Talos Regional Snapshot – 5 August 2023

Aug 6, 2023


OIC reiterates condemnation of Quran burning as regional hostilities persist
Demonstrations involving the burning of the Holy Quran were reported again this week as protesters in Sweden and Denmark staged new events on 31 July and 1 August. Although reactions in Iraq were comparatively minor – in relation to those reported in recent weeks – the Organization of Islamic Cooperation convened an emergency meeting to reiterate its strong condemnation of the desecrations. The meeting essentially reiterated calls on the Swedish and Danish governments to take steps to prohibit such acts, but also called on member states to consider various measures, including the downgrading of diplomatic ties, with countries that allow Quran burning. A more ominous statement was issued by the leader of Lebanese Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, who urged Muslims to “punish” those who desecrate the holy book if governments in Muslim-majority countries failed to enact necessary measures to prevent further acts. The remarks were made by Nasrallah during an address commemorating Ashura on 30 July but did not specify what time of punishment he referred to.

The threat level affecting Danish and Swedish interests in the region remains elevated in light of persisting tensions and forms a standing client consideration in light of recent protests and hostilities targeting diplomatic missions and NGOs affiliated with the two Nordic countries. As discussed below, an assailant opened fire this week outside the Swedish consulate in Turkey, and the outlook for similar incidents remains elevated especially in the event of continued acts of Quran-burning. Meanwhile, the Swedish and Danish governments announced this week that they are exploring ways to prohibit further events, citing national security concerns, but without violating freedom of speech laws. Preliminary indications suggest that legal tools exist to enact legislation in both countries that will make it illegal to burn sacred texts and this would, if successfully implemented, likely contribute to a reduction in tensions.


US considers deployments on vessels to deter Iranian seizures in Persian Gulf
US-Iranian tensions in the region continue to revolve around recent Iranian seizures of commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf. Further to the previously discussed deployment of a US expeditionary force comprising combat aircraft and US marine capabilities, unnamed sources claimed the Department of Defense is considering deploying US Marines and Sailors onboard merchant vessels to deter Iran near the Strait of Hormuz. The plan was apparently leaked deliberately by multiple sources this week to media outlets. However, it has yet to be approved, pending various logistical and administrative hurdles as well as the outcome of consultations with US allies in the region.

The revelation of the plan also coincided with a meeting between the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and the Secretary General of the GCC, Jassem Mohamed Albudaiwi, in Saudi Arabia. The official readout did not mention the plan, but it is likely that the subject was included as part of a broader discussion on how to strengthen US-GCC cooperation and boost regional security efforts. If approved, the move would represent another significant commitment by the US to the region following the recent deployment of the expeditionary force in July and contribute to reversing previous perceptions that the US is gravitating away from the region – a concern repeatedly expressed by regional partners since the start of the Biden administration and amplified since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Iran conducts annual exercise on disputed island
In another source of regional maritime tensions, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commenced a naval exercise on 2 August on Abu Musa – an island located in the Persian Gulf and subject to a long-standing territorial dispute with the UAE. According to Iranian state-linked sources, the exercise featured a large number of combat troops, UAVs, naval vessels and surface-to-sea missiles to test its defense of the islands. Speaking to official state media during the exercise, the IRGC Commander in Chief Hossein Salami remarked that Iran is “vigilant” and will give a “harsh response to all threats, complicated seditions and secret scenarios” – an assessed but implicit reference to Iranian concerns about alleged plans by the UAE to take back control over the island. Salami also added that there is “no need for the presence of America or its European or non-European allies in the region” – remarks consistent with long-standing Iranian rejection of US presence but also plausibly made in response to the recent deployment of additional US capabilities to the region.

