Extended Middle East and Northern Africa News Composition Briefing: Regional Low Intensity Conflicts, February 18th to February 25th – Current as of February 26, 2018. This week’s report covers Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Syria.
| Suggested reading:
“Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda and the Salafist Dilemma” – Part 3 of the “American Foreign Policy Review” series – Lima Charlie News, Feb. 12, 2018
The United States in the Middle East
-February 23rd; Washington DC, USA and Jerusalem, Israel
The United States government announced on February 23rd that it will formally move its embassy in Israel in May, 2018. The move is set to occur on May 14th. The event is set to occur on the same day Israel celebrates its Independence Day. Initially the Jerusalem located embassy will operate out of an “interim” building in the central Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem. This interim solution will be in place until the US has built a new embassy building.
Officially moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May, 2018 is a significant acceleration compared to previously stated plans. Previously, the US State Department stated it could take as long as three years for the move. The earliest previous date was by the end of 2019.
The announced move has spurred protests throughout the region.
Security forces have continued their nationwide crackdown on safe houses and individuals believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State. Several raids were carried out this past week, resulting in at least 12 individuals believed to have Islamic State affiliations having been detained, the majority of which have been described as foreigners.
Security forces also continued their long-standing nationwide crackdown on safe houses and on individuals believed to be affiliated with the Kurdish political and/or militant opposition. Several raids were carried out this past week, resulting in at least 3 arrests. Along with these arrests, security forces have also been increasing their operational tempo against members from political groups of socialist/communist leanings, which are often affiliated to some degree with Kurdish nationalist movements. The Turkish state has elected to label such groups as the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) as having terrorist affiliations.
The Turkish military incursion into Kurdish controlled enclaves in Syria, which began on January 19th, is still ongoing. Turkey and its backed militia groups face fierce resistance from members of various battle hardened Kurdish militias, not least of which is the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG claims to have repelled a number of Turkish-backed offensives against Kurdish lines. The Turkish, with affiliated militia groups, operational tempo has been fierce, but has been meet by equally fierce resistance by the YPG, with affiliated militia groups.
Turkish artillery units began shelling areas where Syrian government forces and affiliated militia groups were operating on February 19th. The areas hit by artillery included the main thoroughfares from the Damascus-government controlled areas to the Afrin Canton. According to Hezbollah-affiliated sources, mechanized Syrian government forces were forced to halt their operations as they were concerned that they were being directly targeted. The artillery shelling of the areas are still continuing as of the writing of this report.
The Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, has stated that the Turkish government has no issue with Syrian government forces with affiliated militia groups entering the canton as long as the deploying regime forces do not support the Kurdish groups. “If the regime is entering [Afrin] to protect the YPG, then nobody can stop the Turkish soldier” the Minister was quoted saying. A Turkish military spokesperson followed up on the Foreign Ministers statement, warning that Turkish operations in Afrin will continue, and that Damascus is not to interfere.
Egyptian security forces continued their nationwide operations against safe houses and individuals believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State. At least 2 individuals believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State were killed by government forces in the past week, with a further 3 having been detained.
Security forces continue their operations against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and associated organizations, throughout the country. In the past week several raids have been conducted against believed safe houses and individuals with alleged MB affiliations. According to reports, the raids have resulted in at least 6 individuals arrested.
Security operations continue along the Egyptian-Libyan border area with the Egyptian Air Force striking Salafist-Jihadist group convoys crossing from Libya to Egypt. The border land, on the Libyan side, has become a haven for emerging new militia groups, including the al Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Islam.
Egyptian counter-terrorism operations in the Sinai Peninsula have further increased its op-tempo in light of the coming national Presidential election in March. “The Egyptian army killed four terrorists in restive North Sinai province north east of the capital of Cairo as part of Egypt’s recently launched ‘Sinai 2018’ comprehensive anti-terror campaign,” the military spokesman announced on February 22nd.
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)
The Shi’a al Houthi militia in Yemen continue to send ballistic missiles aimed at population centers in Saudi Arabia. The majority of incoming missiles are reportedly shot down by the Saudi surface-to-air system (SAM), operated by the Royal Saudi Air Defense forces, which consists primarily of a series of US provided MIM-104 Patriot systems. The al Houthi tend to utilize variations of Soviet-era designed ballistic missile systems. One such example is the Qaher-1 missile, which is an improved variation of the Soviet SA-2 short to medium range ballistic missile design. No civilian casualties were reported this week in relation to al Houthi shelling.
