What else happened in the Middle East as Gaza burned?

 
Refugees in Kurdistan Refugees from the Isis offensive have been pouring into Kurdistan

The Middle East is going through such turmoil that much has been going on during the month Gaza dominated the headlines. Here's my summary of the five key events.

1. The onward march of the Islamic State in Iraq

The jihadist movement has attacked and routed Kurdish forces on the Syrian border. This has resulted in the Islamic State (IS), previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), securing the last significant border crossing into Syria and gaining control of Iraq's biggest dam, near Mosul. It has also produced what the UN in Iraq has described as "a humanitarian tragedy".

Up to 300,000 people may have fled the town of Sinjar and newly captured lands around it, and there have been unconfirmed reports of up to 2,000 people being killed by the militants.

Attention is now focused on about 40,000 of the refugees stranded on a mountainside without food, water, or shelter. Like most of those who have fled, they are from Iraq's Yazidi religious minority and are terrified they will be persecuted by IS. Christians from Qaraqosh, estimated to number 50,000, have also fled the jihadists.

The administration of Nouri al-Maliki, meanwhile, is tottering in Baghdad, with fresh signs that both Iran and Iraq's Shia clerical leadership have withdrawn their support for him. All of this leaves what passes these days for central government in Baghdad struggling to coordinate a response to the IS advance, let alone reverse its gains of the spring.

2. The Syrian civil war rages

During late July there were claims that 1,700 people had been killed in Syria in a single week. Certainly, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and observers of the conflict believe the toll there during the past month surpasses that in Gaza.

The fighting has been raging over a gas field in the centre of the country and in the Qalamoun mountains near Damascus. During the latter offensive, there have been claims of close cooperation between IS and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra). The two groups both grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq and have at times engaged in a murderous internecine rivalry. Were they able to cooperate effectively on a long term basis, it could be a game changer in Syria.

3. Lebanon is buckling under the strain of Syria's war

The difficulty of hosting so many refugees from the conflict has been apparent for years in Lebanon, but in the past few days a stand-off has developed between militant fighters and the Lebanese army in the town of Arsal. The gunmen, also a combined force from IS and the Nusra Front, have captured 27 members of the Lebanese security forces there, and more than 40 people are thought to have died in the fighting. They attacked Arsal from across the nearby Syrian border, apparently because they consider the Lebanese security forces to be hostile.

While there have been many previous occasions since the Syrian conflict began on which people have feared for the stability of Lebanon, with its fragile balance of ethnic groups, the siege in Arsal is worrying many.

In addition to the loss of life during this week, there are concerns that Sunni militant groups - who have previously fought Shia Lebanese units from the militant group Hezbollah that have intervened in the Syrian conflict on the side of President Bashar al-Assad - may come to regard incursions into Lebanon or attacks on its security forces as a new part of their struggle.

There are fears that the country's army could buckle if such pressure increased and Sunni-Shia clashes escalate in cities such as the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, where sporadic clashes have been going on for years.

4. Libya has stepped closer to complete collapse

Fighting between rival militias has intensified - and few expect current UN ceasefire efforts to give more than a temporary respite. Since last month, fighting in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, has claimed more than 200 lives and closed the airport, where airliners have been burnt and the control tower shattered. This triggered the evacuation of diplomatic missions and by UK citizens earlier this week.

Meanwhile, in the east of the country, there has also been fighting in Benghazi, where Islamist militias have claimed successes against the disparate forces collected by former army general Khalifa Hafter.

However, the reverses suffered recently by Gen Hafter seem to be stimulating Egyptian military involvement in the crisis. There have already been reports, from reliable sources, of money and equipment flowing across the border. Egypt's ruler, President Abdul Fateh al-Sisi, apparently sees Gen Hafter's attempt to battle the militias and bring order to eastern Libya as an extension of his own fight against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now there are suggestions that Egyptian troops may be operating inside Libya as part of this effort. This escalating battle is also spilling into Egypt, with nine soldiers killed near Mersah Matruh, close to the Libyan frontier earlier this week.

5. Iran and Russia step closer

While the two countries have long enjoyed good commercial and defence ties, there have been some important developments in recent weeks. They have now reached an £11bn agreement on oil that could see Russia taking up to half Iran's exports of crude.

Why, when Russia is also a major producer? It seems that the deal might allow Russia to get Iranian oil to market, by-passing Western sanctions, while the two countries would also share technology needed to modernise their production of crude and power grids more generally. Russia is concerned that new Western sanctions could hit modernisation of its energy sector, and Iran has plenty of experience of doing it alone.

In addition to this new oil deal, reports in recent weeks have suggested that Russia has stepped up arms deliveries to Iraq, as it struggles against the advance of IS. Huge amounts of kit were lost to the militant advance, and the US has been slow to help. So the Russians have flown in items like heavy artillery. Russia and Iran have also apparently been jointly operating a force of Su-25 bombers on behalf of Iraq. The aircraft have come from both countries and so, reportedly, have pilots and ground crew.

 
Mark Urban Article written by Mark Urban Mark Urban Diplomatic and defence editor, BBC Newsnight

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