Top News: United States warns PYD not to support PKK in Turkey

The United States on March 2 called on the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria to not support the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. Addressing Turkish concerns about links between the PYD and its armed wing—the People’s Protection Unit (YPG)—and the PKK, US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Turkey’s cooperation was “vital” in Syria. In a news conference at the United Nations, Blinken said, “It is also not a secret that Turkey has expressed concerns about some of the Syrian Kurdish groups in northern Syria, including the PYD. We have made it very clear to the PYD that any actions it takes to either support the PKK or to engage the other opposition groups are profoundly problematic and we look to the PYD to act responsibly and to focus its efforts on the fight against Daesh [ISIS].” [Hurriyet, 3/3/2016]



Egypt parliament expels lawmaker over meeting with Israeli ambassador
An Egyptian lawmaker and popular TV talk show host was expelled from parliament Wednesday over a meeting he had with the Israeli ambassador to Egypt. Ambassador Haim Koren posted a picture on the Israeli embassy’s Facebook page last week of himself and Egyptian lawmaker Tawfiq Okasha during their meeting. Okasha’s expulsion from the 596-seat legislature was decided in a vote Wednesday by an overwhelming majority of lawmakers. A total of 490 lawmakers took part in the vote, with 465 supporting the motion to kick him out. Sixteen voted against and nine abstained. Witnesses said Okasha tried to apologize to colleagues before it was too late, but was barred by security on the orders of the speaker. Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Al, seeking to head off charges that the legislature was anti-Israeli, told lawmakers that Egypt respected the country’s diplomatic commitments, including the peace treaty with Israel. Lawmakers who supported Okasha’s expulsion said he was punished for meeting with a foreign diplomat without the legislature’s authorization or advance coordination with “relevant” agencies. Egypt businessman Akmal Qortam criticized the expulsion, saying, “The decision taken by parliament against Okasha was dictated by personal and political interests rather than by the constitution and internal bylaws we took an oath to respect.” The committee tasked with investigation Okasha said his decision to discuss national security issues with the ambassador of a foreign country on issues like Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam could cause serious damage to Egypt’s strategic interests. Hours after the decision, Al-Faraeen, a satellite channel owned by Okasha, announced the complete suspension of its programs, and its impending sale. Parliament is expected to announce an election date to fill Okasha’s seat. [AP, Egypt Independent, DNE, Reuters, Aswat Masriya, Mada Masr, 3/3/2016]

Military court sentences 117 to prison for attacks on church, electricity pylon
An Egyptian military court handed down prison sentences to 117 purported members and supporters of the now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group, on Wednesday. The defendants were sentenced in two separate cases to prison sentences ranging from five to 10 years for incidents of violence that took place in the Upper Egyptian province of Minya, dating back to August 2013. In one case, 106 defendants, some of whom were being tried in absentia, were convicted of breaking into Mar Girgis church in Minya, setting it on fire. The other 11 defendants were sentenced to prison for blowing up an electricity pylon. The cases were referred to the military judiciary after the defendants were accused of joining a banned group, participating in violence and riots and of breaking into and vandalising public property. The No Military Trials for Civilians advocacy group said in a statement, “Through that law, thousands of civilians were referred to military prosecution, including hundreds of university students.” The group added that military trials “actually increased in frequency substantially under the guise of the war on terror” after the constitution was passed in 2014. [AMAY, Aswat Masriya, 3/2/2016]

Two police officers in custody after assaulting Alexandria doctor
A doctor at Alexandria University Hospital went into emergency surgery on Wednesday after he was allegedly assaulted by a police officer and three others, two of whom were remanded in custody on Thursday pending investigation. Abdel Rahman Zahran, spokesperson for the university’s Faculty of Medicine, said the doctors felt reassured by the prosecution’s action against the officers. He labelled the police officer’s action as “individual” and “unrepresentative of the police service.” The incident comes as yet another episode in a series of assaults by police officers on hospital workers over the past few months, which prompted the Doctors’ Syndicate to organize a strike where medical services are provided for free to deny the government revenue. [AMAY, 3/3/2016]

