With Iranian backing, the Syrian regime has for years worked to develop and domestically produce sophisticated weapons technologies for use against Syrian civilians and in future regional conflicts—including with Israel. These technologies include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and so-called “suicide drones,” as well as guided and unguided ballistic missile systems. Both of these weapons have been used by regime forces in Syria’s brutal 12-year conflict, and will sustain the regime’s ability to perpetuate violence and mass casualty incidents both inside and outside the country. Crucially, though, these weapons’ development and proliferation across the region by the regime’s primary backers—namely Iran, Russia and Lebanese Hezbollah—also raise the likelihood that they will be used in other theatres. A reminder of the regime’s pariah status at a time when regional states are moving towards normalization with Damascus, it is crucial that the international community consider ways to disrupt the regime’s development and proliferation of advanced weapons systems, including through sanctions and disruption of supply-chains.
Context: From Iranian Backing to Domestic Production
Iran’s regime has long prioritised the development of sophisticated, long-distance aerial weaponry to launch asymmetrical warfare and empower its proxies throughout the region. As far back as the 1990s, the Syrian regime sought to use this Iranian technical know-how to produce its own arsenal of UAVs and advanced missiles. After Bashar al-Assad’s ascension to power in 2000, Iran took a leading role in Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC). Tasked with weapons development and staffed by numerous Iranian scientists and advisors, the SSRC became the regime’s premier laboratory for producing new weapons after the 2000s. Perhaps most widely known for its role in the regime’s chemical weapons program, the SSRC is made up of a constellation of military-industrial institutions used to develop, manufacture, test and transport advanced weaponry: Sector Four in Masyaf (Hama province) acts as an administrative bureau encompassing a wide array of laboratories and institutes focused on military technology; Institute 4000 and Branch 650 in Jamraya (Rural Damascus province) are instrumental in the development of UAV technologies; and the underground laboratories and missile bases that make up the SSRC’s Project 99 have provided the regime with a highly productive, adaptive missiles program capable of producing up to 10 sophisticated warheads each year.
The regime’s aerial arsenal now includes more than 130 Ababil-T, Ababil al-Nawras, Ababil-3DI, Nawras, MiG-21 MF and Sahab-73 models as well as several hundred unguided and guided missiles that include Scud, M-600 Maysaloun, M-600 Tishreen, 220 mm and 302 mm warheads.
Both technologies represent a threat to regional stability and the integrity of neighboring states’ borders with Syria. Syria and Iran partner in transporting advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon, using clandestine networks of smuggling routes through mountainous areas along the Syrian-Lebanese border. As a result, Hezbollah possesses its own arsenal of UAVs and missiles numbering in the hundreds and thousands respectively, and is increasingly manufacturing its own versions of Iranian and Syrian-made rockets in manufacturing warehouses located in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
Despite military and financial strains put on regime capacities throughout the conflict, the regime’s military-industrial apparatus has continued to develop new technologies. Weapons currently under development belie a clear lack of change in regime behaviour and sustain its ability to perpetuate violence and mass casualty incidents inside and outside areas under its control. International sanctions, Israeli airstrikes and supply-chain issues at times prevent the regime from obtaining key components and materials for its domestic weapons programs.
Even so, Iran and the regime have demonstrated flexibility in retooling supply-chains to procure necessary parts and supplies. UAVs and missiles use a range of Iranian and foreign-supplied materials—including from companies in Europe and regional states not regarded as traditional regime allies. Parts for Syria’s Ababil-3DI drone are all imported by Iran but include several components produced in Asia. The Scud missile, on the other hand, uses German-made encoders whose source is concealed by the Iranians, gold wiring from China, transformers from Japan and TNT from Egypt.
The regional proliferation of both Iranian and Syrian-made UAV and missile technology, not least in the form of clandestine shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, presents clear ramifications for wider regional stability. Both the Syrian regime and—increasingly—Hezbollah are now adept at developing, manufacturing and distributing game-changing aerial and ballistic technologies that pose a threat to civilian communities as well as military infrastructure in Syria and the broader region. Already, Russia has used Iranian-made weapons against civilian and military targets in Ukraine. Since August of this year, Tehran has sent Moscow at least 400 UAVs, US officials report. The increasingly multifarious use of drones and so-called “killer drones” by the regime and its proxies—whether observing the Syrian-Jordanian border to aid the cross-border smuggling of Captagon, or shipping to Ukraine for use against civilians—points to these weapons’ flexibility and the risks they pose.
At a time when regional states are taking unprecedented steps towards normalization with the regime, Syria’s role in the export of advanced weapons demonstrates its ongoing status as a regional pariah state that cannot be trusted to maintain regional stability. If anything, the Syrian regime actively participates in undermining regional stability to benefit the strategic objectives of its leadership as well as its close regional allies and also enrich itself at a time of unprecedented economic instability.
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