The exercise this week was inaccurately portrayed by some international media channels as a “surprise military drill” however it is worth noting that the IRGC conducts at least one annual exercise on the island, usually at the beginning of August. That said, the timing of the drill amidst recent naval hostilities with the US, as well as an ongoing territorial dispute over the Durrah/Arash gas field with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (discussed below), is understandably set to further raise tensions with the Gulf states. The exercise this week – while likely planned in advance – therefore formed an opportunity for Tehran to showcase its naval capabilities as a response to recent US activities.

UAE President invited to Iran despite maritime dispute
Meanwhile, in a related development, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi reportedly extended an invitation to UAE President and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Muhammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan to visit Tehran. The written invitation was reported on 3 August – a day after the commencement of the military exercise on Abu Musa – while bin Zayed was on a visit to Jordan. No date was discussed but this would be the first visit by bin Zayed to Tehran. Despite the dispute over Abu Musa, the invitation is a symbolic testament to Iran’s simultaneous use of diplomacy to address regional issues and a sign of intent to pursue closer relations with the Gulf states following the normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia earlier in March. To recall, the UAE resumed ambassadorial ties with Iran in 2022 and in April this year, Tehran appointed Reza Ameri as its first ambassador to the UAE since 2016.


IS confirms death of leader in northwest Syria
On 3 August, the Islamic State announced the death of Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurayshi – the leader of the group since November 2022. The revelation was made in an audio message disseminated via telegram in which spokesperson Abu Huthaifa al-Ansari said al-Qurayshi was reported in the announcement to have been killed by members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – an al-Qaeda linked faction that retains control over large areas of Idlib province in northwestern Syria. His death reportedly followed an attempt by HTS to detain al-Qurayshi alongside other senior IS individuals – an incident apparently linked to a long-standing struggle for influence between IS and AQ-linked jihadist groups in the region. In the audio recording this week, the group named Abu Hafs al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi as the new caliph of the organization.

Al-Qurayshi is the fourth IS leader to be killed in Syria following the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, highlighting the group’s struggles to maintain coherent and consistent leadership structures since its territorial dispute in 2019. To recall, al-Baghdadi’s immediate successor – Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi – was killed by US forces in 2022 and his successor was likewise assassinated in a counter-terrorism operation later that same year. In April 2023, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed Turkish forces killed Qurayshi, however this was immediately denied by IS which typically acknowledges the deaths of its leaders.

IS claims responsibility for VBIED-attack in Damascus
Separately, IS claimed responsibility this week for the motorcycle-borne IED attack near a Shia Mosque in Damascus on 27 July. To recall, the attack targeted Shia pilgrims commemorating Ashura and was initially suspected by multiple sources of involving IS or another Sunni-extremist faction active in Syria. The statement by IS was made via the Amaq News Agency and claimed ten Shia pilgrims were killed and 40 injured – a slightly higher figure than the six fatalities and 27 injuries reported by state-linked media and local sources.

The incident is the first mass-casualty attack conducted by IS in years and underscores that IS retains capability to conduct significant operations in otherwise well-protected urban environments. The ability to detonate the device in the midst of a religious procession in the capital of Syria – where security measures are typically amplified – is also noteworthy and surprising considering a noticeable decline in such attacks in recent years. Although IS activity levels remain elevated in parts of Syria where the group consistently demonstrates capability to target and kill large numbers of civilians, this activity is predominantly confined to rural areas, such as central Homs and eastern Deir Ez Zour provinces, characterized by limited security presence. Noteworthy mass casualty attacks during 2023 include the killing of civilians picking truffles and ambushes targeting convoys transporting Syrian government soldiers on rural highways, however the level of planning and capability involved in these incidents are minor in comparison to the IED attack on 27 July.

