TEL AVIV: As Iran and its proxies increasingly rely on unmanned systems to carry out attacks in the region, Israel and the US have decided to step up operations targeting the Iranian drone industry, sources here say.
“This is not a new front, but now the actions will be more frequent and more aggressive,” an Israeli defense source told Breaking Defense, shortly after Israel launched a military strike in Syria to destroy what the source described as delivery of drone and air defense systems.
Officials in Jerusalem have been pushing for months to be more aggressive in dealing with Iran’s homegrown drones, particularly after a suicide drone attack — linked to Iran by the US — on a commercial shipping vessel over the summer. Behind the scenes, Israeli officials have felt the Biden administration has been dragging its feet on dealing with the threat.
An Oct. 20 drone attack on American forces in Syria, however, has given hope in Jerusalem that Washington is coming around to the threat.
On Oct. 29, The US Treasury Department for the first time launched sanctions against a pair of companies and a handful of individuals which Washington says are tied up in supporting unmanned systems for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Qods Force. Among those sanctioned is Brig. Gen. Saeed Aghajani, who leads the Revolutionary Guards’ UAV Command; the US directly tied him to both the July shipping attack and a 2019 strike on a Saudi Arabian oil refinery.
“Iran’s proliferation of UAVs across the region threatens international peace and stability,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in a statement. “Treasury will continue to hold Iran accountable for its irresponsible and violent acts.”
A second Israeli defense source told Breaking Defense that the American move came after Israel provided details of Iran’s armed drone industry. The sources added that Israeli Defense minister Benny Gantz and Israeli foreign affairs minister Yair Lapid in an August meeting with American officials specifically identified the names of people for Washington to sanction, with Ganz pushing for Aghajani to be held responsible for the attacks carried out by drones he helped provide; another name floated by the Israelis, Revolutionary Guards Air Force commander Amir Ali Hajizada, was not included in the sanctions.
While Washington made moves with sanctions, Israel, as is often the case, took a more direct approach one day later.
On Oct. 30, the official Syrian news agency reported that Israel had launched missiles at a convoy in the suburbs of Damascus, and that the country’s air defense system had been activated. According to reports, Israel attacked a shipment of weapons destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Syrian Center for Human Rights reported that the attack was aimed at Hezbollah weapons depots and militias supported by Iran northwest of Damascus.
An attack into Syria that occurs in daylight, and especially at noon, is very unusual. That the strike occurred in broad daylight means Israel was trying to send a signal. While Israel has not officially confirmed this attack, the first defense source confirmed the strike and said it was performed by using ground-to-ground missiles, targeting a convoy of parts for Iranian air defense and unmanned systems.
“The convoy was on its way, and real-time intelligence resulted in this unusual attack,” the source said.
What comes next — a retaliatory drone strike from Iran-backed militias, more strikes from Israel, or American action — remains to be seen. But on Oct. 31, President Joe Biden would not rule anything out.
“With regards to the issue of how we’re going to respond to their actions against interest of the US, whether they are drone strikes or anything else, is we’re going to respond,” Biden said in a press conference following the G20 summit in Rome.
Coincidentally, the US Marine Corps Task Force 51 began training in Israel on Tuesday; according to Nir Dvori of Israel’s Channel 12, this is the first time this unit has been training in Israel.