Top News: US to Accept 85,000 Refugees in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017

Scrambling to address a growing Syrian refugee crisis, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced Sunday that the United States would significantly increase the number of worldwide migrants it takes in over the next two years, though not nearly the amount many activists and former officials have urged. The administration will increase the number of worldwide refugees the United States accepts each year to 100,000 by 2017, a significant increase over the current annual cap of 70,000, Kerry said Sunday. “This step that I am announcing today, I believe, is in keeping with the best tradition of America as a land of second chances and a beacon of hope,” Kerry said, adding that it “will be accompanied by additional financial contributions” for the relief effort. [NYTAP, 9/20/2015]



Egypt’s Sisi swears in new government, keeps ministers in key posts
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi swore in a new government Saturday, introducing sixteen new ministers and merging several ministries. The new cabinet, led by former Petroleum Minister Sherif Ismail, now includes thirty-three portfolios. The ministers of foreign affairs, interior, justice, finance, investment, and defense in the outgoing government were among those maintaining their posts in the new lineup. (A full list of the ministers can be found here.) The ministries that merged into one are the ministries of health and population, the ministries of technical education and education, and the ministries of scientific research and higher education. Among the thirty-three ministers, three are women, including Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Waly who retained her post. Nabila Makram Ebeid heads the new Ministry of Immigration and Egyptian Expatriates Affairs. Ismail said Saturday that the cabinet would seek parliamentary approval that will determine “whether or not it will be replaced.” According to a presidential statement, in his first meeting with ministers leading economic portfolios, Sisi addressed price control, investment opportunities, and exports. Outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab was appointed Saturday as a presidential aide for national and strategic projects. [Reuters, Ahram Online, 9/19/2015]

Sisi invites US congressional delegation to observe polls, despite potential delay
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, along with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and US Ambassador to Egypt Stephen Beecroft, met with a US Congress delegation on Saturday in Cairo and invited the group to monitor Egypt’s parliamentary elections scheduled for October. Sisi extended the invitation to the congressmen so they could “make sure of its [the election process] fairness and transparency,” according to a presidential statement. “The president and the congressional delegation also discussed strengthening the strategic relationship between the countries,” the presidential statement added. The delegation, headed by US House Majority Whip Congressman Steve Scalise, also met with Egypt’s Military Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hegazy. A State Council-affiliated committee of senior judges, however, advocated for the unconstitutionality of the Health Ministry’s demand to charge candidates who had already undergone medical tests when applications were first opened in February. The Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) will issue its final verdict on the matter on Monday. If the SCC upholds the rejection of medical fees paid by candidates in September, it could lead to another delay in elections. [Ahram Online, DNE, 9/20/2015]

Sisi heads to New York for UN assembly
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will head to New York on September 24, leading Egypt’s delegation in the inauguration of the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, which will occur September 25-28. Sisi will deliver speeches during both the opening session and the climate summit. He also plans to convene with a number of world leaders, with the Syria conflict, Yemen, and Libya at the top of his agenda. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry arrived in New York on September 20, ahead of the UN meetings. He will attend a number of ministerial meetings including the Arab Foreign Ministers meeting, a high-level gathering hosted by the UN Secretary-General concerning Somalia, a ministerial meeting for the Arab/African Troika, and a coordination committee meeting for assistance to Palestinians. He will also attend an open discussion by the UN Security Council on developments related to anti-terrorism measures in the Middle East. [AMAY, Ahram Online, 9/21/2015]

Explosion injures two policemen near Foreign Ministry’s Mohandessin office
An explosion injured two Central Security Forces personnel near a Ministry of Foreign Affairs building on Ahmed Orabi Street in Giza’s Mohandessin neighborhood on September 20.  According to BBC Arabic, the blast also damaged several cars located near the security cordon surrounding the ministry building. The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) affiliated militant group, ISIS Egypt, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement. ISIS Egypt has claimed responsibility for several attacks in the Cairo area, including the bombing of the Italian Consulate in July. Additionally, a bomb was safely disarmed outside the embassy of Ghana, also located in Mohandessin. [Ahram Online, DNE, AMAY, AP, Aswat Masriya, 9/20/2015]

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Fresh fighting launched by Haftar in Benghazi
Heavy fighting erupted in Benghazi over the weekend in a campaign launched by General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, affiliated with the Tobruk government, against fighters allied to the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL). “Operation Doom” has involved artillery shelling and air strikes and killed at least six, according to local sources. The announcement of the offensive came on the eve of a deadline for Libya’s rival parliaments to reach an agreement on a UN-brokered plan for a unified government. Due to this military escalation, the General National Congress (GNC) negotiating team is Skhirat is considering suspending their participation in the peace talks, according to Abdulrahman Swahili, a GNC parliament member. [Reuters, 9/20/2015]

