London/Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat- Last February, when a Syrian activist captured footage of what appeared to be an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) on his mobile phone in a rebel-controlled Syrian town near Homs, several reports surfaced suggesting that Tehran might have been supplying Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad with drones used to hunt down opposition activists and members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Since then, Asharq Al-Awsat has acquired satellite images showing drones, reportedly made in Iran, parked at a Syrian military base near Hama. Through interviews with experts and specialists, this newspaper has been able to verify the accuracy of these pictures and confirm the participation of Iranian drones, thought to be operated by radio, in chasing FSA rebels.
Syrian activists and FSA leaders have confirmed spotting UAVs in the skies above Syria, suggesting that drones are often seen on reconnaissance missions of targets that are subsequently bombarded.
Meanwhile, military sources and experts have reported the flight of Iranian, as well as “American and Israeli” drones, over Syria. This means that what might look like a domestic confrontation in Syria can also double as a war by “remote control” between Western and regional intelligence groups, especially between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC).
This in turn begs the question: Has the era of sending big armies to hotspots ended? And have traditional military confrontations been replaced with wars controlled from afar?
What we know so far is that, in the midst of a military buildup in the Arabian Gulf, war by “remote control” seems to be taking place in Syrian airspace, with drones playing a central role, especially in light of the ongoing obstruction of military intervention due to complicated calculations by the world’s major powers, and the region’s main players.
But toy wars might not be bad news for the country with the mightiest army, the US. After two wars that have seen the participation of its air force, navy and ground troops, America’s biggest breakthrough came from somewhere else. American drones have successfully operated in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Somalia, taking out Al-Qaeda operatives such as Abu Yehya Al-Libi—killed in a raid in northern Pakistan—and Anwar Al-Awlaqi—targeted in a mountainous region east of the Yemeni capital Sanaa last year. Drones also played a crucial part in the elimination of Badr Mansour, Atiyah Abdulrahman, Elias Kashmiri, and Taliban leader Baytullah Mahsoud.
In the air, on land, and sea
The more success America’s drones score, the bigger their role will be in future confrontations. In fact, American success in the air has been so remarkable that Washington decided to take drone systems to the sea, as it prepares to reinforce its military presence in the Gulf through the deployment of Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUVs). The C-Fox submarines, designed by a German company previously owned by British giant defense manufacturer BAE Systems, are four-foot long, remotely-controlled submarines that can find and detonate Iranian mines. They are disposable, in that they seek their targets—mines—through the Sound Navigation and Ranging (SONAR) system, and detonate upon touch, destroying both themselves and the mines.
The LA Times reported that the first batch of C-Fox had already arrived in the Gulf region. A 3000-feet fiber optic cable has been installed to allow the control of these vehicles remotely.
The new C-Fox UUVs will serve as an important addition to the anti-mine capabilities of the US military in the area, recently reinforced by four mine-sweepers that joined The US Navy in Gulf waters, bringing the total up to eight.
Needless to say, deploying more mine sweepers reflects America’s concern that Iranian mines might form the biggest obstacle for commercial maritime activity in case Tehran decides to close the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow channel that sees the passage of one fifth of the world’s oil tankers.
History tells us that even US navy ships might not be immune to Iranian mines. In the 1980s, when these mines were taking a toll on commercial ships, USS Samuel Roberts, a frigate that carries guided bombs, suffered serious damage after hitting one of them.
Who were the professionals?
Returning to the air, a strong case can be made that drones have been active over Syria. After several instances of spotting and many pictures of flyovers in Homs, Hama and other places, sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that the bombing that killed a number of top regime security personnel in Damascus could not have happened without accurate information provided from the air.
Andrew Tabler, a prominent US expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policies, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “no details about the operation that killed Assad’s senior aides have emerged yet, but some think that professional intelligence groups are behind it.”
Tabler did not rule out the possibility that the Syrian regime might have shot itself in the foot after leaks indicated that members of the targeted security cell had intended to establish a connection with the UN to discuss post-Assad Syria.
“Because the bombing led to the killing of several people, it does not look like an amateur job to me, but a professional one,” said Tabler. “Who were these professionals? I don’t know.”
Tabler, who spent years in Damascus, said that identifying what happened “becomes more complicated because it is hard to locate the building” where the bombing took place. Some “pictures showed smoke in the building, while in other pictures, the building looked intact.”
He argued: “If it were proven that the building was damaged, then it was a drone, but if the building were intact, then it was something else.”
Tabler confirmed in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat that the United States collects intelligence through “satellite images as well as human assets on the ground,” saying that his country “did not have enough information on the ground, an old problem for the US,” but that American intelligence were “doing a much better job today in collecting information inside Syria than in the past.”
Tabler argued that Washington is keeping an eye on Syrian chemical weapons “from space and on the ground,” and that his information indicates that there are 45 sites where the Syrian regime stocks its arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction. “Where are these sites exactly? I don’t know, but I’ve read reports saying that getting rid of them would take a military operation with the participation of 75,000 troops,” he concluded.
Even though the United States has never denied its usage of drones in the Middle East, it declines to say whether it is specifically flying any over Syria.
A source close to the administration, who asked that his name be withheld, told Asharq Al-Awsat that Washington provides the Syrian rebels with satellite images showing the deployment of Assad forces. The source also said that Washington has supplied the rebels with encrypted communication tools that are impenetrable by the Assad regime or Iranian intelligence.
The source added that Washington has been helping the rebels with the establishment of Command-and-Control units, and funding training programs for the opposition to be able to run Syria after Assad, in addition to collecting intelligence on both Assad forces and the rebels, and intercepting phone calls and other kinds of communication.
