Top News: United States sees Assad staying in Syria until March 2017

The Obama administration’s best-case scenario for political transition in Syria does not foresee President Bashar al-Assad stepping down as the country’s leader before March 2017, according to a document obtained by The Associated Press. An internal timeline prepared for US officials dealing with the Syria crisis sets an unspecified date in March 2017 for Assad to “relinquish” his position as president and for his “inner circle” to depart. That would be more than five years after Obama first called for Assad to leave. Countless hurdles exist to a peaceful solution in Syria with the growing rift between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shia-ruled Iran not the least of the issues. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said Wednesday, “Saudi Arabia’s wrong decision will have an effect on (Syria) talks in Vienna and New York, but Tehran will stay committed.” [AP, 1/6/2016]



Minister says 93 laws need to be reviewed by parliament  
Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Magdy al-Agati said Tuesday that 93 laws need to be discussed when the newly-elected parliament convenes, most specifically the law regulating protests and the presidential election law. During an interview on MBC Masr, he said that the laws must be submitted to the parliament for review within 15 days during the first parliamentary session. Agati added that the government would not be offering suggestions to amend the protest law because it believes it does not need to be changed. He also objected to calls to amend the constitution. Meanwhile, as discussions over the position of speaker of the parliament continue, the National Movement Party, founded by former presidential hopeful Ahmed Shafiq, announced it would back Member of Parliament Sari Sayam for the position. The Free Egyptians Party said it finds no difference between all elected MPs, and the party would not mind Sari or any other MP as speaker. [AMAY, 1/6/2016]

Cairo court acquits defendant in ‘Marriott cell’ case
Cairo Criminal Court acquitted Wednesday one defendant on retrial in the ‘Marriott Cell’ case. In June 2014, defendant Ahmed Abdallah and others were sentenced to ten years in absentia before Abdallah turned himself in to authorities for the retrial. Under Egyptian law, defendants convicted in absentia are granted an automatic retrial once in custody. Abdallah was accused of joining an outlawed organization, assaulting the personal freedom of citizens, harming national unity and public peace and targeting public facilities. This is the same case in which Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pardoned two Al-Jazeera journalists, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, in September. [Ahram Online, AMAY, 1/6/2016]

AOHR report says 267 extrajudicial killings in Egypt in 2015
There have been 267 cases of extrajudicial killing by Egyptian security forces in 2015, according to a report by the Arab Organization for Human Rights in the UK (AOHR). The report, released Monday, listed human rights violation cases in 2015 including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, suspicious deaths, and unlawful arrests. According to the report, Egyptian security forces killed 62 people including six children and three women, during protest dispersals. The report also added that 159 detainees died in police custody due to lack of medical care, injuries resulting from torture, and deteriorating conditions inside prison and police stations. The report also claimed that 38 people were killed under suspicious circumstances as they were purportedly killed during anti-terror operations of Egyptian security forces. In the report, AOHR condemned the judiciary in Egypt, saying that 395 people were sentenced to death while 1,978 were sentenced to life in prison. [DNE, 1/5/2016]

Army spokesman says 43 militants killed, eight suspects arrested in past two days
North Sinai security forces killed 32 militants and arrested six suspects in the context of the “Martyr’s Right” military operation in the towns of Arish, Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid, Army Spokesman Mohamed Samir said in a statement Tuesday. The Egyptian army undertook the first phase of the security operation in Northern Sinai last September. The first phase of the operation lasted for 16 days and the army announced the start of the second phase. In a Wednesday statement, Samir said that the Armed Forces killed another 11 militants and arrested two in northern and central Sinai. Wednesday’s death toll brings the number of alleged militants killed in the past four days to 98, within the second phase of the operation dubbed by the military as Egypt’s “largest” military action against “terrorists” in North Sinai. [Aswat Masriya, 1/6/2016]

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Five oil tanks now on fire at Libyan ports after clashes
Fires caused by fighting between Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants and guards near Libya’s biggest oil ports have spread to five oil storage tanks that were still burning on Wednesday, a guards spokesman said. Spokesman Ali al-Hassi said the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) were in control of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf ports, but that clashes continued. At least nine guards were killed and more than 40 injured in fighting around the perimeter of the area on Monday and Tuesday. Hassi said guards had recovered bodies of 30 ISIS fighters and had also captured two military tanks and other vehicles from the militants. Four of the fires are at Es Sider and one at Ras Lanuf. Two blazes were triggered by shelling from ISIS and fire had spread to three more, al-Hassi said. Mohamed al-Manfi, an oil official in eastern Libya, said each of the four oil tanks was estimated to contain 420,000 to 460,000 barrels of oil. Mustafa Sanalla, chairman of the National Oil Corporation (NOC) in Tripoli, said he hoped the violence would “lead political leaders on all sides in Libya to understand the magnitude of the threat we face.” The NOC also issued a separate statement saying it would do all it could to honor contracts and protect Libya’s oil resources. [Reuters, 1/6/2016]

