Talos Regional Snapshot – 23 September 2022

Sep 23, 2022



President Raisi says Iran is committed to reviving JCPOA during UNGA speech
In his speech to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on 21 September, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi said Iran remains committed to reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), yet reiterated familiar demands that Tehran wants future guarantees that the US will not exit the agreement. “There is a great and serious will to resolve all issues”, Raisi said, but that “our wish is only for one thing: observance of commitments.”

The president also held a face-to-face meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the assembly meeting, during which the two sides discussed related Iranian demands for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conclude its investigation into uranium particles discovered at undeclared nuclear sites across the country. In subsequent remarks, Macron reiterated the West’s position that it will not pressure the IAEA into ending its probe, which is an issue separate from the JCPOA.

Citing Iran’s recent tendency to expand its list of demands, European and US officials have openly questioned Iran’s commitment to restoring the JCPOA and the rhetoric surrounding the UNGA meeting this week indicates little has changed. Accordingly, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said there were no expectations for a breakthrough during the discussions held this week in New York.

Iran to join Shanghai Cooperation Organization as permanent member
On 15 September, Iran signed a memorandum of obligations to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a permanent member. The full membership was announced by the President of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, during the 22nd summit of the organization held in Samarkand where leaders of the eight member states, including President Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, met. Previously a member with “observer” status, Iran commenced proceedings for permanent membership in September 2021 in what was President Raisi’s first significant foreign policy move since taking office in June. The full membership will most likely take effect no earlier than April 2023.

Widespread protests in Iran following death of woman by morality police
Protests broke out in several Iranian cities following the arrest and subsequent death of Mahsa Amini – a woman detained by the Morality Police on 13 September for allegedly violating the Islamic dress code by wearing her headscarf to loosely. Amini was reportedly beaten and died on 16 September while in custody in the city of Saqez, Kurdistan province, prompting nationwide unrest that initially commenced in connection with her funeral. The protests quickly spread through other Iranian cities, including Tehran, with several fatalities reported as Basij forces intervened to suppress the gatherings. Video footage from Tehran showed security forces employing tear gas and beating protesters with sticks while in protective gear, while unrest in the Kurdistan province involved extensive clashes between protesters and security forces. As of 22 September, at least thirty individuals have been killed and hundreds arrested, yet the protests remain ongoing.

Aside from growing opposition to the practices frequently employed by the Morality Police and other law enforcement agencies, protesters in several cities also chanted anti-government slogans and called for the death of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. For their part, the Iranian authorities deny that Amini was killed and said she suffered a heart failure shortly after entering the police station.  Regardless, President Raisi offered his condolences and said an investigation was launched. The local police director was also suspended from duty pending the results of the investigation. More importantly, Iranian officials and state-linked outlets blamed the protests on “foreign forces”, without elaborating.


IS VBIED attack foiled in al-Hol Camp, eastern Syria
On 21 September, Kurdish Internal Security Forces announced that two IS attempts to conduct Vehicle-borne IED (VBIED) attacks against the al-Hol Camp in Hasaka province, northeastern Syria, were foiled. A statement said an intelligence-led security operation targeted a nearby village, with two vehicles rigged with up to 300kg of explosives dismantled as a result. Three IS members were also killed in the raid.

The operation came a day after the announced conclusion of a security operation lasting several weeks inside the camp during which more than 200 IS members were arrested, and multiple weapons seized. To recall, earlier this year, IS militants staged a prison break inside the camp, resulting in extensive clashes with security forces and dozens of casualties. The security operation and foiled VBIED attempt this week highlight the enduring deterioration in security conditions inside the camp and may reignite calls from governments in the region to close al-Hol.

Damascus International Airport targeted by missile strikes
On 17 September, suspected Israeli airstrikes targeted Damascus International Airport (DIA) and nearby facilities likely utilized by Iranian-backed militia groups. The Syrian Ministry of Defense confirmed that five soldiers were killed, however no damages or disruptions to airport operations were discussed. Other reports by opposition-linked sources said the fatalities included two Syrian government soldiers and three members of an Iranian-backed militia.

