Top News: White House says ready to help ICC genocide probe in Syria, Iraq

The White House on Thursday said it was ready to support an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into alleged genocide carried out by ISIS in Syria and Iraq. “The United States will cooperate with independent efforts to investigate genocide,” said spokesman Josh Earnest, adding that the administration is willing to support the ICC in gathering evidence. The United States declared Thursday that ISIS’s slaughter of Christians, Yazidis, and Shia in Iraq and Syria amounts to a genocide and vowed to halt it. [AFP, 3/18/2016]



Sources say Egypt cabinet reshuffle expected soon
Although Egypt’s Prime Minister Sherif Ismail has said recently that no cabinet reshuffle is expected at present, informed sources said that Ismail is meeting with potential candidates for ministerial positions. The sources said that the reshuffle would take place before the government presents its program to the House of Representatives on March 27 as reshuffles should be approved by parliament after that date in accordance with the constitution. Sources said the upcoming reshuffle will include ministers of finance, investment, irrigation, tourism, civil aviation, education, health, justice, and religious endowments. The Health Minister Ahmed Emad, is facing dismissal following an ongoing crisis with the Doctors Syndicate, which has threatened strikes in response to alleged police assaults on hospital physicians. The Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Hossam Moghazi may also be dismissed over developments related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Minister of Tourism Hisham Zaazou may also be held accountable for the impact of the Russian plane crash in Sinai on tourism figures. Sources also said that Investment Minister Ashraf Salman may be dismissed in light of a perceived failure to secure adequate foreign investments, while Ashraf al-Arabi of the Planning Ministry may be let go due to the unpopularity of the Civil Service Law. [Ahram Online, 3/18/2016]

Al-Azhar University expels three students for complicity in killing Egypt’s attorney general
Al-Azhar University President Ibrahim Hodhod expelled three students over their alleged complicity in last year’s assassination of Attorney General Hisham Barakat, the university media center announced Thursday. The “final expulsion” decision was made “after launching necessary legal interrogation according to Law No.74 for the Year 1961,” said the statement, adding that all Egyptian universities will be informed with the decision and the names of the expelled students in order not to enroll them. The decision came a day after the three students, along with a graduate from the same university, appeared in a televised recording in which they admitted to having executed the car bomb attack that killed Barakat. The date for the students’ trial has not been set. [Cairo Post, 3/18/2016]

Court freezes assets of four rights activists in 2011 NGO case
A judicial committee overseeing a five-year-old investigation into illegal foreign funding allegations ordered on Thursday the freezing of assets of four Egyptian human rights activists and their families. State news reported on Thursday that Cairo Criminal Court will review the commission’s decision on Saturday. It added that Hossam Bahgat, Gamal Eid, and two others who were not identified are being investigated for illegally receiving $1.5 million from foreign parties. The case dates back to December 2011, when 43 workers for foreign NGOs were charged with operating an organization and receiving funds from a foreign government without a license. In June 2013, all the defendants — including 17 US citizens, other foreigners and Egyptians — were sentenced from one to five years in prison, many of them in absentia. Eid and Bahgat said that they only found out about the judge’s decision from news reports. Judicial sources also told Al-Masry Al-Youm the measure will not be the last, adding that similar moves will be taken with others rights activists, but added that the measures were “precautionary” pending probes. [Ahram Online, AMAY, AP, Mada Masr, 3/18/2016]

Al-Qaeda chief’s brother released from Egypt jail
The brother of al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, under investigation for allegedly calling for the creation of a “terrorist group,” was released Thursday from an Egyptian prison, his son and security officials said. On February 23, a court ordered the release of Mohamed al-Zawahiri, 64, while the investigation was still underway. Security officials said Zawahiri walked out on Thursday from a Cairo prison after having spent more than two-and-a-half years behind bars. “My father has been released. He reached home early this morning,” his son, Abdelrahman Zawahiri, told AFP. Zawahiri was acquitted in 2015 of charges related to forming “a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda” and plotting attacks on government installations, security forces and Egypt’s Christian minority. The judge, however, kept him in detention and ordered an investigation into remarks made by Zawahiri during the trial in which he allegedly called for the formation of a “terrorist group.” [AFP, Aswat Masriya (Arabic), 3/17/2016]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


Libya’s eastern government warns against imposing cabinet; France offers support
Libya’s eastern government said on Friday that moves to impose a new UN-backed unity cabinet on the country without a vote of approval by the eastern House of Representatives (HOR) risk deepening the nation’s crisis. The unity government-in-waiting has called for an immediate transfer of power, and its Prime Minister Fayez Serraj said in an interview broadcast on Thursday it would move from Tunis to Tripoli in the “next few days.” Serraj said a security plan agreed with police and military forces in Tripoli, with some armed groups, and with the United Nations would allow the Presidential Council and the government it nominated to transfer to the Libyan capital. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will meet with Serraj on Friday to see how the new government can move swiftly into Tripoli and what support could be given to secure its return. The eastern government said in a statement on Friday that while it supported the unity cabinet, any attempt to impose it represented an abuse of Libyan sovereignty and a lack of respect for the democratic process. [Reuters, AP, Libya Herald, 3/18/2016]

