Top News: World Powers Meeting in New York to Address Syrian War and ISIS

World powers are meeting in New York to try to move forward a tentative plan to bring about a ceasefire in Syria. Countries on both sides of the conflict are seeking to narrow considerable gaps which stand in the way of progress. These include the fate of Syria’s president, which groups could join talks with the regime, and which should be classed as terrorists. The UN Security Council is expected to later vote on a text backing the broad plan for a truce and negotiations. It follows a meeting of the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG) which met in Vienna in November and agreed on the parameters of a political plan for the country. Regarding the talks, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said the focus on regime change was a barrier to peace. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that gaps are closing between Russian and US views regarding Syria and that he is not opposed to Assad stepping down as part of the peace plan. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Thursday that his country has seen “no lists we can agree upon” of Syrian opposition groups that should be included in peace negotiations set to begin by January 1, or of Syrian groups that should be considered terrorist organizations instead. [BBC, NYT, Reuters, 12/18/2015]



Egypt welcomes UK Muslim Brotherhood review
Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs welcomed the British government’s Muslim Brotherhood review issued on Thursday in London, which stated that membership or links to the group should be considered a possible indicator of extremism, but that the group should not be banned. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry on Thursday released a statement saying the conclusion of the review makes it clear that the international community should support Egypt in confronting terrorism and extremist ideology. The report was originally commissioned in April 2014 by Prime Minister David Cameron to examine whether the group puts British national security at risk. In the statement, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid said the review is an important step in combatting terrorism, adding, “We hope other countries will take similar steps to enhance counterterrorism efforts.” [Ahram Online, DNE, 12/18/2015]

Three alleged Brotherhood members sentenced to three years for protests
The Cairo Criminal Court sentenced Thursday three alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood to three years in prison for inciting riots in Cairo’s district of Maadi in 2013. The court also sentenced four other defendants in absentia to five years in jail. The defendants faced numerous charges including illegal assembly, destroying public and private utilities, inciting violence, and harming national security in Maadi, following the deadly dispersal of pro- Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in August 2013. [Cairo Post, 12/18/2015]

Sixteen NGOs condemn violation of personal rights in the media
Over a dozen Egyptian rights groups have rallied against anchorman Ahmed Moussa for airing compromising photos purporting to show Khaled Youssef, a popular Egyptian movie director recently elected to parliament. Thursday’s statement by 16 local groups claims Moussa invaded Youssef’s privacy, and demanded authorities investigate the case. The organizations, including the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Nadim Center, Association for Free Thought and Expression, and several others, blamed the police and the public prosecution for not taking legal action against media outlets which display citizens’ personal photos, recordings, or videos, in violation of the law and constitution. Journalists have also endorsed a campaign demanding legal action be taken by the Press Syndicate against Moussa. Around 150 journalists signed a complaint letter calling for Moussa to be banned from appearing on TV. A Press Syndicate official said that the union board will decide on Saturday if Moussa will be summoned for investigations. Moussa on Monday aired photos of a man resembling Youssef shown in bed with partly obscured but apparently naked woman. He then challenged the director to publicly announce whether it is him in the photos. [Egypt Independent, AP, 12/18/2015]

Sudan’s Foreign Minister says agreement on Ethiopian dam could be reached by end of December
Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour told Egyptian state news that he believes an agreement between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia on the controversial Ethiopian Renaissance dam could be reached in the upcoming round of talks set for December 27 and 28. Ghandour said that the last tripartite meeting between the three countries over the dam last Friday and Saturday achieved a number of positive results. Citing Sudanese officials, some Egyptian local media had reported that last weekend’s talks have ended in failure. The Sudanese FM said that the officials preferred not to reveal the results of the meeting to the media, expressing hopes that officials from the three countries reach a consensus on the issue. “Officials from the three countries agreed not to talk to the media about the accords reached during the last meeting as statements by officials in the media are sometimes taken out of context,” he said. Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid, meanwhile, told reporters on Thursday that the French and Dutch consultancy firms working on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam were the reason no agreement was reached in the latest talks. He also stressed that Egypt hopes that the three countries will reach a consensus in the upcoming round of talks. In related news, Egyptian Irrigation Minister Hossam Moghazi says Egypt still has concerns about the Cooperative Framework Agreement signed by a number of Nile Basin States, and will not sign the treaty in its current form. [Ahram Online, 12/18/2015]

