Significant demonstrations were reported across a number of Middle Eastern countries last week, including in Iraq following its elections; in Palestine, especially in Gaza, over the US embassy move to Jerusalem; in Israel, Jordan, and Turkey, in response to the recent use of force against demonstrators in Gaza; and in Iran, where economic issues continue to motivate protests. Meanwhile in Syria, Damascus and its suburbs were fully recaptured last week, and Syrian government forces appear poised for a new offensive in Dar’a province. Similarly, in Yemen, territorial gains continue to be made by anti-Houthi forces.

Iraqi elections were held successfully on May 12 with no reports of violence in the run-up to the vote involving groups participating in the elections (please see our piece on “Elections and Sectarianism in Iraq and Lebanon” for more on this). However, allegations of electoral fraud have been made in Kirkuk following the election. Protests by Arab and Turkmen demonstrators were reported after initial results pointed to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party winning the majority of the vote in the city, whose population is half Kurdish and half Arab and Turkmen. The PUK is a member of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) governing coalition, so their winning of the majority vote in a city controlled by the KRG is contentious (Washington Post, May 16, 2018). Shortly after these allegations first surfaced on the day of the election, an attack was reported on the headquarters of the main opposition party in the KRG — the Gorran Movement — in Sulymaniyah governorate by suspected PUK gunmen. The attack was alleged to be in response to the complaints, although this has yet to be confirmed, and no casualties were reported (Kurdistan24, May 12, 2018).

In Gaza, an estimated 40,000 demonstrators gathered at different locations along the border fence on May 14 as the US embassy opened in Jerusalem (follow this link for more on the Gaza demonstrations). At least 60 people were reportedly killed by Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) during the events (including those who later died of their injuries), making it one of the most violent days in Gaza since the end of the 2014 conflict between Hamas and Israel (The Telegraph, May 15, 2018). Israeli forces allege that demonstrations were violent and that a number of demonstrators, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) militants, tried to breach the border fence, in order to justify their response. There were also a number of Israeli airstrikes reported last week in Gaza targeting Hamas in response to its alleged involvement in the demonstrations, and at least two specific battles reported between Israeli forces and Palestinian militant groups during the May 14 demonstrations (Times of Israel, May 16, 2018; Jerusalem Post, May 15, 2018).

In Israel, Jordan (see “Recent Trends in Jordanian Demonstrations” for more on this), and Turkey, demonstrations were reported in response to the high number of reported fatalities among demonstrators in Gaza. Demonstrations in Israel took place on separate days in Haifa and the Talpiyyot area of Jerusalem, while demonstrations were held in Jordan’s capital over the course of the week. The largest demonstrations were held in Turkey where more than 50 unique events were reported across the country, a significant number of which were led by Justice and Development Party (AKP) members.

In Iran, meanwhile, demonstrations last week primarily focused on economic issues. While demonstrations by labour groups make up the majority of these events, students demanding better educational environments and jobs make up a significant minority, alongside farmers demonstrating over government policies and water-related issues impacting their livelihoods. Demonstrations against various financial institutions for allegedly defrauding customers also remains a significant source for protests. Outside of these ongoing issues, Kazerun city was a flashpoint last week as protests over plans for a new administrative division turned into riots. These resulted in at least 2 reported fatalities and a number of injuries and arrests (Iran Wire, May 17, 2018).

In Syria, the Syrian government and the Islamic State (IS) reached an agreement. All remaining IS fighters based in pockets south of Damascus city still controlled by IS will be transferred to Homs and Deir-ez-Zor provinces. With this agreement, all of Damascus and its surrounding rural areas are fully under government control for the first time since 2013.

Elsewhere, the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD) and the Global Coalition Against Daesh continued to advance against IS in eastern Deir-ez-Zor. These efforts resulted in the capture of Baguz, near the Iraqi border, in coordination with Iraqi ground forces. Meanwhile, joint Coalition and Iraqi airstrikes on IS-controlled areas in southern Al-Hasakeh were also reported. IS launched mid-week surprise attacks on both QSD and government positions in Deir-ez-Zor province, yet were not able to recapture any territory.

In other areas of the country, the final convoys of rebel fighters and civilians in northern Homs and southern Hama pockets have left for northern Syria under an agreement with regime and Russian forces. Following the conclusion of this agreement, and the recent regime consolidation of territory throughout the country through similar deals, the Syrian government and allied forces now appear poised to begin a renewed offensive to retake Dar’a province.

In Yemen, anti-Houthi forces have continued to advance up the coast of Hudayda governorate over the last week. These efforts have been aided by UAE and Saudi-led coalition air support, and have resulted in the capture of several new areas including the Al-Fazzah port and advances into the suburban areas of Zabid town. Territory was also reported captured in other areas of the country, with anti-Houthi coalition forces taking control of Jabal Habashy and Al Waziiyah districts in Taizz governorate, as well as several areas in the northern Sadah and Hajjah governorates.

Additionally, in a rare event, UAE military forces engaged directly in an amphibious assault raid on a Houthi command center prior to the taking of Al Fazzah port, seizing documents and weapons. UAE forces have also reportedly withdrawn from the island of Socotra (see “The Crisis in Socotra” for more on this) following Saudi mediation and weeks of anti-UAE protests.

(Note that our coverage of Saudi Arabia and Yemen is supported by local partners and is therefore subject to sourcing lags based on their capacity to process reports and the situation on the ground. As such, some events may be incorporated into ACLED’s dataset with a one-week delay)

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Regional Overview – Middle East
21 May 2018
Matt Batten-Carew
Matt Batten-Carew
Global Program Coordinator
Matthew Batten-Carew is the Global Program Coordinator at ACLED. He led the Afghanistan, Iraq and Turkey projects, and was formerly a Middle East Research Manager, as well as an Associate Manager with ACLED's Asia project. Mr. Batten-Carew holds an M.A. in Geopolitics & Grand Strategy and a second M.A. in Eurasian Studies, with research focusing on regional governance and conflict management. He has worked for the Canadian government's Departments of Global Affairs and National Defence, and for consulting firms in policy development and political risk analysis. He is fluent in English and French, and is based in Ottawa, Canada.
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