Talos Regional Snapshot – 2 October 2023

Sep 30, 2023



Iran announces launch of new satellite
On 27 September, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced the successful launch of the Noor-3 satellite into orbit. According to Iranian state-linked media, the satellite was launched by a so-called Qased missile, developed by the IRGC Aerospace division, and put into an orbit 450km from the earth’s surface. The IRGC Commander in Chief Hossein Salami said the satellite would be used to “meet the intelligence needs of the IRGC” and in his remarks indicated it would be used for both signals and imagery intelligence purposes. Other senior officials in Tehran predictably praised the launch as another milestone in Iran’s aerospace development, with Defense Minister Brigadier General Mohammed Reza Ashtiani congratulating the “Iranian people” on the achievement and praising the aerospace division for its success.

The Noor-3 is the successor to the Noor-1 and 2 versions which were launched in April 2020 and Mars 2022 respectively, all utilizing three-stage Qassed missiles to launch. Defence Minister Ashtiani announced earlier this year that two or possibly three “domestically-produced satellites” would be launched before the Iranian New Year, which concludes on 19 March 2024, possibly indicating another launch in the coming six months. US officials have not commented on the event this week but the Noor-3 will reignite concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile program considering the long-term possibility that the technology may be used for hostile purposes including, in the worst case, the delivery of nuclear weapons. The Biden administration is set to expand and intensify international sanctions on the program, as recently seen with the expansion of measures targeting international entities involved in aiding Tehran’s ballistic missile development. No sanctions have been announced so far in connection with the launch this week.

US announced sanctions on Iran following Russian defense minister visit
In a related development, the US Treasury announced this week that additional sanctions were placed on entities and individuals based in Turkey, China, UAE and Iran, for their involvement in the Iranian UAV program and its support for Russia. The list (available here) includes five companies and two individuals targeted for their role in the procurement and financing of “sensitive parts” used for the manufacturing of combat UAVs provided to support the war in Ukraine. The press release noted that a total of nine designations have been made in connection with Iran’s program, with the number of sanctions intensifying since the invasion of Ukraine and Iran’s related supply of one-way Shahed-136 combat variants to Russia.

The announcement came a week after Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu visited Tehran, in a trip that fuelled concerns and speculation that Russia may seek to acquire short and medium-range missiles from Iran in addition to UAVs. During the visit, Shoigu met with the head of the IRGC Aerospace division, Amir Ali Hajji Zadeh, and reportedly received a tour of the IRGC’s full arsenal of UAV, missile and air defense capabilities. During a meeting, the two sides also discussed the upcoming expiration of stipulations under UNSC resolution 2231 which imposes restrictions on Iranian arms sales, with some sources (including the US neo-conservative think tank Institute for the Study of War) interpreting this as a sign that Russia may proceed to purchase missile capabilities from Iran when the restrictions expire on 18 October. To recall, Germany, France, and the UK announced earlier this month that they would extend the restrictions beyond 18 October, citing Iran’s continued violations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). A similar course of action has not been signaled by Russia or China, and the 18 October may well accelerate Russia and Iran’s cooperation on arms sales.

Israel announces foiling another Iran-linked plot
On 27 September, the Israeli Security Agency Shin Bet announced the arrests of five members of a Palestinian cell plotting attacks in Israel and the West Bank, including by targeting Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and a former member of the Likud Party. The cell was reportedly being directed by an Iranian agent based in Jordan who was not arrested in the operation. Further details were limited but the detainees were charged with smuggling weapons and the plot reported involved plans to set fire on gas stations and cars.

Details of the Iranian agent were likewise limited and it remains unclear to what extent the plot was being directed from Tehran, however one of the detainees confessed during the interrogation that the plot was being financed and backed by Iran. Iranian officials have as usual not commented on the incident but the arrest corroborates an Israeli narrative regarding repeated Iranian attempts to instigate terrorist attacks against Israeli interests inside and outside of Israeli territory. Earlier this year, Israeli Minister Yoav Gallant said over 50 Iran-linked planned attacks have been foiled against Israeli interests in recent years, including several involving Palestinian factions. Most recently, in August, the Israeli Defence Forces foiled an Iran-linked attempt to smuggle explosives across the border from Jordan and earlier this month officials accused Iran of constructing an airport in southern Lebanon that may be used to target Israel. The arrests this week are unlikely to generate any significant responses from Israel but are set to fuel long-standing regional tensions between the two sides.


Clashes resumed in northeastern Syria
Hostilities between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and tribal elements affiliated with the Deir Ez Zour Military Council (DMC) resumed this week in the eastern Deir Ez Zour province as clashes renewed in the vicinity of the town of Dhiban. The latest skirmishing broke out on 25 September when DMC-affiliated elements launched attacks against three SDF-controlled checkpoints in the town. In response, the SDF imposed a curfew in the district and surrounded the town on 26 September. After allowing civilians to evacuate, the SDF reportedly conducted artillery strikes followed by a ground operation that successfully restored control over the area after deploying additional reinforcements. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 25 individuals were killed on both sides with 42 others injured as a result of the clashes.

