Talos Regional Snapshot – 13 May 2023

May 13, 2023



IRGC seizes oil tanker off coast of UAE
On 4 May, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) navy seized a Panama-flagged oil tanker near the Strait of Hormuz off the coast of the UAE. The oil tanker, named Niovi, was bound for the port of Fujairah after leaving the port of Dubai and was not carrying any cargo at the time of the interception. The US 5th Fleet confirmed the seizure and said the vessel was forced to change course towards the territorial waters of Iran. Footage released by the 5th fleet showed several smaller boats operated by the IRGC surrounding and escorting the vessel. Satellite imagery later released by the Associated Press on 8 May showed the vessel anchored at the port of Bandar Abbas in southwestern Iran.

This is the second time in less than two weeks that the IRGC intercepted cargo vessels in the Persian Gulf, following a similar seizure of another oil cargo vessel in late April, reportedly carrying crude oil on behalf of US company Chevron. The two interceptions underscore elevated Iranian intent to target commercial maritime traffic in international waters to demonstrate its naval superiority in its immediate vicinity. To recall, this increase in naval activity also follows the publicized dispatch of a US submarine in March to the region which has plausibly contributed to Iran’s more aggressive posturing.

Iran executes Swedish-Iranian citizen involved in 2018 attack
On 6 May, an Iranian court sentenced Farajollah Cha’ab – a Swedish-Iranian member of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA) – for his role in the Ahvaz military parade attack in 2018 that killed 25 people. Iranian authorities accused Cha’ab of ‘masterminding’ the attack and, in a statement justifying the execution, accused the defendant of having ties to Swedish, US and Israeli intelligence services. The sentencing was condemned by various officials in the West, including Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom who called the sentence “inhumane” and denounced capital punishment under all forms.

The sentencing took place nearly four years after Cha’ab initial arrest and appears to be a partial response to the recent sentencing of an Iranian national in Sweden for his involvement in the 1988 government-led mass executions. Cha’ab was reportedly abducted by members of the Iranian intelligence service in Turkey in 2019 and brought back to Iran for a trial largely conducted behind closed doors, raising questions as to the extent of his involvement in the attacks. The 2018 incident targeted a military parade conducted by the IRGC in the restive Ahvaz province – an oil-rich province in the southwest with a sizable Arab population that contains separatist elements.

The ASMLA initially claimed responsibility for the operation but later retracted the statement and Tehran has since accused Saudi Arabia, the US, and Israel of supporting the group. More than 20 people have been arrested for their involvement in the attacks and punishments have accelerated as part of the wider crackdown on anti-government protesters. Several foreign nationals accused of terrorism charges are held by the authorities and may face similar executions over the near term, with associated diplomatic tensions expected to increase as a result.

Iran and Syria sign agreement on oil and trade collaboration
In his first official visit to Syria, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi arrived in Damascus for a two-day trip on 3 May. Meeting with President Bashar al-Assad on that day, the two sides announced the signing of several long-term agreements aimed to expand economic cooperation and oil sector ties, as well as several other areas including agriculture, railway communication and trade. Speaking ahead of the visit, Raisi emphasized the importance of reconstructing the country following years of conflict and struck a typically defiant tone against external attempts to prevent progress through “sanctions and threats”. A joint statement issued after the meeting pledged to strengthen strategic cooperation and generically stressed the need to deepen economic engagements for the benefit of both countries.

While rich in rhetoric, the content of the meetings and agreements was devoid of significant details. According to Iranian state-linked media, 15 documents were signed in total however the content of these documents was limited. Regardless, the agreements likely seek to consolidate and extend current relations in these fields, including Iran’s shipment of oil and provision of credit lines to alleviate economic conditions.

In an important show of diplomatic force, the Iranian delegation was accompanied by the ministers of foreign affairs, defense, roads, oil and urban developments, with the ministers reportedly meeting with their Syrian counterparts as well to discuss the implementation of the documents. The visit marks the first Iranian presidential visit since before the outbreak of the Syrian war and, aside from highlighting strong Syrian-Iranian ties, the timing underscores the gradual normalization of Syria’s regional ties following its re-entry into the Arab League. As discussed below, the meeting also came days ahead of the highly anticipated meeting between Syrian, Turkish, and Iranian officials in Moscow (see below).