EU studying civilian security mission to Libya
The EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has warned the bloc’s foreign ministers that nearly half a million people displaced in Libya could migrate to Europe, saying that Brussels is also studying a civilian security mission to Libya. Mogherini said planning was underway for a mission to rebuild Libya’s police, counterterrorism, and border management operations to work with the United Nations. The possibility of setting up a team of “deployable experts” on migration and security issues could be explored, Mogherini said. The leaders of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Malta, and Mogherini are discussing Libya on the sidelines of a Friday EU summit on the refugee crisis. The International Organization for Migration warned that “the Libya to Italy route is getting very, very active,” with the rescue of over 2,000 people in past three days. [Reuters, WSJ, Reuters, 3/18/2016]

Statoil says Algeria project hit with explosives
Norway’s Statoil ASA said Friday that the In Salah gas project in Algeria it operates jointly with BP PLC has been struck by explosives, prompting it to mobilize an emergency response, but that it had no reports of casualties so far. Militants attacked the plant with rocket-propelled grenades, forcing the facility to be closed as a precaution. The Algerian army was controlling the area and pursuing the attackers. Statoil operates the In Salah facility together with BP and Algeria’s Sonatrach. The In Salah project in central Algeria is the country’s third-largest gas field with a production capacity of 9 billion cubic meters a year. [WSJ, Reuters, AP, 3/18/2016]

Russia to supply 40 Mi-28 attack helicopters to Algeria
Russia will deliver 40 Mi-28NE attack helicopters to Algeria in line with a bilateral contract, Interfax news agency said on Friday, quoting a source in Russia’s arms exporting bodies. The Mi-28 helicopter, dubbed “Night Hunter” by the Russian military, is said by arms experts to be among the best in the world in its class. The source gave no details about the helicopter contract with Algeria. [Reuters, 3/18/2016]

French Foreign Minister says Tunisia’s youth must shun Islamic extremism
At the inauguration of the French Institute in Tunis, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called on Tunisia’s youth to resist the path of Islamic extremism and set the example for the rest of the region, while Paris vowed to firm up security and economic ties with Tunis as it struggles with rising Islamist militancy. France has increased its already substantial economic support, fearing derailment of the political transition. On Thursday, Tunisia announced it is launching a campaign to counter religious extremism among its youth. The one-year campaign aims to promote “Islam’s real, moderate values” to protect the youth, according to Religious Affairs Minister Mohammad Khalil. Extremism has “invaded” the minds of the youth via the internet, he said. [Reuters, TAP, AFP, 3/17/2016]

Polisario Front representative warns of war if United Nations leaves Western Sahara
A representative of the Polisario Front, a movement seeking independence for the disputed Western Sahara, warned Thursday that the shortest way to the resumption of war is if the United Nations ends its peacekeeping mission in the disputed territory, accusing Morocco of fomenting the tension. Polisario Front UN representative Ahmed Boukhari spoke to reporters after Morocco ordered 84 international staff in the peacekeeping mission to leave and terminated $3 million in funding for the UN operation. Boukhari told reporters that the UN Security Council must defend the UN presence in Western Sahara. “If there is no mission, there is a vacuum and an invitation to war,” he said. At the same time, Morocco has announced its intention to resume contacts with the European Union and its decision not to withdraw its troops from UN peacekeeping missions around the world. [AP, Reuters, 3/17/2016]


ISIS claims killing of five Russian troops killed near Palmyra
The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has claimed the killing of five Russian troops in fighting near the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. “The soldiers of the caliphate, by the grace of God, have killed five Russian soldiers and six members [of the Syrian army],” ISIS said in a statement. The group also claimed the killing of several Hezbollah members in nearby clashes. A website linked to ISIS, Aamaq, carried a similar claim, adding that one of the Russians killed was a military adviser. “Four of the Russian soldiers were killed in Qasr al-Halabat west of Palmyra during an attempt to storm the area that ISIS forces foiled, while the adviser whose corpse was shown in a video distributed by the agency died (Thursday) in the Dawa area,” it added. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) confirmed clashes in Palmyra with ISIS and the regime, but not the casualties. [AFP, 3/18/2016]

