Last week in the Middle East, intense fighting between Houthi and pro-Hadi forces continued in the Marib governorate in Yemen, while pro-Hadi fighters launched a new offensive in the Taiz governorate. Meanwhile, Houthi forces claimed to have hit an Aramco oil facility in Saudi Arabia with a cruise missile. In Syria, Israel carried out airstrikes against regime forces and their Iranian allies. Elsewhere in Syria, oil refineries in areas controlled by the Turkish-backed opposition forces were targeted by Syrian regime and Russian forces on two occasions last week. In Iraq, the Ain Al Asad airbase housing US and Coalition forces was targeted by unclaimed rockets, triggering the death of a civilian American contractor from a heart attack. Lastly, mass demonstrations broke out in Lebanon following the currency hitting a new record low.
In Yemen, Houthi forces continued their offensive in the Marib governorate. The governorate’s Sirwah district continues to be a focal point for military activity; however, pro-Hadi and Houthi forces also heavily clashed in the Medghal, Rahabah, Jabal Murad, and Al Abdiyah districts. Pro-Hadi forces managed to recapture Jabal al Ahdan in Rahabah district (Khabar News Agency, 1 March 2021; Twitter, 2 March 2021). Meanwhile, Houthi forces continued their advance on Marib City with the capture of Hisn Al Amir (Yemen Press Agency, 28 February 2021) and Hamah adh Dhiab (Twitter, 5 March 2021).
Pro-Hadi forces launched a new offensive in the Taizz governorate in an effort to alleviate pressure on Marib frontlines. Clashes between the two sides predominantly occurred in the Jabal Habashy, Salh, and Maqbanah districts, and pro-Hadi forces captured a number of locations in the districts, especially in Jabal Habashy district (26 September News, 3 March 2021).
On 2 March, the US Treasury Department announced sanctions against two Houthi commanders, Mansur al Saadi and Ahmad Ali Ahsan al Hamzi. Al Saadi is the Chief of Staff for Houthi Naval Forces, and al Hamzi is the commander of the Houthi’s drone program (US Treasury Department, 2 March 2021). While the previous US administration imposed stringent sanctions on the Houthis by designating them as a ‘foreign terrorist organization’ (FTO), the current Biden administration rescinded that designation in February. These new sanctions are more targeted than the FTO designation. Rather than focusing on the whole movement, the new sanctions focus on specific individuals with ties to the Houthis’ cross-border drone attacks and the organization’s naval operations, which have threatened maritime shipping routes.
In Saudi Arabia, Houthi forces shelled a village in the border Jizan region, injuring five civilians (Khabar News Agency, 2 March 2021). Saudi military forces intercepted a high number of Houthi drones and missiles, targeting assets in the country, on an almost daily basis. On 4 March, Houthi forces claimed to have hit Saudi Aramco in Jeddah, using a Quds-2 cruise missile, although the impact could not be verified (Twitter, 4 March 2021; Twitter 4 March 2021).
In Syria, Israeli warplanes carried out airstrikes on the vicinity of Sayyeda Zeinab in Rural Damascus last week, targeting Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) positions as well as regime forces. No casualties were reported (Garda World, 28 February 2021). In northern Syria, a series of attacks on makeshift oil refineries in eastern Aleppo took place on 27 February and 5 March. The former, suspected to have been conducted by regime forces, targeted oil refineries in Mazaalah in Jarablus district and led to massive fires with no casualties reported. The 5 March attacks were conducted by both Russian and Syrian regime forces on refineries in Hamran and Terhin areas in Menbij and Al Bab districts, respectively. The March attacks killed at least four civilians and destroyed numerous oil trucks, leading to massive fires (Syrian Documentation Center, 2 March 2021; Al Jazeera, 5 March 2021). All targeted refineries are located in areas controlled by the Turkish-backed opposition forces. They are used to refine oil transferred or smuggled from Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD) held areas to be used in the Aleppo countryside. In Afrin district, the factions of Levant Front, Ahrar Al Sham, and Ahrar Al Sharqiya brought military reinforcements into the Jandairis area. This came amid increasing tensions with other groups, including Sultan Murad Brigade and Hamza Division, who also reinforced existing positions and mobilized forces. While this posturing has yet to result in armed clashes, violence could break out should the opposing sides fail to de-escalate.
In Iraq, Pope Francis arrived in the country on 5 March in the first-ever papal visit to the Middle Eastern country. He visited four cities including Mosul, Najaf, and Erbil, meeting Muslim and Christian leaders and preaching peace and coexistence over war. In Najaf, he met with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the preeminent religious figure for Iraqi Shiites. During his visit, he also met Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhmi, among other officials. His visit amid the coronavirus pandemic, however, raises questions as to the timing (Al Jazeera, 8 March 2021; The New York Times, 8 March 2021). Elsewhere in Iraq, an unknown armed group targeted Ain Al Asad airbase in Anbar in western Iraq with 10 Katyusha rockets. The airbase houses US and Coalition forces. The base’s air defenses intercepted some of the rockets, but four hit the base. A civilian American contractor died of a heart attack, which was triggered by the rocket attack. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack (New York Times, 3 March 2021).
Lastly, mass demonstrations erupted on 2 March in Lebanon and continued throughout last week as the dollar exchange rate hit a new record high. Over 200 demonstration events were staged across the country. Almost half of them turned violent as demonstrators blocked roads with burning tires. Security forces, however, engaged with demonstrators only in a handful of events; in contrast to previous rounds of mass unrest, no serious clashes were reported. The Lebanese currency has lost more than 85% of its value since late 2019, almost tripling the price of consumer goods (Al Jazeera, 8 March 2021). In a situation where more than half of Lebanese families live below the poverty line, the government’s plan to gradually make reductions in subsidies has further raised fears of strains on households (Asharq Al-Awsat, 5 March 2020). Factional wrangling has delayed the formation of a new government in Lebanon that could implement reforms, preventing the arrival of desperately needed foreign aid (Media Line, 3 March 2021). Experts warn that the mass demonstrations are an “alarm bell” that the country could head towards a “social explosion” (Daily Star, 9 March 2021).
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