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The global market for drones is booming. But what does the coming arms race mean for US national security interests — and the future of warfare? GlobalPost correspondents report from critical locations around the world, from Israel to Iran to Yemen to Brazil — where unmanned aerial vehicles are radically transforming combat and surveillance.
A growing body of evidence suggests Iran has been supplying the Syrian regime with drones that are used to target attacks on rebels and civilians.
This article is part of a GlobalPost 'Special Report' titled "The Drone Age," which in the coming weeks will offer a series of reports from around the world examining the proliferation of drones and what it means for the future of warfare. The project was funded in part by the Galloway Family Foundation which supports GlobalPost in investigative and in-depth reporting projects.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — From the skies over Syria’s opposition strongholds, activists and fighters know the ominous whine of a pilotless aircraft can signal the imminent thunder of rocket strikes.
A GlobalPost investigation suggests that drones, used by Syria’s military in action for the first time, were supplied to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime by Iran, a proliferation of the technology pioneered by the US and a violation of the international arms embargo on Tehran.
Gathering testimony from security officials, leaked cables, eyewitnesses, weapons experts and diplomats, there is mounting evidence that the Assad regime has used Iranian-supplied drones to coordinate lethal attacks on civilians and rebel fighters in Syria, including the bombardment of a media center in Homs that killed a renowned American journalist earlier this year.
More from GlobalPost: Iran's support for Syrian regime raises questions of legality
“The drones are of Iranian origin and may well be Iranian piloted.”~Jeffrey White
Kieran Dwyer, a spokesman for UN Peacekeeping Operations, confirmed that UN monitors, on the ground in Syria during a brief mission from late April until most operations were suspended on June 15, consistently reported the presence of drones in the skies over opposition strongholds.
“We had consistent reports from our teams on the ground citing the presence of drones, particularly in the Homs area,” Dwyer told GlobalPost. In his report on the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2043, which authorized the deployment of UN monitors to Syria, the UN Secretary General noted the use of “unmanned aerial vehicles by Government forces, as part of combined air, armor, artillery and infantry operations against opposition strongholds in several urban centers.”
“There are definitely Iranian drones flying over Syrian territory. We have monitored them and drawn a map of their flight paths,” a high-ranking Lebanese security source, generally supportive of the Syrian regime, told GlobalPost.
“The Iranians have been moving equipment to Syria and play a very active role on the ground and in surveillance,” the source added.
Brothers in arms
Western officials have repeatedly accused Iran of supplying the high-tech monitoring equipment used by Assad’s police to track pro-democracy activists — many of whom were then tortured or worse in custody. But until now, Tehran’s apparent proliferation of drones to Syria has not been reported in detail.
Allies since the 1980s, when Syria supported Iran’s war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and then in Lebanon when they worked together to arm Hezbollah to fight the Israeli occupation, Damascus and Tehran signed a mutual defense pact in 2006.
Iran is not hiding its support for the Syrian regime, which is attempting to crush an 18-month uprising.
“Today we are involved in fighting every aspect of a war, a military one in Syria, as well as a cultural one,” Gen. Salar Abnoush, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) Saheb al-Amr unit, told trainees in a speech late last month, as reported by Iran’s pro-regime Daneshjoo news agency. In July, former Basij Commander Mehdi Ta’eb called Syria “Iran’s frontline.”
The first suggestion that Iran supplied Syria with unarmed drones came from Syrian rebel fighters in Homs last December. Then in March an unnamed US official quoted by Reuters gave the first public acknowledgment that Iran was supplying Syria with unarmed drones, which would constitute a violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
In December 2006, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1737, which banned all states and groups from supplying to Iran, or taking delivery from Iran, any equipment related to unconventional and nuclear weapons, including drones, or Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAVs). UAVs are considered part of a military’s rocket program. In March 2007, the Security Council passed Resolution 1747, which banned all states from purchasing or receiving “any arms or related material” from Iran.
“UAVs are military equipment within this context, used for military purposes and are thus subject to the embargo,” said Hugh Griffiths, a senior researcher into illicit weapons trafficking at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“In Syria, Iranian drones are