June to August 2019 was a period of intense development across the Middle East, with significant changes in regional dynamics with increased Israeli operations against Iranian proxies throughout the region, renewed Syrian troops advances in Syria, and game changing events in Yemen.
Regional – Israel strikes on Iranian proxies across the region
Throughout the eight-year long Syrian civil war, Israel has conducted strikes against Iranian assets operating inside the country. Israel’s most recent strike occurred last weekend against Hezbollah fighters operating on an Iranian base that Israel insists was being used to prepare a drone attack against it. Israel immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in Syria, as concerns grow that the long-simmering shadow war between Israel and Iran could escalate further. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated the strike showed that ‘Iran has no immunity anywhere.’ The Israeli airstrike in Syria precipitated two other attacks thought to be the work of Israel—a drone armed with explosives crashing into a building where Hezbollah media operations are located in Beirut and a drone strike in al-Qaim, Iraq, where a member of an Iranian-backed militia was killed.
Although the drone armed with explosives only caused minor damage to a Hezbollah media office, the geopolitical fallout could have far-reaching impact. Hezbollah officials claimed that two Israeli drones, each armed with 12 kilograms of explosives, were used in the attack, with one malfunctioning before detonation. The response was swift, with Lebanese President Michel Aoun calling the incident ‘an act of war.’ This was the first Israeli strike inside Lebanon since the end of the July 2006 war. Prime Minister Hariri said the raid ‘constitutes a threat to regional stability.’ Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah called it a ‘clear aggression’ and a ‘new phase.’ The escalation led the United Nations to call for all parties to ‘exercise maximum restraint in both action and rhetoric.’ Hezbollah is likely to respond but in a calibrated manner in order to avoid a full scale conflict with Israel.
The third suspected Israeli strike occurred inside of Iraq, where Iran supports Shia militia forces that have established a sizable military presence and influence inside the country. On August 25, in the Iraqi city of al-Qaim, a senior member of an Iranian-supported militia was killed in what is suspected to be an Israeli drone strike. This strike follows numerous other suspected Israeli attacks on Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, including one that destroyed a weapons and ammunition depot. Israel’s strikes inside Iraq have antagonized Iraqi politicians and have been linked to calls for the United States to reduce its military presence in the country, where American soldiers continue to assist in the fight against the so-called Islamic State.
Despite a new recent drone incident in Southern Lebanon, with the Israeli elections in a week, the tensions around these operations will certainly decrease but the expansion by Israel of its counter Iranian strategy has great destabilization potential for the region.
Yemen – Aden Situation
The situation in Aden and southern Yemen is extremely tense and volatile as cracks in the Saudi/UAE coalition and divergent interests led to clashes between proxies of the two Gulf countries. The president of Yemen’s internationally recognized government has urged Saudi Arabia to intervene to stop the United Arab Emirates’ backing for southern separatists fighting for control of the key southern city of Aden and its surrounding areas. The statement by President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi came after Yemeni officials accused the UAE of launching air raids on government forces in support of the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC), killing dozens of people in an unprecedented move for this coalition member. The intense battles in recent weeks between Hadi’s forces and the STC’s fighters have opened a new front in Yemen’s multilayered war. The United Nations Crisis Management Team has been activated on Thursday 29 August and preparation done for potential evacuation of Aden by UN and NGO staff.
The events in the south have reopened conversations about the widening of participation in peace consultations. While the recognized Government of Yemen (ROYG) retains international recognition, the Southern Transitional Council’s (STC) diplomatic offensive since 2017 and its de facto control in Aden has given it some acknowledgment internationally. Its offensive in August did not invite outright condemnation as a coup, but rather confirmed to observers that it is a force that cannot easily be ignored. However, the STC is not synonymous with the southern independence cause, given the array of existing factions. Thus, the question of how to widen the UN-backed process is not as straightforward as giving the STC a seat at the table (as it has demanded). However, the much-needed recognition of Yemen’s war as wider than just the ROYG-Houthi conflict following the Aden takeover could help reinvigorate the UN-backed process.
Syria – Assad closing on Idlib
On 21 August, Government of Syria (GoS) fully captured Khan Sheikhoun and carried on to close off a loop of control around the southernmost section of Idlib. Within days, GoS took full control of this southernmost section of the Idlib Pocket, marking the biggest shifts in lines of control in more than a year. Indeed, the offensive was a long time in the making, dating back to April when GoS undertook offensive operations in earnest. Only now have they made sizeable gains, likely gains they expected to make much earlier on in the campaign. Of note, it appears that many of the towns GoS assumed control over, particularly in the far south, were largely abandoned, not only of opposition forces, but population as well. Interestingly, GoS announced the opening of a humanitarian corridor in Suran village, in northern Hama under the management of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the GoS forces.
Khan Sheikhoun’s fall to the government comes after months of punishing attacks on Idlib, despite a deal in September last year between Turkey and Russia that halted a large-scale government assault on the province. Its loss means the rebels no longer control a portion of a key north-south highway that forms the spine of Syria’s transportation network, and which was used by as their main supply line to areas they controlled in Idlib and the province of Hama. While the strategic objective of GoS is clearly to regain control of the main transport road (M4 and M5) this will push vulnerable population in an even more limited pocket leaning on the Turkish border.