Top News: UK, Turkey, Assad, and opposition skeptical over ceasefire

Syria’s regime agreed Tuesday to a ceasefire deal announced by the United States and Russia, but there were widespread doubts it could take effect by Saturday as planned. The State Department made the five-page plan public after Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone Monday. The agreement, announced Monday, does not apply to jihadists like the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) and the Nusra Front, adding complexity to how it can be implemented on Syria’s battlefield. A Syrian foreign ministry statement said the government would continue to fight both those groups as well as other “terrorists” while agreeing to stop other military operations. “For us, al-Nusra is a problematic point . . . civilians or the Free Syrian Army could be targeted under the pretext of targeting al-Nusra,” said senior opposition figure Khaled Khoja. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on Monday that the ceasefire will only work if there is a “major change of behavior” by the Syrian regime and Russia. Turkey also welcomed plans to halt hostilities in Syria, but is not optimistic about a positive outcome to talks on a political transition, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said on Tuesday. He also warned that Turkey could carry on shelling targets of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia inside Syria. [AP, AFP, Reuters, Daily Star, 2/23/2016]



Conflicting accounts in case of 4-year-old sentenced to life in prison
Denying a flurry of media reports to the contrary, the Armed Forces released a statement Monday declaring that a 4-year-old boy has not been sentenced to life in prison by a military court, but rather a 16-year-old boy of a similar name. On February 16, a military court sentenced 116 people to life in prison on nine counts, including the murder of three people in Fayoum during a January 3, 2014 protest, the attempted murder of six others, illegal arms possession, and vandalism. The name of Ahmed Mansour Qorani, 4, was included on the list of defendants. On Monday, the Armed Forces spokesperson claimed that media reports had confused the name of the young child with that of teenager Ahmed Mansour Qorani Sharara, who was sentenced in absentia. On February 20, however, the father of the 4-year-old said in a TV interview that security forces actually showed up at his home in January 2014 to arrest Ahmed, who was two at the time. When they realized he was a toddler, police reportedly arrested the father instead, detaining him for four months. Deputy Interior Minister for Public Relations, Abu Bakr Abdel Karim, offered a different explanation, saying that the child’s 51-year-old uncle Ahmed Qorani Ahmed Ali was the suspect implicated in the crime. [Mada Masr, DNE, CNN, 2/22/2016]

Press Syndicate calls on journalists to boycott parliament coverage after assault
Egypt’s Press Syndicate has called on journalists to boycott parliamentary coverage following the assault of a journalist during Monday’s session. The incident occurred after a verbal spat between MP and TV anchor Tawfik Okasha and Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal over a request to address the chamber. Abdel Al expelled Okasha from the meeting hall on Monday after receiving the approval of MPs.‎ The incident occurred just hours after Okasha made media statements recommending early presidential elections and the removal of the government. As Okasha exited the parliament, MP Mahmoud Khamis assaulted a journalist in an attempt to prevent the media from interviewing the dismissed parliamentarian. Later, Khamis, a former police general, apologized to Al-Watan newspaper’s Mohamed Tarek and to fellow journalists. Despite his apology, media members boycotted coverage of Monday’s evening parliamentary session. The Press Syndicate has called on journalists to boycott media coverage of parliamentary sessions until the case is investigated. Egypt’s parliament also summoned Okasha for questioning on Tuesday after forming a committee to investigate his confrontation with Abdel Aal. [DNE, Ahram Online, AMAY, 2/23/2016]

Egypt court orders release of Mohamed al-Zawahiri
A Cairo criminal court ordered the release of prominent jihadist Mohamed al-Zawahiri on parole on Tuesday. According to Zawahiri’s lawyer Adel Moawad, his client should be released soon since he is not detained in any other case. Zawahiri, the brother of current al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, was arrested in August 2013 on charges of membership in a terrorist organization. In October 2015, he was acquitted of operating a terrorist organization in what was dubbed the “Zawahiri cell” trial, which involved 17 other defendants, 10 of whom were sentenced to death for running a terrorist organization connected to Al-Qaeda. The prosecution has the right to appeal the court decision. [Ahram Online, 2/23/2016]

