Talos Regional Snapshot – 20 May 2023

May 19, 2023



US to send reinforcements to region following tanker seizures
US officials announced this week that its naval forces would increase its defensive posture in the Gulf region following Iran’s previously discussed seizures of two commercial maritime vessels in recent weeks. Speaking on 12 May, White House Spokesperson John Kirby said the Department of Defence will make “a series of moves to bolster our defensive posture”, including to “increase coordination and interoperability” with regional partners. The Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said separately that it will “increase the rotation of ships and aircraft patrolling around the Strait of Hormuz” and that further details regarding the measures will be provided in the coming days.

As previously discussed, the announcements follow Iran’s interception and relocation of two oil tankers in international waters near the Strait of Hormuz on 27 April and 3 May – including one carrying crude oil on behalf of US company Chevron. Both vessels were relocated to Iranian territorial waters and later identified via satellite imagery to be moored off the coast of Bandar Abbas. In their statements this week, US officials claimed Iran has “harassed or attacked” 15 vessels sailing under international flags in the past two years, and that Iran is actively threatening international shipping in the region. For their part, Iran denies the accusations and maintains that the “Western oil tankers” were intercepted after “invading” Iran’s territorial waters. Speaking to a state-linked media channel this week, the commander of the IRGC Navy, Alireza Tangsiri, added that any movement of “enemy vessels” will be monitored closely. In related remarks, Tangsiri said the IRGC has now equipped its vessels – including the Mahdavi and Soleimani-classes – with Qadr-474 cruise missiles that have an alleged range of over two thousand kilometers.

Related dynamics will be monitored closely, however these naval tensions have so far not translated into land-based hostilities between Iran and the US in the region. The uptick in attacks against US forces in eastern Syria in late March was followed by an overall decline in Iran-linked activity in both Syria and Iraq and both seem to appear determined to avoid further escalation. The relative absence of any significant new developments on the Iran nuclear program and general signs of rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia remain another positive indicator that has plausibly contributed to at least temporarily reducing regional hostilities.

Two French citizens released in Iran
The French Foreign Ministry announced the release of two French citizens previously held in Iranian prisons. Benjamin Briere and Bernard Phelan were relocated back to France after spending three years and seven months respectively in detention for various “anti-government” activities. Briere, who visited the country as a tourist, was arrested in May 2020 after taking photographs with a UAV and later sentenced to eight years on charges of espionage. Phelan, who holds dual French-Iranian citizenship, was arrested in November 2022 after allegedly participating in anti-government protests sparked by the death of Masha Amini in September. The circumstances and reasons for their release remain unclear as officials on both sides have refrained from providing further details.

Strategic cooperation between Russia and Iran continues to grow
Signs of strengthening strategic ties between Russia and Iran in various areas continued this week. Speaking at a press conference, White House Spokesperson John Kirby said Russia and Iran are looking to “expand their unprecedented defense partnership“ and to increase Russia’s import of Iranian UAVs to prosecute the war in Ukraine. Citing intelligence findings revealed as part of a deliberate effort by the US to uncover the growing Iranian-Russian defense partnership, Kirby said Iran has provided more than 400 one-way Shahid variant UAVs since August, and that the majority have now been used in attacks on Ukraine.

In another significant but separate development, President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Ibrahim Raisi signed an agreement on 17 May to finance and construct a railway connecting Russia with the northern Iranian cities of Rasht and Astara. The railway forms part of the larger, International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC) which aims to integrate railway, sea, and road transportation to facilitate the movement of exports between Russia and the Indian subcontinent. Initiated by India, Russia, and Iran in 2002, the project is perceived and pursued by Russia as an alternative to the Suez Canal and may serve to reduce the impact of Western sanctions by enhancing regional trade. For the Raisi-administration, the project is integral to its eastward-oriented foreign policy and related efforts to limit economic dependency on the West.

IRGC dismantles IS cell involved in Shiraz attack
On 16 May, the IRGC announced the arrest and dismantling of a network of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) based in the Fars Province in southern Iran. The statement said key members of the organization were arrested who were involved in recruiting “radical members” in Tehran and other regions of the country. While further details would be revealed at a later date, the statement added that the network was dismantled in the aftermath of the attack on a shrine in Shiraz in October 2022 when 15 people were killed. IS Khorasan Province – a branch of IS predominantly active in central and southern Asia – claimed responsibility for the attack.

Iraqi ambassador summoned over failure to implement security agreement
On 13 May, the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced that it summoned the Iraqi ambassador to Tehran to formally protest the participation of members of a “separatist group” in a conference in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR-I). The ministry said the participation of the members in the conference violated a security agreement signed between Iran and Iraq in March. According to a readout in Iranian state-linked sources, the agreement aimed to “stop the unlawful presence of anti-Iranian armed groups and Zionist regime’s supporters in the districts of Iraq that are close to Iran’s northwestern border.”

