Talos Regional Snapshot – 20 October 2022

Oct 21, 2022



EU to impose additional sanctions on Iran
On 19 October, EU officials announced that preparations are underway to sanction Iran over the provision of combat UAVs to Russia. A spokesperson for the European Commission cited a “widely-shared political agreement that the EU should react swiftly” and that a list of sanctions is currently being prepared for discussion. Other officials said the sanctions may be finalized this week as top officials meet in Brussels. The statement follows a series of Russian strikes targeting Kyiv last week that reportedly involved Iranian-made UAVs, exported as part of a prior agreement between the two countries. Earlier in the week, the foreign ministers of the EU also decided to impose additional sanctions on the Iranian Morality Police as well as 11 other senior officials over their role in the ongoing crackdown on protesters.

In response, the Iranian government said on 18 October that reciprocal sanctions would be placed on the EU as the Foreign Ministry strongly denounced the sanctions. In a press conference the next day, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said four “western institutions” and “15 officials” from the EU and the US will be placed on the so-called blacklist. Echoing recent statements by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ibrahim Raisi, those targeted are accused of “inciting unrest” and “extremism” in the country. On the same day, Iranian state-linked sources reported the arrest of 14 foreign nationals, including citizens of the US, UK, and France, for their involvement in ‘anti-government’ demonstrations.

Spokesperson Nasser Kanaani also reiterated Iran’s longstanding denial that Iranian-made weapons are used in the war against Ukraine, despite credible and widespread evidence. Kanaani added that Iran maintains a policy of neutrality on the conflict and dismissed reports of Iranian UAVs being used in recent attacks as “misinformation and ill-intentioned presumptions.” Relatedly, according to reports citing anonymous Iranian officials and diplomats, Iran agreed to provide ballistic surface-to-surface missiles in the coming months. The agreement was made when a senior security delegation from Iran visited Moscow earlier this month and reportedly includes the provision of Zulfiqar and Fateh variants.

IRGC criticizes Saudi Arabia for reporting on protests while senior advisor calls for restoration of ambassadorial ties
On 17 October, Commander in Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hossein Salami, warned Saudi Arabia over its Persian-language coverage of the ongoing protests. “Be careful of your behavior and control these outlets or the smoke will blow in your face “, Salami said in an unspecified reference to Saudi-linked channels accused by Tehran of spreading anti-government information.

Salami refrained from naming any channels, however, the statement is a likely reference to Iran International – a UK-based Persian language site with alleged links to Saudi Arabia and is known for adopting a critical stance on the government. The remarks are also consistent with the narrative that the demonstrations are instigated by foreign enemies and adversaries. Aside from the ‘West’, Iran retains longstanding accusations of Saudi involvement in anti-government protests and supporting separatist movements in Arab-majority regions of the southwest.

In separate remarks potentially indicating disagreements between the military and political branches of the government, a senior advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, said Iran and Saudi Arabia must reopen their embassies to facilitate rapprochement efforts. Cited by state-linked sources, Velayati said the two neighbors must “coexist” and that reopening the embassies would help “resolve our problems in a better way”.

To recall, efforts to restore ambassadorial ties have been reported intermittently since the start of the Iranian-Saudi dialogue in early 2021, however these efforts have been stalled by a lack of progress on concrete matters and remain sensitive to wider regional tensions. Conflicting messages by Iranian military and political officials also underscore a degree of ambivalence on the matter, where significant progress appears unlikely over the near term.


Envoy says UN will push for nationwide ceasefire
Speaking after meeting Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in Damascus, UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen said the UN is still working on a nationwide ceasefire as daily hostilities continue in several areas of the country. The meeting with Mekdad formed part of a related effort to revive negotiations within the so-called Constitutional Committee – a dialogue involving the Syrian government and opposition representatives to draft a new Syrian constitution. The talks, held in Geneva, have been generally unsuccessful and were further stalled earlier this year when Russia insisted on a new, “more neutral” avenue. The UN has rejected Russia’s demand however it remains to be seen whether the recent meeting in Damascus is indicative of a compromise that may allow the discussions to resume.

