Top News: UN Endorses Peace Process for Syria

The UN Security Council’s (UNSC) unanimous support of a peace process for Syria that is set to begin next month with government-opposition talks and a ceasefire represents its strongest gesture yet in support of a solution to the civil war. The UNSC adoption of a resolution on Friday comes amid a growing sense that the top priority in Syria should be the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), which has exploited the country’s years of chaos and created a base from which it promotes deadly attacks abroad. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the world is going to see in the next few months whether the peace process actually takes hold. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond called the plan a “great step forward,” and the Arab League backed it, with its Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi saying the resolution “offers a chance for the first time to find a serious solution to the crisis in Syria.”Pope Francis also welcomed the plan, saying, “I encourage everyone to continue energetically down the path to an end of violence and a negotiated solution for peace.” However, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, “There must be safeguards regarding the exit of Bashar al-Assad.” Meanwhile, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said it will maintain its support for Assad, though it will also “support inter-Syrian dialogue.” [APReutersNYT, 12/20/2015]



Parties withdraw from pro-Sisi parliamentary bloc
A proposed government-aligned parliamentary bloc seeking a 400-member majority received a sudden blow as major member parties walked out. The Mostaqbal Watan party, which won 50 party-based seats, withdrew on Sunday without disclosing its reasons. Mostafa Bakry, a leading member of parliament with the Coalition to Support the Egyptian State, said Mostaqbal Watan’s decision is “a serious development that will have a negative impact on the coalition.” The Wafd Party, which won 45 seats, also said that 90 percent of its members were against joining the coalition, adding it was going to form its own bloc. The coalition is to be called al-Umma al-Masriya (The Egyptian Nation), however, the party has yet to define the ethos and constituting members of this tentative coalition. Sameh Seif al-Yazal, founder of the Coalition to Support the Egyptian State, and an ex-military intelligence general, had previously announced that Wafd, along with seven other parties, were joining the coalition. The Free Egyptians Party declared on Saturday that it would take “legal measures” against ten members who joined the coalition in violation of the party’s decision to shun it. The High Electoral Commission (HEC), meanwhile, announced on Friday the completion of parliamentary elections, after all seats in the House of Representatives were filled up. HEC head Ayman Abbas said a total of 13 candidates including nine independents and four party members won in the four constituencies where voting was repeated. This brings the total number of independent candidates in the upcoming parliament to 325, making up 52.2 percent of the House. Party members add up to 243 candidates, equivalent to 42.8 percent. [AMAY, 12/21/2015]

Lawyer launches complaint against ‘executions judge’ over biased political comments
A lawyer has submitted an official complaint to the Supreme Judicial Council against a senior judge, accusing him of voicing personal political views during a press interview a week ago, including views on people detained pending judicial measures. Lawyer Taha Abdel Galil said Mohamed Nagi Shehata, the head of the Giza Criminal Court, renounced his impartiality as a judge and expressed personal, negative views of political movements, including the April 6 Youth Movement, and media figures in an interview with privately-owned Al-Watan newspaper. In the interview, Shehata, popularly referred to as the “executions judge” for handing multiple death sentences to Muslim Brotherhood supporters, described the 2011 uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak as a “loss.” Abdel Galil contended that such an opinion “exposed a strong hatred and an egregious bias” against the uprising recognized by the Egyptian Constitution. Shehata has reportedly denied doing the interview, while the newspaper says the interview was recorded. [AMAY, 12/20/2015]

Esraa al-Taweel released for medical reasons after seven months detention
Cairo Criminal Court ordered the release Saturday of Egyptian photographer Esraa al-Taweel after nearly seven months in detention pending trial. Judge Hassan Farid said Taweel was released because of her medical condition and her need for to receive treatment outside prison. He added that Taweel will be under police supervision and is not allowed to leave her home without police permission. She was released Saturday (video), and will be required to report at Bulaq police station once a week. Minutes before Taweel was released, her mother said, “I am thankful for her release, even though it is conditional. Esraa is much smaller than the charges given to her and I have faith she will be completely released in the upcoming session.” Local rights groups also welcomed Taweel’s release. [Ahram Online, DNE, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, 12/20/2015]

