Top News: Syrian opposition not in Geneva on the day of peace talks

UN officials said Syrian peace talks will begin in Geneva as planned Friday, despite an ongoing boycott by the main Syrian opposition group, which continues to stay away pending assurances from the UN chief on the implementation of Security Council resolutions related to humanitarian issues. The opposition boycott is a blow to the UN’s first attempt in two years to bring representatives of President Bashar Assad’s government and his opponents together. Meanwhile, Syrian opposition members met for a fourth day in the Saudi Arabian capital on Friday, but had still not announced whether they would join peace talks beginning the same day in Geneva. The Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC) has said it will not attend the negotiations with the Syrian regime until an agreement is reached on aid entering besieged towns. Some opposition leaders have said they first want an end to air strikes and blockades by government forces. [AP, Reuters, 1/29/2016]



Reuters says EgyptAir mechanic suspected in Russian plane crash; Russia, EgyptAir deny
In a report Friday Reuters, citing sources familiar with the matter, said an EgyptAir mechanic whose cousin joined the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in Syria is suspected of planting a bomb that brought down a Russian passenger plane in Egypt late October. A senior security official at the airline denied that any of its employees had been arrested or were under suspicion, and an Interior Ministry official said there had been no arrests. Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee also said it has not identified any suspects. The sources, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation, however, said the mechanic had been detained, along with two airport policemen and a baggage handler suspected of helping him put the bomb on board. Another source said, “Two policemen are suspected of playing a role by turning a blind eye to the operation at a security checkpoint. But there is a possibility that they were just not doing their jobs properly.” None of the four have been prosecuted so far, the sources said. Meanwhile, the Vice President of the Russian Union of Travel Industry, Yuri Barzykin, said that the travel ban imposed on Egypt would be lifted in the first two weeks of February. The news comes as Russian Deputy Minister of Industry and Commerce Alexander Potapov is in Cairo for meetings with Egyptian Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi. [Reuters, 1/29/2016]

Government wages see lowest increase in three years due to civil service law
Egypt’s Ministry of Finance stated that the first quarter of the current fiscal year recorded the lowest rate of increase in wages and compensation of employees compared to the same period of the last three fiscal years. The first quarter of fiscal year 2015/2016 witnessed the adoption of the civil service law, which was later dropped by the elected parliament after its first session on January 10. The declining rate of wage increases compared to past fiscal years is due to the “recent reforms implemented by the Ministry of Finance to control the increase in wage bill,” the statement said. Expenditure on wages and compensation of employees represents 3 percent of GDP, according to the report. With the start of the current fiscal year, the Egyptian government targeted the reduction of the annual increase in wages, limiting it to 5.2 percent, which represents the lowest increase since the 2011 uprising. [Aswat Masriya, 1/29/2016]

Justice Minister says for every police ‘martyr,’ 10,000 ‘terrorists’ should be killed
Egypt’s Minister of Justice Ahmed al-Zind said in a TV interview on Wednesday that he believed that for every fallen “martyr” from the police and Armed Forces, 10,000 Muslim Brotherhood members and their supporters should be killed. “I believe that if 40,000 terrorists were killed it would not be enough for the martyrs. I swear to God that the fire burning in my heart will not die except when for every martyr, 10,000 Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters are killed,” Zind said while offering his condolences for personnel killed. The minister also vowed that all death sentences issued against members of the Brotherhood, including former president Mohamed Morsi, would be carried out after all appeals are exhausted. “I would leave my position immediately [if the sentences are not carried out]. Egypt is not afraid … Morsi will meet his fair fate,” Zind said. [Ahram Online, 1/29/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Obama calls on NSC for efforts to counter ISIS in Libya
US President Barack Obama directed the National Security Council on Thursday to continue efforts to strengthen governance and support ongoing counterterrorism efforts in Libya and other countries where Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has sought to establish a presence, the White House said. The White House could provide no further details as to the nature of options under discussion. Also on Thursday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said ISIS fighters are trying to “consolidate their own footprint” in Libya by setting up training sites, drawing in foreign recruits, and using the levers of economic power to raise money through taxes. Carter held out hope that Libyans will soon form a viable government that can act decisively to expel ISIS, but said the United States could take additional action to protect itself regardless of the formation of a unity government. On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the United States had already sent “a small number of military personnel” into Libya to get a clearer picture of exactly what’s happening there, and that the United States is “looking at military options.” [Reuters, White House, AP, 1/29/2016]

