Talos Regional Snapshot – 20 April 2023

Apr 20, 2023



Khamenei rules out referendums on key policy decisions
Speaking at a meeting with university students this week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei rejected the possibility of holding regular referendums in the country on key policy decisions. The remarks formed a rebuke to former President Hassan Rouhani, a relatively moderate reformist, who suggested that popular referendums could be held as a way to enhance more popular participation. Khamenei, who has ultimate power over key decisions in the country, said holding regular referendums would lead to a constant state of polarization, debate and arguments amongst the people and was quoted outright dismissing the idea.

While the outbreak of nationwide protests in September last year did not result in any significant constitutional changes, senior leaders (from both conservative and reformist factions) have discussed ways to promote greater popular participation to alleviate popular discontent, with Rouhani’s remarks forming the latest example. This week, Interior Minister Ahmed Vahidi expressed support for more “diverse parliamentary elections” in a meeting with senior government officials on 18 April. No specific changes to electoral procedures were mentioned but Vahidi reportedly said the viewpoints of “various parties, including fundamentalists, reformists and independents” should be considered and called for high voter participation.

With the clerical establishment strongly opposed to general reforms, no significant changes are anticipated ahead of the parliamentary elections in March 2024 however the low voter turnouts in recent elections and the persistent popular discontent following recent protests remains a significant challenge for government, with calls for at least moderate concessions expected to continue.

President Raisi addressed al-Quds Day in Gaza Strip
In an unprecedented gesture, President Ibrahim Raisi delivered a virtual speech on 14 April in the Gaza Strip to commemorate al-Quds Day (or Jerusalem Day) and to address the Palestinian people directly. The speech predictably reiterated Iran’s support for the Palestinian resistance while strongly criticizing the Palestinian Authority – which nominally rules parts of the West Bank – for holding meetings with Israeli counterparts.  The speech also denounced Israel and the US, echoing sentiments expressed by protesters in Tehran and other Iranian cities during the day where large crowds gathered to join the commemoration. Similar but comparatively smaller protests were reported in Iraq, Syria and Bahrain.

Previous addresses commemorating the al-Quds day have been held by Ayatollah Khamenei, with Raisi’s speech on 14 April marking a noteworthy deviation from the tradition. As discussed in the leadup to the 2021 Presidential elections, Raisi has been identified as a possible successor of Khamenei and the president’s address this week underscores the Supreme Leader’s continued confidence in Raisi’s abilities.

Ineffective rocket attack targeting coalition forces in eastern Syria
Despite the assessed escalation in Iran-linked tensions, hostilities remain broadly consistent with long-standing patterns and were marked this week by the continued targeting of coalition forces in eastern Syria. On 10 April, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed that one rocket impacted in the vicinity of Mission Support Site Conoco, in Deir Ez Zour province, eastern Syria. The statement described the attack as ineffective and added that no casualties or damages were inflicted at the base. The same statement said another rocket that presumably failed to launch, was found at the attack’s point of origin. Reports earlier in the day conflictingly stated that a rocket or UAV strike targeted the base, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claiming coalition forces successfully intercepted a UAV in the vicinity of the base.

Other, unconfirmed social media reports later in the evening claimed coalition forces conducted retaliatory airstrikes in eastern Deir Ez Zour province, targeting sites affiliated with Iranian-backed militia groups. The outcomes of the strikes were not discussed and the reports have not been independently verified or confirmed, yet are assessed as plausible in light of these tensions.


Unilateral US assault on IS target in Aleppo, Syria
In the early morning of 17 April, various reports stated that Coalition Forces conducted a unilateral air assault in the village of Suwaydah, Jarabulus district, located east of Aleppo province – an area noted to be under the control of Turkish-backed groups. Coalition helicopters reportedly targeted a house with two rockets during the initial assault, with U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesman Joe Buccino stating that “The raid resulted in the probable death of a senior ISIS Syria leader and operational planner responsible for planning terror attacks in the Middle East and Europe.” A later report stated that Khalid ‘Aydd Ahmad Al-Jabouri was the target of the operation, while a subsequent US CENTCOM Tweet confirmed Abdurakhmon Uzbeki was killed in the raid.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights identified the target as Abu Al-Bara, who originates from Safira town in the south of Aleppo province. The agency reported that the individual was detained in the operation.  Meanwhile, social media sources reported that between five and eight helicopters participated in the operation, identifying the target as a former IS leader, Maen Abu Diaa, who is currently active in the Turkish-backed group Suqur al-Shamal. Multiple sources reported that three people were killed in the operation, including Abu Diaa’s brother. Unconfirmed reports stated that a US soldier was also killed, though US officials denied any casualties amongst US forces.

