MIDDLE EAST

Russia is Flying Israeli Drones Against Anti-Assad Rebels in Syria

Military hardware from the Jewish State is helping Putin save Assad.

03.24.16 5:00 AM ET

Russia’s sort-of-but-not-really withdrawal from Syria passed without the world noticing that it featured aerial technology from a surprising source—Israel, which provided the high-tech surveillance drones that apparently help the Russian warplanes find and strike their targets on the ground.

The Russian air force acquired a number of 20-foot-long Searcher drones from Israel Aerospace Industries, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of unmanned aerial vehicles, starting in 2010.

Russia also acquired from IAI, which is wholly owned by the Israeli government, a license to make its own copies of the propeller-driven Searcher, a rough equivalent of the U.S. military’s own Predator drone.

The Kremlin dubbed its Searcher clone “Forpost,” which means “fortress” in Russian. While Russian officials had earlier hinted that their drones had deployed to Syria alongside an air wing of around 40 fighters and bombers, it wasn’t until mid-February that photographer Ahmad Al Khayer actually spotted a Forpost flying over Syria ... and posted to Facebook a photo of the distinctive-looking drone.

“While it is impossible to definitely confirm the model from just one picture, the similarities to the Searcher/Forpost are striking: the placement of the camera and sensor turret, the horizontal connection with the fins at the rear,” Ulrike Franke, a drone researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Daily Beast in an email.

“In the picture, the wings appear slightly more back-swept than those of the Searcher/Forpost,” Franke continued, “but given all these elements, it appears unlikely that this picture could show anything else than a Searcher/Forpost.”

The photo underscores Israel’s role, however indirect, in enabling Russia’s military intervention in Syria on behalf of the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Without Jerusalem’s help, Moscow would never have been able to pull off its Syrian operation in the way that it did. In a surprise announcement on March 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the Syria intervention a success and said Russian forces would begin withdrawing from the war-torn country.

Since arriving in western Syria in October, Russian warplanes have flown thousands of sorties targeting anti-regime rebels and civilians in rebel-held areas. During one weeklong period in mid-February, Moscow's jets launched 444 combat sorties and struck 1,593 “terrorist objects,” the Russian defense ministry claimed in a statement.

Hitting four targets per mission requires extensive intelligence preparation—the kind that drones can best provide. Able to loiter over the battlefield for 12 hours at a time or longer, unblinkingly scanning below with cameras and other sensors, drones—actually, the operators and analysts controlling the drones via radio—can pick out coordinates for the fast-flying fighters and bombers to target.

Russia needed Israel to provide the unmanned aerial vehicles because its rusting weapons industry struggles to design and produce high-end robotic aircraft all on its own. “Although Russia has the capability to manufacture small reconnaissance drones, it has long depended on countries like Israel for larger, more capable unmanned aircraft,” Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York, told The Daily Beast via email.

Israeli companies—and especially the state-owned Israeli Aerospace Industries—are among the world’s top exporters of advanced drones. Whereas U.S. firms are barred by law from selling unmanned aerial vehicles to countries with histories of human-rights abuses, Israeli industry suffers no such constraints. Other customers for the Searcher drone include Thailand, which is ruled by an unelected military junta, and Azerbaijan, a country with a “poor rights record,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Getting its hands on Israeli Searchers helped the Russian military to catch up to the world’s leading drone powers. For Russian drone operators, switching to Searchers and Forposts from smaller and older Russian-made robot models was “like switching from a Zhiguli to a Mercedes,” commented Denis Fedutinov, editor of a Russian magazine devoted to unmanned aerial vehicles. A Zhiguli is a notoriously out-of-date Russian car design. 

“These drones can typically fly for many more hours than the indigenous models produced in Russia and could potentially be modified to carry some weapons,” Gettinger said of the Searcher and its Russian clone.

To be fair, there’s no evidence that the Forpost drones in Syria ever carried their own weapons. Instead, they apparently helped to boost the destructive power of other, manned warplanes. “Throughout their stay in Syria there was no bombing raid that missed the target,” Russian air force Commander Viktor Bondarev said.

And while Bondarev is clearly exaggerating, his boast could speak to the Kremlin’s growing confidence in its aerial surveillance hardware.

That is, its Israeli aerial surveillance hardware.