Top News: US envoy meets PYD in Syria

A delegation, which included President Barack Obama’s Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk, met in Syria on Sunday with the leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD). Accompanied by French and British officials, it was the first time a US official crossed into Syria since the country’s envoy was recalled. Also on Monday, President of the Syrian Democratic Council Haytham Manna, the political wing of the SDF, announced that it will not participate in Geneva after its delegates were excluded from negotiations. “We decided on Sunday night to suspend our participation in negotiations so long as the five Kurdish and one Turkman delegates from our list do not receive invitations from UN mediator Staffan de Mistura,” Manna said. [Reuters, Daily Sabah, 2/2/2016]



Egypt’s Sisi says open to criticism, admits deficiency in dealing with youth
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Monday that he does not mind criticism, stressing that it is his job to placate disgruntled youth, a day after a cartoonist was arrested for what critics suggest was retaliation for caricatures mocking the former army chief. “I’m not upset at Gawish or anyone … No one can speak on my behalf and say that I get upset from criticism,” Sisi said in a phone interview. “If I accept being in such a position, I must bear all the consequences. There is no such thing as all people agreeing on something.” Sisi said he phoned the television show to speak about the hardcore football fans, the Ultras. “I call on the Ultras to select ten of their members whom they trust to be part of a committee to look into all the details concerning this case and determine what more can be done,” Sisi said in reference to the 2012 Port Said disaster in which 72 Ahly Ultras were killed. Nine police officials are among the 73 defendants standing retrial on charges related to the killing of the young fans, with final verdicts yet to be read or carried out. “In events with large crowds, it’s always difficult to determine the truth behind what happened,” Sisi added. Sisi repeatedly said he has high regard for human rights but that more pressing issues, such as the economy, should be the main source of concern. “It’s us who are not able to properly communicate with them [angry youths]. We are the ones who are unable to find common ground,” he added. “Finding the balance between security measures and human rights is a sensitive and delicate issue which requires a lot of effort,” he said. [Ahram Online, 2/2/2016]

Leader of Free Egyptians Party resigns, jeopardizes parliamentary seat
Leading member of the Free Egyptians Party and MP Emad Gad resigned from the party on Monday despite the risk of losing his parliamentary seat as a result. In December, Gad, who was deputy head of the liberal party, froze his membership over what he said was disagreement with the party’s leadership. He handed in his notice earlier this week. Gad attributed his resignation to disagreements over the party’s leadership and the way the party is operated. “It’s political life, not a business,” he stated. Gad said he no longer fully believes in “the party’s mechanism, ideas, stances, and figures leading it,” adding that the problem first arose after the election of the party’s head and the head of the parliamentary bloc, Alaa Abed. Under Egypt’s constitution, MPs can be stripped of their membership if they change party affiliation and if a two-thirds majority of the chamber votes on their removal. Gad said he supports such articles in the constitution, which he believes balances representation in the chamber. The vote is expected to take place once the parliament reconvenes next week. [Ahram Online, 2/2/2016]

Beheiry to remain in jail after legal challenge denied in blasphemy case
Egypt’s al-Gamaleya Misdemeanor Court rejected on Tuesday a legal challenge presented by TV host Islam al-Beheiry on his one-year imprisonment over blasphemy charges. In late December, the court sentenced Beheiry for “contempt of religion” for questioning orthodox Islamic beliefs on his now-suspended TV show. His original five-year sentence was commuted to one year. Following the rejection of his appeal, he was transferred to the Tora Prison compound in South Cairo to serve his sentence. The verdict can still be appealed, but Beheiry will remain in jail as long as the court does not set bail. [Ahram Online, Cairo Post, 2/2/2016]

