REGIONAL INCIDENT AND NEWS SUMMARY
Iranian and Saudi Foreign Ministers agree to meet during Ramadan
The positive engagements between Iranian and Saudi officials continued this week following the agreement to restore diplomatic ties signed earlier this month. On 27 March, the foreign ministers of the two countries, Hossein Amir Abdollahian and Prince Faisal bin Farhan, spoke on the phone for a second time in less than a week. According to Saudi state-linked sources, the two sides agreed to hold a meeting during the holy month of Ramadan. The report by the official Saudi Press Agency also said the two foreign ministers discussed various “common issues” related to the tripartite agreement brokered by China. Further details, including the date and location of the meeting, were not specified but the statement indicates it will take place prior to the expected end of the holy month on 20 April.
Russia reportedly supplies Iran cyber technology in exchange for UAVs
According to a report released this week by the Wall Street Journal, Russia has provided Iran with advanced cyber and surveillance technology in exchange for Tehran’s provision of combat UAVs to aid its war in Ukraine. Citing anonymous sources and officials, the technology has been primarily used for surveillance purposes to collect information on opposition critics and facilitate efforts to identify, locate and detain protesters during the 2022 anti-government demonstrations. While unconfirmed, the provision of these advanced technologies is believed to be linked to Iran’s simultaneous provision of advanced combat UAVs which have been used by Russia in the war in Ukraine, with the exchange plausibly forming part of a bilateral agreement between the two sides. Regardless, the report consolidates perceptions of growing strategic and security cooperation between the two sides.
Increase in US-Iran hostilities in Syria after death of US contractor
In an update to the previous discussion, an escalation in Iran-US hostilities took place in eastern Syria after an initial UAV strike that targeted a coalition base in Hasakah province and killed a US contractor and wounded six US service members on 23 March. Later in the week, on 26 March, a militia calling itself (Liwa al-Ghalboun) – affiliated with the IRGC – claimed responsibility for the UAV strike. In response, US forces conducted precision strikes against facilities linked with Iranian-backed militia factions in eastern Syria, killing 19 militia members according to updated reports. Further rocket and UAV strikes were later reported against Mission Support Sites Conoco and Green Village in eastern Syria on 24 March, with reports indicating one US service member was injured as a result. Iran-backed militia groups were reportedly placed on high alert following these events while Iranian officials and Iran-linked militia groups threatened retaliation in the event of further strikes.
The Syrian and Iranian Foreign Ministries condemned the US airstrikes, accusing Washington of “lying” about the targets and of targeting civilian areas. Both countries also called on the US to “end its occupation” of Syrian territory, however no further hostilities have been recorded since the rocket and UAV attacks reported on 24 March. Commenting on these developments in a press conference this week, the spokesperson for the US National Security Council said there was “no change in the US footprint in Syria as a result of what happened in the last few days” and reiterated the US remains committed to its mission of combatting IS, and has no intention of leaving the country. Further details regarding the 23-24 March attacks are provided in the updated full report.
Dozens of civilians collecting truffles abducted by IS in Homs province
On 23 March, according to various reports, suspected IS militants abducted and later executed a large number of civilians collecting truffles in eastern Homs province, Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), approximately 40 civilians were abducted and at least 15 killed in the attack that targeted both civilians and armed tribesmen. The whereabouts of the remaining victims remains unclear. The incident follows a similar attack in the province in February when at least 50 civilians and Syrian government soldiers were abducted and killed also while collecting truffles. These incidents constitute some of the deadliest attacks conducted by IS in recent years and underscore the persistent threat posed by the organization in rural areas despite its territorial defeat in 2019.
KRG oil exports via Turkey halted following court ruling
On 23 March, the International Court of Arbitration ruled that the exportation of oil products from the KRG through Turkey without Baghdad’s consent violates a 1973 bilateral pipeline agreement between Iraq and Turkey. The court reportedly ruled that the agreement mandates that the federal State Oil Marketing Organization (SOMO) has sole authority to instruct the transport requirements of Iraqi oil through the Ceyhan pipeline. As a result, Turkey suspended oil exports through the pipeline on 25 March while the Government of Iraq (GoI) similarly stopped exports from oilfields in Kirkuk.
The verdict issued on 23 March was welcomed by the Ministry of Oil as a victory for Baghdad but a statement by the ministry added that the GoI would “explore mechanisms” to export crude via Ceyhan with the authorities in the KRG and Turkey. For their part, the KRG Ministry of Natural Resources said it would not “give up on the constitutional rights of the Kurdistani people” but added that the ruling would not harm its relations with Baghdad. KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani said in a statement that recent discussions with the GoI have laid the “groundwork for us to overcome the arbitration ruling”, indicating that the KRG is essentially willing to accept the ruling. Further context is provided in the full report.