Egyptian student may be deported from United States after Trump threat
A flight student from Egypt is facing deportation from the United States after being investigated by federal agents for posting on his Facebook page that he was willing to kill Donald Trump and the world would thank him. While US prosecutors have not charged 23-year-old Emadeldin Elsayed with a crime, immigration authorities arrested him last month at the Los Angeles-area flight school he attended and now are trying to deport him, attorney Hani Bushra said Wednesday. An immigration court hearing will determine whether Elsayed will be deported. “It seems like the government was not able to get a criminal charge to stick on him, so they used the immigration process to have him leave the country,” Bushra said. Elsayed said he wrote the message because he was angered by Trump’s comments about Muslims. He said he immediately regretted it and he never intended to harm anyone. [AP, Egypt Independent, 3/3/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Italy says two hostages likely killed in Libya clashes
Two Italian civilians held hostages in Libya were probably killed in fighting in the western Libyan city of Sabratha, the Italian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday. Libyan security forces said they killed seven suspected Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) fighters in a raid on a militant hideout in Sabratha on Wednesday, and later released photographs of two Western men who had also apparently been killed in the attack. Italy’s Foreign Ministry said the men might be two of the four employees of the Italian construction company Bonatti who were kidnapped last July near a compound owned by oil and gas group Eni. It named the possible victims as Fausto Piano and Salvatore Failla but said formal verification was difficult without access to the bodies. There was no comment from the ministry on media reports that the Italian hostages had been used as human shields by ISIS. [Reuters, AP, AFP, Libya Herald, 3/3/2016]

Libya needs to move now or risk division and collapse, UN envoy tells Security Council
Libya needs to move ahead now or risk division and collapse, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative Martin Kobler warned the UN Security Council today, while presenting the latest report on political and humanitarian developments. He said the peace process in Libya is being stymied by a few self-interested political actors who now have to be told that “enough is enough.” The humanitarian situation in Libya has deteriorated further against the background of poor funding for the humanitarian response, Kobler told the 15-member Council. He emphasized that it is now imperative that Libyan political actors take responsibility in the higher interest of the Libyan people to stop human suffering. [UN News Centre, UNSMIL, Libya Herald, 3/2/2016]

Tunisian forces kill five militants crossing from Libya
Tunisian security forces killed five Islamist militants in a firefight Wednesday after they infiltrated the border from neighboring Libya, authorities said. The army killed five terrorists during a raid on a house close to Ben Guerdane, army spokesman Belhassen Ouslati said. An Interior Ministry statement said that a civilian was also killed by a stray bullet and a Tunisian army officer was wounded in the exchange of fire. A security source said the five militants were part of a group of ten who had crossed the border in three vehicles. It was not immediately clear what happened to the other suspects. The militants are believed to be ISIS supporters fleeing from Sabratha after the US air raid on some of their facilities there and last week’s subsequent clashes with local militias. Reports say that the Tunisian border with Libya was closed on Wednesday due to the clashes. [Reuters, AP, AFP, Libya Herald, 3/2/2016]

The Netherlands pledge to further invest in economic reform in Tunisia
The Netherlands pledge to further invest in economic reform in Tunisia as well as in job creation, Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Bert Koenders said Wednesday after a meeting with Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid. Koenders said the main fields of cooperation between the two countries are economy, tourism, migration, and the fight against extremism. The situation in Libya and the relations between Tunisia and the European Union were also raised. Habib Essid noted that the Tunisian development plan for 2016-2020 is currently being prepared and should be ready for submission to Tunisia’s parliament, the Assembly of Representatives of the People, within one month. [TAP, 3/2/2016]


