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Licensed to kill: How Russia uses Israeli drones to bomb civilians in Syria

  • May 07, 2021

When Israeli-licensed military drones first took off from Syrian air force bases to stalk opponents of Bashar Assad’s regime, shortly after Russia’s 2015 intervention, they were an oddity, newcomers to a conflict that had already featured military Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) from the United States, Iran, and Turkey.

Over half a decade later, a clearer picture has emerged of just how pivotal the Russian variant of the Israeli Aerospace Industries Searcher II, redubbed “Forpost” by its operators, has played in rescuing the Assad regime from the brink of implosion and helping to maintain its military and balance of terror advantage in the decade-long civil war – with a critical role in (illegally) targeting civilian infrastructure, including hospitals.

Despite its Israeli origin, Russia’s military openly boasts that the Forpost is one of its most crucial pieces of technology, a constant presence in the skies above Syria, scoping out targets so human pilots don’t have to risk reconnaissance flights, and assessing bomb damage. In other words: the Forpost helps the Russian military in Syria decide what to bomb, if strikes have inflicted sufficient damage, and when to drop even more bombs.  

A Dubious Deal in Plain Sight

Why did Russia turn to Israeli drones? During its 2008 conflict with Georgia in South Ossetia, Russia lost significant numbers of aircraft, and subsequently sought to offset a perceived disadvantage against not only the Georgian military, which had Israeli drones, but future opponents too.

Putin thus decided to take the rare step of purchasing foreign military technology, approaching Israeli Aircraft Industries, one of the country’s largest, and state-owned, aerospace and aviation manufacturer.

In the competitive international drone market, IAI benefits from its seamless connection with the Israel Air Force, considered a world expert in the field, boasting a complete unmanned aircraft squadron positioned at the Palmahim airbase. The sale of drones for use by foreign air forces usually includes joint training with Israel or instruction in Israel; known Searcher drone clients include the governments of Russia, India, South Korea, Turkey, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Singapore.

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Two years later, IAI had completed a $400 million deal to export and license out its Searcher II UAVs to be flown and license-produced in Russia as “Forposts.”

Russian crews reportedly trained to operate the UAV system in Israel and at least one further export deal was reported by Israeli and Russian media in 2015, which was after Russia’s internationally condemned occupation of Crimea, a fact that should have made it clear that the Forpost would be used for hostile, if not illegal, purposes.

A massive strategic leap in Russia’s once second tier drone program followed. It was only a matter of time before the Forpost would become a workhorse in Russia’s endless bombing campaign in defense of the Assad regime.

The Advantage of Eyes in the Sky

Unlike Israel’s own, closely-guarded and weaponized drones which, according to Human Rights Watch, have been used to target civilians in Gaza, or the American Predator and Reaper drones that have become notorious for their guided missiles which have inflicted heavy civilian casualties in Yemen and Pakistan, the Forpost does not carry its own weapons system.

Instead, the Forpost’s purpose is “Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance” or “ISR,” clarifies Ulrike Franke, a drone researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations. That “describes a military actor’s ability to perceive and understand the theatre of operation. The majority of today’s drones are ISR systems and carry a variety of sensors, for example cameras, which collect data.”

Franke emphasizes that, despite advances in weaponized drones, surveillance is still the key function of military UAVs.

“Although the public mostly focuses on armed drone strikes, research suggests that even armed drones are used most of the time for ISR purposes. Since the rise of modern drones in the early 2000s, they have contributed substantially to improve battle space awareness for armed forces.”

The Forpost, despite being a licensed-copy of an older Israeli UAV, has “added significant ISR and combat capability to Russian forces” in Syria, according to Samuel Bendett, an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Center for New American Security, who researches on Russian military robotics and AI applications. And the Russian military itself seems to agree with his assessment.

In February this year, the state-owned TV network Zvezda, run by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, put out an episode of its English-language YouTube series “Combat Approved,” which offers viewers coverage of Russian military equipment, on location and in action. When “Combat Approved” was given access to the Khemeimim air base in Syria, south of Latakia and now operated by Russia, the host characterized the Forpost as a purely Russian vehicle.

