Talos Regional Snapshot – 27 April 2023

Apr 27, 2023



New sanctions imposed on IRGC
On 24 April, the European Union, the UK, and the US announced the imposition of new sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) over human rights violations. The sanctions included the freezing of assets and travel bans on several senior officials within the IRGC as well as companies with links to the organization. UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the sanctions were coordinated between the three sides and cited the arbitrary detention and torture of protesters as motivation for this latest round of such measures.

As widely reported, the West intensified sanctions against the IRGC following the outbreak and suppression of anti-government protests in September 2022, with more than 150 individuals and entities now targeted by EU and UK-led sanctions. The protests also generated calls in the EU and UK to follow the US in designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization, however both sides have so far resisted the move citing a lack of evidence under current legislation.

US denies submarine incident in Persian Gulf
On 20 April, Iranian officials reported its navy detected and forced a US submarine to surface, and then prevented it from submerging in the Persian Gulf as it approached the Strait of Hormuz. Speaking to state-linked media channels, the Commander of the Iranian Navy Shahram Irani said the US submarine switched course after being detected entering Iranian territorial waters. Irani added that Tehran would “reflect to international bodies the fact that it had violated our border (sic).”

US officials denied the encounter in its entirety with the US 5th Fleet, stating on Twitter that the claim is “absolutely false” and that no US submarines transited the Strait of Hormuz in recent days. The statement also added that the claim contributes to destabilizing the region and that the 5th Fleet will continue to operate “wherever international law allows.” The Iranian allegation follows the dispatch of a US cruise missile submarine (USS Florida) earlier this month in response to rising US-Iran tensions that followed the death of a US contractor in Syria. While not stated, the Iranian claim may have been intended to implicitly suggest that the incident involved the submarine dispatched and to demonstrate Iranian command over its territorial waters.

IDF warns of deteriorating naval situation in Red Sea
In a related sign of elevated naval tensions in the region, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) reportedly said it is preparing for a “deteriorating naval situation” in the Red Sea, citing increased Iranian naval activity. According to the Israeli news channel i24 News, the IDF reportedly pointed to Hezbollah’s possession of surface-to-air missiles and unmanned underwater vessels that can target oil rigs, ships, and other strategic facilities located along the coast of the Red Sea. In response, the report says the IDF has accelerated the employment of artificial intelligence capabilities and will deploy the Iron Dome system at sea to protect Israeli as well as international maritime interests.

While Iranian presence in the Red Sea is comparatively minor, Israeli officials have occasionally expressed concerns about Iran’s allegedly expanding activities in the sea. In July 2022, former Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Gantz called Tehran’s presence there the “most significant” in more than a decade, and revealed satellite images depicting four military vessels reportedly deployed in the southern region of the sea. No such details were presented in connection with the report this week and the statement is broadly consistent with rhetoric seen from the IDF at times of elevated regional tensions. That said, the timing of the statement is noteworthy following the Iran-Saudi normalization agreement and related Israeli concerns that normalization will facilitate Iranian expansion in the region.


Israeli forces target Iran-linked positions in Golan heights
Israeli strikes targeting Iranian-backed positions in Syria continued this week. On 24 April, according to initial reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), more than 20 missile strikes targeted positions in the vicinity of Quneitra in southern Syria, near the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The missiles reportedly targeted members of the Syrian Resistance to Liberate the Golan (Qors al-Nafl), an Iranian-backed militia group with close links to Lebanese Hezbollah.

No casualties were initially discussed, however limited local reports discussed casualties and damages inflicted on the locations targeted. The operation follows similar strikes conducted on 18 April, likewise targeting Iran-backed militia groups near the town of Saida in the southern Quneitrah countryside.