The uptick this week formed a continuation of hostilities that began in late August when the SDF detained a senior member of the DMC for alleged criminal activities but what was widely regarded as a response to the DMC’s cooperation with the Syrian Government and Iran-linked elements. At the peak of the engagements, the DMC briefly controlled several villages in the province but SDF control was restored on 9 September following a major military operation. According to the SDF, the fighting this week commenced when gunmen entered Dhiban from Mayadin district which is controlled by the Syrian Government and the statement accused Damascus of instigating the clashes following weeks of relative calm. The skirmishes were also preceded by continuing reports of an influx of Iran-linked elements to the Deir Ez Zour province in an assessed bid to stoke tensions and undermine SDF, and by extension coalition, control over the area. The SDF this week notably accused the Syrian National Defence Forces (NDF) – a pro-government militia that falls under Syrian government command but was originally formed under the supervision of the Iranian Quds Force – of supporting and instigating the unrest this week.

While confined to Syria, a further escalation may result in a broader increase in Iran-US tensions as, considering the involvement of Iran-linked elements, the issue is inevitably linked to broader efforts to expel coalition presence from northeastern Syria. As noted by US officials, the exacerbation of internal SDF divisions may also undermine counter-terrorism efforts in the area, while affording IS elements an opportunity to exploit security gaps. So far, the impact on counter-terrorism operations and IS activity levels have been limited, but the insurgents undeniably retain intent to exploit future dynamics should these divisions persist.

Details of Syria-China strategic partnership agreement limited
As discussed in the previous edition of this report, President Bashar al-Assad visited China on 21 September to meet with President Xi Jinping and attend the opening ceremony of the 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou. Most notably, the two sides announced a “strategic partnership agreement” with the intent to bring bilateral relations between the countries to a new level based on “cooperation and friendship.”

While the initial meeting was marked by characteristic diplomatic rhetoric but limited substance, additional details of the strategic partnership agreement were expected to be revealed by officials in the days after. However a week after the trip, the content of the partnership remains unclear. Prime Minister Qi Lang said several Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) were signed within the field of economic development and reconstruction, however there has been no mention of specific projects or the sums involved. Likewise, reports of “technology cooperation agreements” remain devoid of further details, indicating that the “strategic partnership” is primarily of symbolic importance at this stage. Indeed, President Assad was cited by reporters in China claiming that the “details of the agreements” will need to be discussed at an “official level”.

While further details may well have been discussed behind closed doors, the apparent lack of substance is consistent with China’s somewhat cautious approach to Syria which, despite official rhetoric, remains limited to diplomatic support and mainly symbolic economic engagements. In recent years, China has repeatedly pledged economic support for the Syrian reconstruction yet the actual investments remain largely absent. In January 2022, Syria officially joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative however any projects funded as part of the initiative have not been unveiled since.


Civilian killed in Turkish airstrike as Ankara maintains pressure on the PUK
Further to last week’s UAV strike on the Arbat Agricultural Airport in Sulaymaniyah province, Turkish air and UAV strikes continued this week in the Sulaymaniyah and Erbil provinces. According to limited reports on 21 September, a civilian vehicle was targeted in the Bradost area of Erbil province however the same reports claimed the targeted individual managed to escape the vehicle unharmed. Additional strikes were reported in the northern Soran district of northern Erbil on 24 and 26 September, as media sources claimed fires broke out in the areas affected. More significantly, on 27 September, the KRG Counter-Terrorism Directorate confirmed that a strike targeted a PKK headquarters in the Bogriskan village of Pshdar district, in northern Sulaymaniyah province. Four members of the PKK were reportedly killed as a result while one civilian was killed and two others wounded nearby. The civilian bystander casualties were confirmed by the local municipality director who said the fatality included a woman.

Meanwhile, Turkey continued this week to exercise political pressure on the PUK over the party’s alleged links with the PKK. Speaking on 27 September, Turkish Defence Minister Yasar Güler added that the PUK leadership has been “constantly warned” over its relationship with “terrorist groups” but that the party has chosen to ignore these warnings. Güler also warned of further “consequences” if these links are not severed. See the Talos Weekly Analysis Report for additional details.

