Top News: The United States will protect Syrian rebels when time comes

The United States will be ready to “protect” mainstream Syrian rebels possibly with air power once they enter into combat, Anti-ISIS Coalition Envoy retired US General John Allen said Monday at an event organized by the Atlantic Council. Insisting that once mainstream Syrian rebels were vetted, trained, and armed, they would not be abandoned on the battlefield. “It is clearly part of our plan, that not only we will train them, and we will equip them with the latest weapons systems, but we will also protect them when the time comes … so that it does have operational capability.” He also said the coalition was “pleasantly surprised at the numbers” of Syrians ready to sign up for the fight against ISIS. [AFP, 3/3/2015] 



Al-Azhar says ISIS backed by Western agencies
Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb said on Monday that Islamic State militants are backed by Western agencies seeking to divide the Middle East and the Islamic World. Al-Tayyeb said he supports President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s proposal for a joint Arab defense force to combat extremist militias who are fighting to establish an Islamic Caliphate. The Sheikh’s remarks came during a meeting in Cairo with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Minister of Islamic Affairs, Tawfiq al-Sudairi. Meanwhile, Al-Azhar, the most respected Sunni Muslim institution, strongly decried a statement made by Sir John Sawers, ex-director of MI6, about Islam on BBC Radio 4. The statements claims that the Islamic religion ‘as a whole’ is not geared to reviving and modernizing itself. Al-Azhar explained Islam’s potential for revival and modernization, arguing that Sawers’ remarks could give rise to deepened enmity and divide. [Egypt Independent, 3/3/2015]

Committee to begin reviewing elections law
Egypt’s Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab ordered on Monday the formation of a committee to re-draft the constituency law, which was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court on Sunday. The committee is headed by Transitional Justice Minister Ibrahim al-Heneidi, according to a cabinet statement. Meanwhile, Egypt’s administrative court on Tuesday issued a ruling confirming the indefinite delay of the upcoming parliamentary elections, previously scheduled to start on March 21. [Aswat Masriya, Ahram Online, AP, Reuters, Mada Masr, 3/3/2015]

Court orders media gag on Morsi’s Qatar espionage trial
An Egyptian court on Tuesday ordered that the trial session of ousted president Mohamed Morsi and ten others on charges of spying to Qatar be held as a closed session, citing national security concerns. Morsi faces charges of using his post to leak classified documents to Qatar, with the help of his secretaries and other defendants. The classified documents allegedly include information on general and military intelligence, the armed forces, its armaments and the state’s policy secrets. He is also accused of inciting to kill protesters outside the presidential palace during his tenure, insulting the judiciary, and escaping prison during the January 2011 uprising. [Aswat Masriya, Ahram Online, 3/3/2015]

Student union elections canceled for legal reasons
Students across Egypt are outraged after the High Council of Universities (HCU) canceled this year’s student union elections for “legal reasons.” The electoral period mandated by HCU bylaws had already passed, explained Higher Education Minister Sayed Abdel Khalek, who also heads the HCU. Bylaws stipulate that student union elections must be held no later than six weeks after the academic year begins. However, “the bylaws themselves were issued two months after the academic year began, so there’s no time to hold the elections this year,” Higher Education Ministry spokesperson Adly Reda said. If the elections were held regardless of the bylaws, they would be illegal and could easily be challenged in court, he added. [Mada Masr, 3/2/2015]

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Libya’s Haftar appointed army chief for recognized government
General Khalifa Haftar was appointed army commander by the internationally recognized Tobruk-based government on Monday in a move that could complicate UN talks to end the conflict. Haftar, leader of Operation Dignity, has allied himself with forces loyal to the Tobruk-based House of Representatives in efforts to combat Islamist militias in Libya. The rival Tripoli-based government condemned Haftar’s appointment, calling him a war criminal and stating this move will exacerbate the conflict between the two factions. [Reuters, 3/2/2105]

Islamist militants shell two Libyan oilfields; port pipeline damaged
Rival Libyan forces carried out retaliatory airstrikes on oil terminals and an airport on Tuesday, escalating their power struggle days before United Nations peace talks are set to take place in Morocco. A warplane belonging to Tripoli-allied forces bombed the oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Es Sidra, causing only minor damage, according to a security official with the internationally recognized Abdullah al-Thinni government. Warplanes also hit Tripoli’s airport, and there were plans to carry out air strikes on the airport of port city Misrata, a base of Libya Dawn. According to the commander, the strikes were in retaliation for Tripoli forces bombing Zintan, a town loyal to Thinni’s government, and disrupt supplies to militants. [Reuters, 3/3/2015]

