Center for Strategic Communication

Chalk up another victory for the social-media prowess of the Syrian rebels. The opposition to Bashar Assad says it’s captured spy drones made by Assad’s patron, Iran. And it’s put the evidence on YouTube.

In the video above, Syrian rebels show off three smallish, unarmed surveillance drones they say they downed captured from a regime “drone factory.” Walking a viewer through what looks like a machinist shop displaying their banner, the Syrians display two robotic planes built around a missile-shaped fuselage, appearing to be around six feet in length, painted red and yellow; and a far smaller red plane. All three show signs of damage, with the tiny drone’s nose cone looking to have taken the worst, and alongside the drones are pamphlets displaying the face of the dead Iranian ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It’s yet more evidence that Iran considers Syria’s civil war to be a proxy contest with much at stake for their influence in the region.

The two larger drones appear to be variants of Iran’s homemade Ababil, or Swallow, surveillance aircraft. Those drones take off through a pneumatic launcher, reducing the need for a runway, and making them attractive, easy-to-use candidates for export to an ally. Their closed-circuit TV cameras allow them to transmit a video feed back to a ground station — say, one that might want to perform recon on a corridor of Syria outside of Assad’s control. @ZodiacRebel flagged the video for Danger Room.

Aviation expert David Cenciotti, however, thinks the drones are from the Saeqeh family of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles, “similar to the Ababil UAVs.”

This isn’t the first apparently-Iranian drone to pop up in Syria. Satellite photography revealed that the unarmed Iranian-made Mohajer 4 spy drone has been circling overhead rebel positions since February. (Ironically, the U.S. Air Force has sent its own unarmed surveillance over Syria to gather intel.) Iran has spent decades investing in drone technology, with not a whole lot to show for it, although it may have successfully spoofed and captured an advanced U.S. spy drone last year.

The video is another example of the importance of social media for the Syrian opposition. Rebels with minimal military experience have shared instructions in infantry and reconnaissance tactics over YouTube and Facebook, down to basic lessons in how to clean and care for a rifle. Earlier in the 18-month conflict, the Facebook page of the U.S. embassy in Damascus became a battleground in a flame war that had global diplomatic implications.