Since the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last year, there has been an increasing tempo of attacks and alleged threats, notably this weekend, from unmanned aircraft flown by Tehran’s and Washington’s allies in the region.
The appeal of the aircraft — they risk no pilots and can be small enough to evade air-defense systems — fueled their rapid use amid the maximum pressure campaigns of Iran and the U.S. As these strikes become more frequent, the risk of unwanted escalation becomes greater.
The U.S. military nearly launched airstrikes against Iran after a U.S. military surveillance drone was shot down in June. Meanwhile, Israeli fighter jets attack targets in Syria on an almost weekly basis, including on Saturday night. Israel’s reason for the latest bombing: To thwart what it called a planned Iranian drone strike. Israeli aircraft then buzzed over Beirut on Sunday after allegedly losing two drones hours earlier, raising the risk of a wider conflict between it and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
On Sunday evening, another drone strike hit an Iran-backed paramilitary force in Iraq, killing one commander and wounding another, members of the group said. It was not immediately clear who carried out the strike. Amid the escalation, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made a surprise trip Sunday to the Group of Seven summit in France, at the invitation of the French president.
Coordinated drone attacks followed, first from the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels of Yemen. Major attacks targeted the kingdom’s oil infrastructure — one on a crucial East-West Pipeline, the other a major facility deep in the desert of Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter.
Saudi Arabia immediately tied the attacks to Iran, its longtime Mideast rival. While Iran denies arming the Houthis, the West and United Nations experts say that drones used by the rebels mirror models used by the Islamic Republic.
Meanwhile, a suspected Israeli strike in Iraq last month targeted a base of Shiite militias allied to Iran — in what would be the first attack to be carried out by Israel in Iraq since 1981. Israel remained mum, and U.S. officials who linked the strike to Israel did not say if drones were involved.
Israel, meanwhile, acknowledged striking Syria on Saturday night, in what it described as a pre-emptive attack. The military said it prevented an effort by Iran to position so-called killer drones ahead of an attack on Israel.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah disputed the Israeli version in a speech later Sunday, saying the Israeli strikes hit a Hezbollah rest house and killed two of the group’s members. He said that going forward, any Israeli drones that enter Lebanon would be shot down.
The drones Israel says it was targeting in Syria are known to experts as loitering munitions and are similar to the ones being used by the Houthis. The bomb-carrying drone flies to a destination, likely programmed before its flight, and either explodes in the air over the target or on impact against it. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking re-election in September, paraphrased a Talmudic passage on self-defense after the attack: “If someone rises up to kill you, kill him first.”
Israel’s military released a map Sunday of what it said were the Iranian supply routes to deliver the planes to Syria. This included what Israel described as the planned drone launch site in the Syrian village of Aqraba, as well as another location in the village of Arneh where a previous launch attempt was allegedly thwarted last Thursday.
Iran denied Israel’s strikes in Syria did any damage to its forces. “It is a lie,” Guard Gen. Mohsen Rezaei said, according to Iran’s semi-official ILNA news agency. However, Rezaei added that the “defenders of Syria and Iraq will soon give an answer,” without elaborating.
Rezaei’s response shows the escalatory danger of drone strikes. Overnight in Lebanon, one alleged Israeli drone crashed in Beirut while another exploded, authorities there said, calling it an Israeli act of aggression and violation of Lebanese sovereignty. In his speech, Nasrallah said one of the drones had been flying low among buildings.
Israel did not acknowledge the incident. Hezbollah was quick to say that it did not fire on any of the drones, underscoring the group’s keenness to avoid further escalation with its southern neighbor. The developments, however, present a direct challenge to the group, which is still recovering from a bruising years-long conflict in neighboring Syria that saw thousands of its fighters killed and wounded while fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Hezbollah, which is part of a fragile national unity government already struggling to deal with a serious economic and financial crisis, does not wish to be seen as dragging the country into another ruinous war with Israel, but may be feeling pressured to respond to perceived Israeli provocations.
The group has repeatedly warned Israel to stop its nearly daily violations of Lebanese airspace, but has so far shown restraint despite a series of Israeli attacks that targeted Hezbollah in Syria. Any retaliation, however, risks sparking an unwanted conflict with Israel that the group would much rather avoid.
President Barack Obama has confirmed the US is using unmanned aircraft to target suspected militants in tribal areas of Pakistan. He defended the drone attacks, saying they made precision strikes and were kept on a "tight leash". What are drones used for and how are they controlled?
To the military, they are UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) or RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems). However, they are more commonly known as drones. Drones are used in situations where manned flight is considered too risky or difficult. They provide troops with a 24-hour "eye in the sky", seven days a week. Each aircraft can stay aloft for up to 17 hours at a time, loitering over an area and sending back real-time imagery of activities on the ground.
Those used by the United States Air Force and Royal Air Force range from small intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance craft, some light enough to be launched by hand, to medium-sized armed drones and large spy planes.
Although the US does not routinely speak publicly about operations involving drones, President Obama has confirmed that they regularly strike suspected militants in Pakistan's tribal areas. The use of such unmanned aircraft in the area began under President George W Bush, but their use has more than doubled under the Obama administration.
Drones are seen by many in the military as delivering precision strikes without the need for more intrusive military action. However, they are not without controversy. Hundreds of people have been killed by the strikes in Pakistan - civilians as well as militants, causing outrage. One of the deadliest attacks was in March 2011 when 40 were killed, many believed to be civilians at a tribal meeting.
These strange-looking planes carry a wealth of sensors in their bulbous noses: colour and black-and-white TV cameras, image intensifiers, radar, infra-red imaging for low-light conditions and lasers for targeting. They can also be armed with laser-guided missiles.
Each multi-million dollar Predator or Reaper system comprises four aircraft, a ground control station and a satellite link. Although drones are unmanned, they are not unpiloted - trained crew at base steer the craft, analyse the images which the cameras send back and act on what they see.
The base may be local to the combat zone or thousands of miles away - many of the drone missions in Afghanistan are controlled from Creech air force base in Nevada, USA - although take-off and landing are always handled locally.
The MQ-1B Predator (formerly called the RQ-1 Predator) was originally designed as an aircraft for intelligence-gathering, surveillance, identifying targets and reconnaissance. However, since 2002 it has been equipped with two Hellfire II missiles, meaning it can strike at a range of up to 8km (five miles).
By contrast, the newer MQ-9 Reaper was conceived as a "hunter-killer" system. It can carry four Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs such as Paveway II and GBU-12. Its cruise speed is 370kph (230mph), much faster than the 217kph (135mph) of the Predator which is more vulnerable to being shot down at low altitudes - although the drones would usually be flown above the range of most of the weapons available to the Taliban.