Talos Regional Snapshot – 08 July 2023

Jul 9, 2023



Israel reportedly dismantles Iranian assassination cell
In a rare statement, the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad announced that the head of an Iranian cell involved in a plot to assassinate Israeli targets in Cyprus had been arrested. Yousef Shahbazi Abbasalilo was reportedly detained in an operation conducted inside Iran and, in video footage depicting his interrogation, Abbasilo reportedly confessed to operating on orders from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to target Israeli businessmen in Cyprus. Several other individuals involved in the plot, including Pakistani and Iranian nationals, were also apprehended by Cypriot security forces, according to Mossad. Separate reports by Israeli sources claimed the plot involved intent to target an Israeli real estate businessman and venues frequented by Israeli tourists.

The Cypriot Government and Iran refrained from commenting on the plot which is the second foiled by Israel in Cyprus after a similar plan involving the targeting of Israeli businesspeople was foiled in 2021. Last year, in June 2022, Mossad was also reportedly involved in the disruption of an assassination plan in Turkey. Alongside the confirmed kidnap of an Israeli-Russian national in Baghdad in March (see below), the decision to publicly unveiled the assassination plan in Cyprus was likely made to increase international pressure on Iran and elucidate long-standing Israeli accusations of Iranian terrorism activities. Likewise, by asserting the disruption of the plot inside Iranian territory, Israel again showcases its ability to exploit weaknesses and infiltrate Iran’s internal security apparatus.

IRGC seized commercial tanker in the Strait of Hormuz
Naval tensions sparked by Iran’s continued targeting of commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf increased this week as the IRGC confirmed that it seized a commercial tanker allegedly carrying smuggled fuel. The statement released on 7 July claimed the seizure of the cargo and 12 crew members was based on a court order and that some 900 tons of smuggled fuel was on board the unnamed vessel.

Earlier in the week, the US Navy claimed that Iran attempted to seize two oil tankers near the strait of Hormuz and that shots were fired as the US Navy intervened. No casualties or damages resulted from the engagement, however a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council emphasized that the US would “response to Iranian aggression.” It remains unclear if the seizure announced by the IRGC on 7 July is linked to the same incident, but the US Navy statement claimed the navy successfully “prevented two attempted commercial seizures”, indicating that the 7 July interception by Iran was a separate incident.

Regardless, these incidents again highlight persistent Iranian intent to target commercial traffic in the Strait of Hormuz following earlier interceptions of oil tankers in April and May. These incidents prompted the Fifth Fleet to increase its presence in the region, fueling concerns of an escalation in tensions. While the exchange of gunfire this week remains an object of concern, these dynamics remain largely confined to hostilities at sea.

Israeli research report claims Iranian build-up of ballistic missiles near Iran-Iraq border
A report published by the Israeli Alma Research and Education Center this week claims Iran has continued the build-up of ballistic missiles along the Iran-Iraq border inside underground facilities. Sources in the report are quoted identifying a “Qiam-1 ballistic missile arsenal in Kermanshah” – located approximately 150 kilometers from the Iraqi border – which is being kept in more than 60 so-called “missile bunkers” located at three separate underground sites.

The claim remains difficult to verify and while the Alma Center describes itself as a non-partisan think tank, the report is consistent with broader Israeli intent to inflate Iranian threat perceptions. Regardless, the claim follows Iran’s significant use of ballistic missiles during 2022 against so-called Iranian dissident groups such as Komala, Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDP-I), and others within the KR-I in September and November of 2022. Related tensions were amplified this year as numerous reports detailed the deployment of Iranian assets – including missile and artillery pieces – to areas near the Iraq border. The deployments sparked concerns over renewed cross-border activity yet are more appropriately understood as part of a diplomatic pressure campaign on the GoI and KRG to dislodge opposition groups from the KRG.