Italy says West prepared to take on ISIS in Libya
Western powers are prepared to fight ISIS in Libya even if the North African country fails to agree on a unified government soon, Italy’s Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti said on Thursday. Her spokesman confirmed the comments. At a Paris meeting last week of defense ministers from countries in the anti-ISIS coalition, Pinotti said there was “total agreement” that a Libya unity government should ask for help to fight militants, to avoid fueling “jihadist propaganda” of yet another “Western invasion.” But she went on to say that ISIS was gaining strength in the current political vacuum, prompting Italy and its allies to prepare for an “emergency.” “In the past month, we have worked more diligently with Americans, British and French,” Pinotti said. [Reuters, 1/28/2016]

Libya lawmaker kidnapped, UN urges release
A Libyan lawmaker has been kidnapped in the eastern city of Tobruk, home of the House of Representatives (HOR), a security official said Thursday, prompting a UN demand for his release. Mohamed al-Raied is being held at a home in Tobruk after he was seized Wednesday on his way to the airport, said the official in the HOR’s security service. “The man holding Mr Raied is demanding the transfer of his two sons, who have been convicted in a drugs case, from Misrata prison to another one in the east of the country,” according to the official. Local dignitaries are mediating to secure the politician’s release, he said. Raied was elected in 2014 in the eastern city of Misrata but had been boycotting the HOR until this week. Members of the HOR say they are hopeful for Raied’s imminent release. [AFP, UN News Centre, 1/28/2016]

Tunisian public sector bank chiefs to receive fivefold salary increase
Tunisian anti-corruption watchdog IWatch has said that the CEOs of Tunisia’s public banks are to have their salaries increased to five times their current levels, as part of a government bid to make the country’s banking sector more competitive. An increase had initially been suggested by Finance Minister Slim Chaker during the third meeting of the Joint Committee of Open-Government and Financial Transparency, though no value was given to the scale of the raise concerned. However, documents provided to IWatch from anonymous sources within the institutions have confirmed that the salaries of the Director Generals of Tunisia’s public banks, the STB, BNA, and BH will increase from 4,500 TD to 20,000 TD per month. [Tunisia Live, 1/28/2016]

Morocco to hold parliamentary elections October 7
Morocco will hold a parliamentary election on October 7, the second ballot since the kingdom adopted constitutional reforms designed to calm protests during the Arab Spring uprisings. The Islamist Justice and Development party, known by its French acronym PJD, won elections in 2011. The reformed constitution has shifted some powers to the elected government but King Mohammed still retains ultimate authority. Analysts believe the PJD could win a second term in the 2016 election although austerity measures that the government launched to revive public finances have started to weigh on Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane’s popularity. [Reuters, 1/28/2016]


Starvation spreads before Syria peace talks
In the rebel held area of Moadamiya, a Damascus suburb, residents say there is a renewed Syrian government siege there. The neighboring town of Darayya has also been bombarded and cut off from the last food smuggling routes, forcing many to subsist on one meal a day. Similar humanitarian crises are playing out around Syria. Residents, rebels, and international aid agencies accuse the Assad regime of reinstating or tightening sieges on opposition held areas to subdue, reclaim, or hold strategic territory. The government’s siege tactics have become more systematic and have escalated over the past two months. Western diplomats, aid officials, and Syrian rebels say this is part of an overall military effort to secure more territory and strengthen the government’s hand ahead of UN brokered peace talks in Geneva. [WSJ, 1/29/2016]