In a separate but related development, local reports indicated Iran-backed groups are enhancing air defense capabilities in the Deir Ez Zour province, eastern Syria. A local media outlet reported on 20 April that a commander for Lebanese Hezbollah arrived in the Mayadeen district of the province to train local militia groups in operating anti-aircraft missile systems, including the Misagh-1 man-portable surface-to-air missile.  The veracity of the report is difficult to establish however this correlates with earlier reports this month of shipments of the Misagh-1 being deployed in Deir Ez Zour via Iraq. The continued deployment of such capabilities is expected to continue to fuel Israeli operations on Syrian territory over the near term.

Russia hosts Turkish, Syrian and Iranian defense officials for talks on Syria
On 25 April, the Russian Ministry of Defense hosted the defense ministers from Syria, Turkey, and Iran for continued talks regarding the situation in Syria. A generic statement by Russia said the discussions focused on “practical steps” to stabilize the situation in Syria and to “normalize Syrian-Turkish relations.” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar described the talks as “constructive” and stressed the need to continue talks between the four sides.

Despite cordial rhetoric, official readouts by Syria and Turkey hinted at continued disagreements and divergent priorities. While the Turkish readout stressed the need to fight “extremist groups” in Syria and praised “concrete steps” towards normalization between Syria and Turkey, the Syrian government emphasized the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity and the “withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syria.”  While the continued discussions between the sides are widely seen as a step towards normalization, Damascus has yet to publicly endorse any restoration of ties with Turkey and continues to condition such as move on the complete removal of Turkish troops. However this week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu ruled out the removal of Turkish troops from Iraq and Syria, claiming that any repositioning would afford the PKK greater freedom to target the Turkish mainland. While a Russian-brokered compromise is not unthinkable, such statements will undeniably complicate efforts to restore Turkey-Syria ties.


Unidentified assailants target AK Party offices in Adana province and Istanbul
In assessed elections-related violence, two separate armed attacks were reported during the week targeting offices of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Turkey. In the southern Adana province, a lone assailant armed with an automatic weapon opened fire outside a district headquarters of the party in the Cukurova district on 20 April. No casualties were discussed however the suspect fired 12 rounds into the building, causing limited damage. Police forces arrived at the scene and detained the suspect whose political affiliation – if any – remains unclear. The next day, unidentified assailants opened fire at the electoral liaison office of the AK Party in the Bahceli Evler Khogasan area of Istanbul. No casualties were reported but the office was likewise damaged as a result. No arrests were discussed, however an investigation was launched into the incident, with the suspects’ affiliations also unclear and no attribution communicated.

With national elections to be held on 14 May, the outlook for a rise in political tensions and possibly violence is assessed as increasing in the coming days, especially given the evenly contested elections. The outlook for PKK-linked violence is however limited in light of the unilateral ceasefire announced by the group earlier this year. A statement in March said the ceasefire will remain in place until after the elections however the risk of political violence involving other factions in the country cannot be discounted.

More than 100 detained due to PKK links in Turkey
In a separate development, Turkish security forces conducted coordinated raids in 21 provinces on 25 April and arrested 110 individuals with alleged links to the PKK. Unnamed security sources said the operations were carried out simultaneously against 186 different addresses based on arrest warrants issued for 216 people. Official information was limited, however state-linked sources claimed those arrested were suspected of financing, recruiting, and spreading propaganda for the PKK.

The majority of the arrests were reportedly conducted in the city of Diyarbakir – the capital of the Kurdish-dominated province of the same name in southeastern Turkey. Members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HPD) said the detainees included members of the party as well as activists, journalists, and lawyers. In a statement on Twitter, the deputy party leader denounced the arrests as politically motivated attempts to disrupt the HDP’s electoral chances ahead of the elections. Several human rights groups likewise denounced the detentions as an abuse of power and questioned the legality of the arrest operations.


Possible IS-IED attack foiled in Kirkuk
Overall, the Ramadan period unfolded peacefully despite assessed elevated IS intent to conduct attacks during the annual festivities. The most noteworthy event involved a suspected IS-linked attempt to conduct an IED attack in a market area of Kirkuk city on 20 April. Media reports stated an unknown assailant shot and wounded a member of the Emergency Police who disturbed his emplacement of an IED in a local marketplace in Panja Ali. The attacker reportedly used a suppressed weapon and fled the scene following the shooting, though the wounding of the police member was not confirmed by official sources. Further details are provided in the full report.

