Drone attack targeting US forces reported in Syria

While pro-Iranian militias in Iraq have increasingly used drones, the use of drones in Syria against US forces is relatively rare.

 A drone is launched during a large-scale drone combat exercise of Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Semnan, Iran January 6, 2021.  (photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)
A drone is launched during a large-scale drone combat exercise of Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Semnan, Iran January 6, 2021.
(photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

An attack aimed at Al Tanf, a remote US outpost in Syria near the Jordanian and Iraqi border, was reported on Wednesday night. There were no casualties, according to a statement by American officials.

There was a “drone attack on US troops in Al Tanf, Syria,” BBC correspondent Nafiseh Kohnavard reported, adding that local forces said the drone came from the Iraq-Syria border area. Other online reports said rockets and not drones might have been used, but US officials confirmed it was a drone attack.

Pro-Iranian groups have increasingly used drones to target US forces in Iraq, including at the airport in Erbil, as well as Al Asad Airbase and US forces based in Syria.

The drones were likely manufactured in Iran and trafficked to Iraq, though some of them may also be constructed in Iraq. Iran has exported drone blueprints and technology to Yemen, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, as well as to pro-Iranian groups in Syria and Iraq.

 Missile fire is seen over Damascus, Syria January 21, 2019.  (credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) Missile fire is seen over Damascus, Syria January 21, 2019. (credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

An Iranian drone flown from Syria targeted Israel in February 2018, and a drone flown from Iraq or Syria entered Israeli airspace this May. In both cases, Israel shot them down. Hamas also used Iranian-style drones in the conflict in May.

Iran has trained drone operators across the region at its Kashan base. Israel revealed information about this base in September.

An Iranian drone was used to attack a tanker off the coast of Yemen and Oman in July; two crew members on the tanker were killed. Iran also targeted Saudi Arabia in September 2019 with drones and cruise missiles.

The attack on Al Tanf is an escalation. While pro-Iranian militias in Iraq have increasingly used drones, the use of drones in Syria against US forces is relatively rare.

These drones tend to be “kamikaze” drones, meaning they fly into their target. In June 2017, the US downed an Iranian drone near Al Tanf. An Iranian-made drone also targeted a US-led coalition patrol in June 2017 in the same area.

Al Tanf is a garrison where the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition has trained Syrians. Near Jordan, it is a lonely base and outpost facility. It was established in 2016 and 2017 and has been cut off from the rest of coalition forces since 2018.

There have been questions about whether the US would remain at the outpost. The Iranian and Syrian regimes, as well as Russia, have often described the US presence at Al Tanf as illegal. In addition, pro-Iranian commentators have claimed that the base serves to collect intelligence and enable airstrikes against the Syrian regime.

In recent days, increased tensions between the regime and Syrian groups in Idlib, where Turkish forces are stationed, have led to clashes. Turkey has threatened a new offensive. A bomb in Damascus killed 14 on Thursday, and Syria has blamed terrorists. In November 2019, Russia alleged that Israel overflew Jordan to carry out airstrikes in Syria.

Iran has been entrenching in Syria near Albukamal, at the T-4 base near Palmyra and also in Deir Ezzor in recent years. Hezbollah has also sent forces to the Golan Heights. This means there are tensions between pro-Iranian groups in Syria and the US and Israel.

US forces in eastern Syria back the Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS. Over the past year, the Syrian regime has attempted to renew ties with Arab countries, doing outreach to Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and the Gulf states. The reported drone attack comes in that context.

Iran’s drones have become an increasing threat across the region, from Yemen to Syria. Reports said explosions could be heard on Wednesday night near Al Tanf as a result of the drone attack. It is not clear if the drone or drones were shot down.

The US Marines have reportedly tested or used a counter-drone system that can be put on rifles near Al Tanf. The US has other anti-drone weapons in Iraq, such as the C-RAM (Counter rocket, artillery and mortar).

It is not clear what counter-UAV solutions the US has deployed in Syria.