Details of the meeting and the name of the group was not specified, however the summoning is potentially indicative of a renewed effort by Iran to intensify pressure on the KDP-I whose headquarters and sites have been repeatedly targeted by cross-border operations in northwestern KR-I. Following a series of strikes in October and November – coinciding with the outbreak of nationwide protests in Iran – hostilities have since decreased largely due to a series of agreements and pledges by the Government of Iraq (GoI) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to enhance border security. Earlier this month, a border official cited by Kurdistan 24 said an additional 36 surveillance towers will be built along the border and that the move was welcomed by Tehran. Media reports, citing anonymous officials, claim current efforts by Iran are aimed at forcing the relocation of these groups to a third country, in ways similar to how members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) were relocated from Baghdad to Albania in 2016.

In response to the protest on 13 May, the KRG Minister of Interior also met with Iraqi National Security Advisor Qassim al-Araji in Baghdad to discuss border security, with the meeting likely aimed to find ways to alleviate Iranian concerns. A delegation of KRG officials will reportedly visit Tehran in the coming weeks to discuss “bilateral trade” however the visit may also involve an attempt to address the above-noted concerns with Iran.


Syria calls for investments after Arab League return
Speaking at a preparatory meeting in Jeddah on 15 May ahead of the Arab League summit, the Syrian Minister of Economy and Trade used the opportunity to call on Arab member states to invest in the country. Mohammed Samer al-Khalil spoke of “important opportunities and promising horizons” at the conference which was also attended by Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad and who likewise spoke of “future opportunities” with his counterparts. Both officials also thanked countries in the region for sending humanitarian aid in the aftermath of the earthquake in southern Turkey. For his part, Saudi Finance Minister Muhammed al-Jadaan welcomed Syria back to the meetings and said Saudi Arabia is looking forward to cooperating with “everyone in order to achieve our aims.”

Following uncertainty over his participation, President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Jeddah on 18 to attend the summit on 19 May. The outcome will be discussed in the next feature of this report however, as discussed in the previous edition, Syria’s return constitutes a primarily symbolic success for Assad but one unlikely to break the economic isolation imposed on Damascus by Western sanctions. Several countries, including Qatar, Kuwait, and Morocco remain opposed to normalization and while this has not prevented its return to the organization, the subject is likely to remain a source of disagreement within the bloc.

UAE invites President Assad to COP28 summit
In a related development, the UAE announced this week that it extended an invitation to President Assad to attend the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) which will be held in Dubai in December of this year. According to a statement by the UAE Embassy in Damascus, the invitation was reportedly made by UAE President Sheikh Muhammed bin Zayed while a spokesperson for the COP28 summit confirmed that it is committed to an “inclusive process.”

The invitation is understandably seen as another attempt by the UAE and Saudi Arabia to promote Syria’s international reintegration yet will undeniably pose a challenge to Western leaders also set to attend the conference. So far, reactions in the West have been muted but both the US, UK and EU have repeatedly and strongly ruled out any efforts to normalize ties with Damascus unless significant progress is made on finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict. That said, the Western response to Syria’s readmittance to the Arab League was limited, with US and UK officials only reiterating their opposition to the process but without discussing any further measures.

In a move designed to put pressure on the US government to more forcefully oppose this trend, a group of bipartisan members of Congress introduced a bill this week that would prohibit the US government from recognizing the Assad government and, more importantly, to increase its ability to impose sanctions to deter normalization. The bill essentially expands the Caesar’s Act of 2020 and representatives involved in drafting the resolution described it as a “warning” to countries in the region that they could face “severe consequences” if they engage with the government in Damascus. While further details remain to be confirmed, the bill includes sanctions on regional airports that allow Syrian government airlines to land and reviews of any transactions or donations above $50 thousand made in areas under Syrian government control.

Syrian Government extends border crossing point mandate
The Syrian Government approved a request submitted by the UN to extend the so-called “special measures” adopted in the aftermath of the earthquake in February that allows cross-border humanitarian aid through two additional border crossings in government-controlled areas. To recall, President Assad agreed to open the Bab al-Salam and al-Ra’ee crossing points for a three-month period after the earthquake as a special measure to alleviate humanitarian conditions. On 12 May, a day before the expiration of the three-month mandate, the UN requested an extension which was authorized for another three-month period until 13 August.

The government previously rejected the idea of extending the crossing point mandates and the decision to grant the request was largely unexpected. Speaking ahead of the expiration date last week, a senior UN spokesperson described an extension as “unlikely”. What factors influenced this apparent policy reversal remains unclear, but it is possible that the move represents a goodwill gesture by Damascus to reduce its regional isolation following its admittance back into the Arab League.