Separate IS attacks in Hama and Deir Ez Zour killed 41
On 16 April, at least 41 people were killed in separate attacks conducted by suspected IS militants in different areas of Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), some 36 individuals, including 17 pro-government fighters, were killed in a desert area east of Hama. The majority of the victims were collecting truffles in the area. Syrian state-linked sources reported a lower casualty figure of 26 killed. Another attack in Deir Ez Zour province on the same day left five shepherds dead and their livestock stolen, while two more shepherds were abducted. Militants also opened fire and killed a large number of livestock in the area during the operation.

While SOHR casualty numbers have been criticized as exaggerated and often exceed those reported by other sources, the monitor claims 240 individuals collecting truffles have been killed by IS militants since February. To recall, another similar attack was reported on 16 February when at least 53 people were killed in the Hama province, while at least two similar attacks have resulted in more than 10 casualties since. Combined, these attacks form some of the deadliest IS-linked violence in recent years and while exclusively confined to rural areas, this illustrates the enduring threat posed by the group despite its loss of territorial control in March 2019.

Summit held in Saudi Arabia to discuss conflict in Syria
On 14 April, the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as well as Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq attended a summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to discuss the conflict in Syria and regional relations with the Syrian government. A statement by the Saudi Foreign Ministry said representatives broadly stressed the need for a “political solution” and that “Arab leadership” is important to bring an end to the conflict. The statement added that they also agreed to set up “necessary mechanisms” to “intensify consultations amongst Arab countries” to promote peace efforts.

The meeting came ahead of the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia in May which is widely expected to focus on Syria’s potential return to the organization from where it was suspended in 2012 after the outbreak of the civil war. Despite steps by several Gulf states to restore ties with Syria, disagreements over a possible return remain visible. Prior to the summit, Qatari Prime Minister Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani reiterated that the reasons for Syria’s expulsion from the league remain and that its return remains only “speculative.” Doha does not appear to have changed its stance following the summit. At least four other countries are reportedly also opposed to Damascus’ return to the league, yet it remains to be seen if these countries are prepared to oppose Saudi Arabia on the matter. The topic is expected to gain traction ahead of the upcoming summit scheduled on 19 May.

Syrian Foreign Minister visit Saudi Arabia in further sign of normalization
In a related development prior to the 14 April meeting, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad arrived in Riyadh on 12 April at the invitation of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan. The visit is the first by a Syrian foreign minister in the last ten years and the two sides reportedly discussed the start of procedures to renew consular services and flights between the two countries. Later in the week, bin Farhan visited Damascus where he met with President Bashar al-Assad to discuss the normalization of ties.

Despite US opposition, the visit represents another significant step towards the restoration of Saudi-Syria ties which were severed in 2012. The earthquake in southern Turkey seems to have accelerated this process as Riyadh, alongside the UAE, spearheaded GCC-led efforts to provide humanitarian assistance in government-controlled areas. Another contributing factor is the Iran-Saudi agreement which is rumored to include arrangements on Syria and which is assessed to facilitate coordination between Tehran and Riyadh to further the peace process. As widely reported, Iran is simultaneously engaged in negotiations with Russia to promote normalization between Turkey and Syria which are likewise assessed as aimed at reaching a permanent political settlement. The success of these efforts remains to be seen however the Iran-Saudi agreement is undeniably a positive development for Damascus that will facilitate its efforts to normalize relations with other regional stakeholders.


US approves sale of F-16 software upgrade
On 17 April, the Biden administration notified Congress that it approved the sale of avionics software for the F-16 fighter jet program to Turkey. The Turkish government requested the software, valued at $259 million, to upgrade its fleet of fighter jets yet the approval was reportedly delayed due to Turkey’s reluctance to admit Finland and Sweden to NATO. To recall, Turkey approved Finland’s request earlier this month however it has yet to admit Sweden amidst Stockholm’s failure to meet Turkish security demands. The approval of Finland as the latest member appears to have been sufficient for the US to grant the requested software however the sale of 40 new F-16 jets remains stalled amidst continuing issues surrounding Sweden’s membership with elements in Congress reportedly opposing the sale until both countries are granted membership.