IS suspected of attack on oil convoy in Hama province
Another noteworthy incident involving suspected IS members was reported this week in eastern Hama province where, on 31 July, militants ambushed a Syrian military convoy transporting oil tankers. The incident took place on the Raqqah-Sulaymaniyah highway and resulted in a shootout between government forces and the assailants, with at least nine killed and injured on both sides. Four oil tanker trucks were also reportedly set on fire as a result of the engagement, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

Similar ambushes are not unprecedented and have likewise targeted convoys transiting rural areas. In response, Syrian government forces have increased highway patrols and dispatched forces to escort oil tankers through areas associated with IS presence. In December 2022, at least ten oil sector workers were killed in a similar ambush in Deir Ez Zour province and the latest incident may prompt Syrian government forces to further increase security along key highways.


Shooting outside Swedish consulate in Izmir
On 1 August, a lone gunman opened fire outside the Swedish consulate in the Konak district of Izmir, western Turkey, seriously injuring a staff member of Turkish nationality. The motivation remains unclear, and an investigation has been launched to determine the circumstance of the incident, however a statement by the governor’s office said the assailant was “mentally disabled”. Separate reports by Turkish state-linked media said the incident is believed to be related to a dispute over a visa application process. The Swedish Foreign Ministry announced that the consul general traveled to Izmir to obtain more information.

While circumstances remain unclear, the timing of the incident is noteworthy amidst ongoing hostilities over recent Quran burnings and the attack was initially suspected of being linked to these tensions. This assessment remains premature pending the outcome of the investigation, however Swedish officials said elevated security measures were implemented at Swedish diplomatic institutions in light of the incident as a precautionary measure.

Annual inflation increased to nearly 50% in July
On 3 August, statistics released by the official Turkish Statistical Institute revealed that the rate of annual inflation in July reached 47.83% – a 9.49% increase in comparison to June. The statistics broke a downward trend of falling consumer prices since November, when annual inflation peaked at 85.5% and follows the government’s adoption of more orthodox monetary measures to combat inflation in recent months. Despite the increase in July, Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek – who was appointed after President Erdogan’s re-election in June – said the figures were broadly in line with market expectations and described the current phase as a “transition period” of tightening fiscal and monetary policies which are not expected to yield results until mid-2024.

Despite winning re-election, the future development of the Turkish economy remains important to President Erdogan and continues to inform Turkey’s regional and foreign policy posture. Most notably, the ongoing engagement with Saudi Arabia and UAE – following years of strategic rivalry – is largely driven by the government’s need to attract foreign investments and similar considerations are assessed to shape Turkey’s engagement with Egypt and Russia.


Turkish UAV strike in Sulaymaniyah consistent with intensification in anti-PKK operations
Turkish military activity levels remained elevated during the week in northern Iraq as a statistically high level of air and artillery strikes continued to be reported in Duhok and Erbil provinces. Meanwhile, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) strike in northern Sulaymaniyah province underscores Turkish intent to conduct out-of-area precision strikes targeting high-value PKK targets. The operation on 28 July targeted and killed four members of the PKK transiting in a vehicle in the Rankina village area, Sharbazher district in eastern Sulaymaniyah province. Local officials and the KRG Counter-Terrorism Service confirmed the incident however the PKK did not acknowledge any casualties amongst its ranks. Further context is provided in the full report.

Protests in Basra over border demarcation issue with Kuwait
Tensions increased this week over a proposed demarcation of maritime and land borders between Iraq and Kuwait, pertaining to a contested maritime area near the port of Umm Qasr in Basra province. The issue was initially discussed in a meeting between Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein and his Kuwaiti counterpart Salem al-Sabah on 31 July, during which both sides reportedly agreed to form a committee to review the proposed demarcation. Subsequent remarks attributed to Foreign Minister al-Sabah – in which al-Sabah reportedly thanked Basra Governor Assad Idani for “promising to demolish houses of Iraqis in Umm Qasr soon” – were met with negative reactions by MPs, tribal leaders as well as ordinary citizens who denounced the proposed demarcation as a concession to Kuwait and the abandonment of Iraq’s “historical rights” in the area.  Further context and analysis are provided in the full report.

