Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates– The US air force commander in the Middle East warned Wednesday of “burgeoning” military ties between Iran and Russia, saying shared drone technology was a particular concern.
Modified Iranian drones used by Moscow in its war in Ukraine could feed back to Iran, which in turn may employ them in its campaign to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Lieutenant General Alexus Grynkewich told a briefing in Abu Dhabi.
Washington accuses Iran of supplying Moscow with drones for use in Ukraine, a charge Tehran denies.
“I think there’s a risk that… as Russia accepts the drones from Iran, as it modifies those weapons, that some of that technology gets shared back with Iran (and) gives them additional capabilities,” Grynkewich, commander of the US Ninth Air Force, told reporters.
“I see the implications of that relationship playing out a little bit in Syria.”
Tehran and Moscow have both provided economic, political and military support to the government in Syria, helping Damascus claw back most of the territory it had lost in the early stages of the war.
“I’m concerned about… the amount of cooperation and collusion between Russia and Iran that’s playing out in Syria,” Grynkewich said.
“That is something that we watch very closely,” he added. “That burgeoning relationship is of a military concern to me.”
Drones have become a focal point of military strategy for Russia and Iran, who are both under heavy Western sanctions.
‘Enduring’ IS threat
Iranian-designed drones have been widely used by Yemen’s Tehran-backed Huthi rebels, including in cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia, a US ally.
Tehran last month unveiled its “Mohajer-10” attack drone, and Russian President Vladimir Putin gave North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a gift of drones when he visited Moscow last week.
Iran says it has sent military “advisers” to support the Syrian army during the conflict, which has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions.
Syria’s war began after the government repressed peaceful protests in 2011 and escalated into a deadly conflict that pulled in jihadists and foreign powers.
Some groups affiliated with Tehran, most prominently Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, have fought alongside Syrian government forces.
The Islamic State group, whose self-declared caliphate once controlled swathes of Syrian territory before being defeated in 2019, was now “suppressed”, Grynkewich said.
But he noted that “a couple of areas of enduring threat and risk” remain in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
“What I worry about are places where they have freedom of manoeuvre,” Grynkewich said of remnants of the jihadist group.
“It’d be very constructive for Russia and the Syrian regime to focus on that threat, so that it doesn’t grow back up again.”
The US commander also assured oil-rich Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that Washington was committed to their security despite the lack of a formal treaty — which in Riyadh’s case may be under negotiation according to a report this week by the New York Times.
“We are not going anywhere,” Grynkewich said.
“Even without a signed pact I can just tell you that we have an ironclad commitment to security here in the region.”