Policeman shoots colleague dead for mocking him on Facebook
A police corporal was arrested late on Monday on charges of shooting his colleague dead after a fight between the pair, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. Wael al-Shabrawy allegedly shot his colleague dead on Monday because the latter “used to frequently mock him in his Facebook comments, telling him he was not funny,” according to investigators. Medical examiners said the victim sustained two shots to the stomach. The Interior Ministry’s statement said the officer argued with his colleague in the restroom of al-Zohour police station before shooting him dead. Police detectives also revealed Shabrawi was sacked from the police service in 2007 for “frequent violations” before being recalled after the 2011 uprising. [AMAY, 2/23/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Italy to allow US armed drones for defensive use over Libya
The Italian government last month quietly began allowing armed American drones to fly out of an air base in Italy for military operations against Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) in Libya and across North Africa—a breakthrough for Washington after more than a year of negotiations, US officials said. But the Italians granted permission for the drones to be used only defensively, to protect US special-operations forces in Libya and beyond, the officials said. US officials are still attempting to persuade the Italian government to allow the drones, based at Naval Air Station Sigonella on the island of Sicily, to be used for offensive operations. In response to comments by US officials, Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni reiterated that allowing the United States to fly armed drones from Sigonella is not a precursor to Italian support for military action in Libya. [WSJ, Reuters, AP, 2/22/2016]

Libyan army continues to advance in Benghazi
Reports are emerging that the Libyan National Army, led by General Khalifa Haftar, has overrun terrorist positions near Benghazi’s port. If correct, the capture of Sabri and nearby Suq al-Hud means that the militants have been cleared completely from the downtown area. In the last 48 hours, Buatni, Hawari, and Leithi neighborhoods have all been taken by the army, leaving ISIS and Ansar al-Sharia forces in control of three southwestern areas: Gwarsham, Garayunis, and Gamhouda. The reports of the fall of Sabri and Suq al-Hud were broadcast early this afternoon on Libyan television. There has not yet been any confirmation from the army. [Libya Herald, 2/23/2016]

Lack of quorum scuppers Libya confidence vote
Libya’s House of Representatives (HOR) was unable to hold a vote of confidence in the UN-backed unity government Tuesday because it lacked a quorum, reported several members of the HOR. MP Ali al-Qaidi confirmed that the session for the vote was adjourned until next week. Qaidi said there were differences between MPs on the proposed new government’s program. Another member, Khalifa al-Daghari, spoke of disagreements over the order of business, with some MPs also wanting to vote on the political agreement reached in December in Morocco on the 2011 constitution before holding the vote of confidence. [AFP, 2/23/2016]

Libya could soon run out of life-saving medicines
Libya faces severe shortages of life-saving medicine and about one million people will soon be in dire need of help, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya Ali Al-Za’tari has warned. Al-Za’tari said his main concern at this point is scarcity of medicine and the state of hospitals in Libya. Compounding public health problems are the 435,000 internally displaced people living in schools and other public places and some 250,000 migrants and refugees who had hoped to pass through Libya. Instability has taken a heavy toll on healthcare facilities. In Benghazi, for instance, only one or two out of about a dozen hospitals are functioning, said Al-Za’tari. [Reuters, 2/23/2016]

Tunisia probes deaths of countrymen in US airstrike in Libya
Tunisian authorities on Monday authorized an investigation into the deaths of Tunisian citizens in last week’s US airstrike on an ISIS training camp in neighboring Libya. A court spokesman, Kamel Barbouche, said the green light for the probe was given because most of those killed were Tunisian nationals. The Tunisian probe aims to find out, via DNA, who is dead and who is still alive and, once identified, whether they are implicated in terrorism or other cases under judicial review, Barbouche said by telephone.
The investigation may help determine whether Chouchane was killed. [AP, 2/22/2016]


Experts identify new cases of Syria chemical attacks
The international body charged with establishing who is responsible for chemical attacks in Syria said Monday it has identified seven potential sites for investigation, which it hopes to begin next month. Virginia Gamba, who heads the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) of the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said an initial report to the Security Council had identified five cases where chemical weapons might have been used. Further analysis led to two other suspected cases, both in the Idlib governorate: in Binnish on March 23, 2015 and in al-Tamana on April 29-30 and May 25-26 in 2014. Asked whether there was any evidence that chemical weapons are still being used by the warring parties in Syria, Ms. Gamba said, “Clearly they are still being used by the warring parties in Syria. This has been a constant for the last two years.” The number of dead in Syria’s five-year-long war is estimated at more than 370,000, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said Tuesday, raising its toll for documented deaths to more than 270,000. [AP, UN News, Daily Star, 2/22/2016]