Al-Sadr suspends movement
On 13 April, titular head of the Sadrist Movement Muqtada al-Sadr, issued a tweet announcing a freezing (pause) of the Sadrist Movement for at least one year, to begin with immediate effect. He further announced the closure of the shrine of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr (Muqtada al-Sadr’s father) until after Eid al Fitr, as well as his Twitter account and all other social media related to the Sadrists. This included the closure of the Twitter account of Saleh Muhammad al-Iraqi (generally understood to be a nom de guerre for Sadr himself), as well as the official website of Sadr’s office. Further context is provided here.

Suspected Turkish airstrike targeted PKK member in Sulaymaniyah province
Turkish-authored UAV strikes targeting PKK-affiliated individuals and targets continued this week. On the evening of 15 April, several suspected Turkish drone strikes were reported against a single Toyota Land Cruiser SUV vehicle, believed to carry PKK personnel, in the Penjwin district of Sulaymaniyah. Various sources, including the head of the Kani Miran village council, stated that a Turkish drone targeted a vehicle believed to belong to PKK near Wariawa village as it was heading to Kani Miran village.  Additional sources reported that the vehicle survived the initial strike and that it was struck again with two airstrikes as it transited to Kani Miran village. The vehicle was reportedly destroyed along with those inside. PKK-linked sources stated that three PKK members were killed and an unspecified number were wounded.  A source from Penjwin Hospital stated that no injuries or fatalities were hospitalized as of writing. Further details are provided here.

Saudi Arabia

Iran and Saudi Arabia to reopen embassies on 9 May
A senior official with the Iranian Foreign Ministry confirmed this week that Iran and Saudi Arabia are preparing to reopen their embassies on 9 May – two months after the conclusion of the China-brokered agreement to restore diplomatic ties. The statements follow the arrival of technical delegations from both countries to make preparations during the week. In Riyadh, the Iranian embassy reportedly reopened its doors for the first time since 2016 on 12 April as a team from Tehran arrived to inspect the premises and prepare for a full reopening. Senior officials confirmed that a Saudi delegation arrived in Tehran and Mashad to make similar preparations for the reopening of the embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate.

US delegation arrived in Saudi Arabia
A US delegation led by Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk arrived in Saudi Arabia on 13 April to meet with Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan and Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman. The US delegation also included Amos Hochstein, the envoy for Global Infrastructure and Energy Security as well as the US Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking. A readout by the Saudi Foreign Ministry said the two sides generically discussed ways to enhance mutual interests while a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said the discussion focused on ways to end the war in Yemen, including the recent breakthrough in UN-led negotiations. The delegation also emphasized the US commitment to defending Saudi Arabia against threats from Yemen as well as energy security and “clean energy cooperation.

The visit came two days after National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke on the phone with Crown Prince Bin Salman to discuss the normalization with Iran and the situation in Yemen. An official readout cited Sullivan praising Saudi Arabia’s “extraordinary efforts to pursue a more comprehensive roadmap for ending the war”. In a reference to the Iran-Saudi agreement, Sullivan also discussed “broader trends towards de-escalation” while underscoring the need to “maintain deterrence against Iran” and “President Biden’s unwavering commitment to ensure Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon”.

Details of McGurk’s meeting were characteristically limited with no specific outcomes or results discussed however the phone call and visit are plausibly indicative of US efforts to mend ties with Saudi Arabia amidst continuing diplomatic tensions. To recall, reports last week claimed the Director of the CIA Bill Burns expressed US frustrations at being “sidelined” by the Iran-Saudi agreement. President Joe Biden also expressed discontent over the unexpected decision by the OPEC+ alliance to cut oil production despite US-led efforts to isolate Russia and combat inflation. Whether the visit this week was made to address US grievances or to bridge differences remains unclear, but the generally positive rhetoric surrounding the meetings is assessed as a mutual sign of commitment to the US-Saudi partnership.

Saudi Arabia opens four economic zones
In a bid to increase foreign direct investment (FDI), the Saudi government announced the opening of four “special” economic zones on 13 April. The four zones are located in the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC); Jazan; Ras al-Khair; and King Abdulaziz City, and offer various incentives – including low company tax rates, duty-free imports and flexibility in employing foreign labor – for foreign companies to operate in the country.

The move follows declining levels of FDI in recent years and is a step towards the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 initiative which broadly aims to diversify the economy and establish Saudi Arabia as a regional hub for international companies. The vision includes a goal of increasing FDI contribution to total GDP to 5.7% by 2030 – a significantly higher level than the 0.7% recorded in 2022. The establishment of the zones may also be seen as an implicit challenge to the UAE amidst signs of competition between the two amidst efforts to attract foreign investments in the region.


