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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.

Are Iran's drones coordinating attacks in Syria?

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.

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.”