Iran claims that it has used its Saeqeh armed unmanned aircraft, supposedly derived in some part from the U.S. RQ-170 stealth drone, along with short-range ballistic missiles, to carry out revenge strikes in eastern Syria against terrorist groups responsible for a brazen attack on a military parade in the city of Ahvaz more than a week ago. Iranian authorities have also accused foreign powers, including Saudi Arabia and the United States, of aiding the militants in Ahvaz and launched its own retaliatory mission into a part of Syria just miles from where American and other coalition forces are operating in the country.
Iran’s powerful quasi-military Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) reportedly launched a total of six Qiam and Zulfiqar missiles and seven armed drones to attack members of the Ahvaz National Resistance, an Iranian Arab separatist group, and ISIS terrorists on Oct. 1, 2018. The target area was near the town of Haijin, north of the city of Al Bukamal, the latter of which is situated close to the Iraqi border. Iranian officials did not offer a detailed accounting of the results of the strikes, saying only that they had “killed and wounded” enemy fighters.
On Sept. 22, 2018, five armed gunmen attacked a parade in Ahvaz as part the country’s Sacred Defense Week, which marks the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War. Members of the IRGC were present and the militants reportedly wore various military and IRGC uniforms, allowing them to better sneak into position before opening fire and killing 25 people, including a four-year-old child, and wounding 70 more. Iranian security forces killed all of the attackers and arrested nearly two dozen other suspects in the aftermath of the incident.
“Iranian forces did conduct no-notice strikes last night and we see open source reports stating that they were targeting militants it blamed for the recent attack on an Iranian military parade in the Middle Euphrates River Valley,” U.S. Army Colonel Sean Ryan, a U.S. Central Command spokesperson, told CNN. “At this time, the Coalition is still assessing if any damage occurred and no Coalition forces were in danger.”
At the same time, an unnamed U.S. source also informed CNN that the strikes had come “within three miles” of American forces, which are currently engaged in operations with local partners against ISIS in the vicinity of Haijin. The same individual said that the United States had used satellite intelligence to observe Iranian forces moving mobile launchers into position in the country’s Kemansheh province.
“Terrorists used bullets in Ahvaz,” General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, said afterward in an interview with Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency. “We answered them with missiles.”
Official video the Iranians subsequently released showed missile launches and drones dropping Sadid-345 miniature precision-guided glide bombs on their targets. One clip showed what looked to be a Saeqeh releasing one of the weapons from an internal bomb bay.
It is difficult to confirm whether or not this video actually came from the latest strikes or if the footage is real at all. Observers have noted that previous pictures of the Saeqeh, which Iran says it reverse engineered from an American RQ-170 that it captured in 2011, does not appear to feature a sensor turret and would, therefore, not be unable to designate targets for the Sadids by itself.
Similarly, existing publicly available images and video show the unmanned aircraft with external weapons rather than any sort of internal bay. Based on those pictures, it's hard to see how there would be room inside the drone to carry any munitions at all. A lack of visible camera vibration when the Sadid falls away from the drone further suggests the clip might be entirely staged in some fashion.
In addition, Iran continues to rely heavily on line-of-sight control links for its unmanned aircraft, which are range-limited and can easily experience difficulties in trying to transmit across complex terrain, such as hills or mountains. Since Iran doesn’t share a border with Syria, the missiles and the drones would have had to fly over Iraq to reach their targets, again raising the possibility that the footage of the drones is faked. If true, though, this would be the first-ever known combat use of the Saeqeh.
But regardless of the immediate impact of the strikes, the Iranians seemed to have intended them more as a message to their international opponents. This also appeared to be the case after an unprecedented IRGC missile strike into Syria in 2017. In September 2018, Iran also fired a barrage of Fateh 110 short-range ballistic missiles at Iranian Kurdish separatists based in northern Iraq.
“This is the roaring of missiles belonging to the Revolutionary Guard of the Islamic Revolution,” a reporter in one Iranian state television broadcast said as he covered the actual launch of the missiles. “In a few minutes, the world of arrogance – especially America, the Zionist regime, and the Al Saud – will hear the sound of Iran's repeated blows.”
“The Zionist regime” is how Iranian authorities and state media refer to Israel. Al Saud refers to Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy. After the Ahvaz attack, Iran was quick to blame outside actors, specifically naming the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. One of the missiles carried the slogans "Death to America, Death to Israel, Death to Al Saud" in Farsi on its main body.
