The two drones that crashed or were downed in Beirut’s southern suburbs last week highlighted the significance of the use of unmanned light aircraft in various Middle East conflicts.
Though some media reports suggested that the two drones were Iranian ones losing guidance, the Lebanese army confirmed that they were Israeli drones, with one being a spy drone and the other an attack drone.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun described the drone incursion as targeting “stability and peace in Lebanon and the region”. Israel did not confirm the use of the drones, but US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri to stress the “necessity to avoid any escalation,” according to Al-Hariri’s office.
The raid on the Lebanese capital came just a day after an Israeli drone attack on a site in the village of Aqraba southwest of the Syrian capital Damascus that killed two people. Israel admitted the attack and said it had thwarted an attempt by an Iranian force to attack northern Israel with explosive-laden drones.
Media reports said the two Iranians killed in the Israeli drone attack on Syria were from the Al-Quds Brigade, a unit in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard designated by the US and Israel as a terrorist organisation.
However, the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah said the two men killed in Syria were Lebanese members of the group, also designated a terrorist organisation by the US, with Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah later announcing their names.
The drone attacks on Syria and Lebanon came days after similar attacks on Shia militia sites in Iraq belonging to the Iran-affiliated Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd). Some reports have also claimed that a drone attack on a Saudi pipeline in June originated from Iraq and was not carried out by Houthi militias in Yemen.
Israel is determined to preempt any possible drone attacks on its northern border by Iran-supplied drones to Iranian proxy militias in Iraq, Syria or Lebanon. This was necessary, according to Israeli and American analysts, after the escalation of the drone war by Iran-backed Houthi militias from Yemen targeting Saudi Arabia.
The use of such unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in attacks, rather than just for surveillance, is becoming a concern in the region. The escalation is mainly blamed on Iran, which provides the devices to its affiliated groups in the region.
Though other countries in the region also have drones, they use them mainly for surveillance and reconnaissance. They are rarely reported to be used for targeted attacks as the Houthis have been doing inside Saudi territory.
The development of UAVs to carry precise-guided weaponry was started by the Americans at the turn of the century. The first reported example was a botched attempt by an armed UAV to kill former Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in 2000.
Before that drones were also used in the Bosnian war in the 1990s for reconnaissance on Serbian forces by NATO.
Since then, the US has used UAVs extensively and has developed three generations of the devices. They were first used by the CIA, and then by the Pentagon, in areas of conflict and for targeting suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya, among other countries.
The US has conducted 550 drone strikes in Libya since 2011, with the country now serving as a laboratory for new drone warfare tactics, according to the Intercept Website.
By the second decade of this century, many countries had either started manufacturing, modifying or buying UAVs to use in surveillance and attacks. When Iran captured an American drone in December 2011 operated by a US base in Afghanistan, it was claimed that it started a reverse-engineering programme to replicate it.
Since then, Iran has been developing drones for military use.
Some American officials think that the technology in the American drone was passed on by the Iranians to Russia and China. China is now one of the biggest sellers of UAVs to many countries in the world, some of them in the region.
According to the Dronewars Website, the number of countries using armed UAVs has quadrupled over this decade. In a report published last year called Drone Wars: The Next Generation, the site said that “from just three states (the US, UK and Israel) in 2013, there are now a further nine who have deployed armed drones in a variety of roles including for armed conflict and counter-terror operations.”
The report also showed that a further nine states were very close to having armed drone capabilities (now probably realised), almost doubling the number of existing users. It added that five non-state actors have used armed drones, taking the number of active operators of armed drones to over 25 in the next few years.
Many of those countries are in the Middle East, or operating in its conflicts, which raises the stakes for further escalation of the use of drones in ongoing conflicts in the region. This might lead to a wider war due to rising tensions.
The conventional rules of war and international treaties mostly do not regulate the use, manufacture, modification or trade in the new weapons. The United Nation Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) has failed so far to persuade the main players in this regard to agree to a process to control the proliferation of armed UAVs.
On 24 October 2018, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) hosted a side event at the United Nations First Committee entitled “The Expanding Use of Armed UAVs and the Need for International Standards” co-hosted by the Permanent Missions of Germany and the Netherlands to the UN with the Stimson Centre, a US think tank.
However, this did not lead to an international agreement, as the main users of UAVs at present are either rogue states or non-state actors like militias or terrorist groups.
In the meantime, the prospect of escalating drone wars in the Middle East region is widening.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.