Sabha, one death and six injured in al-Marj, one death and one injured in Tripoli, one death in Tobruk and one injured in Ras Lanuf. [UNSMIL, AP, AFP, Libya Herald, 3/1/2016]

Eastern Libyan parliamentary delegation in Tripoli; negotiations in Cairo
A five-member delegation from Libya’s eastern parliament, the House of Representatives (HOR) has arrived in Tripoli to meet with General National Congress (GNC) leadership, hoping to revive a “Libya-Libya” dialogue launched in December. The HOR team is due to stay in Tripoli for a week of talks with the GNC. At the same time, informal talks are said to be underway in Cairo. This round of negotiations aims to reach an agreement finalizing a unity government through the UN-led process and includes UN Special Envoy to Libya Martin Kobler, Tobruk parliament speaker Aqila Saleh Issa, and Prime Minister-designate Fayez Serraj. Local media said the talks are being held behind closed doors and details will be announced only after an agreement is reached. [Libya Herald, ANSAmed, 3/1/2016]

Germany in deal to send home Tunisians not needing asylum
Germany has concluded a deal with Tunisia to repatriate Tunisians whose asylum bids have failed, as part of a plan to reduce the large influx of migrants to the country. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said during a visit to Tunis that the two countries have agreed to send home 20 Tunisians in a “pilot project” and that charter flights would return others later. He didn’t say how many Tunisians would ultimately be concerned. The move follows a decision by the German government last month to declare Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria “safe countries of origin,” a label aimed at dissuading their citizens from traveling to Germany. [AP, Deutsche Welle, TAP, 3/1/2016]

Tunisian President receives Qatar’s Prime Minister
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi received Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior of Qatar Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani on Tuesday. The Qatari Prime Minister affirmed his country’s support to Tunisia in different fields, particularly economy and development, the Presidency said in a press release. The meeting also discussed bilateral relations and ways to strengthen the relationship, in anticipation of Essebsi’s upcoming visit to Qatar. [TAP, 3/1/2016]


UN to restart Syria peace talks on March 9
The United Nations will delay the next round of Syria peace talks by two days to allow the cessation of hostilities in force since Saturday to take hold, UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said. International observers acknowledged violations of the agreement intended to halt nearly five years of fighting while reporting that the level of violence decreased considerably. “We are delaying it to the afternoon of [March] 9 for logistical and technical reasons and also for the ceasefire to better settle down,” de Mistura said Tuesday. The cessation of hostilities was “a glimmer of hope,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said, although he accused the opposition of violating the agreement. On Wednesday, Syrian opposition official George Sabra said dates for a resumption of the peace talks remained hypothetical as long as the current truce does not fulfill its humanitarian demands. [Daily Star, AFP, BBC, 3/2/2016]

Jordan says operation near Syria border foiled ISIS attacks
Jordan said Wednesday that a raid near its border with Syria that killed seven suspected jihadists had foiled attacks being plotted by the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in the kingdom. ISIS had planned “attacks against civilian and military sites in order to destabilize national security,” Jordan’s intelligence services said in a statement. An officer in the security forces was also killed in the raid on a building in Irbid, just north of Amman, that sparked several hours of fighting until dawn on Wednesday, officials said. “The terrorists refused to surrender and put up strong resistance using automatic weapons,” the statement said, adding that the dead jihadists were wearing suicide vests. Thirteen people linked to the cell were arrested and automatic weapons and explosives were seized, it added. [AFP, Reuters, AP, BBC, 3/2/2016]

Kurdish-led fighters close in on Syria’s Aleppo city
Syrian opposition activists and state media say a Kurdish-led fighting alliance has captured Castello hill overlooking a main road in Aleppo from the Nusra Front and its allies in a surprise offensive aimed at encircling the northern city. The predominantly Kurdish US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) offensive on Wednesday most likely does not break the ceasefire that came into effect Friday, because the Nusra Front is excluded from the agreement. Syrian state TV reported that pro-government gunmen captured Castello hill, “cutting supply lines for terrorists” in eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo with southern parts of the Aleppo province. The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the primary component of the SDF, also announced Wednesday that 43 of its fighters were killed when ISIS militants attacked the town of Tel Abyad on the Turkish border this weekend. [AP, 3/2/2016]

