Last week, demonstrations broke out across the Middle East against the French president who stated he would protect the right to caricature the Prophet Mohammad. In Syria, dozens of Turkish-backed fighters were killed by a Russian airstrike, while Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) increased its shelling of regime forces. In Iraq, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters attacked an oil pipeline in Erbil, leading to a halt in oil exports to Turkey, while the explosion of a gas pipeline in southern Iraq reportedly killed 2 people. Meanwhile, fighting intensified between anti-Houthi and Houthi forces in Al Jawf governorate in Yemen. An alarming number of attacks against civilians and assassination attempts were reported throughout the country. Furthermore, an uptick of Houthi aerial attacks on Saudi Arabia led to a rare warning to US citizens by the US Embassy in Riyadh to remain vigilant. Elsewhere, the Lebansese Hezbollah mobilized its reservist forces to the southern Lebanon border amid a large-scale Isreali military drill. Finally, the former leader of the ethnic Arab seperatist group the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA) was arrested in Turkey and transferred to Iran under unclear circumstances.
Across the Middle East — in Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Bahrain, Syria, and Iraq — several demonstrations were staged against the French President Emmanuel Macron for defending the publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad as freedom of expression. Following the murder of a French schoolteacher by a Muslim extremist in France who had shown his class the Prophet’s caricatures, Macron commented earlier this month that Islam was in “crisis” (DW, 1 November 2020). This has led to a backlash by Muslims across the region, who have been calling for a boycott of French products (Al Jazeera, 2 November 2020). The majority of demonstrations have remained peaceful, although some demonstrators burned French flags and posters of Macron. In the Lebanese capital, Beirut, a group of demonstrators hurled stones at security forces after their march towards the residence of the French ambassador was blocked, prompting the use of tear gas. Following the publication of similar caricatures in Denmark in 2005, the Danish consulate in Beirut was set on fire in February 2006, reportedly wounding 28 people (France 24, 30 October 2020).
In northwest Syria, Russian warplanes carried out airstrikes on a training camp in the Dweila area held by Al Sham Corps on 26 October, killing at least 39 fighters (The Guardian, 26 October 2020). HTS and opposition rebels escalated shelling activities against regime forces following the attack, as sporadic clashes continued along existing frontlines. In the Syrian desert, Islamic State (IS) attacks against regime and pro-regime militia forces continued amid regime anti-IS operations and Russian airstrikes. Regime forces have formed a Tribes Army, made up of pro-regime tribe members from Hama and Deir-ez-Zor, to counter the increased IS activity in the desert. Elsewhere, the arrest of two civilians from Hrak in Damascus triggered civilian demonstrations in their hometown in Dar’a province, where demonstrators captured several regime air force intelligence members and set fire to their checkpoint. This was part of a larger outcry from locals in southern Syria against the regime’s policies and arbitrary arrests of civilians.
In Iraq, IS militants attacked Sharaban town in Diyala province on 27 October and killed three civilians before detonating an explosive device. The explosion caused further casualties, including the death or injury of a prominent tribal figure from the Bani Kaab tribe. Elsewhere, PKK fighters attacked a Kurdistan regional oil pipeline in the province of Erbil. The explosion suspended oil exports to Turkey. This comes amid continued Turkish airstrikes on PKK positions in northern Iraq. In southern Iraq, a gas pipeline exploded after being attacked in Musayidah area in al-Muthanna province around 31 October, killing at least two civilians and injuring at least 28 people, including Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) fighters. An unidentified drone is suspected to be responsible for the attack, however, there has not been a confirmation (Middle East Eye, 31 October 2020). These attacks are not particularly common in Iraq and follow efforts by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to diversify Iraq’s energy sector. In Basrah, Iraqi security forces intervened against anti-government demonstrators on 31 October, firing tear gas and burning their tents. Similarly, security forces cleared out Tahrir Square in Baghdad after arresting dozens of protesters and burning their tents.