The report by the Alma Center may gain similar traction and fuel renewed speculation of the possibility of cross-border activity. Regardless, Iran will likely continue to stockpile both weaponized UAVs and ballistic missiles, such as the noted Qiam-1 ballistic missile, along the Iran-Iraq border to achieve several objectives strategically. Beyond threatening dissident groups, doing so will also allow Iran to stage capable and accurate materials in close range against regional adversaries such as US interests and Israel, while enabling potentially rapid response to any perceived aggressions in the region. The deployments also allow for a capable deterrent to be forward deployed in difficult-to-reach terrain.


Israel claims airstrikes in northern Syria
On 2 July, according to various reports, Israel conducted several air strikes near Homs province, a region under the control of the Syrian Government. In a rare admission, the Israeli military openly claimed responsibility for these strikes and added that fighter jets targeted a Syrian air defense battery after an anti-aircraft missile was launched toward Israeli territory. The missile reportedly exploded in mid-air, with debris impacting the town of Rahat, according to Israeli police sources.

According to the Syrian state media outlet SANA, which cited a military source, “the Israeli enemy carried out air strikes northeast of Beirut, targeting some points in the vicinity of the city of Homs.” SANA also reported that the Syrian air defense systems successfully intercepted the missiles, which only resulted in material damage. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that a member of the IRGC was killed in the strike, indicating that the operation targeted sites affiliated with Iranian-backed forces.

UN Security Council set to vote on border crossing extension
On 10 July, a UN mandate that allows critical aid deliveries through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and northwestern Syria is set to expire, with the UN Security Council expected to vote on an extension in the coming days. The border crossing is located in an area controlled by opposition forces and the mandate has been temporarily extended for six months at a time despite Russian and Syrian government opposition. This week, UN officials, including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, urged the council to approve a 12-month extension, claiming a longer extension was required to build permanent shelters in areas still affected by the 6 February earthquake, which significantly worsened humanitarian conditions in the region. Other UN officials said this week that the extension of the border crossing directly affects 2.7 million individuals dependent on the aid deliveries.

Jordanian foreign minister visited Syria
In a further sign of the normalization of ties between Syria and other regional countries, the Foreign Minister of Jordan, Ayman Safadi, arrived in Damascus to meet with President Bashar al-Assad and Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad. In a press conference, Safadi called for international investments to speed up the reconstruction of critical infrastructure and basic necessities so that refugees may return to their country of origin. The two sides also discussed the need to combat narcotics smuggling amidst growing concerns in Amman over the growing Captagon trade, which is largely based in Syria.

Overall, the visit highlights Jordan’s continued engagement with the Assad government, having played a key role earlier this year in promoting Damascus’ return to the Arab League. The statement over refugees also underscores existing disagreements between Jordan – as well as Lebanon and Turkey – on the one hand, and the US, UK and EU on the other, over the perceived safety of returning refugees. While neighboring countries to Syria have become increasingly vocal about the need to return Syrian refugees and simultaneously promote normalization to encourage investments and reconstruction, the West largely maintains that Syria remains unsafe for refugees. Safadi’s remarks also highlight growing opposition to Western sanctions, which continue to impede reconstruction efforts in government-controlled areas.


Israeli Government confirms kidnapping of Israeli-Russian researcher in March
On 5 July, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Elizabeth Tsurkov, an Israeli-Russian researcher, was abducted in Baghdad in late March and remains alive. The statement emphasized Iraq’s obligation to ensure Tsurkov’s safety and added that she was concluding her doctoral research on patronage networks at Princeton University at the time of the kidnap. The announcement further indicated that Israeli authorities are currently handling her case, however separate reports confirmed that the Russian Government is also involved in the negotiations.

Various reports stated that Tsurkov was abducted by Kata’ib Hezbollah in the Karrada area of eastern Baghdad in March 2023 – a claim initially made by Sabereen News and later corroborated by Israeli Newspaper Haaretz and other sources. The circumstances of Tsurkov’s kidnapping remain unclear however the researcher reportedly traveled to Iraq on at least ten occasions as part of her doctoral research and was repeatedly warned not to conduct further visits prior to the incident. Further context is provided in this report.

