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The Early Phoenix 

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Houthi Pirates Levy Unauthorized Fees in Bab el-Mandeb Strait; Gains for Iran Under the Biden Administration

Top Headlines: 

  • Europe Paying the Houthis
  • Iran’s Military Expansion Since 2020
  • Terror Attack Near Jerusalem Exploited by Ben Gavir
  • Egypt: BRICS Host, G20 Attendee, Gaza Crisis Manager

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YEMEN

  1. Report: Europe Is Paying Illegal Passage Fees to the Houthis.

According to a report released by Sheba Intelligence, European shipping companies have begun paying illegal fees to the Houthi group for the safe passage of their vessels through the Red Sea. This controversial arrangement involves payments to accounts linked to Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdel Salam, with fees averaging $500,000 per ship to avoid the costlier alternative routes. while Reuters reported that the group informed maritime insurance companies of the details of a shipping ban, amid reports of the targeting of a British ship and new American strikes on Yemen.

  1. Houthi Leader Challenges U.S. Over Vessel Classification. 

Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi challenged the United States to disprove the classifications of targeted vessels, asserting they had accurately identified and attacked ships affiliated with American, British, or Israeli interests, based on a strategic intelligence achievement. Al-Houthi has boasted of targeting Israeli sites with 183 missiles and drones and targeting 48 ships in the Red Sea.  In other news today, the Houthi movement conducted a military parade in the Al-Marashi District of Al-Jawf province, showcasing 700 fighters who had completed military training. Houthi forces have readied drone units at Al-Hudaydah Military Airport for numerous attacks, including deploying explosive-laden boats. At Ras Issa port, they developed control systems for unmanned submarines, conducting tests in Salif and Ras Issa ports. These submarines, some rigged to explode, target U.S. and British naval vessels in the Red Sea.

  1. US-UK-Houthi Military Engagements. 

The US Central Command disclosed that it executed four strikes against the Houthis in Yemen, targeting seven cruise missiles and an anti-ship ballistic missile launcher poised for launch towards the Red Sea. Concurrently, the British Maritime Trade Operations Authority reported a missile attack on a vessel 70 nautical miles southeast of Aden, Yemen, which resulted in a fire. Similarly, Embrey Maritime Security Company revealed that a British-owned cargo ship under the Palau flag was hit by two missiles near Aden, igniting a blaze onboard, marking a significant escalation in maritime tensions involving the US, the UK, and the Houthis.

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IRAN

  1. Iran’s Military Expansion During the Biden Administration’s Term.

During the Biden administration, Iran has escalated its military activities, notably by exporting approximately 400 surface-to-surface ballistic missiles to Russia since 2020, including the Fateh-110 family with a range of up to 700 km. Concurrently, Iran has bolstered its military capabilities through the procurement of aircraft and drone engine parts valued at over $236 million from Turkey, the UAE, Germany, and Ukraine over the last ten years, with $26 million worth in the current Iranian year. This strategic enhancement of military capabilities comes despite international sanctions.

The Defense Ministry of Iran reported a 40% increase in arms sales to foreign states in the last eleven months. Following the expiration of a UN Security Council arms embargo in October 2023, as per the 2015 Iran nuclear deal provisions, Iran’s military trade activities have further intensified. 

Yesterday, the U.S Justice Department unsealed in Manhattan, New York a 2022 case against a Japanese organized crime syndicate leader, Takeshi Ebisawa who was indicted in transferring nuclear materials including Uranium and weapons-Grade Plutonium.  

  1.  Iran’s Legislative Elections: Apathy and Boycott Calls.

Iran’s election campaign starts amid low interest and boycott calls, following protests and concerns of a historic low voter turnout. With Supreme Leader Khamenei advocating for participation, the elections face skepticism due to underrepresentation of reformists and deep public dissatisfaction driven by economic woes and the aftermath of Mahsa Amini’s death. The contest is primarily between conservative factions, highlighting the challenges of achieving a competitive and inclusive political landscape.

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ISRAEL & PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES

  1.  Systematic Sexual Violence by Hamas Detailed in UN Report.

The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel submitted a report to the UN, detailing Hamas’s systematic use of sexual violence during their October 7 attack on Israel and against hostages in Gaza. Authored by Dr. Carmit Klar Chalamish and Noa Berger, the 35-page document reveals rape as a deliberate strategy by Hamas across various locations, including the Supernova music festival and military bases, with tactics such as genital mutilation and weapon penetration. Despite challenges in quantifying the full extent due to the mass-casualty nature of the attacks, numerous eyewitness testimonies were collected. The report’s submission aims to break the silence on these atrocities, amidst criticism of international groups for their delayed or absent condemnation of the sexual violence.

