- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
American and coalition forces operating in southeast Syria were attacked Thursday by a drone that hit a coalition patrol, part of a rapidly escalating war with Iranian-backed militias in the country, according to the Pentagon.
The attack, which U.S. military officials say caused no casualties or damage to equipment, was the first time U.S.-backed forces had been targeted by a drone in Syria, and indicates that the Bashar al-Assad regime and his Iranian backers are willing to target American and coalition troops directly. It also came just after American warplanes struck Shiite militias backed by Iran for the third time in as many weeks near the U.S. garrison at al-Tanf.
A spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, Col. Ryan Dillon, told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday that the drone was similar in size to a U.S. MQ-1 Predator, indicating it was likely Iranian-made, even if it was piloted by Syrian forces. Dillon would not comment on the make of the drone, or where it might have come from.
But the description and the fact that it was armed, appears to point to the Iranian-made Shahed 129, which has been spotted in Syria since at least 2014. The drone, one of a handful of unmanned aerial vehicles Iran has sent to support Assad’s forces, can be equipped with a combination of eight bombs or Sadid-1 air-to-ground missiles.
Iranian military officials have claimed at least one previous strike by the Shahed 129 in Syria, saying it hit rebels near Aleppo in October 2015. A year later, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri claimed his forces were using drones to “hit terrorist targets in Syria and Iraq.”
The U.S. airstrike on the militias on Thursday came as two armed vehicles strayed close to the al-Tanf base, which is home to U.S. and other allied forces partnering with Syrian rebel groups fighting the Islamic State. The vehicles, Pentagon officials acknowledged, were likely operated by Iranian-backed Shiite militias fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime, though they couldn’t rule out some Syrian government forces might have been in the small convoy as well.
The United States has carved out a 55-mile “deconfliction zone” around al-Tanf and has warned that any forces who come within that area could be subject to attack.
The first incident came on May 18, when several vehicles, including bulldozers and tanks, entered the space and after ignoring warnings, were bombed by American jets. A small element of over a dozen troops remained at the site, but hadn’t moved. On Tuesday, another militia group entered the area and despite warnings, refused to leave. They were also destroyed. Thursday’s incident came after two more armed trucks approached the area.
In a statement, the U.S. Central Command said that the U.S.-led coalition “does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces partnered with them. The demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces near Coalition and partner forces in southern Syria, however, continue to concern us and the Coalition will take appropriate measures to protect our forces.”
Photo Credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images