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Iranian influence in Iraq to prolong civil unrest, political instability, economic insecurity – Iraq Special Report

This report was written by:

Shagun Nayar – MAX Security’s Levant intelligence specialist

And reviewed by:

Darren Cohen – Senior Intelligence Manager of MENA & Oded Berkowitz – Deputy Chief Intelligence Officer

Executive Summary

From October 2019, a nationwide anti-government protest movement has emerged in Iraq, much of it directly and indirectly related to Iran, which led to former Prime Minister (PM) Adil Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation in November 2019.

Tehran’s influence on the political and security situation in Iraq has played a major factor in the instability witnessed over the past months. This is likely to continue to pose a challenge to the new PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi-led government over the coming months.

Additional challenges will be presented by Iraq’s deteriorating economy, which has been exacerbated by COVID-19-imposed restrictions on travel and business operations, as well as a decline in the demand for oil. Iran’s military and political entrenchment in Iraq is liable to deter US-aligned states and private enterprises from investing in the country over the long-term.

Given the US’s continued military presence in Iraq, Iranian-backed militias will likely continue their military campaign against US interests in the country over the coming months. While a large-scale armed conflict between the US and Iran in Iraq remains unlikely at the current juncture, the Iraqi government’s efforts to maintain cordial ties with both Washington and Tehran will pose a major challenge for the new government going forward.

Overall, the manner in which the newly formed government approaches Iran and its affiliated military and political groups over the coming months is likely to constitute a significant factor in the PM al-Kadhimi administration’s functioning and ability to implement reforms.

Travelers to Iraq are advised to regularly review their emergency and contingency procedures as a basic security precaution, as the ongoing tensions between Iran on one side and the US and its regional allies on the other will likely lead to additional hostilities. For on-ground or intelligence assistance contact us at: [email protected] or +44 20-3540-043.

Background & Current Situation

Political Situation

Following weeks of unruly protests, the Iraqi Prime Minister (PM) Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned on November 29, 2019.

On February 1, President Salih appointed Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi as PM-designate. Allawi resigned on March 1 due to his inability to gain sufficient political support to form a technocratic government.

Adnan al-Zurfi was appointed as the next PM-designate candidate on March 17. However, Zurfi’s candidacy was rejected by a majority of Iraqi Shiite parties, as well as several factions within the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), who called him an “American Intelligence candidate”. Zurfi withdrew his candidacy on April 9.

On April 9, Iraqi President Barham Salih nominated the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (NIS) chief, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, as PM-designate. His candidacy was welcomed by nearly all Iraqi Shiite parties as well as Iran and the US. However, PMU’s strongly pro-Iran Kata’ib Hezbollah explicitly rejected his nomination as PM.

On May 6, 255 out of 329 lawmakers in the Iraqi Parliament approved al-Kadhimi’s government program, which vows to reduce public spending, fight corruption, and “listen to the demands of the protest movement.”

On February 22, 2019 Abdel Aziz al-Muhammadawi, a candidate strongly favored by Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah, was appointed as the PMU Chief of Staff.

However, on the same day, four brigades, known as the Hawza militias, loyal to prominent Iraqi Shiite religious cleric, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, issued a statement condemning al-Muhammadawi’s appointment. Sistani has publicly criticized Iran’s growing interference in Iraq’s affairs. On April 22, 2020 the Hawza militias split from the PMU.

Economic Situation

The US has extended sanction waivers to Iraq on Iranian energy imports a total of nine times since November 2018. Iranian natural gas imports reportedly account for approximately 40 percent of Iraq’s energy consumption. The latest such waiver was granted on May 6.

On April 20, Iraq reportedly announced that it had reduced Iranian energy imports by 75 percent due to near full sufficiency in domestic energy production.

However, on April 29, Iraq’s Minister of Electricity reportedly announced that replacing Iranian energy imports entirely cannot be realized immediately and that Iranian gas remains the “cheapest and easiest to transfer”. He further announced that the alternatives to replace Iranian oil are currently on hold due to domestic circumstances.

On April 12, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Plus, of which Iraq is a member state, agreed to cut oil production by 9.7 million barrels per day (mbpd) to raise the global price of oil due to a fall in demand amid COVID-19 restrictions.

According to April 16 reports, Iraq shut down oil production at state-owned oil facilities in Basra. Even prior to the agreement, Iraq reduced its production by 100,00 barrels per day (bpd) from February to March. Iraq’s oil revenue reportedly fell by 28 percent in the first quarter of 2020. In April, Iraq’s oil revenue dropped to its lowest level in a decade, at 1.423 billion USD, with oil production averaging 3.854 mbpd.

At the current oil prices per barrel, Iraq’s budget deficit is projected at a negative 19 percent of the entire GDP by the end of 2020. Iraq’s projected real GDP growth rate for 2020 is negatively valued at approximately 4.7 percent, compared to a positive 3.9 percent in 2019.

The economy’s projected current account balance is negatively valued at approximately 21.7 percent, compared to a negative 1.2 percent in 2019. 

US presence in Iraq

The US-led Coalition forces have partnered with Iraq’s security forces since 2014 to combat the threat of IS, which the Coalition states was “at the request of the Iraqi government”.

On December 27, 2019 a US civilian contractor was killed in a rocket attack targeting the K1 military base in Kirkuk. In retaliation, the US conducted airstrikes targeting several Kata’ib Hezbollah positions in Iraq on December 29.  

On January 3, the US conducted airstrikes that killed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (QF) commander, Qassem Soleimani, and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) Deputy, and leader of the PMU’s Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah, Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis, in Baghdad. 

On January 5, with 170 Shiite votes, the Iraqi Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for the removal of all foreign troops from Iraq.

On January 8, Iran’s IRGC launched at least 22 ballistic missiles targeting the Ain al-Assad base in Anbar Province and US-linked targets in Erbil. Both locales are known to house US-led Coalition troops.

On January 10, the Spokesperson of the US State Department announced “we are committed to protecting Americans, Iraqis, and our coalition partners…any delegation sent to Iraq would be to not to discuss troop withdrawal, but our…force posture in the Middle East”.

Between March 17 and April 4, US-led “Operation Inherent Resolve” (OIR) Coalition troops, who support the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), withdrew from several bases across Iraq. 

The OIR Coalition announced its decision on April 16 to “maintain maximum pressure on the Islamic State (IS) despite…the COVID-19 pandemic”. 

On April 6, three rockets landed near a facility operated by a US-based oil company in Basra’s Burjesia. 

The joint civil-military Baghdad International Airport was targeted with rockets during the overnight hours of May 5-6. The facility is known to house US troops. 

Civil Unrest

Between July and December 2018, anti-government protesters held persistent unruly demonstrations across Basra Province. Later, on October 1, 2019, an ongoing nationwide anti-government protest movement emerged. 

Both movements mobilized around issues such as lack of employment and access to public services, as well as demanded an end to alleged endemic corruption. 

They also denounced Iran’s alleged interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs, as evidenced by the torching of the Iranian consulate in Basra on September 7, 2018 and in Najaf and Karbala on November 27, 2019 and November 3, 2019, respectively. 

Several protests were held in recent months to denounce the US military presence in Iraq, the most notable of which was the torching of the outer walls of the US Embassy by Iran-linked protesters on December 31, 2019. 

As a result of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Iraq and the ongoing nationwide curfew to mitigate its spread, the anti-government protest movement has remained largely suspended.

Following Kadhimi’s election as PM, on May 6 and 7, protesters marched in Baghdad to express their dissatisfaction with the newly formed government. A further protest was recorded in Baghdad on May 10 under the banner “the revolution has not ended”. On the same day, clashes between protesters and security forces were recorded in Basra city, and Nasiriyah Province.

Prior to this, on May 9, protesters burnt the headquarters of the Iranian-backed Badr and Al-Sadiqoun parties in Wasit Province. Al-Sadiqoun is the political wing of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH).

On May 11, PM Kadhimi ordered the arrest of five Iran-linked “Thar Allah” militiamen for reportedly killing a protester and wounding several others in Basra city on May 10.

Assessment & Forecast

Entrenchment of pro-Iran elements in Iraq’s political, security spheres to prolong instability

Iran, through a three-part strategy, has maintained significant influence in Iraq’s political process over the past years. First, it provided financial support and protection to Shiite parties in Iraq, particularly following Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003, thereby enabling such parties to enter Iraq’s political system. Second, it took advantage of the partial power vacuum to back several Iraqi Shiite militias, which gradually either joined or formed their own Shiite political parties. Third, it utilized IS’s targeting of Iraq’s Shiite population to project itself as the protector of Shiite interests in the country. In this context, it capitalized on the militant group’s resurgence in 2014 to establish a military presence in predominantly Sunni and Kurdish-held territories of northern Iraq, thereby expanding its influence pan Iraq.

The political crisis that has materialized in Iraq since November 2019 can be partially attributed to the deeply ethnic and sectarian-based political quota system, also known as the “Muhassasa”, within which Iran exercises significant influence. Within the broad Shiite political bloc, this has also been characterized by discord within the PMU, which can be attributed to disagreements with respect to the PMU’s scope in Iraq. Pro-Iraq nationalist factions favor integration into the ISF, while pro-Iran factions favor autonomy from the ISF and the Iraqi PM, which allows these elements to conduct activities in accordance with Iranian policy, particularly the regional strategies of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

This has manifested in the reported formation of the “Islamic Front for Resistance”, made of explicitly pro-Iran armed factions, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), which reportedly answer directly to the IRGC and have pledged allegiance to Tehran. It currently remains unknown whether the broader PMU leadership backs the front. Regardless, the reported formation of a more hardline alliance of Iran-backed Shiite militias either within or separate to the PMU highlights Tehran’s divisive role among Shiite political and military groups, who harbor significant power and influence in the political landscape and among the majority Shiite population.

While such internal discord has persisted since the PMU’s formation in 2014, the strong coordination between the IRGC’s Qassem Solemani and the PMU’s Muhandis prevented such issues from escalating. However, following the US-perpetrated killing of both leaders, such disagreements have reemerged, as evidenced by the defection of four pro-Iraqi nationalist Sistanti-led factions from the PMU on April 22, reportedly due to the February 22, 2019 appointment of Abdel Aziz al-Muhammadawi, known to be a strongly pro-Iran Kata’ib Hezbollah-backed candidate, as the PMU Chief of Staff.

This overall lack of cohesion partially contributed to the political vacuum in Iraq, characterized by the fact that the country functioned under a caretaker PM-led government from November 29, 2019 to May 6, 2020 due to the inability of two former PM-designate candidates to form a government amid a lack of support. This was chiefly due to a lack of political backing by Iraq’s Shiite coalitions, particularly the PMU’s political arm, the Fatah Alliance, which perceived such candidates as disadvantageous or indifferent to Iranian interests in Iraq. Overall, this highlights Iran’s direct and indirect role in prolonging political instability in Iraq due to its significant influence among prominent Shiite political and militia groups.

Iran’s influence within Iraqi political system to continue to present significant challenges for al-Kadhimi government

Given Iran’s long-standing position within Iraq’s political system, al-Kadhimi is unlikely to introduce major reforms that undermine the current status quo enjoyed by Tehran in Iraq. This is because such reforms would likely prompt the influential second-largest parliamentary bloc, the pro-Iran Fatah Alliance with 48 seats, and the pro-Iran “State of Law Coalition” with 25 seats, to pull support for the current administration. This, in turn, would likely trigger a political crisis that may lead to the potential dissolution of the al-Kadhimi-led government.

Thus, in order to avoid losing power and prevent a return to the political vacuum akin to that which was witnessed during the period between November 2019 and April 2020, al-Kadhimi will likely seek to broadly maintain the existing power structure. That said, the influence of Iran-backed militias may be slightly diminished due to the ongoing discord within the PMU. This is evidenced by the fact that the PMU overall supported al-Kadhimi’s candidacy despite Kata’ib Hezbollah’s explicit rejection. This indicates that some PMU factions, including those who are generally affiliated with Iran, are willing to apply pragmatism when necessary. This can likely be attributed to these elements’ fear that the complete disintegration and non-functioning of the political system may also pose a threat to Iran’s current influential role.

Meanwhile, al-Kadhimi has forged strong relations with officials from both Iran and the US in the capacity of his former position as NIS chief since 2016. It is very likely that in this position al-Kadhimi cooperated with both Iran and the US, the latter particularly in the context of the campaign against IS. FORECAST: The new PM will thus seek to leverage these ties that have been built up over recent years, which likely led to both Tehran’s and Washington’s broad approval of his candidacy, in order to strike the fragile balance between the parties’ competing interests.

FORECAST: However, Tehran’s influence within Iraq’s deeply sectarian and ethnic-based political quota system, and the competing claims of prominent Shiite factions in the government and policy-formation process, will continue to present challenges for the new al-Kadhimi-led government over the coming months. The administration will be compelled to satisfy multiple competing interests. In this specific context, alongside Iraq’s multitude of other security, political and economic challenges, the “Iran question” poses a specific set of dilemmas for al-Kadhimi. This includes the presence of the US-led Coalition on Iraqi soil following the January 5 parliamentary resolution to oust these forces, the level of political, military, and economic integration with Iran, and the ability of al-Kadhimi to rein in potentially rogue hardline Iran-backed elements within the PMU that refuse to comply with the Iraqi government’s orders.

Iranian attacks against US-linked interests, losses in oil revenue to exacerbate Iraqi economic situation

The periodic US-mandated sanction waiver extensions on Iranian energy imports have facilitated a largely uninterrupted supply of Iranian energy sources to fuel Iraq’s electricity needs. This is despite Washington’s global “maximum pressure campaign”, which has manifested in the form of economic sanctions on Iran and Iran-linked individuals and entities. These extensions are aimed at preventing a further deterioration of Iraq’s security environment, given that grievances over basic services, including electricity, have fueled violent anti-government demonstrations. Overall, and as evidenced by the US’s recent May 6 granting of a renewed 120-day waiver on electricity imports, these measures underscore Washington’s interest in stabilizing the country, even at the expense of making minor economic concessions to Iran. The particularly lengthy recent waiver, in comparison with prior waiver extensions, is indicative of the US’s effort to ensure a period of stabilization for the new government as short-term waivers can hinder the government’s ability to implement reforms against the background of energy uncertainty.

