From the vast deserts of Saudi Arabia to the crowded neighborhoods of Beirut, a drone war has taken flight across the wider Middle East, raising the stakes in the ongoing tensions between the U.S., Iran and Israel.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said Israel had been monitoring the activity for weeks and struck when it became clear that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard planned to launch the aircraft. He said it is easier to destroy the drones, which are agile and hard to detect once airborne, while they are still on the ground.
“We know the Quds Force spent a lot of effort and time trying to execute this plan,” he said. The Quds, or Jerusalem, Force is the Guard’s expeditionary unit.
Iran denied Israel’s strikes in Syria did any damage to its forces.
Lebanon's state-run National News Agency says Israeli warplanes attacked a Palestinian base in the country's east, near the border with Syria early Monday.
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The report says there were three strikes early on Monday, minutes apart, that struck a base for a Syrian-backed group known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command.
Israeli aircraft earlier 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. Hassan Nasrallah also vowed to retaliate to an Israeli airstrike inside Syria that took place hours earlier, which he said killed two Hezbollah members.
Nasrallah said one of the drones had been flying low among buildings, calling it a military “suicide mission” and “a clear aggression.” Nasrallah added, "This is a new phase imposed by the enemy, and we are up for it."
Lebanon's President Michel Aoun said on Monday his country had a right to defend itself after Israeli drone strikes that were like a "declaration of war".
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.
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.
The Fatah Coalition said it holds the United States fully responsible for the alleged Israeli aggression, "which we consider to be a declaration of war on Iraq and its people." The coalition is a parliament bloc representing Iran-backed paramilitary militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
U.S.- Saudi losses
The U.S. military nearly launched airstrikes against Iran after a U.S. military surveillance drone was shot down in June.
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.
The mounting tensions are rooted in the May 2018 U.S. withdrawal from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. Under the deal, Tehran limited its enrichment of uranium in exchange for sanctions relief. In response to Washington’s withdrawal, Iran initially sought diplomatic support from European partners still in the accord, but ever-increasing American sanctions choked off its sale of crude oil in the international market.
This May, the U.S. sent nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, fighter jets, an aircraft carrier and additional troops to the region over what it described as threats from Iran. Mysterious explosions struck oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz.
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.
Last week, a U.S. military MQ-9 drone was shot down in Yemen's Dhamar governate, southeast of the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa, two U.S. officials told Reuters on Wednesday, the second such incident in recent months.
A Houthi military spokesman had earlier said that air defenses had brought down a U.S. drone.
Reuters contributed to this report