Protests escalate following amendment of electoral law
Parliament’s passage of the controversial amendments to the electoral law prompted expected demonstrations in the southern region, with an observed escalation recorded overnight between 27 and 28 March. According to initial reports, some ten protesters were injured across several provinces, with security forces in Babil province reportedly using live ammunition as warning shots to disperse crowds. At least one fatality was reported in Wasit province. Disruptive protests were also reported in Najaf, Dhi Qar and Diwaniyah provinces.
The escalation formed an expected response by the October Movement and affiliated or aligned civil society groups to parliament’s approval of controversial amendments to the 2018 electoral law on the evening of 26 March. Following months of deliberations, parliament voted to approve the proposed changes which essentially reverse previous efforts to make it easier for smaller parties to gain seats at the expense of more dominant party coalitions. Tensions are expected to remain elevated as the October Movement and affiliated groups are likely to channel opposition to the electoral amendments through street action after political attempts to prevent the legislation failed. Further details are provided in the full report.
Turkish and Syrian officials to meet in Moscow
On 28 March, senior Turkish and Iranian officials confirmed that the deputy foreign ministers of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Russia will meet in Moscow next week. The meeting on 3 and 4 April will reportedly focus on “developments on the ground in Syria” however the visit is seen as a continuation of recent efforts by Moscow and Iran to promote the normalization of ties between Turkey and Syria. To recall, the defense ministers of Syria and Turkey met under Moscow’s mediation in December however the talks have since expanded to include Iranian officials. The upcoming meeting will likely fuel months of speculation in the region regarding an impending normalization in diplomatic ties between Turkey and Syria. The discussions may also lay the groundwork for an agreement that could disincentivize Turkey from launching a military operation in northern Syria.
HDP will not field candidate in May elections
In a move widely seen as a setback for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) said it will not field a presidential candidate in the upcoming general elections, scheduled to be held in May. The decision is seen as a sign of tacit support for the main opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglo – the leader of the six-party Nation Alliance who recent polls indicate holds a lead over President Erdogan. The HDP has so far refrained from openly supporting Kilicdaroglu however the party’s support for the Nation Alliance may prove crucial in unseating Erdogan after the elections.
Despite a recent court ruling to unfreeze financial assets of the HDP, the party still runs the risk of a potential closure ahead of the elections due to its alleged links to the PKK. Party officials continue to deny the government-led accusation as a politicized attempt to remove the third-largest opposition party and boost its electoral chances, however this week the HDP announced that it would circumvent the threat of closure by running under the Green Left Party in the upcoming elections.
PKK extends ceasefire in Turkey until elections
In a related development, a senior member of the PKK announced that the group decided to extend a unilateral ceasefire until the Turkish election scheduled to be held on 14 May. Cited by PKK-linked media outlets, Bese Hozat, a senior PKK commander said the group “reevaluated our ceasefire decision” and that the decision was made to extend it beyond the elections “since this is a historic vote.” To recall, the initial ceasefire was announced in February shortly after the earthquake in southern Turkey, with the group citing the need to facilitate humanitarian operations. Of note, the ceasefire only encompasses Turkish territory, with operations in Iraq and Syria continuing without significant changes. Regardless, the decision to suspend operations until after the Turkish elections was likely made to deny President Erdogan any electoral advantages that may be obtained in response to PKK attacks, with the AK Party deriving a significant portion of its support from a nationalist voter base broadly supportive of the government’s strong-handed policies against the PKK.
Planned judicial reforms delayed following protests
In a televised speech on 27 March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the planned overhaul of the judicial system would be delayed to allow time for dialogue. This comes in response to another week of large-scale demonstrations widely described as the largest in Israeli history and amidst growing domestic and international opposition to reforms perceived as threatening the independence of the judiciary. Having previously ruled out backtracking or delaying the reforms, Netanyahu struck a more conciliatory tone in his speech by acknowledging the existence of deep societal divisions and the need to take a “timeout” for dialogue. The prime minister also said he intended to reach a “broad consensus” and prevent a further “rift in the nation.” The speech appears to have had a calming effect as the intensity of the protests declined however the remarks did not indicate a fundamental shift in the government’s position and did not address the underlying issues that have fueled opposition to the planned reforms.
Biden expresses opposition to reforms
Meanwhile, in a related development, US officials have become increasingly outspoken in their opposition to the planned overhaul. Having previously struck a modest and diplomatic tone, President Joe Biden said in a press conference this week that he hopes Netanyahu “walks away from” the plans and added that the government “cannot continue down this road.” Biden also denied plans, suggested by Ambassador Thomas Nides, that Netanyahu would soon be invited to the White House.
The president’s explicit positioning on a domestic, Israeli policy issue is rare and was almost immediately rebuked by Prime Minister Netanyahu who stressed that Israel is a “sovereign state” that makes “its own decisions”. Likewise, several Israeli ministers including Interior Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Education Minister Yoav Kisch both rejected Biden’s comments as an interference in the domestic and internal affairs of Israel.
