Top News: Syrian Kurds say they will declare federal region in Syria

The main Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), announced plans Wednesday to declare a federal region in northern Syria, a model it hopes can be applied to the entire country. The idea was promptly dismissed by Turkey and also the Syrian government team at UN-brokered peace talks underway in Geneva. A Turkish foreign ministry official says his country rejects any moves that would compromise Syria’s national unity and considers the territorial integrity of Syria as “essential,” adding that it is up to the Syrian people to “decide on the executive and administrative structure of Syria in line with the new constitution which will be formulated through the political transition process.” Nawaf Khalil of the PYD said his party is not lobbying for a Kurdish-only region but an all-inclusive area that would include representation for Turkmen, Arabs, and Kurds in northern Syria. [AP, Reuters, AFP, Daily Sabah, ANF, 3/16/2016]



Egypt president vows to find and punish killers of Italian student
Egypt will spare no effort to find and punish those who tortured and killed an Italian student in Cairo, the country’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said an interview published on Wednesday. “I confirm that we will spare no efforts and continue to work with the Italian authorities to arrest the perpetrators, so that they can be punished according to the law,” he told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper. He called the incident “terrifying and unacceptable” and vowed to intensify cooperation with Italian investigators. Meanwhile, South Giza Prosecution has discounted the testimony of an alleged witness who said he saw Regeni quarreling with a man behind the Italian embassy headquarters in downtown Cairo on January 24, the day before he went missing. According to prosecutors, information from communications companies indicated that the witness did not leave his home in October 6 City on January 24 and could not have seen the incident. The Interior Ministry had said a day earlier that it has no information on surveillance footage of the argument. “Any reports [in the case] not [officially] announced by the interior ministry are only rumors,” Egypt’s Assistant Interior Minister for PR and Media Abu Bakr Abdel-Kerim said. Hossam Nassar, the head of South Giza Prosecution, and a member of the investigative team, said after a joint statement of cooperation was issued by the Italian and Egyptian prosecution said “Italy is not interfering or participating in current investigations. These investigations are conducted by Egyptians investigators only, and no one can interfere in them.” [Reuters, 3/16/2016]

Interior Ministry mulls replacing low-ranking police force
The Interior Ministry is reportedly planning to replace the nation’s lowest-ranking police force with a new policeman rank to be recruited from scratch and offered training. The move follows sustained criticism of violence and human rights violations by police of various ranks over recent months. The new force being considered was authorized by presidential decree in 2014, according to independent daily Youm7. The Interior Ministry is accepting applications for the new “police assistant” grade, which was introduced in amendments to the 1971 police law, passed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The ministry said these “assistants” could gradually replace the lowest grade of policemen, who achieve the least training. Applicants for the new police assistant force must be aged between 19 and 23, holding preparatory school certificates, and will undergo 18 months of training through “state-of-the-art policing programs” before appointment, according to the newspaper. The new personnel will also undergo training on human rights issues as they relate to police work, the newspaper added. [Egypt Independent, 3/15/2016]

Twelve Endowments Ministry employees referred to prosecution as protests continue
In light of a wave of labor protests against the Minister of Endowments, 12 ministry employees were referred to criminal prosecution last week for protesting, while the minister has threatened thousands of other employees with dismissals if they embark on strikes against his policies. Hundreds of the ministry’s employees suspended industrial action on Sunday following Minister Mokhtar Gomaa’s threats, but a small but determined group of protesters remain outside the ministry’s Giza offices, persistent in presenting their demands, which include the enforcement of the monthly minimum wage (EGP1,200) applicable to state employees, dropping the ministry’s lawsuit for the prosecution of the 12 protesting employees, an end to the losses being incurred by the Endowment Ministry’s officials, accountability of those officials found guilty of corruption or misappropriation of public assets, and the appointment of specialized investment analysts to administer the ministry’s lands, real estate and funds, rather than leaving this to non-specialized religious clerics. Meanwhile, Nahdat Misr Company sanitation workers in Alexandria ended their open-ended strike Monday after management agreed to issue their overdue wages and vowed to answer their demands. [Mada Masr, 3/15/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


UK government denies Libya deployment plans
Britain has no plans to extend bombing or send troops to Libya, the Defense Ministry said in a statement Tuesday, after a committee of lawmakers said the nation could deploy a force of 1,000. The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee had said that Britain could be part of a 6,000-strong international force in Libya. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon was expected to agree Britain’s contribution to the force at a conference in Europe this week, the committee added. But a government spokeswoman said that the Foreign Affairs Committee was “wrong on a number of counts.” [AFP, Libya Herald, BBC, 3/16/2016]

