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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.
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,