UN says major powers feeding ‘military escalation’ in Syria
War crimes are “rampant” in Syria, and the conflict has become “a multisided proxy war steered from abroad by an intricate network of alliances,” UN investigators said in a new report Monday. In a swipe at the United States, Russia, and their allies, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said the international powers and regional countries ostensibly pushing for a peaceful solution are the same nations that “continue to feed the military escalation.” The UN investigators warned that “the fractured Syrian state is on the brink of collapse” and said there is a growing risk of “internationalization of the conflict.” Crimes against humanity continue to be committed by government forces and the Islamic State extremist group, their report said. The Commission’s eleventh report to the UN Security Council draws on 415 interviews with victims and eyewitnesses in and outside the country, collected between July 2015 and January 2016. [AP, Reuters, UN News, 2/23/2016]

Assad sets April 13 for parliamentary elections
Syrian President Bashar Assad announced Monday that parliamentary elections are to be held on April 13, state news agency SANA reported, shortly after Washington and Moscow announced a ceasefire plan. Assad issued a decree which included seat allocations for each of the provinces in Syria, which last held parliamentary elections in May 2012. At the time, Assad appointed then-agriculture minister Riad Hijab to be Syria’s new prime minister. Hijab has since defected and now leads the main opposition to Assad’s regime from the Saudi capital Riyadh. [AFP, 2/22/2016]

Russia, with Turkey in mind, announces big weapons deal with Armenia
Russia has announced the details of a new shipment of arms to Armenia, a relatively rare move likely connected with Russia’s ongoing tension with Turkey. Last week, the Russian government announced that it would be providing Armenia with a $200 million credit to buy equipment including multiple-launch rocket systems, anti-tank missiles, handheld antiaircraft missiles and upgrades to tanks. Last week’s announcement of the Russian-Armenian arms deal, with the agreement posted on an official Russian government website, was out of character for Russia (which tends to respect Armenia’s wishes for relative privacy). Analysis say this is a part of Russia’s other military cooperation programs with Armenia, which now are being rebranded as explicitly anti-Turkish efforts. The move comes after last week’s addition of several fighter jets to the Russian air base in Armenia as part of ongoing efforts to create a joint Russian-Armenian (and -Belarusian and -Kazakh) air defense system. [Eurasianet, Washington Times, Today’s Zaman, 2/22/2016]

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


Kurdish Special Forces rescue Swedish girl from ISIS
A teenage Swedish girl being held by ISIS in Iraq was rescued in a raid by Kurdish Special Forces on February 17, the Kurdish Security Council said in a statement on Tuesday. “The Kurdistan Region Security Council was called upon by Swedish authorities and members of her family to assist in locating and rescuing her from [ISIS],” the statement read. The 16 year old travelled from Sweden to Syria last year and then crossed the border into Iraq after being “misled” into making the journey by an ISIS member in Sweden. The young woman is currently in Iraqi Kurdish territory and is being “provided the care afforded to her under international law” and she will be “transferred to Swedish authorities to return home once necessary arrangements” are made. [Reuters, AP, 2/23/16]

Kurds demand fair share in next cabinet to support Abadi
Kurdish lawmakers in the Iraqi parliament said Monday they are ready to back the next government in Baghdad, but only if Kurds receive their “fair share of seats” in Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s next cabinet. Kurdish lawmaker Hoshiar Abdulla told Rudaw the bloc is eyeing one fourth of the total posts in the next cabinet, which Abadi has promised will be a technocratic government. “We have agreed that the Kurdish share should not be less than 20 percent of the cabinet seats and we will endorse the government only if it is not at the expense of our legitimate share in governance,” Abdulla said, after he and his fellow lawmakers from the Kurdistan Alliance met with Iraqi President Fuad Masoum, who is a Kurd, in Baghdad for talks last week. [Rudaw, 2/22/2016]

