Talos Regional Snapshot – 12 August 2023

Aug 13, 2023



Iran released US prisoners in exchange for unfreezing of funds
On 10 August, US and Iranian officials confirmed that an agreement was reached to release five US-Iranian prisoners detained in Iran and place them under house arrest. In exchange, the US agreed to unfreeze approximately $6 billion in Iranian assets held in South Korea as well as to release Iranian prisoners jailed in the US. The agreement was confirmed by Iran’s permanent representative to the UN who said the deal was mediated by an unspecified third party. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken described the release of the jailed US citizens as a “positive step” and said the US State Department had spoken with the prisoners involved. Blinken clarified in the same remarks that the deal does not amount to sanctions relief and that no such agreement is being considered by the administration. Following the initial announcement however, on 12 August Iranian Foreign Ministry officials stated that media sources are not accurately covering the terms of the deal, noting that there will be no oversight on the released funds in exchange for US prisoners. 

Three of the five prisoners were identified by open sources, and include Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, and Moraq Tahbaz (who also holds UK citizenship). All three were reportedly serving 10-year sentences on spying charges, however the sentences were widely regarded as politically motivated and State Department officials stressed that the prisoners should not have been jailed in the first place.  The fourth and fifth individuals remain unidentified, but one of them was reportedly already under house arrest.

Despite present tensions in the Gulf (see below) the prisoner exchange forms a cautiously optimistic indicator of progress on negotiations between Iran and the US. To recall, both sides confirmed in May that initial steps had been taken to resume negotiations surrounding the Iranian nuclear program and the latest release forms the most tangible sign of progress since. The political implications of the agreement remain to be seen however, as the Biden administration is expected to face criticism over any concessions made to Iran. Responding to the deal, former Vice-President Mike Pence said the deal would serve to “fund terrorism” and “drones to Russia”, with similar rhetoric to be expected to surround any negotiations with Iran ahead of the 2024 Presidential elections.

Iran reiterates claim over supersonic missile in response to US enforcements in the Gulf
Meanwhile, regional tensions between the US and Iran remain driven by the deployment of conventional military capabilities in the Gulf region. As discussed the previous week, US officials anonymously cited plans to deploy military personnel on board commercial vessels to deter Iranian ship seizures, only weeks after the deployment of an expeditionary force comprising combat fighter jets and naval destroyers in response to what the US called “Iranian aggression.” This week, in an assessed response, Iranian state-linked sources announced that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) deployed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and medium-range missiles on board naval assets in the Gulf. The types of capabilities were not specified but official media sources cited the deployment of “various types of drones” and “cruise missiles with a range of 300 to 1000 kilometers.”

In a related development, state-linked media reiterated claims that Iran “achieved the technology needed to manufacture a supersonic missile” and that tests of these capabilities are currently ongoing. The report by Tasmin News said the missile is “extremely difficult to intercept” and described the development as “opening a new chapter” in the country’s ballistic missile program. As earlier discussed in this report, the IRGC officially unveiled a hypersonic missile (defined as a missile capable of achieving flight speeds exceeding Mach-5 or five times the speed of sound) in June, during an event broadcast on Iranian state television. Officials claimed at the time that successful tests of the so-called Fattah missile had been carried out, however no video footage or independent corroboration exists to verify the claim. The most recent announcement appears timed for threat messaging purposes and the reports this week do not suggest any significant new developments. As of writing, Iran’s ability to manufacture and successfully deploy missiles remains unconfirmed, however the issue is expected to persist as a source of tensions in the region.

German officials warn of hackers targeting so-called Iranian dissidents living abroad
On 10 August, Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) warned that so-called Iranian dissidents living in Germany may be targeted by hackers linked to the Iranian government. The notice– cited by German press reports – warned of a hacking group called the Charming Kitten which targets lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, and NGOs critical of the Iranian government by using various cyber tactics. This included forging close relationships with the victims in order to obtain sensitive data, as well as employing spear-fishing tactics, a method that sends fake messages which appear to be legitimate to gain access to emails, messenger services, and cloud storage.

German officials warned that users with backgrounds in the mentioned fields should exercise caution and treat communications with non-established contacts with a high degree of skepticism and verify individuals’ identities by making phone calls, checking email addresses, and not opening suspicious links. Notably, the notice adds that the group pretends to act as real individuals – often with a public profile such as journalists – to obtain information and invite victims to online chat forums. While the warning appears primarily directed against Iranian dissident individuals, the notice forms a consideration for client operations linked more broadly with German interests, including German diplomatic staff, organizations and commercial entities. The full notice by BfV is available (in German) here.

