Developments in the Middle East region last week included a general reduction in conflict, likely a result of the holy month of Ramadan, and increased visibility of women-led protests in Turkey and Iran. Meanwhile, there were several updates in ongoing armed conflicts in Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Last week in Turkey, women’s groups took a prevalent role in leading demonstrations across the country. Amongst the growing protest movement in support of prisoners on hunger strike, mothers of prisoners organized and led protests in Istanbul, Adana, and in Baglar and Lice in Diyarbakir region. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 prisoners are currently participating in a hunger strike, which has been gaining momentum since November. The Turkish government allowed the incarcerated Kurdistan Workers Party (PPK) leader, Ocalan, to see his lawyers for the first time in eight years. However, this has not deescalated the hunger strikes or the affiliated protest movement. In fact, by 10 May, at least 30 prisoners declared that they plan to continue the hunger strike to their deaths. The protest movement has already claimed eight lives (Al Monitor, 17 May 2019). Peace Mothers, a women-led civil rights group advocating for peace between Turks and Kurds, were not reported at any of the demonstrations last week, however, they are likely to reappear as an actor in the coming weeks. Another women-led protest group, The Saturday Mothers (Cumartesi Anneler), held their weekly protest on Saturday in Istanbul. The Saturday Mothers have protested weekly in Istanbul against forced disappearances in Istanbul since the 1990s. The group is mostly made up of mothers of victims of forced disappearances in the 1980s and 1990s.

Meanwhile, in Iran, dozens of protests by labour groups, teachers, and students took place across the country, similar to that seen in prior weeks. The most prominent of these demonstrations took place on 13 May when hundreds of students at Tehran University held a protest against compulsory hijab. The demonstration was particularly aimed against the “Hijab and Chastity” campaign launched by vigilante groups for the month of Ramadan. Students posted on social media that female students have been put under increased pressure by these groups and are advocating for their right to choose what they wear (Radio Farda, 13 May 2019). Clashes broke out at the demonstration between demonstrating students who were attacked by Basij militia members and pro-government vigilante groups. There were no reports of casualties or arrests.

Last week in Palestine, the ceasefire continued to hold despite reports of incendiary balloons landing in Israel and increased restrictions on the fishing area around Gaza. Tensions were high due to Israel’s hosting of the popular Eurovision song contest, with pro-Palestinian groups issuing calls to boycott the contest.  The Israeli state increased security measures in order to protect participants — deploying Iron Dome batteries across the country, particularly surrounding Tel Aviv. Tensions were also high due to the 71st commemoration of the Nakba, the Palestinian memorial for the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli war, which created the state of Israel. Demonstrations were held across Palestine in commemoration of the Nakba, most of which were peaceful. The Return March in Gaza, which typically takes place on Fridays, was moved to Wednesday for Nakba day. Clashes took place between Palestinians and Israeli forces along the Gaza border, though no fatalities were reported.

Heavy clashes continued in northwestern Syria for a second week along Greater Idleb’s DMZ between regime forces and pro-regime militias supported by Russian airstrikes, against rebel and Islamist factions. Regime forces took control of six villages in the Hama governorate. No advancement was made in Lattakia governorate where Islamist factions managed to maintain their positions despite the regime’s repeated attempts to gain control of the Kabani area. Clashes were accompanied by extensive airstrikes and shelling by the regime and Russian forces, including the use of barrel bombs, that targeted villages and towns on and near the frontlines. At least 36 civilians were reportedly killed by the regime and Russian airstrikes and shelling.

In the northeast, assassination attempts and IED attacks continued against Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD). Over a dozen attacks against QSD forces were carried out by Islamic State (IS) sleeper cells and unidentified groups that are likely to be IS affiliates across the governorates of Ar-Raqqa, Al-Hasakeh, and Deir-ez-Zor. These attacks resulted in 14 reported QSD fatalities. The attacks were concentrated on roads between villages with occasional attacks targeting specific command centers inside residential areas. This follows the same pattern seen since the start of the year (ACLED, 31 Jan 2019).

IS militants clashed with Iraqi police, military and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Kirkuk, Sala al-Din, Diyala, Ninewa and Anbar governorates of Iraq. Turkish forces also conducted numerous airstrikes in Erbil and Dahuk governorates targeting PKK militants. In Najaf, anti-corruption demonstrations led by the Sadrist Movement turned deadly. Four people were reportedly killed and 17 were injured when security guards opened fire at demonstrators who were holding a protest outside a mall owned by a former Sadrist (Rudaw, 16 May 2019). After the security guards opened fire, the demonstrators responded by setting the mall on fire. The Sadrist Movement holds the majority of seats in Iraqi Parliament and is a major member of the PMF. The demonstrations were called for by Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of the Sadrist movement, who has called for action against corruption within the ranks of his own movement.

In Yemen, intense fighting continued between pro-Houthi forces and anti-Houthi troops throughout last week, with concentrated clashes occurring in Ad Dali, Hudaydah, Hajjah, and Al Bayda. Civilian fatalities reportedly rose as fighting approached Qatabah city in Ad Dali. Qatabah was officially overtaken by anti-Houthi forces assisted by UAE-backed Security Belt Elite forces and Popular Resistance fighters. Houthi forces fought hard to retain the territory and fatality counts were reported to be high on both sides. Despite a partial Houthi withdrawal from the port city of Hudayda under a truce agreement, clashes and artillery shelling continued to occur in Hays district and other areas surrounding Hudayda. Houthi forces additionally continued to demonstrate their capacity to strike targets far beyond the Yemen border with multiple drone strikes on Saudi oil extraction sites in the cities of Ad Dawdimi and Afif. Saudi forces retaliated by launching renewed airstrikes on Houthi positions that reportedly killed six civilians and wounded two Russian medical workers in Sana’a.

© 2019 Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). All rights reserved.

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Regional Overview – Middle East
21 May 2019
Lauren Blaxter
Lauren Blaxter
Middle East Research Manager
Lauren Blaxter is a Middle East Research Manager at ACLED. She has been responsible for coding Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan since May 2017. Ms. Blaxter holds a BA in Human Rights, a Graduate Diploma in Law, and a LLM in International Criminal Law. Her work focuses on law and forensics in armed conflict.
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