Are Iran's drones coordinating attacks in Syria?

A captured US RQ-170 drone is on display next to the Azadi (Freedom) tower during the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran on February 11, 2012. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran has broken the 'idol' of the Holocaust underpinning the creation of the Israeli state and US hegemony.</p>

A captured US RQ-170 drone is on display next to the Azadi (Freedom) tower during the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Tehran on February 11, 2012. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran has broken the 'idol' of the Holocaust underpinning the creation of the Israeli state and US hegemony.

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

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 being used for military purposes for direct reconnaissance for artillery strikes that target civilian population centres. This is a military application, if not a war crime,” Griffiths said.

Weapons experts are in no doubt that the drones being flown over opposition strongholds are of Iranian origin and were supplied to Syria since the UN arms embargo came into force.

When asked to confirm four videos uploaded to YouTube in February and March, which appear to show UAVs flying over three neighborhoods of Homs and one over nearby Hama, two military experts confirmed the videos of Homs’ Baba Amr and Old City, as well as Hama, showed drones from Iran’s fleet.

GlobalPost spoke to the activist who filmed drones flying over Khaldiyye and confirmed the veracity of that footage.

“From the videos coming out of Syria, they look like Iranian Ababil and Mohajer systems,” said Douglas Barrie, a specialist in airpower at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a world-leading authority on global security, political risk and military conflict. “The most in use looks to be the Moahjer 4s.”

Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, confirmed the drones in the videos “look like the Mohajer 4.”

“Syria’s first real use of drones begins with the rebellion. The drones are of Iranian origin and may well be Iranian piloted,” White said. “It seems they use them for surveillance of rebels, to find out where they are, and then for targeting them.”

Watching the watchdogs

An eyewitness and military experts told GlobalPost that what appear to be Iranian-made drones were flown over Homs’ Baba Amr district in February and used to help target a building in which American journalist Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik were killed.

Colvin, an award-winning veteran foreign correspondent from Long Island, New York, was killed alongside Ochlik on Feb. 22 when the ground floor of the makeshift media center they had been staying in, and broadcasting from, was hit by fire from the Syrian military.

Paul Conroy, the photographer working alongside Colvin for Britain’s Sunday Times, who was injured in the attack that killed her, told the newspaper that drones were “a fact of life” in Baba Amr, hovering overhead during daylight hours “95 percent” of the fortnight that he was there with Colvin, including that morning when the fatal strike occurred.

Conroy, who served in the British Royal Artillery for six years, recalled the distinctive whirring sound of a drone somewhere overhead, but not visible, from about 7:30 a.m. on the morning of the attack. The shelling had begun about an hour earlier, he said.

Around 7:50 a.m., the first shell landed close to the building where the journalists were staying with the Syrian activists. While the activists coordinated with the armed rebels in Baba Amr, none of the journalists in the media center reported the presence of armed fighters inside the building.

Conroy said up to 13 missiles were fired in close succession over less than 10 minutes at the media center, including four direct hits.

With no line of sight, Conroy said tank fire was not the source of bombardment and he and several other journalists with experience in conflict zones said they believed the bombardment came from Russian-supplied Katyusha rockets, which eyewitnesses in Homs at the time said had been redeployed on truck launchers in order to target Baba Amr.

Conroy said he believed the Syrian army used a bracketing technique to zero in on the activists’ building, aided by a “directing drone.” Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague subsequently ordered officials to gather evidence about the attack as part of a wider investigation into war crimes committed by the Syrian regime.

In November 2011, three months before the military assault against Baba Amr began in earnest, Human Rights Watch reported the Syrian regime’s systematic torture and killing of civilians in Homs constituted crimes against humanity.

Two FSA commanders, both defected officers who fought in Baba Amr, as well as activists on the ground and a leading researcher on human rights violations in Syria, confirmed the assault on Baba Amr was led by a Sunni General, Fahad Jassem al-Freij.

Freij was named by Human Rights Watch as one of 74 senior officials who had allegedly “ordered, authorized, or condoned widespread killings, torture, and unlawful arrests” during the first nine months of the Syrian uprising.

Those named should be investigated “for their command responsibility for crimes against humanity,” the report said.

From Tehran, with love

The alleged use of Iranian-supplied drones by the Syrian military appears to not be limited to Homs and Hama.

Analysing a video of a drone apparently flying over Damascus’ Kafr Batna suburb, David Cenciotti, editor of frequently cited aviation blog The Aviationist, told GlobalPost he believed the unmanned aircraft was also an Iranian-designed Mohajer 4. 

Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, also armed and financed by Iran, has twice flown Iranian-supplied drones over Israel, first in November 2004 and again in April 2005, using what experts believe was either the Mirsad 1 or the Mohajer 4.

Another video on YouTube appears to show a drone flying over Damascus’ Arbeen suburb in January as the sound of gunfire rings out. Activists in the mountain town of Zabadani, near Syria’s border with Lebanon, also reported drones overhead being used to located positions of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Cenciotti said he had positively identified an Iranian Pahpad drone in a video apparently flying over an airbase near Hama.