UN accuses Haftar’s army of seeking to torpedo peace deal
The United Nations accused the Libyan National Army, led by General Khalifa Haftar, of deliberately trying to sabotage peace talks with a new offensive in Benghazi. The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) called for an immediate halt to the offensive to give peace talks a chance. “[UNSMIL] strongly condemns the military escalation in Benghazi. … The air strikes are a clear attempt to undermine and derail the ongoing efforts to end the conflict at a time when the negotiations have entered a final and most critical stage,” it said. The House of Representatives has rejected UNSMIL’s condemnation, citing no connection between Operation Doom and the political dialogue. [AFP, UNSMIL, Libya Herald, 9/20/2015]

Qaddafi exiles set up new political group
A new political organization, named the Nidal (“struggle”) Front, has been launched in Cairo by Libyan expatriates, mainly former members of the Qaddafi regime. Officially led by the former Libyan ambassador to Saudi Arabia Mohamed Saeed al-Gashatt, the organization is believed to be the brainchild of Ahmed Qaddaf al-Dam, the dictator’s cousin who is now based in the Egyptian capital. He is a member of its “central committee,” a term reminiscent of the Qaddafi era, despite the organization’s claims to want to build a new, inclusive Libya. [Libya Herald, 9/20/2015]

Salary increase for teachers in Tunisia
The Tunisian government published a statement on Facebook specifying salary increases for teachers following a two-day teachers strike last Thursday and Friday by thousands of Tunisian teachers. The government has affirmed its commitment to promoting the material and professional conditions of those working in education, despite the difficulty of the country’s economic situation. [L’Economiste Maghrébin, 9/21/2015]

France’s Hollande visits Morocco after torture row
On Saturday, French President Francois Hollande arrived in Morocco for a two day visit against a backdrop of controversy over torture lawsuits in Paris against the kingdom’s intelligence chief Abdellatif Hammouchi. Human rights groups are concerned Hollande might use the visit to bestow France’s top honor, the Legion d’Honneur, on Hammouchi. In February, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that Paris would award Hammouchi for his role in the fight against terrorism, but Hollande’s aides have denied plans to present the award. Morocco suspended all judicial cooperation with Paris between February 2014 and January 2015 after a French judge summoned Hammouchi over torture complaints filed against him in Paris. The diplomatic row ended in February after the signing of a new judicial agreement between the two countries. [AFP, 9/19/2015]


Seventy-five US-trained Syrian rebels enter Syria from Turkey
Seventy-five Syrian rebels trained by the United States and its allies to fight the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) have entered northern Syria since Friday, the Syrian Observatory group said on Sunday. The rebels crossed into Syria from Turkey with twelve vehicles equipped with machine guns. The monitoring group said the newly trained fighters have deployed to support two US-backed units, with most assigned to Division 30, the main unit for US-trained fighters, and others to a group called Suqur al-Jabal (Falcons of the Mountain). Before the new batch of fighters, the US program had only managed to vet and train some sixty rebels to fight ISIS jihadists on the ground. [Reuters, AFP, 9/20/2015]

Kerry says Syria’s Assad has to go, but United States is flexible as to when
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday that the United States is willing to negotiate the conditions and timing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down from power and urged Russia to persuade him to negotiate his exit. Kerry called for a renewed diplomatic effort to resolve the conflict in Syria, which he said was as urgent a need as fighting ISIS militants. “We’ve made it very clear. We’re not being doctrinaire about the specific date or time,” he added. “We’re open. But right now, Assad has refused to have a serious discussion and Russia has refused to help bring him to the table in order to do that. So that’s why we’re where we are.” [WP, AFP, 9/19/2015]

Ceasefire begins in three battlegrounds in Syria
A new ceasefire went into effect on Sunday between Syrian pro-government forces and Islamist rebels in three battleground districts, a local official and the Syrian Observatory group said. The truce covers the two remaining villages in Idlib province in the northwest still in government control and the rebels’ last stronghold near the Lebanese border, the town of Zabadani. It marks the third local ceasefire agreed in those areas since August and follows a renewed offensive by insurgents. Both previous ceasefires collapsed. No clashes were reported after the ceasefire came into force, the monitoring group said. A member of the Zabadani town council, which has been involved in the talks, confirmed that negotiators had set no end date for the truce and that they would aim for a broader truce. [Reuters, Al Arabiya, AFP, 9/20/2015]