However, while the US government has demonstrated its willingness to actively prevent the collapse of the Iraqi economy, Iran-linked groups are likely to jeopardise the potential investment of US-based and US-affiliated private sector companies, which is vital for economic growth. The April 6 rocket attack targeting a US-based oil company facility in Basra and June 19, 2019 attack targeting the headquarters of major global oil companies in Basra illustrate the risks posed to US-linked facilities in Iraq, especially in the Shiite-majority areas of Basra Province where Iran is particularly influential. While no group claimed responsibility for either of these attacks, given that Iran-backed factions within the PMU have explicitly rejected the US’s presence in Iraq, and have conducted attacks against US interests in the past, their involvement remains highly likely. Although these incidents remain rare, they are likely to deter Western enterprises from investing or operating in Iraq over the coming months, particularly in the potentially lucrative oil sector. This is exacerbated by the fact that Iraq’s economic stability is largely contingent on the oil sector, which accounts for over 90 percent of its national budget and constitutes approximately 80 percent of Iraq’s total foreign exchange reserves.

Against this backdrop, there has been a significant drop in both oil production and oil prices, as evidenced by the 28 percent drop in oil-based export revenue in Q1 2020, and the decade-low oil revenue at 1.423 billion USD in April. Going forward, ensuring foreign investment in Iraq’s oil sector therefore remains paramount to the country’s economic prosperity. This is because while Iraq has significant oil reserves, a majority remain underdeveloped due to the lack of investment and technical expertise required to make such gas and oil reserves functional. Continued foreign investment in Iraq’s oil sector would therefore boost economic growth in Iraq, as well as making the country less dependent on Iran for energy imports, which remains a core US interest.

The ability of major foreign oil companies to operate in Iraq largely depends on the stabilization of Iraq’s security environment, which is currently undermined due to military actions by Iranian-backed militias, as well as IS. This has led to a decline in oil companies’ willingness to invest in the country’s oil sector, as evidenced by reports that only one Western company submitted an (unsuccessful) offer in Iraq’s April 2018 gas exploration auction. This event occurred after Iraq’s territorial defeat of IS in December 2017, which was anticipated to herald a new era of relatively increased stability in Iraq, and also predated the current period in which frequent attacks against US-linked interests occur. FORECAST: Thus, it remains even less likely that US and European-based oil companies will seek to invest in Iraq over the coming months, largely due to Iranian-backed militias’ and IS’s continued role in destabilizing the security environment of the country. This is further exacerbated by other considerations, including the currently diminished demands for oil, and added restrictions on travel and business operations both regionally and globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is likely to further diminish Iraq’s domestic and foreign exchanges reserves, thereby further prolonging the economic crisis in the country.

FORECAST:The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resultant economic crisis are likely to have a short and medium term impact on Iraq’s gradual ability to reduce its dependence on Iranian energy sources. In this context, on April 20, Iraq reportedly announced that it had reduced Iranian energy imports by 75 percent due to near full sufficiency in domestic energy production. However, in light of Iraq’s Minister of Electricity’s statement that stated that “alternatives to replace Iranian oil are currently on hold due to domestic [COVID-19-related] circumstances”, Iran’s continued influence in Iraq’s energy sector will sustain over the coming months. Regardless, over the coming years, the reduction of Iraq’s energy dependence on Iran will create a vacuum in Iraq’s energy sector, which may facilitate a renewed role for Washington in exerting additional influence in Iraq.

US likely to retain military presence in Iraq despite rhetoric, military attacks by Iran-backed groups

The US troops’ training and financing of Iraq’s coalition of anti-IS forces, known as the ISF, which include the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), Iraqi federal police, the Iraqi Armed Forces, and the Iraqi border guard forces, have significantly contributed to mitigating the jihadist group’s threat in the country. This includes training Iraq’s security personnel in shooting, urban combat, and subterranean warfare techniques, undergoing courses. Furthermore, the US-backed ISF conducted 1,007 anti-IS operations between January and April, even amid a partial scale-down of such operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, despite this, the withdrawal of the US military has remained a long-standing goal of Shiite elements in Iraq. The January 3 assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Muhandis drastically elevated existing anti-US sentiments in the country, including among segments of the non-Shiite populace. This is because the US’s military action in Iraq that killed two prominent military leaders without the prior approval of the Iraqi government, was perceived to be a violation of Iraq’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty. The assaasination of the IRGC-QF leader and Iran-backed PMU commander in Baghdad also resulted in a rare direct military confrontation between Iran and the US in Iraq, namely the IRGC’s January 8 ballistic missile attack targeting Anbar and Erbil provinces. This highlighted the potential for the US-Iran tensions to translate into armed conflict in Iraq, where the two states continue to fight over influence. Such incidents have prompted Iraqi nationalist-leaning groups and leaders to oppose Iraq becoming a battle ground between Washington and Iran and thus to oppose all foreign intervention in the state’s affairs. FORECAST: Iran is unlikely to engage in direct military confrontation with the US in Iraq in the foreseeable future and is likely to instead target US interests in Iraq through its backed militias. This is because it currently does not remain in the interest of Tehran to elevate hostilities with Washington given the latter’s imposition of economic sanctions against the former over the past years. Such sanctions have led to significant economic challenges in Iran, thereby decreasing the likelihood of Iran engaging in a full-blown armed conflict with the US in Iraq.

This also has an impact on the political arena. The US’s military presence has been consistently explicitly rejected by almost all Shiite parties and militias in Iraq over recent months, including those who prioritize Iraqi nationalism over a strong allegiance to Tehran. This is evidenced by the January 5 non-binding resolution wherein 170 Shiite votes called for the removal of “all foreign troops from Iraqi soil”. While it is notable that both Sunni and Kurdish parties boycotted the vote, illustrating the polarization in Iraq’s sectarian politics, the rare display of cohesion among the Shiite bloc demonstrated a notable consensus among these parties vis-a-vis the expulsion of US troops from Iraq. Meanwhile, in the ensuing period, on April 4, eight PMU factions published a statement “vowing” to “defend” Iraq against the US’s “occupation” and demanded that US troops depart from Iraq in line with the January 5 resolution. On March 16, a Shiite, likely Iranian-backed militia group “Usbat al-Thairen” claimed two attacks targeting the Basmaya and Taji camps and advised US troops to leave “vertically before we force them to leave horizontally”.

These developments illustrate the ongoing opposition among pro-Iran Shiite groups regarding Washington’s military presence in Iraq, albeit for differing motivations. The influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr-led Sairoon Alliance opposes all foreign intervention in Iraqi domestic affairs for the aforementioned reasons, while the Iran-affiliated Fatah Alliance and Badr Organization seek closer ideological ties to Iran and the expulsion of US military forces. FORECAST: However, these developments were also a direct reaction to the US’s killing of Soleimani and direct US-Iran tensions inside Iraq have since slightly subsided and will likely continue to fade in the absence of new developments. Moreover, as illustrated by their boycott of the vote Kurdish and Sunni elements, as well as some Shiites, likely recognize the aforementioned role of the US in the anti-IS campaign and will be reluctant to allow the jihadist group to significantly reemerge.

FORECAST: Despite the persistent rocket attacks targeting US interests in Iraq, the existing anti-US sentiment among a considerable section of the Iraqi populace, as well as coronavirus-related health concerns regarding its military personnel in Iraq, the US remains unlikely to fully withdraw its troops from Iraq over the coming months. This is supported by the January 10 statement published by the US Department of State that stated “any delegation sent to Iraq would be to not to discuss troop withdrawal” as well as the April 16 decision by OIR that announced its decision to “maintain maximum pressure on IS despite…the COVID-19 pandemic”. Given this, Iranian-backed militias will continue their military action against US personnel and infrastructure in Iraq over the coming months, thereby prolonging the existing heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran in Iraq. This will lead to a further deteriorating of regional stability in the Middle East region.

FORECAST: The future of the US presence in Iraq will be based on a trade-off between political, economic and security considerations, and is slated to be discussed at the upcoming June “strategic dialogue” between Iraq and the US. While all Shiite parties and militias have continued to reject the US military presence, the new government will be compelled to strike a balance between Iraq’s multiple interests and ethnic groups. al-Kadhimi’s official position in his government program states that Iraq will promote the principle of “not allowing its territory to be used as a base for launching aggression against any of its neighbors and will not become a battlefield for regional and international conflicts”. This however has fallen short of advocating for the expulsion of the US forces’ presence in Iraq, which has reportedly triggered some pro-Iran groups to accuse al-Kadhimi of being too vague with respect to the issue. Given his recent rhetoric, while the new PM will likely seek to disentangle Iraq from becoming a battle ground between the US and Iran, he is unlikely to push for a broad withdrawal of US-led Coalition forces that would significantly harm Iraq’s anti-IS campaign. Al-Kadhimi will be cognizant of the US’s contribution from his experience as an intelligence chief. FORECAST: This assessment is bolstered by Iraq’s increasingly precarious economic situation. In order to maintain the aforementioned US-granted sanctions waivers over the coming months, the al-Kadhimi-led government will aim to balance political, security, and economic considerations in a way that does not run the risk of US-imposed economic sanctions against Baghdad which would harm the economy and thus aggravate existing severe socio-economic issues among Iraq’s anti-government protest movement.

Protesters to continue to mobilize around issue of Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs, Iran-linked groups to employ violence at protests 

A significant portion of unruly anti-government demonstrations has mobilized around the issue of Iran’s alleged interference in Iraq’s domestic affairs, as evidenced by the torching of the Iranian consulate in Najaf and Karbala on November 27 and November 3, 2019, respectively. Unidentified gunmen reportedly shot several unarmed protesters during the aforementioned demonstrations. While the details surrounding these shootings have not been officially disclosed, given the timing, location, and target, it remains likely that the shootings were conducted by members or supporters of Iranian-backed militias. Meanwhile on December 31,2019, PMU members and supporters torched the outer walls of the US Embassy in Baghdad, following the US-perpetrated December 29 airstrikes targeting Kata’ib Hezbollah positions in Iraq. Taken together, these incidents underscore Tehran’s destabilizing role in sustaining civil unrest in the country, either by indirectly encouraging anti-US protests, or due to the fact that the presence of Iran-linked institutions triggers demonstrations by anti-Iran locals, who are violently dispersed by Iran-backed forces.

FORECAST: The anti-government protest movement however will likely sustain over the coming months. This is because a portion of the populace perceives the new government to entrench what many protesters perceive to be an illegitimate sectarian-based, corrupt political system. This is evidenced by multiple protests in Baghdad denouncing al-Kadhimi’s newly formed government since it was sworn in on May 6, some of which were held under the banner “the revolution has not ended”. This is despite the new PM’s measures on May 9 to appease the protesters, such as the release of detained protesters and appointment of Lieutant General Abdul Wahab al-Saadi as commander of Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS).

In this context, the reinstatement of al-Saadi is particularly notable given that the nationwide protests that commenced in October 2019 were primarily triggered to denounce his ousting from the same role and provides some indication of the new al-Kadhimi-led government’s direction. Reports indicate that his demotion was motivated by Iranian considerations, as Tehran sought to gain influence with the CST, which is known to cooperate with the US, which reportedly founded and trained its forces. His return to the position may be indicative of a desire by the new PM to project his willingness to confront Iran-backed political interests, especially in the realm of security, given al-Saadi’s widespread popularity due to his role in the campaign against IS. Al-Kadhimi’s willingness to confront Iran-backed groups was also bolstered by his May 11 order to arrest five Iran-linked “Thar Allah” militiamen for killing and wounding protesters in Basra Province on May 10, which was very notable due to its rarity and illustrates he seeks to hold these groups to account. However, such decisions are likely to strain the new PM’s relationship with Iran-backed elements in Iraq that will undermine his legitimacy.

The mobilizing of protesters around the issue of Iran’s role in Iraqi affairs is likely to continue to be a focus of the anti-government protest movement. This is highlighted by the reported torching of the Iran-linked Badr Organization in Wasit Province on May 10. Such unruly demonstrations are part of broader anti-government protests and will add to the movement’s momentum in Baghdad and parts of southern Iraq. This, in turn, highlights how Iran-linked elements will present as an obstacle in the government’s efforts to introduce systemic reforms to address the protesters’ long-standing demands, either as a target of protest itself, or potentially, as a catalyst for additional unrest due to violence employed at demonstrations.

Moreover, as part of his government program, the new PM has pledged to establish a committee to investigate the violence at all protests since October 2019, which aims to compensate the families of those killed and individuals wounded in the demonstrations. However, many of those responsible were known to be Iran-backed militias and their supporters who al-Kadhimi relies on for support, which complicates the likelihood of an independent and thorough enquiry. This underscores Tehran’s significance in Iraq’s political and administrative apparatus. FORECAST: Given these political constraints, legal proceedings against such Iran-backed elements will unlikely comprehensively materialize, which may increase anti-government sentiment.

FORECAST: Overall, given Iran’s continued destabilizing role in Iraq’s political system, through its supported Shiite parties, the new al-Kadhimi-led government will likely avoid introducing any reforms that stand to systematically disrupt the current influence Iran enjoys. The broader challenges in enacting systematic government reforms, as well as the country’s deteriorating economic condition amid COVID-19 restrictions, will further exacerbate the populace’s existing anti-government sentiments, thereby prolonging civil unrest in the country. Such a scenario will be further compounded by the US’s refusal to completely withdraw its troops from Iraq over the coming months, potentially with the consent of the Iraqi government. This will both emolden Iranian-backed militias to conduct additional rocket attacks targeting US interests and increase the discord among the fragile Iraqi political landscape over those in favor and those against a US military presence in the country. All of these factors are liable to trigger unrest over the coming weeks and months.

Recommendations

It is advised to avoid all nonessential travel to Baghdad and Basra at this time due to the ongoing threat of militancy in these locales, violence in areas surrounding the cities, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions.

For those conducting essential operations in Baghdad, it is advised to restrict travel to the Green Zone and ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated. Contact us for itinerary and contingency support options.

Travel to Anbar, Nineveh, Salahuddin, Kirkuk, and Diyala Provinces should be avoided at this time due to ongoing counter-militancy operations and militant attacks. Those operating in these regions are advised to contact us for itinerary and contingency support measures, including evacuation options, given the deterioration in the security situation.

