Top News: UN, foreign, and rival governments react to GNA’s arrival

Tripoli’s government had declared a state of emergency ahead of Fayez Sarraj’s anticipated arrival, and several main highways were blocked late Wednesday by armed groups — some uniformed and others in civilian clothes — who arrived aboard military vehicles. The Ghwell administration Wednesday evening announced that Mitiga airport would remain closed, as it has been for the past two days, with all flights diverted to Misrata. In his statement tonight Ghwell had accused Serraj of seeking to reach Tripoli by air, using other passengers as a human shield. Libya’s Grand Mufti Al-Sadiq al-Gharyani has reiterated his call for five amendments to the Libyan political agreement that must be done before any government can work freely in Tripoli. The Mufti also called for an accurate definition to terrorism. “Benghazi now has been destroyed under the name of terrorism,” he said. Commenting on the arrival of the GNA, He urged the Presidential Council to leave Tripoli to avoid war. Meanwhile, the United Nations urged an “orderly handover of power” in Libya on Wednesday. UN special envoy to Libya and chief of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Martin Kobler praised the “exceptional personal courage” of Sarraj in moving forward with the implementation of the Libyan political agreement.” The international community stands firmly behind them and is ready to provide the required support and assistance,” he said. The British, Italian and the EU have joined UNSMIL chief Martin Kobler in welcoming the arrival of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. British foreign secretary Philip Hammond said that the UK government stood ready to respond positively to requests for support and assistance from the GNA to help it restore security and the economy. Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni said that because of the “determination” of Serraj and his fellow members of the presidency council, fresh progress for Libyans was now possible. EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said that the EU had an immediate 100 million euro financial package to distribute, based on priorities to be decided by the GNA. US Secretary of State John Kerry also released a statement welcoming the GNA’s arrival and urging a peaceful transition. “There’s a real need for good, strong governance there, and we are going to continue to support their efforts to try to achieve just that,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby. [Libya Observer, Libya Herald, Telegraph, UN News, US Dept of State, 3/31/2016]



Shoukry meets with Kerry, Clinton adviser in Washington
Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry met Wednesday US Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington. The two discussed a number of issues, foremost among them regional development in Syria, Libya and Yemen, the Egyptian foreign ministry announced. In a statement issued Thursday, Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ahmed Abuzeid said Shoukry discussed with Kerry bilateral relations between Egypt and the United States. The State Department issued a statement Wednesday saying Kerry underlined the importance of “easing restrictions on association and expression” in Egypt and “allowing human rights NGOs to operate freely.” Abuzeid added that Shoukry and Kerry discussed the political process in Syria and enforcing the ceasefire, as well as ways to support the national unity government in Libya, especially in fighting terrorism. Kerry and Shoukry also evaluated progress in Yemeni talks held under UN sponsorship. In public statements Shoukry said, “We believe that we can only succeed with the continued support of the United States, and we value what has been provided in the past and we are reassured of the commitment of the United States towards Egypt’s prosperity and its role in the region.” Kerry, meanwhile, said Egypt is “playing a critical role” in dealing with the Libyan crisis. On Thursday, Shoukry met with Wendy Sherman, an adviser to the US Democratic Party’s presidential primary candidate Hillary Clinton. Abuzeid said that Sherman listened to Shoukry’s evaluations of political and economic developments taking place in Egypt, the country’s regional and international relations, as well as the country’s efforts to fight terrorism. “The meeting reflected the mutual wish to enforce Egyptian-American relations if Hillary Clinton wins the US presidential elections,” the Foreign Ministry statement read. Also on Thursday, Shoukry met with David Thorne, Kerry’s Senior Adviser. Shoukry is currently in Washington to attend the Nuclear Security Summit. [Ahram Online, DNE, 3/31/2016]

New investigation team formed by Egypt’s Prosecutor General to probe Regeni murder
A new investigation team at the office of Egypt’s Prosecutor General will follow up on leads in the murder case of Italian student Giulio Regeni until the full truth is revealed, a statement from the office announced Wednesday. “Due to the fact that different evidence in the murder case appeared in different geographical locations, a new investigating team is set up at the prosecutor general’s office in order to follow up the investigations,” the statement of Prosecutor General Nabil Sadek said. The statement also revealed that Sadek spoke on the phone with Rome’s chief prosecutor, Giuseppe Pignatone, about the latest developments in the Regeni case. The prosecutor’s office also made statements Wednesday about the alleged criminal gang accused of robbing and kidnapping foreigners and Egyptians and that was linked to the 28-year-old Italian student’s murder. According to the office, Cairo prosecution is still investigating the exchange of fire that took place between suspected gang members and security forces in New Cairo last Thursday in which all suspects were killed. The Prosecutor General’s office reiterated that Giulio Regeni’s passport and university ID, among other items, were found in a red bag at the house of the sister of one of the suspects. [Ahram Online, 3/30/2016]

