An American surveillance drone that U.S. officials believe was shot down in Syria this week was flying in an area where U.S. aircraft had not previously operated, over a region known as a power base for President Bashar al-
Assad, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The Pentagon reported it lost contact with the aircraft, an unarmed MQ-1 Predator drone, on Tuesday over northern Latakia, a province along Syria’s northern Mediterranean coast that is home to many Alawites, the minority Shiite Muslim sect to which Assad belongs.
After the incident, Syrian television aired video showing a mass of charred metal, including a plate bearing the name of an American aeronautics company and what appeared to be an aircraft wing.
Several U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, said the U.S. military thinks the plane had been shot down.
One official said the aircraft was flying in an area where U.S. planes had not previously ventured, a notable development as the Obama administration juggles its efforts to weaken the Islamic State in Syria without being pulled into a military conflict with the country’s embattled leader.
The strikes, which began after Islamic State militants spilled into neighboring Iraq last summer, reflect the odd detente between the United States and Syria. While the United States has declared that Assad must step down, President Obama has stopped short of military action as he grapples with other challenges across the Middle East.
From Assad’s base in Damascus, he has tolerated U.S. and allied strikes against the Islamic State. The strikes have mostly taken place in areas of eastern or northern Syria far from Damascus and other areas firmly under Syrian government control.
Although the United States has ruled out coordination with Damascus, Assad has said that he had received general information about the attacks from other actors, including the government of Iraq.
“The bottom line would seem to be that the regime will consider engaging coalition aircraft it does not see as being focused on ISIS targets, of which there are none in Latakia province,” said Fred Hof, a former special adviser on Syria at the State Department who is now a scholar at the Atlantic Council. ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.
It was not immediately clear whether the drone’s course was intentional or whether the aircraft mistakenly veered off course. Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters the incident had not resulted in any changes to U.S. air operations in Syria.
Senior Obama administration officials are now discussing what the implications of the incident might be, the official said.
The incident also underscores the risks that U.S. pilots could face from Syrian air defenses if the Assad regime perceives a threat. In 2012, Syrian forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet that they said had entered Syrian airspace near its coastline.
This week, Syrian officials told Reuters that Assad’s forces shot down the U.S. drone with a rocket.
Chris Harmer, a former U.S. Navy aviator, said that although Syria’s air defenses were relatively formidable “on paper,” its power had been eroded by time, maintenance requirements and the pressures of the country’s four-year civil war. “What the Syrians have are the crumbling remnants of a Soviet-era integrated air defense system,” he said.
Also on Thursday, the Pentagon said that U.S. aircraft had destroyed a small, commercial drone aircraft that Islamic State militants had been operating in western Iraq, the first time the group had been seen using such aircraft in Iraq.
Warren said that U.S. forces observed the drone in flight for about for 20 minutes before it landed near the city of Fallujah and was put in the trunk of the car. U.S. aircraft then fired on the car, destroying the drone and presumably killing those in the car.
“Again, this is a very unsophisticated piece of equipment,” he said.