Those operating natural gas or oil facilities are advised to obtain security consultation for facilities in outlying areas, specific to the nationalities and operational needs of their employees.

As a general precaution, it is advised that any travel, particularly in outlying areas, be conducted in armored vehicles, with proper security escorts and coordination with authorities.

Foreigners, particularly Westerners, continuing to operate in Iraq are additionally advised to maintain a low profile, exercise heightened vigilance, and avoid locales frequented by foreign, particularly Western nationals. To mitigate the risk of attacks or abductions, ensure that places of stay are equipped with sufficient perimeter security details, alter travel routes, and avoid disclosing sensitive itinerary information to unknown individuals. As a general security precaution, avoid revealing to strangers your position or affiliation with foreign-based firms, as your response could attract a negative reaction from locals.

Pyongyang’s SLBM launch signifies progress in missile development, use of pressure tactics in talks – Korean Peninsula Analysis

 

Executive Summary:

  • North Korea’s October 2 test of a Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) indicates considerable progress in its solid-fuel weapons program.
  • The launch may be viewed as part of a strategy to intensify pressure on the US in order to gain maximum concessions in view of Pyongyang’s perceived advantageous position.
  • Denuclearization talks are unlikely to yield concrete results over the coming months given the US and North Korea’s differing expectations from the process.
  • This is given that Washington appears to be pushing for a cessation of nuclear weapons development and Pyongyang is effectively attempting to secure a deal wherein it is allowed to maintain the requisite deterrence capabilities.
  • Japan is likely to increasingly step up its role in negotiations relating to the Korean Peninsula. This follows PM Abe’s efforts to secure support for constitutional revisions towards increased militarization by citing the purported threat posed by North Korea.
  • Travel to Seoul may continue at this time, while adhering to standard security protocols regarding protests, crime and the lingering risk of conflict with North Korea. 
  • We advise against nonessential travel to Pyongyang and North Korea given the risk of detainment of foreign travelers.

Current Situation:

  • On October 2, North Korea tested the two-stage, solid-fuel Pukguksong-3 SLBM off its east coast near Wonsan. The missile traveled an approximate distance of 451-km in an easterly direction at a maximum altitude of 909-km. It is believed to have been launched from a submersible barge instead of an actual submarine. North Korea first test-launched a Pukguksong-1 missile, or an earlier variant of the latest device, from an underwater platform in 2016.
  • The development, which represents the 11th missile test by Pyongyang since May, came hours after it agreed to hold working-level talks with the US on October 5.
  • North Korea’s chief negotiator Kim Myong-gil claimed that denuclearization talks on October 5 failed after his US counterpart, Stephen Biegun, refused to offer a new negotiating strategy. He also expressed doubt on whether the US will be able to amend its negotiation terms before the next meeting between the two sides in the coming weeks, while reiterating that Pyongyang is unwilling to negotiate with Washington if it does not amend its “hostile policies”.
  • A US spokesperson refuted Kim’s claims, stating that the official’s comments did not reflect the spirit of the discussion. The spokesperson further described the talks as positive. In April, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un demanded that Washington alter its current “maximum-pressure” sanctions strategy against Pyongyang by the end of the year.
  • At present, the US administration is believed to be prepared to offer North Korea a three-year suspension of UN sanctions on textile and coal exports in exchange for the dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear facility and a halt on the production of enriched uranium.
  • According to reports from October 3, Washington “unofficially” promised Pyongyang low-level sanctions relief including a partial resumption of tourism at Mount Geumgang in North Korea.

Assessments & Forecast:

SLBM launch indicative of significant progress in solid-fuel missile development

  1. The October 2 test is extremely notable for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Pukguksong-3 is the longest-range solid-fuel missile tested by Pyongyang to date. This fact gains further significance as the missile was launched at a lofted trajectory instead of a standard path that would have helped it to cover a larger distance. This may have been intentionally done so as to avoid threatening US territory such as Guam, which could have precipitated a much stronger response from Washington.
  2. Overall, the development is indicative of significant leaps in North Korean solid-fuel missile development over the past months, considering that this represents another step in its quest to perfect a solid-fuel Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of striking targets in the US. This is given that solid-fuel systems have an advantage vis a vis liquid-fuel systems in being more stable. Moreover, the generally compact nature of solid-fuel missiles allows them to be launched from mobile launchers. This makes it hard to counteract a potential strike given that these launchers can be moved immediately after engaging a target and can be quickly deployed from hidden structures such as tunnels.
  3. In addition, the potential deployment of an SLBM from a submarine is hard to detect, making these target packages immune to the first strike by enemy elements. In this context, and given that the Pukguksong-3 is a medium-range missile capable of hitting Japan and South Korea, the test represents a notable escalation in the paradigm of ongoing processes aimed at eventual peninsular denuclearization. In terms of signaling, a test in the eastward direction serves to deliver the message that Japanese territory is still accessible to North Korean warheads despite Tokyo’s acquisition of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense systems. This is indicated by the missile’s landing in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The test is also a more carefully-calibrated message to Washington, given that it is reflective of North Korean capabilities to target the US’ western seaboard from locations in the Pacific Ocean.

Weapons testing in quick succession likely part of ongoing effort to maximize leverage in relation to talks with US

  1. The spate of missile testing by Pyongyang from May-October appears to be aimed at pressuring the US to adhere to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s year-end ultimatum regarding sanctions. Moreover, this may be an effort to persuade the US to forego perceived hostile actions such as joint military exercises with South Korea, with the last such drills concluding on August 20. The SLBM test, in particular, can be viewed as part of Pyongyang’s planned strategy to head into the October 5 talks from a position of strength, especially when considering the test occurred just hours after it agreed to meet with Washington.
  2. At the same time, the fact that a high-profile test was conducted immediately prior to scheduled talks speaks to a degree of confidence in Pyongyang with regard to its perceived upper hand in negotiations as well as its broader understanding of Washington’s reaction and escalation patterns. FORECAST: As the year-end deadline approaches, similar attempts to pressurize Washington can be expected in the form of missile tests and escalated rhetoric.  The timing of the launch amid growing calls for US President Donald Trump’s impeachment could potentially also suggest that Pyongyang will view such domestic diversions in the US as opportunities to push its testing program in the future.
  3. North Korea’s decision to participate in working-level talks was likely primarily motivated by the removal of US National Security Advisor John Bolton in the month prior, as this likely created expectations among North Korean officials that his departure will prompt the US to pursue a fresh and more lenient negotiating strategy, given his hawkish stance on the issue of peninsular denuclearization. The subsequent failure of talks may be attributed to the absence of a new strategy employed by Washington, and the resultant gulf in expectations regarding potential meeting outcomes. Conflicting claims by US officials regarding the outcome of talks, as well as their reported agreement to meet again in Sweden in the coming weeks for additional negotiations, further lend credence to the prevailing divergence in perceptions over negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. FORECAST: This suggests that the current stalemate will prolong into the near future, although channels of communication at multiple levels will likely remain open in the absence of a defining change to the status quo by either side.
  4. US President Trump’s decision to move forward with the October 5 meeting in spite of the SLBM test suggests that further testing is unlikely to jeopardize denuclearization talks, at least for the time being. His relative restraint is likely tied to a desire to rehabilitate his political image through a major foreign policy victory ahead of the US presidential elections in November 2020. FORECAST: It is important to note, however, that domestic pressure on President Trump is liable to increase as a consequence of the most recent test. This is due to Pyongyang’s launch of an SLBM, as this particular type of weapon, if perfected, will ultimately extend North Korea’s maritime reach and increase the threat level towards Washington. Over the long term, sustained pressure in this regard may prompt President Trump’s administration to take an incrementally hardline approach, raising the potential for backlash by Pyongyang and further scuttling the prospects of a larger de-escalation. This may comprise a potential backtracking on proposed initiatives such as the aforementioned low-level sanctions relief package with eased restrictions on tourism.

Japan to escalate calls for tougher stance on Pyongyang, seek more active role in regional talks

  1. Pyongyang has repeatedly condemned South Korea’s efforts to boost its deterrence capabilities, which most recently included Seoul’s purchase of F-35 stealth fighter jets from a US-based company. In this light, South Korea’s display of the newly-acquired aircraft during a patrol over the East Sea on October 1 may have factored into the North’s latest test. Precedent for this was established in the string of short-range tests by North Korea that began in July to rebuke the aforementioned US-South Korea military drills in August. Nevertheless, Seoul’s failure to condemn the short-range tests likely signaled to Pyongyang that its weapons development efforts will continue to be viewed as not posing an imminent existential threat. South Korea’s August decision to not renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, which was forged on the basis of both countries’ shared threat perception of North Korea in 2016, likely reinforced notions that Seoul places the current threat from Pyongyang on a lower scale.
  2. Japan expectedly condemned the SLBM test; however, October 4 reports indicate that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated his desire to meet with Kim Jong-un to discuss the longstanding issue of Japanese nationals purportedly abducted by North Korean agents. PM Abe’s request for a one-on-one meeting may have to do with the fact that Tokyo and its interests have been sidelined in the format of the current negotiations, even as Washington has largely refused to strongly condemn the North Korean threat or advocate on Japan’s behalf. The call for a meeting is likely also an attempt to increase nationalistic sentiments among his electorate by drawing attention to the alleged threat posed by Pyongyang. FORECAST: This will work favorably for PM Abe as he pursues initiatives to boost Japanese military capabilities through constitutional revisions in the coming months. Further, Tokyo will likely capitalize on the SLBM test to potentially restore security coordination with Seoul, as evidenced by its offer to renew the GSOMIA pact on October 3.

Recommendations:

  1. Travel to Seoul may continue at this time, while adhering to standard security protocols regarding protests, crime and the lingering risk of conflict with North Korea.
  2. We advise against nonessential travel to Pyongyang and North Korea given the risk of detainment of foreign travelers.
  3. During periods of armed escalation between North and South Korea, we advise against all nonessential travel to the vicinity of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Yeonpyeong-do Islands.

US Air Strike Kills IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani – Situation Analysis

US Confirms Killing IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani in Air Strikes Near Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport on January 3

Please be Advised:

The US Department of Defense (DoD) released a statement announcing that the US military, on the orders of the US President, Donald Trump, had taken “decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad” by killing Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)- Quds Force (QF) commander during airstrikes near Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport during the early morning hours of January 3.

The statement announces that “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more”. The airstrikes aimed to deter future Iranian attacks against US assets in the region.

Iran’s national news agency have confirmed that the US airstrikes resulted in the death of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soliemani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU).

Iraq’s national news agency reported that the US airstrikes targeted the convoy of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis traveling near the Baghdad International Airport.

Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei released a eulogy on January 3 for Qassem Soleimani and declared a three-days of mourning in Iran. The statement announces that the killing of Soleimani is a “criminal act” and “will reinforce the motives of the resistance against the US and Israel”.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the US airstrikes “extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation” and held the US responsible for “all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”

Prominent Iraq Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, released a statement during the morning hours of January 3 giving orders for “readiness” to the Shiite militias in Iraq, particularly the Mahdi Army, “to protect Iraq”.

Reports indicate that Iran’s Supreme National Security Council has convened during the morning hours of January 3 to discuss the development.

US Embassy in Baghdad on January 3 issued an advisory urging US citizens to depart Iraq immediately due to “heightened tensions in Iraq and the region”. Consular services in the US Embassy in Baghdad have been suspended until further notice. However, the US Consulate in Erbil remains operational at the time of writing.

Iraqi President has reportedly condemned the US airstrikes and called US action as a “blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty”.

Developments Near the Baghdad International Airport and Green Zone:

Reports indicate that three rockets fired by unidentified perpetrators landed in the Baghdad International Airport cargo area during the overnight hours of January 2-3 that resulted in several civilian casualties and the destruction of two vehicles.

Reports indicate that US military personnel arrested Hadi al-Amiri the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), as well as Qais Khazali, the founder and leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite paramilitary group that is a part of the Iran-backed PMU in Baghdad during the morning hours of January 3. Iraq’s national news agency reported that a senior member of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq has denied the arrest of Qais Khazali.

Picture material on social media indicate that Iraqis gathered at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square during the early morning hours of January 3 to celebrate the death of Soleimani.

At the time of writing, operations have resumed at the Baghdad International Airport following a temporary ceasure of operations during the morning of January 3 after the US airstrikes.

Reports indicate that US military personnel have bolstered security protocols in the Green Zone in Baghdad, and the Iraqi security officials have completely locked down the Green Zone following the US airstrikes.

Other Related Developments:

Iran’s state-sponsored news agency reported that the Swiss Ambassador to Iran, who is considered as a “guardian of US interests in Iran” has been summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry on January 3 to strongly protest the killing of Qassem Soleimani.

Reports indicate that Israel has closed access to Hermon ski resort, located in the Golan Heights, near the Israel-Syria border, due to the risk of attack by Iran and its proxies. Additional reports indicate that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are on alert following the US airstrikes.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) official in the Gaza Strip reportedly released a statement calling the development a “great tragedy” and extended PIJ’s support to Iran.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon reportedly released a statement condemning the US airstrikes as a “big crime” and stated that “punishment of Soleimani’s killers is responsibility of all fighters”.

Reports indicate that foreign oil companies have commenced the evacuation of its employees holding a US citizenship via the Basra Airport following the advisory issued by the US Embassy in Baghdad that urges US nationals to depart the country immediately.

Iran has reportedly appointed Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani as the next IRGC Quds force chief on January 3.

UK has reportedly increased security protocols at its military bases across the Middle East following the US airstrikes.

Reports quoting the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that the US airstrikes in Iraq are a “reckless move” that will escalate tensions in the region.

Assessments & Forecast:

The development comes amid a marked increase in tensions in Iraq over the past two months following an uptick in attacks against US assets by Iran-backed forces in the country. Most recently, on December 31, hundreds of Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) members and supporters besieged and attempted to breach the US Embassy compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone to condemn US’s December 29 airstrikes that targeted five Kataib Hezbollah assets in Iraq. The continued risk posed to US-linked interests in Iraq is further evidenced by the statement issued by the US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on January 2, that holds Iran and its backed proxies in Iraq responsible for perpetuating the attacks and warned that “attacks against us will be met with responses in the time, manner, and place of our choosing.” Given this context, the recent US airstrikes constitute a decisive action against Iran and its proxies to deter further such attacks against US interests in the region.