Iran coerces Afghans to fight in Syria, according to Human Rights Watch
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has recruited thousands of Afghans, some by coercion, to fight in Syria’s war alongside forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Friday. “Iran has not just offered Afghan refugees and migrants incentives to fight in Syria, but several said they were threatened with deportation back to Afghanistan unless they did,” said HRW Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert. “Faced with this bleak choice, some of these Afghan men and boys fled Iran for Europe.” But some reports say the Afghans have been offered residency and a monthly salary to fight for Iran. The Islamic republic denies having any boots on the ground and insists its commanders and generals act as “military advisers” in Syria and Iraq. [AFP, Al Arabiya, 1/29/2016]

Syrian Kurds plan attack to seal Turkish border
A member of the Syrian Kurdish YPG has revealed that the militia and its allies are planning to attack and seize the final stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border held by the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Such an offensive could deprive ISIS of a logistical route used by the group to bring in supplies and foreign recruits. The attack could lead to confrontation with Turkey, which is fighting against its own Kurdish insurgents and sees the Syrian Kurds as an enemy. On Thursday, Turkish soldiers clearing mines came under fire from ISIS-controlled territory across the Syrian border, Turkey’s Dogan news agency said. There were no casualties, but stray bullets hit buildings near the border. [Reuters, 1/29/2017]

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


World too focused on fighting ISIS in Iraq to see humanitarian needs, food insecurity
In a phone interview on Wednesday, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) head of mission in Iraq Fabio Forgione said that the international community seems to be too focused on the fight against ISIS to see the increasing importance of humanitarian aid. He said, “It is important to make sure that humanitarian assistance grows in parallel to the military operations which are carried out.” Forgione said an estimated 2-4 million people in Iraq needed humanitarian assistance, but the real number might be higher. Areas of major concern include Salahuddin, Diyala, Anbar, Nineveh, and the outskirts of Baghdad. Humanitarian agencies cannot work in many parts of central Iraq for security reasons. In most cases, only MSF and the International Committee of the Red Cross have access, Forgione said. Massive population shifts have made access to food, medicine, and safe drinking water difficult and 8.2 million Iraqis are in need of humanitarian assistance, including food, water, shelter and medicine, according to World Food Programme officer Marwa Awad. She said the price of food has risen by as much as 38 percent in the last month and cases of malnutrition have sharply increased. [Reuters, NYT, 1/29/2016]

US officials say criminal motives likely in Americans’ kidnapping in Iraq
Criminal, not political motives were likely behind the kidnapping of three American contractors in Iraq this month, US officials familiar with investigations said on Thursday. Possible motives could include ransom or a prisoner swap and the officials said investigators still did not know which of three Iranian-backed Islamist militant groups kidnapped the contractors or of any demands from them.
Kidnapping for ransom or other criminal purposes has become a common tactic among Shia militia groups in Iraq. [Reuters, 1/28/2016]

Biden sees growing progress in battle against ISIS
US Vice President Joe Biden, speaking to US House of Representatives Democrats in Baltimore on a three-day retreat, is reported to have said that the US-led battle against ISIS is gaining steam and will show more progress by year’s end. Biden touted the recent success of US-backed Iraqi troops at retaking Ramadi from ISIS control as part of a broad defense of Obama administration foreign policy. Biden further said, “We’ve taken back collectively 40 percent of the territory they occupy … I promise you, after Ramadi, watch what happens now in Raqqa in Syria and what happens in Mosul by end of this year.” The success in Ramadi has led to speculation that they could have success elsewhere against ISIS and plans to liberate Mosul from ISIS later this year are under way. [Reuters, 1/28/2016]


Hadi appoints new national security chief
Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi appointed on Thursday Mohamed Said Ben Brik as the head of National Security. Brik replaces Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi, who resigned in protest against the government ignoring his demands. According to SABA news agency, al-Ahmadi was appointed ambassador in the foreign ministry. Hadi also appointed Abdul Karim Ali al-Sunaini as governor of Hajjah, who succeeded Ali bin Ali al-Qaisi. [Al Masdar, 1/28/2016]

