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Saturday , January 25 2020

Drone war takes off raising Middle East tensions

Risk of unwanted escalation up

In this Friday Aug. 9, 2019 frame grab from video, Southern Transitional Council separatist fighters head toward the presidential palace in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen. The separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates began withdrawing Sunday from positions they seized from the internationally-recognized government in Aden. Both the southern separatists and the government forces are ostensibly allies in the Saudi-led military coalition that’s been battling the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen since 2015, but the four days of fighting in Aden have exposed a major rift in the alliance. (AP Photo)

DUBAI, Aug 25, (AP): From the vast deserts of Saudi Arabia to the crowded neighborhoods of Beirut, a drone war has taken flight across the wider Middle East, raising the stakes in the ongoing tensions between the US and Iran.

In the year since President Donald Trump withdrew America from Iran’s nuclear deal, there’s been an increasing tempo of attacks and alleged threats from unmanned aircraft flown by Tehran’s and Washington’s allies in the region.

The appeal of the aircraft — they risk no pilots and can be small enough to evade air-defense systems — fueled their rapid use amid the maximum pressure campaigns of Iran and the US. As these strikes become more frequent, the risk of unwanted escalation becomes greater.

The US military nearly launched airstrikes against Iran after a US military surveillance drone was shot down in June. Meanwhile, Israeli fighter jets attack targets in Syria on an almost weekly basis, including on Saturday night. Israel’s reason for the latest bombing: To thwart what it called a planned Iranian drone strike. Israeli aircraft then buzzed over Beirut on Sunday after allegedly losing two drones hours earlier, raising the risk of a wider conflict between it and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Relief
The mounting tensions are rooted in the May 2018 US withdrawal from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. Under the deal, Tehran limited its enrichment of uranium in exchange for sanctions relief.

In response to Washington’s withdrawal, Iran initially sought diplomatic support from European partners still in the accord, but ever-increasing American sanctions choked off its sale of crude oil in the international market.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made a surprise trip Sunday to the Group of Seven summit in France to seek support. This May, the US sent nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, fighter jets, an aircraft carrier and additional troops to the region over what it described as threats from Iran. Mysterious explosions struck oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz. Coordinated drone attacks followed, first from the Iranianbacked Houthi rebels of Yemen.

Major attacks targeted the Kingdom’s oil infrastructure — one on a crucial East-West Pipeline, the other a major facility deep in the desert of Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter. Saudi Arabia immediately tied the attacks to Iran, its longtime Mideast rival. While Iran denies arming the Houthis, the West and United Nations experts say that drones used by the rebels mirror models used by the Islamic Republic.

Meanwhile, a suspected Israeli strike in Iraq last month targeted a base of Shiite militias allied to Iran — in what would be the first attack to be carried out by Israel in Iraq since 1981. Israel remained mum, and US officials who linked the strike to Israel did not say if drones were involved. Israel openly acknowledged striking Syria on Saturday night, in what it described as a pre-emptive attack.

The military said it prevented an effort by Iran to position so-called killer drones ahead of an attack on Israel. Those drones, known to experts as loitering munitions, are similar to the ones being used by the Houthis. The bomb-carrying drone flies to a destination, likely programmed before its flight, and either explodes in the air over the target or on impact against it.

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