Furthermore, the US airstrikes constitutes a highly symbolic and notable development given the high-profile nature of the target, namely, IRGC-QF commander, Qassem Soleimani. This is given that Soleimani is considered to be highly influential within the Iraqi political and security dynamics, and is perceived to be responsible for the destabilizing activities carried out by Iran-linked elements in Iraq. Moreover, on April 18, 2019 the US designated the IRGC, including its extraterritorial wing, the QF as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Therefore, the killing of Soleimani in the US airstrikes is likely aimed to adversely impact the IRGC’s leadership structure and mitigate the threat that the group is perceived to pose to the region’s security and stability. Regardless, the killing of Soleimani is liable to have a significant impact on the morale of the IRGC and Iran-backed fighters operating regionwide.

However, the development is unlikely to significantly alter Iran’s policy within the regional setting, such as its support for proxies like the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, and Shiite militias in Iraq. Rather, as evidenced by the statement released by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, the incident will likely prompt Iran and its proxies to increasingly target the interests of the US and its allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia in the region. Furthermore, the statement issued by Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr calls for “readiness” from Shiite militias in Iraq to “protect Iraq” indicating the fact that Iran and its proxies will seek to take revenge against the US, and its allies, over the coming days.

FORECAST: Over the short term, there remains a heightened potential for attacks perpetrated by Iran-backed elements based out of Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and the Gaza Strip. Such attacks may also be directed at critical infrastructures, such as oil facilities, and other strategic infrastructures affiliated with the US or its allies in the region, where relevant. Given precedent, attacks targeting Israel may likely manifest in the form of rocket attacks or localized ground attacks, such as placing of IEDs, from Syria, or less likely from Lebanon. Such instances are likely to be limited in scale, and are unlikely to trigger a large-scale escalation and a broad deterioration of the security situation in Israel in the short term. Cross-border hostilities along the Gaza Strip-Israel border may also increase over the coming days. This is bolstered by the statement released by the PIJ official calling the death of Soleimani in the US airstrikes as a “big crime” and affirming the militant group’s support for Iran.

FORECAST: Given precedent, there also remains a significant potential for Iran-perpetrated security incidents in the strategic waterways of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, especially near the Strait of Hormuz, which indicates a general risk of navigation through these waters over the coming days and weeks. A similar risk exists in the Red Sea, given that the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen have been known to conduct attacks against foreign vessels in this area. Additionally, an uptick in cross-border hostilities into Saudi Arabia perpetrated by the Shiite group may be witnessed over the coming days, despite a significant downtick in such activity over the recent months. This may manifest in the form of missile, rocket or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launches towards military and civilian assets in Saudi Arabia.

FORECAST: In the longer term, over the coming weeks and months, the development is liable to further heighten tensions between the US and its allies, on the one side, and Iran and its proxies on the other, which will likely result in increasing hostile rhetoric towards the other party and potentially a more significant retaliation by Iran against US interests. Given that Iran-backed proxies, such as Hezbollah, are known to operate in Latin America, as well as other African, Asian and European countries, the risk for attacks by such elements against the interests of the US and its allies in the aforementioned regions cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations:

Travelers are advised to regularly review their emergency and contingency procedures as a basic security precaution, as the current tensions between Iran on one side and the US and its Gulf allies on the other will likely lead to additional hostilities. For on-ground or intelligence assistance contact us at: [email protected] or +44 20-3540-043.

Foreigners, particularly US nationals, conducting travel in Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon are advised to maintain a low profile due to the increased potential for militant attacks while practicing extra vigilance near US and Western diplomatic missions and interests across the region.

Ensure that places of stay are equipped with sufficient perimeter security details, alter travel routes, and avoid disclosing sensitive itinerary information to unknown individuals.

For those conducting essential operations in Baghdad, it is advised to restrict travel to the Green Zone and ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated. Contact us for itinerary and contingency support options.

Those managing or operating vessels in the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Strait of Hormuz are advised to take necessary precautions, including reviewing security protocols and adhering to international instructions, in light of the potential for security incidents in the area.

Bolstered international support for LNA Field Marshal Haftar amid ongoing hostilities in Tripoli likely to prolong conflict – Libya Analysis

Executive summary

Over the past three years, the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has gained increased domestic and international legitimacy amid his forces’ territorial advances in the Oil Crescent, Benghazi, Derna and the Fezzan Region.

On April 4, Haftar announced the launch of Operation “Flood of Dignity” aimed at taking control of Tripoli and its surrounding areas from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)-linked militias.

Despite this development, recent actions by prominent Western leaders, particularly of the US, the UK, and France, have increased the international legitimacy of the LNA vis-a-vis the UN-backed GNA in Libya.

This increased Western support for Haftar may be interpreted as a “green light” for his regional supporters, namely the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, to further extend financial and military assistance to the LNA.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Qatar have, and will continue to bolster their own measures to assist GNA-linked forces in Tripoli in order to further their own interests in the oil-rich country.

Overall, the bolstered international and regional involvement in the Libyan conflict will fuel further hostilities and the prolongation of fighting throughout the country, and specifically around Tripoli, in the coming months.

It is advised to defer all travel to Tripoli and Benghazi at this time due to ongoing violence, threats against foreigners, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.

Focal Points in Libya

Current Situation

On April 4, Haftar announced the launch of Operation “Flood of Dignity” aimed at taking control of Tripoli and its surrounding areas from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)-linked militias.

On April 10, France blocked an attempt by the European Union (EU) to publish an official statement condemning the LNA offensive on Tripoli.

On April 19, an official statement by the US State Department indicated that on April 15 the US President Donald Trump conversed with LNA Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, recognizing his “significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources”.

On April 23, the UN-backed Government of National Accord’s (GNA) Prime Minister, Fayez al-Serraj, gave interviews for French news agencies, denouncing the French government’s support for Haftar.

On April 25, the LNA arrested two Turkish nationals in Tripoli. Reports quoting the LNA Spokesperson have indicated that they were arrested for alleged involvement in espionage activity. According to reports citing Turkish officials, the two were restaurant workers in Tripoli and were not involved with Turkish security forces.

On April 29, the GNA’s Interior Minister, Fathi Bashagha, visited Turkey to strengthen security and defense cooperation agreements. Bashagha was reportedly accompanied by the Chief of the Western Military Command, Usama al-Juwaili, and another top GNA-linked military official.

On April 29, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, conversed with the GNA Prime Minister, Fayez al-Serraj, and expressed Turkey’s support for the GNA.

On May 18, the GNA-linked “Volcano of Wrath” Operations Room announced that they had received a ship containing military reinforcements. Picture material and additional reports indicate that the ship arrived from Turkey’s Samsun Port and contained multiple Turkish-made armored vehicles as well as other military hardware.

Background

The LNA’s Supreme Commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s local and international legitimacy has significantly increased over the past three years. This can largely be attributed to the fact that since 2016, the LNA has made gradual territorial advances in Libya, which has resulted in an expansion of Haftar’s influence over almost two-thirds of the country. In September 2016, the LNA took control of the Oil Crescent from the former GNA-aligned Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). This was followed by the LNA’s announcement of the conclusion of its three-year long Operation “Dignity” on July 5, 2017, which resulted in the eviction of the Revolutionary Shura Council of Benghazi (RSCB) and the Islamic State (IS) from the city. On June 28, 2018, Haftar announced that its forces had taken full control of the eastern city of Derna from the Derna Protection Force (DPF), formerly known as the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna (MSCD). Finally, the LNA took full control of southern Libya as part of its Operation “Murzuq Basin” in March 2019.

Although, Haftar received initial support from the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and France, over the years, countries that were initially opposed to the LNA’s Operation “Dignity”, such as the US, the UK, and Italy have shown an increasing interest in negotiating with Haftar. This is underscored by a meeting between the former UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and the British Ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett, and Haftar in August 2017. More recently, Italy invited both the UN-backed GNA Prime Minister, Fayez al-Serraj and Haftar to a conference on Libya in Palermo, Italy in November 2018 to discuss a potential date for a nationwide election process in the country.

Assessments & Forecast

Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia to extend further support to LNA amid ongoing clashes with GNA-linked forces in Tripoli

Initially, a significant support, mainly by Egypt and the UAE, had been extended to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the LNA, in light of the latter’s efforts to dislodge Islamist militants and militias from Benghazi. This most significantly came in the form of military hardware and logistical assistance by the two aforementioned countries, and the UAE’s manning of a al-Khadim airbase in 2016, to support the LNA’s military efforts. This extensive support was based since its initial phase upon Haftar’s self-positioning as the figure with the desire and ability to defeat Libya’s belligerent Islamist factions and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups, which have gained significant foothold in the country amid the civil war. This is due to the fact that both Egypt and the UAE view these groups as a region-wide threat. Thus, the success of Haftar’s Operation “Dignity”, and his more recent success in taking control over the Fezzan Region, while emphasizing his determination to continue fighting such elements, has bolstered his position as a reliable ally for Egypt and the UAE. As for Egypt, another significant interest in strengthening the LNA was its determination to bolster an ally that would be able to secure the vast swaths of the desert-dense border areas between the two countries. These porous border areas serve as a major pipeline for both the smuggling of weapons and the movement of fighters from Libya into Egypt, and subsequently, to militant groups operating inside Egypt.

This emergence of the anti-Muslim Brotherhood alliance, characterizing the LNA’s relations with Egypt and the UAE, was paralelled by the increasing of relations between the Tripoli-based GNA and Turkey and Qatar, who are perceived by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to be supporting Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups across Libya, including in Tripoli. This has reportedly involved Turkish shipments of weapons to such elements in western Libya, as was highlighted by the seizure of a Turkish arms-carrying naval vessel, detained in Libya in December 2018. The increase of relations between Turkey and the GNA was likely further prompted by the current ongoing clashes in the designated capital, and was most significantly highlighted by both the April 29 security-related visit by the GNA Interior Minister to Turkey and the phone conversation between GNA Prime Minister, al-Serraj, and President Erdogan, during which the latter emphasised his support for the former. This, in turn, may have been the preceding arrangement for the May 18 reinforcement shipment, reportedly arriving from Turkey, which contained multiple Turkish-made armored vehicles as well as military hardware.

This more overt Turkish involvement has, in turn, drawn further accusation from the LNA of Turkish sponsorship of Islamist factions in and around the capital. In this framework, the LNA’s April 25 detention of two Turkish nationals on espionage charges indicates a further deterioration of relations between the LNA and Turkey. Regardless of whether or not the arrestees were indeed involved in espionage activities, the event is likely perceived by the LNA as an opportunity to further paint Turkey as intervening in Libya’s internal affairs in support of “extreme elements”. This, in turn, is likely perceived by the LNA as an opportunity to prompt its traditional aforementioned backers to supply it with additional assistance and potentially even draw the attention of other international stakeholders towards Turkey’s policies. Such efforts may have been the reason behind what appears to be greater support for Field Marshal Haftar by Saudi Arabia’s King Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who has expressed the Kingdom’s support for the former and has also reportedly offered to financially support the LNA’s Tripoli campaign during an official meeting between the two on March 27.

FORECAST: Significant support and material assistance will continue to be extended towards the LNA by the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This will highly likely manifest in the form of direct aerial support, as well as military and financial aid aimed at bolstering the LNA’s capabilities and enabling it to continue its offensive on the designated capital. In terms of physical military assistance to the LNA, it remains likely that the UAE will assist the LNA with additional employment of attack and reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as it has done in the past, and given that it still possesses an active UAV base in eastern Libya. Such support is likely to be already taking place given multiple reports indicating the discovery of remnants of missiles believed to be a type used by the UAE UAVs, and is in any case not in use by any Libyan faction. However, such assistance is likely to remain relatively limited and covert, as the UAE will likely attempt to refrain from being painted as overtly challenging a UN-backed government.

FORECAST: Given the heightened tensions between the LNA on the one side and Turkey and Qatar on the other side, specifically surrounding the ongoing fighting in Tripoli, we assess that over the coming weeks, Turkish and Qatari nationals or corporations will face a growing threat of being subjected to arbitrary measures in LNA-controlled territories in Libya. This will most likely entail extrajudicial measures, such as arbitrary arrests and military prosecution over alleged charges of espionage and militant activity.

Increased political support for LNA by major Western stakeholders bolster LNA’s legitimacy, incentivise regional backers to extend further support to LNA

Most of the Western governments involved in Libya, such as the UK, Italy, France, and the US, initially primarily backed the UN-led initiative to reinvigorate a viable political process for Libya’s unification under one functioning government. This initiative partially came in the form of the establishment of the GNA in December 2015, which has since been the officially recognized government in Libya by the UN. That being said, the aforementioned ability of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar to take control of the Oil Crescent has consolidated his international standing among these countries. This was most significantly highlighted by the actions of Italy, a prominent supporter of the GNA, which has, after Haftar’s aforementioned successes, dedicated significant effort to convince him to participate in the political effort to unite the country under the Italian-initiated Palermo Conference in November 2018. Despite Italy’s backing of the GNA, Italian symbolic acceptance of Field Marshal Haftar was more recently highlighted even amid the ongoing offensive on the capital, when Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced on May 7 that he is seeking to meet Field Marshal Haftar in the near future. In a similar vein, a process of gradual political acceptance towards the Field Marshal was also recorded in the UK. This mainly materialized after Haftar’s territorial gains in the Oil Crescent and Benghazi, resulting in a more accepting discourse by the UK Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson, in an official meeting between the two in August 2017.