UN seeks to reach over 1 million besieged Syrians in six weeks
A UN-backed task force working to deliver aid to besieged Syrians submitted a plan to the regime on Thursday that would allow life-saving supplies to reach over a million people by the end of April. The head of the task force, Jan Egeland, said implementing the plan mostly relied on Damascus, which has still not given clearance for UN convoys to reach six of the country’s 18 besieged areas. Egeland said, “It is a violation of international law to prevent us from going.” Most of the areas concerned are besieged by the Syrian army, not the rebels, he added. [AFP, 3/18/2016]

UN envoy urges clear proposals from Damascus at Syria talks
UN Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura wrapped up a week of fragile peace talks Friday with plans to meet both sides, after urging the regime to put forward clear plans for political transition. De Mistura has said agreeing on a unity government to lead Syria out of five years of civil war was the most daunting roadblock to peace. He praised the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) for offering “substantive” plans for a transition on Thursday. The HNC has made the departure of President Bashar al-Assad an unalterable demand, while Damascus has termed any talk of the president’s removal as ‘a red line.’ De Mistura said he would hope to get “similar in-depth clarity from the government” about options for political transition, describing previous talks with the regime this week as “more on the formal side.” [AFP, 3/18/2016]

Bomb kills policeman in southeast Turkey
In southeast Turkey on Friday, a bomb attack by Kurdish militants killed a police officer in the town of Nusaybin and a second device was defused in the town of Hani. Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants were believed to have staged the attack on the armored police vehicle during security operations in Nusaybin. In the town of Hani, police found a vehicle loaded with 150 kg (330 lb) of explosives. State authorities believed this was to be detonated during events marking the anniversary of a World War I Canakkale battlefield victory that day. “Thanks to the alertness of security forces, there was no loss of life or damage. Efforts to ensure peace and security for our people will continue decisively and uninterrupted,” the provincial governor’s office said. Turkey has been on high alert since Sunday’s suicide bombing in Ankara. Germany shut down its diplomatic missions and schools in Turkey, and the United States and other European embassies warned citizens to be vigilant. [Reuters, 3/18/2016]

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


Iraq’s Sadr spurns calls to drop sit-in as thousands gather for rally
Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr rejected calls to cancel a planned sit-in on Friday at the gates of Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, which he called “a bastion of support for corruption” in a statement on his website, responding to politicians who asked him to drop the protest over concern that it could lead to violence near the sensitive district. As thousands of Iraqis gathered in front of the Green Zone, Sadr asked his followers to refrain from any violent reaction if confronted by riot police, who were present but stood aside as leaders of the demonstration entered the Green Zone. [Reuters, Al Arabiya, 3/18/2016]

British Foreign Secretary in Baghdad, then Erbil
On Wednesday, Iraqi President Fuad Masoum met the British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in al-Salam Palace in Baghdad. The two discussed Iraq’s urgent need for international support in order to proceed with its reconstruction plans and develop its economy as well as the anti-ISIS coalition and Iraq’s continued on-the-ground efforts to defeat the group. Masoum also stated that Iraq is keen to develop political, economic, and cultural relations with the United Kingdom. From Baghdad, Hammond flew to Erbil to discuss the war with ISIS and security developments with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Following the meeting, Hammond said in a press conference that the United Kingdom continues to support Peshmerga forces which are at the forefront in combating ISIS and have successfully debilitated the group’s military capacity. [Rudaw, Bas News, Iraqi News 3/17/2016]

American ISIS fighter chose to surrender to Kurds
Mohammed Jamal Kweis , the 26-year-old American who was captured by Kurdish forces in Iraq earlier this week, said he had traveled from Turkey to join ISIS before deciding to escape, according to an interview with Kurdistan 24 on Thursday. Kweis said he traveled from the United States to London in December 2015 and continued to Amsterdam and then Turkey. In Turkey he met a woman from Mosul who said she could help him get to the Iraqi city, which has been under ISIS’s control since 2014. After a series of car rides Kweis and the woman separated. Kweis continued with some ISIS fighters who took him to Mosul. There he stayed in a house holding about 70 people, including foreign recruits, all of whom had to hand over their passports to ISIS. The group included Russians, Uzbeks, Egyptians, Pakistanis, and Moroccans, and Kweis said he was the only American. Kweis described daily life under ISIS and said that after one month, he decided to leave. He found someone to take him as far as the Turkish border, where he could make contact with the Kurds. [Reuters, AP, 3/18/2016]


Saudi-led coalition focuses on supporting the Yemeni army
Brigadier General Ahmed al-Asiri said Friday that the Saudi-led coalition is currently focusing on supporting the Yemeni army to restore the state’s authority over the country. Asiri said the coalition’s military operations will be limited to providing air support in areas where the Yemeni army is fighting. He added that the stabilization phase of the coalition’s operations will include constructing a Yemeni security apparatus that will be able to restore stability in Yemen and security for all its citizens. [Al Masdar, 3/18/2016]