Ankara denies it is blocking NATO’s Aegean operation; EU returns 150 migrants to Turkey
Ankara has denied the accuracy of a report which has suggested that NATO vessels deployed in the Aegean Sea to help stop the flow of migrants to Europe have not yet started operating in Turkish waters because they have not been given permission yet from Turkey. “We don’t feel it necessary to respond to the comments, the source of which we do not know and which are obviously fabricated and most probably aimed at creating provocation. Work is going on to have NATO activity conducted as planned,” Turkish officials said on March 2. Meanwhile, the European Union returned migrants who crossed into EU territory to Turkey, as part of a deal reached last year. The migrants will stay at Turkish state-run facilities until their country of origin is determined, at which time they will be deported. Turkey offered on to sign readmission agreements with 14 countries, the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman said on Wednesday. The move would enable it to more quickly take back migrants rejected by the European Union. [Hurriyet, Today’s Zaman, 3/2/2016]

Turkey’s Diyarbakir governorate bans entry to Sur ahead of protest march
Speaking on Monday, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas called on people to march on Wednesday to protest the more than 90-day-long curfew in Diyarbakır’s Sur district. “This is a democratic right guaranteed by the constitution,” he said. In remarks to reporters in parliament on Wednesday, Interior Minister Efkan Ala commented on Demirtas’s call, saying it was an open provocation, and that “those who make provocations bear the consequences.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has urged prosecutors to take legal action against the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and the Diyarbakir Public Prosecutor’s Office has launched a probe into the party’s co-chairs. In a statement released on its website on Wednesday the Diyarbakır Governor’s Office said that on Wednesday no one would be allowed to enter the district except those residing there in order to secure public order. [Hurriyet, Anadolu Agency, Today’s Zaman, 3/2/2016]

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


Iraq hails progress troops achieved in military operation
Iraqi officials hailed the progress achieved by government troops on the second day of a military operation, called Al-Jazeera Security in reference to the desert area of Samarra and Tikrit, aimed at dislodging ISIS from the key area north of Baghdad. “We have achieved a big success,” the commander of the Iraqi Air Force, Staff General Hamid al-Maliki, said in a video distributed by the Defense Ministry. He added that government forces had progressed farther than expected and hailed paramilitary forces, composed mainly of Shia militiamen, as playing “a big role” alongside government security forces. Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, an Iraqi military spokesman, told state television, “These operations will play a significant role in cutting all the supply routes in areas still under the terrorists’ control.” Ahead of the confrontation, the Defense Ministry authorized Iraqi jets to drop leaflets over Ninevah and Salahuddin provinces, including Heet, Samarra, and Tel Afar, advising civilians to stay away from ISIS positions in the areas. [AP, Reuters, 3/2/2016]

US Special Forces capture ISIS operative
US Special Operations forces have captured their first suspected ISIS operative in northern Iraq as part of a highly secretive targeting team led by the Army’s elite Delta Force. The detainee is being interrogated by the United States and is expected to be turned over to Iraqi officials in the coming days. Prior to the capture, the 200-member Special Operations team spent weeks on the ground developing intelligence and setting up safe houses with Iraqi and Kurdish forces to establish informant networks. Coinciding with the start of special operations against ISIS, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Defense Minister Khaled al-Obaidi on Tuesday. Stoltenberg praised the bravery of Iraqi security forces and reiterated NATO’s support for Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIS. [NYT, CNN, 3/1/2016]

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iran sign education agreement
An Iranian delegation led by the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Salar Amoli met with Dr. Yousif Goran, the KRG’s Minister of Higher Education on Tuesday and signed a five-year education exchange agreement. According to Goran, the agreement seeks to exchange “students and teachers between Kurdish and Iranian universities to develop high educational standards between the two.” [Rudaw, 3/1/2016]


Hadi heads extraordinary meeting in Riyadh
Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi held an extraordinary meeting on Wednesday with his board of advisors and the Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. Hadi stressed the importance of strengthening the political system with the goal of restoring the state and the implementation of the Gulf Initiative, UN Resolution 2216, and the Riyadh Declaration. The meeting covered a number of issues with a focus on building an effective state that promotes integration and cooperation. [Al Masdar, 3/2/2016]

Al-Ahmar says Yemen liberation imminent
Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar on Monday vowed to defeat Iran-backed Al Houthis and their military allies as government forces are amassing near the capital. In the strongest statement since taking charge on February 22, Ahmar said that decisive victory is “imminent” and the days of the “putschists” are coming to an end soon, referring to Houthi militants. [Gulf News, 3/2/2016]

Gulf Arab states label Hezbollah a terrorist organization
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization on Wednesday, ratcheting up pressure on the Iran-allied group that wields influence in Lebanon and plays a key role in the Syrian crisis. Gulf Arab states imposed sanctions on Hezbollah members in 2013 in retaliation for the group’s intervention in Syria’s civil war in support of President Bashar al-Assad. Individual GCC countries–including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain–have labeled the group terrorists. But GCC Secretary-General Abdullatif al-Zayani said that the GCC had now taken a collective decision on the group. [Reuters, 3/2/2016]