Security Council extends mandate of UN mission in Libya, backs unity government
The UN Security Council (UNSC) extended the mandate of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) until June 15, recognizing the need for a short extension so it can continue working with the country to establish the Government of National Accord. The UNSC also requested that the UN Secretary-General report within 60 days following consultations with the Libyan authorities on recommendations for UNSMIL’s support to the next phases of the Libyan political transition process. In a press statement Monday, the UNSC reiterated its support for the Libyan national unity government and renewed its call on UN Member States to end official contact with parallel institutions that claim legitimate authority, but are outside of December’s political agreement. [UN News Centre, 3/15/2016]

Local militia leader readying positions in Tripoli in case of Serraj visit
Tripoli militia commander Haithem Tajouri is reported to have taken over the Hall of the People at the entrance to the west Tripoli suburb of Hay Andalus as a security measure amid expectations that Prime Minister-designate Fayez Serraj and other members of the Presidency Council are to go to the capital. The hall is strategically located, controlling one of the main access points to central Tripoli from the west. The UN Security Council, in a statement on Monday, encouraged the Presidency Council to take its seat in Tripoli. Serraj is now reported agreeing that it will do so this weekend. [Libya Herald, 3/15/2016]

Italy committed to boosting cooperation with Tunisia
Italy is committed to bolstering cooperation with Tunisia in all fields—particularly in financial support, investment, and partnership—Italian Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Vincenzo Amendol said on Tuesday in Tunis. At a meeting with Tunisian Minister of Development, Investment, and International Cooperation Yassine Brahim, Amendol added that Tunisia is a priority partner to Italy. Brahim called on Italy to actively take part in an international conference on Tunisia’s five-year plan (2016-2020) scheduled for next September in Tunis. [TAP, 3/15/2016]

Morocco cutting support for UN Western Sahara force
The Moroccan government is reducing its staff and support for the UN peacekeeping operation in the Western Sahara, to protest UN chief Ban Ki-moon’s recent comments about the disputed territory. The Foreign Ministry announced a reduction of its staff in the MINURSO peacekeeping mission and an end to the “voluntary contribution Morocco has accorded to the maintenance of MINURSO.” Morocco also threatened to withdraw its troops from all UN peacekeeping operations. The unusual move is the latest step in an escalating dispute between Morocco and the UN chief. Ban recently visited Saharan refugee camps and referred to Morocco’s “occupation” of Western Sahara. Moroccans held a huge protest Sunday over the comments, organized by the country’s leading political parties, labor unions and NGOs. [AP, Reuters, 3/16/2016]


Russia withdraws almost half of Syria strike force
Just under half of Russia’s fixed-wing strike force based in Syria has flown out of the country in the past two days. Analysis of satellite imagery, footage of Russian air strikes, and defense ministry statements have previously suggested that Russia kept around 36 military jets at its Hemeimim base in Syria’s Latakia province. Analysis of state TV footage shows at least 15 of those planes have taken off for Russia in the past two days. Movements of the aircraft could not be independently verified, and it cannot be determined if other aircraft were flying in to Syria to replace those that left. Pentagon officials said they had seen evidence of fewer than 10 Russian aircraft leaving Syria on Tuesday, and no sign of troop withdrawals. Meanwhile, Iran and Saudi Foreign Ministers and the Arab League have all agreed that Russia’s decision to withdraw its forces from Syria is “a positive sign.” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will ask Russia on Wednesday to ensure that its partial pullout from Syria does not embolden Iranian and Hezbollah forces there, an Israeli official said. Hezbollah has denied reports about the withdrawal of its fighters from Syria. [Reuters, 3/16/2016]

UN envoy to meet pro-Russia Syrian opposition group at talks
On Wednesday, a Syrian opposition group close to Russia and tolerated by Damascus will meet UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura at peace talks in Geneva, a delegation member said. “We received an invitation to take part in the Geneva talks,” said Fateh Jamous, a member of the Moscow Group, which includes former Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil who is considered a moderate opposition leader by the regime. “Our invitation is proof that the talks have entered a new, more serious stage,” Jamous said. The Saudi-based High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has insisted that it be considered the only representative of Syria’s opposition at the talks. HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet told AFP on Tuesday that expanding the number of opposition delegations was “unacceptable.” [AFP, 3/16/2016]