Saudi Arabia

Speculation over Saudi-Israeli normalization amplified following Sullivan visit
A visit by US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to Saudi Arabia has renewed speculation about US-led efforts to promote normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. After meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman last week, an official readout by the White House merely noted that the two sides discussed ways to “advance a common vision for a more peaceful Middle East” however officials cited anonymously said the meeting also reviewed prospects for Israeli-Saudi normalization. Speaking at a campaign event the next day, President Joe Biden confirmed that talks were ongoing to facilitate a path towards normalization, however further details were not provided.

For their part, the Saudi side did not comment on the reports and remains apparently reluctant to engage further, at least in public. Riyadh’s official position, which conditions any normalization with progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, remains unchanged, however reports earlier this summer indicated Saudi Arabia would consider normalizing ties with Israel in exchange for US security guarantees and assistance in developing a civil nuclear energy program. Whether these and other alleged Saudi demands were discussed during the meeting between Sullivan and Bin Salman is purely speculative, but it is questionable whether the US would accept any nuclear-related demands given standing proliferation concerns. Regardless, the meeting and subsequent reports again illustrate how the expansion of the Abraham Accords remains a significant foreign policy object in the region for the Biden administration.


Maritime dispute with Iran over gasfield continues
The trilateral dispute over rights to the contested Arash/Durrah gas field in the Persian Gulf escalated this week as Kuwait, Saudi and Iranian officials reiterated their respective claims on the field. The latest round of belligerent rhetoric commenced on 27 July when Kuwait Oil Minister Saad al-Barrak said the country would start drilling operations at the gas field without waiting for a border demarcation agreement with Iran. In response, the Iranian Oil Ministry claimed Tehran would not tolerate any “violating of its rights” and that it would also commence exploration if the other side refuses to cooperate. Later in the week, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait released a joint statement reaffirming their “exclusive rights” to the field but also invited Iran to engage in negotiations on border demarcation. The statement notably emphasized that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would negotiate as “one party” in any talks over the matter.

In a potential sign of de-escalation, the Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabollahian invited his Kuwait counterpart on 3 August for discussions on the matter. The invitation was relayed by the Iranian ambassador to Kuwait yet no reply has been reported from Kuwait as of writing. Iran’s decision to send an invite to Kuwaiti officials only suggests that it does not, contrary to the Saudi-Kuwait statement this week, regard the two states as part of one negotiating party – something that may anger Saudi Arabia.

Regardless, the dispute poses a continuous and potentially serious challenge to Iran-Saudi relations following their rapprochement and is arguably the first significant geopolitical test involving the two sides since the China-brokered agreement in March. While both sides continue to express willingness to negotiate, the positions adopted on the issue are mutually exclusive and it remains to be seen if a compromise can be reached to defuse associated tensions in the long term.


Five killed in suspected AQAP-attack in southern Yemen
On 1 August, suspected al-Qaeda-linked militants targeted elements linked with the Southern Armed Forces in the Wadi Omran area of Abyan province, killing five and injuring another four members. The Southern Armed Forces is affiliated with the UAE-backed Southern Transition Council which controls large areas of the province and forms a key part of the Saudi-government backed Presidential Council in Aden. No group initially claimed responsibility for the attack which involved RPGs and mortars and is consistent with activities conducted by al Qaeda in Arab Peninsula (AQAP) following multiple clashes involving the two sides in recent months.

Despite a general reduction in hostilities observed since 2022, incidents involving AQAP and affiliated groups continue to be reported across the country, as these elements are not involved in any peace negotiations. Most recently in July, at least two members of the Southern Armed Forces were killed in a similar confrontation with AQAP in the Shabwa province. US precision strikes also continue to target elements of AQAP, including two UAV strikes conducted in April that killed a senior AQAP leader in Marib province. Like these operations, the ambush this week serves as a reminder of the continued presence of highly capable AQ elements in Yemen which are likely to remain active regardless of the progress of current peace negotiations.

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