Senior Tunisian ruling party member to announce new political movement
Mohsen Marzouk, outgoing Secretary General of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi’s ruling party Nidaa Tounes, said on Wednesday he plans to form a new political movement. The move is the latest in an ongoing rift in Nidaa Tounes, rooted in a perceived power play by Essebsi’s son that recently resulted in a group of 30 Nidaa Tounes lawmakers resigning from the party’s parliamentary bloc. Marzouk said he will formally announce the split from Nidaa Tounes on January 10 and launch the new party on March 2. [Reuters, Mosaique FM (French), 1/6/2016]

Egyptian fishermen detained in Tunisia freed
Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it has secured the release of Egyptian fishermen who were detained for illegal fishing in Tunisia. In a statement issued on Tuesday, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid stated that 13 fishermen would return to Egypt this week or early next week. He added that three of the fishermen, including the captain of the Egyptian fishing boat, will remain in Tunisia to stand trial for trespassing and illegal fishing in Tunisian territorial waters in late December. [Ahram Online, 1/5/2016]

Tunisian LGBT rights group Shams suspended for 30 days
Shams, a group that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights in Tunisia and seeks the decriminalization of homosexual activities, has been ordered to suspend its activities for 30 days, the group announced on its Facebook page. Shams Vice President Hedi Sahly told local media that the suspension was for noncompliance with rule-of-law principles and that the association had been fined on the basis of Article 45 of the law on associations. The official recognition of Shams, the first pro-LGBT association in the country, sparked heated debate in Tunisia last year. [ANSAmed, 1/5/2016]


String of attacks kill 20 Syria rebel commanders
At least 20 rebel commanders, most of them hardline Islamists, have died in Syria since early December in a string of mysterious targeted killings, according to activists. The commanders have been killed in roadside bombs or shootouts, but no faction has claimed responsibility for their deaths. Analysts say they could be part of an assassination campaign carried out by either the government of President Bashar al-Assad or the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). On Tuesday, Abu Rateb al-Homsi, a provincial “emir” in the Ahrar al-Sham hardline opposition group, was killed when unknown attackers fired on his car in the central province of Homs, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Homsi is the most high-profile of those killed, most of whom come from the ranks of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and other Islamist groups. [AFP, AP, 1/6/2016]

OPCW reports Syria’s entire chemical arsenal destroyed
Syria’s declared chemical weapons arsenal has been completely destroyed capping more than two years of work, a global arms watchdog said Tuesday. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which oversaw the dangerous removal and elimination of Syria’s avowed stockpile, has for months been warning of the continued use of mustard, sarin, and chlorine gas in the brutal conflict. But it has avoided blaming either the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the rebels, or ISIS for the use of the weapons banned under international law. Also on Tuesday, the acting UN disarmament chief told the UN Security Council (UNSC) that the chemical weapons watchdog agency Kim Won-soo has reported a possible use of the deadly nerve agent sarin in an alleged chemical attack in Syria. Kim spoke to several reporters after briefing the UNSC behind closed doors on the latest report from OPCW. [AFP, 1/6/2016]

ISIS has lost 30 percent of its territory
The US-led coalition fighting ISIS said Tuesday that the militants have lost 30 percent of the territory they once held in Iraq and Syria. Baghdad-based spokesman Col. Steve Warren said the extremists have lost 40 percent of their territory in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria, adding that they are now in a “defensive crouch.” This announcement comes as ISIS steps up attacks on the western town of Haditha, where 45 Iraqi security forces and Sunni tribal fighters have been killed in clashes over the past three days, and one week after Iraqi forces backed by US-led airstrikes pushed the extremists out of central Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. [BBC, AP, AFP, 1/6/2016]

Fears of more strife for Iraq amid Saudi-Iranian row
Sectarian attacks south of Baghdad have aroused local fears that an escalating row between the region’s Sunni and Shia powerhouses could plunge Iraq back into all-out civil conflict. Wedged between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Iraq is the only country to have borders with both of the feuding giants, but analysts say a return to the kind of communal bloodletting that raged a decade ago was unlikely. On Monday, two Sunni mosques were bombed. A Sunni muezzin and a displaced Sunni man were also killed in the Hilla and Iskandariya areas south of the capital. The nature and location of the violence was reminiscent of some of the darkest moments of the civil war in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. On Wednesday, Iraq offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran to end their dispute triggered by Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shia cleric, saying it could spill over into the rest of the region. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, speaking in Tehran with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, said the row could have “wide-ranging repercussions.” [AFP, 1/6/2016]

