REGIONAL INCIDENT AND NEWS SUMMARY
Iran denies claims of uranium enrichment
On 19 February, a report by US financial news agency Bloomberg claimed inspectors working on behalf of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered uranium particles enriched at 84% purity – only a small step below 90% weapons-grade material. The IAEA said it is “aware” of the media reports and that it is discussing the issue with Iran. A spokesperson for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iraq (AEOI), Behrouz Kamalvandi, denied that Iran has any intent to enrich uranium at that level and informed a state-linked media channel that the “existence of particles with a purity over 60 percent” does not mean “there has been enrichment above that level”.
Kamalvandi added that Tehran had not been informed by the IAEA regarding the discovery and that the appearance of such information in western media suggests the information had been deliberately leaked to “smear” Iran. This is consistent with long-standing Iranian accusations that the IAEA is acting as a political tool by the West. If confirmed, the achievement of an 84% enrichment level would be the highest ever measured in Iran, and would constitute another sign of Iranian intent to accelerate its nuclear program. While disconcerting, it should be noted that the production of weapons-grade material is not necessarily indicative of intent to produce nuclear weapons yet represents another step to increase pressure on the west and Israel to ease international sanctions.
Relatedly, days prior to the Bloomberg report, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant reiterated that “all means” must be on the table to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Gallant also warned of Iranian efforts to export advanced weapons systems and called for the creation of a “practical mechanism of deterrence and consequences” as an alternative to the “dying” arms embargo. The comments can be seen as another Israeli effort to justify and support preventive military action, as opposed to diplomatic measures, to limit Iran’s nuclear program.
Suspected UAV targeted Israeli-linked oil vessel
On 17 February, a report by BBC Persian, citing US military sources, said an oil vessel operated by an Israeli-owned company was targeted by a suspected UAV in the Arabian sea on 10 February. The vessel, Campo Square, is sailing under the flag of Liberia and is managed by Eletson Corporation – a company linked to Zodiac Maritime which is owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer. A statement by Eletson confirmed that the vessel was struck by an “airborne object” and sustained limited damage, but that the crew was unharmed. Reports citing US and “regional” military sources said the attack most likely involved a Shahed 136 combat UAV which has been reportedly involved in previous strikes on Israeli-linked vessels.
Commenting on the incident on 19 February, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of being behind the attack and of “harming the international freedom of navigation.” The Iranian Foreign Ministry predictably denied the claim, with spokesperson Nasser Kanaani dismissing the allegations by the “Zionist regime.” The 10 February incident is consistent with previous, suspected Iran-linked attacks on Israeli-linked vessels in the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman in 2021 and 2022 involving a combination of limpet mines, long-range UAVs and other explosives. The most recent incident formed an assessed response to the 28 January UAV strike targeting a military munitions facility in Isfahan which, as discussed by Talos, raised the outlook for Iranian retaliatory strikes against Israeli interests.
Several killed in Israeli airstrikes targeting Damascus
In a related development linked to Israeli-Iranian tensions, Israeli airstrikes targeted the Kafr Sousa area of Damascus, killing at least five people and wounding 15 others on 19 February. The area is primarily a residential district, with several civilians reported among the victims and multiple residential buildings damaged as a result. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed the airstrikes targeted sites affiliated with Iranian-backed militia groups, including Hezbollah, as well as an “Iranian” school. The same report claimed the operation also targeted several outlying areas of the city.
The targeting of a predominantly residential district is noteworthy and rare, with Israeli strikes typically aimed at military facilities and arms depots used by Iranian-backed militias on the outskirts of the capital. The 19 February operation fueled speculation that the airstrikes were aimed at residencies used by senior officials of Iranian-backed groups. One member of an Iranian-backed group cited by AP News denied that this was the intention, however, a subsequent statement by the “Palestinian Islamic Jihad” warned of an immediate response to any Israeli “assassination attempt” targeting officials residing in Damascus.