Captured militant says ISIS is weakened, lacking weapons, links severed
In an interview with Rudaw, Saad Sulaiman Ali, a former ISIS fighter arrested last week in Kirkuk, said that ISIS has been weakened by months of air strikes, the death of many of its commanders, and a lack of weapons, ammunition, and explosives. During his time with ISIS, Ali witnessed the executions of more than 300 security forces captured by the group in Kirkuk and Mosul. His final mission was to join an undercover ISIS cell in Kirkuk, assigned to carry out bombings in the city. He carried out one car bombing near a group of police officers before being arrested by security forces. [Rudaw, 2/23/16]

Saudi Arabia opens consulate in Erbil
Abdul Muneem Abdulrahman, the first Saudi Arabian Consul General in Erbil, arrived in the Kurdistan region’s capital on Monday. Abdulrahman told reporters upon his arrival that Riyadh is willing to strengthen its bilateral relations with Erbil and they “will stand with Kurds until they overcome the current crisis.” [Bas News, 2/22/2016]


Yemeni General sworn in to senior army post; Hadi leads government meeting in Riyadh
Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi on Monday appointed a former senior figure in the country’s army as deputy supreme commander of the armed forces. General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar was sworn in to the position at President Hadi’s residence in Riyadh on Tuesday. Al-Ahmar was a politically powerful army general who split violently with former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 during the Arab Spring protests that eventually ousted Saleh. Since then, Yemen has descended into a civil war that pits a Gulf Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and Yemeni forces loyal to Hadi against Houthi militias, backed by Iran, and forces allied to Saleh. Later on Tuesday President Hadi led a government meeting in Riyadh to discuss developments in the fight against Houthi militias and forces loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Al-Ahmar and Vice President Khaled Bahah were in attendance. [Al Masdar, Reuters, 2/23/2016]

Al-Qaeda joins coalition battle for Taiz
The BBC has found evidence in Yemen that troops from a Saudi-led coalition force and Al-Qaeda militants are both fighting Houthi rebels in a key battle. On a visit to the frontline near the city of Taiz, a documentary maker filmed jihadists as well as UAE-supported pro-government militiamen. The coalition of 10 mostly Sunni Arab states is backing Yemen’s government in its war against the Shia rebels. But it denies co-operating with Sunni extremists also opposed to the Houthis. The coalition’s member states consider Al-Qaeda a terrorist organization, and the jihadist network’s local affiliates have attacked coalition forces and Yemeni government personnel. [BBC, 2/22/2016]

Lebanon PM to visit Gulf after Saudi aid cutoff; Saudi sends aid to Sudan
Lebanon’s Prime Minister said on Monday he will head a ministerial delegation to visit Gulf states in the near future after Saudi Arabia halted security assistance deals worth $4 billion. Saudi Arabia granted the security assistance instead to Sudan. The Saudi move came after Lebanon failed to back the Sunni kingdom in its spat with Shia Iran, the leading backer of Hezbollah. Salam insisted Beirut stands by Arab countries and said it is necessary to rectify relations between Lebanon and its “brothers,” and “remove the stains” that surfaced recently. [AP, 2/22/2016]

Riyadh says war games will boost ties with Muslim allies
The Middle East’s largest ever war games are now underway and will boost military cooperation between the twenty Muslim nations taking part, host country Saudi Arabia said Monday, as it seeks to check the growing influence of arch rival Iran. The Northern Thunder exercises, which began on Feb. 14 and will run until March 10, involve more than 150,000 troops from the Gulf Arab nations, Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jordan, Sudan, and Senegal. “The council of ministers … expressed the hope that these exercises achieve what was defined as their goals in exchanging expertise and raising the level of military coordination,” Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet said in a statement. The statement also praised “the levels of preparedness and administrative and supply capabilities” shown by the nations participating in Northern Thunder exercises. [Reuters, 2/23/2016]

Saudi religious police arrested after allegedly brutalizing woman
Members of Saudi Arabia’s religious police have been arrested for allegedly brutalizing a young woman outside a Riyadh shopping mall, local media reported Tuesday. The young woman’s case, filmed and put on line two weeks ago, led to a wave of indignation on the Internet. Video purportedly shows members of the religious police, who enforce Islamic morality, chasing two women and then roughly handling one of them whose black abaya robe opened to reveal her leg. [AFP, 2/23/2016]


