Over the last four weeks in the Middle East, fighting continued unabated in Yemen and Syria. In Yemen, a new government was formed following an agreement between the Hadi-led government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), while significant clashes were reported between pro-Hadi and pro-Houthi forces. In Syria, there was a surge in violence in the northeast as Turkish forces and their allies intensified their operations against Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD), whereas Israel continued targeting Iranian and pro-Iran positions. Elsewhere, Turkish military forces continued their attacks against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq, even as there was a seasonal reduction in fighting inside Turkey. In Israel, as anti-government demonstrations continued for the sixth consecutive month, new elections were announced for March following the collapse of the unity government over a budget row. Anti-government demonstrations were also reported in Turkey and Iraq, while students in Lebanon took to the streets against a hike in university fees. Finally, Iran seized a South Korean-flagged oil ship near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, and resumed 20% uranium enrichment.
In Yemen, the Hadi-led government and the STC formed a new unity government in an effort to end military clashes between pro-Hadi and pro-STC forces (Arab News, 26 December 2020). In conjunction with the new government’s formation and its return to Aden city, the two military forces withdrew from the frontlines in Abyan and redeployed to fight Houthi forces. However, as the new government was landing at Aden International Airport, multiple missiles struck the airport, killing at least 25 people and injuring 110 (Associated Press, 2 January 2021). While Houthi forces denied any involvement in the attack, videos appear to show two missiles being launched from Taizz Airport, which is under the control of pro-Houthi forces. In the week after the attack, Houthi forces embarked on arrest campaigns targeting individuals for allegedly sharing the videos on social media (Aden al Ghad, 2 January 2021).
During the past month, there was significant fighting between pro-Hadi and pro-Houthi forces in Marib, Ad Dali, and Hodeidah. Pro-Houthi forces reportedly made significant gains in Marib’s Medghal district (Hayrout, 20 December 2020). The Saudi-led coalition extensively targeted Marib, focusing its airstrikes on Mahliyah and Medghal. In Ad Dali, fighting in the Al Husha and Qaatabah districts exacted significant tolls on both sides, and the frontlines remained largely static. Pro-Houthi forces also continued to concentrate much of their artillery operations on Al Hodeidah with a particular focus on At Tuhayat.
In Saudi Arabia, pro-Houthi forces fired three projectiles at Al Harth in Jizan on 17 December; however, there were no casualties associated with the attack (Al Masdar Online, 18 December 2020). Maritime vessels in and travelling to Saudi Arabia also faced risks over the past month. A Singapore-flagged tanker was damaged after an explosive-laden boat targeted the Jeddah Port (BBC News, 14 December 2020). While pro-Houthi forces have not claimed responsibility, they have used boats rigged with explosives to target Saudi marine assets in the past.
In northwest Syria, regime and pro-regime militia forces clashed and exchanged shelling barrages with opposition and Islamist factions along existing frontlines with occasional Russian airstrikes. With these daily events, the only viable outcome of the March 2020 ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey has been the prevention of large-scale military operations by the regime towards the M4 highway. Additionally, Turkish forces withdrew from an observation outpost in Idleb’s Tal Tuqan, which had been surrounded by regime forces during previous advancements. At the same time, Turkish forces set up a new outpost near Idleb’s Ariha and continued to deploy more troops to their positions in the greater Idleb area.
In northeast Syria, conflict levels have increased in the past month in and south of the Peace Spring area between Tell Abiad and Ras Al Ain. This surge in violence can be attributed to escalation by Turkish and opposition factions operating under Operation Peace Spring (OPS), including the Syrian National Army (JWS), against areas held by QSD. The main areas of operation have been Ar-Raqqa’s Ein Issa and Al-Hasakeh’s Ras Al Ain, where daily shelling activities and tit-for-tat attacks have led to civilian displacements towards relatively safer areas (Al Jazeera, 27 December 2020). Russia has exploited the Turkish escalation to pressure the Kurds to cede more control to the Syrian regime, and some steps in that direction materialized in the past month. Namely, QSD agreed to setting up three joint observation outposts in Ein Issa sub-district to monitor the area and to deter further escalation (Al Monitor, 15 December 2020).
Elsewhere, Israel continued targeting Iranian and pro-Iran positions in Syria. During the past month, at least three attacks were reported on military bases in Rural Damascus and Hama provinces. The attacks also targeted weapons and ammunition depots, defense factories, and a scientific research center in Masyaf area where Iran maintains heavy presence, resulting in fatalities (Reuters, 7 January 2021). Furthermore, unidentified military-grade drones targeted vehicles belonging to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Deir-ez-Zor province, killing two and four members of the groups, respectively. Israel’s strikes in Syria fall under its deterrence tactics to limit Iran’s power along its borders. However, the more cooperative approach that US President-elect Joe Biden is expected to assume toward Iran may have contributed to Israel’s scaled up attacks against Iranian assets, including those in Syria, capitalizing on President Trump’s last weeks in office should a broader regional confrontation occur.
In Iraq, demonstrations continued across the country during the past month, although they were less violent than those reported in November and early December 2020. One of the driving factors of the demonstrations is the approval of the 2021 budget law by the Iraqi cabinet which confirms the government’s intentions to devalue the Iraqi dinar and to cut salaries to cope with the impacts of the economic crisis (Al Jazeera, 17 December 2020). Demonstrations in Nassriya and Samawah during the past month were particularly violent as clashes raged between demonstrators who demanded the release of detained protesters and security forces. Out of the 41 injuries reported in Nassriya, 38 were amongst security forces (Middle East Eye, 10 January 2021). Additionally, targeting of anti-government activists by unidentified armed groups continued in Iraq, mainly in Thi-Qar where four incidents occurred. Elsewhere, at least eight Katyusha rockets were fired at the Green Zone in Baghdad, injuring an Iraqi soldier and damaging apartments in a residential complex as well as part of the US Embassy (Al Mirbad, 20 December 2020; National Iraqi News Agency, 20 December 2020). Throughout the past month, logistical convoys of the US-led Coalition were subject to continued IED attacks. At least eight attacks were reported in central Iraq, two of which were claimed by the pro-Iran militant group Qasem Al Jabarin (Garda World, 20 December 2020; Basnews, 27 December 2020; Al Sumaria TV, 1 January 2021).