Prime Minister downplays the need for foreign troop presence during meetings with US officials
Prime Minister Muhammed Shia al-Sudani met with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken this week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. An official readout of their meeting, released by the State Department discussed their “renewed commitment” to their partnership and reaffirmed the “principles of the US-Iraq Strategic Framework agreement” which continues to act as the basic framework for bilateral cooperation. Blinken also extended an invitation on behalf of President Joe Biden to visit the White House “soon” but without specifying a date. The Prime also met with the Commander of the International Coalition, General Joel Vowell, and the US Ambassador to Iraq, Alina Romanowski, to review security cooperation, with the officials reportedly discussing the future of the advice and assist mission as well as enhancing the capabilities of Iraqi forces following the ultimate defeat of IS. See the Talos Weekly Analysis Report for additional details.


PKK claims responsibility for suicide attack in Ankara that injured two
On 1 October, at around 09:30, two PKK-linked fighters carried out an attack outside of Turkey’s Ministry of Interior, resulting in the deaths of the two attackers and injuries to two police officers. The Ministry of Interior announced that one of the assailants detonated a suicide vest during an engagement with security forces deployed outside the building while the second was “neutralized” before he was able to detonate his device. CCTV-footage from the incident depicted both assailants arriving in a civilian vehicle, with one armed with an automatic rifle approaching the main entrance and detonating his vest just outside a guard post. The People’s Defence Forces (HPG), which is the military wing of the PKK, confirmed responsibility for the attack in a statement that commemorated the two as martyrs for their cause and justified the attack as an “act of self-defense against oppression, destruction of Kurdistan’s nature, and pressure on the people of Kurdistan”

The attack on 1 October took place only hours before President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was scheduled to inaugurate the first session of the Turkish parliament after a three-month summer recess. The site of the attack is located in close proximity to the General Assembly as well as other government ministries, with the timing and location of the incident clearly intended as an attack on the Turkish political establishment. The operation is the first significant terrorist attack inside Turkey since an IED attack in Istanbul on 13 November 2022 when six people were killed and 81 were injured. Turkish officials blamed the incident on the PKK/YPG however, unlike the 1 October operation, the attack was never claimed by the group. Further context is provided in the full report.

Turkey to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership in exchange for F-16 deal
On 26 September, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed the Turkish Parliament would vote to ratify Sweden’s membership to NATO if the US approves the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. Speaking to members of the press, the president said “if they keep their promises, our parliament will keep the promise given”. The next day, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the US Senate said the committee would “look into” the sale in response to Erdogan’s comments.

US official officials have consistently denied that the sale of the F-16 program is linked to Sweden’s membership request, however the two issues have become increasingly intertwined as part of Erdogan’s apparent negotiation strategy. After tentatively approving Sweden’s membership in June, the president has since created uncertainty by emphasizing that the decision rests with the Turkish parliament – not the government – however the latest remarks this week underscore that the AK Party-dominated parliament will follow Erdogan’s lead on the issue. The issue can be expected to generate increased attention over the coming weeks.


Shooting outside US Embassy motivated by personal dispute
On 25 September, Lebanese security officials announced that an individual suspected of being responsible for the shooting outside the US Embassy compound in Beirut had been arrested. The suspect is a Lebanese national, born in 1997, whose identity was not revealed but who was reportedly employed as a food delivery driver. The detainee reportedly confessed to opening fire on the evening of 20 September and later revealed that the incident was motivated by a personal dispute with one of the security guards deployed outside the compound after the guard insulted him during a delivery run months earlier. As such, the incident is not assessed as indicative of a heightened intent to target US diplomatic interests in Lebanon or elsewhere in the region.

Saudi Arabia

Israeli Minister arrives in Saudi Arabia as Netanyahu says normalization is close
In another symbolic step indicating potential normalization, the Israeli Minister of Tourism, Haim Katz, visited Riyadh this week to attend an event organized by the UN World Tourism Organization. Kats’ visit is the first by a cabinet member of the Israeli government to Saudi Arabia and follows an earlier visit by a delegation of Israeli officials to attend the 45th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. Commenting on the landmark visit this week, Katz described tourism as a “bridge between nations” and hoped that the visit would further Israeli foreign relations but without mentioning the issue of normalization. For their part, Saudi government officials did not comment on the visit.

These visits by Israeli officials to Saudi Arabia are understandably significant in their own right but coincide with the previously discussed increase in rhetoric regarding a possible normalization in connection with the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Further to Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman’s remarks in an interview with US media, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed in his speech to the assembly that Israel is “at the cusp” of a historic breakthrough. “There’s no question the Abraham Accords heralded the dawn of a new age of peace. But I believe that we are at the cusp of an even more dramatic breakthrough, a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Netanyahu said during the 25 min address and described the prospects of an Israeli-Saudi peace agreement as creating a “new Middle East.”