Syria readmitted to the Arab League
On 7 May, the Cairo-based Arab League approved Syria’s re-entry into the organization following its suspension in 2011. The 22-member organization made the decision in a closed-door meeting which paves the way for President Assad’s participation in the upcoming summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on 19 May. According to the AP News, the decision was made unanimously however only 13 members attended the Cairo meeting and individual statements by some member states highlighted continuing disagreements. Qatar said its stance on Syria “has not changed” but that its opinion would not get in the way of an Arab consensus. Kuwait and Egypt reportedly also did not endorse the decision but did not outright oppose it.

The practical implications of Syria’s return to the Arab League are assessed as limited, and the decision itself will not change Syria’s economic isolation in the region. Individual states are likely to refrain from investing in the country and international sanctions led by the US, EU and others remain unaffected by the decision. Still, the readmission constitutes an important symbolic victory for President Assad and represents an important step towards greater regional engagement. Despite opposition from some countries, the decision was not unexpected following Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s gradual rapprochement in recent years. The earthquake in southern Turkey on 6 February, and the decision to administer aid operations through government-controlled territories also contributed to easing the perceived isolation of Damascus and is assessed to have facilitated and accelerated the process.

There is now a growing perception within the region that persisting issues – most notably the need to find a political solution to the conflict and the return of millions of refugees hosted in other regional countries – stand a better chance of being resolved through engagement rather than isolation. Several member states are also likely to us the league as a forum to put pressure on Assad over the growing narcotics trade, notably Captagon, which has increasingly affected the region and is largely centered on Syria. Generating billions in annual revenue, Damascus has been reluctant to crack down on the trade which given international sanctions is providing an important, if illicit, economic lifeline. In its statement, the league accordingly emphasized the importance of finding a political solution, facilitating the return of refugees and combatting the narcotics trade, with further integration into the bloc likely contingent upon progress in these areas.

Jordanian airstrike targets narcotics dealer in southern Syria
In a likely related development linked to regional efforts to combat the Syrian narcotics trade, Jordanian forces conducted several airstrikes in the southern province of Daraa, near the Jordanian border, on 8 May. One of the operations targeted and killed Merhi al-Ramthan, a wanted narcotics dealer involved in the trade of Captagon. A second strike targeted a suspected narcotics factory in the same province. The day before, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told international media that Amman “does not take the threat of drug smuggling lightly” and warned that the country would escalate steps to target the regional narcotics traffic.

The Syrian government refrained from commenting on the operation and, despite usually condemning strikes on its territory, opted to downplay its significance. The lack of reaction suggests the strike may have been approved by the Syrian government while the timing – a day after Syria’s admittance to the Arab League – plausibly suggests an agreement to allow Jordanian operations may have been part of readmitting Syria to the league.

US and UK reiterate opposition to normalization
Syria’s return to the Arab League was criticized, as expected, by the West and various opposition groups. A US State Department Spokesperson reiterated that Syria does not “deserve” to be readmitted but that the US supports the league’s overarching goal of encouraging a political settlement to the conflict. The UK Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa, Lord Tariq Ahmad likewise stressed the UK’s opposition to any steps to normalize relations with the country and cited the government’s continuing atrocities against its people. Various opposition groups in Syria also expressed concerns and disappointment at the decision and called into question the league’s willingness to work towards a political solution.

Syria and Turkish officials meet in Moscow
On 9 May, two days after the Arab League decision, the foreign ministers of Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Syria met in Moscow to discuss ways to improve ties between Syria and Turkey. The widely anticipated meeting follows several similar meetings held between the four sides as part of a Russian and Iranian-led effort to promote a permanent political settlement in northern Syria. In the most significant achievement yet, Syria and Turkey agreed to establish a “roadmap” to improve ties and agreed to continue “high-level talks” as part of the quadripartite format.

While disagreements remain regarding the Turkish troop presence in northern Syria, the Syrian foreign minister Faisal Mekdad visibly toned down his rhetoric and stressed that “Syria and Turkey share many goals and common interests”, and that current talks form an opportunity to cooperate with the help of Russia and Iran. Faisal added however that Damascus’s “main goal” remains to end all ”illegal military presence” in the country. Regardless, the change in rhetoric and the roadmap points to an acceleration in the normalization process following years of tension.