Cross-border activities between Saudi and Yemeni militia groups continue to be an ongoing concern. The so called “no mans land” that makes up the border between the two countries is riddled with landmines from past conflicts, which often cause collateral for patrolling border units. The positions of the landmines are largely unknown even by the organizations that placed them, as the movement of the sand often displaces the mines. Al Houthi forces often use the area to launch rocket attacks against Saudi targets.
The Saudi Ministry of Health (MoH) has stated that it had detected 7 new cases of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) between February 19th and February 24th.
-February 19th; Riyadh, KSA
Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Foreign Minister, has stated that the Kingdom has no interest in participating in a proposed security alliance with Qatar. The security alliance was proposed by Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani the previous week. The intent with the security alliance was, as stated to model a new pact between Gulf states in the same model as the European Union’s security alliance. Emir al-Thani encouraged the international community to apply pressure on fellow Gulf state countries, including Saudi Arabia, to pull the region back from the brink of conflict. Qatar has been involved in a diplomatic dispute with Saudi Arabia for the past 7 months which has resulted in trade and travel sanctions. The cause for the dispute is that Qatar has maintained open diplomatic and economic ties with the regional Saudi rival Iran.
Shia government opposition groups continue to call for nationwide protests, but have so far failed to reach a critical mass with the majority of resulting public gatherings contain less than fifteen people. Security forces made minor arrests relating to Shia opposition groups. The government is however reporting that a noteworthy increase of Shi’a militia and government opposition violence occured throughout 2017. This trend is expected to continue throughout 2018.
Various Shi’a affiliated militia movements continue to claim to have carried out various attacks against Bahraini security forces and installations. Few of these attacks ever receive an official confirmation from the Bahrain government. This week a handful of alleged attacks were claimed to have been carried out by a wide array of groups, including the Iran/Hezbollah affiliated Popular Resistance Brigades (Saraya al-Muqawama al-Shabiya) group.
Bahrain is quickly finding itself on the forefront of the increasingly active low intensity conflict between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Iran. Several incidents, particularly a recent surge in Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks, in the past few months have been attributed to Shi’a militia organizations that allegedly have direct or indirect ties to Iran.
US air assets have increased air-to-ground operations against Islamic State operatives and hubs. US drones have carried out a series of attacks in recent months, resulting in the deaths of at least a hundred individuals. The majority of these attacks have been against targets and individuals described as being affiliated with the Islamic State. During January, 2017, the US carried out a record 131 air-to-ground operations in Yemen. This increase in operational tempo equals as many carried out operations in a single year as what was carried out in the previous four years, combined.
In January, 2018, the US carried out ten air-to-ground strikes, this according to a press release by US Central Command (CENTCOM). The primary targets for these strikes, as stated in the press release, were Islamic State affiliated and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) members and groups.
A report by the United Nations Human Rights watchgroup states that the Saudi-led military coalitions air to ground assaults in Yemen killed 136 civilians and non-combatants between December 6th, 2017 and December 18th, 2017.
-February 24th; Aden, Yemen
A Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (SVBIED) attack on the counter-terrorism unit’s headquarter in Aden resulted in at least 14 people dead and at least 40 wounded. The SVBIED attack was followed by an attempt by 6 gunmen to storm the headquarters. Outer perimeter guards were able to combat the assaulters, and neutralized them. The attack has been claimed by local Islamic State-affiliated groups.
-February 19th; Unspecified military site in Israel
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has test fired its new Arrow-3 Intercept Missile Defense system. The test was carried out in cooperation with the United States Missile Defense Agency (US-MDA). The missile defense system is of the interception variety, much like the Patriot missile defense shield system that the US defense industry has previously sold to Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Arrow system was test fired against an Anchor-type test target missile, which was fired from an Israeli Air Force F-16 jet. The Arrow system has been developed primarily by Boeing, a US corporation, and the system’s Missiles and Space Group out of the Israel Aerospace Industries corporation. Arrow-2 has previously been successfully deployed as part of the Israeli missile defense shield system.