For more in-depth Egypt news, please visit EgyptSource


US special ops troops kicked out of Libya due to mix up
A group of US special operations troops who had traveled to Libya to “foster relationships” was kicked out soon after arriving, a representative from the Pentagon said on Thursday. A Facebook page belonging to the Libyan Air Force posted photographs of the men, who were dressed in rugged civilian clothing and carrying assault rifles. A US defense official confirmed that the men in the photo were indeed US troops in Libya. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said the troops were in Libya “with the concurrence of Libyan officials” to foster relationships and enhance communication with their counterparts in the Libyan National Army. A US defense official suggested the group was asked to leave because of a lack of communication between the base in al-Wattiya, where they landed, and the Libyan forces who would normally “engage” with the American advisers. Puzzled local commanders are reported to have told the foreigners that they had no knowledge of any mission and that they should leave. [AFP, NBC News, Libya Herald, 12/18/2015]

Egypt welcomes Libyan unity deal
Egypt welcomes the agreement between the rival Libyan factions signed on Thursday to form a unity government, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in a statement. The statement says that Egypt fully supports the agreement as an important step in combating terrorism in Libya. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, EU foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and others joined Egypt in welcoming the signing of the Libyan political agreement. [Ahram Online, 12/17/2015]

Britain hopes to send non-combat troops to Libya after peace deal
Britain hopes to send hundreds of troops to Libya after the signing of a UN-sponsored peace deal that nominally unifies two rival Libyan governments. A fortnight after sending fighter jets to Syrian skies, the Ministry of Defense is ready to send up to 1,000 troops in a non-combat capacity, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon announced in an interview. The United Kingdom expects to be asked by the new Libyan government to deploy troops to train and advise the country’s fledgling force as it attempts to stabilize Libya and stem the advance of Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). In a separate statement, David Cameron said, “Importantly, this agreement means the international community can now engage with one unified, representative government in Libya in the fight against Daesh [ISIS] and the migrant traffickers.” [The Guardian, 12/17/2015]

Tunisia will not deploy troops abroad as part of Saudi-led coalition, says Interior Minister
Tunisia’s participation in the Saudi-led coalition to combat terrorism will not include deploying troops outside its territory, Tunisian Interior Minister Mohamed Najem Gharsalli said on Friday. The Saudi-led 34-state Islamic military coalition, which was announced on Tuesday, includes Egypt, Tunisia, Qatar, the UAE, Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan, and others. During a National Guard ceremony, Gharsalli stressed that Tunisia’s top priority is to combat terrorism inside the country and on its borders. [Ahram Online, Mosaique FM (French), 12/17/2015]

Former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki to launch a new political party
Former President Moncef Marzouki, beaten in the presidential election last year, filed an official application on Thursday for the launch of a new “democratic and participatory” political party. Marzouki will announce the new party in a founding congress which will take place December 20 at the Congress Palace in Tunis. A spokesman said that Marzouki will chair this new party. [Mosaique FM (French), Ennahar Online, 12/18/2015]

Tunisia court cuts youth’s sentence for homosexual activity
A Tunisian appeals court on Thursday reduced the sentence imposed on a student for homosexual activity from one year to two months, his lawyer said, adding she would appeal the “unacceptable” conviction. The student, known by the pseudonym of Marwen, was also ordered to pay a fine of 300 dinars ($140), said Fadoua Braham. Marwen, who was on bail pending the verdict, will remain free because the revised sentence is equivalent to time he had already served since his arrest in September. Braham said the appeals court judge’s ruling was “unjust and unacceptable.”  [AFP, 12/17/2015]


More firepower at Russian base as bombers pound Syria, warships bolster air campaigns
Russia’s military said Wednesday its jets had carried out 59 sorties and destroyed some 212 targets in the past 24 hours, adding to the roughly 9,000 training camps, munition depots, command posts, and oil refineries they claim to have taken out overall.  “They are now permanently working on alert to provide full cover to our aviation flying over the whole of Syria and some of the Mediterranean,” a Russian military commander said. During the press tour, the Russian officials were desperate to show off the weaponry and insist it is only hitting the targets intended. “There have not been any mistakes in our strikes,” spokesman Konashenkov said. The Moskva, flagship of Russia’s Crimea-based Black Sea Fleet, has been sent to support its bombing campaign. It patrols some ten nautical miles offshore in the eastern Mediterranean. The ship used to provide protection for ships delivering supplies for the Russian base on land, but after a Turkish F-16 fighter blasted a Russian jet out of the sky along the Syrian border it was ordered closer to shore to help ward off any future attacks on Russian planes bombing across Syria. Russian air strikes have resulted in the death 32 civilians over recent days in northern Syria according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. [AFP, 12/18/2015]