The airstrikes follow previously discussed operations targeting Aleppo International Airport on 6 September, when the airport runway was extensively damaged. Earlier this year, suspected Israeli airstrikes also targeted DIA, likewise causing extensive damage to the runway and terminal area, with local reports discussing civilian casualties. As discussed in a recent feature, the strikes against airport facilities represent a shift in Israeli targeting patterns, likely motivated by Israeli efforts to disrupt Iranian weapons and ammunition supplies to affiliated groups utilizing civilian airports. The latest strikes against DIA corroborate Talos’ earlier assessment that temporary disruption of Aleppo International Airport would precipitate renewed Israeli targeting of DIA. For context, see the previous report published on 10 September.

Rocket attack targeted US base in eastern Syria
According to a statement by the US Central Command, three rockets targeted the Green Village base in northeast Syria at approximately 19:05 local time on 18 September, with a fourth rocket discovered at a launch site approximately five kilometers from the base. No casualties or damages were discussed, with the rockets reportedly failing to effectively target US or CF based at the location.

As usual, Iranian-aligned militia groups are widely suspected of involvement in the attack, which is consistent with a general uptick in indirect fire targeting CF assets in eastern Syria observed over the previous month. Related tensions coincide with the protracted struggle to restore the JCPOA and above Israeli operations. Recent activity includes most notably UAV and rocket strikes against Green Village and Mission Support Site Conoco on 24 August, when three US servicemembers sustained minor injuries. The operation generated a CF response, with airstrikes targeting and killing suspected Iranian-backed militia members later that day. Given the absence of casualties on 18 September, a similar counteraction was unlikely on this occasion but associated tensions should be monitored closely.


Government formation expected to accelerate after Arba’een
As anticipated, the pace of efforts to form a new government in Baghdad decreased over the Arba’een period, with no significant progress noted despite behind-the-scenes negotiations. Rhetoric this week underscored intent to speed up the process, however, with the Coordination Framework reiterating its support for prime minister nominee Mohammed Shi’a al-Sudani amidst rumors that another candidate was being considered. This week, Sudani held a meeting with some 60 MPs in Parliament to discuss the “next cabinet” and efforts to resolve existing issues, yet support for his candidacy amongst the political blocs falls significantly short of the required majority. The related outlook for politically motivated protest activity by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr remains a standing consideration, but so far Sadrist responses have been limited.

Iranian-backed elements suspected of UAV incident near Kirkuk-Sulaymaniyah border
On 19 September, Iranian-backed militias were assessed to have perpetrated a low-level UAV incident along the Kirkuk-Sulaymaniyah provincial boundaries, when Peshmerga forces opened fire against two UAVs loitering in the vicinity of Qara Hanjir town in eastern Kirkuk province.

The incident coincided with assessed political deliberations in Baghdad, as Iranian-aligned actors attempt to reach a consensus on government formation with Kurdish counterparts. This relatively obscure incident paled in comparison to previous high-profile attacks affecting the KR-I and demonstrates relative restraint amidst a current lull in relevant high-profile activity. Further details are provided in the full report.


Turkish and Syrian officials discuss intelligence cooperation
Signs of a possible normalization of ties between Syria and Turkey continue. According to a report by Reuters, citing four anonymous sources, the intelligence directors of the two countries met in Damascus last week to discuss ways to enhance intelligence cooperation – a move encouraged and facilitated by Russia. This follows President Erdogan’s recent acknowledgment that Syria and Turkey stepped up intelligence cooperation, and remarks made by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu encouraging “reconciliation” between Syrian opposition factions and the Assad government.

According to reports disseminated by Turkish state-linked media sources – which often act as informal communications channels for the Turkish government on sensitive issues – Erdogan recently expressed intent to meet with President Bashar al-Assad at the SCO summit in Uzbekistan. The remarks were reportedly made during a closed-door meeting with members of the ruling AK Party last week and follow speculative reports in Turkish media regarding a possible upcoming meeting between the two sides in the near future.

Israeli Prime Minister Lapid discusses cooperation with Erdogan in New York
On 21 September, Israeli President Yair Lapid met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting in New York – the first official meeting between an Israeli Prime Minister and Turkish President in 14 years. According to official readouts, both sides discussed ways to enhance energy cooperation and recent intelligence efforts to foil Iranian intent to target Israeli citizens in Turkey.

The two leaders also praised recent steps taken to mend ties previously strained by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which deteriorated when Israel declared Jerusalem as the capital of the country. In another important step, Israel announced the appointment of a new ambassador to Turkey on 19 September, with previous charge d’affaires Irit Lillian set to assume the position.