Egypt, Russia reportedly negotiating on helicopters for Mistral warships
Egyptian Trade Minister Tarek Qabil said that Russia and Egypt are planning to negotiate over the delivery of helicopters to equip the Mistral aircraft carriers Egypt bought from France, Sputnik reported. “This is within the defense ministry’s purview, but I think that talks on this topic will be held,” Qabil said in an interview with Russian news agency RIA Novosti. Russian Trade Minister Denis Manturov meanwhile said that Moscow and Cairo will sign a memorandum on Tuesday for the delivery of four SSJ100 passenger planes to Egypt, Sputnik reported. The deal includes an option for the purchase of six additional aircrafts. The two ministers will also reportedly sign on Tuesday a protocol on the establishment of a Russian industrial zone in the Suez Canal area. [Ahram Online, Reuters, 2/2/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


John Kerry urges coalition to address growing ISIS threat in Libya
Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday at a meeting in Rome of the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) that the group must step up its efforts to prevent the militants from gaining a “stranglehold” in Libya. Kerry, opening a day of meetings devoted to planning the next stages of the battle against the Sunni extremist group, said the formation of a national unity government in Libya would prevent ISIS from seizing control. He said the United States and its European and Arab partners should increase security training and help Libya’s military “not just to clear territory, but to create a safe environment for the government to stand up and operate.” He warned, “The last thing in the world you want is a false caliphate with access to billions of dollars of oil revenue.” Kerry said that the Obama administration is deciding how to expand its operations against ISIS and will reveal the details over time. [NYT, AP, Reuters, 2/2/2016]

UN aid appeal for Libya barely one percent funded
The United Nations says that international donors have only pledged a “paltry” 1 percent of the $166 million funding appeal launched to assist Libya’s vulnerable. UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya Ali al-Zaatari says only two donors have so far answered the world body’s funding plea, issued almost two months ago. The Libya Humanitarian Response Plan was launched in Tunis on December 9, 2015 and appealed for $166 million to assist a targeted population of 1.3 million people out of 2.4 million affected persons. Al-Zaatari noted that the international community is mobilizing itself around the nascent Government of National Accord to fund multi-million dollar projects to support it, but vital humanitarian funding is conspicuously absent. [AP, UN News Centre, UNSMIL, Libya Herald, 2/2/2016]

France says no plans for strikes against ISIS in Libya
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Tuesday refuted reports Paris was pushing for military action against ISIS group in Libya. “There is absolutely no question of military intervention in Libya,” Fabius told reporters on the sidelines of a Rome meeting of countries involved in combatting ISIS. “There is pressure, but that is not the position of the government.” [AFP, 2/2/2016]

Attack damages oil pipeline south of Libya’s Zueitina port
Maintenance teams are working to repair damage caused by an attack on an oil pipeline south of the Libyan port of Zueitina, a spokesman for the pipeline’s guards said on Monday. It was not clear who carried out the attack late on Sunday evening, but ISIS militants have been active in the area in recent weeks. An explosion and fire hit the pipeline in the desert 75 km (47 miles) south of the terminal, said Ali al-Hassi, a spokesman for the Petroleum Facilities Guard that controls nearby oil installations. [Reuters, Libya Monitor (subscription), Libya Herald, 2/1/2016]

Tunisia police clash with militants, two dead
Tunisian police have clashed with Islamist gunmen in a remote, mountainous area in the southern region of Gabes, killing at least two militants, the Interior Ministry said on Monday. “During counterterrorism operations, police exchanged fire with a group of terrorists. First indications are that two terrorists were killed and a policeman injured,” the ministry said in a statement. Tunisia’s security forces are on a campaign against Islamist militants who have targeted military checkpoints and patrols in outlying areas. [Reuters, Tunisia Live, 2/1/2016]

HRW condemns widespread abuses under Tunisia’s drug law
In a new report titled “All This for a Joint,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Tunisian authorities should revise a draft drug law to eliminate all prison sentences for recreational drug use or possession. A draft law only to reduce penalties for drug use would stop short of fixing major human rights concerns in the current law. The report documents the human rights abuses and social toll that stem from enforcement of the country’s draconian drug law, which sends thousands of Tunisians to prison each year for consuming or possessing small quantities of cannabis for personal use. The government approved and sent to parliament a draft revision to the drug law on December 30, 2015. Parliament has yet to announce the schedule for debate on the draft. [HRW, 2/2/2016]