United States sends supplies to Syrian fighters
The United States has delivered a fresh supply of ammunition to Syrian Arab fighters ahead of an expected stiff battle with ISIS as they push toward the Syrian town of Shaddadi, a key logistics hub for the group, U.S. officials tell Reuters. The munitions were shipped into Syria over land in recent days to Syrian Arab forces fighting in the northeast part of the country, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the operation. The U.S. officials said the fighters were preparing eventually to move toward Shaddadi, which is located in Hassakeh province, on a strategic network of highways. Capturing it would help isolate Raqqa, Daesh’s de facto capital. U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the US-led coalition against Daesh, said the militants used Shaddadi to stage weapons, equipment and personnel for distribution throughout the battlefield. [Reuters, 12/18/2015]

Syria to require Turks to obtain entry visas
Syria said Thursday it would begin requiring visas from Turks entering the country, reversing a six-year agreement with Ankara that allowed visa-free entry to citizens of both countries. “The Syrian government, in virtue of the principles of reciprocity and national sovereignty, decided to refuse entry to Syria for Turkish citizens without visas,” a ministry statement said. “The Turkish government is responsible for the consequences [of this decision] on the ties between the Syrian and Turkish peoples,” added the statement, published by state news agency SANA. [AFP, 12/18/2015]

Number of people forced to flee war, violence to hit record in 2015
The number of people who have been forced to flee war, violence and persecution looks set to soar in 2015 past last year’s record of nearly 60 million, the United Nations said on Friday. “With almost a million people having crossed the Mediterranean as refugees and migrants so far this year, and conflicts in Syria and elsewhere continuing to generate staggering levels of human suffering, 2015 is likely to exceed all previous records for global forced displacement,” UNHCR said. Last year, the number of displaced soared to a record 59.5 million worldwide. Friday’s report indicated that this year the figure “has far surpassed 60 million.” That means that one in every 122 people on the planet today is someone who has been forced to flee their home, the agency said. The main contributor is the ruthless conflict in Syria, which by June this year had created 4.2 million refugees, UNHCR said. [AFP, 12/18/2015]

German secret service in talks with Syrian spies
Germany’s foreign intelligence service BND has resumed cooperation with the Syrian secret service in the fight against Islamist extremists, according to a newspaper report Friday. The BND declined to comment on the report by Bild daily which comes as Berlin and other Western governments shun official cooperation with Syrian President Bashar Assad over his regime’s abuses. The newspaper, citing unnamed “informed sources,” said BND agents had been traveling regularly to Damascus for talks with their Syrian counterparts and that the service wanted to reopen an office there. Bild said the aim of the contact was to exchange information on Islamist extremists and to open a channel of communication in the event of any potential crisis, such as a German Tornado pilot being shot down over territory held by jihadists. [AFP, 12/18/2015]

Israel and Turkey agree to restore diplomatic ties
Israel and Turkey have reached a preliminary agreement to begin restoring full diplomatic relations after years of deep freeze, Israeli officials said on Thursday. A senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Israel would create a compensation fund for the families of those killed on the Mavi Marmara, a ship that was part of a flotilla carrying aid to Gaza when Israeli naval commandos rappelled onto the ship’s deck and killed nine activists after being met with violent resistance. Turkey, in turn, would drop criminal charges it has filed against Israeli officers and agree to prevent a leader of Hamas from entering Turkey. Israel has accused the Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri of orchestrating attacks against Israelis in the West Bank from a base in Turkey. The two countries would also return ambassadors to each other’s capitals and would discuss building a pipeline to bring natural gas from Israel to Turkey, the Israeli official said. The reconciliation agreement still requires final signatures, the senior Israeli official said. [NYT, 12/18/2015]

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


Yemeni parties at UN-facilitated talks agree on delivery of humanitarian aid in Taiz
On the third day of the UN-sponsored negotiations on ending the crisis in Yemen, the participants, meeting in Switzerland, have reached an agreement which allows for a full and immediate resumption of humanitarian assistance to the central city of Taiz. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, welcomed this agreement as “a major step forward that will ensure immediate action to alleviate the human suffering of the Yemeni people and to ensure the neutral and impartial character of humanitarian action.” A large UN convoy, carrying essential humanitarian supplies, reached the most affected districts of the city of Taiz. It is also expected that humanitarian assistance will reach Hajja, Saada, and other Yemeni cities in the coming days. More than 21 million people, four-fifths of the population, now require aid. [UN News Centre, 12/17/2015]

Yemen forces capture ground as fragile talks continue
Hundreds of troops crossed into Yemen from Saudi Arabia, taking control of Hazm, capital of Jawf province, military and tribal sources said. On Thursday, pro-government forces seized Harad, near the Saudi border, in Hajja province. Violence has continued, despite a UN-backed ceasefire and peace talks in Switzerland which began on Tuesday. The sources said the pro-government troops also gained control of al-Labnat military base near al-Hazm. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia said two ballistic missiles were fired at the kingdom from Yemen on Thursday. One missile was intercepted and the other landed in desert east of Najran. Saudi Arabia did not say whether there were any casualties. [BBC, Gulf News, Reuters, 12/18/2015]