Netanyahu’s hopes for a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia have been clear since the Abraham Accords were first signed in 2020 however the prime minister’s enthusiasm has always contrasted with the more cautious approach adopted by Saudi Arabia. While nominally expressing support for an agreement last week, Bin Salman also reiterated that the progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process remains important. The Israeli government’s hardline stance on the Palestinian issue remains the most significant obstacle to furthering the process and it is unclear what concessions, if any, Netanyahu’s government is willing to make on the matter in order to advance the normalization process.

Other Saudi demands, including US assistance in developing its civilian nuclear program, remain similarly sensitive considering broader proliferation concerns related to the prospects of an Iranian-Saudi arms race. In the mentioned interview, Bin Salman confirmed for the first time that Saudi Arabia “must get” a nuclear weapons capability if Iran acquires one – a statement which, while expected, may not aid the quest to obtain nuclear assistance from the US as part of a normalization deal with Israel.


Iraq and Kuwait discuss maritime dispute over Khor Abdullah
In a bid to settle ongoing tensions between Kuwait and Iraq over the Khor Abdullah waterway, Kuwaiti Prime Minister Ahmed Nawaf al-Sabah met with Iraqi counterpart Sudani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York to discuss the maritime dispute. The issue escalated earlier this month when the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court ruled that a 2012 maritime demarcation agreement was “unconstitutional”, citing article 61 of the constitution under which ratification of the international agreement requires the approval of two-thirds of MPs. The ruling effectively annulled the 2012 agreement which has since served as the basis for any disputes regarding the maritime border with Kuwait.

In response, Kuwait called on the Government of Iraq to adopt “concrete and decisive measures” to address “historical fallacies against Kuwait” while Sudani has repeatedly emphasized that the government remains committed to “respecting Kuwait’s territorial integrity”. Both US and Gulf Cooperation Council officials have urged both sides to find a solution, however the discussions in New York did not appear to produce any significant results. A subsequent readout from Sudani’s office supported the establishment of “joint committees” with officials and experts from both sides to “overcome all obstacles.”

The maritime dispute over Khor Abdullah, where approximately 80% of Iraqi imports take place, is essentially a legacy issue from the period after the first Gulf War. While land borders were settled under the UN Resolution 833, the issue of maritime demarcation was not resolved until the 2012 agreement which, although ratified by both states, has been consistently challenged and subject to disputes. Baghdad has repeatedly accused Kuwait of violating the terms of the agreement and some (predominantly Iran-linked parties) have called for the agreement to be annulled. The court ruling this month was based on a complaint launched by an MP of the Huquq Movement, which is affiliated with the Iranian-backed militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the ruling Coordination Framework, which includes Iranian-linked elements, welcomed the court’s decision.

As such, the issue is increasingly assessed partially linked to broader tensions between Kuwait and Iran. Separate from the Khor Abdullah dispute, Iran and Kuwait remain at loggerheads over the demarcation of the Arash/Durrah gas fields where both sides (and Saudi Arabia) have announced that they will commence drilling operations over the near term. While separate issues and still confined to the realm of diplomacy and politics, the involvement of Iran-linked elements sets conditions for an increase in Kuwait-Iran diplomatic tensions over the near term, with related developments to be monitored.


Three Bahraini soldiers killed in suspected Houthi UAV strike
On the morning of 25 September, a suspected Houthi UAV strike targeted Saudi-led coalition forces just north of Shaib al-Theeb, Jazan region, in southern Saudi Arabia. The Bahrain Defence Forces (BDF) and Saudi-led coalition announced that two Bahraini service members were initially killed and several others wounded in the attack which both sides claimed was conducted by the Houthi Movement. Later in the week, Bahrain state-linked sources confirmed that a third service member died as a result of his wounds. The Bahraini soldiers killed were deployed as part of the Saudi-led coalition and the attack is primarily linked to conflict dynamics in Yemen. As such, the incident is not assessed to have primarily targeted Bahraini interests and any repercussions are likely to be confined to Yemen based on historic patterns.

The attack forms a somewhat surprising setback to recent peace negotiations involving the Saudi government and the Houthi movement after talks in Riyadh between the two sides last week raised expectations for a breakthrough. The Houthi Movement has not claimed responsibility for the strike however a senior spokesperson said violations of the “truce” were “regrettable”. The Saudi-led coalition said on 26 September that it “reserves the right to respond” to the attack while spokesperson, General Turki al-Malki, added that the incident followed other hostile activities by the group near the border, including the targeting of electricity infrastructure and a police station.

So far, no significant responses from the coalition have been noted but the incident understandably risks undermining current peace efforts following a prolonged lull in activity during 2023. The strike is the first to target coalition forces since a nationwide truce was agreed in April 2022 and is plausibly linked to Houthi’s intent to put pressure on ongoing negotiations. While expected to remain confined to Yemen, a resumption in cross-border attacks by both sides may also raise broader tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and set back the recent thaw in relations between the two countries.

Free trial

Contact us today and get a free 1-week organizational trial.