United States welcomes Saudi move to wind down Yemen campaign
The White House Thursday welcomed a pledge from the Saudi-led coalition to wind down military operations in Yemen, an announcement that could dial back tensions between Riyadh and Washington before President Barack Obama’s visit to the region. White House spokesman Josh Earnest welcomed a coalition statement that the year-old campaign against Iran-backed Houthi militants was nearing the end of the major combat phase. “The violence that is plaguing that country has caught too many innocent civilians in the crossfire,” Earnest said. [AFP, 3/18/2016]

UN says Saudi-led coalition killed ‘twice as many’ Yemeni civilians as all other forces
The United Nations on Friday denounced the “carnage” caused by recent airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, saying the alliance was responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in the conflict. “Looking at the figures, it would seem that the coalition is responsible for twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together, virtually all as a result of airstrikes,” UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement. Since the Saudi-led coalition began its air campaign in Yemen a year ago, the UN rights office said it had tallied just under 9,000 civilian casualties in the conflict, including 3,218 killed. [AFP, 3/18/2016]

Kuwait security chief tells Obama ‘we’re not free-riders’
President of Kuwait’s National Security Bureau Sheikh Thamer al-Sabah said Thursday Kuwait is not a “free-rider” in US-led campaigns against terrorism and other threats, rejecting comments by President Barack Obama critical of US allies. Sabah was referring to Obama’s remarks to The Atlantic magazine last week in which he said some states in the Gulf and Europe were “free-riders” who called for US action without getting involved themselves. In an interview, Sheikh Thamer said Kuwait, like fellow Gulf state Qatar, had opened up air bases and airspace for the US-led coalition bombing ISIS (or ISIL) in Syria and Iraq. He added that aircraft from other Gulf countries had carried out sorties. [Reuters, 3/18/2016]

Kuwait to deport 1,100 alleged Hezbollah supporters
About 1,100 Lebanese and Syrian citizens living in Kuwait will be deported over their links to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Kuwaiti daily Al Qabas reported Friday. The expatriates allegedly have direct links with the group classified as terrorist this month by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab League, and condemned by Arab interior ministers in the Tunisia Declaration. Those categorized as “dangerous” will be deported immediately. [Gulf News, 3/18/2016]


Egypt central bank raises key interest rates
The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) raised its key interest rates on Thursday by 150 basis points to curb inflationary pressures. The bank’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) raised the overnight deposit rate to 10.75 percent from 9.25 percent and the overnight lending rate to 11.75 percent from 10.25 percent. The CBE devalued the pound on Monday to 8.85 pounds per dollar from 7.73 pounds. Two days later the bank strengthened it slightly to 8.78 per dollar as it adopted a more flexible exchange rate policy. Most experts had predicted the MPC would hike rates to defend the pound following the devaluation, with forecasts ranging from a 50 to 100 basis point hike. “The Monetary Policy Committee judges that a rate hike is warranted to anchor inflation expectations,” the CBE said. “The central bank’s monetary policy will be geared towards maintaining price stability by avoiding double digit inflation rates over the medium-term to maintain real incomes.” [Reuters, Bloomberg, Ahram Online, 3/17/2016]

Iraq halts exports through pipeline to pressure Kurds
Iraq’s central government has stopped oil exports through the Kurdish region to pressure the local authorities to resume talks on an oil revenue sharing agreement, Iraqi Oil Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said. Iraq’s state-run North Oil Company stopped pumping crude produced at fields it operates in the Kirkuk area through a pipeline to Turkey. North Oil normally exports 150,000 barrels a day. The pipeline also carries oil produced in the Kurdish region and sold independently from the Iraqi central government. [Reuters, 3/17/2016]

Saudi Aramco has launches tender to build gas treatment units
Saudi Aramco has launched a tender to build gas treatment units at Uthmaniya, in a project expected to cost upwards of $500 million. Saudi Arabia is struggling to keep up with domestic demand for gas. The aim of the project is to recover ethane, propane, and other natural gas liquids (NGL) from 1.4 billion standard cubic feet per day (scfd) of sales gas. The ethane recovery project will strip the residual ethane from the processed fuel gas stream and make it available as a high-value feedstock for the petrochemical industry instead of burning it with the fuel gas, said former Aramco executive Sadad al-Husseini. The project is scheduled to be completed in August 2019, sources said, adding that the project is estimated to cost anywhere between $500 million and $1 billion. [Reuters, 3/17/2016]

Tunisia to hold national dialogue on employment
Tunisia will hold a national dialogue on employment on March 29, Minister of Vocational Training and Employment Zied Laadhari said on Thursday. The dialogue will feature the participation of UN Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon. Laadhari’s comments come after three days of preparations for the dialogue. The Office of the Prime Minister, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA) took part in the preparations. A report including proposals for solutions to unemployment is scheduled to be presented in the next week. [TAP, 3/17/2016]