Talos Regional Snapshot – 28 October 2022

Oct 28, 2022



IS claims responsibility for attack on Shia Shrine in Shiraz
On 26 October, three gunmen opened fire on worshippers at the Shah Cheragh shrine, a Shia holy site located in Shiraz, southwestern Iran. A reported 15 civilians, including women and children, were killed and at least 27 were injured in the attack. IS claimed responsibility for the incident in a statement disseminated via the group’s Amaq News channel. Local authorities said two individuals were arrested and blamed the attack on ‘Taqfiri terrorists’ – a term employed to denote Sunni extremist groups.

Senior officials, including President Ibrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, said the attack would “not go unanswered” while implicitly blaming the ongoing unrest and foreign actors for facilitating the attack. In a reference to international support for the ongoing protests, Amirabdollahian said the government will “not allow Iran’s national security and interests to be toyed with by terrorists and foreign meddlers who claim to defend human rights.”

Significant IS-linked attacks in Iran are rare but not unprecedented. In June 2017, five IS-linked militants conducted two coordinated attacks targeting the Iranian parliament and the tomb of Ayatollah Khomenei in Tehran, killing 17 and injuring 43. On that occasion, Iranian authorities identified the assailants as Kurdish-Iranian individuals who returned to Iran in 2016 after fighting for IS in Mosul and Syria. The incident was similarly followed by accusations of foreign involvement, with Iranian government officials attributing the attacks to a plot by the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to destabilize the country.

The 26 October attacks were comparatively less sophisticated yet successfully timed to capitalize on assessed security lapses caused by the ongoing civil unrest in the country. The identity of the assailants remains unclear but may when revealed, act as another catalyst for government responses and diplomatic tensions.

Violent protests escalate in Zahedan, southeastern Iran, as nationwide unrest continues
Nationwide protests initially prompted by the death of Masha Amini on 16 September, continued this week and show few signs of dissipating despite intense police and security force suppression. This week, the demonstrations continued to spread to universities countrywide, with multiple reports of Riot Police deployed to disperse initially peaceful gatherings in Isfahan and Tehran. Beyond calls for accountability for the death of Amini, the demonstrations remain characterized by broader calls for a change in the political system, with participants increasingly denouncing Ayatollah Khamenei, the government, and the ruling clerical establishment.

Violent confrontations are also reported on a near-daily basis. While casualty numbers remain difficult to verify given reporting challenges and suppression of information, human rights organizations claimed more than 233 people have been killed since 16 September, with an unknown number of wounded. A significant uptick in violence was notably observed this week in Zahedan, the provincial capital of the Sistan-Baluchistan province, where riots broke out after the Friday prayers on 21 October, prompting another significant police response and reports of casualties. On 30 September, dozens of people were killed in what the authorities described as clashes between “terrorists” and security forces, and tensions have remained notably elevated in the city since.

US imposes additional sanctions on Iran over protests
Responses from the West to the protests remain focused on tightening sanctions on Iranian government institutions and senior officials responsible for the crackdown. On 26 October, the US Treasury announced the imposition of additional sanctions on 10 senior government officials, members of the security forces, and executives of a company involved in blocking social media content. The sanctions were affirmed by State Secretary Anthony Blinken who said the US will continue to impose costs on individuals involved in the “brutal repression of the Iranian people.” To recall, the move follows similar measures announced by the EU last week in response to the handling of the protests and Iran’s provision of UAVs to Russia.


Israeli airstrikes recommence near Damascus
Israeli missile strikes targeting Syrian government and suspected Iranian-linked facilities recommenced this week around Damascus, ending a lull in activity observed since 17 September. To recall, the September strikes targeted the Damascus International Airport and surrounding facilities in an assessed effort to disrupt Iranian efforts to utilize civilian airport transportation to supply affiliated groups in the country. This week, missile attacks were conducted on 21, 24, and 27 October around Damascus, yet no strikes were directed against Damascus International Airport. Instead, the strikes targeted various sites north and south of the capital and included a relatively rare day-time operation on 24 October that wounded one soldier according to state-linked channels. Israel did not comment on the operations as usual.

UN officials warn of humanitarian conditions amidst economic crisis
Briefing the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 25 October, UN Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen warned of deteriorating humanitarian conditions amidst what was described as the “worst economic crisis” since the war commenced in 2011. Pedersen specifically cited the rapid decline in the value of the Syrian pound in recent weeks and the associated rise in food and commodity prices affecting civilians. Other UN officials also warned the UNSC about the ongoing cholera outbreak, with 24 thousand suspected cases and over 80 fatalities recorded so far. The outbreak is worsened by “acute” water shortages in some areas which are set to be exacerbated by below-normal precipitation and high temperatures expected in the coming months.

In his remarks to the UNSC, Pedersen also warned that, despite a decline in violence, the peace process remains paralyzed amidst the continued stalemate characterizing the Syrian peace process. To recall, the Envoy recently renewed efforts to restart negotiations within the so-called Constitutional Committee however there are no signs of progress amidst government-led demands, backed by Russia, to relocate negotiations from Geneva to a “more neutral” venue.