European leaders to discuss Syria with Putin Friday
British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will discuss the ceasefire in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a conference call on Friday. “Tomorrow is an opportunity for the leaders of the UK, France, and Germany to come together… and make very clear to president Putin that we need this ceasefire to hold, to be a lasting one and to open the way for a real political transition,” Cameron’s spokeswoman Downing Street said on Thursday. The call will be the first time the leaders have spoken since the ceasefire came into effect on Friday. On Wednesday, France and Britain issued a joint statement after a summit stating, “We ask all sides that are committing human rights violations, including Russia and the Syrian regime, to put an immediate end to the attacks against moderate opposition groups.” Despite Russia’s repeated denial of targeting of civilians, an Amnesty International report released Thursday said the organization had gathered “compelling evidence” of Syrian and Russian forces targeting hospitals as a strategy of war. [AFP, 3/3/2016]

‘Huge drop’ in civilian deaths after Syria truce
Twenty-four civilians have been killed in the first five days of a truce in parts of Syria, a sharp drop for a war where dozens die daily, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said Thursday. “Compare that number to Friday, the day before the truce came into effect: 63 civilians, including 11 children, died that day alone,” said Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman. He called it a “huge drop,” adding that the daily average during the month of February was 38 civilians killed. Also on Thursday, UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura called the ceasefire “fragile,” stating “success is not guaranteed but progress has been visible, ask the Syrians.” On Wednesday the White House expressed concern about reports of Syrian regime tank and artillery attacks on civilians near Latakia, where a Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive continues despite the ceasefire. The official stated that the attacks if confirmed would be a “flagrant violation of cessation of hostilities.” [AFP, 3/3/2016]

Electricity supply gradually returns after nationwide outage in Syria
Syria’s electricity supply was gradually returning after it was cut across the country Thursday and Internet connections were briefly disrupted, state news agency SANA said. SANA quoted the electricity minister saying that the network was returning and would be restored to its earlier capacity by midnight, though it did not say what caused the cut. SANA stated earlier that the “electricity work has been cut in all governorates. Attempts to find the cause of the outage have begun.” A witness confirmed that electricity had gone down in Damascus, and SOHR said that power had been cut in the “vast majority of governorates.” [Reuters, 3/3/2016]

United States struggles with Arabic reports on Syria truce violations
A hotline set up by the US State Department to log reported violations of the cessation of hostilities in Syria has suffered from a lack of fluent Arabic-speakers, the department said on Wednesday. “There were some language issues,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at his daily briefing. “We’re working to correct those, obviously, because it’s important that we have Arabic speakers that were able to field incoming calls.” In response to Syria Direct story that described issues with the hotline, a US official stated that the hotline was set up in haste last week and that some volunteers who stepped forward were not sufficiently fluent in Arabic. [Reuters, Al Jazeera, AFP, WSJ, 3/3/2016]

Turkey cracks down on insults to President Erdogan
Since August 2014, 1,845 criminal cases have been opened against Turks for insulting their president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a crime that carries a penalty of up to four years in prison. Among the offenders are journalists, authors, politicians, a famous soccer star, even schoolchildren. That number quantified a growing trend of cracking down on dissent, and was revealed this week by Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, in response to a question in parliament. Bozdag said late Tuesday, defending the myriad alleged insults subject to judicial scrutiny, “It is not an expression of opinion, it is all swears and insults… Nobody should have the freedom to swear.” The pursuit of such cases has had a chilling effect on speech, activists and lawyers say. “This is intimidation,” said Ozgur Urfa, a lawyer who has defended more than two dozen people in insult cases. The insult cases, critics say, have become a prominent element of a full-scale assault on freedom of expression. [NYT, Reuters, 3/3/2016]

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


Biden, Iraq’s Abadi discuss military, financial support in call
US Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Wednesday to discuss military assistance requested by Iraq to fight ISIS. Biden reiterated unwavering US “commitment to Iraq’s unity and stability” and also pledged support for Iraq’s efforts to stabilize its economy. The United States will continue to work with G-7, other international partners, and international financial institutions to ensure Iraq has the financial resources it needs to fight the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). [Reuters, 3/2/2016]

Iraq signs contract with Italy’s Trevi to maintain Mosul dam
Iraqi state television reported that on Wednesday, Iraq signed a contract with Italy’s Trevi Group worth $296 million to reinforce and maintain the Mosul hydro-electric dam for a period of 18 months. In a statement, the Italian foreign ministry confirmed that the contract had been signed after talks in New York between Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and US and Iraqi officials. Italy plans to send 450 troops to protect the site of dam, which is 2.2 miles long and close to territory held by ISIS in the country’s north. [Reuters, AP, 3/2/2016]

