An armed drone strike last month on a US military base in southern Syria was Iran’s response to Israeli airstrikes in Syria, according to eight US and Israeli officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues.
The drone attack, which left no one injured, will be the first time that Iran will launch a military strike against the United States in response to an Israeli attack, an escalation of Iran’s shadow war with Israel, which poses new threats to American forces in the Middle region. East.
On October 20, five so-called suicide drones were launched from the US base at Al Tanf in what US Central Command called a “deliberate and coordinated” attack. Only two exploded on impact, but they were loaded with ball bearings and shrapnel with “clear intent to kill,” a senior US military official said.
Most of the 200 US troops stationed at the base, whose primary role is to train Syrian militias to fight the Islamic State, had been evacuated hours earlier after being alerted by Israeli intelligence, officials said.
US officials said they believed Iran was leading and supplying the puppet forces that carried out the attack.
They were reluctant to disclose further details of the attack, and a Pentagon spokesman declined to publicly blame Iran, in part to avoid canceling talks to resume the nuclear deal with Tehran, which are due to resume later this month.
However, intelligence officials from Israel and the United States said they had intelligence that indicated Iran was behind the operation. Since the three drones did not detonate, US officials were able to examine them and determine that they used the same technology as the drones used by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.
Iran did not claim responsibility for the attack, although the Iranian media hailed it.
“There have been a number of such incidents in which Iran has been accused without any evidence or documents,” said Said Khatibzade, a spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, at a press conference last week. “The countries that have established military bases in Syria without the invitation of the central government of Syria, continue the policy of terrorism and support terrorist countries, are the real root of instability in the region and in Syria.”
A Telegram channel run by affiliates of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said the strike was in response to the US allowing Israeli attacks on “resistance” forces in eastern Syria. It said that the militia commanders concluded that they “must pull the teeth out of the snake,” meaning the United States.
The US base is located on a road serving as a vital link for Iranian-backed forces along a strategic corridor from Tehran through Iraq and Syria to southern Lebanon and the Israeli border.
Senior US and Israeli officials said they have intelligence indicating the drone attack was in response to several recent Israeli strikes on Iranian forces in Syria.
On October 8, Israel fired rockets at an airbase in central Syria that serves as an Iranian military headquarters, according to the British Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
On October 13, Israeli airstrikes hit Iranian military targets near the cities of Palmyra and Homs in central Syria, killing three pro-Iranian militias and one Syrian soldier. Iranian officials have pledged to retaliate.
On October 16, an Israeli sniper killed Midhat Saleh, a senior Syrian official who, according to Israeli intelligence, was working with Iran to build military infrastructure along the border to attack Israel.
Iranian forces first moved into Syria to protect President Bashar al-Assad from the uprising that began in 2011 and used the ensuing civil war as an opportunity to build militias and military infrastructure against Israel. Since 2013, Israel has launched hundreds of attacks against Iranian targets in Syria.
A US spokesman said the Iranians did not want to attack Israel for fear of retaliation, so they did the next best thing – hitting the Americans. The official said Iran wanted to avoid direct confrontation with the Americans, but took a big risk by attacking Al-Tanf, which could kill American soldiers, forcing an American military response.
Two senior US officials said Iran may have believed the drone strike would be seen as a militia initiative, not Iran’s.
US officials have said that the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards in Syria, Javad Ghaffari, is an aggressive advocate of using military force to oust US troops from Iraq and Syria. But officials said it is unclear how much the group’s leaders in Iran agree with this approach.
In response, the Americans announced new sanctions against two senior members of the Revolutionary Guard, two other Iranians, and two companies that the United States says are linked to the Revolutionary Guard drone program.
US officials have said they doubt the new sanctions will have enough teeth to do much good.
Iran appears to have attacked third parties in the past in response to Israeli attacks.
In 2019, about two weeks after Israel attacked a Hezbollah-owned missile production facility in Beirut, a powerful Iran-backed militia in Lebanon and Saudi Arabian oil facilities were attacked with drones and cruise missiles. US officials said the attack was carried out by Iran. Iran denied this.
The United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia were all part of the anti-Iranian coalition to varying degrees, and Iranian officials view all three as a single threat. In this case, according to US and Emirati intelligence officials, Iran attacked Saudi Arabia because it feared a direct confrontation with Israel.
The attack on Al-Tanf is the latest in an increasingly intense series of military exchanges and confrontations between Iran, Israel and the United States.
Iran hijacked an oil tanker in the Oman Sea last month after a clash with US naval forces, but both sides have provided very different accounts of whose tanker it is and what exactly happened.
In addition, this month, US officials complained that several drones, believed to be Iranian, had “unsafe and unprofessional interactions” with the USS Essex landing craft as the ship was leaving the Strait of Hormuz.
In July, an oil tanker operated by an Israeli shipping company was attacked off the coast of Oman, killing two crew members from the UK and Romania. Israeli and US officials said the attack was carried out by several Iranian drones that crashed into living quarters below the ship’s command center.
This strike was the first Iranian attack in a naval conflict, as a result of which civilians were killed.
Farnaz Fassihi provided the report.