US sanctions Syrian officials over 2013 chemical weapons attack
On 24 October, the US State Department imposed sanctions on three Syrian military officials accused of involvement in the 2013 chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta district of Damascus. As a result, those targeted by the sanctions and their family members are barred entry into the US under an act targeting individuals involved in gross human rights violations. In a statement, State Secretary Blinken said the US would continue to honor the victims of the attack, which has been denied by the Syrian government and allies. Blinken also called on Syria to destroy the remains of its chemical weapons capability and to grant full access to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.


President Erdogan denies use of chemical weapons in northern Iraq
In a statement on 21 October, President Tayyip Erdogan denied that the Turkish military has ever used chemical weapons and called for legal action against those who make such allegations. Earlier that week, PKK-linked media released video footage allegedly depicting fighters exposed to chemical weapons during a Turkish operation in northern Iraq, with those targeted apparently experiencing breathing issues and paralysis following a raid on a cave complex. The video and associated claims sparked protests in northern Syria and Iraq, while some international observers called for an independent investigation into Turkey’s possible break of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. A doctor who openly called for an investigation in Turkey was also arrested this week on charges of supporting terrorist propaganda, reigniting concerns in the West about freedom of speech in Turkey.

Turkish officials have repeatedly denied the use of chemical weapons, and Erdogan’s statement essentially reiterated claims made by senior military officials who dismissed the video as PKK propaganda. Reports in PKK-linked channels frequently accuse Turkey of utilizing “chemical weapons” during operations in northern Iraq, typically in reference to the use of white phosphorus and other incendiary weapons use to target cave complexes used by the PKK. The use of such weaponry, while internationally frowned upon, does not constitute a formal breach of the 1997 convention, with associated PKK claims typically made for assessed propaganda effects to delegitimize Turkey.

While such claims are made on a near-weekly basis by PKK-linked sources, the release of the video amounts to potentially more serious allegations of actual chemical weapons usage, with the effects shown amongst victims not dissimilar to those circulating in the 2013 Ghouta attack in Syria. With PKK-linked claims, including the video, notoriously difficult to verify without independent corroboration, the issue is expected to generate continued attention, yet the circumstances remain difficult to verify.

If credibly confirmed, the use of actual chemical weapons would amount to a significant escalation in Turkish risk-taking with respect to the PKK-Turkey conflict and would likely generate considerable controversy and international backlash given strong international norms against chemical weapons usage. So far, international reactions have been relatively muted, with protests restricted to the region and calls within the international community for a more thorough investigation limited.

Turkey accuses the US of ‘bullying’ Saudi Arabia
In a symbolic but very significant sign of support for Saudi Arabia, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu criticized the US for its criticism of Saudi Arabia and the decision by OPEC+ to cut oil production by two million barrels. During a press conference on 21 October, the foreign minister said “We see that this country has threatened Saudi Arabia, especially recently. This bullying is not correct.” To recall, President Joe Biden warned Saudi Arabia of ‘consequences’ after Riyadh, according to US officials, allegedly backtracked on a promise made over the summer not to cut production levels. Meanwhile, Turkey has taken several steps to mend ties with the former rival, including steps to promote economic and trade ties over the year. The remarks also follow US threats of sanctions against Turkey over its continued economic and energy cooperation with Russia, which forms another source of diplomatic tension.


Polls show Likud-led bloc leads ahead of Israeli elections
On 1 November, elections to elect members of the 120-seat Knesset will be held in Israel for the fifth time in less than four years. Preliminary polls show a close but statistically consistent lead for the Likud-led right-wing coalition, however, neither side is expected to win the 61 seats required to obtain a majority. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges, is the front-runner for the Likud-led coalition and may return to the Prime Minister position should the coalition secure a majority.

The election outcome may also act as a catalyst for tensions given the substantial rise in support for the ultranationalist Jewish Power party, with leader Itamar Ben-Gvir conducting parts of his campaign in settlements in the West Bank. An observable increase in clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians has been observed in the lead-up to the polls.  Both sides accuse each other of being responsible for the rise in violence, with Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Benny Gantz accusing Ben-Gvir of fuelling ‘extremist rhetoric.’

Meeting between US and Israeli President focused on security
On 26 October, President Joe Biden received Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog at the White House, in a meeting largely focused on regional security challenges. Aside from expressing the US’ “ironclad commitment” to Israel, President Biden praised the maritime agreement between Israel and Lebanon, and joint efforts to counter Iranian activities in the region, including its support for Hezbollah.

The rhetoric was predictably symbolic and no noteworthy results were discussed, however, the timing of the visit is significant ahead of the Israeli elections and the upcoming mid-term elections in the US. The possible return of Benjamin Netanyahu to the Prime Minister position is a potential challenge to the Biden administration which may view Herzog as a preferable counterpart for diplomatic engagement to the former Prime Minister.