  1. Allegations of Sexual Misconduct by Hamas Leader Sinwar.

Yahya Sinwar, a leader of the Hamas movement, along with his brother Muhammed, faces accusations from within their ranks of sexual assault, rape, and pedophilia. These allegations, revealed by Baruch Yedid on 103FM, date back to their time in Israeli prison and extend to their roles within Hamas in Gaza. Despite reports to Yahya about Muhammed’s misconduct, including acts against young boys and Hamas operatives, Yahya dismissed these concerns and prohibited any investigations that he did not sanction personally. Israeli and Palestinian sources confirm Yahya’s protective stance over his brother, even amid suspicions of Muhammed’s collaboration with Israeli security. Additional claims from Palestinian sources in Ramallah suggest Yahya himself engaged in sexual abuse, with released prisoners providing testimony about his behavior in Ashkelon prison.

  1. Israel’s Arrow Defense System Intercepts Houthi Missile Bound for Eilat.

Israel’s Arrow air defense system successfully intercepted a ballistic missile over the Red Sea, likely launched by the Iran-backed Houthis targeting Eilat, early on February 22, 2024. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reported that the missile, aimed at Israel’s southernmost city, did not breach Israeli airspace, and precautionary sirens were activated in Eilat to warn of potential shrapnel fallout. This incident marks the Arrow system’s sixth ballistic missile interception.

  1. Terror Attack Near Jerusalem Checkpoint: One Dead, 11 Injured.

An Israeli man was killed and 11 others wounded in a terror shooting near a Jerusalem checkpoint, involving three Palestinian gunmen. The attackers targeted Israelis in traffic near Ma’ale Adumim, leading to the death of 26-year-old Matan Elmaliah and injuries ranging from serious to minor, including a pregnant woman in significant surgery. Two gunmen were killed at the scene, and one was captured. The attackers, identified as residents of the Bethlehem area, were armed with assault rifles and a grenade. Itamar Ben Gvir advocated for stricter Palestinian movement restrictions and defended civilian weapon distribution, emphasizing life’s primacy over movement and dismissing the existence of a Palestinian people. Israeli army forces and border guards raided the town of Zaatara near Bethlehem, from which the two brothers Muhammad and Kazem Al-Zawahra, in addition to Ahmed Al-Wahsh, set off to carry out a bloody attack during which they used automatic weapons. Hamas praised the attack describing it as a “heroic operation”. 

  1. IDF’s Strategic Considerations for Gaza Operation.

Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s calls for a defined strategy for evacuating civilians from Rafah, Israeli officials admit to lacking a concrete plan for the city’s invasion, the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza. While the IDF is projected to complete the high-intensity phase of the war by early May, aiming to dismantle four Hamas battalions in Rafah by the end of April, concerns over the operation’s execution and the safety of the remaining 132 hostages weigh heavily. Meanwhile, the Israeli army launched a strike on Rafah killing seven Palestinians and injuring dozens, with a separate air strike in Jabalia killing one. The Gaza Health Ministry reports 29,410 deaths and 69,465 injuries since the war’s onset.

  1. Baath Official’s Trip Post-Damascus Strikes.

Following Israeli strikes targeting Iranian figures in Damascus, Baath Party official Mutaa Al-Sarhan fled to Israel. Al-Sarhan, a key reconciliation committee member living near the Israeli border, was reportedly arrested by Israeli forces outside his Al-Rafid home in Quneitra on February 21, 2024. Accounts vary, with some stating he was apprehended within Syrian territory and others suggesting he sought asylum in Israel. 

