Top News: Syrian rebel group backs cutting ties with Iran; EU warns of risks to peace

Syrian insurgent group Jaysh al-Islam on Monday welcomed Saudi Arabia’s rupture of ties with Iran, saying Tehran’s backing of Shia militias was destabilizing the Middle East and stoking sectarian tensions in Syria. Jaysh al-Islam is part of a new, Saudi-backed opposition body set up with the aim of bringing about peace talks between rebels and the Iranian-backed Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad. The group, whose leader was killed in a December 26 air strike, said Iran was “threatening the security of the region by exporting criminal militias that spread destruction and death and filled with sectarian vengeance.” EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini warned Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Sunday that renewed tension between Shia Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Sunni monarchy could wreck efforts to find a political solution for the crisis in Syria. Mogherini said in a statement that she had spoken by telephone with Zarif at length on Sunday morning after violence erupted in Iran following Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Shia cleric. Meanwhile, President of the Western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) Khaled Khoja will visit China this week, as Beijing seeks to deepen ties with all sides in the conflict to help bring about a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict. [Reuters, 1/4/2016]



Egypt’s parliament to convene January 10; Sisi appoints 28 Members of Parliament
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has called for Egypt’s new parliament to convene on January 10, state television said on Thursday, more than three years after the old Islamist-dominated chamber was dissolved. Sisi also issued a presidential decree appointing 28 parliamentarians to the newly elected parliament. Fourteen of the appointed figures are women. The list of appointees includes professors, lawyers, party leaders, and other public figures. Further information on the 28 appointees can be found here. A majority parliamentary bloc in support of Sisi, meanwhile, announced this week that MP and constitutional law professor Ali Abdel-Al will likely be elected as the speaker of Egypt’s new parliament. Abdel-Al’s name shot to the top of the list of candidates for speaker after former interim president and the incumbent chairman of the Supreme Constitutional Court Adli Mansour refused an offer by Sisi to be appointed to parliament. The list of 28 presidential appointees did include one high-profile judicial figure, Sirri Siam, the former chairman of the Court of Cassation and the Higher Council for Judges. However, Siam said he has no intention to run for the post of the speaker of parliament. [Ahram Online, Reuters, Aswat Masriya, 1/2/2016]

Egypt court overturns life sentences against Brotherhood figures
Egypt’s Court of Cassation overturned on Monday a life sentence handed to Muslim Brotherhood chief Mohamed Badie over violence-related charges in an appeal session, ordering a retrial. The court also reversed life sentences against 12 others, including deputy-leader Khairat al-Shater and senior Brotherhood figures Essam al-Erian, Saad al-Katatni, and Mohamed al-Beltagy. Four death sentences against lower-level members in the case have also been overturned. The court said the verdicts in the ‘Guidance Bureau case’ were “flawed” and therefore accepted the appeals. Meanwhile, the Court of Appeals scheduled Sunday the first retrial session for the Raba’a Operations Room for February 8. Badie and 37 others are among the defendants. The same court accepted Monday the recusation request submitted by the defense team in the case known as ‘Awsim Cell,’ presided over by Judge Nagy Shehata. The Court’s order indicates that Shehata was deemed unqualified to perform his legal duties with regards to this particular case, and therefore another judge will be assigned. The defense team submitted the request following Judge Shehata’s controversial statements in a recent interview with al-Watan newspaper. [Ahram Online, Anadolou Agency, Aswat Masriya, 1/4/2016]

Egypt arrests three Facebook pages admins, four April 6 members ahead of 25 Jan anniversary
Egypt’s Interior Ministry said in a statement Saturday it arrested three people who run 23 Facebook pages, accusing them of using the website to incite against state institutions. The ministry accused two men, both aged 27, and a 25-year-old women of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Close to a dozen citizens were arrested in 2015 on similar accusations, the most recent at the beginning of December. Meanwhile, four members of the April 6 Youth Movement, arrested on December 28, will remain in police detention for 15 days, as ordered Monday by Dokki prosecution authorities. Members Ayman Abdel Megeed and Mohamed Nabil were taken from their houses on Monday at dawn. Senior members of the movement’s political bureau Sherif al-Roubi and Mahmoud Hisham were arrested later that day. [AP, DNE, 1/3/2016]