Israeli strike follows reports of aid convoys used to transport missiles
The 19 February operation follows a visible increase in the presence of Iranian-backing militia groups in Syria, to assist in rescue operations related to the earthquakes in southern Turkey. As previously discussed by Talos, related concerns regarding Iranian intent to exploit aid operations to transport weapons into the country formed a potential driver of Israeli activities in the country. The airstrikes this week were notably precipitated by reports by opposition-affiliated channels that Iran-backed groups made at least three shipments containing short and medium-range missiles, logistical equipment and ammunition, concealed as humanitarian aid, earlier this month across the Iraq-Syria border. The veracity of these reports is understandably difficult to assess yet the airstrikes this week certainly corroborate standing concerns related to the proliferation of Iranian assets in Syria following the earthquake.
Rocket attack targets Coalition Forces in northeast Syria
On the evening of 18 February, according to the US CENTCOM, two rockets were launched against Coalition Forces stationed at the Green Village base in northeast Syria. The brief statement said no US or coalition forces were killed in the attack, and that there was no damage to infrastructure or equipment at the site. No group claimed responsibility for the rocket attack which took place four days after coalition forces engaged a reconnaissance UAV in the vicinity of the site. Iranian-backed militias are as always suspected of authorship and, in addition to the above-noted regional tensions, the incident underscores the enduring potential for Iran-linked strikes against US interests in Syria.
Four US servicemembers wounded during operation in Syria
On the night of 16 February, according to the US Central Command, during a partnered U.S. and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) helicopter raid in eastern Syria, an explosion on target resulted in the wounding of four U.S. servicemembers and one working dog. The targeted IS senior leader, Hamza al-Homsi, was killed during the operation, while the U.S. service members and working dog are receiving treatment in a U.S. medical facility in Iraq. Further details regarding the incident are provided on the Talos Dashboard.
Deadliest IS attack in years reported in Homs province
On 17 February, at least 53 individuals, including 43 civilians and seven Syrian army soldiers, were killed in an IS-orchestrated attack near the village of al-Sokhna in Homs province. Casualty figures remain subject to conflicting reports, with the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reporting as many as 68 individuals were killed. The attack targeted civilians collecting truffles in the area, with the majority captured before being executed. The incident is the second in a relatively short time span to target civilians foraging in the same area following a similar incident on 11 February that killed 11 civilians.
The 17 February event stands out as the single deadliest IS-linked attack in Syria this year and one of the deadliest recorded in recent years. While the targeting of civilians and Syrian army elements remains relatively common in rural areas of the country, the latest incident underlines assessed insurgent intent to capitalize on the conditions prevailing after the 6 February earthquake, with media attention and security efforts largely focused on the aftermath of the tremor.
US Secretary of State Blinken visits Turkey as death toll exceeds 46 thousand
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken arrived that the Incirlik Airbase in Turkey this week for an official visit focusing on the US’ assistance to ongoing rescue and relief operations following the earthquakes on 6 February. Speaking alongside Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Blinken said the US would continue to provide “long-term support” for Turkey and two days later the White House announced the provision of an additional $100 million in humanitarian assistance to Turkey and Syria.
A day prior to Blinken’s visit, official sources in Turkey and Syria reported that the total death toll from the earthquakes surpassed 46 thousand, as rescue operations continue to find civilian bodies underneath the rubble of collapsed buildings. An estimated 84 thousand buildings have also collapsed or been severely damaged. Both figures far supersede the initial estimates provided in the immediate aftermath of the tremors.
Clashes and mortar attack in northern Baghdad breaks lull in IS activity
On 16 February, clashes broke out in the Tarmiyah district of northern Baghdad province after an ISF security operation targeted an IS hideout. At least two soldiers, including a Lieutenant Colonel, were killed when a suicide bomber detonated to avoid capture. Later in the evening, a single mortar round impacted near Camp Taji, with no casualties or damages discussed. Both incidents marked a lull in significant IS activity prevailing since the start of the year. Further context is provided in this quick update.
Israeli Parliament gives preliminary approval of judicial reform
On 20 February, the Israeli Parliament voted in favor of a bill that affords the government additional powers and oversight to appoint judges – a key part of a broader judicial reform package proposed by Netanyahu’s government. The vote was 63 to 47 despite extensive protests in the country denouncing the plan which critics view as an attempt to erode the independence of the judiciary.
US officials have likewise expressed concerns about the legislation and urged the government to reach a consensus before proceeding with the overhaul. Speaking to a US media outlet before the vote, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said the US asked the Prime Minister to “slow down” and warned that the overhaul may complicate US efforts to promote diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The governing coalition and its supporters call the reforms necessary to limit the excess power of the supreme court.