In Yemen, clashes between anti-Houthi and Houthi forces continued along most frontlines, but significantly intensified in Al Jawf governorate. Pro-Hadi forces claimed to take significant swathes of territory in northern Al Jawf governorate, threatening to retake the capital city, Al Hazm (26 September, 30 October 2020). Conversely, Houthi forces claimed to have taken the entire Nihm front, opening up an avenue to attack the Mas Military Camp on the northwestern entrance to Marib City. This claim, however, remains unverified and was countered by later claims by pro-Hadi forces (26 September News, 30 October 2020). Clashes between the forces also broke out in eastern Al Bayda and southern Ad Dali after periods of relative calm. In Al Hodeidah and northern Ad Dali, anti-Houthi and Houthi forces continue to clash and conduct near-daily shelling with no change in territory over the past week.
Attacks against civilians and assassination attempts continued to occur at alarming rates throughout Yemen last week. In Sanaa, two assassination attempts against Houthi leaders were reported. The Houthi Minister of Youth and Sports, Hassan Zaid, was assassinated by gunmen who themselves were reportedly killed in subsequent clashes with security forces (Associated Press, 27 October 2020). Zaid was a controversial figure and previously called for all schools in Houthi-controlled territory to be shut down and for children to be sent to the frontlines (Twitter, 27 October 2020). Additionally, the Houthi leader and former governor of Sanaa, Hunain Qutainah, survived a second assassination attempt during the past week. Outside Sanaa, the son of a leader of the Al Islah party was assassinated by unknown gunmen in Ad Dali city.
In Saudi Arabia, the US Embassy in Riyadh issued a rare warning to US citizens to remain vigilant as Houthi forces significantly increased aerial attacks on Saudi Arabia (Bloomberg, 28 October 2020). The warning came as the Saudi military claimed to have downed ten drones and three ballistic missiles fired by Houthi forces between 25 and 28 October (Arab News, 28 October 2020). Houthi forces claimed strikes on 25 and 27 October were successful. The uptick in attacks on Saudi Arabia has been linked to the recent arrival of an Iranian ambassador, Hassan Erlo, to the de facto Houthi authorities, and comes in the context of a stalled Houthi offensive to take Marib City and recent pro-Hadi advances in Al Jawf and Ad Dali. (Al Khaleej Today, 30 October 2020).
Meanwhile, Israel held its largest military drill of the year, simulating a war with the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) consider the Iranian-backed armed group to be Israel’s most significant military opponent. IDF has suggested that Hezbollah maintains an arsenal of some 130,000 rockets and missiles (Times of Israel, 25 October 2020). Hezbollah last week mobilized its extra-reservists to the southern Lebanon border amid fears the Israeli drill was a ploy to launch a limited attack on Hezbollah targets (Daily Star, 26 October 2020). Although no clashes were reported, tensions remain high as Israel has been bracing for a possible retaliatory attack by Hezbollah after an alleged Israeli airstrike killed a Hezbollah member in Syria on 20 July. In the past, Hezbollah has retaliated for confirmed killings of its members by Israel, generally by launching missile attacks along the Israeli-Lebanese border (Times of Israel, 21 July 2020).
Finally, the former leader of the Arab separatist group ASMLA was arrested in Turkey and transferred to Iran. ASMLA claims that Habib Asyud, who holds Swedish citizenship, was “lured” to Turkey and “abducted” by Iranian intelligence forces (RFE/RL, 2 November 2020). Tehran accuses the group of being behind the 2018 attack on a military parade in Ahvaz, but ASMLA’s involvement remains unconfirmed. The group’s armed wing has however claimed responsibility for several previous attacks in Iran, including the killing of two members of the Revolutionary Guards in January 2017 (Reuters, 9 November 2019). ASMLA’s founder was killed by unidentified gunmen in the Netherlands in 2017, with the Dutch intelligence service suggesting that there are “strong indications” of Iran’s involvement in the assassination (NL Times, 8 January 2019). Furthermore, Denmark accused Iran in 2018 of plotting to kill three ASMLA members on Danish soil, although Iran denied the allegations (BBC, 31 October 2018). Since the 1979 Revolution, Iran has been accused of harassing, abducting, and killing dozens of Iranian opposition figures abroad (US Virtual Embassy Iran, 22 May 2020).
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