Egypt parliament approves new bylaws by MP majority
Egypt’s parliament approved the final draft of its new bylaws by the majority of its members Wednesday evening. The new bylaws were sent to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for ratification and to be enacted into law.  The new bylaws were approved by a majority of 403 MPs after finalizing many amendments and remarks raised by Egypt’s State Council. Most of these amendments are related to procedural issues that help shield these bylaws ‎from constitutional or legal ‎appeals. The parliament, however, rejected amendments related to its internal budget. Meanwhile, the parliament’s general secretariat informed MPs on Tuesday that they will receive a training course on national security, the dangers that the Middle East faces and “fourth-generation warfare” at the Defense Ministry-affiliated Nasser Military Academy throughout the month of April. The topics that will be discussed in the sessions, according to the list released by parliament, include Egypt’s defense strategy and western plans to divide the Middle East – a conspiracy theory that has been widely propagated since 2011, which blames western states for sparking unrest across the region in order to create a new map for the Middle East consisting of smaller nations that are easier to conquer. [Ahram Online, DNE, 3/30/2016]

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Libya’s UN-backed government takes office in Tripoli as clashes and protests erupt
Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord took office in Tripoli on Thursday, sources said. Prime Minister-designate of the Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez Serraj sailed in from neighboring Tunisia on Wednesday aboard a Libyan vessel to set up a temporary seat of power in the Bu Sitta naval base despite threats from competing factions, which prevented him from arriving by air. Unconfirmed reports suggest the travel was facilitated by Saudi Arabia and Algeria, which carried out a discreet diplomatic offensive to facilitate the final stages of Fayez Serraj’s journey. Hours after Serraj landed, shops and restaurants closed, and cars lined up outside petrol stations. Members of the Nawasi brigade, which supports the council, also clashed with opponents. Misrata militia chief Salah Badi led a protest against the GNA in Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, setting a tent and a podium meant for the new government on fire. Opposing militias set up checkpoints in downtown Tripoli, stopping cars and searching drivers. Armed men burst into the headquarters of satellite TV station Al-Nabaa in central Tripoli, cut its transmissions and forced out its staff, according to two journalists from the channel. For much of the afternoon sources, reported exchanges of fire in various parts of Tripoli, including Abusleem. Heavy weapons were fired in Omar Mukhtar Street. “We have been ordered by loudspeakers not to leave our apartment and to keep away from windows,” said a local resident. “The reactions have been better than we hoped for. The situation is good,” an adviser to Serraj said, speaking on condition of anonymity. [Al Arabiya/AP, Libya Herald, AFP, ANSAMed, 3/21/2016]

Tunisia border guard wounded in ‘terrorist’ ambush
A border guard was injured late Wednesday in an ambush by more than a dozen “terrorists” in the Kasserine region near Tunisia’s frontier with Algeria, the interior ministry in Tunis said. “A group composed of around 15 terrorists ambushed a border guard vehicle and opened fire near Feriana,” the ministry said in a statement. “Heavy fire erupted, setting the vehicle alight,” the ministry said, adding that one guard had been injured and was taken to the regional hospital in Kasserine. The ministry said the attackers “fled towards Mount Chaambi” and that army units had been called in to carry out security operations in the area. [AFP, 3/31/2016]

UN ‘to spare no effort’ to restore Western Sahara mission
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his envoys are ready “to spare no effort” to restore the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the disputed Western Sahara to its full operation and end the controversy with Morocco — as called for by the U.N. Security Council, the United Nations said. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said part of the next steps to achieve this was his reiteration that Ban Ki-moon’s trip to the region in early March was not meant “to offend or express hostility” toward Morocco, which annexed Western Sahara in 1975 and considers it as its “southern provinces.” Morocco has been pressing for an apology from the secretary-general over the “occupation” comment. Dujarric’s statement Monday wasn’t an apology, but it did express regret. Dujarric reminded Morocco that it is required under the U.N. Charter to carry out Security Council decisions, but Morocco’s Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar said earlier that day that the decision to expel the 73 civilian staff members is “irreversible.” [AP, 3/30/2016]