Egypt condemns European resolution demanding release of Egyptian-Irish inmate
Egypt rejected a European Parliament resolution calling for the immediate release of Egyptian-Irish prisoner Ibrahim Halawa, which Egypt described as an “unacceptable infringement on the independence of the Egyptian judiciary.” In a statement issued by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry on Friday, spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid said that the European Parliament resolution issued on Thursday contains false information. The resolution, which was put forward by Irish MEPs and states that Halawa could face the death penalty in Egypt, passed by 566 votes to 11. However, Abu Zeid denied that Halawa could face the death penalty since at the time of his arrest he was under the age of 18, and according to Egyptian law, minors cannot be sentenced to death. The statement also condemned the European parliament resolution for claiming the inmate was subjected to torture inside Egyptian prisons, describing it as “another baseless accusation, which can be disproved.” The statement added, “A number of Irish officials and parliamentarians have visited him in order to affirm that there is no truth to such allegations.” [Ahram Online, DNE, AP, Mada Masr, 12/18/2015]

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At least 14 killed in clashes in Libya’s Ajdabiya
Despite an announcement Friday by Adjabiya Mayor Salem Jadhran that a ceasefire had been agreed to by Islamist militants from the Ajbabiya Revolutionaries Shoura Council (ARSC) and supporters of the Libyan National Army (LNA), clashes continued on Saturday. At least 14 people have been killed and 25 wounded during the clashes since Wednesday. Casualties have included civilians and members of groups supporting the Libyan National Army (LNA), according to the medical sources. They added that casualties from the other side were not treated in the town’s hospitals. In a separate incident, two guards were wounded when an unknown group attacked the military intelligence building in the western town of Sabratha, the mayor said. [Libya Herald, Reuters, 12/19/2015]

Libya sovereign fund assets must remain frozen, says one of two rival chairmen
One of two rival chairmen of Libya’s $67 billion sovereign wealth fund said on Monday that it would be wrong to unfreeze the fund’s assets following last week’s agreement to form a national unity government. Abdulmagid Breish, one of the competing chairmen of the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), said that while negotiations on forming the government continue, it was imperative the LIA’s assets remained frozen to safeguard them against the threat of “misappropriation and corruption.” About 85 percent of the fund’s assets have been frozen since 2011 under sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. [Reuters, Libya Monitor (subscription) 12/21/2015]

UN works to ensure Libya unity government security
UN Special Envoy for Libya Martin Kobler said on Sunday his team is in contact with security officials in Tripoli to ensure that Libya’s new unity government can operate safely from the capital. “The question… is how does the government go into Tripoli, and this is a question that we are negotiating with security actors on the ground,” he said from Tunis, where his UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has been relocated. Kobler said he hopes to have an agreement with the regular army, the regular police, and also the militias to protect the new government on the ground. The German diplomat said that UNSMIL’s military adviser, General Paolo Serra of Italy, was in charge of the negotiations. The UN Security Council is to vote next week on a resolution to recognize the new government as “the sole legitimate authority” in Libya. Around 80 of 188 lawmakers from Libya’s internationally recognized parliament and 50 of 136 members of the rival Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) signed the deal, participants said. None of Libya’s militias, including the Libya Dawn alliance which controls Tripoli, have announced a position on the Skhirat agreement. [AFP, Libya Herald, 12/21/2015]

US embassy warns citizens over possible Tunisia mall attack
The US embassy in Tunisia has warned its citizens to avoid a major shopping mall in the capital Tunis on Sunday because of a reported threat of a potential militant attack there. A statement late on Saturday advised US citizens to stay away from the Tunisia Mall in Berges du Lac area in the capital on Sunday because a “report of unknown credibility indicates the possibility of a terrorist attack.” It gave no further details. But Tunisian security forces have been on high alert since the November 24 suicide bombing that killed 12 presidential guards as they boarded a bus to start their tour of duty. Tunisia is under a state of emergency following the suicide bomb attack on a presidential guard bus in Tunis last month. [Reuters, AFP, 12/20/2015]