Putin seeks to assuage Israel’s fears of Syrian aggression
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and sought to assuage Israel’s fears of a potential Iranian and Syrian aggression. With fighter planes part of the rapid Russian build-up, Israel is worried about the threat of fire accidentally being traded with Russian forces, especially since it has carried out air raids against militants in southern Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters suspected of smuggling arms. A former adviser to Netanyahu said the Israeli leader would try to work out “ground rules” with Putin about avoiding such clashes. Among Israel’s concerns is that Israeli warplanes could come up against Russian-operated anti-aircraft systems or even Russian-flown jets. [Reuters, AP, 9/21/2015]

Turkish state anti-terrorism operations intensify amid escalating violence with PKK
Turkish military sources reported that fifty-five militants were killed in a campaign of airstrikes in northern Iraq on Saturday. Another five Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants were reported killed on Monday, when airstrikes struck targets in southeastern Turkey. A controversial government-sponsored program of hiring pro-government village guard militias has supplemented increased military operations. Interior Minister Selami Altinok said, “Following instructions from our Prime Minister [Ahmet Davutoglu] we will advertise for 5,000 ‘village guardians’ in the press.” Financial rewards used as a tactic to elicit information for suspects of terrorism have soared to four million Turkish Liras. Turkey’s former Minister of Internal Affairs İdris Naim Şahin criticized the state’s inability to tackle the threat posed by the PKK during the settlement process. A bus explosion wounded twenty-six police officers in Istanbul’s Aksaray neighborhood on Sunday. An anti-terrorism, pro-government rally attended by thousands of demonstrators on Sunday in Istanbul denounced violence by Kurdish rebels, with Davutoglu condemning the separatists. [Al Jazeera, Guardian, 9/21/2015]


Houthis release six foreign hostages
Yemen’s rebels freed on Sunday two Americans held hostage for months. They were quickly flown to safety in nearby Oman, which helped the United States secure the release of the men. Yemen’s Houthis have also released four other foreigners they were holding hostage including, a British citizen and three Saudi Arabians. All six hostages were released in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. US officials said on Sunday that they were still working to get details of what had led to the breakthrough in efforts to free the men. A third American, who is also believed to be held by the Houthis, was not released and it is unclear who is holding him. Oman has a history of facilitating the release of captives in Yemen, including French World Bank employee Isabelle Prime, who was freed last month by unidentified militants, and American journalist Casey Coombs, freed by the Houthis earlier this year. The United States and Britain refuse to pay ransom for their citizens and consequently struggle to bring home hostages held by extremist groups. Secretary John Kerry released a statement thanking all the parties involved in helping with the release the hostages. [BBC, NYT, The Guardian, Al Masdar, 9/20/2015]

Saudi-alliance increases airstrikes before Sana’a offensive
A Saudi-led military coalition escalated airstrikes targeting the Houthis in neighboring Yemen over the weekend as its ground troops prepare for an anticipated offensive toward the capital, Sana’a. Eight strikes hit a school in Sana’a connected to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Other strikes Sunday reportedly caused dozens of casualties in the southern city of Ibb and in the northern Sa’ada province. The weekend’s strikes included one that hit the Old City in Sana’a, a UNESCO-designated heritage site. At least fifty-seven people were reportedly killed and 130 wounded in that attack and others in Sana’a late Friday night. Meanwhile, Oman released said the residence of its ambassador in Sana’a was also hit in an allied airstrike Friday, which was “a glaring violation of international agreements.” Coalition troops, led by the United Arab Emirates, are currently pressing an assault in the central Marib province, which contains much of Yemen’s energy wealth. Relentless air strikes raise concern among human rights groups about the growing civilian death toll and the effects on historical sites. The UN reports more than 4,500 people killed in Yemen’s conflict since March. [WSJ, Haaretz, SABA, 9/20/2015]

UN criticized for Saudi Arabia’s lead role on Human Rights Council
The United Nations has been criticized for handing Saudi Arabia a key human rights role, despite the country having “arguably the worst record in the world” on freedoms for women, minorities and dissidents. Critics, including the wife of imprisoned pro-democracy blogger Raif Badawi, sentenced to a thousand lashes for blogging about free speech, labelled the appointment “scandalous,” saying it meant “oil trumps human rights.” UN Watch, an independent campaigning NGO, revealed that Saudi Arabia’s ambassador at the United Nations in Geneva Faisal bin Hassan Trad was elected as chair of a panel of independent experts on the UN Human Rights Council. As head of a five-strong group of diplomats, the influential role would give Trad the power to select applicants from around the world for scores of expert roles in countries where the UN has a mandate on human rights. The Human Rights Council has long been the subject of criticism for granting membership to countries with dubious human rights records, including China, Qatar, Russia, and Venezuela. [The Independent, 9/21/2015]

