Could the Iran drone attack on US in Syria be message to Israel? - analysis

Syria sent drones to strike at an American military outpost in Tanf – but the strikes were not just targeting the US.

 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)

Iran conducted a complex and coordinated attack on US forces in Syria last week. It used up to five armed drones to strike at the Tanf garrison, a lonely US outpost in Syria near the Jordanian and Iraqi border.

The assessment by the US is that Iran was behind this attack. It is the latest of numerous drone attacks on American forces in the region this year. Iranian-backed groups in Iraq have used drones to target US forces at Erbil’s airport and other locations.

The attacks are also part of the rising Iranian drone threat across the region. This means the attack on Tanf is a message not just for the US, but also for Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries facing Iran’s drones.

The Tanf attack was a “complex, coordinated and deliberate attack,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. But Washington didn’t go into more specifics, reports said.

US knowledge about the planning of the attack appears to be more than is being reported in the media. This is because reports say the US was “tipped off” to the attack and that around 200 troops were evacuated on a C-130 transport aircraft, Fox News reported.

A drone is pictured during a large-scale drone combat exercise of Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Semnan, Iran January 4, 2021. Picture taken January 4, 2021 (credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA/REUTERS)A drone is pictured during a large-scale drone combat exercise of Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Semnan, Iran January 4, 2021. Picture taken January 4, 2021 (credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA/REUTERS)

It is not the first time the US had some knowledge that an attack was coming and prepared for it. In January 2020, after the US killed Iranian IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, it received hours of warning about an Iranian ballistic-missile attack on Al Asad air base in Iraq. Troops were sent to bunkers, and sensitive equipment was moved away.

On the night of January 7, “not a single fighter jet or helicopter remained out in the open,” Reuters reported. The attack came after midnight. America similarly avoided casualties at Tanf. But the advance knowledge raises questions about why the US didn’t try to preempt the attack or interdict it before it happened.

It also raises questions about lack of air defenses for US facilities. Reports indicate that US forces tried out counter-UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) technology called Smart Shooter in June 2020, a technology used for countering small drones. For larger drones, one needs a system more like Israel’s Iron Dome. The US has two Iron Dome batteries, but they are based in Guam, according to reports.

WHAT THIS tells us is that America had some prior knowledge about Iranian threats to Tanf. It’s not the first time the outpost has been threatened. An Iranian drone also threatened the area in 2017, and the US shot it down. Tanf has a 55-km. “deconfliction” zone around it, meaning the US reserves the right to defend the area up to that distance away. That’s a big radius and keeps any prying eyes away.

But Iran and its militias want the Americans to feel vulnerable. Iran has been testing US defenses in Iraq and Syria.

Iran has also used Syria to base drones for attacks on Israel. In February 2018, an Iranian drone from the T-4 base near Palmyra flew into Israeli airspace. Israel shot it down. In May 2021, another Iranian drone, perhaps brought from Iraq, flew into Israeli airspace and was downed. In August 2019, Israel struck a Hezbollah “killer drone” team that was operating near the Golan Heights border.

This means Iran’s drone threats to the US in Iraq and Syria come in the context of its drone threats across the region and also its attempts to target Israel.

The Iranian drones being used in Iraq and Syria may also be similar to those used by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. These are basically large flying tubes with wings, which can be backed with explosives so that the drone is a kind of kamikaze device, not so different than a German V-1 in World War II.

Some of these drones are called Samad and come in several types: Samad-1, Samad-2 and Samad-3. In a July analysis of the Iran-backed drone threat in Iraq, Farzin Nadimi, an associate fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Michael Knights, a Boston-based Jill and Jay Bernstein Fellow of the Washington Institute, noted the similarities in the drones.

THE IRAQI PMU, which is also called Hashd al-Shaabi and consists of Iranian-backed militias, had paraded drones in Iraq. One type was called Sahab.

“Like the Samad, Sahab is equipped with long-range transceiver antennas for precision GPS navigation,” the authors wrote in their analysis. “According to the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen, which examined numerous crashed examples of Samad, its extended-range version (Samad-3) can fly over 1,000 km. Six Sahab drones were shown at the parade.”

The Houthi-style Samad, which is based on Iranian technology and backing, was already present in Iraq in May 2020. Nick Water, a digital investigation expert at Bellingcat, made note of this at the time.

Nadimi and Knights also noted how brazen the parade of Iranian-style drones was. “The admission of Sahab/Samad fixed-wing drones is also interesting considering their closeness to the KAS-04 (Samad-type) systems used in at least five drone attacks on US facilities since April 2021,” they wrote.

Basically, Iran was showing its cards in Iraq. Iranian-backed Houthis also show off their drones. Many of these have been used against Saudi Arabia and run the gamut from the Samad types to the Qasef and Qasef 2K and others. There’s no secret here. The drones are often on display, like birds in a zoo.

Ari Heistein and Elisha Stoin, in an April article for Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, wrote: “The Houthis have an extensive arsenal of UAVs, including long-range Samad [-24] models. The group used Samad UAVs for long-range attacks in 2018 (against Abu Dhabi) and then again in 2019 (against Riyadh). However, the Samad-3, which claims an operational range of 1,800 km. – theoretically enough to conduct an attack on Israel – will have limited ability to inflict damage on Israeli infrastructure, given its 45-kg. warhead.”

THE HOUTHIS also have a delta-wing drone called Waid. Knights described this drone as well. Regarding “the use of delta-wing attack drones and Quds-2 cruise missiles, also shown at the March exhibition, Waid is the Houthi name for the loitering munition that Iran used to attack Saudi pipelines and the Abqaiq oil facility in May and September 2019, respectively,” he wrote.

The Waid drone can supposedly fly 2,500 km. and reach Israel. “Imagery seen by Newsweek – and confirmed by an expert who follows Iranian activities in the region – indicate the presence of Iranian Shahed-136 loitering munitions, also called ‘suicide drones,’ deployed to the northern Yemeni province of Al-Jawf: an area of the country controlled by the Ansar Allah, or Houthi, Zaidi Shiite Muslim rebel movement,” Newsweek reported in January.

It was unclear if the Shahed 136, which had not previously been known, is similar to or the same as the Waid.

Closer to Israel, Hamas also has the Shehab drone, unveiled in the May war in Gaza. “While Hamas claims it is entirely indigenous development, this drone’s general configuration, at least externally, is similar in some respects to the Houthis’ Qasef-series, as well as the Iranian Ababil-T, from which the former is at least derived,” drone expert Joseph Trevithick wrote at The War Zone website (thedrive.com) in May.

Therefore, the October 20 attack on Tanf is part of the wider context of drone attacks by Iran or its proxies across the region. The importance of defending against these kinds of threats and dominating the air is clear for every country in the Middle East these days.

Israel is hosting the Blue Flag exercise alongside air forces from the US, Germany, France, Greece, India, Italy and the UK. The UAE’s air force commander was in Israel this week.

The overall context of the Tanf attack is that its complexity is a warning for Israel. Like the Abqaiq attack by Iran, using drones and cruise missiles in September 2019, another complex drone attack has taken place in the region. Tehran is using the Houthis and militias in Iraq, as well as Hamas, to test its drone technology.

Iran also used drones to target a tanker in the Gulf of Oman in July. The US, UK and Israel blamed the Islamic Republic for that attack, which killed two crew members of the civilian ship. In that case, an Iranian drone flew into the bridge of the ship, likely a targeted and purposeful attempt to kill the crew.

Questions about how Iran had the coordinates of the ship and was able to guide the drone into that precise location remain to be answered. But it does show that Iran’s deadly technology is increasing across the region.