US questioning an ISIS leader seized in Iraq
A US special operations team has been questioning a key ISIS leader in Iraq since seizing him in a raid last month, US officials said Wednesday. It is believed to be the first case of a top ISIS militant captured alive in that country. The officials would not identify the militant by name or provide other details, but the raid appears to be the first major success by the Pentagon’s new expeditionary targeting force that recently began operating in Iraq. The militant has been held in Iraq for two to three weeks, the officials said, calling the development important because of his leadership position in the group and the information they could glean from him. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook would not confirm the capture, but said the goals of the new expeditionary targeting force include capturing ISIS leaders and “any detention would be short-term and coordinated with Iraqi authorities.” [AP, AFP, 3/2/2016]

Erbil joins call for establishment of federal system in Syria
In a statement released on Thursday, Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Region expressed his support for a federal system in Syria and called on Kurdish groups to unite behind the project. The statement read, “For stability in Syria and real partnership among its people, the Kurdistan Region supports the idea of a federal system … We ask the Kurdish groups in Syria to have one position and in a united political project demand a federal system in Syria.” The umbrella Kurdish group TEVDEM that includes the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov also expressed their support for the establishment of a federalist system in Syria. [Rudaw, 3/3/3016]


President Hadi says over 85 percent of Yemen liberated
Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi said the national army and popular resistance forces have liberated more than 85 percent of Yemeni territories from Houthi militia control. Hadi also said that Yemen would have fallen in four days and would have become an Iranian state had it not been for Operation Decisive Storm launched by the Saudi-led coalition. The president expressed confidence that Sana’a, which was taken by the Houthis, would be freed after the liberation of both Taiz and Hodeida. [Okaz/Saudi Gazette, 3/3/2016]

Bahah orders authorities to deal “firmly” with militants in Aden
Yemeni Vice President Khalid Bahah ordered on Wednesday local authorities in the southern city of Aden to clamp down on armed groups and Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants responsible for deadly attacks in the city. Bahah arrived in Aden on Tuesday and held a meeting with the governor of Aden, the Chief of Security of the city, and the Commander of 4th Military Region. The meeting focused on discussing security plans to restore stability and security to the city. [Gulf News, 3/3/2016]

Saudi Crown Prince says Arab world faces dangerous challenges
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef reiterated on Wednesday that the Arab world is faced with challenges and “emphasized the importance of synergizing efforts and coordinating stances to bolster joint Gulf security.” Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef’s comments came following the meeting of 33 Arab ministers of the interior in Tunis, which condemned Hezbollah’s interference in the region. “The challenges and threats are led by several ambitious people with the aim of destabilizing the Arab world and fragmenting our unity. Some of these people invest in sectarian differences to foment discord and rivalry to achieve political and economic objectives,” he said. [Al Arabiya, 3/3/2016]

UN says aid ship docks in Yemen after diversion to Saudi Arabia
A World Food Programme (WFP) ship carrying humanitarian aid offloaded its cargo in Yemen on Wednesday, the United Nations said, after it was diverted to Saudi Arabia last month for carrying communications equipment. The Mainport Cedar, which the United Nations said was carrying humanitarian relief supplies bound for the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeida, was diverted by the coalition to the Saudi port of Jizan on February 11. [Reuters, 3/3/2016]

After 72-hour wait at airport, Kuwait allows Syrians in
Kuwait has allowed more than 50 Syrians who are Kuwaiti residents to reenter the country after they were held up at the airport for nearly 72 hours and told their passports were being checked for possible forgeries. There was no immediate comment from airport authorities in Kuwait City, where the Syrians, including children, were barred from entering the country over the weekend. [AP, 3/3/2016]