Iraqi Parliament approves new cabinet
In a vote on 27 October, the Iraqi Parliament approved 21 out of the 23 cabinet positions presented by Prime Minister-designate Muhammed Shia al-Sudani. The vote was widely anticipated and forms a significant step in the formation of a new government, more than 12 months after the 2021 parliament elections. All but two positions – including the Ministers of Education and Construction – were approved in the voting session, which was at times chaotic and involved a scuffle between MPs. No significant security-related incidents were recorded in the city amidst heightened security measures in Baghdad and concerns that Sadrist supporters would resort to protests to disrupt the proceedings. Further context is provided in the full report.

October Movement protesters held commemorative gatherings
On 25 October, the so-called October Movement organized demonstrations in Baghdad and the southern provinces to commemorate the third anniversary of the start of the movement. Protesters reiterated familiar demands including calls for an overhaul of the political establishment and accountability for violence affecting activists associated with the movement. The protests unfolded peacefully overall, yet physical confrontations were reported in Baghdad city in the afternoon. Further details and context is provided here.

Saudi Arabia

US and Saudi send conflicting signals over energy split
The diplomatic fallout of the Saudi-led OPEC+ decision to cut oil production against US interests continues. This week, officials on both sides sent somewhat conflicting messages indicative of intent to downplay the split despite the evident persistence of tensions in the partnership. On 25 October, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman implicitly criticized President Biden’s decision to release 15 million barrels of the strategic oil reserve to alleviate energy prices – a move intended to partially counter the OPEC+ decision in October. In his remarks, Bin Salman said the loss of emergency stocks “may be painful” and that some countries were misusing emergency reserves to manipulate markets rather than mitigate supply shortages. The energy minister also said Saudi Arabia was acting as the “more mature” party in the US-Saudi energy split.

For their part, a white house spokesperson denied that the administration was dissuading US companies from conducting business in Saudi Arabia, stressing that these decisions should be made by the companies themselves. The statement came ahead of the Future Investment Initiative held this week in Riyadh, where Energy Minister Bin Salman made his remarks. The forum was reportedly attended by several US top executives, with Saudi officials framing the initiative to showcase the resilience of Saudi-US business ties despite existing geopolitical tensions.

In an assessed effort to downplay the scope of the rift, another White House spokesperson also praised Saudi Arabia’s decision to support a UN resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of four regions of eastern Ukraine. The administration also said there is no timeline for what consequences will be taken against Saudi Arabia, with officials reiterating that the White House will take its time and evaluate different options.

Saudi Foreign Minister to attend Arab League summit instead of Crown Prince
Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan is set to represent Saudi Arabia at the upcoming Arab League Summit on 1-2 November in Algiers. Earlier this week, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman declined to participate due to health conditions, with Saudi media citing recommendations from his doctors to avoid long-distance flights because of an ear condition.

The official explanation for Bin Salman’s absence has been questioned by some observers, as the Crown Prince’s longer-distance visits to India and Indonesia shortly after the summit in November have not been canceled. Alternative explanations for his absence are admittedly speculative but include political differences between Algeria and Saudi Arabia over efforts to admit Syria back into the league, and Algeria’s relatively strong ties to Iran. Another possible explanation includes decisions by other Gulf leaders not to attend the summit, which is not expected to generate significant results, especially given Bin Salman’s absence.


Houthi Movement targets Greek oil tanker in post-truce escalation
In a significant escalation on 21 October, two explosive-laden UAVs targeted a cargo vessel owned by Greek company Okeanis Eco Tankers Corporation, at the port of Ash Shihs, near Mukalla, in southeastern Yemen. A statement by the company said two explosive-laden UAVs impacted ‘near’ the vessel as it was loading oil at the port, however, no damages or casualties were inflicted. The ship immediately left the port for international waters in response as a precautionary measure.

The Houthi Movement claimed responsibility for the attack which was described as a “simple warning strike” to “prevent an oil ship that was trying to loot crude oil.” The statement, released on Twitter in English, added that precautionary measures were taken to preserve the safety of the crew and not to damage Yemen’s infrastructure; “We renew our warning to all companies to fully comply with the decisions of the authorities in Sanaa and shun away from any contribution to the looting of Yemeni resources.”

By framing the attack as a warning, the statement implies deliberate intent not to directly target the vessel, however, a statement by government forces claimed the UAVs were intercepted. In the past, the movement has demonstrated significant capability to accurately strike long-distance targets, yet less accurate UAV variants have also been employed in less successful operations by the movement.

The incident was widely condemned by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a violation of international law and a “threat to global energy supplies.” The UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg also condemned the incident as a “deeply worrying military escalation” and called on all parties to “double their efforts” to renew and expand the truce.”

While limited hostilities have been reported, the attack is by far the most significant Houthi-linked operation since the end of the six-month truce in October and is understandably set to reignite concerns that the movement will recommence long-distance attacks against oil and infrastructure targets. The assessed restraint showed in the strike is a small but positive sign despite this development, yet one that leaves room for a significant escalation in the near term.

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