Libya’s elected parliament to resume UN talks; Libya Dawn says Zintanis must surrender
The Tobruk-based House of Representatives (House) agreed to resume participation in UN talks, which are scheduled to continue in Morocco this week. Although both the Tobruk-based House and the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) have agreed to meet, the two sides are still making negotiations difficult. Libya Dawn, the fighting forces allied with the GNC, announced a set of preconditions necessary for a ceasefire that will be difficult to implement. Libya Dawn demanded that General Khalifa Haftar’s forces pull out of Benghazi, that air strikes in the east of the country stop, and that Zintani and Warshefana forces withdraw, surrender their weapons, and turn themselves in. [Reuters, Libya Herald, 3/2/2015]

ISIS video claims Tunisian was Benghazi suicide bomber
A video posted by the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) shows that a Tunisian man was the suicide bomber who killed three people and wounded twenty others when he blew up his car in Benghazi last month. The video, which shows a man named as Abu Talha al-Tunsi saying that he was going to be a suicide bomber, is a sign of a growing number of Tunisians fighting for ISIS in Libya. Given the deteriorating security situation in Libya, Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid announced that new security equipment would be installed at the Dehiba land crossing between the two countries. [Libya Herald, Libya Monitor (subscription), 3/2/2015]

Tunisian blogger gets six months jail time for defaming army
A Tunisian military appeals court jailed blogger Yassine Ayari for six months for defaming the army, reducing the previous sentence by half but failing to satisfy critics. Chants of “down with the military judge” rang out from the public gallery as the sentence was read out. Ayari, the son of an army colonel killed in a 2011 clash with jihadists, was prosecuted over blogs he had written alleging financial abuses by army officers and defense ministry officials. According to the defense lawyer, no decision has yet been made as to appeal the ruling to the court of cassation. [AFP, 3/3/2015]


The United States will protect Syrian rebels when time comes
The United States will be ready to “protect” mainstream Syrian rebels possibly with air power once they enter into combat, Anti-ISIS Coalition Envoy retired US General John Allen said Monday at an event organized by the Atlantic Council. Insisting that once mainstream Syrian rebels were vetted, trained, and armed, they would not be abandoned on the battlefield. “It is clearly part of our plan, that not only we will train them, and we will equip them with the latest weapons systems, but we will also protect them when the time comes … so that it does have operational capability.” He also said the coalition was “pleasantly surprised at the numbers” of Syrians ready to sign up for the fight against ISIS. [AFP, 3/3/2015]

ISIS slow Tikrit advance with bombs and snipers
Iraqi security forces closed in on Tikrit Tuesday, their progress slowed by ISIS militants, snipers, and booby traps, on the second day of Baghdad’s largest operation yet against ISIS. The government has mobilized a 30,000-strong force for the push to retake Tikrit made up of Shia militiamen and Sunni tribesmen as well as troops and police. Iraqi forces are moving on Tikrit from three directions, with units targeting the towns of al-Alam and al-Dawr to the north and south, while another large contingent drives on the city from the east. Outnumbered and outgunned, the ISIS militants have been resorting to guerrilla tactics to disrupt the government’s three-pronged advance. ISIS said Tuesday that a US citizen Abu Dawud al-Amriki carried out a suicide attack against Iraqi forces involved in the offensive. [BBC, AFP, 3/3/2015]

Agreement between Walid Jumblatt and Nusra Front
An agreement has reportedly been reached between Lebanese Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt and the Nusra Front regarding Druze living in Syria’s Idlib province. The agreement calls for Idlib’s Druze to embrace Islam and destroy the tombs of their relatives. In return, the Nusra Front would stop imposing sharia on Idlib’s Druze. Last year, ISIS and Nusra allegedly forced Druze in Idlib to announce their conversion to Islam. [Al-Akhbar, The Daily Star, 3/2/2015]

UN delegation meets Aleppo governor on freeze plan
A UN delegation met the governor of Aleppo Mohammad Marwan Alabi Tuesday as the UN pushes a plan to freeze fighting in the divided city. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has made the Aleppo plan the centerpiece of his efforts to mediate a halt to fighting in Syria’s devastating civil war. The delegation arrived Monday on a fact-finding mission in Aleppo, despite the rejection of the plan a day earlier by local opposition forces. No details of the talks were immediately available. [AFP, 3/3/2015]