In this context, a former US Military Intelligence officer, who spent years in the region, told Asharq Al-Awsat that UAVs were indeed flying over Syria and assigned to conduct routine reconnaissance. He said that these “flights were part of a joint effort with the Turkish military command.” The Americans and the Turks have been jointly flying UAVs for years, from Turkey’s Incirlik airbase, to monitor PKK fighters.
The source argued that Israel does not fly drones over Syria, and that the US and Israel rely on satellite images that allow the monitoring of the movement of heavy weapons, especially Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
But other US sources, who also asked to remain anonymous, said that “a big number” of drones fly over Syria to collect intelligence including on Syrian military attacks against the opposition and civilians. The sources said that these flights were not preparing for any military intervention, but were rather collecting evidence and understanding Syrian military movement and communication, which might be later used in case the international community decides to act against the regime in Damascus.
Publically, Washington has remained cagey about its UAV activity, especially over Syria. Asharq Al-Awsat asked the Spokesperson of the US Central Command for comment. He responded by saying: “I have not heard any information in this regard, but even if there was such info, it will remain secret.” Likewise, the Department of State declined to comment, even though it has publically reiterated that Washington has been providing humane and non-lethal support to the Syrian opposition.
America’s drone flights over Syria remain a heavily guarded secret, which might be understandable given that, together with the Department of Defense, the CIA is responsible for UAV programs.
Other regional players
American officials, however, are not the only ones monitoring Syria. In Turkey, sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that their radars have captured drone activity over Syrian territory. The sources said that these UAVs were used to spy on activists and target them, arguing that these drones were made in Israel.
The Turkish sources drew three conclusions. First, Israel is fully cooperating with the Syrian regime. Second, there might be partial cooperation between the two—in which Tel Aviv provides Damascus with aerial intelligence. Third, Russia could have supplied the regime with these UAVs that it bought from Tel Aviv, which means that Russian officers and experts might be operating them inside Syria.
More evidence on Assad’s usage of drones comes from satellite images, posted by a site that collects intelligence. The images unveil new information about Iranian spy drones called Muhajer 4, which were photographed at a military installation near Hama, and are presumably used to spy on activists. Based on pictures, posted on the website OSGEOINT and syndicated elsewhere, the spy drone Muhajer 4 looks small, unarmed, and probably has a limited flight range.
Military experts suggest that the Iranian drones operate on radio waves and are commanded from home base only (as opposed to US drones that are operated worldwide through global positioning satellite technology). The Iranian-made Syrian drones might also have limited capability of transmitting real time video. Meanwhile, US and European officials confirmed that Iran gives the Syrian government a wide range of aide to help him suppress the uprising against Assad’s rule, including high tech surveillance tools and technology to monitor and censor the internet, in addition to arms and ammunition. The officials said that Iranian drones were helping Assad too.
Even if Syrians have drones
A US source close to the administration said that even if Iran or Syria were flying spy drones over rebel territory, that “would not significantly benefit Assad or his forces.” He added: “Satellite images allow for the surveillance of heavy weapons and deployment of army battalions, while UAVs – with their real time video transmission – are used to monitor individuals.”
The source said: “In the case of Assad, the importance of aerial reconnaissance is minimal because the rebels are not organized in fighting battalions, and are not stationed in fixed places.” He said: “The rebels use hit-and-run tactics, which makes monitoring them through satellite irrelevant, and even if Assad or the Iranians use UAVs to hunt down rebel leaders, the limited capabilities of their drones – which can reportedly fly between 20 and 30 miles (32 – 48 kilometers) from their home base – means that rebels can elude these drones the minute they step out of their range.”
According to OSGEOINT, the website administered by former US intelligence official George Kaplan, the first time a spy drone was spotted in Syria was in February, when an activist uploaded video footage on YouTube showing what looked like a UAV flying over rebel-controlled Kfarbatna. Later, a drone was spotted at least once in the restive city of Homs.
The Assad regime has not been known for using UAVs, while speculations first suggested that these might have been either American or Israeli drones used to spy on the Syrian regime as a prelude to any potential intervention, but – according to Kaplan – observers soon realized that the Kfarbatna drone was the Iranian-made Muhajer 4, also known as Pahpad, which was launched in 2010 during an Iranian navy drill.
Back then, Amir Ali Hajzadah, Head of the Flight Unit at IRGC, announced that “in addition to air reconnaissance, these planes can facilitate battle supervision through their real time transmission.” The Pentagon response at the time was to deploy its own drone, probably the high-flying Global Hawk or Sentinel that cannot be seen, to observe the ongoing civil war in Syria, according to US sources.
Compared to the more complex and bigger UMVs, Muhajer 4 is small, 10 feet in length, and with only limited reconnaissance capabilities. Since Damascus has no satellite communication network, the Iranian drone is probably controlled through radio frequency and within eyesight range. Observers suggest that the Muhajer 4’s maximum range is 40 miles.
Satellite images posted online indicate that operating Muhajer 4 takes place from an airbase only 18 miles from Hama. Specialists argue that it is possible that Muhajer 4 sends back real time video footage, through which its operators direct it, unlike American UAVs that can send multiple images to multiple places at far away locations. Satellite images of the Shairat airbase, near Hama, also show what looks like a Muhajer 4 control station, which is a storage-like facility connected to a number of vehicles.
According to observers, Syria is not the only state or group that is benefiting from Iranian-made drone technology. Hezbollah has also relied on drones, while Iran helps Venezuela develop its own unmanned spy planes. What is different in Syria is that, there, the Iranian UAVs help in a campaign of brutal and bloody suppression.