ISIS rigs currency rates in Mosul to prop up finances
Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants in the Iraqi city of Mosul are manipulating the exchange rate between US dollars and Iraqi dinars as the US-led anti-ISIS coalition attacks the group’s finances. Air strikes have reduced ISIS’s ability to extract, refine, and transport oil. Since October the coalition says it has destroyed at least 10 “cash collection points” estimated to contain hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet ISIS appears to have adapted to these setbacks in Mosul by introducing a new revenue stream. It earns profits of up to 20 percent under preferential currency rates it imposed last month that strengthen the dollar when exchanged for smaller denominations of dinars, currency traders in Mosul said. ISIS “sells [basic commodities] to traders in dollars, but it pays salaries in small denominations of dinars,” said an exchange bureau employee in Mosul. It was not possible to determine how much money ISIS is making by controlling the currency market. It was also unclear if these practices extend beyond Mosul to other territories in Iraq and Syria. [Reuters, 2/22/2016]

Iraq cuts 2016 development costs for foreign oil companies
Iraqi Oil Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi said Monday that development costs for foreign oil companies had been revised down to just over $9 billion in 2016 from $23 billion. Abdel Mahdi said most foreign oil companies had approved the revised costs and that it would not affect production and development plans. “In 2016, [oil] companies estimated costs at $23 billion but we entered into complex negotiations . . . and were able to reduce them to just over $9 billion whilst preserving production and development plans,” Abdel Mahdi said, adding that around $13.6 billion had been paid to firms in 2015 and $13.1 billion the previous year. Earlier on Monday, he said Iraq plans to increase oil output to more than 7 million barrels per day over the next five years. He also said Iraq would use all of its gas production to supply the electricity grid and industry, requiring investments of $300 billion over the next 15 years. [Reuters, 2/22/2016]

Egypt cuts economic growth forecast
Egypt has lowered its economic growth forecast for the current fiscal year to 4 to 4.25, down from 5 percent, Finance Minister Hany Kadry Dimian said. The downward growth revision was attributed to a decline in tourism following the downing of a Russian plane in October. “Tourism is one of the major sectors, not just as a driver of growth and one of the biggest sources of current-account receipts but because it has a higher multiplier impact on other” industries, Dimian said. Speaking on assistance from Gulf countries, Dimian said Gulf aid has shifted from grants to investments. While they still give Egypt credit facilities for oil products, “what we are focusing on now is how to foster direct investments from the Gulf states,” he said. Dimian added that the government plans to proceed with its economic reform program, which involves reforming the state budget and tackling a foreign currency shortage. He said the government hopes to tap the international bond market before the end of the fiscal year in June, market conditions permitting. [Bloomberg, Ahram Online, 2/22/2016]

Turkey’s central bank leaves interest rates unchanged
Turkey’s central bank left its benchmark interest rate unchanged at 7.5 percent for the twelve month in a row on Tuesday, a move that is likely to heighten concerns about the bank’s reluctance to tackle inflation head-on. “Taking into account inflation expectations, pricing behavior and the course of other factors affecting inflation, the tight monetary policy stance will be maintained,” the bank said in a statement. The bank has refrained from adjusting rates even as rising food costs and a weakening currency have sent inflation to its highest level in more than a year. Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek has said that inflation, now at more than 9.5 percent, could seriously threaten economic growth. President Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly railed against high interest rates. “Whoever defends hiking interest rates is the enemy of investment and employment in this country,” he said. [Reuters, WSJ, Hurriyet, 2/23/2016]

Saudi inflation accelerates after subsidy cuts
Inflation in Saudi Arabia accelerated the most in more than three years in January after government subsidy cuts drove up transportation and commodity prices. Consumer prices rose an annual 4.3 percent, up from 2.3 percent in December, the General Authority for Statistics said. The surge in inflation “was almost entirely due to the subsidy cuts that were announced alongside the budget,” Middle East economist at Capital Economics Jason Tuvey said. “This goes to underline that the government has taken a bold approach to fiscal consolidation and reinforces our view that the economy is likely to slow sharply this year.” Transportation prices in January went up 12.6 percent from a year earlier, while housing, water, fuel and electricity costs increased 8.3 percent, the statistics authority said. Health care costs increased by 5.5 percent. [Bloomberg, 2/23/2016]