Saudi state media confirms discussions to restore ties with Syria
Further to previously discussed, unconfirmed reports of a possible restoration in diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Syria, a state-linked TV channel reported on 23 March that discussions on the matter are ongoing between the Syrian and Saudi governments. Citing an anonymous source within the Saudi Foreign Ministry, the report said negotiations are underway and aim to resume “consular” services. Further details were not provided and officials on both sides have yet to confirm the talks.
Given the government’s close control over state-linked media channels in the country, the report adds credibility to the initial reports circulated by international media last week. Separately, the Wall Street journal claimed this week that the discussions have been facilitated by Russian mediation in ways similar to how Moscow has been promoting normalization between Syria and Turkey. As discussed, the restoration of diplomatic ties would be a significant achievement for Syria following recent rapprochements with the UAE, Bahrain and other Gulf States, and further contribute to breaking the regional isolation imposed on the country since the start of the civil war.
Crown Prince Salman spoke to President Jinping following Aramco investment agreement
In a further sign of growing bilateral cooperation, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman spoke on the phone with President of China Xi Jinping on 28 March. According to official readouts, the two leaders discussed a wide range of bilateral issues, with Salman reportedly thanking China for its role in promoting recent initiatives to “develop good neighborliness” between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Other topics included ways to promote energy and strategic ties, with further details limited.
Not coincidentally, the phone call took place a day after Saudi state-owned oil company Aramco announced the second of two agreements to expand its stake in the Chinese petrochemicals industry. According to AP News, the deals include a 10% interest in the Rongsheng Petrochemical Co. Ltd and the construction of a new oil refinery in northeastern China through the Huajin Aramco joint venture. Further to China’s recent role in brokering the Iran-Saudi agreement earlier this month, the investments underline Riyadh’s expanding cooperation with China and are the largest announced since Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022.
Saudi Arabia and gulf states denounce Quran burning in Denmark
Like several other states in the region, Saudi Arabia and the UAE issued separate statements this week to condemn the burning of the Quran in Copenhagen, Denmark. Last week, members of a far-right group called Patrioterne Gar Live gathered outside the Turkish embassy in the capital and live-streamed the burning of the holy book and Turkish flags – the latest in a series of similar incidents reported in the country in recent months. The statement by Saudi Arabia strongly denounced the event and stressed the value of tolerance and respect. Similar statements were issued by the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait this week. Beyond diplomatic pushback, the burning of the Quran has not produced any recorded incidents of violence however the issue remains sensitive, especially considering the onset of Ramadan, and protests should not be discounted if similar acts are repeated.
Israel and UAE activate economic partnership agreement despite bilateral tensions
On 26 March, Israel and the UAE formalized a free trade agreement signed in May 2022 which reduces or removes trade tariffs on approximately 96% of all goods traded between the two countries. Prime Minister Netanyahu praised the deal and said it would contribute to improving business ties and the cost of living in both countries. The signing of the partnership took place a day prior to former Prime Minister Naftali Bennet’s visit to the UAE where he held meetings with senior UAE officials, including de-facto leader Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi.
The signing of the agreement this week in Jerusalem comprised a mere formality, necessary to activate the partnership agreement signed last year. Regardless, the formalization comes amidst a recent uptick in bilateral tensions following the UAE’s increasingly explicit criticism of Israeli policies in the West Bank and controversial statements made by members of the new Israeli government. On the same day the trade agreement was activated, the UAE Foreign Ministry released a statement strongly condemning Tel Aviv’s approval of new settlements in the West Bank. Earlier this month, the foreign ministry similarly denounced comments made by Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich that denied the existence of the Palestinians as “a people.” So far, relations between the two sides have been characterized by a compartmentalization of Israeli-Palestinian and economic matters, however the hardline positions adopted by the new Israeli government pose a challenge for Abu Dhabi.
Several killed in renewed clashes in Marib province
An escalation in hostilities was observed this week after the Houthi Movement resumed operations to retake the city of Harib in Marib province. According to reports citing local sources, at least 16 fighters on both sides were killed in the fighting, with another 20 wounded. No immediate changes in the territorial control of terrain were reported however the Yemen Presidential Council pledged to thwart and reverse any advances made by the movement. The city of Marib was previously controlled by the Houthi Movement but was claimed by UAE-backed forces in 2022 as part of a series of territorial setbacks for the Houthis. The latest offensive is therefore seen as an effort to retake the strategically significant city in the oil-rich province. Separately, on 25 March, the Houthi Movement conducted a UAV strike against a convoy of senior military officials in the city of Taiz. One Saudi-backed government soldier was killed and two others were wounded in the strike that targeted vehicles transporting Defence Minister Mohsen al-Daeri and other senior officials, including the governor of Taiz.
The events this week raised concerns of an uptick in hostilities which largely subsided with the onset of the six-month UN-mediated truce last year. The latest violence also threatens to disrupt ongoing efforts to restore the agreement, following recent, optimistic statements made by diplomats in light of the Iran-Saudi rapprochements and associated expectations of a diplomatic breakthrough in the peace process.