#BreakingSyria: Drones Over Israel, Strikes on Syria

A quick look into a Russian UAV downed over Israel and retaliatory strikes on Syrian soil

Left: (Source: news.walla); Right: (Source: Twitter / @QalaatAlMudiq).

As fighting in Daraa province continued, the situation in the area along the Israeli border seemed to intensify. On July 11, The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced they intercepted an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that penetrated Israeli territory from Syria. The UAV was shot down by a Patriot missile over the Sea of Galilee. That same night, IDF launched retaliatory strikes into the Syrian territory, destroying military targets. On July 14, another UAV was reportedly launched into Israeli territory which was also downed minutes after breaching Israeli airspace.

@DFRLab investigated the available open source data surrounding this chain of events. Here is what we know about the UAV flights over Israel.

Drones Shot Out of The Sky

On July 11, sirens sounded in the Golan Heights, warning of a potential air threat against Israeli territory. An unarmed UAV entered the Israeli territory and took the course deeper into the northern parts of the country. Israel claimed to have intercepted the UAV 10 kilometers into Israeli territory, and was shot down over the Sea of Galilee. The reported 15 minutes delay was due to recognition process, to confirm that the UAV was, in fact, operating against Israeli forces.

Photos and videos of the Patriot missile launch and interception were taken from different locations. This imagery helped to confirm the approximate location of the downed UAV.

A few photos captured the trail of smoke left by the launched Patriot missile. The communications tower photographed in the background was likely located in the town of Iberias, suggesting that the missile was launched from the vicinity of that town.

Geolocation picture #1. Left, Top Right: (Source: News Walla); Bottom Right: (Source: GoogleMaps).

Another photo showed the smoke plume left after the missile hit the drone. The sign of Leonardo Plaza in the background helped to find the place of where the image was taken, also suggesting that the UAV was shot down on the other side of the Sea of Galilee from the town of Tiberias.

Geolocation #2. Top Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Bottom Left: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: News Walla).

Finally, a video of the impact appeared showing the smoke plume from directly below the point of intercept. The video did not possess sufficient geolocation data, but the source claimed to have recorded the video in the vicinity of kibbutz Ha‘On. The Sea of Galilee in the background suggested that it could have been taken form a few locations from a nearby seaside.

Geolocation #3. Data from July 11, 2018. Left: (Source: LiveUAMap); Center: (Source: GoogleMaps); Right: (Source: Haaretz).

A few pictures also surfaced on the internet, claiming to have recorded the scraps of the downed drone. The photos did not possess enough details to be geolocated, but showed identifiable details of the UAV.

These pictures suggested that the downed drone was a Russian Forpost UAV. Visual comparison showed that the antenna and the rudders bore a strong resemblance to the ones found in the crash site.

Visual comparison of the scraps and the Forpost UAV. Top: (Source: Twitter / @QalaatAlMudiq); Bottom: (Source: Air Recognition).

The Forpost UAV was a licensed copy of the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Searcher UAV. Dozens of Forpost UAVs, which were locally manufactured in Russia, are currently in service with the Russian Aerospace Forces. This could explain why Israeli forces hesitated to engage for 15 minutes.

Retaliation

On July 11, the IDF reported that the Israeli Air Force attacked three military positions in Syria. The attack late Wednesday night was near Hader at the frontier of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and caused only material damages. Syrian state news agency SANA citing a military source, reported no casualties in the attack. The report also claimed that the Syrian Arab Army’s air defenses repelled a number of Israeli missiles. A few unconfirmed photos of debris from an S-200 air defense missile surfaced on July 17, claiming that it defended against Israeli strikes.

Together with the announcement, IDF provided a video, showing three airstrikes on alleged Syrian positions. The two structures of the first target were completely obliterated.

On July 12, unverified photos started to emerge online, claiming to depict the aftermath of one of the attacks. Among the photos of alleged shrapnel from Israeli munitions, one photo showed the destroyed Syrian regime position.

As the video did not provide many geolocation details, the aftermath photo provided better information for geolocation. Visual comparison of Israeli videos and the aftermath picture suggested that the footage likely originated from the same location.

Visual comparison. Left: (Source: Twitter / @SNA110); Right: (Source: Twitter / @SNA110).

Using these images, together with reports of one of the strikes taking place next to the town of Hader, @DFRLab was able verify one of the possible targets. The location of the destroyed outpost was about 1.5 kilometers to the west of the town.

Possible Israeli target. (Source: GoogleMaps).

Satellite imagery at the location showed two small structures on a hill. The two structures were pointed towards a similar landscape as in the picture and had a gravel road leading up to the outpost.

Comparing satellite imagery and aftermath photo. Left: (Source: Twitter / @SNA110); Right: (Source: GoogleMaps).

The two other targets remain unidentified until more open data information emerges.

Here are the key locations of these events pin-pointed on a map:

LiveUAMap data from July 11, 2018. Legend: Blue — Golan Heights, Red — SAA, Green — Rebels, Black — ISIS. (Source: LiveUAMap).

On July 13, IDF released another statement claiming it fired a Patriot missile at a drone approaching from Syria. This was corroborated by residents of the northern city of Safed, who said they heard explosions and saw trails of smoke. A number of unconfirmed videos were available on social platforms, showing the trails of smoke left by the missile.

No retaliatory strikes from the Israeli side were reported.

Conclusions

The situation on the Israeli border seemed to grow more tense as rebels were systematically pushed out of the Daraa and Quneitra regions. In one week two UAVs crossing from Syrian airspace were shot down over Israeli territory. At least three targets were hit by the IDF on Syrian territory as retaliation for the first UAV and currently no actions were taken after the second.

As the fighting on the border intensifies, more provocations on the Israeli side are likely to happen. Furthermore, reports of Iranian troops operating in western parts of Syria only add to the possibility of escalation with the Israelis after rebel resistance falls in the south.

@DFRLab will continue to monitor significant military developments and operations in Syria.


Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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