An armed drone attack last month on an American military base in southern Syria was in Iranian retaliation for Israeli air strikes in Syria, according to eight American and Israeli officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
The non-casualty drone strike would be the first time Iran has launched a military strike against the United States in response to an attack by Israel, an escalation of Iran’s shadow war with Israel that poses new threats to US forces in the middle East.
Five so-called suicide drones were fired at the American base Al Tanf on October 20, what the US Central Command described as a “deliberate and coordinated” attack. Only two detonated 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 American soldiers stationed at the base, whose main job is to train Syrian militias to fight the Islamic State, had been evacuated hours earlier on reports from Israeli intelligence officials, officials said.
US officials said they believed Iran directed and provided the proxy forces that carried out the attack.
They were reluctant to reveal further details of the attack and a Pentagon spokesman declined to publicly indict Iran, also to avoid resuming talks on a resumption of the nuclear deal with Tehran, due to resume later this month Be turned upside down.
However, both Israeli and US intelligence agencies said they had information suggesting that Iran was behind the operation. Because three of the drones did not explode, American officials were able to examine them and determine that they were using the same technology as drones used by Iran-backed militias in Iraq.
Iran did not take responsibility for the attack despite applause from the Iranian news media.
“There have been a number of these incidents where they accused Iran with no evidence or documents,” Saeed Khatibzadeh, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, told a press conference last week. “Countries that have set up military bases in Syria without the invitation of the Syrian central government, continue their terrorism policy and support terrorist countries are the real root of instability in the region and in Syria.”
A Telegram channel operated by members of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said the attack was in response to the US allowing Israeli attacks on “resistance forces” in eastern Syria. Militia commanders, it said, concluded that they must “pull the serpent’s teeth”, which is what the United States meant.
The American base is on a road that serves as an important 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 had information suggesting the drone attack was in retaliation for several Israeli attacks on Iranian forces in Syria.
On October 8, Israel fired missiles at an air base in central Syria, which, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, serves as the Iranian military headquarters.
Israeli air strikes on October 13th hit Iranian military targets near the cities of Palmyra and Homs in central Syria killed three pro-Iranian militiamen and one Syrian soldier. Iranian officials promised retaliation.
On October 16, an Israeli sniper murdered Midhat Saleh, a senior Syrian official who, according to Israeli intelligence agencies, was working with Iran to build a military infrastructure along the border for an attack on Israel.
Iranian troops first invaded Syria to defend President Bashar al-Assad against a rebellion that began in 2011, and used the ensuing civil war as an opportunity to build militias and military infrastructure against Israel. Israel has carried out hundreds of attacks on Iranian targets in Syria since 2013.
The US official said the Iranians were reluctant to attack Israel for fear of retaliation, so they did the next best thing – hit the Americans. The official said Iran wanted to avoid a direct confrontation with the Americans but took a great risk of attacking Al Tanf, who could have killed American soldiers and forced an American military reaction.
Two senior US officials said Iran may have believed the drone attack was viewed as a militia initiative rather than Iran.
American officials said the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Syria, Javad Ghaffari, is an aggressive supporter of the use of military force to drive American troops out of Iraq and Syria. But officials said it was unclear how much the group’s leaders in Iran would agree with this approach.
The American response has been to announce 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 Guard’s drone program.
American officials said they were doubtful that new sanctions had enough teeth to do much good.
Iran appears to have attacked third parties in response to Israeli attacks.
In 2019, about two weeks after Israel attacked a missile manufacturing facility in Beirut owned by Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, Saudi Arabian oil facilities were attacked with suicide drones and cruise missiles. American officials said Iran carried out the attack. Iran denied it.
The United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia have all been part of an anti-Iran coalition to varying degrees, and Iranian officials see all three as a single threat. In this case, American and Emirati intelligence officials said Iran attacked Saudi Arabia because it feared a direct confrontation with Israel.
The attack on Al Tanf is the latest in an increasingly tense series of military clashes and confrontations between Iran, Israel and the United States.
Iran seized an oil tanker in the Sea of Oman last month after meeting the U.S. Navy, but the two sides provided very different information about whose tanker it was and what exactly had happened.
Separately, US officials complained this month that several drones believed to be Iranian were having “unsafe and unprofessional interactions” with the amphibious assault ship USS Essex as the ship left 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 appeared to have been carried out by several Iranian drones that crashed into living quarters under the ship’s command center.
The attack was the first Iranian attack in the maritime conflict known to have killed civilians.
Farnaz Fassihi contributed to the coverage.