Last week in the Middle East, Houthis claimed to have overtaken the strategic Mas Military Camp in Yemen, while fighting between pro-Hadi and the pro-Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces intensified in Abyan province. In Saudi Arabia, the Islamic State (IS) carried out an attack on an international diplomatic event in Jeddah, injuring three people. The group also launched an attack on a military post on the southern outskirts of the Iraqi capital, reportedly killing five members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and six local people. Meanwhile, several violent demonstrations were reported in Jordan following the parliamentary election. Finally, the New York Times reported that Isreali operatives assassinated a top Al Qaeda figure in Iran on 7 August 2020.
In Yemen, Houthi forces continue to push towards the Mas Military Camp, a strategic camp that controls the northwestern approach to Marib City. Houthi forces claim to have taken over the camp last week (Twitter, 12 November 2020; Mareb Press, 14 November 2020), while pro-Hadi forces claim to remain in control of the camp, with one commander filming a video inside the camp (Al Mashhad Al Yemeni, 13 November 2020).
Clashes between pro-Hadi military forces and forces affiliated with the STC escalated last week along the frontlines in At Tariyah and the Ash Shaykh Salim in Abyan province. The deterioration of relations between the pro-STC and pro-Hadi forces prompted Saudi officials to intervene. They reportedly sent observers to Abyan in an effort to salvage the dysfunctional Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement between the two sides.
Houthi forces also increased their use of drones and boats rigged with explosives last week. While some of these attacks occurred in the Marib governorate, the majority of them appear to have targeted assets and locations in or belonging to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia reported downing multiple Houthi drones and intercepting boats that had been booby-trapped. The interception of one of the boats appears to have caused damage to an Aramco oil distribution facility in the Red Sea near Jizan.
In Saudi Arabia, IS claimed responsibility for an attack on an international diplomatic event at a cemetery in Jeddah commemorating the end of World War I. This is the first attack that IS has claimed in Saudi Arabia after a two-year pause. An IED was detonated at the event, injuring three people. IS claims that the attack was primarily targeting French diplomats in response to the controversy over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (Associated Press, 12 November 2020). An earlier attack on the French consulate in Jeddah at the end of October — not claimed by IS — resulted in the injury of a security guard.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, an IS attack that took place in Radwaniyah in Baghdad last week is the biggest attack in recent weeks. IS militants attacked a military post and killed five members of the PMF along with six locals who had come to the aid of PMF members (Al Sumaria TV, 8 November 2020; Basnews, 9 November 2020). Iraqi Security Forces launched a counterattack in Radwaniyah later in the week and killed three militants believed to have been responsible for the initial attack (Shafaq News, 13 November 2020). In northern Iraq, a Turkish airstrike targeted a Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) vehicle in Sinjar, killing or wounding all those on board.
Elsewhere in Iraq, demonstrations against the delay in the payment of monthly wages broke out across the country, with noticeable participation by governmental employees. This is part of Iraq’s continued struggle stemming from the liquidity crisis caused by plummeting oil prices. In Sinjar district, anti-Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) demonstrations were held by locals as well as by Yazidi-Kurdish IDPs. The protesters denounced the Erbil-Baghdad deal regarding the security and governance of the district, reached in early October. The agreement stipulates the handing over of security services in the district to Baghdad and the removal of armed groups, such as the PKK and the PMF.
In northwest Syria, Russian forces escalated their aerial campaign targeting several towns and villages in the greater Idleb area, along with a Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) camp near Idleb’s Harim. Russia launched several airstrikes and surface-to-surface missiles at the camp. HTS did not allow first responders to enter the area, claiming there had not been any casualties in the strikes. This comes less than three weeks after the Russian strike on an Al Sham Corps training camp killed over 70 militants.
In eastern Syria, Global Coalition warplanes carried out airstrikes on pro-Iranian militia positions in the Al Raqqa countryside. The positions of pro-Iran militia forces were also targeted in the Deir-ez-Zor countryside, this time by unidentified warplanes likely to be either Israeli or belonging to the Global Coalition. While the aforementioned strikes and targets are not uncommon, Israel and the US-led Global Coalition may escalate their targeting campaign in Syria and the region to limit Iranian influence before the Biden administration takes office in January 2021. A Biden presidency is widely seen as an opportunity for dialogue with Iran on a number of fronts (Atlantic Council, 13 November 2020) As such, Israel and President Trump may deliver a ‘last-minute’ strike against Iran and/or its interests in the weeks before Biden’s inauguration. On the other hand, President Trump is expected to further withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia by 15 January 2021 — five days prior to the inauguration of President-Elect Biden (The New York Times, 16 November 2020).
Elsewhere, violence and instability picked up once more in southern Syria, triggered by a regime security campaign against civilians. In Dar’a city, clashes broke out between former opposition fighters against regime forces in Al Sad neighborhood after the latter had stormed the area. Regime forces then shelled the neighborhood with mortar fire. In several locations across the province, locals and members of the Russian-backed 5th Assault Corps seized and set fire to a number of regime checkpoints and captured numerous members of the security forces. Additionally, locals cut off roads leading to their towns and villages and burned tires in protest of regime policies and arbitrary arrests in the south. Tensions are likely to continue to run high until Russia intervenes in localized negotiations, as was the case on several occasions in the past.
Meanwhile, a small number of violent demonstrations broke out in Jordan last week following the parliamentary election on 10 November. The power of the parliament is limited in Jordan, where the king has extensive authority to rule by decree. Although political parties are allowed to run, elections tend to be a contest between powerful tribal leaders, establishment figures, and businessmen, who continue to dominate the house (Reuters, 9 November 2020). Supporters of losing candidates barricaded streets with burning tires in Amman and Ar Ramtha, while government buildings were set on fire in Al Hamra and Maan. Although the kingdom went into a four-day nationwide lockdown after the closing of polls amid a surge in coronavirus infections, there were also several celebratory rallies held across the country, where thousands of rounds of live ammunition were fired into the air (Al-Monitor, 12 November 2020). Following a public outcry on social media over the government’s failure to implement the Defense Law, which prohibits public gatherings — and its inability to confiscate illegal firearms — Jordan’s interior minister resigned (MENAFN, 14 November 2020).
Finally, the New York Times reported last week that Israeli operatives assassinated Al Qaeda’s second-highest leader, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah (known as Abu Muhammad Al Masri) on the streets of the Iranian capital, Tehran, on 7 August 2020 (New York Times, 13 November 2020). Al Masri’s daughter, the widow of Osama Bin Laden’s son, was reportedly also killed in the attack. Citing unnamed intelligence officials, the report claims that the attack was carried out on the behest of the US in retaliation for Al Masri’s alleged involvement in bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Iranian media had previously identified the victim of the shooting as a Lebanese history professor and his daughter, and Iranian officials vehemently deny that the top Al Qaeda figure was killed in Tehran (Al Jazeera, 14 November 2020). Neither the US, Israel, nor Al Qaeda officials have publicly acknowledged the assassination. Shiite Iran and the Sunni Al Qaeda are ideological enemies. However, since the US invasion of Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 attacks, some Al Qaeda fighters are believed to have fled to Iran (Indian Express, 17 November 2020). According to some experts, Iran may harbor Al Qaeda members as an insurance policy to prevent attacks on Iran (Times of Israel 14 November 2020).
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