Last month in the Middle East, a blast in Beirut left Lebanon reeling from the overwhelming human and financial cost of the explosion. Armed clashes intensified in both the Marib district and in Al Bayda in Yemen, and in the Greater Idleb area in Syria. A historic deal establishing full diplomatic ties between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel made waves in the region, intensifying tensions between Israel and Palestine, and between the UAE and Iran. Overall, demonstrations decreased in comparison to prior months, with the exception of Iran, where an economic crisis is brewing. Likewise, massive protests in Israel, where deep rooted discontent with the management of the country by Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu continues, have been reported for the ninth consecutive week.
It has been a month since the Beirut port blast caused by the unsafe storage of highly explosive materials on 4 August in Lebanon and much remains unclear. The blast, which has left at least 190 people dead and more than 6,500 people injured, is still being investigated by Lebanese authorities (Reuters, 30 August 2020). Calls for an independent investigation are rising. Immediately following the explosion, widespread riots broke out in several areas of Beirut city. Demonstrators took over buildings and claimed the foreign ministry building as the revolution’s headquarters. Clashes between demonstrators and riot police led to the death of a police officer and hundreds of injuries amongst demonstrators (Al Arabiya, 8 August 2020). This escalation led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister (PM) Hassan Diab on 10 August and the dissolution of his government, which led to an expected drop in demonstration activity (Al Jazeera, 10 August 2020).
However, the period of relative calm following the resignation of former PM Diab is expected to be short-lived following the selection of the new PM, diplomat Mustafa Adib, on 31 August (NY Times, 31 August 2020). While demonstrations have not dramatically risen thus far, there has been a small increase in the number of anti-government demonstrations. An incident involving clashes between anti-government demonstrators and Hezbollah and Amal Movement supporters was reported as well (An Nahar, 30 August 2020). Demonstrators see the new PM as part of the old ruling class, which they have been demonstrating against since October 2019.
On 13 August, the UAE and Israel announced the normalization of relations and establishment of full diplomatic ties between the two countries in a US-brokered deal. The deal required Israel to halt its plan to annex occupied West Bank land sought by the Palestinians (AP, 13 August 2020). The deal makes the UAE the third Arab country to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel. It is viewed as a strategic move by the UAE to contain Iran in the region. It has stirred tensions between the UAE and Iran, leading to Iran seizing a UAE-registered ship reportedly violating its territorial waters. Iran also claimed that UAE coastguards killed two Iranian fishermen on the same day (Reuters, 20 August 2020). In Iran, largely labor protest events more than doubled in August, as the brunt of the economic aftermath of the coronavirus and US sanctions weighs heavy on the economy.
The UAE-Israel deal also took place during the latest round of tensions beginning in early August between Palestine and Israel. However, on 31 August, Hamas and Israel announced a Qatari-brokered deal to end the latest round of violence (Al Monitor, 6 September 2020). The deal dictates that Hamas stop all hostile fire against Israel. In exchange, Israel will ease restrictions on the Gaza strip by permitting more essential materials to enter Gaza. This comes at a time when the Black Flag Movement against PM Benjamin Netanyahu, which is demanding his resignation due to alleged corruption and his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, is still going strong with thousands protesting for the ninth straight week (Al Jazeera, 6 September 2020).
In Syria, most recently, Iraqi Hezbollah were the targets of Israeli airstrikes near al Mayadin on 2 September. Violence increased in the Greater Idleb area in August and during the first week of September. Despite this, regime and allied forces have yet to resume large-scale military operations. As the areas of influence remained largely unchanged, so did Turkey and Russia’s approach to northwest Syria. In the eyes of extremist groups, historically opposed to any peace or ceasefire negotiations, the Turkish presence continues to disrupt the balance of power and has led to two attacks against Turkish forces near the M4. The most notable attack occurred on 28 August when a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) targeted a Turkish outpost in western Idleb (North Press Agency, 6 September 2020). A newly formed extremist group called Ansar Abu Bakr al Seddiq Brigade claimed the attack and vowed additional operations (North Press Agency, 6 September 2020).
On 13 August, a global coalition drone strike targeted and killed a foreign commander of Hurras al Deen near Sarmada in Idleb. This underscored the unchanging approach of the United States (US) towards northwest Syria: occasional targeted drone strikes against senior members of extremist groups (Asharq al-Awsat, 14 August 2020).