Algerian government, opposition rally over security, economy
Political tensions are bubbling between Algeria’s governing party and the opposition as threats of Islamic extremist violence and low oil prices that are pummeling the energy-dependent economy. Citing security threats, the governing FLN held a stadium rally Wednesday to show what party chief Amar Saadani called a front united behind President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the army. Our country is exposed to terrorism on every side,” Saadani told the crowd. Opposition members, meanwhile, accused the FLN of scare-mongering to distract Algerians from economic woes, and opposition leader Ali Benflis called for early elections because of Bouteflika’s long-ailing health. Opposition groups held their own rally in an Algiers suburb to create a new political movement and call for peaceful demonstrations around the country. [AP, 3/31/2016]


Assad ‘willing to form new government’ with opposition
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said it would not be difficult to agree on a new government including opposition figures, but his opponents responded on Wednesday that no administration would be legitimate while he remained in office. Assad said a new draft constitution could be ready in weeks and a government that included opposition, independents, and loyalists could be agreed upon. Opposition negotiators immediately dismissed Assad’s remarks, saying that a political settlement could be reached only by establishing a transitional body with full powers, not another government under Assad. “What Bashar al-Assad is talking about has no relation to the political process,” said George Sabra of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). The United States also rejected Assad’s comments. “I don’t know whether he envisioned himself being a part of that national unity government. Obviously that would be a nonstarter for us,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. Meanwhile, the Kremlin denied a report by the al-Hayat newspaper on an agreement between Russia and the United States including Assad’s departure to another country at some unspecified stage. [Reuters, BBC, 3/31/2016]

Russia and US ‘planning military coordination against ISIS in Syria’
Signs of wider military cooperation in Syria have emerged as Russia revealed that discussions have taken place about coordinating the liberation of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) stronghold of Raqqa in conjunction with the United States. Co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) Salih Muslim Muhammad said that preparations for launching an ISIS exterminating operation in Aleppo has begun. The revelation follows visits to Moscow this month by US Secretary of state John Kerry and CIA Director John Brennan. “Preparations are finished, we now await aerial shield to be provided by international US-led coalition aircrafts to initiate confrontation,” PYD official Ahmed abu Omar, a commander of “Jaysh al-Thowar” (Army of Rebels) division within the PYD armed forces, said. [Asharq al-Awsat, Guardian, 3/31/2016]

ISIS commander killed in drone strike near Raqqa
On Thursday, a drone strike near Raqqa killed an ISIS commander who was heading to Aleppo province on orders from the organization’s chief. His death is the latest in a series of blows to the group in recent weeks, and comes days after Russian-backed Syrian government forces recaptured Palmyra. Abu Al Hija, a high-ranking Tunisian ISIS commander, was killed in a strike by a drone that was “most likely operated by the US-led coalition,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said. According to SOHR he had travelled to Syria from Iraq just 24 hours earlier at the behest of ISIS chief Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. [AFP, 3/31/2016]

Losing momentum in delivering aid to Syria, Egeland says
The United Nations voiced concern Thursday that it is losing momentum in gaining access to deliver aid to besieged areas in Syria, with convoys delayed or surgical equipment being removed. “We still have not gotten access, a greenlight to go at all to Douma, Daraya, east Harasta – three areas,” Jan Egeland, chairman of the task force, said after a major and regional powers meeting to review progress. But he was confident that the UN World Food Program (WFP) would be able to start regular air drops of vital supplies to the 200,000 people trapped in ISIS-held Deir Ezzor in the next two weeks. Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) conference in Geneva, aimed at securing new homes for nearly half a million Syrian refugees, ended Wednesday with only marginal increases in the number of resettlement places offered. UNHCR said from the outset that it did not anticipate governments would make significant new pledges at the conference. In a statement, UNHCR noted said it remained far from its goal of having confirmed new countries of residency for 10 percent of Syria’s 4.8 million refugees — or 480,000 people — within three years. [Reuters, 3/31/2016]

Turkish army ‘ready’ to shell YPG positions if it crosses Azaz-Jarablus line
Ankara is closely following reports of a planned operation by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northern Syrian town of Manbij, held by fighters of ISIS, Turkish military officials have stated, expressing readiness to shell Syrian Kurdish forces in the event of a violation of “Turkey’s red line.” Confirming recent moves in the region, military sources said Turkey would launch the “required response” from inside Turkish territory in the event of seizure of the so-called “Azaz-Jarablus line” by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militia forces of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), both of which are regarded as offshoots of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In such a case, Turkish artillery units deployed near the border would launch intense fire at the PYD forces, the sources said on March 30. [Hurriyet, 3/31/2016]

