The MQ-9 Predator drone, widely known for its intelligence collection and precision strikes against terrorist targets across the Middle East and Afghanistan, has been carrying out the majority of airstrikes in Syria over the last several months.
The drone strikes have continued as the region has been roiled by factional violence in recent months and amid heightened attacks and tensions caused by the Israel-Hamas war. U.S. Air Forces Central Command, or AFCENT, told Military.com the Predator drone "conducts the vast majority of air-to-ground counter-violent extremist organization airstrikes in the region."
The heavy use of MQ-9 drones -- widely referred to as Reaper drones when armed with weapons -- signals that American forces in the region are still focused on counterterrorism operations in Syria amid a surge in violence across the Middle East. There have been 38 drone and rocket attacks on bases housing U.S. troops since mid-October, with a spike of eight attacks just over the weekend.
After Israel declared war on the Palestinian militant group Hamas over its bloody attack on civilians last month, the U.S. has bolstered its forces across the region to include additional air assets, troops and aircraft carriers, as well as an Ohio-class submarine. U.S. Central Command announced the submarine entered the area of operations on Nov. 5.
U.S. F-16 Fighting Falcons struck two facilities in Abu Kamal, Syria, on Oct. 27 in response to rocket and drone attacks by Iran-backed militias targeting U.S. troops across Iraq and Syria. There was also the downing of a Turkish drone in Syria by U.S. F-16s last month.
But U.S. drones also appear to be doing much of the work.
AFCENT could not provide strike data to Military.com, citing operational security. The last publicly available airpower summary was posted by AFCENT in December 2021. The strike roll-ups provide a glimpse into the level of violence across the region.
"U.S. and coalition forces fly 24/7 in the region to support and defend ground forces conducting U.S. Central Command's Defeat-ISIS mission. These air operations often consist of intelligence collection, close air support, defensive counter-air, and offensive air-to-ground operations," Capt. Daniel de La Fé, an AFCENT spokesman, told Military.com.
In March, The Associated Press reported that the U.S. had roughly 900 troops in northeast Syria running missions against the Islamic State terrorist group, known as ISIS, and supporting a local partner force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.
But the Pentagon has since flexed hundreds of additional American troops to the U.S. Central Command area of operations to bolster force protection following the Hamas attack on Israel and in an effort to counter attacks by Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.
Moreover, on Nov. 3, the Navy announced it conducted a massive display of power with dual-carrier operations in the Eastern Mediterranean involving the USS Gerald R. Ford and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, as a show of force to deter aggression in the region.
U.S. Central Command said the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower had arrived in the Middle East on the following day.
However, violence over the last several months has not been confined just to the Israel-Hamas war. Internal fighting among American partner forces in Syria and a terror attack in Turkey has threatened to upend the SDF alliance and create turmoil for America's efforts to combat Islamic State remnants across the region.
In August, factional fighting between SDF, a militia group composed of Kurdish and Arab fighters, broke out with another local Arab militia over grievances about SDF abuses and governance issues toward Arab populations, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. mission aimed at defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, called for an end to the clashes in the Deir el-Zour region of Syria, according to a September command release.
"Destabilization of the region caused by the recent violence has resulted in tragic and needless loss of life. It is imperative that all local leaders resist the influence of malign actors who promise many rewards but will deliver only suffering to the peoples of the area," OIR said in the command release.
In early October, violence once again threatened to destabilize U.S. and SDF efforts to combat Islamic State fighters as Turkish warplanes bombed Kurdish fighters across northern Iraq and northeast Syria. Turkey is a U.S. NATO ally.
Turkish forces launched airstrikes against Kurdish militias after a suicide bomber targeted Turkey's Interior Ministry on Oct. 1, The Associated Press reported. The Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the AP.
The PKK is recognized as a terror group by the U.S., Turkey and other countries. Turkey has long argued that America's SDF partner is dominated by Kurdish fighters and that the militant group is affiliated with the PKK.
Tensions came to a boil on Oct. 5, when U.S. F-16s downed an armed Turkish drone in Syria.
Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters at a press briefing that the Turkish drone came within less than half a kilometer from American troops.
American commanders assessed the drone to be a "potential threat" and U.S. F-16s shot it down, Ryder told reporters at the Pentagon on Oct. 5.
Ryder described it as "a regrettable incident."
"U.S. commanders on the ground did assess that there was a potential threat, and so they took prudent action in this scenario," Ryder said during the briefing.
While the Predator has conducted the majority of airstrikes over the last several months across Syria, America has flexed additional air platforms to the Middle East to bolster security following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.
A-10 aircraft from the 354th Fighter Squadron and Strike Eagles from the 494th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron arrived in the region in mid-October. The additional A-10s bolster the 75th Fighter Squadron already operating there.
A squadron of F-16s from the New Jersey Air National Guard's 119th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron arrived in the Middle East on Oct. 24 to bolster forces for deterrence following the Hamas attack.
-- Shawn Snow is a freelance reporter and Marine veteran. He previously reported for Military Times covering the Marine Corps and overseas operations. He is on X @ShawnSnow184, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.