Last week in the Middle East, fighting intensified between pro-Hadi and pro-Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces along Yemen’s At Tariyah front, while Houthi shelling reportedly killed Saudi soldiers in Marib. Houthis also targeted Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure in Jeddah. In Syria, Israeli warplanes continued to target the positions of pro-Iran militia forces, while Islamic State (IS) fighters attacked a group of Quds Brigade fighters in the Al Bukamal desert. Elsewhere in the region, violent anti-government demonstrations erupted in Iraq, leading to dozens of reported deaths and injuries. In Iran, a top nuclear scientist was assassinated allegedly by Israel. Finally, following riots in the Lebanse town of Bcharre targeting Syrian refugees, 270 Syrian families fled the area.
In Yemen, clashes between pro-Hadi military forces and pro-STC forces further escalated on 27 November when 11 pro-STC soldiers, including two officers, were reportedly killed by shelling from pro-Hadi military forces on the At Tariyah front (Aden al Ghad, 27 November 2020). The attack precipitated another deadly round of artillery exchanges that claimed the lives of six pro-Hadi soldiers and an additional 10 pro-STC soldiers.
Fighting between the Houthis and pro-Hadi military forces continued with fierce clashes and a number of airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition in Marib’s Sirwah and Medghal districts. Houthi forces also shelled the Tadawin military camp in Marib, reportedly killing Saudi soldiers stationed in the camp (Yemen News Portal, 26 November 2020).
The security situation in Aden deteriorated with a number of targeted assassination attempts this past week. Notably, unidentified gunmen abducted a commander in the pro-STC Asifah Brigade (for more on the Asifah Brigade, see this recent ACLED piece) from his home in Technical City, and later killed him. Additionally, an explosion outside the Palace Hotel on Al Taweelah street unsuccessfully targeted a leader in the Giants Brigades.
In Saudi Arabia, Houthi forces continue to target the country’s oil sector. On 23 November, Houthi forces reportedly hit the Aramco distribution office in Jeddah with a Quds-2 missile, causing a fire in the facility (Al Jazeera, 24 November 2020). Additionally, a Greek-operated tanker struck a Houthi naval mine off the coast of Ash Shuqayq, damaging the vessel’s hull (Al Jazeera, 25 November 2020). The attack occurred in spite of ongoing maritime security efforts by the Saudi-led coalition, which intercepted a boat rigged with explosives and defused multiple marine mines last week.
Meanwhile, as part of the Turkish-Russian agreement signed in March 2020, Turkish forces withdrew another military outpost encircled by Syrian regime forces from northwest Syria, just east of Idleb’s Saraqab (The Nation Press, 27 November 2020). Elsewhere in Syria, Israeli warplanes carried out airstrikes south of Damascus for the second consecutive week. Airstrikes targeted the positions of pro-Iran militia forces in the Jabal Al Mani region of Rural Damascus province, killing at least eight militiamen (Reuters, 25 November 2020). Suspected Israeli airstrikes were also reported in Al Bukamal desert in Deir ez-Zor, targeting the positions of the Zainabiyoun Brigade – a pro-Iran militia made up of foreign fighters. Elsewhere in Deir ez-Zor, IS fighters ambushed a group of Quds Brigade fighters in Al Bukamal desert, resulting in numerous fatalities. The IS attack coincided with ongoing regime and Russian operations in the Syrian desert to clear out IS hideouts. In Dar’a province, attacks by unidentified gunmen continued to target regime personnel and former opposition fighters who had reconciled with the regime.
In Iraq, armed supporters of the Sadrist movement clashed with anti-government rioters in Nassriya city and cleared out demonstrators’ tents. Violence escalated and security forces interfered by use of small arms fire. At least four rioters were killed, and between 50 and 90 people from both sides were injured. The leader of the movement, Muqtada Al Sadr, had called for nationwide protests ahead of the parliamentary elections, slated for next year (The Washington Post, 28 November 2020). Elsewhere in Thi Qar province, security forces forcibly removed the tents of demonstrators in a square in Kut. During the removal, one civilian was burned and severely injured while two rioters were killed in the violence. A curfew has been declared in Thi Qar province following the aforementioned events.
Elsewhere, in Iran, the top nuclear scientist and senior member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was killed in a roadside ambush outside Tehran on 27 November. He was fatally wounded when his car was sprayed with bullets before a pickup truck exploded. He later died in a hospital. Iranian officials initially reported a gunfight between Fakhrizadeh’s bodyguards and several gunmen, but later claimed that he was killed by a “remote-controlled machine gun” or weapons “controlled by satellite” (Time of Israel, 30 November 2020). Given that “the only way an assassination squad could make sure they had finished the job would be to have eyes on the target” (BBC, 30 November 2020), security experts have raised scepticism about the plausibility of the later version (CNN, 1 December 2020).
Iranian officials have blamed Israel for the killing, and unnamed US intelligence officials have confirmed this account (New York Times, 30 November 2020). The assassination is the latest in a string of alleged clandestine Israeli activity within Iran, including the killing of four other nuclear scientists in the last decade (Middle East Eye, 27 November 2020). Israel was also involved in a recent sabotage attempt at the Natanz nuclear power plant in July (Al Jazeera, 1 December 2020). Additionally, Israel has carried out numerous cross-border strikes against Iranian-backed forces in Syria, and more recently also against Iranian forces themselves in Syria (Guardian, 27 November 2020). Concerns have been raised that Fakhrizadeh’s assassination could now inflame an open Iranian-Israeli conflict. Experts also suggest that given the timing of the attack, it can be considered as an effort by the Israeli government to complicate the plans of US President-elect Joe Biden to return to diplomacy and revive the Iranian nuclear deal (Washington Post, 30 November 2020).
Finally, a riot broke out in the Christian mountain resort town of Bcharre in northern Lebanon on 23 November, as residents torched the homes of Syrian refugees and attacked individuals in the streets. The violence follows the alleged killing of a local Lebanese man by a Syrian citizen over a personal dispute (Associated Press, 24 November 2020). Residents, as well as the mayor, called on authorities to evict all Syrians from the town (Middle East Monitor, 25 November 2020). Criticizing this collective punishment, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees indicated that 270 Syrian families have since left the area, fearing reprisals (Arab News, 27 November 2020). Strained relations between Lebanese and Syrians date back to Syria’s three decades of occupation of Lebanon. Lebanon, which has been hosting thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled the civil war in recent years, has been the scene of frequent tensions between locals and refugees, who are perceived as a burden on the country’s strained infrastructure (ABC News, 24 November 2020).
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