“It is absolutely clear to us who committed this crime... and whom they are linked to,” Iranian president Hassan Rouhani had said afterward. “The government is ready to counter any action by the US, and the Americans will regret this.”
In reality, it remains unclear who exactly was responsible for the death and destruction in Ahvaz. The Ahvaz National Resistance claimed to have carried out the attack on behalf of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), a larger Arab separatist organization operating in self-imposed exile in The Netherlands. ISIS also took responsibility, releasing video of the attackers, but no clear evidence that they had pledged loyalty to the group beforehand.
ASMLA subsequently released its own statement, saying it had nothing to do with the incident and that a splinter faction it had expelled in 2015 had committed the terrorist act in Iran. There is no clear evidence of the Ahvaz National Resistance and ISIS working together, either.
A similar war of words had erupted after ISIS claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in Iran’s capital Tehran on June 7, 2017. This was the incident that led to the first missile barrage in Syria, as well, which came along with a promise to conduct more such operations in the future if necessary.
However, that was before U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration pulled out of the deal over Iran’s controversial nuclear program in May 2018 and began to reimpose a raft of sanctions against the Iranian government and that country’s economy, particularly in terms of oil sales. The United States’ regional allies, chiefly Israel and Saudi Arabia, have also taken an increasingly hard-line stance against Iran since then, all of which has led to tit-for-tat threats, actual skirmishes, and increasing tensions.
Of course, it's not the first time that American troops have been under threat from Iranian and Iranian backed forces in Syria, but the center of gravity for those previous skirmishes has been first to the southwest near a town called At Tanf. In 2017, U.S. Air Force combat jets shot down two much more proven Shahed 129 drones near this strategic location, one of which appeared to try and drop a Sadid munition near U.S. forces.
By contrast, the latest missile strikes near Haijin are much deeper in areas under the control of the U.S.-led coalition and very publicly came from Iran directly. Whether or not the goal was specifically to make a threat to American personnel, the operation has made it clear that Iranian forces have the capability to strike in that part of Syria if necessary and are willing to do so to protect Iran’s interests.
The employment of the Saeqeh, which has dubious stealth qualities at best, still seems intended to further reinforce this point. Qiam and Zulfiqar also have the ability to strike targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and American-operated bases in the Middle East from other locations in Iran.
It remains to be seen how this might change the calculus on the part of the United States and its allies, both in how they conduct operations in Syria and in their policy toward Iran. Just recently, it emerged that the U.S. military would be withdrawing U.S. Army Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries from Bahrain, Jordan, and Kuwait – which have the capability to engage short-range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase of flight – in order to reallocate those resources elsewhere in the world.
Separately, Trump has reportedly been interested in the past in extricating American forces from Syria and turning the fight over to a regional power, such as Saudi Arabia, but has since backed away from the plan. Now, the United States seems intent on remaining in Syria specifically to block the expansion of Iranian influence. The U.S. government is still supportive of the idea of building a new, formal regional political and military alliance to confront Iran, as well.
Syria itself remains as volatile as ever as Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad continues to reassert control over the western portion of the country with Russian and Iranian help. Israel, and to a lesser extent Turkey, have thrown up roadblocks that continue to leave open the risk for miscalculations that could quickly lead to larger regional conflict.
Iranian missiles and armed drones strike targets near American and other coalition forces only add to that danger. Reports that one of the Qiam missiles might have failed, sending a portion falling back to earth after launch, only further highlight the potential for even an accident to spark some sort of conflagration.
An international incident between Tehran and Washington, where tensions are already high, could lead both sides to call upon their allies. In Iran’s case, this could easily include various non-state terrorist groups, specifically Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, too.
Iran has its own asymmetric options, as well, including using weapons such as naval mines, swarming boat attacks, and shore-based missiles to blockade the strategic Strait of Hormuz, halting military and commercial maritime traffic in and out of the Persian Gulf. This is a serious threat you can read about in more detail here.
In the end, whether or not the strikes had any immediate, tangible impact, the regime in Tehran has used the opportunity stand defiant against threats from the United States, and those from America’s allies, and show that it is willing to use the full extent of its very real arsenal to guard its own interests. The operation was a clear reminder to its enemies in the region that it can reach out and strike them without warning.
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