October 06, 2023

Iran Update, October 6, 2023

The Iran Update covers provides insights into Iranian and Iranian-sponsored activities abroad that undermine regional stability and threaten US forces and interests. It also covers events and trends that affect the stability and decision-making of the Iranian regime. The Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) provides these updates weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. For more on developments and in Iran and the region, see our interactive map of Iran and the Middle East.

Key Takeaways

  1. Turkey has conducted a series of airstrikes in northern Syria against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—the United States’ sole security partner in the country—since October 5. These attacks are placing significant pressure on the SDF, which, in turn, puts at risk the US mission to defeat ISIS.
  2. Iran has demanded that the Iraqi central government extradite members of Iranian Kurdish opposition groups to Iran, according to independent Iraqi outlet Al Mada. Such a demand would appear to violate international law.

Iranian Activities in the Levant

This section covers Iranian efforts to consolidate and expand Tehran’s economic, military, and political influence throughout the Levant, especially in Syria. This section examines some of the many campaigns that Iran is pursuing to achieve this strategic objective. CTP will update and refine our assessments of these campaigns over time and in future updates.

Turkey has conducted a series of airstrikes in northern Syria against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—the United States’ sole security partner in the country—since October 5.[1] These attacks are placing significant pressure on the SDF, which, in turn, puts at risk the US mission to defeat ISIS. The US relies heavily on the SDF to conduct and facilitate counter-ISIS operations in Syria.[2] The SDF is already under significant strain in eastern Syria, where a tribal insurgency erupted in August 2023 and has motivated the SDF to commit resources toward fighting.[3] The Turkish airstrikes could create space for the tribal insurgency to expand and for ISIS to consolidate its position in SDF-held territory, given that the SDF faces bandwidth constraints. CTP continues to assess that ISIS aims to reimpose its control over territory in Syria and has the capability to do so, should the opportunity arise.[4]

  • Turkey has conducted dozens of airstrikes into northern Syria since October 5 in response to a terror attack in Ankara.[5] The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—a US-, EU-, and Turkish-designated terrorist organization—claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing attack in Ankara on October 1.[6] Turkey said the perpetrators of the attack came from Syria and that all SDF energy sites and infrastructure in Iraq and Syria are legitimate retaliation targets.[7] A Turkish Defense Ministry official added on October 5 that conducting a ground incursion into Syria is among Turkey’s response options.[8]
  • Tribal insurgent attacks against the SDF in eastern Syria quintupled in the first week of October 2023 compared to previous weeks.[9] The SDF has deployed units from other provinces as well as its premier counterterrorism forces to fight the insurgents.[10] The Turkish airstrikes could further constrain the SDF’s manpower and resources, as the SDF faces simultaneous challenges in northern Syria and Deir ez Zor province. The SDF previously halted counter-ISIS operations during a series of Turkish airstrikes in November 2022, highlighting these bandwidth constraints.[11]
  • ISIS aims to drive wedges among local forces and social groups in Iraq and Syria to increase recruitment among these groups and control over them. ISIS can exploit the strain on SDF bandwidth to increase its operations without SDF pressure and present itself as a viable alternative to the SDF and Arab tribes in Deir ez Zor province. ISIS seeks to do so as part of its effort to subvert both parties and recruit hardliners from the Arab tribes with promises of greater autonomy.

Turkey is using diplomatic and military pressure to divide the United States from the SDF. Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Hakan Fidan stated during a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the United States “should stop working with” the SDF.[12] Turkey has additionally conducted multiple uncoordinated airstrikes and military flights near US positions in northern Syria since the Turkish airstrikes began on October 5.[13] US forces shot down a Turkish drone that came within half a kilometer of US troops.[14]

The mounting pressure on the SDF supports the Iranian objective of pressuring the United States to withdraw forces from Syria. Iran has coordinated with Russia and the Syrian regime in recent months to create an increasingly hostile operating environment for US forces in Syria.[15] Iran and the Syrian regime as part of that effort have cooperated to support and prolong the tribal insurgency against the SDF.[16] The mounting pressures on the SDF create opportunities for Iran and the Syrian regime to further stoke the conflict between the SDF and tribal insurgents with the intent of undermining the stability of the SDF and ultimately forcing the United States to leave Syria.