Registration for parliamentary elections opens
On 7 August, the registration period for candidates intending to participate in the parliamentary elections opened. The polls are scheduled to be held in March 2024 and are the first to take place since the outbreak of nationwide protests sparked by the death of Masha Amini. The registration period only lasts a week and will be followed by an extensive vetting period as each candidate is subject to approval by the Guardian Council.

The last parliamentary elections held in 2020 were likewise preceded by large-scale protests and were widely perceived as the most rigged elections since the Islamic Revolution, with approximately half of all candidates disqualified for participation. The majority of these candidates were moderate progressives and members of so-called “reformist” factions, with the polls accordingly resulting in a significant victory for conservative candidates and MPs linked with the clerical establishment. The 2020 polls also resulted in significant advances for IRGC-linked candidates and represented a step in the growing politicization of that organization. Similar exclusions can be anticipated ahead of the 2024 polls as the 2022 upheaval set conditions for a continuing crackdown on political opponents and reformist elements. Voter participation in 2020 was historically low, however the upcoming polls may well result in even lower turnout considering recent developments.

Saudi Embassy in Iran resumes operations
On 9 August, the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran officially resumed operations for the first time since 2016. There was no comment or confirmation from Saudi Arabia, however sources cited within the Iranian Foreign Ministry said the embassy has been operating since 6 August. The announcement was largely expected yet constitutes an important symbolic step in the restoration of ties between the two sides since the normalization agreement signed in March. In June, the Iranian Embassy likewise resumed its operations in Saudi Arabia.


IS escalates activity in Syria with attacks against government forces
IS continued to escalate attacks in the Syrian countryside this week, with two significant incidents targeting Syrian government forces in the Raqqa and Deir Ez Zour provinces. On 7 August, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights and other local sources, insurgents targeted checkpoints and positions in the Maadan al-Atiq area in eastern Raqqah province. At least ten soldiers were killed and six others wounded in the clashes during which insurgents briefly seized control over the targeted area before withdrawing. Later in the week, on 10 August, the insurgents ambushed a bus transporting members of the Syrian government forces in the al-Mayadeen area of Deir Ez Zour province, eastern Syria. The attack was conducted in the late evening hours and reportedly killed 23 soldiers and wounded another 10.

The two high-casualty incidents this week follow the previously discussed detonation of a motorcycle-borne IED in the vicinity of a Shia mosque in Damascus on 27 July as well as the targeting of a military convoy in eastern Syria on the Raqqah-Sulaymaniyah highway on 31 July, likewise killing a large number of Syrian government soldiers. This uptick in activity represents the most significant escalation by the group this year and is understandably raising concerns about a potential resurgence of the group. While ambushes along key highways in relatively deserted areas are consistent with long-standing trends, the targeting of civilians in Damascus and the attack this week in Raqqah – including reports of militants briefly seizing territorial control – constitute more disconcerting deviations from standard attack patterns and are more reminiscent of tactics employed by the group prior to its territorial defeat. In isolation, concerns about a resurgence should not be exaggerated but additional activity is worth monitoring for signs of growing IS capabilities.

Tahrir al-Sham denies killing IS leader
The latest escalation also follows the reported death of IS caliph Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurayshi in northwestern Syria, in what IS described as a confrontation with members of al-Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The group did not immediately respond to the claim, however this week a spokesperson for HTS categorically denied that it had any involvement in his death. The spokesperson, Dia al-Omar, added that it remains committed to fighting the “evil of IS” and that the group would have “announced the good news directly” had it been involved. As of writing, no group or state has claimed responsibility for al-Qurayshi’s death and the circumstances of his demise remain unclear. Earlier this year, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that Turkish forces killed the caliph, however the remarks were immediately rebuked by IS and have since been discounted.

Israeli airstrikes continue to target Damascus
Hostilities linked to Israeli-Iranian tensions in Syria remain broadly consistent with standing trends and include a continuation of Israeli airstrikes targeting facilities linked with Iran-linked militia elements. On 7 August, another round of airstrikes targeted positions near Damascus, with Syrian state-linked media claiming four soldiers were killed and four others wounded. The same report noted that several strikes were intercepted by air defense systems without providing further details. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights added that at least two strikes targeted facilities near Damascus International Airport used as weapon storage and that some of the fatalities included members of an Iranian-linked militia group. No impact on airport operations was discussed and the sites targeted were likely located outside of the actual airport perimeter.