Islah party members kidnapped; accused by Houthis of al-Qaeda ties
The Islah Party accused the Houthis on Sunday evening of kidnapping four of its leaders earlier that day. Islah said the leaders were kidnapped from the party’s Student Department in Sana’a. The state-run Saba News Agency, now under Houthi control stated that, “security forces belonging to the Capital Secretariat arrested an armed cell linked to al-Qaeda, which comprises of a group of field activists who are linked with al-Qaeda and they are headed by a man named Habib al-Ariqi.” The statement did not mention the men were Islah members. [SABA, Yemen Times, 3/2/2015]

Yemen’s UN-sponsored talks resume
The Yemeni political parties resumed on Tuesday their UN-sponsored negotiations to reach a solution to the current crisis. UN Special Adviser on Yemen Jamal Benomar urged the resumption of the negotiations immediately in order to reach a political agreement reassuring for all Yemeni people. He confirmed that the dialogue sessions would be moved to the place to be determined by him. Benomar also urged Houthi leaders to release members of the cabinet from house arrest where they have been held since the Houthis seized the capital. [SABA, 3/3/2015]

Yemeni president suggests Riyadh as place for negotiations
President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi on Tuesday offered the Saudi capital of Riyadh as a possible venue for the UN-sponsored talks with Houthi rebels who have seized Yemen’s own capital Sana’a. President Hadi made the offer during a meeting with tribal leaders in Aden, where he has been based since fleeing house arrest in Sana’a last month. [AP, Al Masdar, 3/3/2015]

King Salman and Erdogan hold talks in Riyadh
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia held talks with visiting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the capital Riyadh on Monday. Erdogan’s meeting with King Salman comes a day after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi held talks with the monarch, and precedes a visit by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif later this week. Sisi and Erdogan have had strained relations since Sisi ousted president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, launching a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood which Qatar was also accused of backing. [Al Arabiya, 3/3/2015]


King’s spending boosts Saudi non-oil business growth
Growth in Saudi Arabia’s non-oil private sector accelerated to a four-month high in February as lavish handouts to citizens by the new king buoyed the economy despite the plunge in oil prices. The government has pledged to use its huge fiscal reserves to offset the impact of cheap oil with heavy state spending, and late in January King Salman marked his accession by announcing additional social and infrastructure spending. Analysts estimated that package, including the immediate payment of two months’ bonus salary to state employees, to comprise 90 billion riyals ($24 billion) of extra government spending this year. [Reuters, 3/3/2015]

Sixty countries to take part in Sharm al-Sheikh economic conference
Sixty countries are going to participate in the Sharm al-Sheikh economic conference scheduled to be held in mid-March, including Russia and the United States, Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on Monday. A spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that US Secretary of State John Kerry, China’s Minister of Commerce Gao Hucheng, and Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov would participate in the conference. Adding that there were currently talks with the twenty-eight EU member countries revolving around their anticipated attendance to the conference. [Ahram Online, Aswat Masriya, 3/2/2015]

No oil smuggling at Libyan ports
Refuting claims which appeared in a UN report, the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) says that it “has not recorded incidents or attempts to smuggle [oil] outside the authority of the NOC and the official actors at Libyan ports all along the Mediterranean coast.” In early February, the Tripoli oil minister Mashallah al-Zwai said that between one to two million liters of fuel were being smuggled out of Libya daily, costing the state between LD 200 million ($160 million) to LD 400 million ($320 million) each month. [Libya Monitor (subscription), 3/3/2015]
Algeria’s Sonatrach announces investments worth $90 billion
Although the energy sector is suffering an instability that paves the way to uncertainty, Algerian giant Sonatrach has decided to invest in a huge plan worth 90 billion and 600,000 dollars in 2015-2019. According to the interim CEO of Sonatrach ”these investments will enable Sonatrach to intensify efforts of exploration to consolidate its reserves with particular interest in hydrocarbon prospecting in the north of the country, in offshore and non-conventional resources”. The plan is expected to create thousands of new jobs and will support small and medium-sized companies whose activities can be connected with the oil sector. [ANSAmed, 3/2/2015]