This article is part of a GlobalPost 'Special Report' titled "The Drone Age," which in the coming weeks will offer a series of reports from around the world examining the proliferation of drones and what it means for the future of warfare. The project was funded in part by the Galloway Family Foundation which supports GlobalPost in investigative and in-depth reporting projects.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria isn't the first country alleged to receive drones from Iran.
Spotting an Iranian Ilyushin 76 transport aircraft on the tarmac at Khartoum Airport in Sudan might give a clue to how Tehran could be supplying its UAVs to the Assad regime, said Hugh Griffiths of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“UAVs are easy to transport via air. And Iranian Ilyushin 76s have been flying to Syria on a regular basis, transporting military equipment, according to US officials. So this is one supply option common to both Sudan and Syria,” said Griffiths.
In March, rebels fighting for what would soon become South Sudan reported shooting down an Iranian-made drone in a disputed border area. The Sudanese army acknowledged losing one of its drones but said it had crashed after a technical failure.
The reported use of Iranian drones in Syria came as US, British and French diplomats accused Iran at the UN Security Council of violating sanctions by supplying the Assad regime with weapons used against the Syrian people.
“We are alarmed that a majority of the violations … involved illicit transfer of arms and related material from Iran to Syria, where the Assad regime is using them to violently repress the Syrian people,” US Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Rosemary DiCarlo, told the Council on March 21.
Iranian officials have repeatedly spoken out against any foreign interference in Syria’s internal affairs, insisting the Syrian people should be given the chance to determine their own future.
In late January, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran’s stance towards Syria “is to support any reforms that benefit the people of this country and oppose the interference of America and its allies in Syrian domestic issues.”
The Islamic Republic’s actions on the ground, however, belied the mullah’s rhetoric.
Syrian activists, US officials and security contacts said Syria’s security forces were supplied by Iran with specialist mobile tracking equipment able to intercept satellite phones and other satellite broadcasting equipment within the first three months of the uprising.
The Iranian regime made use of such tracking equipment in their successful repression of the Green Revolution in Tehran in 2009, according to US officials.
Documents sent to GlobalPost by a Western anti-proliferation official detail two interceptions by Turkey of Iranian weapons being transported to Syria early last year. Both documents are faxes sent to the UN Security Council committee tasked with reporting on the implementation of Resolution 1737.
The first outlines how on February 15, 2011 — a month before the uprising began — Turkish customs authorities stopped and searched a Turkish-registered truck at the Oncupinar border gate with Syria. The truck had entered Turkey a week earlier from Iran, destined for a construction factory in Aleppo, Syria.
Unusually for illicit weapons transfers, the carnet for the truck — also seen by GlobalPost — stated openly that it was carrying over 6,600 kg of rocket fuel and propellant charge, including M9 and RDX.
Edin Omanovic, an illicit trafficking researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), said such military explosives are usually used in mortars and grenade launchers. The same material was seized in September 2010 by Italian authorities on board the vessel Finland, which Italian prosecutors said was on route from Iran to Syria.
In May 2011, a report by the UN’s Panel of Experts, who report on Iran’s compliance with UN sanctions, found Syria was the top destination for illegal shipments of Iranian arms, which diplomats said were to be passed onto Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups.
Though Turkish authorities seized the Syria-bound Iranian weapons in February 2011, they did not report it to the Security Council committee until January 2012, a significant delay.
During that same period, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once a supporter and personal friend of Assad, shifted to become one of his most outspoken critics.
The second memo, from Turkey to the 1737 committee, is dated July 7, 2011 and details Turkey’s interception on March 19 last year of an Iranian cargo plane bound for Aleppo found to be carrying nearly 2,000 mortar shells, 8,000 rounds of ammunition and 74 assault rifles.
One year later, on March 27, 2012, the US Treasury imposed sanctions against the Iranian cargo company, YasAir, which it said worked with Iran’s Quds force (the Islamic Republic’s elite overseas military unit), Hezbollah and Syrian officials to deliver the weapons from Iran to Syria under the guise of auto parts.
While both the Turkish intercepts occurred before or soon after the uprising began, Iranian military assistance to Syria continues. In July, Iran resumed flying cargo planes full of military equipment through Iraqi airspace and into Syria, despite American pressure on Baghdad to abide by international law and crack down on the illegal shipments.
On February 20 this year, Iranian state media reported two Iranian warships had crossed Egypt’s Suez Canal and docked in Syria's Tartous port, coinciding with a rare public trip to Damascus by the head of the Quds Force, General Qassem Suleimani, a move US officials said was the “strongest sign yet” that Iran was supplying weapons to aid Assad's crackdown.
According to a member of the Revolutionary Guard in Tehran quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has appointed Suleimani to spearhead military cooperation with Assad. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last month he had indications Iran was “trying to train a militia within Syria to fight on behalf of the regime.”
Neither Western diplomats covering Syria nor defense analysts questioned by GlobalPost were able to detail what the Iranian warships might have been carrying as they sailed past the coast of Israel and Lebanon, where a UN maritime task force is deployed to prevent weapons smuggling to Hezbollah, and docked in Syria’s Lattakia port.
“My sense at the time was the Iranians were delivering something to Syria and used warships to stop a challenge,” said White. “The FSA was surging in January and the regime was trying to mount a counter offensive. It wouldn’t have been something routine like ammunition. Maybe intelligence equipment or air defense equipment. Drones are also a reasonable possibility.”