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SYRIA

  1. Iranian Militia Fighters Across Syria, Explained.

“Jusoor Center” and “Informagin” Data Analysis Institution, produced a deep dive study showing the diverse composition of over 65,000 fighters from various nationalities. These militias are strategically positioned in government-controlled areas, with notable concentrations in Deir ez-Zor, Al-Bukamal, the Homs countryside, along the Lebanese-Syrian border under Hezbollah’s supervision, in rural southern and southwestern Damascus near the Golan Heights, and parts of Aleppo.  Iranian militias in Syria include the 3,000-strong Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade in Sayyida Zeinab, 1,000 Pakistani Zainebiyoun Brigade fighters in Damascus, the fluidly operating Hezbollah, the fluctuating Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade of Iraqis, 7,000 Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades since 2013, Harakat al-Nujaba active in Aleppo and Damascus, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq with bases in rural Damascus and Al-Bukamal, 2,000-strong Liwa al-Waad al-Sadiq between Iraq and Syria, 5,000 Saraya al-Khorasani fighters, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr Forces in Syrian police uniform, Liwa Imam Hussein led by Amjad al-Bahadli in Damascus and Aleppo, Liwa Zulfiqar fighting in rural Damascus, 750 Yemeni Liwa Saqqa fighters returning from Damascus countryside to Yemen, and 2,500 to 3,000 Palestinian Liwa al-Quds fighters in Aleppo, Damascus, Deir ez-Zor, and Daraa.

  1. Assad Regime Upgrades Ministerial Fleet. 

Sources close to the Assad regime disclosed the replacement of ministerial vehicles with newer models, following an official decree to increase spending on government car repairs. This move has sparked outrage among regime loyalists on social media, who criticize the decision as extravagant amidst ongoing cuts to public allocations and price hikes. They also highlighted the inconsistency of sanctions, noting they apparently do not extend to the procurement of luxury government vehicles.

  1. Turkiye Detains Syrians for Alleged French Espionage. 

Turkey’s intelligence service arrested three Syrians, including activist Ahmed Qate’, in Bursa, accusing them of spying for France. The operation targeted a network allegedly disseminating false information internationally about Turkey’s treatment of refugees. The detainees, also identified as Hossam Al-Nahar and Ibrahim Shweish, were apprehended with evidence of coordination with French intelligence.

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★ LEBANON 

  1. France’s Mediation Efforts in Lebanon-Israel Conflict and Support to Lebanese Army Delayed. 

France recently offered a comprehensive proposal to Lebanon, aiming to resolve the long-standing border dispute with Israel, focusing on the contentious Shebaa Farms and Kfar Shouba Hills. This initiative, facilitated through the French embassy and presented in three languages, signifies France’s proactive stance in fostering dialogue. However, an intended conference to support the Lebanese Army, scheduled for February 27, has been postponed indefinitely due to disagreements with European and U.S. capitals over the ongoing regional conflict and political uncertainties. The premature announcement of the conference, without consulting international partners, led to confusion and highlighted the complexities of specifying the Lebanese Army’s role amidst the volatile situation. The delay reflects the intricacies of aligning international efforts, especially considering the recent deadly exchanges between Israel and Hezbollah, which have intensified the need for a clear political solution and support for Lebanon’s security forces.

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TURKIYE

  1. US-Turkey Collaborate on Ammunition Production.

The Pentagon plans to partner with Turkish subcontractors for the production of 155 mm shell metal parts in Texas, aiming to enhance the U.S. ammunition capacity by 2025. This cooperation underscores the strategic alliance between the U.S. and Turkiye, aligning with broader national security objectives. Additionally, the U.S. acknowledges Turkey’s significant role in NATO and its contributions to international stability, including support for Ukraine and the facilitation of grain shipments amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The approval of a deal for F-16 fighter jets to Turkey further solidifies their defense collaboration, amidst discussions on Turkey’s potential reintegration into the F-35 program and its advancements in indigenous defense capabilities with the flight of the KAAN fighter jet.

  1. Turkiye Achieves Milestone with First Flight of Indigenous Fighter Jet KAAN. 

Turkiye’s defense industry celebrated a significant achievement as KAAN, its first indigenously developed fifth-generation fighter jet, successfully completed its initial flight. President Erdoğan hailed the event as a proud moment, underscoring Turkiye’s progress in reducing external dependency in defense. The TF-X project, initiated in 2016 with UK’s BAE Systems, aims to replace Turkey’s aging F-16 fleet. KAAN, equipped with advanced capabilities and potential for artificial intelligence integration, is set to enhance Turkey’s air combat prowess and contribute to its self-reliance in defense technology.

  1. Sedat Önal, Ambassador to Washington.

Türkiye has appointed Sedat Önal as its new ambassador to Washington and Ahmet Yıldız as its permanent representative to the United Nations. These appointments, announced by Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, are part of a broader diplomatic reshuffle by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, including new ambassadors to 10 countries, signaling a strategic realignment of Türkiye’s foreign policy leadership.