-February 20th; New York City, New York, US
A recent report by the US Government states that the Iranian government affiliated airliner Mahan Air used Turkish proxy companies to violate US sanctions. According to the report the Turkish proxy companies enabled the Iranian airline to maintain its aging fleet of Boeing airplanes. The Turkish companies named in the report are Trigron Lojistik Kargo and RA Havacilik. The Turkish authorities have responded to the report saying that they will investigate the claims. The Iranian authorities deny the claims, and reject the report.
-February 20th; Tehran, Iran
5 security forces individuals were killed during a spur of civil disturbance in connection to protests. 3 of the dead were part of the responding Tehran police department, and the other 2 were part of the Basij forces. They have been described by local media as having been killed due to a protester using a car as a lethal weapon. The protester was arrested after the incident. 30 security personnel have been injured during recent protests in 2018.
-February 25th; Tehran, Iran
Iranian security forces continue their nationwide crackdown against activists. On February 25th activist groups reported that at least 3 activists had been arrested by the government. The 3 are described, by activist outlets, as ‘environmental activists’. The Government has reportedly detained them on espionage charges. “Three people were recently arrested in (southern) Hormozgan province. I cannot legally give details now … but there is no doubt that infiltration by the United States and Israel is a serious matter,” said judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, quoted by the government-affiliated FARS news agency.
-February 19th; southwest of Kirkuk, Iraq
A unit of Islamic State militants attacked a group of the Shiite-paramilitary group Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), resulting in at least 27 dead on the side of the PMU. The Islamic State-affiliated fighters were disguised in Iraqi Army uniforms, and had set up a checkpoint. When the PMU fighters stopped at the checkpoint, the IS-affiliated fighters opened fire. The ensuing clash lasted for at least 2 hours. The stated casualty number on the IS side varies depending on source, but appears to have been at least 3.
-February 23rd; Baghdad, Iraq
A Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (SVBIED) detonated near a open-air grocery market in the southern, Shiite heavy, part of Baghdad. The attack resulted in 1 person killed, and 2 others wounded. The vehicle used for the SVBIED has been described as a captured Iraqi Army, US-supplied HMMWV or ‘Humvee’. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack.
-February 26th; Baghdad, Iraq
An Iraqi court sentenced 15 women from Turkey to death after having found them guilty of entering Iraq illegally with the intent of joining the Islamic State group. Judge Abdul-Sattar al-Birqdar said the court issued the sentences “after it was proven they belong to the [IS] terrorist group and after they confessed to marrying [IS] elements or providing members of the group with logistical aid or helping them carry out terrorist attacks.”
-February 26th; Washington D.C., US:
The US Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has announced an additional round of sanctions. The new sanctions are stated to specifically target oil smugglers in Libya, and specify 6 individuals, 24 companies and 7 vessels as participating in embargo breaking activities. “Oil smuggling undermines Libya’s sovereignty, fuels the black market and contributes to further instability in the region while robbing the population of resources that are rightly theirs,” OFAC’s statement said.
-February 25th; Mogadishu, Somalia
Al Shabaab, the Somali al Qaeda affiliated branch active in East Africa, carried out a large scale assault on the Presidential Palace in central Mogadishu. At least 45 people were killed in the first attack of its kind in 2018. The attack was carried out in a classic two-stage fashion; two suicide bombers attacked a nearby hotel and the outer perimeter of the Presidential palace, followed by gunmen assaulting security positions at those locations in the immediate aftermath. The first stage occured at the Villa Somalia, another name for the presidential palace, with a suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) attack initiating the attack. Shabaab has stated that it lost 5 of its own in the attack.
-Eastern Ghouta, in the greater Damascus area, Syria
Hundreds of people have died in the past week in the Gouta area as the Damascus-government has been targeting rebel held enclaves in the greater Damascus area. The Syrian government counter-rebel activities have come under great scrutiny in light of its tactics, and that the majority of the casualties are widely described as consisting of civilians. Throughout the Gouta operation, various watchgroups have reported that the Syrian government has even deployed chemical weaponry, including gas, against civilian enclaves with no tactical value.
On February 25th, the United Nations Security Council announced that it had reached a Russian-backed “immediately enacted” 30-day ceasefire in light of the Ghouta situation. Despite this, the Damascus-government launched a ground offensive on the still rebel-held area. The international community is yet to respond to the Damascus-government’s actions.
LIMA CHARLIE, MENA Desk
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