Kerry, Putin to discuss Syria as Russia seeks to bolster influence
Secretary of State John Kerry said he would travel to Moscow next week to discuss a political solution to Syria’s five-year war, as the United States and key players strain to figure out how Russia’s partial military withdrawal changes the dynamics of the conflict and nascent peace talks. “We have reached a very important phase in this process, “ Kerry said. [WSJ, 3/16/2016]

Denmark’s TV2 channel opens office in Syrian capital
Denmark’s TV2 broadcaster says it has opened an office in the Syrian capital, Damascus, claiming to be the only western media to do so. Mikkel Hertz, news director of the channel based in Odense, in central Denmark, says it was “a unique opportunity” that the channel obtained a permanent visa in Syria after “a long process,” though he did not elaborate. Longtime war correspondent Rasmus Tantholdt says it is “a better starting point for filtering out the propaganda emanating from all the warring parties.” Heryz says the office opened on Wednesday on the 15th floor of a high-rise “in a relatively peaceful area in the Syrian capital.” The office is manned by Tantholdt, a cameraman, and a producer. [AFP, NYT, 3/16/2016]

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


Iraq preparing to push ISIS away from oil region of Kirkuk
Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Shia militias and Iraq’s army will soon launch an offensive to push ISIS out of the northern oil region of Kirkuk, al-Sabah, a state newspaper, reported on Wednesday. The commander of the Shia Badr Organization, Hadi al-Amiri, met the Kurdish Regional Government’s interior minister, Karim Sinjari, and officials from Iraq’s defense ministry in Kirkuk on Tuesday to coordinate the operation, which would bring the combined forces closer to Mosul. They agreed on plans to take back territory stretching from Kirkuk and Baiji, to al-Shirqat. [Reuters, 3/16/2016]

Civilians flee Iraqi town as battle looms
Residents fled the Iraqi town of Heet as security forces closed in and ISIS fighters hunkered down to defend one of their main bastions along the Euphrates in Anbar province. Yahya Rasool, the spokesman for the Joint Operations Command coordinating the fight against ISIS in Iraq, confirmed that an operation in Heet would come soon. Police Colonel Fadhel al-Nimrawi reported “at least 120 families arrived in Al-Baghdadi [from Heet] yesterday” though there are expected to be thousands more in the coming days as ISIS fighters secure defensive positions throughout the town. [AFP, 3/15/2016]

Iraqi commander says concern for Mosul civilians delaying offensive
According to the Lt. General Najim al-Jibouri, commander of Nineveh Operations, there is growing concern that ISIS is using the large civilian population in Mosul as “human shields,” and this is the largest hurdle for Iraqi forces as they prepare to liberate the city. Jibouri furthered that ISIS has 6,000 to 8,000 fighters in Mosul, which has a civilian population of about 1 million. Iraqi planes have been dropping leaflets in and around Mosul with instructions for Mosul residents to cooperate with Iraqi security forces once the offensive begins. The Mosul offensive will reportedly involve the Iraqi army, Shia militias, Kurdish Peshmerga forces and air support from the US-led coalition. [Rudaw, 3/16/2016]

Kurdish Prime Minister says Iraq’s Kurds have suffered ISIS’s worst atrocities
In a speech at the annual Sulaimani Forum, Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said that Iraq’s Kurds, especially the Yezidis, have suffered the worst atrocities at the hands of ISIS. Barzani said that “ISIS brought a war and heartbreaking tragedies to Kurdistan and the region, and the savagery and threat of that organization reached many parts of the world in a short period of time … Among all of its savagery, the ISIS abduction of our Yezidi women and girls was the most horrific to us.” The Prime Minister thanked the coalition forces, in particular the United States, for coming to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) assistance at that critical moment, but stated that the Peshmerga forces deserve the credit for fighting ISIS on the ground. He further said that ISIS could have been defeated at one point, but political mistakes could make the rise of similar groups in the future more likely. [Rudaw, 3/16/2016]


Saudi-led airstrikes kill 41 civilians in Yemen
Saudi-led airstrikes killed 41 civilians and wounded 75 others on Tuesday in Yemen’s northwestern province of Hajja, a region largely controlled by the Houthis. Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asiri said the coalition was looking into reports of the attack. Three of Tuesday’s air raids hit an outdoor market in the Mastaba district. Saba Net, a Yemeni news agency controlled by the Houthis, reported that 65 people had been killed and 55 wounded in the airstrike. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said earlier on Tuesday that more than 40 civilians were injured in the attacks and were admitted to Abs Hospital after the airstrike. [Reuters, 3/16/2016]

