Yemen drones, Iraq airstrikes, the IRGC plan to attack Israel - analysis

The drones, airstrikes and tensions stretching from Yemen to Iraq and then to Syria and Beirut comprise an arc of simmering conflict that links Iran’s role throughout the region.

August 25, 2019 20:45
4 minute read.
A Houthi security officer reacts at the site of an air strike launched by the Saudi-led coalition in

A Houthi security officer reacts at the site of an air strike launched by the Saudi-led coalition in Sanaa, Yemen May 16, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AL-SAYAGHI)

Last Thursday, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force members attempted to launch drones to attack Israel from an area near the Golan Heights, but they were prevented from carrying out their plans. The drones that Iran and its local affiliates wanted to use to attack Israel were reportedly similar to drones used by Houthi rebels in recent months to attack Saudi Arabia.
Two other details from the recent airstrike on the Quds force and Shi’ite militias in Syria are important. One is that according to the IDF, Israel has been monitoring this plot for months. However the Iranian cell made the decision on August 22, two days after an airstrike destroyed the base of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq near Balad Air Base. In addition, Beirut was on alert on Sunday morning after Hezbollah-linked media claimed two Israeli drones were shot down. On Sunday morning, Houthi rebels also launched drones targeting Abha Airport in Saudi Arabia.

The drones, airstrikes and tensions stretching from Yemen to Iraq and then to Syria and Beirut comprise an arc of simmering conflict that links Iran’s role throughout the region. The report that Iran wanted to use Qasif-type drones – the kind the Houthis have used against Saudi Arabia – against Israel from Syria shows how these conflicts are increasingly linked.

In addition, the presence of Shi’ite militias in southern Syria, whether linked directly to Hezbollah and the IRGC or to Iraqi-based militias, or to local Shi’ites in Syria, shows how the patchwork of Iranian-linked paramilitaries are entrenched in a corridor of influence stretching from Beirut to Baghdad. This has been called Iran’s “land bridge,” and it came into full view over the weekend.

It is not the first time the depth of Iran’s role has been made clear. Israel has launched more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria in recent years, according to former chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot. Iran has supplied Hezbollah with precision guidance for rockets that can reach all of Israel, according to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Drone technology has been increasingly on display by Iran and its allies. Iran’s IRGC used a new drone unit to attack Kurdish dissidents in July, according to Iranian media. The Houthis have improved their drones to harass Saudi airports, killing civilians and targeting military infrastructure. A drone attack on Saudi oil facilities in May was reported to have come from Iraq, according to The Wall Street Journal. These drones appear capable of flying hundreds of kilometers, and Iran has even boasted that one drone can fly 3,000 km. Iran has held increasingly complex drone operations. In March, an exercise named “toward Jerusalem 1” or “Ela Beit al-Muqaddas 1” was carried out with dozens of drones, according to Iran’s Tasnim News.

Iran launched an attempted drone attack on Israel in February 2018. Previous reports in foreign media have linked the T-4 or Tiyas Airbase to Iran’s drone infrastructure in Syria. The base was hit by airstrikes in June, in July 2018 and in April 2018. In the April airstrike, seven Iranian military personnel, perhaps members of the Quds Force, were allegedly killed. They may have been drone unit operators, but another report said they were linked to Iran’s 3rd Khordad air defense system. In May, the London-based Asharq al-Awsat said Russia was pressuring Iran to reduce its sophisticated drone forces in Syria.

With the rising tensions over Iran’s role in Syria, a series of airstrikes in Iraq were blamed on the US and Israel by members of the Popular Mobilization Units, a group of mostly Shi’ite paramilitaries. Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the militias, pointed at Israel and the US, claiming Israel drones had been transferred to Iraq to carry out the attacks. The same group alleged Israel struck its base in Syria in June 2018. The August 20 airstrike in Iraq came two days before the Quds Force members attempted to attack Israel from near the Golan.

The Kuwait newspaper Al-Jarida also claimed on Thursday that Israel was planning to attack the Houthis in Yemen to prevent Iranian drone technology there being used to attack shipping. The Houthis unveiled a new air defense system over the weekend, and Iran unveiled a new air defense system named Bavar-373 on Thursday, the same day the Quds Force sought to attack Israel, and the same day Al-Jarida claimed Israel was about to strike in Yemen.

The overall picture illustrates an Iranian attempt to transfer and use drone and missile technology to its allies in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, either through direct IRGC Quds Force control or via Shi’ite paramilitaries and groups such as Hezbollah or Kata’ib Hezbollah. Iran’s allies and proxies have become proficient with these technologies, attacking Saudi Arabia, and using them against Kurdish dissidents and against ISIS.

Combined with its sophisticated ballistic missile technology, Iran seeks to leverage its influence to threaten its adversaries. The recent week’s events linking tensions in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon illustrate Tehran’s footprint and corridor of influence.

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