PKK-affiliated protesters ‘storm’ UN office in northeastern Syria
On 19 October, supporters of the PKK-affiliated Youth Council of the Democratic Union Party gathered outside the UN office in Qamishli, Hasakah province, in northeastern Syria. Protesters denounced the continuation of Turkish operations in northern Syria and Iraq, including recent allegations of chemical weapons usage. The demonstration specifically urged the UN and the international community to take stronger action against Turkey, and according to local sources, some protesters entered and vandalized the building on the afternoon of 19 October as the protest escalated. No casualties were discussed however footage showed the building being damaged as a result.

Twenty IS members reportedly killed in retaliatory operation
On 16 October, according to Russian military and Syrian government sources, some twenty IS militants were killed in an operation near Jasim, Daraa province, in southern Syria. Led by Syrian government and Russian forces, the operation was conducted in retaliation for a roadside IED attack targeting a convoy of Syrian government forces last week east of Damascus, when eighteen soldiers were killed.

The outcome of the operation was not independently corroborated and the IS casualty figures discussed are plausibly exaggerated. Regardless, the attack on the convoy and subsequent retaliatory strike this week follows an observable uptick in hostilities involving IS and Syrian government forces in recent months. Earlier this month, government forces conducted a large-scale operation in the eastern Homs desert, with multiple militants killed according to government sources. Meanwhile, the repeated and deadly attacks on Syrian government forces underscore enduring IS capabilities in the country despite its territorial defeat.

Hamas and the Syrian Government restore ties
On 19 October, President Bashar al-Assad met with senior representatives of Hamas in Damascus, after which both sides declared a “new start” to their relationship. Kahlil al-Hayy, a senior Hamas official, called it a “glorious and important day” while other members of the group discussed plans to reopen offices in the country.

Both sides severed ties in 2011 following the Assad government’s suppression of protests during the Arab Spring and the start of the civil war. However, officials on both sides said shifting regional dynamics, including the Israeli-Gulf rapprochement, propelled a reassessment of ties. “The Palestinian cause needs an Arab supporter”, al-Hayy said. While still early, the normalization sets conditions for an increase in cooperation between Syria, Iran, and Hamas, aligned in their mutual hostility to Israel and the US. That said, Syria’s outreach to the UAE and Bahrain is assessed as a limiting factor.


Israel-Lebanon agreement to be signed next week
Further to reports Lebanon and Israel reached a historic understanding regarding maritime borders last week, the agreement is reportedly set to be formally signed in a ceremony in Beirut next week. US Senior Advisor for Energy Security, Amos Hochstein, will travel to Beirut to finalize the agreement which involves an understanding of how extraction from gas fields located along the previously disputed Israeli/Lebanese maritime border will be managed. The US-brokered agreement will then be submitted to the UN.

Meanwhile, reports circulating this week indicate Hezbollah approved a final draft of the agreement during the final discussions – a significant revelation in light of previous concerns the group would attempt to sabotage the deal. According to sources citing diplomatic and government sources, Hezbollah – which repeatedly threatened to take action if a deal was signed that did not protect Lebanese interests – closely scrutinized the deal and accepted that it was in Lebanon’s best interest given the significant economic challenges now facing the country.


Turkey positive about creating ‘energy hub’ for Russian gas
On 14 October, President Tayyip Recep Erdogan reportedly ordered the Ministry of Energy to explore the feasibility of creating a so-called ‘energy hub’ that will allow Russian gas exports to Europe via Turkey. This follows a suggestion by President Vladimir Putin last week to Erdogan in light of the sabotage operations affecting the North Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea. Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said concrete discussions between Turkey and Russia will commence in the coming week. Similar plans have been in discussion for more than a decade without materializing but the sabotage of Nord Stream 1 and 2 understandably led to a revival of the idea which, if realized, would plausibly increase Turkey’s leverage over both Russia and Europe, and improve Erdogan’s popularity given persistent gas shortages in Turkey.

US Treasury official visited Turkey amidst Russia-Turkey economic ties
A senior official from the US Treasury Department met Turkish counterparts in Ankara this week to discuss various aspects of the US-Turkey economic partnership. An official statement by the Treasury said Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Rosenberg discussed a range of topics, including “sanctions and export controls imposed on Russia”. Further details were not provided, but the timing is understandably significant in light of US efforts to isolate Russia and encourage cooperation from regional stakeholders. This includes a repeated warning to Turkish companies who do business with Russian entities in violation of existing sanctions.