France, contrary to the aforementioned European powers, extended its support in terms of military advisory assistance to Field Marshal Haftar during his initial Operation “Dignity”, aimed at dislodging Islamist militants from Benghazi. A more robust support by France followed Haftar’s takeover of the Oil Crescent, when President Emmanuel Macron invited the Field Marshal to the Paris Conference in 2017. That being said, despite having given such support to the Field Marshal, the French government has never explicitly acted in defense of the LNA and against the UN-backed international effort to establish unified political establishments in the country. Thus, the April 10 measure by the French government, namely the blocking of an official EU condemnation, is highly notable as it constitutes France’s first overt political support for the LNA at the expense of the UN and EU efforts to condemn and exert political pressure upon Field Marshal Haftar. This, in turn, has prompted significant protests in GNA-controlled territories, such as the April 19 “yellow vests” demonstrations in Tripoli and Misrata, with protesters dispensing anti-Macron discourse to denounce the French government’s backing of Haftar. In addition, the development has prompted GNA Prime Minister, al-Serraj, to give interviews to two primary French news agencies, where he publicly denounced the French government’s support for the “Dictator” Hafter. Lastly, this has also prompted political action by the GNA, with most significantly the Interior Ministry’s decision on April 18 to suspend bilateral cooperation with France, and the GNA Ministry of Economy and Industry’s decision to suspend operation licences of 40 companies, including a major French oil and gas company, on May 8.

The April 19 incident involving the US President highlights another culmination of international support by Western leaders for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the LNA, despite the official UN support for the Tripoli-based GNA. Furthermore, on April 4, a press statement by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, expressed the US’ opposition to Haftar’s move towards Tripoli, urging a cessation of the offensive. The aforementioned phone call, however, took place approximately two weeks after the LNA has commenced its offensive, which could be interpreted as a shift in the US administration’s approach to Libya and its greater acceptance of Haftar, at least by the president himself. This apparent change in the US president’s approach and the robust support extended to the Field Marshal by France, could be interpreted as predicated upon a few factors.

First, the extensive territorial gains made by Haftar in the Fezzan Region have highly likely bolstered his standing vis-a-vis the GNA, regardless of whether or not the current assault on Tripoli will succeed. The Fezzan Region has been regarded as one of the major regional focal points for contraband, illegal immigration, and militancy-related activities for international stakeholders, such as the EU, and some of Libya’s neighboring Arab countries, primarily Egypt. This is due to the fact that since Muammar Ghaddhafi’s fall in 2011, the Fezzan Region has hosted the major transit routes through which immigrants from West Africa have been travelling, via Libya’s border-crossings with Niger and Chad, towards Europe. This, in turn, has also attracted criminal, militia, and militant networks wishing to capitalize upon the ungoverned territories of the Fezzan to further strengthen their operations, while local authorities were either absent or incapacitated to act upon these threats. For this reason, the LNA has dedicated extensive discursive and physical effort towards emphasizing its determination to mitigate threats emanating from the country’s border areas. Through this, Haftar is able to capitalize upon European interests related to counter-militancy and counter-immigration efforts to gain the aforementioned political support, primarily from France.

In addition, the Fezzan campaign has resulted in Haftar’s possession of the al-Feel and Sharara oil fields, which account for approximately a quarter of the country’s oil production potential. As was recorded after his takeover of the Oil Crescent, this development increased Haftar’s international standing as an arbiter in the competition between foreign companies over stakes in Libya’s oil industry. Such competition has reportedly taken place between major Italian and French companies seeking opportunities in the country’s oil market and wishing to see the stabilization of the region. Furthermore, Haftar’s control over the majority of Libya’s oil fields, with Libya potentially being one of the top world producers of oil, stations Haftar as a potential influencer in global oil prices. This, in turn, can make Haftar a lucrative partner for major international powers seeking to influence trends in global oil prices for their interests. In the case of the US, the stabilization of Libya’s oil industry in the hands of a potential ally could serve important American national security interests that are currently being pursued, such as stabilizing a low oil price amid the ongoing sanctions against Iran.

FORECAST: Given the aforementioned developments involving the US and France, it is likely that despite the overall condemnation of the LNA by major international institutions such as the UN, these countries will continue to extend their support to the LNA. Though such support is overall likely to remain symbolic, it may be interpreted by the actors more vigorously and physically supporting the LNA, such as the UAE and Egypt, as a “green light” to employ greater measures to facilitate the LNA’s takeover of the designated capital. Meanwhile, given the heightened tensions between the GNA and the French government, and given the increased anti-French sentiment expressed in Libya’s GNA-strongholds, such as Tripoli and Misrata, over the coming months French nationals and corporations will face a growing threat from local citizens and potentially armed militias which operate in western Libya and are opposing current French policies towards Libya.

Recommendations

It is advised to defer all travel to Tripoli and Benghazi at this time due to ongoing violence, threats against foreigners, and the risk of a broad deterioration of security conditions. We advise at this time that those remaining in Tripoli and Benghazi should initiate contingency and emergency evacuation plans due to deterioration in the security situation. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support plans.

Travel to Misrata and Tobruk should be for essential purposes only, while adhering to all security precautions regarding civil unrest and militancy. We advise against all travel to outlying areas of the country, due to the threat of militancy, kidnapping, and general lawlessness in such areas.

French nationals operating or residing in Libya are advised to keep a low profile and to overall refrain from externalizing their nationality in western Libya’s major GNA strongholds, such as Tripoli and Misrata, due to increased public expression of anti-French sentiment in these locales.

Turkish and Qatari nationals operating or residing in Libya are advised to keep a low profile and to overall refrain from externalizing their nationality in LNA-controlled territories. This is due to a growing risk of arbitrary measures and detentions by the LNA, following the aforementioned countries’ support for GNA-linked forces.

Avoid entering Libyan territorial waters in the area between Benghazi and al-Tamimi without prior authorization, as a no-sail zone is currently in effect in this area and several naval vessels had been intercepted or attacked due to not following proper procedures.

In addition, avoid entering Libyan territorial waters off the coast of Tripoli due to the heavy deployment of LNA naval vessels in the area. If travel is unavoidable, seek prior permission from the relevant authorities in order to mitigate the risk of interception on account of misidentification.

Those planning to conduct air travel to, from and inside Libya should avoid entering the area between Marsa al-Brega, Sirte and Sebha, as it was declared a no-fly zone by the Libyan National Army (LNA).

Those planning to conduct air travel to and from Tripoli’s Mitiga International Airport are advised to follow all relevant security protocols due to the increased threat to aviation in the capital as a result of the ongoing hostilities.

We further advise against all travel to Libya’s border areas at this time due to persistent violence and lawlessness in these regions.

For those operating in or conducting business with oil facilities, it is advised to consult with us for itinerary-based travel recommendations and ground support options.

Implications of recent escalation in US-Iran tensions on Iranian domestic, foreign policy – Iran Analysis

Executive Summary

Over the months of April and May, the US took multiple measures as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign vis-a-vis Iran, including the revocation of sanction waivers to importers of Iranian oil and deployment of US military assets to the Middle East.

As a response to the perceived provocations, on May 8, Iran announced its decision to partially halt its commitments to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and set a 60-day deadline for European states to renegotiate the financial terms of the agreement, marking a highly significant development since the ratification of the nuclear deal in 2015.

The purported involvement of Iran and its affiliates in the recent uptick in attacks against US allies, particularly the May 12 attack against four naval vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, off the coast of the UAE, has further fueled tensions in the region.

Iran has resisted direct negotiations with the US thus far, which indicates the high level of influence wielded by hardliners on the country’s foreign policy. Tensions are liable to remain high as both Iran and the US are likely to continue their strategic posturing in the region over the short term, in order to eventually coerce each other onto the negotiating table.

Western nationals operating or residing in Iran are advised to regularly review emergency and contingency protocols as a basic security precaution due to the risk of limited hostilities between Iran, the US, and its Gulf allies. Those operating in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria are advised to maintain a low profile due to threat of attacks by Iranian-linked elements.

Current Situation

On May 8, Iran’s SCNS released a statement announcing Tehran’s decision to partially halt its commitments to the JCPOA and setting a 60-day deadline for European states to take steps to counteract the negative effects of US sanctions.

The US President Donald Trump subsequently issued an executive order to impose sanctions on Iran’s metal industry.

On May 11, the US sent Patriot air defense systems to US CENTCOM based in Qatar’s al-Udeid Air Base.

On May 12, the US Embassy in Baghdad issued a security alert advising “all US citizens of heightened tensions in Iraq” and the “requirement to remain vigilant.”

On May 12, Saudi Arabia’s official news agency stated that two out of the four civilian commercial cargo ships that were subject to a “sabotage attempt” near UAE territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman, off the eastern coast near Fujairah, were Saudi oil tankers.

On May 14, the Yemeni Houthis claimed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attack against an oil pipeline belonging to the official Saudi Arabian Oil Company in Riyadh Province’s towns of al-Duwadimi and Afif.

On May 15, the US ordered the departure of all non-emergency US government employees stationed at the US Embassy in Baghdad and the US Consulate in Erbil from Iraq.

On May 18, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) issued an advisory warning of risks to civil aviation over the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

On May 19, a rocket landed in the vicinity of Baghdad’s Green Zone, less than two kilometers away from the US Embassy.

On May 20, the Spokesperson of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Behrouz Kamalvandi stated that Iran’s 3.67 percent production capacity of enriched uranium had increased by four-fold.

On May 20, two ballistic missiles were reportedly intercepted over Mecca Province’s Taif and Jeddah. Yemeni Houthis denied involvement in the attack.

On May 24, the US announced additional deployment of 1,500 military personnel to the Middle East.

Background

In May 2018, the US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which was negotiated between Iran and P5 +1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) countries in 2015. Subsequently, the US re-imposed sanctions related to Iran’s export of oil in November 2018, but granted sanction waivers to eight countries including India, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Italy, and Turkey for a period of 180 days. On April 8, 2019, the US designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). This was followed by the US’s decision to end sanction waivers to importers of Iranian oil starting on May 2, 2019. Out of the seven sanctions related to Iran’s uranium enrichment and civilian nuclear energy cooperation, the US revoked two sanction waivers related to Iran’s uranium enrichment process under the JCPOA – one that allowed Iran to store excess heavy water produced in the uranium enrichment process in Oman and one that allowed Iran to swap enriched uranium for raw yellowcake with Russia. On May 5, US officials announced their decision to deploy an aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the Middle East citing indications of Iranian threat, but provided no further details. This prompted Tehran’s decision to partially halt its commitments to the JCPOA on May 8, 2019.

Assessments & Forecast

Impact of IRGC’s designation as an FTO:

The designation of the IRGC in its entirety, including its extraterritorial wing, the Quds Force, as a “terrorist entity” marks a highly significant development, as it constitutes the first ever instance wherein the US has labelled a country’s military organization as an FTO. Such a designation comes amid the US’s continued policy to apply “maximum pressure” on the Iranian government to end its alleged role in destabilization activities across the regional as well as the international stage. It forms part of the US’s efforts to depict the Iranian administration as “rogue” or an “outlaw”, and is aimed at further isolating Iran on the international stage.

The move is largely symbolic, given the fact that US sanctions already target the IRGC and its leaders, affiliates, and subsidiaries such the Basij Resistance and the Quds Force and the US had already designated the IRGC as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” in 2017. However, the latest step will likely augment the existing pressure on Iran. Any individual or entity knowingly providing material support to the IRGC will now face the possibility of a 20-year US prison sentence. It will also impose immigration restrictions on members of the IRGC who attempt to travel to the US simply by virtue of their membership or affiliation to the organization. FORECAST: Given that the IRGC has significant stake in the Iranian economy, through this measure, the US likely intends to make it further difficult for foreign entities to conduct business with Iran, which, in turn, would have a negative impact upon the Islamic Republic’s economy. However, the fact that a large extent of the IRGC’s business dealings are known to be carried out through illicit channels, such dealings are unlikely to be significantly affected by the recent designation.

FORECAST: Moreover, such a move is also unlikely to alter Iran’s policies on the regional setting, like its involvement in supporting proxies such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, and Shiite militias in Iraq such as the Harakat al-Nujaba (HNA). Rather, given the increased restraints faced by the IRGC, the recent move is liable to increase Iran’s motivation to expand its regional footprint through the above-mentioned proxies as well as other sponsored militias. To this effect, the Iranian government will continue to divert large funds, at the expense of its domestic population, in order to sustain its influence in neighboring countries. This, in turn, is likely to inflame already existing local grievances, which may result in further instances of widespread civil unrest in the country. However, on a broad basis, given Iran’s history of strategic culture and great power rhetoric, a majority of the Iranian populace views the US sanctions as the source of their economic hardship, as compared to the Iranian government’s policies. While this is partly aided by the intensive propaganda campaigns in the country, it nevertheless galvanizes unity in the face of a “foreign aggression”. Thus, it is likely that the Iranian administration will attempt to placate the inherent domestic concerns related to the government’s regional activities and support for its proxies amidst an economic crisis, by attempting to project strength vis-a-vis the US. This may take place through the continued portrayal of strength through military exercises, display of new defense equipment, such as the unveiling of the new domestically produced “Khordad 15” air defense system on June 9. Moreover, the Islamic Republic will seek to counteract the US’s measures by maintaining a relatively belligerent posture, given the influence wielded by hardliners on the country’s foreign policy.”

FORECAST: By continuing, or rather increasing support for its proxies, the IRGC may be able to effectively target its adversaries, namely the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia-aligned countries in the Gulf over the coming months. In this regard, given that much of the recent attacks in the region, such as the May 19 rocket landing in Baghdad’s Green Zone near the US Embassy, the June 1 rocket attack into Israel’s Mount Hermon from Syria, or the spate of attacks against Saudi targets have consistently targeted Iran’s adversaries, it is likely that they were encouraged by Tehran in an effort to destabilize the region. Moreover, the fact that some of the attacks were carried out against energy-related targets, such as the May 12 targeting of Saudi oil tankers off the coast of UAE’s Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman and the May 14 Houthi-claimed UAV attack on the oil pipeline in Riyadh Province, suggests that Iran may be attempting to weaken the economies of Saudi-aligned countries, given their significant dependence on oil revenues. This would align with Tehran’s strategy of preventing its rival, Saudi Arabia, from expanding its influence in the region and subsequently positioning itself as the dominant regional power in the Middle East. This, in turn, would allow Iran to prevent the regional balance of power from significantly shifting away from itself, particularly in light of the reimposition of US sanctions.