As discussed in the election preview, the general elections in Turkey on 14 May, could accelerate this process as the main opposition alliance has pledged to prioritize the improvement of ties with Damascus as part of an effort to repatriate Syrian refugees. Although no significant, immediate change is expected in Turkey’s posture in northern Syria, the change in government in Ankara would also provide an opportunity for both sides to reset relations following the visibly strained personal ties between Assad and President Erdogan.

IS claims responsibility for attack in Damascus
On 10 May, one police officer was killed and several others injured when a car exploded outside a police station in Barzeh, northern Damascus. Media reports described the incident as a “car bomb” however footage from the scene and casualty numbers indicate the detonation more likely involved an IED attached to the car. IS claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on Telegram that said the group “booby-trapped” the car. The Ministry of Interior said an investigation was launched to determine the circumstances.

Such incidents are increasingly rare in and around Damascus in recent years, with significant IS-linked attacks increasingly confined to rural areas in the central and eastern provinces including Homs and Deir Ez Zour. In October 2022, an IED targeted a bus transporting Syrian government soldiers in the vicinity of Damascus, and while the involvement of opposition groups cannot be discounted, opposition-linked sources attributed the incident to IS. Regardless, the security situation inside and near the capital has improved in recent years, with the most prominent security threat emanating from Israeli airstrikes targeting Iran-linked militia sites and, occasionally, Damascus International Airport. In isolation, the attack on 10 May forms an exception and is not indicative of a broader change in existing IS capabilities.


Elections preview: Turkish General Elections 2023
On 14 May, general elections to determine the president and members of parliament will be held in Turkey in what has been described as the most important election in decades. Preliminary polls indicate a very close election, however for the first time since President Erdogan’s rise to power, the six-party opposition alliance stands a good chance of unseating the government. Most observers expect a change in government to have a significant impact on the course of domestic economic policies and reverse Turkey’s democratic backslide under Erdogan. A new government would also pursue closer relations with Europe and the US, however other aspects of Turkey’s foreign policy, including in Iraq and Syria, are not expected to immediately change. The full elections preview is available here.

Uptick in violence ahead of elections
The days prior to the elections on 14 May have been characterized by an increase in political violence across Turkey, with several incidents recorded involving supporters on both sides. On 7 May, a campaign rally organized by the opposition Republican People’s Party in the city of Erzurum was cut short after supporters of the ruling AK Party physically assaulted and threw rocks at those participating. The next day, a member of the AK Party said a campaign bus was targeted by opposition supporters in Izmir, while several similar incidents were reported during the week. Several minor incidents of gun violence targeting party offices have also been recorded but so far, no fatalities or serious injuries have been reported. An elevated security posture can be expected to remain in the country before and after the elections, while the prospects for a second round to elect the president mean tensions are likely to persist beyond 14 May.


Reports suggest resumption of KRG oil exports is close
On 11 May, the KRG Ministry of Natural Resources released a statement claiming that the Government of Iraq and the KRG reached an agreement to restart oil exports and that a request has been submitted to Turkey to restart pipeline operations. The statement added that the request was made on 10 May and that both sides are waiting for a reply from Turkey. Separate reports, citing the Iraqi Ministry of Oil, seemed to confirm the KRG statement and added that exports are set to be resumed within the coming days.

However, on 12 May, the KRG Electricity Minister denied media reports citing Iraqi Oil Minister Hayan Abdul-Ghani saying exports would be resumed on 13 May and clarified that the two sides are still awaiting a decision from Turkey, with no date yet set for the resumption. Regardless, the reports form a positive indicator following weeks of uncertainty and conflicting reports regarding the status of the exports, with the delays attributed to various factors.

Death sentence issued for murder of Hisham Hashimi
On 7 May, the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council announced the sentencing of Ahmed Hamdawi Queid al-Kenani – a police officer – for the murder of Hisham al-Hashimi, a government advisor and expert on IS who was publicly critical of the role of the militias during the anti-IS campaign. Al-Hashimi was assassinated by two individuals in Baghdad in 2020, with widespread speculation that his critical views of the militias played a significant factor in his murder. The arrest of Kenani came almost a year later, and no militia has been named or claimed responsibility in connection with the killing.