Saudi airstrike hits near Doctors Without Borders facility
Doctors Without Borders said on Wednesday its staffers are afraid to resume their work in a facility it supports in the northern Yemeni city of Saada after two nearby airstrikes by the Saudi-led military coalition. The aid group said in Twitter postings that the airstrikes hit 20 meters from the hospital Tuesday and bombings have forced evacuation of their facility in the Raza district in Saada. The Saudi coalition has declared the city, a stronghold of Shia Houthi rebels, a military zone. The same facility came under airstrikes in January where four were killed and ten were injured. [AP, 3/2/2016]


Egypt seen raising interest rates as pressures mount
Rising yields on Egyptian treasuries signal the market is expecting the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) to raise interest rates this month to dampen inflation and ease mounting pressure on the currency, bankers and economists say. Egypt cancelled a treasury bond sale on Monday as yields soared, with banks apparently unwilling to fund increasingly expensive and risky borrowing. The CBE raised interest rates by 50 basis points in December. However the move did not immediately feed into treasury yields as state-owned banks bid down rates at regular auctions to minimize the cost of government borrowing, bankers said. The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) kept rates on hold last month. Economists expect it will hike rates at the next meeting on March 17. “The yields on treasuries… are signaling that the market is expecting a hike in interest rates in the upcoming MPC meeting, which in our view is definitely the expected direction in 2016,” said Senior Economist at CI Capital Hany Farahat. [Reuters, 3/1/2016]

Egypt to double natural gas production by mid-2017
Egypt will double its natural gas production by the second quarter of 2017 as a result of discoveries made in 2015, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said Tuesday. Italian oil and gas company Eni made discoveries of gas in August 2015 that reach a potential of 15 billion cubic feet in Egypt’s Delta region. The upsurge in production will contribute to advancing development projects in different fields including industrial sector, Ismail said. He also said the upcoming period will require an increase in the resources available to the state budget. “There is no substitute for reform, especially in the administrative field, in order to achieve our development goals,” he said. [Aswat Masriya, 3/2/2016]

Tunisia sees 0.8 percent economic growth in 2015
Tunisia’s economic growth stood at 0.8 percent in 2015, above estimates of 0.5 percent, according to the Central Bank of Tunisia (BCT). A slowdown in growth in the last quarter of the year occurred “due to the decline in the added value of the main sectors, particularly non-manufactured industries, market services, and manufacturing industries,” the BCT said. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate increased by 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015 to 15.4 percent. The unemployment rate for university graduates decreased by 0.8 percent but remained high at 31.2 percent. The BCT also said that Tunisia’s trade deficit fell by 40.6 percent in January compared to the same period last year. [TAP, 3/1/2016]

UAE bank says dollar supply tight after oil drop
The National Bank of Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) largest bank, said the country is facing a reduced supply of dollars. “There is a dollar shortage,” Chief Executive Officer Alex Thursby said Wednesday. “It’s not a crisis, but it is tightening,” he said. He said in October last year that government deposits in the UAE slumped by more than $13 billion after the drop in global oil prices. Banks in the UAE are facing deteriorating conditions as lower crude leads to a decline in government spending, slower economic growth, and falling asset quality, according to Standard & Poor’s. “Lower oil proceeds [have] led to an important drop in government bank deposits,” said Philippe Dauba-Pantanacce of Standard Chartered Plc in London. [Bloomberg, 3/2/2016]

Moody’s says Turkey’s economic growth outlook stronger
Moody’s ratings agency said Wednesday that Turkey’s economic growth outlook remains strong. “The first pillars that drove the affirmation are the size, strength, and the diversity of its economy, and the fact that its growth prospect relative to other large emerging markets still remains robust,” Moody’s Vice President and Senior Credit Officer Alpona Banerji said. He said the ratings agency expects Turkey’s growth to reach 3.4 percent in 2016 based on “the strong carry-over effect from last year, the consumption growth driven by the minimum wage increases, and some support from net export contribution driven from trade with Europe.” He noted, however, that “geopolitical risks remain” and domestic security issues could affect tourism, consumer confidence, and consumption. Turkey’s substantial current account deficit is also concerning. “There has been a substantial rebalancing on [the] current account deficit mainly led by the oil price decline, but capital account financing remains volatile and a vulnerability,” Banerji said. Moody’s also expects the Turkish lira to remain weak against the US dollar for at least the next 12 months. [Hurriyet, 3/2/2016]