ISIS making millions through foreign exchange
The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) is exploiting national banking operations in Iraq and could be making up to $25 million a month in Middle Eastern money markets, experts told a UK parliamentary subcommittee in February. In notes published on Wednesday, Chatham House Associate Fellow David Butter told the committee, “The Iraqi central bank foreign currency auction systems are an area that needs to be investigated very strongly” as ISIS is using those systems to earn money on the foreign currency markets. Butter said Iraqi dinar funds taken from civil servant’s pensions and banks in Mosul were being siphoned off through Jordanian banks and then back into Iraq through Ramadi and “back into the Baghdad system.” He said that when the Iraqi government holds foreign currency auctions, ISIS money is inserted into that system, which allows the group to make a margin on the differences between different exchange rates. Other experts dismissed notions that ISIS’s main source of revenue is still oil, saying that the media had distorted the amount of money the group makes from its oil operations. [CNBC, The Telegraph, 3/2/2016]

Saudi Arabia asks banks to discuss major loan
Saudi Arabia has asked banks to discuss providing it with a major international loan of around $10 billion in the first significant foreign borrowing by the government for over a decade, sources said Wednesday. The invitation reflects growing pressure on Saudi state finances as it faces a slump in global oil prices. Riyadh ran a record budget deficit of nearly $100 billion last year. The government is being forced to turn to overseas capital markets to finance part of its deficit. Its domestic borrowing has started to strain liquidity in the local banking system, pushing up market interest rates. Bankers believe many institutions will be willing to lend to Saudi Arabia, given its low debt and massive oil reserves. The sources said banks participating in the loan will have a better chance of being chosen to arrange an international bond issue that Saudi Arabia may conduct as soon as this year. [Reuters, 3/2/2016]

Egypt says reaches agreement over foreign airline payments
Egypt’s Ministry of Civil Aviation said Thursday it had reached an agreement with the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) over payments to foreign airlines. Several airlines have complained in recent weeks of being unable to repatriate earnings due to foreign currency restrictions. Airlines will be paid what they are owed in foreign currency through payment programs over “the coming period,” the ministry said in a statement. The airlines affected include British Airways, Air France-KLM, and Saudi Arabian Airlines. The CBE agreed to transfer 50 percent of what British Airways is owed and pay the rest in installments, advisor to the Tourism Ministry Gehad al-Ghazali said. Egypt also agreed to transfer EGP 30 million ($3.83 million) to Air France-KLM, out of a total EGP 120 million owed. Ghazali said negotiations are ongoing regarding the EGP 100 million owed to the Saudi airline. On Wednesday, a CBE source said Egypt had addressed the concerns of the airlines. Meanwhile, the Egyptian pound held steady against the dollar on Thursday but weakened significantly on the black market, with traders quoting 9.50 pounds to the dollar. Despite ongoing speculation that the CBE will devalue the pound, former Pacific Investment Management CEO Mohamed El-Erian told reporters Thursday that Egyptian officials should focus less on the valuation of the currency and more on reform and growth measures. [Reuters, 3/3/2016]

German summer bookings for Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia drop 40 percent
German tourists’ bookings for summer holidays in Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey have dropped around 40 percent compared to a year ago, German travel association DRV said Thursday. DRV President Norbert Fiebig said that bookings for these destinations had significantly improved over the past two weeks and he expected a rally over the coming weeks. “Our goal is that bookings overall won’t be significantly below the 2015 level. But that is nearly entirely dependent on how these three volume markets develop, especially Turkey and Egypt,” he said. [Reuters, 3/3/2016]

Algeria plans local debt issue as oil price drop hits finances
Algeria plans to issue local debt as a source of financing to offset the collapse in global oil prices, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said. Algeria, which relies on oil and gas for 60 percent of its budget, has already started to cut back on public spending, infrastructure projects, and some state-subsidized energy services. Last month, the government sought Chinese financing for some projects, its first foreign funding in a decade. Sellal told reporters that the government has no plans to issue foreign-currency bonds, but will issue local-currency debt in April with an interest rate of 5 percent. He did not provide details of the size of the issue or its maturity. It was not clear if it would be open only to local Algerian businesses and banks. [Reuters, 3/3/2016]