  1. Turkish Central Bank Keeps Key Interest Rate Stable Despite Inflation Risks.

The Turkish Central Bank decided to hold the key interest rate unchanged at 45 percent on Thursday, which is in line with expectations after raising the interest rate last month, but said it may tighten its monetary policy if the possibility of a significant and continuing This is the first time that the Turkish Central Bank has fixed interest rates since last May, when it began its monetary tightening campaign in June.This comes after the Central Bank raised interest rates by about 36.5 percent through eight consecutive meetings.deterioration in inflation expectations looms. 

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IRAQ

  1.  Pro-Iran Militias’ Illicit Activities Cripple Mosul’s Economy. 

In Mosul, pro-Iran Hashd al-Shaabi affiliated militias continue to engage in theft, extortion, and property seizures, despite Iraqi efforts to dismantle their economic offices. Governor Abdul Qadir Dakhil of Nineveh province reports these militias’ deep influence over governmental institutions, hindering development projects and farmland use. Their illicit control extends to oil theft, taxing businesses, and land fraud, inflicting significant economic damage on the region.

  1. Iraq’s Parliament Deadlocked Over Speaker Election. 

Iraq’s efforts to elect a new Speaker of Parliament remain stalled, with the Coordinating Framework’s representative Gharib Askar reporting no progress despite ongoing negotiations. The Federal Court’s dismissal of Muhammad Al-Halbousi in November 2023 for official misconduct has left the position vacant. Amidst unresolved disputes among power factions, the parliamentary functions continue under Acting Speaker Mohsen Al-Mandalawi, with no solution in sight for the leadership crisis.

  1. Lukoil’s Founder Meets Iraqi PM to Discuss Oil Development.

Vagit Alekperov, Lukoil’s founder, met with Iraqi Prime Minister Muhammad Shia Al-Sudani to discuss the expansion of Lukoil’s operations in Iraq, including the development of West Qurna and Erido oil fields. The talks aimed at overcoming operational challenges and enhancing Lukoil’s involvement in Iraq’s energy sector, building on the momentum of the Iraqi PM’s recent visit to Moscow.

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EGYPT

  1. Egypt Hosts BRICS, Attends G20, and Manages Gaza Crisis. 

On the same day Cairo was hosting the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries for a conference to address market distortions and food security, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry joins the G20 foreign minister’s meeting in Rio de Janeiro. This is Egypt’s fourth participation, as it was previously invited three times as a guest of the group, in 2016, 2019, and 2023. Shoukry reaffirmed to the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken the necessity of reaching a ceasefire to halt the bloodshed of civilians and de-escalate the ongoing crisis, following the US veto on a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution calling for a ceasefire.

Egyptian President Sisi hosted Iraq’s National Wisdom Movement leader Ammar al-Hakim, attended by the Egyptian Director of Intelligence. Although not directly clarified, the meeting was about the gravity of the ongoing escalation and its repercussions on stability in the region. 

Egypt announced today the entry of 24 trucks loaded with various humanitarian aid entered the Gaza strip through the Rafah border crossing. The convoy consists of four fuel trucks and 20 various humanitarian aid trucks. An official source at the crossing said 143 holders of Egyptian passports and 50 others of foreign nationalities, in addition to 279 with residence permits, also crossed the terminal into Egypt. Later in the evening Israel’s time, news media reported about clashes between the IDF and the far-right HONO organization after preventing the entry of aid into the Gaza strip demanding the government negotiate the release of the hostages. The UK and Jordan delivered four tons of essential supplies to Tal al-Hawa Hospital in Gaza via airdrop. This vital aid supports the Jordanian-established facility’s ongoing patient care.

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THE GULF

  1. Saudi Arabia Tops UN’s e-Government Services Maturity Index for 2023.

Saudi Arabia secures the first position in the UN ESCWA’s e-Government Services Maturity Index for 2023, marking its consecutive leadership with a 93% maturity score. This achievement, as noted by Digital Government Authority’s Governor Ahmed Al-Sawyan, underscores the Kingdom’s strides in digital transformation, aligning with Vision 2030 to enhance productivity and user experience through advanced technology. The Index evaluates 17 countries, with Saudi Arabia excelling in service availability, usage, and reach.

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📌 Incase you missed it,

📰 Iran’s Imminent Game: Steering Assad Toward an Inevitable Clash with Israel

📰 The Early Phoenix February 21, 2024

🌍 The Region – Feb 12, 2024

🔗 Follow the latest news from the American Center for Levant Studies via Google News

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