Turkish army rules out ‘anti-Erdogan coup’
The Turkish army says it has no plans to stage a coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and has threatened legal action against anyone who suggests otherwise. The rare statement aims to squash speculation over the possibility of a military coup in Turkey as the president visits the United States. The military said on its website such “baseless news” was hurting morale in its ranks without naming specific publications. “Discipline, absolute obedience and single order command is essential in the Turkish Armed Forces. It is not possible for there to be any concessions to any illegal and out-of-command chain hierarchy establishment or action,” said the statement, adding that a legal process had been initiated and a criminal complaint filed against those who published news stories and comments spreading the allegations. In the statement, the Turkish Armed Forces emphasized that it voices its “loyalty to democracy” at every opportunity and that such “baseless” allegations “naturally demoralize military personnel.” [AP, Hurriyet, 3/31/2016]

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


Iraqi Prime Minister presents new cabinet lineup to parliament
In a statement, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi confirmed that he has presented a new cabinet lineup to parliament as part of a drive to form a technocrat government aimed at battling endemic corruption. However, it remains unclear how many ministers the reshuffle would affect or if the new candidates were affiliated with powerful political parties. Parliament, which must vote on any changes and was expected to reconvene later on Thursday, appears divided on the reshuffle. Some lawmakers are demanding changes to all ministries and others are resigned to a partial adjustment. Abadi’s arrival in parliament was preceded by heightened security around Baghdad amid mounting tensions over a possible showdown between him and Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as the latter’s deadline to present a new cabinet lineup passed. [Reuters, 3/31/2016]

Obama could soon decide on greater troop presence in Iraq
During a news briefing, US Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that President Barack Obama will have the chance to decide on whether to increase the number of US forces in Iraq in the “coming weeks.” Dunford confirmed that “the timing really now is focused on the next phase of the campaign, which is towards Mosul, and maintaining the kind of momentum that we had in Ramadi,” so the increase of troops would also bolster the capabilities of the Iraqi forces as the offensive begins. [Reuters, 3/30/2016]

Iraqi forces advance towards western town held by ISIS
Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces backed by army troops and US-led coalition airstrikes advanced towards the western town of Heet in an attempt to dislodge ISIS fighters. A senior officer from the counter-terrorism forces, the elite US-trained units which led the recapture of nearby Ramadi three months ago, said his troops were one kilometer from Heet’s center. The recapture of Heet, strategically located on the Euphrates River near Ain al-Assad air base where several hundred US forces are training Iraqi army troops, would push ISIS further west towards the Syrian border, cutting a connection to the northern town of Samarra and leaving Fallujah their only stronghold near Baghdad. [Reuters, Rudaw, 3/31/2016]

Iraqi military assessing ISIS tactics in Makhmour
Speaking at a press conference, Iraqi Minister of Defense Khaled al-Obeidi said that the operation to recapture ISIS-occupied villages southeast of Mosul is progressing slower than expected because Iraqi security forces are concurrently assessing ISIS battlefield tactics while fighting the group. He stated that more security forces will join the Nineveh Operations in liberating areas around Mosul, though he clarified that “the US-led coalition does not participate on the ground, they just support us logistically and by air strikes.” He furthered that while ISIS fighters are using new tactics against Iraqi army, the group has been steadily losing morale and has not been able to counter the Iraqi army’s new weapon systems. [Rudaw, 3/30/2016]


Yemeni army seizes control of Baraqish
The Yemeni army and pro-government forces on Thursday seized control of Baraqish in the Majzar district. Houthi militants took control of Baraqish in 2011, turning it into a launch pad for combat operations in the Mareb and Jawf provinces. The takeover of Baraqish marks the government’s complete control of Majzar, which was the last district north of Mareb under Houthi control . [Al Masdar, 3/31/2016]

Hadi says Houthis must respect negotiations
Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi said Wednesday the victory of the government has forced the Houthis and forces loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh to the negotiating table. Hadi said that the Saudi-led coalition and the Yemeni government has taken control of 75 percent of the country. He also said that Yemen would not “give up a single inch” of its territory to foreign powers, highlighting Iran’s attempt to influence and control the country through the Houthis. [Al Masdar, 3/31/2016]

Houthis launch deadly counterattack on Red Sea coast
Houthi militants mounted a deadly counterattack against government troops advancing down the Red Sea coast from the Saudi border ahead of a planned ceasefire next month, military sources said Thursday. The Houthis and their allies surrounded government forces that were attempting to recapture the coastal town of Midi and killed 45 troops Tuesday and Wednesday, the sources said. At least 15 Houthis were also killed in the fighting. [AFP, 3/31/2016]