Houthi rebels halt peace talks in Switzerland
Yemeni peace talks in Switzerland were halted on Friday after the country’s Houthi rebel delegation suspended all meetings with the President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi’s government in protest of alleged cease-fire violations. The Houthi delegates said they would only resume talks if the UN “condemned government breaches” of the week-long truce. Speaking on Yemeni state TV, Minister of Information, Mohammad Abdul Majid, denied that the government violated the ceasefire accusing the Houthis of “making up excuses” to delay the peace process. The Houthis appeared to be tactically stalling to avoid meeting their obligations under a deal reached with the government a day earlier. The United Nations has urged factions to end the violence and is pressing to keep the talks going. Meanwhile, the two warring parties also fought over releasing prisoners on Thursday.  President Hadi’s representatives demanded the Houthis release several senior officials, including Defense Minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi and Hadi’s brother Nasser. [Gulf News, Reuters, NYT, 12/18/2015]


World Bank approves $3 billion loan for Egypt
The World Bank has approved a $3 billion loan for Egypt, which will be disbursed over the next three years, International Cooperation Minister Sahar Nasr said Thursday. Nasr said the loan has a maturity of 35 years and carries an annual interest rate of 1.68 percent. She said the loan will help the government secure economic growth. The decision comes as the World Bank Group’s Board of Executive Directors endorsed a new Country Partnership Framework (CPF) to support Egypt. “We are pleased to support [Egypt’s] reform program of promoting fiscal consolidation, ensuring sustainable energy supply, and creating a supportive business environment for entrepreneurs,” World Bank Country Director for Egypt, Yemen, and Djibouti Asad Alam said. “This program is a central element of our CPF to promote policy and institutional reforms for inclusive growth.” The CPF for Egypt covers a five-year period from 2015 to 2019. Total World Bank Group financing, which includes financing from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Finance Corporation, will reach $8 billion during this period. Also on Thursday, Nasr signed a $500 million loan with the African Development Bank, the first tranche of a $1.5 billion loan that will be provided over three years for economic development and budget support. [Reuters, DNE, 12/17/2015]

World Bank lends Iraq $1.2 billion to face oil, security shocks
The World Bank said Thursday it would lend Iraq $1.2 billion in emergency support as the country struggles with the economic effects of low oil prices and fighting the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). The budget support loan will be disbursed in a single tranche and should be available to Iraq before the end of the year, said World Bank Director for the Middle East Ferid Belhaj. “These twin shocks [low oil prices and fighting ISIS], coming at this particular juncture, are threatening the stability of the country,” Belhaj said. He said Iraq has committed to undertake economic reforms to address structural distortions. These include efforts to make state-owned enterprises more efficient, improve management in the energy sector, and reduce the dominance of state-owned commercial banks to leave space for private lenders. “For the first time, we have started leveling the playing field in the financial sector,” Belhaj said. “This is really a major, major departure after years and years of monopoly.” He also said it was essential for Iraq to keep up the pace of these reforms and maintain fiscal discipline even if the economic situation stabilizes. [Reuters, 12/17/2015]

Minister says minimum wage hike to contribute to Turkey’s GDP growth
Turkey’s planned increase in the minimum wage will boost the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by about 0.4 points, Economy Minister Mustafa Elitas said. “There are over 5 million registered minimum wage earners in Turkey. With the planned raise in the minimum wage to 1,300 liras, a positive contribution of around 9.5 billion liras will be made to Turkey’s economy, adding 0.4 points GDP,” he said, adding that this could boost Turkey’s GDP growth to 4 percent in 2016.  He said that the government would not allow this raise to create a “permanent soaring effect” on inflation. [Hurriyet, 12/28/2015]

Kuwait to launch free economic zone on islands
Kuwait has said it will establish a free economic zone on five islands close to the shorelines of Iraq and Iran with large investments open to the private sector. The decision was taken by the Gulf state’s Supreme Planning Council late Wednesday. Planning Minister Hind al-Sabeeh said the project is based on inviting local, regional, and international private sectors to finance, execute, and operate the zone. She said the zone will act as an economic gateway for the northern Gulf once it is completed. The new venture comes amid a sharp fall in oil income, which contributes over 90 percent of Kuwait’s revenues. The islands are spread over an area of several thousand square kilometer and are in proximity to Kuwait’s planned Silk City project in Subbiya. Work is underway on a $2.6 billion causeway linking the capital with Subbiya. Bubiyan, the largest island where Kuwait is already building a multi-billion dollar container harbor, is part of the project. [AFP, 12/17/2015]