Iranian Activities in Iraq

This section covers Iranian efforts to consolidate and expand Tehran’s economic, military, and political influence throughout Iraq. This section examines some of the many campaigns that Iran is pursuing to achieve this strategic objective. CTP will update and refine our assessments of these campaigns over time and in future updates.

Iran has demanded that the Iraqi central government extradite members of Iranian Kurdish opposition groups to Iran, according to independent Iraqi outlet Al Mada. Such a demand would appear to violate international law. Iran and Iraq signed in March 2023 a security agreement requiring Iraqi authorities to disarm and relocate members of the Iranian Kurdish opposition groups, which were operating in Iraqi Kurdistan at the time.[17] Iranian leaders accused these groups of stoking civil unrest against the Iranian regime and described their presence in Iraqi Kurdistan as a national security threat.[18] Iraqi officials announced on September 19 that they designated group members as refugees and moved them to camps in unspecified locations in central Iraq.[19] UN officials welcomed the move and offered support to group members given refugee status.[20] Iranian officials have stated that “some parts” of the security agreement remain unfulfilled referring to, in part, demands to extradite some of these now refugees to Iran.[21]

States cannot send refugees to territories where their “life or freedom would be threatened on account of [their] race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” according to the 1967 Protocol of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.[22] The UN High Commissioner for Refugees defined a “refugee” as an individual who has “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political, is outside the country of [their] nationality, and... unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”[23] Iraqi government extradition of Kurdish Iranian opposition groups would also appear to violate the international legal principle of non-refoulment. Non-refoulment guarantees that migrants irrespective of migrant status should not be returned to a country of origin where they would come under “torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.”[24]

Iran and Iraq appear to be nearing an impasse toward completely fulfilling their security agreement, which could prompt renewed Iranian attacks into Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran and Iraq reached the security agreement after Iran conducted repeated strikes against the opposition groups in Iraqi Kurdistan from September to November 2022.[25] Iranian leaders have threatened in recent months to resume such attacks if Iraqi authorities do not completely fulfill the security agreement. It is unclear at this time whether such threats are a pressure tactic to get Iraqi authorities to extradite the opposition members or whether the threats are a precursor to future Iranian attacks into Iraqi Kurdistan.[26]

The most dangerous course of action for the United States is one in which Iran conducts a large-scale strike campaign into Iraqi Kurdistan, while the Kurdish-led SDF faces mounting pressure in Syria. CTP does not assess that this course of action is likely at this time but is identifying it given the risks it could pose. The United States relies heavily on Kurdish actors in Iraq and Syria to enable the US military footprint there. That on-the-ground presence is essential to combat ISIS. Intensifying pressure on the Kurdish actors in Iraq and Syria would present the United States with an increasingly hostile operating environment that could impede counter-ISIS operations.


 

[1] https://www.cnn.com/2023/10/05/middleeast/turkey-airstrikes-kurdish-syria-intl/index.html

[2] https://www.inherentresolve.mil/WHO-WE-ARE

[3] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/syrian-democratic-forces%E2%80%99-arab-coalition-crumbling-creating-opportunities-isis-iran-and

[4] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/syrian-democratic-forces%E2%80%99-arab-coalition-crumbling-creating-opportunities-isis-iran-and

[5] https://www.cnn.com/2023/10/05/middleeast/turkey-airstrikes-kurdish-syria-intl/index.html

[6] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/turkey-says-26-militants-neutralised-conflict-escalates-syria-2023-10-06/; https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2022/06/28/what-is-the-pkk

[7] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/turkey-says-26-militants-neutralised-conflict-escalates-syria-2023-10-06/; https://www.aa (dot) com.tr/en/turkiye/pkk-ypg-terror-group-facilities-in-iraq-syria-legitimate-targets-of-turkiye-foreign-minister-fidan/3007716

[8] https://www.reuters.com/world/turkish-officials-says-ground-operation-into-syria-an-option-after-bombing-2023-10-05/

[9] Author’s database of significant activity (SIGACT). Sources available on request.