Israel to commence offshore gas extraction despite Hezbollah threats
On 19 September, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid announced that Israel will commence operations to extract gas from the Karish gas field “as soon as possible”, with preliminary work expected to commence this week. The gas field is subject to a long-standing dispute between Israel and Lebanon, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah labeling recent Israeli moves as a “red line”.

According to Israel, the field is located entirely within its exclusive economic zone while Lebanon claims parts of the field are in Lebanese waters. The US continues to mediate between the two governments, and this week Lebanese President Michel Aoun said the negotiations are in the “final stages”. Regardless, Hezbollah opposes the negotiations and may unilaterally resort to targeting the field should the extraction plans proceed with or without a bilateral agreement. In July, three UAVs launched from Lebanese territory were intercepted in the vicinity of a rig site inside the field, with similar operations understandably likely over the near term.

Saudi Arabia

Armed forces to hold large-scale parades during National Day
Between 17 and 26 September, the Saudi Armed Forces held a nationwide, nine-day parade with events in 13 cities across the Kingdom to mark the 92nd National Day. The events have been primarily highlighted by air and maritime displays involving the country’s air force and naval assets, described by state-linked media as one of the largest in the history of the country. While nominally intended as a celebratory event to mark the national day, the parades also served to showcase the country’s military capabilities amidst current regional tensions and are plausibly intended as a show of force.

Possibly intended as a response, the Houthi Movement conducted a large-scale military parade in Sana’a on 21 September showcasing newly developed, long-range ballistic missiles and other capabilities. The variants showcased included new versions of the Quds, Hatem, Meraj, and Falaq missiles, as well as unspecified models intended for “maritime” activities. According to Houthi-linked sources, the parade was timed to mark the eighth anniversary of the battle for Sana’a, when the movement seized control over the capital on 21 September. The same sources however, framed the event as a “message” to Saudi Arabia.

Saudi and UAE express intent to purchase combat UAVs from Turkey
According to international media reports citing anonymous Turkish officials, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are negotiating to purchase Bayraktar TB2 combat UAVs. This month, Turkish weapons manufacturer Baykar was reported to have delivered 20 UAVs to the UAE as part of an agreement signed between the two countries which mended ties in 2021. Turkish officials also said Saudi Arabia expressed strong interest in purchasing the same model, and even establishing a factory for manufacturing – a request currently being considered by the Turkish government whose rapprochement efforts with Riyadh have not proceeded as quickly as with Abu Dhabi.

So far, Saudi and UAE officials have refrained from openly commenting on the reports which, if confirmed, would mark a significant step towards expanding strategic ties and rapprochement efforts so far limited to the realm of trade and finance. In military terms, the negotiations reflect intent to expand offensive air capabilities in both countries which predominantly consist of fighter jets and other, more traditional assets. For Saudi Arabia, current UAV capabilities comprise a relatively small portion of its total air force assets and include two Chinese variants (CH-4B and Wing Loong II) purchased in 2014. Reports regarding the possible purchase of Turkish-made variants imply expectations that they have similar success in Yemen as they have in northern Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Ukraine where Turkish-made variants have been deployed extensively and with significant operational success.


US Secretary of State and President of Yemen discuss truce extension
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Chairman of the Yemen Presidential Leadership Council, Rashad al-Alimi, met on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting in New York. Both sides reiterated the need to extend the ongoing truce in Yemen, which is set to expire on 2 October. Echoing sentiments expressed by the UN, Blinken and Alimi also emphasized the need to expand the terms of the truce to include the reopening of roads around Taiz and to set conditions for a more permanent agreement.

Separately, US Envoy Tim Lenderking criticized the Houthi Movement for undermining the truce, citing alleged violations of the agreement and the continued detention of former US and UN staff. Lenderking also called on Iran to play a bigger role in facilitating a truce extension, claiming Iranian rhetoric in support of the agreement does not match developments on the ground. For their part, Houthi-linked sources continue to blame the Saudi-led coalition for violations, with conflicting reporting and accusations difficult to reconcile. As of 22 September, the Houthi Movement has not committed to a truce extension, meaning a resumption of violence is likely in the coming month. That said, previous extensions were likewise preceded by extensive negotiations that were only concluded shortly before the expiration date.

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