Marzouki announces creation of al-Irada political party; Marzouk to announce new party
Former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki announced on Sunday the birth of a new party called Tunisia al-Irada Movement, to replace his previous party. At a ceremony in Tunis Marzouki said he felt it his duty to continue engaging in the political situation in Tunisia. Political Bureau Member Amor Chétoui said that al-Irada will participate in next year’s municipal elections. Outgoing Nidaa Tounes Secretary General Mohsen Marzouk also announced his “total separation” from the party and the creation of a national committee open to “the youth, women and regional representatives.” The creation of the committee will lead to a congress to be held on January 10, 2016 when a new political project will likely emerge.[TAP, ANSAmed, 12/21/2015]

Beji Caid Essebsi to make official visit to Riyadh December 22-23
President Beji Caid Essebsi will make an official visit to Saudi Arabia on December 22 and 23 at the invitation of King Salmane Ben Abdelaziz al-Saud. Saudi Arabia is the third largest investor in Tunisia with 38 Saudi companies and with Saudi shareholding for investments worth nearly 1,697 million Tunisian dinars (MTD), generating 10,319 direct jobs. The overall investment volume of Saudi companies is close to 544 MTD. Tunisian exports to Saudi Arabia include olive oil, Sodium triphosphate, drugs, and more. The number of Tunisians living in Saudi Arabia has reached about 23,000. [TAP, 12/19/2015]


Syrian demands halt of Russian air strikes part of truce; HRW reports use of cluster munition
Syria’s main opposition coalition said on Friday that achieving a ceasefire by January 1 was unrealistic and demanded that Russia halt air strikes as part of the new truce. Syrian National Coalition’s (SNC) envoy to the United Nations Najib Ghadbian said opposition groups need “a month or so” to prepare for political talks that would begin in tandem with a ceasefire, calling the timetables unrealistic. A key issue for the SNC is whether the ceasefire will apply to Russia’s air campaign, which began in late September in support of President Bashar al-Assad. “Russian attacks continue to target everything and anything but ISIS,” said Ghadbian. On Sunday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report that Russian allies have been making “extensive” use of cluster munitions, with use on 20 occasions killing at least 35 civilians since the start of Russian air strikes in Syria. Also on Sunday, BBC reported that at least 43 people have been killed in a series of recent Russian air strikes in the northern Syrian city of Idlib. [AFP, 12/20/2015]

Iraq Defense Minister predicts Ramadi victory by year’s end; ISIS traps residents
Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi predicted Saturday that security forces backed by US-led coalition air strikes would retake full control of the city of Ramadi by the end of the year. “I met with the Joint Operations Command and they confirmed to me that we will regain all of the city of Ramadi by the end of this month,” he said. Earlier this month, forces led by Iraq’s elite counterterrorism service retook Al-Tameem, a southwestern neighborhood of Ramadi from the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). However, after Iraqi military planes dropped leaflets on Sunday asking residents to leave within 72 hours, Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Naseer Nuri reported Monday that ISIS is “preventing families from leaving,” as they “plan to use them as human shields.” [AFP, 12/21/2015]

Iraq welcomes Turkish withdrawal announcement
Baghdad on Sunday welcomed Turkey’s move to pull troops out of northern Iraq but said it would keep up efforts at the United Nations to achieve a full withdrawal. “What has been reported in the media is a step in the right direction,” Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari was quoted as saying in a statement from his office. “We will carry on our process with the [UN] Security Council until a full withdrawal is achieved,” he added. Turkey announced on Saturday that it had begun withdrawing troops following a call from US President Barack Obama. [AFP, 12/21/2015]

Turkey military offensive kills 110 Kurdish fighters; Turkey’s pro-Kurdish leader to visit Moscow
Armed clashes persisted Sunday across Turkey’s southeast, where an operation by Turkish forces intensified on the sixth day of a campaign that security sources said had resulted in the death of 110 Kurdish militants. Protests erupted in Istanbul and in Diyarbakir, the biggest city in the country’s south east, with hundreds demonstrating against the military operations. Police fired tear gas and plastic bullets to disperse the crowds. Most of the fighting took place in Cizre and Silopi, towns near the Iraqi and Syrian borders that have been under curfew for almost a week. Nusaybin and Dargecit in the border province of Mardin and the historical Sur district of Diyarbakir have also seen fierce battles. Meanwhile, the leader of Turkey’s opposition pro-Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtas will meet Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow for talks aimed at reducing tensions after the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkish forces, the party said Monday. The trip by a key rival of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be the first by a high profile Turkish figure to Russia since the shooting-down of the Russian Su-24 warplane led to a crisis in the two countries’ ties unprecedented since the Cold War. [Reuters, 12/21/2015]