In southern Syria, tensions were particularly high in Dar’a, where the arrest of an elderly man by the regime triggered riots and led members of the 5th Assault Corps to attack and capture a checkpoint of the regime forces in Hrak. These tensions are likely to continue as the regime’s security grip in Dar’a remains challenged by the public and the 5th Corps.
In eastern and central Syria, the Islamic State (IS) continued its attacks against Syrian regime forces as well as Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD). Similarly, in Iraq, IS attacks continued to target both civilians and Iraqi military forces at a steady pace. Coalition and US assets were also the targets of unidentified armed groups. Convoys with logistical materials were targeted with rockets or IEDs in 10 instances since the beginning of August. On 23 August, the Taji military base was handed over by the coalition to the Iraqi forces (Ayn Al Iraq News, 23 August 2020). This is part of a larger plan to scale down the presence of US and coalition personnel in Iraq. The base and its surrounding areas, as well as Baghdad’s Green Zone, were struck a number of times by unidentified rockets which did not result in any reported casualties.
Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, Turkish operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) continued its steady decline since mid-August. The overwhelming majority of attacks were airstrikes, reminiscent of the pre-June campaign levels. A shift in the locations being targeted also seems to be taking place and moving eastwards from Haftanin to Amedi district of Dahuk, and also to Wadi Khakurik and Mergasur regions of Erbil. However, a Turkish drone attack on 11 August threatened to upend this downward trajectory. A Turkish drone strike reportedly killed two Iraqi border guard battalion commanders, as well as a number of PKK militants and civilians near the Turkish and Iranian borders. The commanders were in a meeting with PKK militants. This is the first incident where Turkish forces targeted Iraqi security personnel since the start of the Turkish campaign into northern Iraq. In another unusual attack on the PKK, the Iranian government granted Turkish forces access to strike PKK targets in West Azarbaijan on 30 August; no casualties were reported.
In Yemen, relatively static frontlines in the prior months began to shift significantly last month as fighting between Houthi and anti-Houthi forces intensified. Houthi forces gained significant territory in Mahliyah and Medghal districts of Marib, taking the administrative centers of both districts in what was described by some as the largest offensive since 2015 (The New Arab, 4 September 2020). They also took complete control of Al Quraishyah and Wald Rabi districts in Al Bayda and subsequently pushed into Rahabah district in Marib, after fighting a mix of pro-Hadi, pro-Islah, tribal militias, Al Qaeda, and IS forces in Al Bayda (AEI Critical Threats, 19 August 2020). Conversely, joint pro-Hadi and southern forces made progress on the Al Fajir and Jabal Murays fronts in northwestern Ad Dali governorate. In Al Jawf governorate, pro-Hadi and local tribal militias fended off attacks by Houthi forces in the desert terrain in Khabb wa ash Shaaf district, to the east of Al Hazm, as Houthi forces attempted to move towards the Safer oil terminals in Marib governorate.
Notably, on 25 August, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) withdrew from the most recent iteration of the Riyadh Agreement, days before the 30-day implementation goal, citing the irresponsible behavior of the parties involved and inadequate implementation (Reuters, 25 August 2020). It previously rejoined the agreement after rescinding its self-administration of areas under its control on 28 July (Al Jazeera, 29 July 2020). Despite its participation in the agreement for most of August, pro-STC and pro-Hadi forces clashed frequently along frontlines to the north and east of Zinjibar city in Abyan governorate. After the withdrawal of the STC from the agreement, clashes continued and the STC reportedly sent reinforcements from Aden.
Finally, in Saudi Arabia, government officials reported at least two dozen Houthi drones and ballistic missiles intercepted en route to the country. Targeted cities throughout the reporting period are near the border and include Khamis Mushait, Abha, Jizan, and Najran. In an interesting turn of events, Prince Fahd bin Turki, who has served as the Saudi commander of the Saudi-led coalition, his son, deputy governor of Al Jawf province in Saudi Arabia, and several military officers were relieved of their duties by Muhammad bin Salman on 1 September. Fahd bin Turki is said to have been corrupt (Twitter, 1 September 2020).
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