Potential Ramifications of the imposition of various sanctions on Iran:

A) Oil-related sanctions:

The US’s refusal to extend the 180-day sanctions exemptions for importers of Iranian oil (China, India, South Korea, Turkey and Japan) from May 2 constitutes a core segment of the US’s “maximum pressure” campaign, as it aims to completely diminish Iran’s oil revenue. Although India and China, the two top importers of Iranian oil, were envisaged to face significant setbacks to its energy security policy due to the US move, it appears that both countries have planned for this eventuality and are effectively looking at alternate sources to fulfill their energy requirements. In this scenario, while neither of the two countries have officially announced their position on the future of Iranian crude imports, it is likely that imports from other key energy players such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE will feature on a higher side, specifically in the case of India. This will put further strain on Iran’s revenues from its oil sector, which, in turn, will have a significant adverse impact upon its national economy.

FORECAST: Given that the move has been anticipated since the reinstatement of US sanctions on Iran in November 2018, early indications suggests that apart from the initial shock, the decision has not drastically impacted the global oil market, despite fears of an oil price surge and supply disruptions. This is primarily due to a boost in Saudi Arabia’s oil production in May to fill the gap of Iranian crude, along with similar boosts in production by Iraq and Libya. However, Iran may resort to illegal trade of its oil in the black market, particularly in countries such as Yemen, where the Houthis have been reportedly deriving a majority of its income by selling Iranian oil. Furthermore, Iran may also attempt to export its oil through the use of “switch-off-the-transponder” tactics, which makes tracking ships increasingly difficult.

B) Uranium enrichment-related sanctions:

The May 8 statement released by the SNSC, which was reiterated by Iranian President Rouhani in a televised address, represents a pronounced effort by the Islamic Republic to project strength in response to perceived US provocations in recent years. The decision to halt its partial commitments under the JCPOA regarding enriched uranium and heavy water reserves follows the US’s May 4 revocation of the two sanction waivers, which practically forces Iran to completely overhaul its production of heavy water and uranium enrichment or continue production and find itself in breach of the JCPOA. Moreover, the five sanction waivers that were extended were also reduced from 180 days to 90 days, in which the remaining adherents of the JCPOA are allowed to cooperate with Iran on the sites of Bushehr, Arak, and Fordow without facing US sanctions.

This was followed by the May 20 announcement from the Spokesperson of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Behrouz Kamalvandi according to which, Iran’s 3.67 percent production capacity of uranium had increased by four-fold. However, Iranian officials reportedly stressed that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67 percent limit set under the JCPOA. Thus, although Tehran still remains party to the JCPOA, its increased capacity to produce enriched uranium suggests that Iran is likely to soon exceed the 300 kg uranium stockpile limitation set by the accord. FORECAST: However, as indicated in Rouhani’s speech, Tehran will likely retain its enriched uranium (upto 300 kg) and heavy water (upto 130 tons) rather than selling them to other nations while remaining within the limits prescribed in the nuclear deal over the short term, at least until July 8. This would allow Iran to project its adherence to the terms set under the JCPOA.

FORECAST: However, as per the joint statement released by France, Germany, and the UK on May 9, while the European states expressed “regret” over the reinstatement of US sanctions and continued to pledge their willingness to support alternate trade mechanisms such as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), they also categorically rejected Tehran’s 60-day ultimatum for negotiations. While this highlights their unwillingness to publicly be strong armed onto the negotiation table, it is also indicative of their reluctance to oppose US policies. Furthermore, the reimposition of the US sanctions has increased the risk of conducting business with Tehran for foreign companies, several of whom have already ceased their operations in the Islamic Republic. This is likely to have a significant adverse impact upon Iran’s economy over the coming months.

C) Metal industry-related sanctions:

The US President Donald Trump’s May 8 decision to impose new sanctions on Iran’s metal industry are aimed at undermining Iran’s revenue from the export of industrial metals, the country’s largest non-oil sector, which reportedly accounts for approximately ten percent of its export economy. While Iran’s mining industry was already facing severe setbacks due to shipping and payment restrictions, the recent move is liable to inherently impact employment provided by the metal as well as the automotive industry, which reportedly constitutes almost six percent of Iran’s total labor force. This is liable to significantly exacerbate domestic workers’ grievances, which have manifested in the form of persistent localized demonstrations across Iran over the recent months.

FORECAST: In this context, public protests surrounding employment, pensions, inflation, increase in the prices of basic commodities and other economic-related issues are liable to continue in a significant manner over the coming weeks and months. Such demonstrations will likely take place across Iran, including in major cities such as Tehran, as well as in outlying provinces such as Khuzestan and Kordestan, where the locals comprising of an Arab-majority or Kurdish population perceive themselves as marginalized by the Shiite Iranian government’s policies. This will not only increase the threat of civil unrest in the country as a whole, but also exacerbate sectarian tensions between the countries minority communities and the Shiite-led government.

Lack of direct engagement, continued strategic posturing liable to prolong tensions in the region:

The Iranian administration’s current position to resist direct negotiations with the US, albeit agreeing to mediation talks with Japan, highlights the high degree of influence wielded by hardliners on the country’s foreign policy at this juncture. Such elements continue to criticize the Rouhani administration’s moderate approach towards dealing with the US and aspire to correct the perceived weakness with which the terms of the JCPOA were negotiated in 2015. FORECAST: This, combined with the relative lack of tangible economic benefits from JCPOA, is liable to further embolden segments of hardliners and conservative elements within Iran’s political sphere. This may result in further appointments of such elements in key leadership posts, which is liable to significantly hinder the popularity of more moderate officials, consisting of figures such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. This is underscored by the appointment of General Hossein Salami, a prominent hardliner within Iran’s military establishment as the IRGC’s Commander-in-Chief on April 21. Such appointments are not only liable to increase the anti-US rhetoric emanating from the Islamic Republic but also significantly hamper the potential for backchannel negotiations with the US, which are generally conducted by more moderate officials.

FORECAST: On a regional level, tensions are liable to remain high due to the strategic posturing of the two countries, in order to eventually coerce each other onto the negotiating table. The deployment of US warships, including an aircraft carrier and a bomber task force on May 5, the sending of Patriot missile systems on May 11, as well as the decision to deploy an additional 1500 US military personnel to the region, is likely to significantly increase tensions in the Persian Gulf waters and the Strait of Hormuz over the coming weeks and months. This is particularly in light of Tehran’s persistent effort to assert its authority as the legitimate custodian of security across its territorial waters. These tensions may manifest in the form of limited confrontation between the naval forces of the two sides, which constitutes a general risk to shipping through the critical energy choke point.

FORECAST: Tensions are also likely to increase between Saudi-aligned countries and Israel on one side and Iran on the other. Iran may encourage its backed elements, particularly the Yemeni Houthis, to increase their attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This would also align with the Houthis’ aim of weakening the economies of countries that are part of the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen in order to reduce their ability to engage in the ongoing civil war in the country. Iran may also use its proxies and backed elements in Syria and Lebanon, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, to put pressure on the US by using them as leverage against Israel, the US’s closest ally in the Middle East. This may manifest in the form of attacks against Israel by Iranian-backed elements in Syria, as witnessed on June 1, when a rocket was launched from Syria towards Israel’s Mount Hermon. However, such attacks are likely to remain limited and constrained to areas within close proximity to the Syria-Israel border. This is because an attack deep inside Israeli territory would trigger a large-scale conflict between Israel on one side and Syria and Lebanon on the other, and Syria is currently not interested in such a scenario given its preoccupation in hostilities with rebel forces.

FORECAST: Overall, as tensions between the US and Iran get prolonged, the risk of a military confrontation between the two countries will increase. Such a military confrontation is likely to be limited at least in the short term, with Iran attempting to use its proxies as a means to put pressure on the US and its Gulf allies and the US retaliating with a further increase in military presence in the Persian Gulf. While Iran is currently not interested in a broad conflict with the US given that its economy is unlikely to be able to sustain such a cost, as previously assessed, the influence of hardliners on the country’s foreign policy reduces the possibility of backchannel negotiations. This combined with the fact that the US is unlikely to agree to any terms that do not significantly diminish Iran’s nuclear and military capabilities, further reduces the possibility of successful negotiations. Therefore, as these tensions persist over a long period of time, the risk of a full scale conflict between the US and Iran cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations

Travelers are advised to regularly review their emergency and contingency procedures as a basic security precaution, as the current tensions between Iran on one side and the US and its Gulf allies on the other may manifest in some form of cold war or even a limited or full military confrontation.

Western nationals operating or residing in Iran are advised to remain cognizant to prevailing negative sentiment toward the United States and other North American and Western European countries.

US citizens and other Western nationals operating or residing in other countries in the Middle East with sizeable Iranian-backed elements are advised to keep a low profile and maintain heightened vigilance, given the potential for attacks by such groups.

Those operating vital infrastructure, particularly in the oil sector, in Saudi Arabia are advised to review security protocols in light of the threat posed by Yemeni Houthi-perpetrated attacks, particularly through the use of UAVs.

Those planning to operate commercial aircraft over the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman are advised to exercise heightened caution and remain apprised of further FAA notices regarding the increased threat to aviation in this region.

Prolonged trade conflict with US likely amid disagreements on core issues, domestic political compulsions for both parties – China Analysis

Written by Tarun Nair 

Executive Summary:

On June 29, the US and China arrived at a truce in the trade conflict on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan. The agreement halted the next round of US tariffs on Chinese goods worth 300 billion USD.

While no further escalatory actions by either party have materialized, reports from July 17 suggest that trade talks have once again reached a standstill over the lack of clarity in the White House on addressing Beijing’s demands to back off restrictions on a prominent Chinese telecommunications company.

A prolonged trade conflict is likely due to domestic compulsions on leaders of both sides. This will be compounded by continued disagreements on core issues related to the negotiations.

However, a low level of rapprochement is anticipated while fluctuations to global supply chains, as well as impacts on business sentiment and investor confidence, are likely in the medium to long term.

Travel to China may continue at this time while avoiding nonessential travel to outlying areas in China, notably Xinjiang Province in the west. When traveling anywhere in China, we advise using caution when discussing sensitive political issues.

Current Situation:

China and the US agreed to a 90-day truce in the ongoing trade conflict on December 1, 2018, following weeks of heightened rhetoric. Subsequently, three-day talks were held in Beijing in January 2019. Two rounds of trade talks were also held in Beijing and Washington in the months of February and April, with US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin calling the discussions “positive”.

However, on May 13, China announced tariff hikes on US products after the US increased tariffs from 10 percent to 25 percent on 200 billion USD worth of Chinese goods on May 10.

Washington placed a prominent Chinese telecommunications company on its “entity list” on May 16, which effectively bans US companies from selling to the firm without authorities’ approval. The company, which is the world’s largest telecom equipment supplier, has been the target of allegations that its technology facilitates espionage.

On May 31, Beijing announced that it will form its own “unreliable entities” list comprising foreign enterprises and individuals that are suspected of disregarding market rules, violating contracts, and influencing supply for non-commercial reasons.

Beijing increased tariffs on goods worth 60 billion USD from the US on June 1, while opening an official investigation into a US-based shipping company for purportedly diverting China-bound packages to the US.

On June 29, reports indicated that both sides arrived at a fresh truce in their trade dispute through an agreement that halted the next round of US tariffs on Chinese goods worth 300 billion USD, apart from reopening the door for negotiations. The development came about on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan.

On July 5, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke at a meeting of military leaders, politicians, and bureaucrats where he stated that the ongoing political reform process has systematically enhanced the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s leadership. He attended yet another meeting on July 9 to emphasize the importance of the party.

Reports from July 17 suggest that trade talks have once again reached a standstill over the lack of clarity in the White House on addressing Beijing’s demands to roll back restrictions on the aforementioned telecommunications company. This comes amid indications that US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer will travel to Beijing in the near future with Trade Secretary Mnuchin for further trade deliberations.

Assessments & Forecast:

Domestic compulsions on leaders from both sides to sustain friction in medium to long term

Primarily, domestic compulsions on both sides will make it more challenging for either party to adopt a concessionary attitude with respect to tariff de-escalation. In China, President Xi Jinping has increasingly moved towards strengthening the powers of the CCP since the third plenary session of the CCP Central Committee in March 2018, where it was decided that reforms are needed to bolster the party’s leadership and control over state institutions. While this reversal of the previously limited separation of powers between the party and state is not new, he has doubled down on evaluating the progress of the 2018 plenum’s goals in recent times, as indicated by the consecutive meetings in early July. This speaks to a desire to expedite the expansion of CCP leadership.

This is relevant in the context of the trade conflict given that dissident factions in the party will increasingly hold him accountable with respect to avoiding prospective concessions to the US. These compulsions may be compounded by criticism from individuals with close links to trade negotiations, such as a comment by the former vice-minister for foreign trade in November 2018, wherein he stated that action on agricultural products by China was ill-thought out. This is especially likely when considering pressure on Beijing following the ongoing anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong and the recently-approved US arms deal with Taiwan, which could be used by opponents to show President Xi’s lack of control on Chinese regional interests. In this light, China likely to adopt a tougher stance on trade negotiations in the coming months, a preliminary indication of which was seen in the hardliner Chinese Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan’s addition to the trade talks. Further, President Xi may also seek to avoid making moves until the results of the presidential election in the US are announced, in order to gauge the degree of amenability a new government may have to some of Beijing’s terms.

In the US, President Donald Trump is unlikely to accede given that the trade conflict has been a major pillar of his “America First” platform, more so against the backdrop of the upcoming presidential elections in 2020. Another consideration informing this position will be the growing domestic consensus on cracking down on the Chinese telecommunications firm. A broader unilateral de-escalation seems increasingly improbable at this point. Increased rhetoric can be expected from authorities in Washington, as illustrated by President Trump’s statement days after the truce, in which he implied that he was open to place tariffs on additional goods worth 325 billion USD.

Zhong-Shan-Quote

Prolonged tensions further likely due to core disagreements regarding Chinese firm, Beijing’s projected capacity to absorb economic shocks 

While one of the key outcomes of the G-20 truce involved the US lifting some of the curbs on the Chinese telecommunications company, authorities later stated on July 9 that licenses for sales to the firm will be contingent on the protection of national security. The sweeping nature of national security considerations indicates that dealings with the Chinese firm in question will remain complicated, with the concession at the G-20 meeting likely only being symbolic. Broadly, this points to the continued disagreements on the regulation of the firm, which has emerged as a core concern behind the trade dispute. This is also backed by the reported stalling of talks in recent weeks due to a lack of clarity on dealing with the firm’s alleged violation of intellectual property laws. It also remains unclear if the firm will be given access to US parts for its product development.
FORECAST:
Given this lack of clarity and the fact that security concerns remain unaddressed, the issue will remain a sticking point to a trade deal, further speaking to a state of flux in the coming term. The inclusion of five additional Chinese firms in the US’ entity list on June 21 will further exacerbate tensions on the issue.

