Al-Assad turns to kamikaze drones to quell rebel forces in Syria

The munitions utilised in these drones are locally manufactured, further enhancing their cost-efficiency

A cash-strapped Syrian regime increasingly uses suicide drones as a cost-effective means to maintain pressure on rebel forces in the northwest.
A cash-strapped Syrian regime increasingly uses suicide drones as a cost-effective means to maintain pressure on rebel forces in the northwest.

Al-Assad turns to kamikaze drones to quell rebel forces in Syria

After years of intense fighting, the Syrian conflict is now portrayed in political and media circles as a frozen or low-intensity conflict.

While this characterisation still holds true compared to the conflict's peak, recent military developments on the ground suggest an escalation — albeit through the adoption of new weapons.

Alongside the continued use of artillery shelling and rocket launchers in recent months, the al-Assad regime and its allied militias have begun deploying a novel weapon: suicide drones.

Since the beginning of 2024, these domestically manufactured drones armed with explosives are directed towards their targets through remote control systems and have been deployed along the frontlines in northwest Syria, aiming to enhance efficiency and reduce costs.

While the potential of these kamikaze drones to alter the territorial landscape of Syrian territories remains uncertain, they undeniably pose significant risks to civilians, who have increasingly become the primary targets of these attacks.

The use of drones is not new in the Syrian conflict. On the contrary, Syria has become a testing ground for various countries and armed groups to experiment with new drone technologies.

According to a report by the Dutch peacebuilding organisation PAX, since 2011, the United States, Russia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, and others have deployed 39 different types of drones during the ongoing conflict.

This extensive use of drones has turned Syrian airspace into a laboratory for advancing military capabilities, refining design and production techniques, and exploring how drone usage can enhance military tactics and strategies.

A member of the Syrian civil defence, known as the White Helmets, uses a drone to search for unexploded ordnance in a field in Taftanaz town in Syria's northwestern Idlib region on August 16, 2022.

Locally, rebel groups, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), have adapted and are also employing drones in their attacks against regime forces.

Similarly, the Syrian regime has been utilising drones since 2012, initially for reconnaissance and espionage purposes. However, in subsequent years, the regime began relying on Iranian-made drones, although this technology remained somewhat limited and relatively expensive.

As such, the Syrian regime heavily relied on Russia to provide air cover for its affiliated militias. However, Moscow’s ability to carry out that role diminished significantly after its invasion of Ukraine.

Rising cost of air strikes

Given the inherent limitations of the regime’s artillery in northwest Syria, including its inaccuracy and limited range, the necessity for alternative weapons has become increasingly apparent. This need is particularly pronounced due to the regime’s limited ability to carry out air strikes and the high costs associated with them.

Due to financial constraints, the Syrian regime appears to have turned to the development and deployment of suicide drones as a cost-effective means to maintain pressure on northwest Syria.

Russia has utilised kamikaze drones in Ukraine, as these devices are typically sophisticated, capable of flying long distances and inflicting substantial damage. However, models like the Iranian-made Shahed 136 have a hefty price tag, costing nearly $200,000 each.

Confronted with budget limitations, the al-Assad regime has followed in the footsteps of its rebel adversaries by venturing into the development of makeshift drones.

Hindered by the absence of air support from allies and the inability to access advanced technology, rebel groups have resorted to creating their own drones.

Syria has become a testing ground for various countries and armed groups to experiment with new drone technologies.

Despite disparate circumstances, al-Assad appears to have chosen to delve into the one area where his opponents hold the advantage: kamikaze drones.

In addition to modifying inexpensive commercial drone models, which can range from £1000 to £2000, the regime seems to have ventured into manufacturing primitive makeshift drones that are even more affordable.

Locally manufactured munitions

Notably, the munitions or explosives utilised in these drones are locally manufactured, further enhancing their cost efficiency.

These kamikaze drones are adept at flying at low altitudes and high speeds, providing exceptional manoeuvrability and rendering them difficult to detect by radar systems.