ISIS stole ‘tens of thousands’ of blank passports
ISIS may have stolen “tens of thousands” of blank passports that it could use to smuggle its fighters into Europe as refugees, a German newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported Sunday citing Western intelligence sources. According to the report, ISIS could have acquired the stolen travel documents in areas of Syria, Iraq, and Libya it now controls. European authorities have repeatedly warned of the potential threat posed by refugees travelling with counterfeit documents. [AFP, 12/20/2015]

Thousands attend funeral of Lebanese fighter killed in Syria
Thousands of people have gathered in a Hezbollah stronghold south of Beirut for the funeral of Samir Kantar, a high-profile militant who the group says was killed by an Israeli airstrike near the Syrian capital on Saturday. Hezbollah said Kantar, who spent 30 years in an Israeli prison for murder, was killed along with eight others in the air strike on a residential building in Jaramana, close to Damascus. Hezbollah pledged to avenge his killing, sparking fears of escalation in a volatile region. Supporters of the group walked behind his coffin, which was draped in a yellow Hezbollah flag, at the funeral Monday. “Death to Israel,” the men shouted as women threw rice and rose petals at the coffin. [AP, 12/21/2015]

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


Yemen peace talks end without agreement
Peace talks between warring Yemeni factions ended without an agreement amid accusations on both sides that ceasefire agreements were being ignored. Delegates of both the Hadi government and the Houthi rebels participated in talks in Geneva, Switzerland. UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed decried numerous ceasefire violations, but noted progress on establishing a negotiating framework–a deescalation committee–and had agreed on further confidence building measures, including the release and exchange of all prisoners “in principle.” Talks are planned to resume in Ethiopia on January 14. [Gulf News, Reuters, Al Jazeera, 12/21/2015]

Saudi Arabia intercepts missile fired from Yemen
Saudi Arabia intercepted a missile early monday morning that they believe was fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen. Patriot missile batteries deployed along the Saudi border intercepted the missile. The incident comes after a similar missile landed in an empty area of Najran on on Friday. Approximately 80 people, mostly Saudi border guards and soldiers, have died in border skirmishes and shellings since the Kingdom became involved in Yemen’s civil war in March. [AFP, 12/21/2015]

Human Rights Watch condemns Coalition bombings in Yemen, lack of investigation
In a report released on Monday, Human Rights Watch reported six unlawful attacks carried out by Saudi-led Coalition against residential areas in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a. The bombings that Human Rights Watch investigated, which occurred in September and October, killed 60 civilians. The group also condemned Houthi rebels for endangering civilians by deploying in densely populated areas in two of the incidents they investigated. The human rights monitor also called upon the parties to the conflict, specifically including the United States, to investigate such incidents. The conflict has claimed 6000 deaths and 34,000 wounded since it began in March. Fighting Yemen’s north killed 75 in just three days last week. [HRW, NYT, AP, 12/21/2015]

United States glossed over Oman’s human rights record during Iran talks
In a highly unusual intervention, the US State Department’s hierarchy overruled its own staff’s assessments of Oman’s deteriorating record on forced labor and human trafficking and inflated its ranking in a congressionally mandated report, US officials told Reuters. The move suggests the Obama administration placed diplomatic priorities over human rights to pacify an important Middle East partner. Diplomats in the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs bureau and experts in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons agreed that Oman would be downgraded from “Tier 2” to a status known as “Tier 2 Watch List,” one notch above a level that can incur US sanctions. Oman, they agreed, had not done enough to improve the plight of migrant laborers and domestic workers who make up a large part of its expatriate community. When the final report was set for publication, advisers to Kerry put the document on hold due to its Oman assessment. Oman played the role of mediator during the talks over Iran’s civil nuclear program over the past few years. [Reuters, 12/21/2015]