Hadi says Gulf neighbors helping Yemen to enter new phase
President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi said on Wednesday in his visit to Kuwait that Yemen, with the help of GCC countries, is about to enter a new phase of normalization of life and the return of basic services. Hadi praised the coalition’s support of Yemen’s government in the fight against Houthi militants. Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah reaffirmed Kuwait’s support of the Yemeni government in its efforts to restore security and stability in the country. [Shabwaah Press, 3/16/2016]

Obama to visit Gulf countries
US President Barack Obama will meet with leaders of several Gulf nations and Britain as part of his previously scheduled trip to Germany next month, the White House said Wednesday. On April 21, Obama will participate in a summit with leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council nations, which include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. [Reuters, 3/16/2016]

Qatari poet serving 15-year jail term pardoned
Qatari poet Rashid al-Ajami was pardoned and released after serving more than three years of a 15-year prison sentence for insulting Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, a family member said Wednesday. It was the first such confirmation of his release inside Qatar where officials have refused to comment, despite his pardon by the emir being widely reported outside the tiny Gulf emirate. [AFP, 3/16/2016]


Egypt Central Bank mounts war on black market
The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) offered $1.5 billion to local lenders in an exceptional auction today to cover importers’ debts. The auction brings the total amount of dollars injected into the banking system through special auctions in the past two weeks to $2.4 billion, equivalent to 15 percent of the CBE’s foreign reserves. The auction is part of an effort to “completely finish off the black market” and stabilize the pound, according to CBE sources. The CBE devalued the pound by about 13 percent on Monday and said it would use any tool to safeguard stability in its foreign-exchange market in the medium term. Meanwhile, consulting group IHC Inc. said Egypt’s move to devalue its currency and eliminate restrictions on foreign-currency deposits should boost liquidity in the banking industry. International Monetary Fund Mission Chief Chris Jarvis welcomed the move to a more flexible exchange rate, saying it “would improve the availability of foreign exchange, strengthen competitiveness, support exports and tourism and attract foreign direct investment.” [Bloomberg, 3/16/2016]

Moody’s lowers credit outlook for Saudi banks
Moody’s Investors Service cut its outlook to negative from stable for Saudi Arabia’s banking system on concerns that low oil prices have negatively impacted economic growth and government spending. “With the prospect of lower oil prices for longer and a 14 percent reduction in public spending in 2016, we believe that the credit risks across the system are rising,” Moody’s Senior Credit Officer Olivier Panis said. Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product growth is set to slow to 1.5 percent in 2016 from 3.4 percent last year, Moody’s said. Loan growth will likely deteriorate to between 3 percent and 5 percent this year from 8 percent in 2015 and 12 percent in 2014, the ratings agency said. The overall level of bad loans in the banking sector is likely to increase to about 2.5 percent from 1.4 percent last year. [Bloomberg, WSJ, 3/16/2016]

Lebanon’s 2015 fiscal deficit widens to $3.95 billion
Lebanon’s fiscal deficit widened by 28 percent to $3.952 billion in 2015, as government finances continue to be hit by the war in Syria. The deficit grew despite a nearly $1 billion fall in energy costs, which reduced government payments to Lebanon’s electricity generator and distributor by 45 percent, figures showed. Lebanon’s economy grew by an annual average of 8 percent in the years leading up to 2011, when the conflict erupted in neighboring Syria. Since conflict erupted in Syria, Lebanon’s growth has fallen sharply. Growth stood at 1.4 percent last year. [Reuters, 3/16/2016]

Turkey runs budget surplus in February
Turkey ran a budget ran a surplus of 2.4 billion liras ($831) million in February, mostly as a result of tax hikes. “These results in the first two months [of 2016] indicate the government’s determination to maintain fiscal discipline despite the weak global economy,” Finance Minister Naci Ağbal said. “Fiscal discipline will be maintained in the coming period, and it continues to be one of the most important anchors for the stability of our economy,” he added. Turkey’s security and defense expenses almost doubled year on year to 105.7 million liras from around 52.4 million liras. The government’s expenses for health, pension, and welfare increased 18.9 percent year on year. In 2016, the Finance Ministry estimated that budget expenses for the fiscal year would reach 570.5 billion liras ($198 billion), while budget income would reach 540.8 billion ($187.5 billion). [Hurriyet, Daily Sabah, 3/16/2016]