This was his breathless commentary: “Here’s another aircraft that has received the baptism of fire in Syria, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle called Forpost. It’s produced in Russia’s Urals region, but they are launching here in Syria.

“We should note that it’s being launched constantly. Right now there are several such Forposts in the skies over Khmeimin. As soon as one lands the other immediately takes its place in the sky to spend several hours operating up there.”

Vague Rules, Unambiguous Intent

Although Forposts are unarmed, they are frequently used to scout military and civilian targets in conjunction with piloted jets who then drop explosive munitions, usually in quick succession.

The process of identifying, monitoring, and striking a target from a Forpost control station was showcased in detail by Combat Approved. They were were allowed to film an airstrike, against what the host describes as “an ISIS target,” in real time as live drone surveillance video was streamed in for the operators and camera crew.

According to Russian drone specialist Bendett, apart from the experimental weaponized Orion drone, which has only just entered mass production and has only been used on a very small scale in Syria, the Forpost is the only military UAV that can operate independently at ranges of approximately 250 km from their landing strips. This means the Forpost is indispensable as a means to surveil targets far from Russian military bases.

Unlike its Israeli Searcher drone counterpart, the Forpost may lack a laser-designation system that would be needed to “paint” targets for laser guided munitions. Regardless, the Forpost is still an unparalleled platform for locating targets.

A significant amount of what has been recorded from the Russian perspective of the Syrian civil war has been through the lens of a Forpost: air strikes, military operations on the ground, and civilian evacuations

That’s thanks to the fact that the Forpost is also integral to Russia’s PR strategy for both foreign and domestic consumption, a go-to platform for advertising the power and effectiveness of Russian airstrikes and weapons systems which are often showcased on giant screens by the Ministry of Defense or in short clips featuring the Forpost’s distinctive camera-feed high above their intended target. 

But for the Russian military, the Forpost’s surveillance capabilities have also had the unwanted, unintended consequence of providing evidence of it intentionally targeting and bombing civilian targets.  

The categorization of the Forpost as “unarmed” should not absolve the Russian military or the Israeli exporters of responsibility for those crimes against international law, says Sarah Kay, a human rights lawyer and terrorism researcher at Queens University Belfast. Indeed, the role of the Forpost in Syria sharpens an ongoing debate about the culpability of adjunct and remote technology.

“It can’t be classified as a weapon because it doesn’t directly kill,” Kay notes, therefore many states “are getting away with facilitating crimes.”

She elaborates that international law and multilateral agreements, which makes it illegal to target civilians and civilian infrastructure, are struggling to keep up with the increasingly prominent role of surveillance technology in human rights violations, from the Middle East to China. “We constantly have to play catchup,” and that results in “terrible mistakes,” where international law fails to properly protect rights and lives.

Israeli Aerospace Industries’ Logos in Russian-controlled Syrian Airbases 

Linking the Forpost systems deployed in Syria to their Israeli origin is often incredibly easy. That’s thanks to their distinctive exported and license-produced components.

The video feed of a Forpost is nearly identical to video feeds of other IAI UAVs, like the Heron, which was featured in a VICE News documentary in which a crew was given access to a nearly identical control station on an Israeli military base. There are also numerous online examples of IAI Searcher II camera feeds that are nearly identical to that of the Forpost with a distinctive reticle, display, and direction indicators.

In some of the shots from Combat Approved’s segment on the Forpost, Israeli Aerospace Industries logos are plainly visible inside the control station on Khemeimim airbase.

Live-Streaming Atrocities

Detailed analysis of publicly available Forpost drone footage reveals its culpability in facilitating the deaths of civilians in Syria. 

It can now be revealed that Forpost UAVs provided surveillance to the Russian military during several grave violations of international law: the missile strike on the Azaz National Hospital in early 2016 (fortunately after the facility had been evacuated,) and the bombing of civilian ferries on the Euphrates river near Deir Ezzor in September of 2017, the latter being part of sustained air raid that resulted in over a dozen civilian deaths. There is also preliminary evidence suggesting Forpost surveillance during a strike on a temporary civilian encampment near Manbij in January 2017.