100,000 Saudi troops deployed to secure Hajj
Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry says that some 100,000 security personnel have been deployed to oversee the annual Muslim Hajj pilgrimage that begins on Tuesday. Major General Mansour al-Turki says among those securing the massive crowds during the hajj are members of an elite counterterrorism unit, traffic police, and emergency civil defense personnel. They are being supported by additional troops from the army and national guard. The pilgrimage comes as Saudi Arabia faces an expansion of Islamic States (ISIS or ISIL) attacks that have killed dozens of people this year. General al-Turki said on Saturday that ISIS “cannot control a centimeter anywhere in Saudi Arabia.” The Hajj is expected to draw up to 3 million people from around the world this year to Mecca. [Gulf News, 9/19/2015]


Fitch affirms Turkey’s investment grade rating, outlook stable
Turkey retained its investment grade ranking at Fitch Ratings with a stable outlook as the ratings company said the country’s government balance sheet remains “strong” amid a deteriorating political environment. Fitch affirmed Turkey’s long-term foreign and local currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDR) at ‘BBB-‘ and ‘BBB’, respectively. The rating is in line with Moody’s Investors Service, while Standard & Poor’s rates the Turkey’s sovereign debt as junk. “The general government balance sheet is strong and fiscal discipline has been maintained through the electoral period,” Fitch said in a statement. At the same time, “the political environment has deteriorated,” Fitch said, adding that the momentum for reforms has slowed. “External vulnerabilities remain a feature of Turkey’s sovereign credit profile but have not weakened materially since our last review,” the statement read. [Reuters, Bloomberg, Hurriyet, 9/19/2015]

Moody’s expects Iraq’s economy to grow by 8 percent in four years
In a statement on Sunday, Moody’s predicted that Iraq’s oil production will increase at a rate of 10 percent annually to reach about 5 million barrels per day by 2019. Along with a recovery of non-oil sector growth, Moody’s said this would help to raise Iraq’s gross domestic product (GDP) by about 8 percent per year between 2016 and 2019. Despite the increase in oil exports, Moody’s said Iraq’s fiscal deficit would remain at about 15 percent of GDP. Financing this deficit may raise the government’s debt ratio to about 79 percent of GDP by the end of 2016. The statement noted that Iraq’s economy suffers from a lack of diversification, as oil accounts for 50 percent of GDP. [Shafaq News, 9/20/2015]

Gulf firms under pressure from low oil price, according to Standard & Poor’s
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states are under pressure as governments reduce spending in response to a slump in oil revenues, Standard & Poor’s (S&P) ratings services said on Monday. “Corporate and infrastructure companies in the GCC face a weaker operating environment at present on the back of lower oil prices,” S&P said in a report. Low oil income has slowed government expenditures on which these companies largely depend, the report said. World oil prices have dropped by more than 50 percent since June 2014, which has led GCC members to scrap some infrastructure projects, according to S&P. “We observe, however, that GCC governments continue to invest in large public sector infrastructure projects,” said S&P credit analyst Karim Nassif. “Still, the longer the oil price remains near current low levels, the higher the likelihood of seeing more infrastructure projects postponed or dropped,” he added. Meanwhile, S&P affirmed Qatar’s AA/A-1+ short-term foreign and local currency sovereign credit ratings. [AFP, The National, 9/21/2015]

Saudi Arabia’s crude stockpiles at record high as exports fall
Saudi Arabia’s crude stockpiles rose to a record in July after exports declined for the third time in four months. Commercial petroleum stockpiles increased to 320 million barrels, the highest since at least 2002, from 319.5 million barrels in June. Crude exports slumped 1.2 percent to 7.28 million barrels per day (bpd) after hitting a record 7.9 million bpd in March. Overseas shipments have declined every month since then except in June. “It seems that the Saudis are determined to keep their market share at above 10.2 million barrels a day,” said Essam al-Marzouq, Kuwait-based independent oil analyst and former vice president at Kuwait Petroleum International. “In the case when exports are down, they will not scale back on production and will store the crude at home or even abroad.” [Bloomberg, 9/20/2015]

Telecom Egypt appoints new chairman
Egypt’s state-owned landline telecom monopoly Telecom Egypt has appointed Waleed Gad as its new chairman, the company said in a statement on Monday. Mohamed Salem, the company’s former chairman who was appointed last May, resigned on Saturday shortly after a new government was sworn in by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He said he had faced many obstacles in trying to improve the company’s performance. Egypt owns an 80 percent stake in the company, which faces increasing competition from rivals in the mobile sector. The company’s efforts to acquire a unified license that would allow it to enter the mobile sector have been delayed due to disagreements between the government and mobile carriers Mobinil, Etisalat, and Vodafone Egypt. Telecom Egypt, which has a 45 percent stake in Vodafone Egypt, agreed last year to pay EGP 2.5 billion for the unified license. [Reuters, 9/21/2015]