Turkish airstrike against YBS in Sinjar town as Prime Minister-designate forms cabinet
On 18 October, a Turkish airstrike targeted YBS-linked security personnel in Sinjar town, Nineveh province, killing two members. The airstrike notably followed the 13 October presidential election, and subsequent efforts by Prime Minister-designate Mohammad Shia’ al-Sudani to form his cabinet.  As such, the airstrike served as a statement directed at the incoming administration that the Turkish government would continue to pursue its established policy objectives in Sinjar. See the full report here.

Parliamentary session to vote on new cabinet expected on 22 October
On 18 October, the Administering the State Coalition released a statement announcing its intent to hold a parliamentary session on 22 October in order to vote on the new cabinet being formed by Prime Minister-designate Mohammad Shia’ al-Sudani.  Separately, an unnamed Coordination Framework (CF) official discussed the speculated breakdown of key ministries amongst Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish blocs.  Another CF official stressed that al-Sudani is continuing to attempt to meet with Muqtada al-Sadr in order to reassure al-Sadr that his movement will not be ostracized. The virtual absence of significant politically motivated violence and unrest following the 13 October presidential election remains positive, though it will be important to continuously monitor Sadrist Movement statements in the lead-up to the 22 October session.

Saudi Arabia

OPEC+ members defend decision to cut production despite US criticism
In an assessed response to the strong US criticism of the decision to cut oil production by two million barrels/day in November, several member states of the OPEC+ issued statements defending the decision. Senior officials from the UAE, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, and Algeria variably but unanimously said the decision was motivated by “economic concerns” amidst claims in the West that the move aids Russia. Newly appointed Saudi Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman reiterated Saudi Arabia’s position and, in a series of statements on Twitter, expressed “astonishment” over accusations that the Kingdom is siding with Russia in the war against Ukraine. “Iran is also a member of OPEC, does this mean that the Kingdom is standing with Iran as well?”, bin Salman added.

In a possibly related attempt to signal neutrality, both the UAE and Saudi announced substantial humanitarian aid packages earmarked for Ukraine this week. In a phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman also reiterated Saudi Arabia’s readiness to assist in mediation efforts and to “support everything that will contribute to de-escalation.” In a more noteworthy development, Saudi Arabia also voted in favor of a UN resolution that condemned Russia’s annexations of four regions in eastern Ukraine. Saudi representative Abdulaziz Alwasil said “all countries must refrain from the use of forces” during remarks made in connection with the vote.

Biden to act “methodically” in US-Saudi relations as military ties remain intact
As discussed in a featured article last week, President Joe Biden warned Saudi Arabia of “consequences” in light of the recent OPEC+ decision, however the President has yet to specify which measures, if any, will be implemented in response to Riyadh’s perceived energy collaboration with Russia. In an interview on 16 October, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the President will act “methodically” when evaluating the relationship with Riyadh, but that no imminent changes in the bilateral partnership should be expected as the administration evaluates ties. Sullivan confirmed however that changes in security assistance are one of the options under review. The statement corroborates Talos’ assessment that drastic measures are unlikely ahead of the November mid-term elections.

US plans for regional integration of anti-missile systems remains
Signs that a broader impact on the US-Saudi strategic and security ties is unlikely are also corroborated by reports that US-led plans to integrate anti-missile defense systems across the region remain. To recall, earlier this year, various reports discussed plans to integrate and coordinate missile defense systems amongst US allies. The plans have variably been referred to as an ambitious effort to build an anti-Iranian axis or a more moderate project to promote coordination between regional allies. According to officials cited this week, meetings between CENTCOM and senior military representatives of OPEC+ members are expected later this month to further discuss the project which has so far not been impacted by recent tensions over oil production. US officials cited anonymously also said plans to set up a training site in Saudi Arabia are also being discussed, with a view to testing and improving anti-missile and UAV capabilities.


No major escalation in Yemen despite truce expiration
Efforts to renew the truce between the main warring sides in Yemen that expired on 2 October continue, as UN Envoy Hans Grundberg again urged all sides to “demonstrate leadership and flexibility” to extend the agreement. In remarks made this week, Grundberg said all sides have fortunately shown restraint since the expiration and that no major escalation has been witnessed. The spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition Turki al-Maliki also said delegations on both sides visited detained prisoners as part of a “goodwill” initiative to strengthen confidence efforts.

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