In the case of the ferries and hospital, footage from a Forpost clearly shows Russian weapons systems targeting civilian structures with intent. In both cases, the footage was revealed through apparent sloppiness with confidential military materials.

The 2017 ferry strike footage was deliberately leaked and uploaded to a pro-Russian military YouTube channel, ostensibly by someone celebrating the airstrikes and accompanied by aggressive background music. Footage of the Manbij strikes was uploaded to a pro-Syrian regime YouTube account which has since gone offine.

The footage of the 2016 double strike on Azaz National Hospital was inadvertently released in 2021 by the Russian Ministry of Defense itself. It was part of a compilation intended to showcase the effectiveness of Russian guided missiles, following bitter complaints from Armenia that Russian weapons had been insufficiently effective during their recent conflict with Azerbaijan in Nagorno Karabakh.

In that self-laudatory compilation was a clip featuring Forpost footage of a double strike on a building, which was quickly geolocated and identified by the Twitter User @Obertix as the Azaz National Hospital, which had been struck in early 2016.

The airstrike on the Azaz National Hospital was part of a wave of raids that prompted Doctors Without Borders to stop sharing the locations of its medical facilities within Syria with the Russian military, a policy adopted in good faith, in order to shield them from inadvertent bombings. Since rebuilt, the hospital now features prominent name signs in Turkish thanks to Turkish donor funds, a sign of Turkey’s increasing influence over northern Syria.

The Forpost-enabled ferry airstrikes made fewer ripples, despite the loss of life, because they occurred inside ISIS-controlled territory when the war was at its height. Human rights organizations noted the strikes and the swelling civilian resentment against Russia’s aerial bombardment, but was mostly forgotten amid the proliferating and chaotic headlines coming out of Syria at the time.

Surveillance Drones, Meet International Law

Israel, of course, manufactures armed drones for domestic use and export as well. Earlier this year, Armenian officials released a video showing an Israeli-made “suicide” drone, a Harop loitering munition made by IAI and deployed by Azerbaijan, destroying a Russian-made S-300 anti-air missile battery in Armenia in October 2020.

But its licensing of drone design and technology to Russia was the step up that the Kremlin, beset by a lack of modern UAVs, needed to enter the drone wars. Russia is open about how valuable the Syrian conflict has been to further develop and fine-tune its drone capacities in an ‘operational environment,’ with President Vladimir Putin noting its “priceless” contribution.

Defense analysts predict that Russia’s extensive experience with the Forpost in Syria will lead to the development of a second generation of reconnaissance UAVs which will also have strike capacities. Russian President Vladimir Putin has himself referred to the need for “next-generation reconnaissance weapons systems” in the wake of the army’s experience in Syria. 

In this way, Israel’s export license facilitated and accelerated Russia’s capacity to develop its own lethal attack drones.

Sarah Kay is adamant that surveillance technology cannot be seen as benign when its purpose is clearly military. “When you sell that kind of tech to a defense ministry, it will be used by all elements of their military,” she says.

Kay hopes international law will evolve for a new reality where surveillance-hungry militaries threaten civilians, and that multilateral organizations like the European Court of Human Rights can be leveraged to confront the threat to civilians. She warns: “The law doesn’t enforce itself.”

At this very moment Israeli-designed drones continue to scour Syria’s ruined landscape for military and civilian opponents of Bashar Assad’s regime, without distinction. The contention that Israeli firms aren’t directly selling finished drones to Russia, that it can “license and leave,” and thus not concern itself with the illegal end-use of its products, doesn’t hold water from a human rights viewpoint.

Israeli military and dual use technology has consequences all over the world, boosting authoritarian regimes and endangering civilians beyond just the borders of Gaza or even Syria. The evidence is out there for anyone willing to look.

Patrick Hilsman is a New York-Based journalist and researcher covering refugee issues, weapons traffic, human rights and drug policy. Twitter: @PatrickHilsman

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