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


Yemen condemns Iranian interference in Arab countries
The Yemeni Foreign Ministry issued a statement Tuesday saying that the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran is a “continuation of Iranian policy in Arab countries.” The statement said that Iranian interference in Arab and Islamic countries is fueling sectarian conflicts. The Foreign Ministry condemned Iranian interference in Yemen, saying that it is destabilizing its security by supporting Houthi militias and ousted former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The ministry said that Yemen had expelled the Iranian ambassador on October 2 and recalled its diplomatic mission in Tehran. [Al Jazeera, 1/6/2016]

UN Security Council calls on Yemeni parties to resume ceasefire
The United Nations Security Council on Tuesday called on all parties in Yemen to resume a ceasefire which began in mid-December. The council issued a statement expressing deep concern over Yemen’s “dire humanitarian situation which continues to worsen.” Peace talks began in December and a ceasefire was declared. The truce formally ended over the weekend as Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic ties with Iran. [Al Jazeera, AP, 1/6/2016]

Gulf Arab states to hold extraordinary meeting on Iran
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of Gulf Arab states announced Tuesday it will hold an extraordinary meeting in Riyadh on Saturday to discuss tensions with Iran after attacks on Saudi missions there. Saudi-Iranian tensions threaten to derail efforts to end Syria’s five-year-old civil war in which Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies back rebel groups against Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They also cast doubts over chances for a peaceful solution in Yemen. [Reuters, 1/6/2016]

Bahrain detains Iran-linked militants
Bahrain’s Interior Ministry said Wednesday that it has broken up a militant Shia group backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Lebanese Hezbollah. It says the group received $20,000 from Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Shia militant group. The ministry says the group had links to those behind a 2015 bombing that killed two police officers and planned to carry out other bombings. [AP, 1/6/2016]


Report says Saudi to save $7 billion from energy reforms
Saudi Arabia is expected to save $7 billion a year following the introduction of unprecedented energy price rises, a report by Jadwa Investment said Wednesday. The report said direct savings from the kingdom’s price hike on diesel are estimated at $2.75 billion, while gasoline levies are expected to save an additional $2.5 billion. The rest of the savings will come from price rises on natural gas, fuel oil, and propane, Jadwa Investment added. The total cost of Saudi Arabia’s energy subsidies was estimated at $61 billion in 2015. The country posted a record budget deficit of $98 billion in 2015 and is projecting a shortfall of $87 billion this year. In other news, Saudi stocks fell to the weakest level in more than three years as oil prices dropped to their lowest level since 2004. [AFP, 1/6/2015]

Turkish lira slips to 3 per dollar, weakest since October
The Turkish lira weakened to 3.0 against the US dollar on Wednesday for the first time since early October as fears about China’s stalling economy and North Korea’s nuclear test worried investors. Global pressures on emerging currencies and concerns about political interference in Turkey’s monetary policy pushed the lira 20 percent lower against the dollar last year. Pressure on the lira resumed on December 23 when Turkey’s central bank failed to hike interest rates despite stubbornly high inflation. However, analysts said they expect the lira to stabilize in the near future as temporary drivers of inflation weaken. [Reuters, Hurriyet, 1/6/2015]

Egypt to issue letters of credit for delayed wheat shipments
Egypt’s General Authority for Supply Commodities (GASC) said it will issue delayed letters of credit for three wheat shipments waiting off France’s northern port of Dunkirk on Wednesday. The decision comes as stricter import requirements are under discussion that could delay future wheat shipments to Egypt. The shipments of more than 180,000 tonnes of French wheat have been held up because exporters have not received letters of credit or guarantees of payment. GASC Vice Chairman Mamdouh Abdel Fattah said the delay was due to an administrative problem and not dollar liquidity issues. Some traders have experienced delays receiving letters of credit for supplying goods to Egyptian state buyers amid an acute shortage of dollars. Abdel Fattah added that GASC is also discussing potentially lowering the permitted level of ergot, a fungus that infects cereals, in wheat imports into Egypt. Traders said a lower ergot level would make supplying wheat to Egypt far more difficult. [Reuters, 1/6/2015]

Morocco GDP grows 4.7 percent in Q4 2015, to slow to 2 percent in Q1
Morocco’s economy grew 4.7 percent year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2015, up from 2.2 percent in 2014 period as a result of higher agricultural output, the national planning agency said on Wednesday. Morocco announced a record cereal crop of 11 million tonnes last year. While late rains are threatening this year’s harvest, the government expects a medium cereal harvest of 7 million tonnes. Additionally, Morocco’s trade deficit fell 19.7 percent in the first 11 months of 2015 due to lower energy costs and higher exports. Morocco’s central bank said 2016 growth will slow to 2.1 percent. The government has forecast 3 percent growth and the national planning agency has forecast 2.6 percent growth. [Reuters, 1/6/2015]