Protests over burning of the Quran continue following embassy storming
As widely reported, the burning of the holy Quran by Salwan Momika – an Iraqi citizen living in Sweden – generated significant reactions in the region, including in federal areas of Iraq where large-scale demonstrations have been recorded on a regular basis over the week since the storming of the Swedish embassy compound on 29 June. Daily protests were recorded in particular in Baghdad and the southern region predominantly organized by Sadrist followers in response to calls from the influential cleric to continue the demonstrations until 25 July.

Beyond protest activity, political reactions were equally significant in response to the book burning. Echoing sentiments expressed by other states in the region, the Government of Iraq released several statements over the week condemning the desecration and the Foreign Ministry summoned the Swedish Ambassador Jessica Svardstrom to protest Sweden’s authorization of the burning. The GoI also called on Sweden to extradite Momika so that he can be put on trial in Iraq – a request refused by the Swedish Government which, while condemning the act, has cited freedom of speech laws and the right to assembly as grounds for allowing the event on 29 June to proceed. In more inflammatory remarks, the head of the Al-Fateh Alliance and leader of the Badr Organization stated during a press conference in Dhi Qar province that there “is no place for Swedish citizens in Iraq” and called for the immediate expulsion of Swedish diplomats from the country – remarks that have understandably raised the perceived threat level against Swedish citizens and interests in the country. Further context is provided in the Talos Weekly Analysis Report.


Egypt and Turkey restored full diplomatic ties
On 4 July, Egypt and Turkey released a joint statement announcing the full restoration of diplomatic ties – the latest step in a gradual process of reconciliation that began over two years ago. The statement also announced the appointments of Salih Mutlu Sen as Turkey’s ambassador to Egypt and Amr Elhamami as Egypt’s ambassador to Turkey. To recall, the two sides severed ties in 2013 following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Muhammed Morsi, who enjoyed the support of Turkey as well as Qatar. Qatar’s relations with Egypt were likewise severed in 2017 in connection with the Saudi-led blockade.

The gradual restoration of ties mirrored Turkey’s gradual rapprochement with the Gulf states that followed the end of the blockade of Qatar in early 2021 and, although rapprochement with Egypt has been slow, the progress accelerated last year as Turkey expanded ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This diplomatic engagement also corresponded with a broader strategic shift in Ankara towards a more conciliatory approach which is assessed to be driven largely by economic considerations and part of an effort to attract regional investments to alleviate worsening domestic economic conditions.

President Erdogan to embark on Gulf tour
In a related development unveiled this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to visit the Gulf Region in the coming weeks. Media reports citing Turkish officials claim the trip will take place on 17-19 July, with stops in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, in a bid to secure investments from the gulf states. The same sources assert that the President is looking to secure $10 billion in foreign direct investments (FDI) during the visit and that expectations in Ankara are high ahead of the visit.

If materialized, the size of the investment would be equivalent to the investment agreement signed between Turkey and the UAE in late 2021, shortly following their restoration of diplomatic relations. These investments continue to form a key pillar in the Government’s attempt to alleviate the worst effects of currency devaluation and rising inflation which has discouraged international investments and contributed to a significant decline in FDI in recent years. Following Turkey’s re-election of Erdogan in May, the upcoming trip signals Erdogan’s intent to continue Turkish efforts to extend ties with the Gulf states despite previous strategic disagreements.

Saudi Arabia

Two killed in shooting outside US consulate in Jeddah
At around 18:45 on 28 June, an armed man exchanged fire with Saudi Arabian security authorities near the US consulate building in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The confrontation resulted in two fatalities: the armed man and a private security guard employed at the consulate. The US State Department confirmed that no American citizens were injured during this event. The assailant reportedly parked his vehicle near the consulate and opened fire, leading to his death in the ensuing gunfight. A Nepalese security guard was injured in the crossfire and later died from his injuries.