Airlines suspend flights to Sudan following clashes
Several UAE and Saudi-based airlines announced a suspension of flights to Sudan this week after clashes broke out in and around Khartoum International Airport. On 15 April, an Airbus A330 operated by Saudia Airlines was damaged by gunfire at the airport, with the crew, passengers and airport staff moved to the Saudi Embassy in the capital. No casualties were reported however the aircraft was severely damaged in the clashes that broke out between elements of the Sudanese Army and the Rapid Support Forces – a paramilitary group formerly operated by the government. As a result, Saudia Airlines suspended flights to Khartoum. Several UAE-based airlines, including  FlyDubai and Emirates, likewise announced a suspension of flights to Sudan citing deteriorating security conditions, with the bans preliminarily extended until 25 April.


Bahrain and Qatar to resume diplomatic ties
The Qatari Foreign Ministry announced this week that Bahrain and Qatar agreed to resume diplomatic ties – more than two years after the end of the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar. The decision was reportedly made during a meeting on 12 April in the Bahrain-Qatar Follow-Up Committee in Saudi Arabia. The committee, which was set up under GCC supervision with a view to mending ties, held a first set of meetings in February, prompting speculation that a restoration of ties was imminent.

To recall, unlike other GCC states, Bahrain did not resume diplomatic ties despite the end of the blockade in January 2021, with tensions remaining occasionally high between the two sides. Enduring points of contention included Qatar’s relationship with Iran – which remains a source of unease in Manama considering Bahrain’s sizable Shia minority – and Doha’s enduring support for civil society movements in the region. Other sources of disagreement include Bahrain’s normalization with Israel and Qatar’s related ties to Hamas as well as an unresolved, maritime dispute which continues to cause flare-ups in diplomatic tensions. While ties remain officially severed, relations have gradually improved over the past year, with a series of symbolic gestures paving the way for the announcement this week. A full re-establishment of travel, communication and diplomatic ties can be expected over the coming month as a result.


New elections called in Kuwait
In an attempt to resolve the persistent political stalemate, the Crown Prince of Kuwait Sheikh Meshal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah called for the dissolution of the newly installed parliament and for new elections to be held in the coming months. The announcement follows a court decision in March that reinstalled the 2020 National Assembly and nullified the last parliamentary elections held in September. The court ruling and the call for new elections both formed attempts to put an end to the long-standing conflict between parliament and the government which continues to block the passage of fiscal and political reforms. In his statement this week, Crown Prince al-Sabah said cited the “will of the people” called for new elections so that “legal and political reforms” can be carried out to further the interests of the country. The date of the upcoming elections has not been set.


Sinopec buys stake in Qatar’s North Field East
In another sign of Chinese engagement in the region, official Qatari state-linked media reported that Sinopec has purchased a five percent stake in the North Field East – a liquified national gas field operated by Qatar Energy (QE). The agreement reportedly makes Sinopec the first Asian partner to take a stake in the field which borders Iran. The announcement follows an agreement between Sinopec and QE signed in November under which QE agreed to supply four million tons of liquified natural gas to Chinese partners over 27 years. Further to its recent role in mediating Iran-Saudi ties, and Saudi company Aramco’s recent investment in the Chinese petrochemicals industry, the announcement this week further underscores China’s deepening economic and political engagement in the region.


Saudi-led coalition released Houthi prisoners
On 17 April, the Saudi-led coalition announced the release of 104 Houthi prisoners captured in Yemen. The unilateral release followed, but was separate from, an organized prisoner exchange involving prisoners on both sides earlier in the week when 880 fighters on both sides were released in total. The additional release on 17 April is seen as a goodwill gesture by Saudi Arabia to facilitate and promote ongoing peace negotiations which, to recall, showed significant signs of a breakthrough the previous week. The spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition, Turki al-Maliki, said the release aimed to create an atmosphere of dialogue between the warring sides to reach a comprehensive political settlement.

Meanwhile, UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg reiterated this week that “we have not seen such a serious opportunity for making progress towards ending the conflict in eight years” but warned that the “tide could still turn.” No significant new developments were otherwise reported regarding the negotiations, following reports last week that the two sides aimed to establish an eight-month ceasefire. The Houthi Movement reportedly announced that the negotiations would be resumed after Eid al-Fitr which is set expected to last 21-22 April.

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