The latest airstrikes are consistent with routine Israeli activities and are unlikely to generate any significant Iranian responses, however related atmospherics are worth monitoring. Since the sudden increase in attack activity observed in March, which culminated in the death of a US contractor, hostilities in Syria related to Iran, the US, and Israel have been relatively limited and are plausibly linked to US-led efforts to restart negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. This is not assessed to prevent further Israeli strikes against targets across Syria, yet absent broader regional threat triggers, this activity can be expected to fall short of operations likely to trigger significant Iranian responses.

United Nations announces reopening of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing
The United Nations announced that a deal was reached with Syria to allow the passage of humanitarian aid. The agreement will reopen the Bab al-Hawa crossing, which was previously used to provide 85% of the UN’s deliveries to the northwest Idlib province of Syria. The United Nations deputy spokesperson, Farhan Haq, noted that the UN is ready to resume operations, however, it will likely take several days to assemble logistics, including trucks, to support the move. According to the agreement, the Syrian government will keep two other border crossings open in the northwestern region, the Bab al-Salameh and al-Rai crossings, for three months until mid-November.

To recall, the mandate for the border crossing expired in July and the UN Security Council failed to agree on an extension amidst Russian opposition and disagreements about the length of the extension. While the US, UK, and France insisted on a 12-month extension, the Russian proposal stipulated a six-month extension which is ultimately what was agreed. While a temporary relief, the issue will therefore emerge as a recurring source of disagreements and concern by the time the current mandate expires.


Turkey confirms deaths of soldiers in northern Iraq
The Turkish Ministry of Defence announced the death of at least seven soldiers during clashes with the PKK in northern Duhok province. Speaking at a news conference on 10 August, Colonel Zeki Akturk said their deaths occurred in the Zap region of the province during an engagement with “terrorists”, while additional reports from PKK-linked media suggested a major PKK assault on 9 August in the Amedi area was largely responsible.  Additional reports of further wounded were not confidently deconflicted, though PKK-linked reports claimed as many as 30 killed and others wounded during recent operations. 

The announcements follow an assessed intensification of Turkish airstrike activity affecting the PKK in Iraq and Syria, including reports of UAV precision strikes conducted this week. In Iraq, four separate strikes were conducted against PKK targets on 6, 9 and 11 August in the Sharbazher, Dokan, Chamchamal and Penjwin districts of Sulaymaniyah province, with an additional strike on 6 August in the Amedi district of Duhok. Each incident targeted vehicles transporting confirmed or suspected PKK operatives, and killed at least seven individuals while wounding several others in broad daylight (see the full report). Earlier in the week, on 3 August, the Syrian Democratic Forces also announced that a UAV strike targeted a vehicle carrying six SDF commanders and fighters on the Harme Shikhu Road in Qamishli district, Hasakah province, northeastern Syria. The attack resulted in four SDF fighters killed, including a commander named Aram Mohammed Ibrahim, and two others wounded. The death of the soldiers in Duhok this week set conditions for a further escalation in the Turkey-PKK conflict and prompted an even more aggressive posture by the Turkish government on the issue. In his remarks this week, Colonel Zeki struck a defiant tone and pledged that the operations would continue until all terrorist elements are eliminated and while this rhetoric is largely expected, related developments form a standing client consideration in areas associated with PKK presence.

Assad rules out normalization with Turkey
In a related development, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad strongly criticized Turkey’s continued presence in Syria and essentially ruled out any normalization with Ankara until Turkish troops leave Syrian territory. In a rare interview with an international media outlet, Assad was quoted saying “Terrorism in Syria is made in Turkey” and denied any plans for an upcoming meeting with President Erdogan. Assad further described Ankara’s attempts to arrange a meeting between the two presidents as an attempt to “legitimize the Turkish occupation” in Syria.

The remarks form a significant setback to assessed efforts by Turkey to normalize ties with Syria, highlighted by recent meetings between the defense and foreign ministers of those countries, and reports of a discussed “roadmap” to resolve tensions in northern Syria. While Syrian officials have maintained the position that any normalization will only be possible if Turkish troops withdraw, the recent meetings raised speculation that a compromise may be possible that would facilitate the normalization process. Assad’s remarks this week will likely temper any expectations in Ankara of a breakthrough in the negotiations.