The assassination of al-Hashimi sparked outrage and demonstrations broadly aimed at Iran-backed groups suspected of involvement as well as the GoI’s perceived inability to prosecute the militias. The arrest and sentencing of al-Kenani – who reportedly has close links with an unspecified militia group – was met with positive reactions from family members however several relatives, speaking anonymously, say those ordering the assassination remain at large and the death sentence is unlikely to alleviate broader concerns highlighted by the assassination.

Saudi Arabia

US delegation met with Crown Prince Bin Salman
A delegation led by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan arrived in Saudi Arabia on 7 May and met with Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman in the port city of Jeddah. Sullivan also held a separate meeting with UAE counterpart Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed an-Nahyan and Indian national security advisor Ajit Doval on the same day. Details of the meetings were limited, with an official readout by the White House saying the meeting was held “to advance their shared vision of a more secure and prosperous” region. Official Saudi press sources similarly stated that the US and Saudi sides reviewed “strategic relations”, also without elaborating further. The White House statement added that the two discussed the situation in Yemen and ongoing negotiations between the Houthi Movement and the Saudi government to ensure a permanent ceasefire. The statement mentioned “significant progress made in talks to prolong the now 15-month truce” without providing additional details.

As previously discussed, the visit follows reported tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia over the Iranian-Saudi diplomatic agreement, with US officials in March expressing frustrations at being sidelined by Riyadh. This remains unconfirmed and the US officially maintains that the Saudi government kept them informed throughout the process, however the restoration of ties with Iran, in an agreement brokered by China, is certainly indicative of a broader shift in Saudi priorities.  Unconfirmed reports this week also claimed that US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will visit Saudi Arabia in June. If confirmed, the visit would be indicative of intent in Washington to reaffirm its strategic partnership with Riyadh despite visible disagreements. Further confirmation of the visit will be provided as available.


Kuwait sets date for national elections
On 3 May, Kuwaiti state-linked media announced that 6 June has been set as the date for the upcoming parliamentary elections. The announcement came two days after the parliament, which was reinstated in March, was dissolved through a royal decree and the date meets the constitutional requirement that elections must be held within two months of parliament’s dissolution. As of 8 May, only 104 candidates have registered for the polls, to be compared with the 222 candidates that participated in the previous elections. Amongst the 104 candidates are two women, to be compared with the 12 that participated in 2022.

The dissolution of parliament followed a long-standing conflict between parliament and the cabinet that prevented the passage of political and economic reforms, with Crown Prince Sheik Meshal claiming the “will of the people” necessitated new elections. However similar deadlock has characterized previous parliaments as well and it remains to be seen if the composition of the new parliament will be different to the point a recurrence of past issues can be avoided.


Saudi Envoy to Yemen downplays expectations of breakthrough
Speaking with the news agency AFP this week, the Saudi Ambassador to Yemen, Muhammed al-Jaber, downplayed expectations for an imminent breakthrough in current peace negotiations between the Saudi government and the Houthi Movement. In his first public remarks on the matter since negotiations commenced in March, al-Jaber said both sides are “serious” about ending the conflict but that the next steps are not clear and that there are no “concrete” plans for how to move the process forward. Separate reports, citing unnamed diplomatic sources, said hopes and expectations for a resolution have receded while US Envoy Tim Lenderking said the current negotiations are only “one step” in the process.

To recall, the sudden resumption of negotiations between the Saudi Government and the Houthi Movement raised hopes for a permanent ceasefire and a political settlement following the expiration of a six-month truce in October last year. UN Envoy Hans Grundberg described the developments as the most significant opportunity for peace since the start of the conflict, while officials on both sides struck a surprisingly optimistic tone that seemed to underscore genuine intent to move forward. The Iran-Saudi agreement that precipitated the March negotiations formed another indicator that seemed to set strategic conditions for progress and gave credibility to expectations of a near-term breakthrough, with various reports suggesting a settlement on Yemen formed part of the China-brokered agreement.

The expectations have since dissipated and although broader conflict dynamics remain subdued, no significant progress has been reported over the past month. The statements this week are set to temper expectations for an imminent development and serve as a reminder of the complexity of the negotiations considering the multitude of actors involved.

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