In Turkey, fighting between the Turkish government and PKK forces continued in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), Turkish military forces continued shelling and aerial strikes against PKK positions, increasing attacks in the third week of December. This followed Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi’s visit to Ankara on 17 December to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The two sides have agreed to boost cooperation on counter-terrorism and trade (Al Monitor, 17 December 2020).
Due to harsh winter conditions in mountainous areas where fighting usually takes place, a seasonal reduction in clashes between Turkish and PKK forces was observed, similar to previous years in Turkey (for more on the Turkey-PKK conflict, see this ACLED infographic). The majority of operations targeted empty shelters or the seizure of PKK weapons. The only deadly operation reported was carried out on 3 January, when Turkish Gendarmerie forces launched air-backed security operations in Gabar Mountain area in Sirnak province. Five PKK militants were reportedly killed, including two members from the state’s most-wanted list (Anadolu Agency, 3 January 2021).
In another development, the Turkish government pursued a crackdown on opposition political parties, sentencing prominent Kurdish politician and former Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) parliamentarian Leyla Guven to 22 years in prison for alleged membership in a “terrorist group” (Daily Sabah, 21 December 2020). Guven was previously arrested in January 2018 for criticizing Turkish military operations against a Syrian Kurdish militia group. She was released after her health conditions deteriorated following an 11-week hunger strike (VOA, 21 December 2020). HDP members have organized several demonstrations since her renewed arrest, calling her prison sentence “a hostile act against all Kurds and the entire opposition” (BBC, 22 December 2020). Dozens of HDP leaders and officials have been arrested in Turkey in recent years for alleged ties with the PKK.
In Israel, nationwide demonstrations organized by the Black Flag Movement continued, marking the 29th consecutive week of anti-government demonstrations. In more than 150 locations across Israel, thousands of people have been demonstrating against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government’s anti-democratic policies amid the coronavirus pandemic. The vast majority of events have been peaceful in the past four weeks, with the exception of two demonstrations outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, where demonstrators clashed with police. Netanyahu is indicted on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. His court hearing was postponed indefinitely last week due to the country’s third nationwide coronavirus lockdown, renewing claims that the Prime Minister is manipulating the lockdown timing (Times of Israel, 8 January 2021)
Following the collapse of a fractious coalition government on 22 December, Israel is set to hold its fourth elections in two years on 23 March (BBC, 22 December 2020). Netanyahu is accused of intentionally undermining the coalition government to prevent the handover of leadership to Benny Gantz in November 2021, aiming to fight his court case as prime minister (The Guardian, 23 December 2020). The recent announcement that all citizens of Israel over the age of 16 will be vaccinated against the coronavirus by the end of March might provide a boost to the Likud party’s chances of electoral victory, enabling Netanyahu to return to office for a sixth term (Jerusalem Post, 10 January 2021).
In Palestine, settler violence against Palestinians intensified after the killing of an Israeli woman by a Palestinian near the settlement Tal Menashe in West Bank on 20 December. The suspect — who is not a member of an armed group — has confessed that he carried out the attack in response to the death of a Palestinian prisoner of cancer who allegedly had not received proper treatment (JNS, 11 January 2021). At least 30 incidents of settler violence, including rock-throwing and attacks on Palestinians’ proprieties, have been reported since the murder of the Israeli woman. Tensions also rose after a teenager died in a car crash when he and other settlers tried to flee police after throwing rocks at Palestinians near Kokhav HaShahar settlement in the West Bank. At least a dozen demonstrations were staged by settlers, calling for an investigation into the police’s responsibility in the case. Six demonstration events in Jerusalem and Ramallah turned violent as demonstrators clashed with police officers, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at them. Police arrested over 100 settlers.
In Lebanon, several demonstrations were led by students against a decision by some private universities to adopt a new dollar exchange rate to price tuition, leading to a sharp fee hike. In Beirut, the demonstrations turned violent on 19 and 29 December, as angry demonstrators burned trash containers, vandalized banks, and clashed with security forces. Lebanon is mired in an economic crisis. The Lebanese currency has lost 80% of its value on the black market over the past year, and Lebanese universities have been struggling to adapt to the devaluation (Al Jazeera, 20 December 2020). The recent move by two top universities have raised concerns that other private universities could follow suit, potentially forcing many students to drop out of their studies. This would, in turn, exacerbate social tensions and lead to more unrest in the country.
Finally, Iranian IRGC forces seized a South Korean-flagged oil ship in Persian Gulf waters on 4 January. Iranian officials claim that the seizure was due to the ship’s pollution making it an environmental hazard (Reuters, 10 January 2020). It is more likely that Iran was seeking to increase its leverage over negotiations with South Korea to release $7 billion of Iranian assets frozen in the country’s banks due to American sanctions. The incident was the latest in a series of escalations in the remaining days of Trump’s presidency. The week prior, Iran announced the resumption of 20% uranium enrichment at its underground Fordo nuclear facility. This marks the most significant breach of the 2015 nuclear deal by Iran and was done in retaliation for US economic sanctions imposed since Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the accord in 2018. Some experts suggest that the announcement is an attempt by the Iranian government to put pressure on US President-elect Joe Biden to rejoin the nuclear deal (BBC, 4 January 2020).
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