Air strikes target al-Qaeda in Yemen
At least four suspected al-Qaeda militants in southern Yemen were killed in what is believed to be a drone strike on Wednesday as unidentified warplanes bombed outposts held by the Islamist militant group further east, witnesses and local residents said. The four suspected militants were killed when what was thought to be a US drone fired on a checkpoint at the entrance of the city of Azzan in southern Yemen. [Reuters, 3/31/2016]

Saudi king meets Republican delegation ahead of Obama visit
Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud met with a Republican Congressional delegation ahead of President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit next month. Thursday’s meeting comes 10 days after four other American senators held talks with the Saudi monarch in Riyadh. The Saudi Press Agency said the US team was led by Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and included Senators Thom Tillis of North Carolina and David Perdu of Georgia, as well as Congressmen David Jolly of Florida, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, and Tom Rice of South Carolina. [AP, 3/31/2016]


Libya requests UN sanctions exemption for sovereign wealth fund
Libya is asking the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to approve a sanctions exemption for its blacklisted sovereign wealth fund, in order to halt billions of dollars in losses caused by ineffective management of frozen assets. A letter from Libya’s Ambassador to the United Nations Ibrahim Dabbashi said the losses incurred at the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) are the result of UN sanctions imposed in 2011. “The LIA estimates that in 2014 alone, instead of increasing the value of its assets base, it had real losses of $721 million,” Dabbashi said. He added that the LIA, which has roughly $67 billion in total assets, “lost an additional $1.6 billion to $2.3 billion in what would have been returns on investment if its assets had been properly invested in conservative investments with competitive interest rates.” Dabbashi asked the UNSC to adopt a resolution that would allow the LIA to transfer funds between frozen accounts and permit reinvestment and the opening and closing of accounts. The current sanctions regime makes the assets virtually untouchable. [Reuters, 3/30/2016]

Turkish economy grew 4 percent in 2015, beating estimates
Turkey’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew 4 percent in 2015, boosted by an unexpectedly strong expansion in the fourth quarter. The economy grew 5.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015, mainly due to a rise in consumption and public spending. Economists had expected expansion of 5.2 percent in the fourth quarter. Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said the 2015 growth was in line with the government’s medium-term program and made it the fourth fastest-growing economy among G20 countries. “This success was achieved despite last year’s two general elections, increasing geopolitical tensions in our region, problems in our trade partners and global financial market volatility,” he said. [Reuters, Bloomberg, Hurriyet, 3/31/2016]

Egypt’s current account deficit $8.9 billion
Egypt’s current account deficit reached $8.9 billion in the first half of fiscal year 2015/2016, more than double the deficit the year before, the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) said in a statement Wednesday. The widening deficit was driven partly by a decline in net transfers, which fell to about $3.99 billion in the second quarter of the fiscal year from around $5.79 billion in the same period a year earlier. Net official transfers, including cash and commodities, fell to $10.3 million in the second quarter from $1.13 billion in the same period a year earlier. A steep decline in the services surplus, from $1.9 billion to $543.7 million, also contributed to the widening of the deficit. Tourism revenues fell by almost a third to $2.7 billion from $4 billion. Also on Wednesday, Egypt’s government approved a draft state budget for 2016-17 that targets economic growth of 5 to 6 percent. [Reuters, 3/30/30216]

Tunisia tourism revenue hit hard by last year’s attacks
The Central Bank of Tunisia (BCT) said Thursday that tourism revenue in first two months in 2016 fell by 54 percent compared to the same period of 2015. Tourism revenues in 2015 as a whole fell by 35 percent. The decline follows two major attacks by Islamist militants last year that targeted the industry and killed dozens of foreigners. Meanwhile, the BCT on Thursday kept its key interest rate unchanged at 4.25 percent. The bank last cut its main interest rate in October from 4.75 percent in a bid to boost economic growth as inflation fell. [Reuters, 3/31/2016]

Iraq signs $220 million loan from Japan to support 2016 budget
Iraq agreed to a loan from Japan worth $220 million to help fill a funding gap in its 2016 budget, the Iraqi Finance Ministry said Thursday. “This loan comes as part of the joint funding with the World Bank that has already been presented to Iraq as a loan to support the development policy for financial reform,” the Finance Ministry said in a statement. The Ministry said that since 2008, it has signed 23 loan agreements with the Japan International Cooperation Agency. [Reuters, 3/31/2016]