Egyptian ambassador returns to Israel after three year hiatus
Israel says Egypt has sent a new ambassador after a three-year hiatus. Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Sunday that Egyptian Ambassador Hazem Khairat arrived on Friday. The position had been vacant since 2012, when Egypt, under then-President Mohamed Morsi, withdrew its ambassador in reaction to an Israeli offensive on Gaza. Khairat was appointed ambassador to Israel in June 2015, but it was not clear when he would officially take up the post. He previously served as Egypt’s representative to the Arab League and ambassador to Chile. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said on Sunday that the return of the Egyptian ambassador to Israel should be seen in the context of the “important task of supporting the Palestinian cause.” In his weekly cabinet meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Khairat’s arrival. “[His arrival] will enable us to further strengthen relations with this important and key Arab country,” Netanyahu said. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, said on Saturday that Egypt will play an important role in favor of the Palestinian cause, after taking a seat in the UN Security Council. [AP, Mada Masr, Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, DNE, 1/3/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Islamic State attack on Libyan oil port kills two, storage tank ablaze
An attack by Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants on Libya’s Es Sider oil export terminal on Monday killed two guards and set an oil storage tank on fire, a Petrol Facilities Guard (PFG) source said. The guards were killed when two suicide bombers targeted the terminal, the source said, adding that the ISIS fighters had retreated to neighboring areas. ISIS fighters had clashed with PFG forces guarding the oil export terminal on Monday, witnesses reported, and the militants said they had taken a nearby town. Ali al-Hassi, a spokesman for the PFG forces, which control the majority of Libya’s oil fields, says six of their fighters were killed in Monday’s attacks, along with five ISIS fighters in the coastal port town of Sidra. [Reuters, AP, Libya Herald, 1/4/2016]

UN Libya envoy in Tripoli for government talks
The UN envoy for Libya Martin Kobler arrived in Tripoli Friday to encourage the administration there to commit to the UN-brokered deal for a Government of National Accord (GNA) and end Libya’s bloodshed. Kobler had met Thursday with representatives of Libya’s eastern government near its headquarters. On December 17, under UN guidance, envoys from both sides and a number of independent political figures signed a deal to unify the government, but so far neither parliament has approved the deal. At a press conference at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport late Friday, Kobler said that he stressed in meetings with both administrations that there should be no parallel initiatives to the UN Libyan political agreement and that this single process should be inclusive and Libyan-owned. The press conference was cut short by Jamal Zoubia, head of the media department in the Tripoli-based government, who told Kobler that the event was “illegal” as he needed prior permission. [AFP, UN News, 1/2/2016]

Tunisian writer deported at Cairo airport, labeled ‘national security’ threat
Tunisian writer Amel Grami was deported from Cairo International Airport on Sunday and denied entry into Egypt, despite being invited to participate in a conference by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.Grami had been a contributor to the privately owned Egyptian newspaper Al-Shorouk, writing several columns and op-eds regarding the revolution in Tunisia, the Arab Spring, political Islamism, terrorism, and means of countering terrorism. According to her post on Facebook, after waiting for hours at the airport she was told that she posed a threat to Egypt’s “national security” and would not be allowed to enter the country. Grami was not given any further details on why she is listed as a persona non grata by Egyptian security. Her detention at Cairo Airport was publicized by Egyptian human rights lawyer Khaled Mansour. On his Facebook page, Mansour wrote that Grami “fell into the hands of those who jail people, who chase after people, who pursue and slander them, just because of their thoughts and opinions.” [Egypt Independent, Mada Masr, 1/3/2016]

Tunisia says Saudi Embassy attack in Tehran breach of Vienna Convention
Tunisia denounced on Sunday the attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran after Saturday’s execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The Foreign Ministry called the attack “a flagrant violation” of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and underlined the need to avoid exacerbating tensions in the region. Iranian protesters Sunday threw Molotov cocktails at the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the consulate in the city of Mashhad after Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr was put to death along with 46 other alleged terrorists. [TAP, 1/4/2016]

Crowds flood Algerian independence figure’s hometown for burial
Tens of thousands gathered in an Algerian village Friday for the burial of Hocine Ait-Ahmed, one of the fathers of the country’s struggle for independence and a key opposition figure. Ait-Ahmed died last week in Switzerland at 89. His remains arrived Thursday in Algiers for a state funeral before being transferred to his home village, which bears his name. “Today and tomorrow Hocine lives,” tens of thousands chanted in the streets, and “Algeria, free and democratic.” President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s government welcomed Ait Ahmed’s remains with fanfare at the Algiers airport. However, the family refused to allow a burial in the capital alongside the other heroes of the independence war. [AFP, AP, 1/1/2016]