They also can infiltrate trenches, fortifications, and building windows and are proficient at dropping payloads into enemy equipment openings and bases. The extent of their capabilities and the payloads they can carry hinge upon their level of sophistication.

As rudimentary solutions, these drones typically lack features such as automatic piloting and Global Positioning System (GPS) functionality. Instead, they rely on First Person View (FPV) technology, which streams real-time video from a camera mounted on the aircraft's front, enabling the operator to guide and control the device visually.

Nonetheless, operating such drones necessitates operators with advanced skills and training to oversee all flight operations manually.

Besides, the low-tech capabilities of makeshift drones have restricted their ability to fly long distances. According to multiple experts, these drones' control range typically spans 3 to 3.5 kilometres, operating at an altitude of 30 to 35 meters.

This handout picture provided by Iranian Army office on August 24, 2022 shows suicide (kamikaze) drones during a two-day drone drill at an undisclosed location in Iran

In terms of training, sources have indicated that the courses for manufacturing and operating these kamikaze drones are conducted under the supervision of Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah commanders.

The duration of these courses varies but generally lasts around 65 days. Each session accommodates up to 100 individuals and covers drone control, maintenance, and instruction on radar devices for remote drone detection.

Typically, these courses begin with theoretical instruction before progressing to practical aspects, such as dismantling drone devices, flying them, and practising hitting targets.

Surge in frequency

While drone attacks have been documented since the beginning of the year, their frequency notably surged in late February.

The peak of these attacks occurred on 22 February, when six suicidal drones targeted the northern Hama countryside. The recent surge in kamikaze attacks in the northwest suggests that the regime may have trained and deployed at least one team of skilled operators.

Alternatively, it could indicate that training courses are being conducted in areas close to the targeted locations.

The relatively limited range of makeshift suicide drones has confined their deployment to areas near the military frontlines in western rural Aleppo, southern, and eastern Idlib, where Iranian forces and Hezbollah are stationed.

While some of the attacks have targeted military installations, the majority reportedly strike any target, mobile or stationary, within this range near the frontlines.

The munitions utilised in these drones are locally manufactured, further enhancing their cost-efficiency.

Civilian livelihoods affected

The indiscriminate use of suicide drones poses a significant threat to civilians due to the close proximity of many residential areas and agricultural lands to the frontlines.

For example, the six drone attacks launched from regime-held areas on February 22 targeted the Sahl al-Ghab region in the northwestern Hama countryside.

This area is renowned as one of the most fertile agricultural regions in Syria, particularly known for its cultivation of grains, especially wheat, which serves as the main food source for Syrians.

Moreover, the Ghab area is home to the Qirqour Dam, where civilians often go for fishing. Consequently, the increased attacks jeopardise the livelihoods of many families, whether they rely on agriculture, fishing, or herding.

However, the targeting of civilians in Sahl al-Ghab is not an isolated incident. The Syrian Civil Defence (White Helmets) recently warned that the Syrian regime is intentionally using suicide drones to target civilians, primarily farmers, in northwestern Syria.

Drone attacks threaten the livelihoods of civilians in northwest Syria by impeding their ability to cultivate crops.

Consequently, these kamikaze drone attacks threaten the livelihoods and income of the population living close to the frontlines by impeding their ability to cultivate crops.

Such actions could further exacerbate food insecurity in northwest Syria as a whole, compounding the challenges faced by communities already devastated by 13 years of war.

Read more: Aid cuts compound already miserable humanitarian situation in Syria

The al-Assad regime's adoption of these inexpensive and potent suicide drones signals a troubling turn in the Syrian conflict. While their simplicity may deceive, an uptick in their deployment could fuel a surge in violence, worsening the plight of already vulnerable communities.

Without concerted efforts to confront this threat, al-Assad's latest deadly arsenal threatens to deepen instability not only in Syria but across the entire region.

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