Islamist groups to participate in Syria talks on individual basis
Russia has agreed that two Syrian rebel Islamist groups will participate in Syria peace talks on an individual basis, but said it did not mean that they were legitimate and not terrorist groups, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday. “This does not mean that this is an acknowledgement of Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham as two legitimate partners in the negotiations,” he said. Secretary of State John Kerry urged the rival factions in Syria not to squander the opportunity to engage in UN-mediated talks that began on Friday in Geneva. “We have seen through years of savage fighting what the absence of serious negotiations yields,” Kerry said. UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura sought Tuesday to press President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to ease the suffering of ordinary Syrians to enable the fragile peace talks in Switzerland to gain momentum. Yet the Syrian government rejected Tuesday that indirect peace talks have properly begun, with the head of its delegation describing negotiations as still in a preparatory phase and calling the opposition “not serious.” [Reuters, 2/2/2016]

Syria regime forces advance in north Aleppo
The Syrian army and its allied militia, aided by Russian air support, made further advances on Tuesday in a major offensive that could cut insurgent supply lines from Turkey to Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said. Syrian state media also reported advances that appear aimed at breaking through rebel-held territory north of Aleppo to reach the Shia villages of Nubul and al-Zahraa, which are loyal to Damascus. On Tuesday, Syrian state news agency SANA said government troops backed by pro-regime militants had “restored security and stability to the village of Hardatneen.” [AFP, Reuters, AP, 2/2/2016]

Syria condemns Turkey cross-border shelling
On Monday, Syria’s government condemned alleged cross-border shelling by Turkish forces as a “blatant breach of international law.” Late Monday, state news agency SANA quoted a source in the Syrian foreign ministry as condemning the reported artillery fire into northern Latakia province. The source said Damascus considered the shelling “a crime against Syrian civilians.” The report added that the government “reserves the right to respond to this heinous crime with all available means.” SOHR also reported cross-border fire in the area, but said it was unclear if the source was Turkish forces or rebels firing from inside Turkey. [AFP, 2/2/2016]

Syria approves aid deliveries to 3 besieged villages
Syria’s government agreed to allow aid into several besieged areas on Monday including Madaya in an apparent goodwill gesture ahead of peace talks. “The government has in principle approved convoys … to Madaya and simultaneously to Kafraya and Fuaa,” said Jens Laerke, spokesman of the UN’s humanitarian agency. The international aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said Friday that 16 people have died in Madaya since the relief convoys began arriving on January 12. MSF also reported 320 cases of malnutrition and said 33 of those people “are in danger of dying if they do not receive prompt and effective treatment.” Civilians in the three villages have reportedly starved to death because aid deliveries were blocked until about three weeks ago. Madaya is besieged by pro-government forces, while Fuaa and Kafraya in northwest Syria are surrounded by rebel groups. [AP, AFP, 2/1/16]

Italy drops objections to EU migration fund to Turkey
Italy will contribute to a 3 billion euro European Union fund to help Turkey tackle the European migration crisis, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Monday, dropping objections blocking implementation of the plan. Under a deal from last November, Ankara is to stem the flood of refugees and migrants leaving for Europe in exchange for the aid. Brussels hopes it will limit the influx of people fleeing wars and poverty in the Middle East and Africa after more than a million reached Europe last year. Italy, which has locked horns on a number of issues with Brussels recently, has been blocking payouts to Turkey in the hope of winning more leeway from the bloc on its 2016 budget. The EU’s executive said earlier on Monday that it had offered in December to exempt any contributions to the Turkey fund from member state’s budget deficit calculations under the bloc’s accounting rules. Renzi welcomed the proposal as “finally something positive” and EU envoys will consider it on Wednesday in Brussels. [Today’s Zaman, 2/2/2016]