Arab-Kurd fighters kill 16 ISIS militants near Raqqa
Arab and Kurdish forces have killed at least 16 fighters from the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) during fierce clashes north of the jihadists’ stronghold of Raqqa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said Sunday. ISIS launched an offensive last Wednesday against areas held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition near to Ain Issa, a town held by the SDF some 50 kilometers from Raqqa, killing 21 Kurdish fighters. The SDF also recaptured an area seized by ISIS a few days earlier, SOHR said. The alliance, made up of units from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Arab fighters, has carried out several major operations against ISIS. In related news, the SDF also advanced against Islamist insurgents in Aleppo province on Friday, capturing at least one village. [AFP, 1/3/2016]

French military says air strikes destroy ISIS missile factory; French jets strike ISIS oil sites
The French military says its warplanes have destroyed a site in Syria used by ISIS to produce missiles and store weapons. The French Defense Ministry said in a statement Sunday that the overnight air strikes targeted a site east of Aleppo, in an operation conducted by Rafale fighter jets using SCALP cruise missiles. Also on Friday, French warplanes bombed ISIS oil installations close to its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, as France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited the Jordanian air base where the jets took off. “I have been informed of the operations which took place overnight against oil sites. We must continue with this logic,” Le Drian said during a New Year trip to the base, where around 250 French personnel are deployed. [AP, 1/3/2016]

Attack on Iraqi military base kills at least 12; ISIS attacks Ramadi as security forces extend control
ISIS suicide attackers killed at least 12 Iraqi forces Sunday in an attack on police training at a military base. Fighters equipped with rifles and suicide vests snuck into Speicher base, near the city of Tikrit, in the middle of the night to attack a large group of police forces from Nineveh, a northern province of which Mosul is the capital, who were undergoing training. “Under the cover of fog, they broke into Speicher,” said Mahmud al-Sorchi, spokesman for the paramilitary force being set up to take back ISIS-held Nineveh. “Nineveh police managed to kill seven attackers but three were able to detonate their suicide vests,” he said, adding that three officers were among the 12 policemen killed. He also said 20 policemen were wounded in the attack. Several other security sources in the region confirmed the attack, which was claimed by ISIS. In Ramadi on Friday, ISIS also attacked security forces with seven suicide car bombs on the outskirts of the city while security forces attempt to extend their control of the city.  [AFP, BBC, 1/3/2016]

Turkey, Israel need each other, Erdogan says
Turkey must accept that it needs Israel, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday, as the two countries seek to thrash out a deal on normalizing ties. NATO member Turkey was a key regional ally of Israel until the two countries fell out over the deadly storming by Israeli commandos in 2010 of a Turkish aid ship, the Mavi Marmara, bound for Gaza. Erdogan further ignites tension with Israel with his sometimes inflammatory rhetoric toward the Jewish state. But the atmosphere was transformed following the revelation last month the two sides were making progress in secret talks to seek a rapprochement. “Israel is in need of a country like Turkey in the region,” Erdogan said in remarks to Turkish reporters published in leading dailies Saturday. “And we too must accept that we need Israel. This is a reality in the region … If mutual steps are implemented based on sincerity, then normalization will follow.” [AFP, 1/4/2016]

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


Execution of Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia sparks new hostilities with Iran
Saudi Arabia recently announced its execution of 47 detainees, including one of the Kingdom’s most prominent Shia figures, cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The Qatif-born cleric was convicted of supporting terrorist cells, but critics say he was killed as a political dissident who organized protests focused on the Kingdom’s Shia minority. The execution has sparked a widespread regional reaction. The Saudi embassy in Iran was stormed by protesters following the announcement, which resulted in the Kingdom’s decision to cut off diplomatic ties with the country. Saudi Arabia’s allies in Bahrain and Sudan both similarly cut off ties with Iran, while the UAE downgraded its diplomatic relations. An Iraqi lawmaker, a Shia from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, asserted that the execution would benefit the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). Yemen’s Iran-linked Houthi rebels published an obituary calling al-Nimr a “holy warrior” and condemned the execution as a violation of human rights. [Reuters, 1/2/2016]

Yemeni authorities imposes curfew in Aden after clashes
Following renewed violence in Yemen’s temporary capital located in Aden, the government announced a new curfew to curb the clashes. Local sources believe that ISIS is behind an assassination of a Sufi sheikh in the city. Fierce clashes also broke out between local groups and government forces over control of a port, which the government believes is being used by locals for smuggling and other illegal activity. Shortly after a local militia leader reluctantly ceded control to government forces, he was shot dead by gunmen on a motorbike. Security has been a major dilemma for the Yemeni government and their allies, especially since the recent assassination of Aden’s governor by an ISIS car bomb. [Al-Jazeera, Reuters, 1/4/2016]