Uptick in KDP-PMF tensions in Nineveh province
Since March, an uptick in tensions affecting the Nineveh Plains area has been observed, culminating in recent threats this week of protests and roadblocks affecting the Mosul-Erbil highway. These tensions are linked to efforts by PMF-linked factions (the 30th and 50th brigades) to challenge the KDP in the area. Wider escalation has so far been prevented, but the upcoming provincial election scheduled for November 2023 is set to drive related activity, with clients operating in these areas being aware of the potential for an increase in protest activity and transport disruptions. Further context is provided in this full report.

Danish military withdraws remaining personnel from counter-IS fight in Syria and Iraq
On 22 April, according to Danish Ministry of Defense social media accounts, Danish officials announced the withdrawal of the last Danish military personnel from Iraq and Syria who participated in operations against IS. Danish operators have monitored Iraq and Syria airspace and controlled air operations from headquarters both in the Middle East and South Carolina as part of the Air Control Wing. According to the statement, “We are pulling the unit home to Denmark now, partly because the Islamic State has been reduced so much in size that there is not the same need for our contribution, and partly because we need to rebuild combat power for the threats we see in our immediate area,” with the report quoting Colonel Bjarke Lomborg, head of the Air Control Wing. Any potential impact on operations is expected to be minimal, though statements from other officials as a result of the announcement have yet to be seen and will continue to be monitored.


Israeli officials express hope for agreement with Saudi Arabia
In separate remarks this week, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen addressed the possibility of a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, with both leaders expressing hopes of a breakthrough. Speaking to an Israeli news outlet, Cohen said a visit to Riyadh is “on the table” but that no date for the visit has been set. Cohen also notably said “at least one Arab country” will join the Abraham Accords this year, however the country in question was not specified. Separately, Netanyahu said normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia would constitute a “quantum leap for peace” that would “in many ways” end “conflict between Israel and the Arab states.” The Prime Minister also addressed the Iran-Saudi agreement and cautioned that “those who partner with Iran partner with misery”, while stressing that the leadership in Riyadh “has no illusions” about who their adversaries in the Middle East are.

The Iran-Saudi agreement has been widely perceived as a setback for Israeli and US-led efforts to normalize ties with Saudi Arabia – a topic that has been surfacing intermittently since the Abram Accords signed by the UAE and Bahrain in 2020. Most recently, the issue was discussed during a visit by US Senator Lindsey Graham when Israeli officials likewise optimistically expressed hopes for a breakthrough.

Riyadh has repeatedly ruled out normalization pending progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the China-brokered agreement signaled a deviation in Riyadh’s approach to Iran that nominally reduced prospects for deepening cooperation with Israel. Meanwhile, the new Israeli government’s hardline policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are further assessed to reduce the possibility of engagement with Saudi Arabia which, like other regional states, has widely condemned measures taken by the new government in Tel Aviv.

It remains to be seen if the discussed visit mentioned by Cohen will materialize in the near future, however the rhetoric expressed by Israel has so far not been reciprocated by Saudi Arabia. In March, Saudi Arabia also denied entry visas to a delegation led by Cohen seeking to attend a UN-led conference in Riyadh. No official reason for the denial was provided, however the move was seen as a symbolic rejection of Israeli outreach. The remarks this week should therefore be seen as an Israeli attempt to downplay the effects of the Iran-Saudi agreement, and recent controversies surrounding Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

Saudi Arabia

Visits by Palestinian leadership signals Saudi strategic shift
Coinciding with the above-noted remarks by Israeli officials, senior Palestinian leaders made separate trips to Saudi Arabia, with the visits broadly indicative of Riyadh’s intent to forge closer ties with the Palestinian leadership. On 21 April, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman notably hosted the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in Jeddah for a rare bilateral meeting. Subsequent reports said the two sides discussed the situation in the occupied territories, with Abbas praising Saudi Arabia’s support for the Palestinian people. In a more remarkable development, senior Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh, Khaled Meshaal, and Mousa Abu Marzouk were seen performing the Umrah pilgrimage in Mecca. Leaked reports before the visit said the Hamas delegation would meet Saudi officials and while a meeting is likely to have taken place, there were no official statements released by the Saudi government.