In late July, the Open Source Geo Intelligence blog posted satellite images acquired from GeoEye it said showed two Iranian Pahpad drones on the tarmac at the Shayrat airbase, between Homs and Hama.

All such drones are not armed with missiles, like many US drone types, but rather carry cameras and sensors that are used to locate enemy positions and intercept communications.

The Lebanese security source said intelligence showed drones were launched “from a military base between Hama and Homs” — two large cities that have been strongholds of the opposition — and that the drones were used to send coordinates of targets to rocket launchers and artillery on the ground, as well as intercept signals from satellite communication equipment used by activists after regular phone lines were cut.

“The drone sends the coordinates to mobile trucks, which send the information to engineers in Damascus who then pass it on to troops on the ground,” said the source.

White and Barrie both confirmed that at least in the case of Mohajer 4s, the on-board camera can relay images and coordinates in real time to ground troops, making them effective weapons.

“Mohajer 4 has a data link and has the ability to downlink imagery in real time. The imagery could be used to provide tactical intelligence to help with artillery spotting and firing to hit a target, such as a building,” said the IISS’s Barrie.

“Tactical UAVs provide the ability to see what’s going on over the hill in an area you can’t get people on the ground. They give you a persistent stare, to look down and get a view on ground you don’t control.”

With rebels fully in control of Baba Amr at the time of the February assault, the use of Iranian drones by the Assad military to spot targets would have been of clear military advantage.

Experts are divided, however, over whether Syria could have secured its drones from Iran before or after the March 15, 2011 outbreak of the uprising.

US diplomatic cables from December 2009, leaked to WikiLeaks, appear to show Syria was seeking UAV components, such as small engines and radio equipment, from a German firm. State Department officials considered this proliferation, as the material could be diverted to Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), the entity responsible for Damascus’ WMD and ballistic missile programs.

A second leaked cable from the US embassy in Moscow dated September 2007 detailed Russia’s response to American concerns over the potential sale of Russia’s Danem UAV to Syria. The Russians insisted the drone was “designed solely for environmental purposes” and that Syria had not responded to the Russian offer and thus “no sale was envisioned.”

Though unable to say for sure, both analysts White and Barrie said it was most likely the Iranian drones were supplied to Syria after the outbreak of the uprising, as part of a concerted and on-going attempt by Tehran to bolster militarily its sole regional ally.

No lone drones: Intelligence agencies busy in Syria

During the Soviet era, Moscow supplied the regime of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad with its large turbo jet-powered reconnaissance drone, the TU-143, but no contacts interviewed believe Russian drones are being deployed in the current Syrian conflict.

The Aviationist’s Cenciotti, however, said he believed Syria had acquired a drone fleet before the uprising, a position supported by a Western anti-proliferation official, who asked to remain anonymous.

Cenciotti said aviation experts believe Syria manufactures Iranian-designed drones domestically at the SSRC. Last month rebels in Aleppo claimed in a video posted to YouTube to have uncovered a regime workshop producing Iranian-designed drones.

Though the authenticity of the footage could not be verified, weapons experts agreed all drones shown in the workshop video were identical to Iranian designs and were in the process of being built. Though the clip appears to show Iranian drones might be able to be built in Syria, some experts suggested the parts were more likely to have been shipped to Syria from Iran for assembling, rather than manufactured domestically.

“We saw high-tech Iranian arms, as well as Russian arms, used by the regime’s forces,” said Abu Ammar, a commander of an FSA unit who fought during the regime’s assault on Baba Amr. “The Iranian reconnaissance aircraft was constantly over Baba Amr’s sky. It gave the army coordinates and then the bombardment started.”

A second FSA commander, known as Abu Yazan, who fought with the Farouk Brigade in Homs, described being injured fighting last December after what he said was as a “glider” flying over his position. Drones are shaped very much like gliders.

“My mission was to stop Assad’s tanks crossing into Baba Amr. A glider appeared above us, filmed us and took our coordinates,” he told GlobalPost while recovering from his wounds in north Lebanon. “Then the rocket launcher started shooting at our position and I was injured.” Nine rebel soldiers were killed in the attack, said Abu Yazan.

Speaking to a reporter working with GlobalPost in Damascus, Abu Sadiq, a 45-year-old father of three who fled Homs’ Khaldiyye neighbourhood with his wife and children during February’s assault, said residents had begun to hear the noise of what they believed were drones overhead.

“The regime began to use small spy planes to target activists, the Free Syrian Army and field hospitals,” he said.

Iranian-supplied drones, however, are not the only UAVs prying from the skies over Syria’s conflict.

The Lebanese security source said the Syrian military had informed their Lebanese counterparts that American drones were flying over Syria’s northern borders and over Daraa in the far south, the first city to rise up and suffer a sustained assault by Assad’s forces.

On Feb. 17, NBC news quoted a US defense official saying “a good number” of US military and intelligence drones were monitoring the Syrian military’s attacks on opposition forces and civilians.

“We have also intercepted Israeli drones crossing through the Bekaa Valley to Syria,” said the security source. “It’s well known that all intelligence agencies are busy with Syria.”

This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project.