Turkey set for second round in presidential elections
The Turkish general elections on 14 May were predictably close and, in accordance with most preliminary polls, failed to produce a clear winner of the presidential vote. With neither candidate able to reach the 50% threshold required to win in the first round, a second vote is scheduled to take place on 28 May, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will face the main opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu in a face-to-face runoff. Incumbent President Erdogan secured a narrow victory by obtaining 49.50% of the votes against 44.89% for opposition leader Kilicdaroglu. A third candidate, Sinan Ogan, of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, obtained 5.17% of the vote. These results largely mirrored those of the parliamentary elections where the AK-Party-led People’s Alliance secured 49.46% (or 322 seats) whereas the Kilicdaroglu-led opposition National Alliance, together with the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party that informally supported him, received a combined 45.5% of the votes. This ensures the AK-Party-led People’s Alliance continued dominance of parliament over the coming term.

While a second round was largely expected, the nearly five percent win for President Erdogan defied preliminary polls and expectations that placed Kilicdaroglu at an advantage. This included at least two nationwide, major polls conducted shortly prior to the election that even projected Kilicdaroglu to win more than 50% in the first round. The AK Party-led alliance’s strong performance in the parliamentary elections was likewise surprising considering the dire economic situation, high inflation, and the government’s inadequate response to the earthquake that affected southern Turkey in February. Further context is provided in the full report


PUK return to cabinet meetings following boycott
For the first time since December, cabinet members of the PUK attended a cabinet session in the KRG on 14 May. The return to the meetings was announced by PUK spokesperson Sameer Hawrami on 13 May and confirmed rumors of a return circulating during the previous week amidst more positive and conciliatory rhetoric expressed by both the PUK and KDP, including a meeting between KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and Qubad Talabani. Later in the week, the KDP announced that it was willing to meet with all parties of the region and discuss any outstanding issues that prevent holding regional elections. Further context is provided in the Talos Weekly Analysis Report. 

Turkey yet to resume oil exports despite reported request
In a continuation of events seen in recent weeks, oil exports from the KRG via the Turkish Ceyhan port remain disrupted despite reports indicating a restart is close. Speaking at an event in Basra on 12 May, Iraqi Oil Minister Hayyan Abdul Ghani said the GoI sent a request to Turkey to restart operations after a final agreement was reached between the KRG and Baghdad. The statement fueled speculation that a resumption was close, including reports that exports would recommence over the weekend. Further context is provided in the Talos Weekly Analysis Report. 


Bahrain and Qatar to resume flights
On 15 May, the official Bahrain News Agency reported that flights between Qatar and Bahrain will be resumed on 25 May. The statement was confirmed by Qatar and reportedly formed part of an agreement made earlier between the two sides in connection with the restoration of diplomatic ties. To recall, Qatar and Bahrain were slow to restore relations despite the lifting of the Saudi-led diplomatic blockade in January 2021, with tensions remaining over Qatar’s relations with Iran and a maritime dispute that remains unresolved. While trade and travel links were restored in 2021, the two countries did not formally restore diplomatic relations until 13 April this year and the latest move represents a further sign of rapprochement.


UN Envoy discussed progress on Yemen peace negotiations
On 17 May, UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg briefed the UN Security Council on the latest developments in the Yemen peace process, two months after reports of a significant breakthrough in the negotiations. While acknowledging the existence of various issues and challenges that require “further discussion”, Grundberg spoke of clear determination on both sides to make progress towards a deal on “humanitarian and economic measures, a permanent ceasefire and the resumption of a political progress.” The envoy also confirmed that the effects of the seven-month truce that expired in October 2022 remain in effect and that hostilities along the combat frontline remain limited despite the fragility of the military situation.

The sentiments largely echo those made by the envoy in recent months and expressed cautious optimism that current efforts will continue to generate progress. That said, no detailed update of the current state of the negotiations was provided and while discussions between Houthi officials and the Saudi-backed government are presumed to continue, no significant developments have been reported in recent weeks.

US Envoy says Iran continues to support Houthi Movement
In a related development, US Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking claimed the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia has not prevented Iran from continuing the provision of military aid and weapons to Yemen. Speaking at an online press briefing after completing a regional tour, Lenderking said Iran “has continued to smuggle weapons and narcotics toward this conflict” despite the benefits emanating from the Iran-Saudi deal. Addressing the state of negotiations, the envoy also provided a more measured assessment and confirmed that there is a deep level of mistrust between the two sides and that any peace agreement will “not happen overnight”. At the same time, Lenderking echoed Grundberg’s position that the current climate of de-escalation and dialogue is positive and that there is a real opportunity to make progress right now.

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