Hours after Israel downed a flying object that was monitored flying from Syria toward the Golan Heights on Sunday night, key questions have emerged about what happened and the technology involved. The object, which was referred to as an “aircraft” in English, but in Hebrew less specifically as an “aerial tool,” is likely part of the larger Iranian drone threat that has emerged from Syria.
Here are some key questions about what the incident means for Israel, Iran, Syria and the region.
Was this the first time this happened?
Iran has based drones in Syria for years. In 2017, Iran used a Shahed 129 drone to conduct surveillance in Syria near US troops; the drone was shot down by the US with an F-15. In 2018, Iran flew a drone from T-4 base into Israeli airspace near Beit She’an; Israel shot it down with a helicopter. The drone was later revealed to be carrying munitions destined for West Bank terrorists. Iran again targeted Israel with drones in March 2021; Israel shot them down with F-35s.
A month later, Iran flew a drone from Iraq to Israel; it was again shot down. In February 2022 Iran targeted Israel again with Shahed 136 drones from Iran, which were shot down by the US-led coalition.
Since that incident, Iran’s drone threat has been relatively quiet in Syria. Hezbollah had tried to target a gas exploration area off the coast of Israel in July 2022, using quadcopters – small commercially available drones – near the border with Israel. Back in February 2022, Hezbollah claimed it flew a drone 30 km. into Israeli airspace. Israel shot down a Hezbollah drone in May. Similar incidents occurred earlier in August 2021, but overall, these drone harassments go back more than a decade.
Was this Iran’s response to recent airstrikes?
Since Thursday, three airstrikes pummeled Iranian forces in Syria, according to foreign reports, putting Iran, Hezbollah and its other allies on a backfoot. The incident over the Golan on Sunday night in which an aerial object entered Israeli airspace may have been a response to Iran’s suffering blows in Syria.
A report by satellite imagery and intelligence confirm ImageSat International (ISI) were assessed as showing that a Hezbollah or Iran UAV capability was destroyed in an airstrike at Al-Dab’a airbase on Saturday night. That means that Iran suffered a drone setback in Syria as recently as then and launched an unidentified aircraft toward Israel.
Are drones being downed using ‘soft’ methods?
According to a Monday Ynet report, the object that was downed on Sunday night was downed using “soft means” – not by a missile that would blast it to pieces. Instead, it was brought down and landed in an open area. The “object” or “tool” will be collected and examined.
The Ynet report reads, “In electronic warfare, signals are sent remotely that disrupt the movement of an aircraft and cause it to be shot down. Thus, in the last two years, the IDF shot down drones that crossed the border of Lebanon and the border of the Gaza Strip by divisional control centers established by the Air Force.”
Is the region interested in the incident?
Regional media – from Turkey to the Gulf to Iran – has taken an interest in the latest developments. Turkish Anadolu reported on Israel downing the “object” over the Golan, while Tasnim News in Iran reported Israel downed an “unidentified drone.” The use of this language indicates that these media assume the object was a UAV or a drone, not a manned aircraft.
Gulf media has been reporting extensively on Israel-Iran tensions overall, a trend that comes as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are moving closer to the normalization of ties with Syria. If Iran is indeed hijacking Syria to use it as a drone base, this could harm that process.
Turkey, Russia, Syria and Iran as well are in the midst of diplomatic meetings, designed to push Turkey-Syria normalization forward. All these diplomatic moves come amid the unprecedented number of incidents in Syria and the drone infiltration of Israel’s airspace.
Does this mark the beginning of more drone attacks?
Iran has been circumspect about the incidents in Syria, with its media being über-careful not to over-emphasize the events. At the same time, the Iranian regime is expected to take seriously losses to the IRGC in Syria.
Iran has also sought to shift drone operations from the T-4 base to the Al-Dab’a base, the base that was attacked on Sunday night. However, it could be that Hezbollah was operating drones from this base near Qusayr, due to it being an area that Hezbollah entered back in 2012 during the Syrian Civil War.
Al-Dab’a base is located only a few kilometers from the Lebanese border, about an hour’s drive from Baalbek in Lebanon. It is believed Hezbollah has established a drone base near Baalbek, according to reports in Naharnet dating back to 2014.
It is plausible Hezbollah moved the drones from Baalbek to Al-Dab’a, which leaves questions about whether it is actually Hezbollah that suffered losses to its drone control facilities in Syria.
This could mean that the Sunday night downing is only the first in a rising series of tensions with Hezbollah and Iran. Israel has accused Iran of being behind a recent attack plot in Greece, one that never came to fruition.
Israel also allegedly accused Hezbollah of being involved in an infiltration of a man from Lebanon who crossed into Israel in March and planted an improvised explosive device near Megiddo. The full context of how these incidents are linked in rising tensions in Syria and the drone incidents in Al-Dab’a and over the Golan is still unclear.
One factor that should not be ignored is that all this is happening on the eve of Passover and Easter, as well as at the beginning of Ramadan. Iran knows this and it is plausible it may seek to further heat up more tensions over the holidays.