Iran has moved drones to Syria over the years and used them to threaten Israel in the past. For instance, in February 2018 an Iranian drone flown from T-4 base entered Israel’s airspace near Beit She'an and was shot down.
The Iranian drone threat has caused tensions to increase in the past. Now it appears the drone threat may be back.
An assessment by ImageSat International (ISI), notes that an airstrike likely struck an Iranian or Hezbollah drone “capability.”
Iran may be repositioning drone assets as it sees tensions in the Gulf reduced due to new ties with Saudi Arabia and it may be judging that it can wind down drone operations in Yemen, or reduce exports to Russia and shift its focus. Iran has targeted Israel with drones several times since 2018, and it has targeted ships in the Gulf of Oman, as well as exporting drone technology abroad to Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Russia.
The alleged drone or UAV capability that was struck recently included a shed, a communication station and a communication vehicle, the ISI assessment notes. What is important here is that it shows that the drone threat is once again emerging in Syria. Hezbollah is believed to have as many as 2,000 drones according to a 2021 estimate by the Alma Research and Education Center. The number may be even larger today. Hezbollah drones also may range from small commercially available quadcopters to larger drones that are similar to the Iranian kamikaze drones that have been exported to Russia.
What is the background of Iran and drone warfare?
It's important to understand the background here.
Iran has been building drones since the 1980s. It used to use them for reconnaissance. It created several families of drones, such as the Shahed and Ababil series. In the last decade, Iran has increased the range and capability of its drones. This means that its drones now include kamikaze drones that can fly more than 1,000 miles. This means Iran has been able to base these drones not only in Syria but also in Iraq and in Iraq and threaten Israel and the region with drones.
In early 2021, it was alleged by Newsweek that Iran had moved “suicide” drones to Yemen. The Houthis, which are backed by Iran, used drones against Saudi Arabia and also the UAE. Iran also attacked Saudi Arabia using drones in 2019.
Iran also has begun using drones, which it sends to its proxies in Syria and Iraq, to target US forces. For instance, Iran has targeted US forces in Erbil, and also targeted US forces in eastern Syria and at Tanf garrison near the Jordanian border. The Iranian drone threat against Israel has also increased. There was the February 2018 incident, as well as Iran’s attempt to move “killer drones” to Hezbollah in 2019 near the Golan border, according to a BBC report at the time.
During the 2021 hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, there was also an incident where a drone was flown from Iraq targeting Israel. In July 2022, Hezbollah targeted a gas rig off the coast using drones. This formed the context for the maritime deal between Israel and Lebanon last year.
In addition, Iran has used drones flown from Chabahar to target ships in the Gulf of Oman in July 2021 and again in November 2022.
The recent tension in Syria may illustrate that the Iran drone threat is once again emerging in Syria. This includes Hezbollah and Iran. Over the years Israel has raised the alarm about Iran’s drone threats. In November 2021 Israel’s then Defense Minister warned about Iran’s drone bases. In addition, Iran is alleged to have increased the training of operators in recent years. Iran was also alleged to have sent drone operators to Crimea in October 2022. The Iranian export of drones to Russia also raised the alarm in Europe and led to sanctions. Iran often imports parts from abroad for its drones, including “dual use” technology that could be used on drones but could also be for civilian commercial facilities. Iran has also indicated that its drone-making facilities have come under attack in January 2023 and February 2022.
Iran and its proxies use airfields in Syria to base its drones. These include the T-4 base near Palmyra and other bases. The reports and assessment on April indicate the Iranian drone threat may be re-emerging in Syria after a period where it appeared to be reduced. This may be due to Iran shifting priorities from the Yemen war, moving resources to Syria. It may also be due to Iran focusing less on backing Russia in its war in Ukraine. There are many elements at work here because Iran is normalizing with Saudi Arabia. Iran previously used drones to threaten Saudi Arabia and the UAE with drones. Now it may be seeking to open up a new front for its drone wars.