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UK warplane shoots down 'hostile' drone near US base in Syria

The latest drone incursion comes as indirect negotiations between the United States and Iran are on thin ice.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, at the Pentagon on Sept. 3, 2021, in Arlington, Virginia.

British fighter jets shot down a drone approaching al-Tanf base in Syria on Tuesday night, the UK’s Defense Ministry said in a statement today.

The incident is the latest in a series of pinprick attacks believed to be launched by Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq against US and international coalition troops in the wake of the war against the Islamic State (IS). 

US Central Command and the Pentagon on Thursday both confirmed the incident.

Press secretary John Kirby said two unmanned drones were detected entering the 55-kilometer buffer zone surrounding al-Tanf outpost, which houses US special operations troops and Syrian militia fighters on Syria’s remote southern border with Iraq and Jordan.

Royal Air Force Typhoons on routine patrols in the area were called to investigate, the UK statement read.

“As one of these drones infiltrated deeper into the deconfliction zone, it was assessed it was demonstrating a hostile intent,” Kirby told reporters today.

“It was shot down. The second one was not engaged, and it likely left the area,” he said.

There were no reports of damage or casualties at al-Tanf garrison as of Thursday morning, Kirby said.

The shoot-down follows an earlier barrage of explosive drones that hit al-Tanf in October. Sleeping quarters and other personnel facilities on the US side of the base were damaged in that attack.

US troops temporarily relocated ahead of the bombardment, about which defense officials had prior warning.

President Joe Biden has twice authorized US airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in retaliation for drone and rocket attacks on coalition positions.

Such attacks mostly quieted down in Iraq in recent months since Biden and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi announced the United States would not have any combat troops in Iraq by the end of the year, but drone attacks on coalition bases in Syria have continued. 

Brett McGurk, the White House’s top official overseeing Middle East policy, implied during a security forum in Bahrain last month that the United States also retaliated for the October attack on al-Tanf.

“These subjects you don’t always talk about in the open,” McGurk said. “Not every response is going to be on CNN when something is blowing up.”

Militias backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, such as Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, have signaled their intent to restart hostilities against US forces should the remaining 2,500 American troops in Iraq fail to leave by Dec. 31.

US defense officials are taking the threats seriously but say the troops will not be departing anytime soon from Iraq and Syria, where they continue to advise local forces on tracking down remaining IS members.