No motivation for the attack has been established, yet the consulate said an investigation is ongoing by Saudi authorities. The identity and nationality of the perpetrator were also not specified, as details remain limited. There are no preliminary indications that the incident was terrorism-related, however two terrorism-linked incidents have been reported in the vicinity of the consulate in the past. In 2016, an IS-linked militant armed with an explosive vest was intercepted near the consulate and detonated when arrested by security personnel. In 2004, five al-Qaeda-linked assailants conducted an armed assault against the consulate, killing four Saudi security personnel and five local staff members. Any further details related to the shooting this week will be provided as available.

Saudi Arabia announced extension of voluntary oil production cut
On 4 July, the official Saudi Press Agency announced that Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed to extend oil production cuts of one million barrels per day for another month. The voluntary cap is separate from those agreed under the OPEC+ alliance and was initially set to expire by the end of July. Sources within the Saudi Ministry of Energy described the decision as a step to reinforce “precautionary efforts made by the OPEC countries” and to support the “stability and balance of oil markets.”  Similar sentiments were expressed the next day by Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman who stressed that Saudi Arabia would do “whatever necessary” to maintain market stability.


Kuwait rejects Iranian plans to commence exploration of Durrah field
On 3 July, the Kuwait Foreign Ministry expressed its rejection of Iran’s plans to commence drilling in the disputed Arah/Durrah field in the Persian Gulf. The statement claimed Kuwait and Saudi Arabia retained “exclusive rights” to the natural wealth of the maritime field. The statement also invited Iran to resume negotiations to resolve this long-standing maritime border dispute which dates back several decades. The next day, the official Saudi Press Agency, citing a foreign ministry source, essentially reiterated Kuwait’s statement by declaring Saudi Arabia and Kuwait’s “exclusive rights” to the field. Both statements follow remarks made by Iranian officials, including the Director of the National Iranian Oil Company, last week saying “there is full preparation to start drilling” in the field.

The dispute over the field may pose a challenge to the Iran-Saudi relationship, which has been remarkably positive since the announced restoration of diplomatic ties in March. Last year, diplomatic tensions temporarily increased after Kuwait and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to develop the field. The Iranian Foreign Ministry strongly rejected the plans, yet no further escalation was noted. With the field reportedly containing a potential production capacity of one billion standard cubic feet per day, the dispute is likely to remain a source of tension unless all sides find a negotiated agreement.


Houthi Movement escalates activity in al-Dhale province
According to Saudi-linked sources, the Houthi Movement has escalated attacks in the al-Dhale province of Yemen, with indirect fire and assaults targeting government troops in the al-Fakher and al-Thawkhab regions. At least six government soldiers have been killed as a result, with several more injured, while local government officials cite Houti preparations for another, larger assault in the province by bringing reinforcements from other frontline areas. In a related development, the Defence Ministry claimed forces intercepted an explosive-laden UAV in Jouf’s al-Jadafer province, launched by the Houthi Movement, with no casualties or damages discussed.

The developments reported this week are disconcerting, considering a long-standing lull in hostilities prevailing across the country since a temporary truce was agreed in April of 2022. Despite its expiration in October, activity across the frontlines has remained limited, with the reduction in hostilities setting conditions for the start of more serious negotiations earlier this year. The lack of progress observed since in the peace process, combined with the recent escalation in al-Dhale, highlights the fragility of the situation and is set to fuel concerns of a renewed outbreak in major military operations. So far, the activity remains relatively isolated yet, when visiting Houthi troops in Taiz earlier this week, the Houthi Defence Minister reportedly threatened to restart military operations against the government forces unless Houthi demands are met. The statement drew condemnation from the ambassadors of the US, UK and France, who, in a joint statement, called on the movement to return to the negotiations and work with government counterparts to reach a permanent settlement.

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