Saudi-led coalition announces end to ceasefire in Yemen
A Saudi-led coalition battling rebels in Yemen has said it will no longer observe a ceasefire announced last month. A statement carried on Saudi state media blamed violations by the Houthis and other allied militia. But the coalition is still “keen to create the right conditions to find a peaceful solution,” the statement said. The coalition’s statement accused the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh of firing ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia, attacking border posts and shelling civilian areas. “All this shows their lack of seriousness and disregard for civilian lives as well as their attempt to take advantage of the truce to achieve gains,” it said. About 6,000 people, almost half of them civilians, have been killed since the Saudi-led coalition launched a military campaign against the Houthi rebels in March. [BBC, 1/2/2016]

Local forces claim to have killed AQAP leader in Aden
Yemeni officials report that local forces killed Ali Abed al-Rab bin Talab, known as Abu Anwar, a leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Abu Anwar was serving as a judge in Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt under control of the militant group since March 2015. Abu Anwar was killed while travelling near Aden, where attacks by AQAP and ISIS continue to threaten the city’s stability. [Voice of America, 1/1/2016]


Turkey misses inflation target for fifth consecutive year
Turkey’s annual inflation overshot its 5 percent target for a fifth year running in 2015, data showed on Monday, as the annual inflation rate rose to 8.81 percent in December. Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said battling inflation would be this year’s main economic challenge. “The general trend in the inflation rate is not at desired levels and our inflation performance is relatively poorer than our general macroeconomic performance,” he said. The lira also weakened, heading for a three-week low. The lira weakened 20 percent against the dollar in 2015, the most since 2008. Meanwhile, Turkey hiked taxes on tobacco and alcohol and increased electricity prices in an effort to fund investment and production. Taxes on alcoholic beverages were raised by between 12 and 15 percent, and the minimum fixed tax rate on cigarettes rose by 5 percent. Electricity prices rose by 6.8 percent for the first quarter of 2016. Simsek said the government would aim to promote fiscal discipline in 2016. [Reuters, 1/4/2016]

Oman to slash subsidies as low oil prices squeeze budget
Oman plans to cut subsidy spending by almost two thirds this year to tackle a budget deficit caused by low oil prices, the Finance Ministry said Saturday. Subsidies on utility bills, housing loans, fuel and other goods will stand at 400 million rials ($1 billion) in 2016, down from 1.11 billion rials in 2015. Last week, Oman’s cabinet approved fuel subsidy reforms, spending cuts, and tax increases to bring the deficit under control. The government is forecasting a deficit of 3.3 billion rials this year, or 13 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Later on Saturday, the government released a five year plan to halve the economy’s dependence on the oil industry as low crude prices pressure government finances. The 2016-2020 plan, set out in a statement by the Supreme Council for Planning, said over 500 programs and policies would seek to diversify the economy into sectors such as manufacturing, mining, transport, and tourism. The plan aims to cut the oil industry’s contribution to GDP to 22 percent from 44 percent. [Reuters, 1/2/2016]

Egypt arrears owed to oil firms rises to $3 billion at end-2015
Egypt’s outstanding arrears to foreign oil companies rose to $3 billion at the end of December from $2.7 billion at the end of October, Petroleum Minister Tarek al-Molla said Sunday. The ministry had said in September that Egypt aimed to reduce the arrears owed to foreign oil companies to $2.5 billion by the end of 2015 and to pay them off completely by the end of 2016. Delays in paying back foreign petroleum companies had discouraged investment, but a drive to increase the price paid for domestic production and pay back arrears had encouraged new contracts signed in 2015. Molla did not provide further detail on why total arrears have risen since November. [Reuters, 1/3/2016]

Libya’s eastern government approves plans for new refineries
Libya’s internationally recognized eastern government has approved plans to expand the Tobruk refinery and to open two other refineries. The plans were discussed during a cabinet meeting on December 29, according to an official statement. “The National Oil Corporation (NOC) has been granted permission to increase the capacity of the Tobruk refinery to 300,000 barrels [per day] (bpd) as well as construct a 20,000 bpd refinery in Zueitina and a 30,000 bpd refinery in the southern region,” the statement said. The cabinet also approved plans for a petrochemical complex in Benghazi, but no further details were given. [Libya Monitor (subscription), 1/4/2016]