Saudi Arabia plans major economic shakeup amid oil slump
Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has privately outlined plans to reshape the economy to withstand low oil prices. The strategy, which includes state spending reforms and privatizations, was presented at a meeting this week with senior officials, businessmen, and economists. The plans, expected to be made public in the next few weeks, represent a shift of authority over economic policy to bin Salman, the Council of Economic and Development Affairs that he chairs, and the Ministry of Economy and Planning, sources said. Under the reforms, the government would become more cautious about spending. The Ministry of Finance would fund new projects only with the approval of the economic council and decisions would be closely tied to the government’s financial situation. Some state bodies would be privatized in an effort to spur growth, create jobs, and reduce the financial burden on the public sector. The creation of nonprofit organizations would also be encouraged, especially in health care and education, and a system of water and electricity subsidies would be restructured. Ministries and state agencies will regularly be given “key performance indicators” and officials will be held accountable if they do not meet these targets. [Reuters, 12/19/2015]

Egypt to receive $1.5 billion from Arab funds for Sinai development
Egypt will finalize loans worth a total of $1.5 billion with Arab funds to finance development projects in the Sinai region. Director of the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development Abdel Wahab Badr said Sunday that his fund’s contribution to Sinai’s development would come from the $1.5 billion that was allocated in April to be spread over five years, delivering $300 million per year. “The project in Sinai aims to bring the Peninsula’s development up to par with the rest of the country,” Badr said. Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation Sahar Nasr said Arab funds have expressed “full readiness” to support Egypt in its plans to develop Sinai. She said the funds will focus on housing, road construction, agriculture, and education. Meanwhile, an unnamed Saudi businessman is in talks with Egyptian authorities over a $4 billion tourism resort in Sharm al-Sheikh, according to Minister of Tourism Hisham Zaazou. He said the project would be the largest resort in Sharm al-Sheikh. [Ahram Online, 12/21/2015]

Libya’s eastern oil company says signs shipment deal with Egypt
The National Oil Corporation (NOC) branch set up by Libya’s eastern government in Tobruk says it has reached agreements with six international buyers to export crude from the Messla and Sarir fields as it continues its efforts to sell oil independently of Tripoli. The crude will be shipped via the Hariqa terminal in Tobruk. Tobruk NOC Chairman Nagi al-Magrabi said Sunday that agreements with “six international firms had been reached.” One of the agreements includes a sale of 2 million barrels of crude to Egypt. A delegation from the Tobruk NOC headed by chairman al-Moghrabi had visited Egypt and signed a deal for the crude shipment, training, and exchanges related to the oil industry, NOC Advisor Mohamed al-Menfi al-Menfi said. Egyptian officials were not immediately available to confirm the agreement. [Reuters, Libya Monitor (subscription), 12/21/2015]

Tunisia, IMF to discuss new fund arrangement
International Monetary Fund (IMF) Mission Chief for Tunisia Amine Mati announced that “discussions about a new Fund arrangement with the IMF are expected to be held over the coming weeks.” In a statement Friday at the conclusion of an IMF visit to Tunisia, Mati said, “[It is] now essential to move forcefully on reforms to accelerate growth and create jobs.” Mati said Tunisia’s forthcoming five-year economic and development plan “gives the authorities an opportunity to foster internal consensus and set priorities for comprehensive economic reforms.” He added, “[The IMF] will remain engaged with the Tunisian authorities” and ready to support efforts to ensure macroeconomic stability and address structural vulnerabilities “through economic policy advice, financial support and technical assistance.” He noted that the Tunisia’s economic outlook remains challenging due to negative shocks, persistent unemployment, and vulnerabilities. [TAP, 12/19/2015]

Iraq says OPEC will stick to policy on no output cuts
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will stick to its December 4 decision to maintain production despite the drop in global prices, Iraq’s Oil Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said. He added that any output reduction aimed at boosting prices would have to be coordinated with non-OPEC members. “We are in a real world, OPEC is not the only producer or the only player. So we have to see what the decisions of others should be – Russia and the United States and other producers,” Mahdi said. He hopes that oil prices will rebound in 2016 as a result of improved global economic growth. “There is big hope that, in the first half or by the end of next year, oil prices would return to what they were,” he said without specifying a price level. “The resumption of normal economic growth rates in China, together with growth in Asia and Europe and higher economic growth in the US could contribute to an increase in demand for energy and to higher prices,” Mahdi said. [Reuters, 12/21/2015]