[10] https://shaam dot org/reports/battleground-reports/hsad-alahdath-almydanyh-lywm-alarbaaa-06-09-2023; https://twitter.com/nahermedia/status/1699536730099978361;%C2%A0https://twitter.com/Sharqya_reporte/status/1699532720978719161;%C2%A0https://twitter.com/Sharqya_reporte/status/1699522335177359828?s=20; https://x.com/DeirEzzore/status/1707316517577134327?s=20; https://www.alaraby.co.uk/politics/%D9%82%D8%B3%D8%AF-%D8%AA%D8%AF%D9%81%D8%B9-%D8%A8%D8%AA%D8%B9%D8%B2%D9%8A%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%B9%D8%B3%D9%83%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A5%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B1-%D9%88%D8%B3%D8%B7-%D8%A7%D8%B4%D8%AA%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%83%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%85%D8%B9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B4%D8%A7%D8%A6%D8%B1; https://twitter.com/DeirEzzore/status/1701878014294790605?s=20

[11] https://twitter.com/vvanwilgenburg/status/1597564270086344704?s=20&t=6y0Mmq8zHUmKwuMlBGErHw

[12] https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2023/10/turkey-expands-strikes-fidan-blinken-discuss-deconfliction-terrorist-threats

[13] https://twitter.com/CJTFOIR/status/1710350487566856371/photo/2

[14] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/turkey-says-26-militants-neutralised-conflict-escalates-syria-2023-10-06/; https://www.npr.org/2023/10/05/1204009210/u-s-shoots-down-armed-drone-flown-by-nato-ally-turke

[15] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/iran-russia-and-syrian-regime-are-coordinating-expel-us-forces-syria

[16] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/syrian-democratic-forces%E2%80%99-arab-coalition-crumbling-creating-opportunities-isis-iran-and

[17] https://almadapaper dot net/view.php?cat=299491

[18] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-crisis-update-november-18

[19] https://www dot shafaq.com/ar/%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A9/%D9%84-%D8%B5%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%82-%D9%81%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%82-%D9%85%D8%B4%D8%AA%D8%B1%D9%83-%D9%85%D9%86-%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82-%D9%8A%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B1-%D9%83%D9%88%D8%B1%D8%AF%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%82%D9%8A%D9%8A%D9%85-%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%A7-%D8%AC-%D8%AA%D9%86%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%B0-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84-%D9%85%D9%86%D9%8A

[20] https://www dot shafaq.com/ar/%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A9/%D9%84-%D8%B5%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%82-%D9%81%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%82-%D9%85%D8%B4%D8%AA%D8%B1%D9%83-%D9%85%D9%86-%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82-%D9%8A%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B1-%D9%83%D9%88%D8%B1%D8%AF%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%82%D9%8A%D9%8A%D9%85-%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%A7-%D8%AC-%D8%AA%D9%86%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%B0-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84-%D9%85%D9%86%D9%8A

[21] https://www dot irna.ir/news/85245316/%D9%86%D8%B4%D8%B3%D8%AA-%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%B1%DB%8C-%D8%B3%D8%AE%D9%86%DA%AF%D9%88%DB%8C-%D9%88%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AC%D9%87-%D8%A2%D8%BA%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D8%B4%D8%AF

[22] https://www.unhcr.org/about-unhcr/who-we-are/1951-refugee-convention

[23] https://www.unhcr.org/glossary

[24] https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Issues/Migration/GlobalCompactMigration/ThePrincipleNon-RefoulementUnderInternationalHumanRightsLaw.pdf

[25] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-crisis-update-november-23#_edn6ad6d338da6cdca3851121335e00eb2d19972a5da8f0e083519891cb732ceb9c03071a284d187e7dd91b8066f9b6c35812

[26] https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-september-11-2023#_edn6ad6d338da6cdca3851121335e00eb2dcfaa04d85506c12fb6981150f3519cc57 ; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-september-15-2023 ; https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/iran-update-september-18-2023

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