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


Pentagon to hike spending request to fund fight against ISIS
US officials said that President Barack Obama’s administration will seek a significant increase in funding for the fight against ISIS as part of its 2017 defense budget request in another possible sign of US efforts to intensify the campaign. The FY2017 Pentagon budget will call for more than $7 billion for the fight against ISIS, a roughly 35 percent increase compared with the previous year’s request to Congress, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. US Defense Secretary Ash Carter is due to disclose his spending priorities for the $583 billion 2017 defense budget on Tuesday in an address to the Economic Club of Washington. This comes after US Secretary of State John Kerry said at the coalition meeting in Rome that more financial contributions from nations fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria are needed in order to rebuild destroyed towns, lauding the $50 million stabilization fund that helped resurrect life in Tikrit after it was liberated from ISIS control. [Reuters, Washington Post, Iraqi News, 2/1/2016]

US weighs options to speed Iraq’s fight to retake Mosul
US Army Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, head of the US-led coalition fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, said on Monday that the United States is willing to deploy Apache attack helicopters and more advisers to help Iraq retake the city of Mosul from ISIS. General MacFarland said he is looking to retake Mosul as quickly as possible, but did not say whether he agreed with Iraqi estimates that it could be liberated from ISIS control by the end of this year. US officials, including President Barack Obama, have said they want to accelerate the campaign against ISIS and have called on allies to increase their military contributions to efforts to destroy the group in Iraq and Syria. [Reuters, NYT, 2/1/2016]

Iraqis running out of food and medicine in besieged Fallujah
Local officials and residents say that tens of thousands of trapped Iraqi civilians are running out of food and medicine in the western city of Fallujah, an ISIS stronghold under siege by security forces. The Iraqi army, police and Iranian-backed Shia militias, backed by airstrikes from a US-led coalition, late last year imposed a near total siege on Fallujah, located 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad. In an interview with al-Hadath TV late on Monday, Sohaib al-Rawi, the governor of Anbar province where Fallujah is located, appealed to the coalition to air-drop humanitarian supplies to the trapped civilians. He said this was the only way to deliver aid after ISIS mined the entrances to the city and stopped people leaving. [Reuters, 2/2/2016]

Violence kills 849 across Iraq in January
The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq said in a statement that 490 of those killed in January were civilians, including a number of the federal police, civil defense forces and personal security details. The rest were security forces, including Kurdish Peshmerga and paramilitary troops. The report added that 1,157 civilians were wounded in January. [NYT, 2/1/2016]


Dozens of Houthis flee Sana’a
Dozens of Houthi militants and forces loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh sold their weapons and fled following the advance of popular resistance fighters in Sana’a. Local residents said the militants sold their weapons in the Masoura region between Sana’a and Marib. They also said government forces and Houthi militants are currently engaged in heavy fighting. [Al Masdar, 2/2/2016]

Saudi Arabia says 375 civilians killed on its border in Yemen war
Mortars and rockets fired at Saudi towns and villages have killed 375 civilians, including 63 children, since the start of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen in late March, Riyadh said on Monday. Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, said Houthi militia and army forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh had fired more than 40,000 projectiles across the border since the war began. In a measure of how fierce the fighting on the frontier continues to be, nearly 130 mortars and 15 missiles were fired by the Houthis and Saleh’s forces at Saudi border positions on Monday alone, Asseri said in an interview in Riyadh. [Reuters, 2/1/2016]

Saudi gets ten years for Twitter terrorism support
A Saudi who used Twitter to call for the release of prisoners was convicted on Tuesday of “terrorism” and security offences has been jailed for ten years. The accused, who was not named, opened several Twitter accounts. A special court for terrorism cases found him guilty of using the accounts to “call for protests and spread chaos to release detainees that are held for security and terrorism charges.” Twitter is widely used in the conservative kingdom, which has repeatedly denounced bombings and shootings carried out in various countries by ISIS and other extremists. [AFP, 2/2/2016]