FORECAST: Another factor pointing to prolonged tensions is China’s projected capacity to absorb economic shocks through measures like interest trade cuts, trade diversification, and additional domestic tax cuts. According to July 15 reports, China’s growth rate slumped to a 27-year low of 6.2 percent in the quarter that ended in June, down from 6.4 percent in the previous quarter. US President Donald Trump cited the sluggish growth to be a product of pressure from tariffs. Despite the ongoing slowdown of the Chinese economy, it is pertinent to note Chinese authorities’ claim that the 6.2 percent figure is still within Beijing’s target range for the year. Thus, China’s current aggressive approach in light of its estimated robust domestic economy may indicate its willingness to sustain a trade conflict for extended periods of time. Its perceived upper hand will likely serve as justification to avoid making concessions to the US, thus exacerbating trade tensions in the medium term.

Low-level rapprochement may materialize in absence of concrete deal, security situation to remain unchanged 

FORECAST: Regardless of the impediments to a concrete deal, low-level rapprochement by both sides may occur over the coming weeks and months. This may include additional meetings such as principal-level calls between trade representatives where minor concessions on certain tariff structures may be discussed. Certain countries like Indonesia and Vietnam will likely see heightened labor productivity through relocation of investments and facilities away from China, although trade reliance will serve to affect these gains on a case-to-case basis. Regional powerhouses like Singapore, which have seen troubling economic conditions in recent times including a potential recession, will continue to feel the blowback with respect to manufacturing. In China, the tech sector will face a disproportionate effect of the ongoing tariffs regime, due to revenue changes as a result of slower exports to the US and restrictions on the proliferation of technological inputs.

FORECAST: In terms of the on-ground security situation, we assess that the latent threat of arbitrary arrests and harassment of US nationals remains largely unchanged. Beijing will be keen to avoid direct escalations that could translate to pressure through other avenues such as international courts. While a number of Western nationals have been targeted in anti-narcotics raids and on espionage charges, these events appear to be linked to their respective nations’ actions against Chinese citizens and interests rather than being directly linked to the trade dispute. Beijing’s projected reticence to use the trade conflict to take action against US nationals appears likely since it has largely sought to delink the issue of the telecommunications company from the trade dispute in an attempt to restrict patterns of escalation. That said, further arrests or detentions may nevertheless be perceived as retaliatory measures that are indirectly related to the trade conflict, thus sustaining peripheral tensions on the issues.

Recommendations:

Travel to China may continue at this time while adhering to standard security protocols given the latent threat of militancy and crime. We advise against non-essential travel to outlying areas in China, particularly Xinjiang Province in the west.

When traveling anywhere in China, we advise using caution when discussing sensitive political issues in China, including Xinjiang, the graft purge, Tibet, Taiwan or Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Refrain from photographing sensitive sites, including government buildings and security forces.

Remain cognizant of developments in the ongoing trade dispute involving China and closely monitor the rhetoric of the Chinese government in order to identify early escalation warning signs.

Companies with ongoing disputes with Chinese authorities are advised to consider the risks involved in sending high-level executives to the country.

Employees should avoid posting any material on social networks that may be deemed as critical of the Chinese government, as this may invite temporary detention or even prosecution.

Official Syrian news agency reports missile attack targeting military sites in Hama, Aleppo provinces during overnight hours of April 29-30 – Syria & Israel Alert

Please be advised

The official Syrian news agency reported that missiles targeted military sites in Aleppo and Hama provinces, during the overnight hours of April 29-30.

According to a pro-government media outlet, an arms depot belonging to the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) 47th Brigade in Hama Governorate was targeted. As for Aleppo Province, the exact target of the attack has yet to be specified. No official confirmation regarding the perpetrator of the strikes has been released at the time of writing.

Reports additionally indicate that the target was an underground bunker containing more than 100 long-range accurate missiles.

Moreover, reports indicate that missile attacks killed 26 pro-Syrian government fighters at Hama’s arms depot, many of whom Iranians. However, according to an IRGC-linked media, the reports regarding Iranian deaths as a result of the strikes are “baseless”.

According to reports quoting a US military source, the US-led coalition is not beyond the attack.

Assessments & Forecast

The incident comes amidst an uptick in Israeli strikes against Iranian-linked facilities across Syria over the past months. On April 9, Israel reportedly targeted Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Airbase with missiles, which resulted in the killing of seven Iranian troops. In addition, on February 10, Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft targeted 12 facilities, including three Syrian aerial defense batteries and four Iranian military bases. Therefore, we assess that the overnight strikes were similarly carried out by Israel. Nonetheless, the incident is notable given its scale-and-scope, as the number of reported casualties is significantly higher than Israel’s usual attacks in Syria.

Such attacks, especially in light of the reported Iranian casualties as a result of the recent incident, highlight Israel’s persistent efforts to contain the growing Iranian influence across Syria, as well as its increased willingness to conduct large-scale assaults deep in Syria in order to achieve this goal. Moreover, the development follows multiple Iranian threats of attacks against Israel in the wake of the above mentioned Israeli strikes in Homs Province, which resulted in the killing of Iranian troops. The strikes are potentially an attempt by Israel to send a deterring message to Tehran, as well as that it will continue to operate in Syria, in spite of Iran’s threats. Furthermore, as underscored by the reports regarding the base containing more than 100 accurate missiles, the incident demonstrates Israel’s determination to target military installations containing weapons or systems considered to be jeopardizing Israel’s technological edge and national security.

FORECAST: Given the reports regarding a high number of Iranian casualties, Tehran will likely seek to carry out a significant act of retaliation against Israel. This may include the launching of armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) into Israeli territory and target a military base, in a similar fashion to the February 10  incident, during which an IAF helicopter intercepted an Iranian UAV in Israeli airspace. Additional response may include attempted attacks against Israeli and Jewish interests across the globe, potentially official or diplomatic facilities.  Additionally, albeit slightly less likely, attacks against Israel Defense Forces (IDF) border patrols on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights may also be recorded. Should these materialize, they will likely involve shootings, IEDs, or the use of anti-tank missiles.

Recommendations

Recommendations: Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy. Restrict essential travel to areas west of the Old City while avoiding travel to the Old City itself due to the risk of mortar fire and threat of militancy.

Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Daraa, Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel held areas.

Recommendations: Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, as minor hostilities between various groups can escalate into a broader conflict.

US, UK, France missile strikes against Syrian government likely attempt to deter Damascus from further use of chemical weapons – Syria Analysis

Executive Summary

During the early morning hours of April 14, the US, UK, and France fired more than 100 cruise missiles against Syrian government facilities in Homs Province and near Damascus.

The strikes are likely an effort by the West to deter the Syrian government from further use of chemical weapons, as well as to send a message to Iran and Russia, amidst their perceived expansion across the Middle East.

The attacks are unlikely to significantly impact the Syrian conflict on-the-ground in the long-term, given pro-government forces’ overall superiority over rebel forces.

While tensions will increase between the parties, an escalation of hostilities between Russia and the West remains unlikely at this time.

Iranian-backed groups may target US interests and allies across the region over the coming days.

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Current Situation

During the early morning hours of April 14, the US, France, and the UK conducted multiple strikes against Syrian military facilities across Syria, with approximately 120 cruise missiles fired at these targets.

The strikes, which were carried out from naval vessels in response to the suspected chemical attack by the Syrian government against the town of Douma on April 7, targeted government military facilities in Homs Province and the Damascus area. Near Damascus, US Tomahawk missiles hit Kiswah Military Base, Mezzeh Airbase, Dumayr Airbase, as well as a scientific research facility in Barzeh District. In Homs Province, the attacks, which involved the UK’s Shadow Storm cruise missiles, targeted a scientific research facility in Qusayr District. At the time of writing, while French forces also carried out missile attacks, their exact targets and scale are yet to be known.

According to pro-government forces, the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) air defense systems intercepted the “majority of the US fired missiles at the Damascus’ area”.

While at the time of writing the exact number of casualties is unconfirmed, according to pro-government media outlets, three civilians were wounded as a result of the attack.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated,“Right now, this is a one-time shot”. UK Prime Minister Theresa May stressed that there was “no practicable alternative to the use of force”. However, May also stated that the strikes were not about “regime change”.

The Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson condemned the missile attacks. The spokesperson further stressed that there were no Russian casualties as a result of the strikes.

Assessments & Forecast

Assessments: Strikes likely symbolic and meant to deter Syrian government from further use of chemical weapons, send message to Moscow, Tehran 

The strike highlights our previous assessments that the Western response to the chemical weapons attack will be localized and target facilities linked to the use of chemical weapon, although they were larger than last year’s US response to the Khan Shaykhun incident. The use of cruise missiles, which allow attacking targets from a standoff distance, was likely meant to avoid any potential risks associated with operating in or near Syrian government airspace.Because the strikes hit research centers and storage facilities, the West’s response will likely impede the short-term capabilities of the Syrian government to use chemical weapons. However, in the medium-term, particularly in light of recent reports that the Syrian government transferred some of their weapons and forces away from multiple bases, these capabilities were likely not be significantly damaged and it is therefore possible that further attacks using chemical agents may be witnessed across Syria over the coming weeks and months.

In spite of the still relatively limited scope of the strike, the West’s operations in Syria are likely symbolic and meant to deter the Syrian government from using such weapons, especially because of the large number of targeted bases and installations. The strikes also aim to prevent the “normalization” of the usage of chemical agents across the globe, as these type of weapons had been used persistently throughout the Syrian conflict. Despite the low likelihood that many missiles were actually intercepted, if at all, these claims by the Syrian government, as well as the lack of significant casualties among pro-government forces, will likely be capitalized on to bolster its image among its troops and supporters across the country. Coupled with the aforementioned assessments regarding the potential for further chemical attacks by the SAA, the strikes’ deterrence impact will also be limited.

Globally, the development comes amidst an uptick in tensions between the West and Russia over Moscow’s perceived aggressive policies across the globe. These include Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, alleged interference in elections in Western countries, as well as most recently, the suspected attempted assassination of a Russian national in the UK. The West likely used these attacks to deter Moscow from engaging in further actions perceived as hostile towards the West and its allies. In the Middle East, the strikes occurred amidst growing concerns among Western allies, chiefly Israel and Saudi Arabia, regarding Iran’s growing regional influence, including in Syria. The Western strike against Tehran’s important ally, is likely an attempt to intimidate Iran and send a message that its actions are not unnoticed.

Assessments: Strikes unlikely to impact on-ground situation in medium-to long-term; retaliation by Iranian-backed elements against US interests, allies possible across region 

FORECAST: In the short-term, the US-led operations may slightly impact the situation on-the-ground in the vicinity of the targeted facilities. In addition to hindering their operational capabilities, the strikes also led pro-government forces to reportedly transfer some of their weapons and vehicles away from bases. This now forces them to redeploy and reorganize. During this period of time, rebel forces may exploit the possible disarray from the strike and launch assaults on government-held territories and capture some areas from the Syrian government. This is especially likely on fronts near targeted facilities, such as the rebel enclave in the Dumayr area, northern Daraa Province, and northern Homs Province. Nonetheless, in the medium- to long-term, given the strikes’ limited scale and overall superiority of pro-government forces vis-a-vis rebel forces, the developments are unlikely to significantly impact the situation on-ground, with the SAA and its allies likely reversing any possible short-term gains by rebel forces.

The attack by the US, France, and the UK does not represent a shift in the West’s policy regarding the Syrian conflict. This is highlighted by the statements of these countries’ officials that the strikes are a singular, isolated response. However, should the use of chemical weapons persist, additional missile strikes, as well as air raids to a lesser degree, may reoccur over the coming months, targeting the Syrian government’s military facilities.

The operations are liable to increase the already heightened tensions between Moscow and the West. However, particularly given the lack of reports about Russian casualties as a result of the missile attacks, an escalation of hostilities between Russia and the US, UK, and France remains highly unlikely at this time. Instead, Moscow’s response will focus on diplomatic measures against these three countries, such as sanctions. This assessment is highlighted by the April 13 bill by Russia’s Duma to implement sanctions on US alcohol, tobacco, and agro-products. Additionally, cyber attacks by Russian hackers against government institutions in the UK, US, and France may also be witnessed over the coming days.

The events are unlikely to have a significant impact on regional dynamics as a whole. However, it remains possible that a localized retaliation by pro-government forces and Iranian-backed militias will take place against US troops and their backed forces in Syria, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria and factions within the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in southern Homs Province. Should this occur, it will likely include mortar fire and IED detonations. Attacks against US interests may also occur in Iraq, where such actions have occurred in the past. Iranian-backed elements throughout the region may also seek to target countries that are considered Western allies. This mainly includes Saudi Arabia, as the Shiite Houthis may be directed by Tehran to intensify their ballistic missile attacks deep in Saudi territory. Additionally, albeit to a much lesser degree, it cannot be ruled out that Iranian-backed groups, such as Hezbollah and some Palestinian factions, will target Israel, including in the form of IED and anti-tank guided missile attacks against Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops along the border with Syria.

Recommendations

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Daraa, Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel held areas.

Those seeking to enter Syria are advised to confirm the status of their crossing points and final destinations, remaining aware of recent kidnapping incidents and the nature of military forces deployed in those areas.

US aid withdrawal unlikely to elicit security policy reversal from Islamabad; risk to US, Western nationals elevated during periods of tension between countries – Pakistan Analysis

Current Situation

On January 1, US President Donald Trump issued a statement on social-media threatening to cut financial aid to Pakistan for allegedly harboring anti-US militants within its territory and for lying to the US about its counter-militancy efforts.

Washington officially announced a suspension of financial aid worth 2 billion USD to Pakistan on January 4, pending “decisive action” against anti-US militant groups, such as the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, which it alleged targets US personnel in Afghanistan.

On the same day, the US reportedly placed Pakistan on a watch list for “severe violations” of religious freedom, with Islamabad alleging that the move was “politically motivated”.