Suicide, shooting attack on Saudi Shia mosque kills four
A suicide bombing and gun attack on Shia Muslim worshippers killed at least four people in eastern Saudi Arabia on Friday, the interior ministry and witnesses said, extending a spate of attacks on the kingdom’s Shia minority. The assault on the Imam Rida mosque in the Eastern Province town of Mahasen, a mixed Sunni-Shia district in which there is an extension of a compound where state oil company Aramco employees live, also wounded at least 18 people. The Saudi interior ministry said security forces prevented two suicide bombers from entering the mosque, where one blew himself up, killing four people. Security forces exchanged fire with the second man and arrested him. [Reuters, 1/29/2016]

Gulf States condemn ‘terrorist’ attack in Aden
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on Friday condemned the bombing near Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi’s residence, which occurred on Thursday. Secretary General of the GCC Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani described the attack as a cowardly act that is incompatible with the values and principles of humanity and morality. He expressed the GCC’s support of the Yemeni leadership and its continuing efforts to restore security and stability and its fight against terrorist organizations. ISIS on Thursday claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed ten people. [Al Masdar, 1/29/2016]


Morocco suspends contacts with EU delegation over trade row
Morocco has suspended contacts with the European Union (EU) delegation in Rabat over a trade dispute, a move that could slow multi-million dollar development projects. The decision came after an EU court last month annulled a 2012 trade agreement with the Morocco, saying it should not include the disputed West Sahara region. Rabat’s decision stopped short of a formal suspension of ties. An EU source said the government remains in regular contact with high level EU officials, including Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini. Two EU sources said the suspension may disrupt around EUR 1.03 billion ($1.12 billion) of funding that the EU has granted to Morocco. The EU funding program includes some EUR 188 million to support Morocco’s advanced status with Brussels, EUR 125 million for education, EUR 100 million in health support, and about EUR 75 million for judicial reforms. [Reuters, 1/28/2016]

Tunisia loses third of tourism revenue over ISIS attacks
Tunisia lost more than a third of its tourism revenues last year after attacks by the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), figures showed Thursday. Tourist entries in 2015 dropped by 30.8 percent compared to the previous year and tourism revenues declined by 35.1 percent, the Central Bank of Tunisia (BCT) said. “The national economy in 2015 saw a decline in activity … notably in the industrial and service sectors, which were affected by the terrorist events and despite the success of the political transition,” BCT added. This week, travel operator Thomas Cook canceled all British bookings to Tunisia until October 31, 2016. [AFP, 1/29/2016]

Turkey’s trade deficit narrows sharply amid oil slump
Turkey’s annual trade deficit shrank by more than 25 percent to around $63.3 billion in 2015 as a result of low global oil prices, according to the Turkish Statistics Institute. The trade deficit is Turkey’s lowest since 2009. Cheaper energy imports accounted for more than half of the improvement. A weakening currency also helped Turkish manufacturers, but a loss of trade routes offset the benefit. Overall, Turkey benefited from the commodities rout as it narrowed its current account deficit, reducing the need to finance the shortfall with capital inflows, experts said. Analysts said the data from the Turkish Statistics Institute showed a mixed picture for Turkey’s economy. [Bloomberg, Hurriyet, 1/29/2016]

Egypt central bank keeps main interest rates unchanged
The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) kept benchmark interest rates unchanged on Thursday. The Monetary Policy Committee kept the overnight deposit rate at 9.25 percent and the overnight lending rate at 10.25 percent. The central bank raised interest rates by 50 basis points last month, the first hike since July 2014, citing inflationary pressures. Egypt has been under pressure to devalue the pound but CBE Governor Tarek Amer has led a drive to support the currency despite dwindling foreign reserves. [Reuters, DNE, 1/28/2016]