Ban on telegram sparks widespread reactions
In a statement published on 6 August by the Iraqi Ministry of Communications, officials confirmed that the Ministry blocked the use of Telegram, citing concerns over the leaking of personal data and state entities. The Ministry noted that despite requests made to Telegram, no response was received, prompting officials to block the app. The move prompted significant outrage from users in Iraq, primarily within Iranian-aligned and Sadrist-linked channels, claiming that the move was meant to suppress their freedom of speech and speculating about the US’ alleged involvement in the decision. Further details are provided in the Talos Weekly Report.

Attack against electrical infrastructure continue
During the evening hours of 4 August, the Ministry of Electricity confirmed a sabotage attack involving the detonation of an IED against a power transmission tower that feeds both Diyala and Baghdad with electricity. The sabotage occurred in the Abu Basal village area in the Khan Bani Saad sub-district, south of Baquba in Diyala province, and resulted in damage to a power transmission tower and the collapse of the 400KVA power line. The incident follows two previous attacks of a similar nature, targeting electrical infrastructure in neighboring Salah ad Din province on 29 July and 3 August. Reacting to the attacks, senior leaders, including Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani, again called for increased security measures across the region and ordered accountability of the intelligence officers and the responsible commander for failures in preventing yet another sabotage. Further details are provided in the Talos Weekly Report.


Attack on Swedish Embassy in Beirut
On 10 August, an unidentified assailant tossed a Molotov cocktail outside the Swedish Embassy in Beirut. The device failed to detonate, with no injury or damage inflicted. Sources close to the Swedish Foreign Ministry confirmed the incident which is believed to be related to persistent anger over the burning of the Holy Quran in Sweden. There was no claim of responsibility and the perpetrator managed to escape the area without arrest, but an investigation into the incident has been launched.

Protests involving the burning of the holy book continue in Sweden and the Swedish government appeared this week to backtrack on efforts to prohibit the acts by citing freedom of speech laws. Although protest activity related to the issue has declined in Iraq, regional reactions persist with additional protests noted this week in Bahrain. The incident in Beirut, while relatively unsophisticated, underscores a persistent threat to Swedish and Danish diplomatic missions as well as other interests. This elevated threat level is expected to remain over the near term as the issue of Quran burning continues to gain traction.

Saudi Arabia

Russia criticizes Saudi Arabia over Ukraine summit
Between 5 and 6 August, the Saudi Arabian Government organized a conference in Jeddah to discuss the war in Ukraine. The summit was made at the request of the Ukrainian government and attended by representatives from 40 countries, including the US, China, and India, however the Russian government was not invited. Although officially aimed to further peace negotiations, the Russian government strongly criticized the conference as an attempt by Ukraine to attract international support for its side in the conflict and denounced the Saudi government for arranging the talks without Moscow’s participation. There was no joint statement issued and no significant breakthrough was achieved, however the Saudi government said new meetings will be planned in the future to continue the talks.

The Saudi initiative is noteworthy considering its growing ties with Russia since the start of the Ukraine invasion, marked most notably by bilateral cooperation on energy and oil-related issues. Despite US efforts, Saudi Arabia has refrained from partaking in international sanctions against Russia and the collaboration on energy matters has been seen in the West as directly assisting Russia’s war effort. For their part, Saudi officials maintain that the cooperation is merely transactional and that energy and political issues are separate. By organizing the conference without Russia’s participation, the Saudi Government likely intended to signal to the US and the West that it is able to pursue an independent foreign policy despite its energy cooperation with Russia.

In a related development, the Saudi Energy Ministry announced the extension of voluntary production cuts by another month. The unilateral cut of one million barrels/day commenced in July and was set to expire in August but was extended through September in a bid to maintain price levels as a complementary measure to the production cuts mandated within the OPEC+ alliance.


UN staff member released by AQAP in Yemen
On 10 August, local media reports announced that a UN staff member kidnapped by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was released after 18 months of captivity. The victim, Sufiul Anam who is a Bangladeshi national, was kidnapped in February 2022 in Aden while employed as a field coordination officer with the UN Department of Security and Safety. Four other individuals were also abducted in the incident however their whereabouts remain unknown, while a video released by AQAP in June said two other captives were “seriously ill.”

The circumstances of Anam’s release remain unclear, however other video recordings released by AQAP in June revealed taht the group demanded a $3 million ransom for his release. It remains unconfirmed if the amount was paid, however speaking to Bangladeshi media this week, Anam thanked the Bangladeshi government for their efforts, possibly indicating that the government paid the amount requested by al-Qaeda. That said, the Bangladeshi government and UN officials both denied that any ransom was paid and reaffirmed the official policy of not negotiating with terrorist organizations.

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