Significant demonstrations related to the issue continued this week with a large-scale gathering reportedly attracting tens of thousands near the parliament building in Jerusalem. Further protests can be expected nationwide over the coming month as the vote on 20 February was the first of three scheduled readings regarding the legislation.
Joint US-GCC statement denounces Iranian activities
A joint statement released by the US-GCC working group condemned Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in the region, including the acceleration of its nuclear program, support for non-state armed groups, and the proliferation of Iranian arms. As expected, the statement denounced in particular Iran’s support for the Houthi Movement, pointing to the supply of “conventional weapons, advanced missiles, and UAVs” to the group in Yemen.
The statement follows a three-day visit by a US government delegation to Riyadh and meetings held with representatives of several member states of the Gulf Cooperation. As discussed last week, the visit was widely seen as an attempt to reassure regional allies and overcome a visible rift caused by the GCC states’ (notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE) cooperation with Russia within the OPEC+. An earlier meeting scheduled for October was reportedly postponed amidst tensions prevailing in the aftermath of President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia over the summer and unsuccessful US efforts to discourage Saudi Arabia’s economic cooperation with Russia.
Another source of tension concerns the CGG’s growing cooperation with China, highlighted by the first China-GCC summit held in Riyadh and attended by President Xi Jinping in December. For their part, Saudi and UAE officials continue to navigate associated tensions by attempting to compartmentalize economic and energy cooperation as separate from security and strategic ties, with the meetings held this week predictably portrayed by the GCC as a successful testament to the enduring security partnership with the US.
Saudi Foreign Minister calls for new approach to Syria as Assad visits Oman
In an assessed sign of Saudi Arabia’s intent to normalize relations with Syria, Foreign Minister Price Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud criticized the policy of isolating Syria and said dialogue with the government in Damascus is needed to address humanitarian concerns. Speaking on the situation following the earthquake on 6 February, al-Saud spoke of an “emerging consensus” in the Arab world that the “status quo” is not sustainable, and that serious effort to address the suffering of civilians must at some point be pursued through dialogue with the government. The remarks follow a series of small but symbolic steps undertaken over the past year by Riyadh to re-establish ties with Damascus, including a recent aid package administered by the Syrian government.
In a separate but related development, President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Oman this week to meet with Sultan Haitham bin Tariq in Muscat. According to official readouts of the meeting, bin Tariq reportedly said he “looked forward” to the normalization of ties between Syria and “all Arab countries”. Like other GCC member states, Oman withdrew its ambassador to Damascus in 2012 but never fully severed diplomatic relations. In 2020, the Sultanate was the first to restore ambassadorial ties, paving the way for Bahrain and the UAE to follow suit.
One arrested in connection with bomb threat against Saudi Embassy in Algeria
On 15 February, the Saudi Embassy in Algiers reportedly received a phone call from an individual threatening to “blow up” the embassy. According to the brief statement released by the embassy, the staff notified Algerian security forces who were later able to arrest one suspect. No motivation for the threat was specified but a statement by Algerian state-linked sources said the suspect would be charged after medical and psychological tests had been conducted. Further details regarding any motivation or connections of the suspect will be provided as available.
UN extends sanctions on Houthi Movement
On 15 February, the UN Security Council voted to extend sanctions on the Houthi Movement, including a freeze on assets and a travel ban targeting key leaders of the organization, for another nine months. The resolution was adopted unanimously and mandates an extension of the sanctions until 15 November. The council also reaffirmed the existing arms embargo affecting Houthi-controlled areas, which has no expiration date.
Separately, UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg met this week with UAE Diplomatic Advisor Anwar Gargash to discuss the latest developments in Yemen, including ongoing efforts to achieve a permanent ceasefire. Details were characteristically limited but Grundberg reportedly called for a “concerted” regional effort to reach a permanent solution. While no tangible progress has been noted since the truce expiration in October, the envoy said he remains encouraged by the uptick in regional diplomatic efforts observed since January, with near-weekly meetings held between senior stakeholders. Meanwhile, the military situation in Yemen remains relatively stable, with no major escalation initiated by either side. While conditions remain fragile, this may be interpreted as a sign of intent amongst key warring factions to allow negotiations to continue.