Hamas’ visit is the first since 2015 and suggests intent on both sides to forge closer ties following years of tensions, driven by Saudi Arabia’s long-standing opposition to Hama’s control over the Gaza Strip and the related failure to reconcile with the Fatah Party. Signs of rapprochement in recent months include the release of Hamas-affiliated individuals previously imprisoned on terrorism charges in Saudi Arabia while the Hamas leadership has struck a more conciliatory tone towards the Saudi government. More importantly, the visits this week imply a further shift in Saudi diplomatic priorities following the Iran-Saudi agreement amidst reports that the deal included arrangements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a broader strategic context of Saudi Arabia’s simultaneous engagement with Syria and continued cooperation with Russia, the timing of its engagement with Hamas may also be interpreted as a further sign of defiance of US priorities in the region. While the lack of public statements on the issue signals intent to downplay diplomatic fallout, continued engagement with Hamas may emerge as another source of divergence between the two sides.

Putin and Bin Salman discussed OPEC cooperation on the phone
In a sign of continued cooperation, Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone on 21 April with both sides praising their mutual commitment to the policies adopted by the OPEC+ and their cooperation on global energy markets. A readout by the Kremlin said both leaders “expressed satisfaction” with the level of coordination to ensure energy market stability. To recall, the phone call follows a surprising decision by OPEC+ to cut production levels in April, as well as a voluntary decision by Saudi Arabia to cut production by another 500 thousand barrels per day as of May. The decisions continue to face opposition in the West amidst unsuccessful US-led efforts to ensure Saudi cooperation on energy policies and international sanctions against Russia.


Qatar and UAE to restore full diplomatic ties
On 18 April, Qatari officials cited by international press reports said efforts are underway to restore full diplomatic ties with the UAE, including by reopening embassies in both countries. The official Qatar Media Office released a statement describing the process as “underway” while separate reports claimed both embassies are expected to be opened by mid-June. Like most other GCC states, the UAE ended the blockade of Qatar in January 2021 and moved to restore travel and trade ties with Doha shortly thereafter. However full diplomatic representation was delayed amidst signs of lingering tensions in what at the time was reported as a primarily Saudi-led initiative to lift the blockade. The previous week, Bahrain likewise announced progress on resuming ties with Qatar and given the close political alignment between the UAE and Bahrain, the two developments are assessed to be linked.


Houthi Movement blames Saudi Arabia and US for stampede
On 20 April, according to Yemeni official sources, at least 90 people were killed and hundreds injured in a stampede in Sana’a. The crowd crush took place during a charity event as large crowds gathered to receive cash donations (worth approximately $9) at a school in the Old City of the capital during the start of Eid al-Fitr. Houthi-affiliated security forces deployed at the event fired warning shots to control the crowd, reportedly causing an explosion and panic that led to additional injuries.

In a subsequent statement, the Houthi Movement blamed the incident on the Saudi Government and the US for creating the conditions that led to the event. Houthi-linked sources citing a member of the Supreme Political Council said the “US-British-Saudi-Emirati aggression has brought the Yemeni people to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” The stampede occurred at a time of increased optimism surrounding the Yemen peace process, following earlier discussed signs of an impending breakthrough during Ramadan. Subsequent reports citing Houthi officials said the negotiations with the Saudi government would resume after Eid al-Fitr however as of 26 April no significant new developments have been reported.

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