In response to the developments, Pakistani Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan indicated on January 9 that Pakistan had suspended military and intelligence cooperation with the US in the wake of President Trump’s allegations and the subsequent US measures.

President Trump’s harsh rhetoric with respect to Pakistan’s “lies and deceit” have triggered a wave of anti-US sentiment in the country. Several political parties have also issued statements critical of Washington’s stance; most notable among them is opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan who has traditionally expressed his opposition to US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

On January 19, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry closed the Islamabad bureau of a US government-linked Pashto-language media outlet after Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, accused it of airing programs “against the interest of Pakistan” and of “portraying it as (a) hub of terrorism and (a) safe haven for militant groups”.

At least 43 people were killed in an overnight attack claimed by the Taliban group on a UK-based luxury hotel in Kabul on January 20, prompting the White House to call on Islamabad to conduct the immediate arrest or expulsion of Taliban leaders based in Pakistan.

According to Pakistani officials, two Haqqani network militants were killed in a suspected US drone strike in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in northwestern Pakistan on January 24.

US aid withdrawal unlikely to elicit security policy reversal from Islamabad; risk to US, Western nationals elevated during periods of tension between countries - Pakistan Analysis| MAX Security

Assessments & Forecast

US aid freeze unlikely to elicit desired policy reversal from Islamabad with respect to conflict in Afghanistan 

The aid freeze is notable as it is the first concrete, coercive measure adopted by the Trump administration towards Pakistan over its alleged implication in the conflict in Afghanistan. Occurring in the wake of President Trump’s unveiling of a visibly more aggressive Afghan strategy in August 2017, the measures appear aimed at securing enhanced counter-militancy cooperation from Islamabad against anti-US groups in Afghanistan ahead of an anticipated annual uptick in their operations during the annual spring offensive.

Such cooperation, as Washington expects, would largely encompass intelligence regarding the whereabouts of senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban and the Taliban-linked Haqqani network, that Pakistani intelligence allegedly harbors on its soil. Islamabad has maintained that the actual levels of involvement of the Haqqani network in the Afghan conflict are minimal. However,  US officials’ estimate that the Haqqani network has a membership of over 10,000 and are one of the most operationally-sophisticated militant groups in Afghanistan, highlighting their concerns about the group’s key role in the conflict.

Nevertheless, the latest measures from Washington are unlikely to achieve the intended response from Islamabad. Such punitive financial cuts are not entirely new in US-Pakistan relations, with one of the most recent examples occurring in the immediate aftermath the unilateral US raid in 2011 targeting the hideout of deceased al-Qaeda (AQ) leader Osama bin-Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Washington’s frequent resort to the threat of aid withdrawals to shape desired policy behavior has enabled Islamabad to take appropriate measures to weather the negative impact of these measures.

More importantly, Islamabad’s long-term ties to the Afghan Taliban and its affiliated groups continue to remain a core component of its national security strategy. This is unlikely to shift significantly under external pressure or inducements from the US. Islamabad perceives close relations with such groups as securing itself vital strategic depth in Afghanistan and as a bulwark against the perceived growing influence of regional rival India in the country.

Policymakers in Islamabad also work under the assumption that the factors that sustain the insurgency in Afghanistan may not be completely quelled simply through militarily eliminating the Taliban, given the general inadequacy of the Afghan government’s security policy. As such, and in the event of a future US withdrawal from the region, Islamabad may perceive itself as being the most vulnerable in terms of long-term militant blowback from the region. Another factor shaping Islamabad’s reluctance to capitulate entirely to US demands could be concerns that any overt assistance to the US war effort in Afghanistan could have severe domestic repercussions, including widespread public backlash as well as a potential uptick in Islamist militant attacks within Pakistan’s territory.

Potential security costs of enforcing additional punitive measures may decrease prospect of escalation 

Given Islamabad’s apparent intransigence on the issue, Washington has a range of measures it can choose to initiate in order to escalate diplomatic pressure. These measures include the revocation of Pakistan’s non-NATO ally status, which could deny it preferential treatment on military hardware sale deals or influencing international financial institutions to suspend lending to Islamabad. Another angle that may be considered is to conduct, expand, and even regularize drone strike operations in and outside of Pakistan’s restive FATA, particularly in neighboring Balochistan Province where top leaders of the Afghan Taliban, known as the Quetta Shura, are believed to be residing.

However, such measures run the risk of triggering retaliatory measures from Islamabad that could damage the overall US effort in Afghanistan. Pakistan could enforce a closure of the US ground and aerial supply routes through the country that sustain US troops in landlocked Afghanistan. This may include closing off US access to military bases in Pakistan that have been used for logistical operations. Such a move would considerably increase operational costs for the US and hamper efforts to combat the currently resurgent Taliban. Washington would likely have no choice but to seek alternative routes, most of which run through Central Asian countries that are largely under the Russian sphere of influence. Current US tensions with Russia over a number of issues could dampen the appeal of such alternative supply routes.

Despite the elevated tensions, both countries remain appreciative of the mutual benefits of ties to the overall regional counter-militancy effort, as illustrated by continued low-key meetings between US and Pakistan administration officials. While Pakistan has largely benefited from friendly ties through the procurement of military hardware, Washington understands the role played by Pakistani intelligence in its efforts to dismantle AQ networks in the region. This explains both countries’ seeming unwillingness to resort to further escalation tactics, at least for the time being.

FORECAST: Tensions are unlikely to dissipate over the coming months, and any rhetoric from Washington over the issue is likely to trigger similarly sharp verbal responses from the administration in Islamabad. This is likely as authorities would seek to project strong leadership in the face of external pressure, particularly due to the upcoming general elections in Pakistan this year and the potential for opposition politicians to raise the issue.


US aid withdrawal unlikely to elicit security policy reversal from Islamabad; risk to US, Western nationals elevated during periods of tension between countries - Pakistan Analysis | MAX Security

Despite growing defense cooperation with Beijing, Islamabad likely to remain keen on retaining security ties with US

One of the factors that may have emboldened Islamabad to challenge the US is Beijing’s continued verbal assertions of support throughout the crisis. China proclaims itself as Pakistan’s “all-weather friend” and has continued to shield the Muslim country from international censure with respect to its perceived inadequate counter-militancy efforts. Additionally, a suspension of financial aid from the US may not be as impactful as Washington intends it to be, as Islamabad has a diverse list of countries, including China, Turkey, and several Western European countries, with which it has maintained defense relations. China’s attempts to establish a naval base in Jiwani in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province may also be perceived in Islamabad as early efforts to establish growing security cooperation between both countries over the long term.

Nonetheless, Islamabad will remain reluctant to completely detach itself from all military cooperation with Washington. Currently, much of US defense sales to Pakistan focus on the F-16 fighter jets, a key component of Pakistan’s aerial defense capabilities. Additionally, Washington-supplied attack helicopters, such as the AH-1Z Viper, considerably enhance Pakistan’s counter-militancy operations in the harsh mountainous terrain of the country’s northwestern tribal areas that are known to be militant safe havens. Thus, any potential suspension of US assistance with regards to maintenance of the fleet would negatively impact anti-militancy operations. This, coupled with Beijing’s current inability to match or surpass the performance criterion of far superior US-made aircraft, is likely to push Islamabad to maintain its defense ties to the US.

Anti-US sentiment in Pakistan may spur militant activity, political protests by parties seeking to boost respective election campaigns

FORECAST: Political groups in Pakistan are increasingly liable to utilize the issue to portray the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government as ineffective in safeguarding Pakistani interests and seek to mobilize large numbers to boost their respective election campaigns. Apart from mainstream political groups, Islamist organizations such as Difa-e-Pakistan Council (Council for the Defense of Pakistan) led by Hafiz Saeed, and newer parties such as the Tehreek E Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) are likely to spearhead these protests, in order to increase their relevance during the election year. Given the existing hostility within the Islamic demographic against President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, these protests are liable to draw turnouts in the thousands. They may particularly target US diplomatic installations in major cities, and bear the risk of violent escalation due to the heightened sensitivities over the issue.

A considerable section of Pakistan’s Muslim community, especially those that subscribe to a hardline Islamist ideology, continues to harbor sympathetic views with the Afghan Taliban, which is seen as fighting a corrupt and inefficient Afghan government backed by the US.

FORECAST: Taliban-sympathetic militant groups in Pakistan are likely to continue to capitalize on public suspicions of the US’ motives and the West in general. This may take the form of attacks using local sympathizers on Western NGOs, particularly health workers involved in immunization campaigns that are considered a Western conspiracy to sterilize Muslim populations. During periods of particularly tense Pakistan-US relations in the immediate term, the risk to US nationals of Western interests by extension is elevated. The potential for attacks remains greater in major cities in the outlying provinces, such as Quetta in Balochistan and Peshawar in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have a notably strong presence.

Recommendations

We advise against all nonessential travel to Pakistan given the heightened threat of militant attacks, criminality, kidnappings and sectarian tensions throughout the country.

US nationals operating or residing in Pakistan are advised to remain cognizant of the increased anti-US sentiment in the country at present and to avoid demonstrations and large gatherings over the issue, given the potential for unrest.

We further advise to US nationals in the country to maintain a low profile due to the potential for targeted attacks, while avoiding engaging in discussions with locals over the sensitive issue.

Talks between North and South Korea result in rare cooperation over Pyeongchang Olympics; detente unlikely to last long term – Korean Peninsula Analysis

Current Situation

On January 9, North Korea agreed to send a large delegation to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea, to be held between February 9-25. The agreement was reached during talks between officials at a face-to-face meeting along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries. The meeting was organized following North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day address, during which he expressed a desire to send athletes to the games and the need for bilateral relations without outside actors.

On January 4, the US and South Korea agreed to delay joint military exercises until the conclusion of the Olympics. South Korean President Moon Jae-in reportedly discussed the agreement directly with US President Donald Trump over the phone on the same day. In the lead-up to the talks, President Trump posted on social media that “talks are a good thing!”, and credited his approach of hardline sanctions as the impetus behind North Korea’s conciliation. President Moon thanked President Trump during a press conference following the border talks. He also stated that he would be open to talks with Kim Jong Un under certain unspecified preconditions. President Trump echoed the same willingness during an interview on January 6.

The North and South also agreed to hold further military talks during their initial meeting, although officials have stated that at least in the opening rounds of such future talks, the meetings would focus on logistical issues related to bringing a large North Korean delegation over the heavily militarized border. Reports indicate that the North Korean negotiator emphatically rejected a suggestion that they also engage with the US or discuss their weapons program.

North Korea has faced a number of sanctions regimes championed by the Trump administration as recently as December 22, in response to the November 29 test of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-15.

Talks between North and South Korea result in rare cooperation over Pyeongchang Olympics; detente unlikely to last long term - Korean Peninsula Analysis | MAX Security
Assessments & Forecast

Decrease in tensions likely to persist until end of 2018 Olympics

The in-person talks of January 9 were the first to occur in over two years, and mark the first such occurrence during the administration of President Trump. In general, despite threats of violence by North Korean leadership largely going unfulfilled, diplomatic overtures from Pyongyang normally result in periodic lulls in tension and varying levels of progress in peninsular cooperation. Given the positive results of the initial meeting and the temporary fulfillment of the North Korean desire for a halt to US-led military drills, all sides appear to be sincere in their commitment to maintaining a drawdown until at least the close of the Olympics.
FORECAST: The developments of January 9 are likely to result a period of relative ease between North and South Korea until at least the closing ceremonies of the Olympics on February 25.

Significant concessions from either side unlikely in near term, North Korea on course to attain nuclear-capable ICBM by end of 2018

Both countries have varying goals that are essentially at odds with one another’s, and as such, there remains a low likelihood that the current thaw will see Pyongyang abandoning their nuclear ambitions. Despite the initial overtures by Kim Jong Un, he emphasized his commitment to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as a deterrent in the same speech where he offered to resume bilateral talks, and there are no indications of any substantive consideration of alterations to this plan as a result of the ongoing talks.
FORECAST: Given North Korea’s continued commitment to their nuclear program, previous assessments regarding their completion of a nuclear ICBM by the end of 2018 remain unchanged.

While there have been no tests following the November 29 Hwasong-15 launch, this may have more to due with technical considerations. Now that North Korea has a viable launch mechanism, the focus has turned to creating a working reentry vehicle and navigation system. The need to meet these milestones has likely created a delay between tests, and North Korea may be taking advantage of the lull in order to present itself as a more stable partner. Moreover, the motivation for participating in the Olympics may be an attempt to gain acceptance as a presumed nuclear state and normalize their possession of a nuclear arsenal on the world stage.

Similarly, the US-South Korean commitment to halt joint exercises does not cover the annual Foal Eagle or Key Resolve exercises slated to take place in April, and there have been no indications that the schedule will be altered in any way. This suggests that despite positive steps from all sides, red lines nonetheless remain that are likely to be crossed in upcoming months.

North Korean emphasis on bilateral talks unlikely to exclude US from reconciliation process

Kim Jong Un referred to the harmful influence of the US at least 13 times in his speech and emphasized the explicit need for bilateral relations at least another four times. By all accounts, North Korea is likely attempting to use bilateral relations as a way to minimize the role of the US in any eventual substantive talks outside of Olympic preparations, and their rejection of the US during the January 9 talks further reflects this desire. However, the likelihood of exclusive, bilateral peace talks between South Korea and North Korea at the expense of US involvement remains unlikely. South Korea depends on US military commitments for protection from North Korea, and would not be liable to abandon such a partnership, especially considering the North’s nuclear capabilities.

That said, bilateral talks over the coming days and weeks are likely to exclude the US, although as previously mentioned, do not appear to cover substantive reconciliation or demilitarization. Such bilateral talks on issues of economic and cultural cooperation have historically excluded the US, however, have had no impact on the South’s insistence on the inclusion of Washington for more strategic issues. As such, North Korea may be laying the groundwork for an excuse to resume nuclear tests, blaming any increase in tensions on South Korea’s unwillingness to be more flexible on the US presence in their country.

Recommendations

Travel to Seoul may continue at this time, while adhering to standard security protocols regarding protests, crime and the lingering risk of conflict with North Korea.

We continue to advise against nonessential travel to Pyongyang and North Korea given the risk of detainment of foreign travelers.

Those planning on traveling to South Korea for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are advised to contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary-based consultation and contingency planning