Saudi Arabia reveals identity of second would-be suicide bomber in al-Ahsa
Saudi Arabia on Monday revealed the identity of the second would-be suicide bomber behind a recent attack on a mosque in the eastern al-Ahsa region. The attack killed four people and injured 18 worshipers during Friday prayer after one of the two suicide bombers detonated himself. The suicide bomber behind the blast was a Saudi. The Saudi Interior Ministry said the second culprit, who failed to detonate himself, was an Egyptian named Talha Hisham Mohammed Abda. [Al Arabiya, 2/1/2016]


Industry to start producing in Egypt’s Suez Canal economic zone in 2020
Egypt is working on infrastructure at the Suez Canal Economic Zone that will allow industry investing in the area to start production by 2020, Head of the General Authority for the Suez Canal Economic Zone Ahmed Darwish said. Egypt is developing an area of 460 square kilometers around the Suez Canal into an industrial and trade hub in an effort to attract investment. “We aim to have, by 2020, infrastructure that allows the start of production … that allows industries to produce, not completing the infrastructure of the whole project,” Darwish said at a banking conference in Sharm al-Sheikh. He said he would start an investment campaign at the end of March to attract potential investors from Japan, France, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Egypt is also due to receive delegations from Italy, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, and the African Development Bank this month in order to explore opportunities in the economic zone. [Reuters, 2/2/2016]

Saudi fiscal reserves slide to four-year low on weak oil
Saudi Arabia’s fiscal reserves dropped to a four-year low last year as the government sought to finance a budget deficit caused by plunging oil revenues, Jadwa Investment said in a report Tuesday. Saudi reserves dropped to $611.9 billion at the end of 2015, the lowest level since 2011, down from $732 billion a year before. Jadwa said it expected reserves to fall to around $500 billion by the end of 2016. Riyadh has projected a budget deficit of $87 billion this year, but Jadwa forecasts a deficit of more than $107 billion. Jadwa also said it expects inflation to rise to 3.9 percent this year from 2.2 percent last year. In other news, Saudi Aramco held talks with banks about selling Islamic bonds for the first time. No banks have been appointed and the size of the sale has not been determined, sources said.[AFP, 2/2/2016]

Turkey looks to boost trade with Latin America, Iran
Turkey aims to more than double trade with Latin America by 2023 in a shift from its traditional export markets in Europe and the Middle East, Economy Minister Mustafa Elitas said on Monday. “Bilateral trade with Latin America currently stands at a little over $8 billion … for 2023 … we want to reach $20 billion,” Elitas said. He is currency in Chile accompanying President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a large business delegation on a tour of the region that will also include visits to Peru and Ecuador. Citing the advantages of having a free trade agreement with Chile that aims to yield $1 billion in bilateral trade this year, Elitas said Turkey will ask Peru and Ecuador to “speed up” the finalization of bilateral free trade agreements. Elitas also highlighted Turkey’s intention to boost trade with Iran. “Our objective is to reach $30 billion [in trade] with Iran by 2023,” Elitas said. [Reuters, 2/1/2016]

Iraq oil exports up but revenue plunges on low oil prices
Iraqi oil exports rose in January compared to the previous month, but revenue fell by more than $650 million due to plunging crude prices, the Oil Ministry said Monday. Iraq exported an average of 3.28 million barrels per day (bpd) in January, up from 3.21 million bpd in December, but monthly revenue fell from $2.92 billion to $2.26 billion. Baghdad said oil prices averaged $22.21 in January, which is less than half the amount projected in the 2016 budget. On Sunday, the United Nations appealed for $861 million in humanitarian aid for Iraq to help plug the estimated $891 million gap between planned Iraqi expenditures on relief operations and available government funds. “The government has its back against the wall because the price of oil is so low, and that’s why we’re asking the international community to be generous,” UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Lise Grande said. [Reuters, 2/1/2016]