Reporter Spencer Ackerman notes the resemblance of the drones to Iranian-made Ababil unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and finds someone who sees a similarity with the “Saeqeh family of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles,” but two experts we asked had doubts about whether the devices shown would even be airworthy.
The Ababil UAV is primarily a surveillance drone that Iran developed decades ago for the Iran-Iraq War. The UAVs in the video do not appear to have any housing for a camera system (although there are no shots from under the aircraft to tell for certain), which images have shown either set at the nose of the aircraft or near the middle between the wings.
Watch: Free Syrian Army soldiers show off "Iranian drones" in Aleppo.
Also, neither UAV has a propeller, which is how the Ababil is powered. Again, the propellers could be sitting off in a corner somewhere in the shop, but the aircraft appear to lack even the infrastructure for a rear propeller.
Speaking with RFE/RL, Douglas Barrie, an expert on drones with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), says that the aircraft look "very, very similar to the Ababil" UAV system. He also notes that the smaller plane, which looks like a simple radio-controlled hobby device, may actually be a Talash drone, which is typically used in training exercises as target fodder, but can also be used for reconnaissance.
The models in the video appear to not yet be fully assembled, judging by a scene at the :45 mark when the man speaking touches the smaller wing on top of the body of the UAV and it clearly moves. In pictures and mock-ups of the Ababil, the main wing structure is set all the way to the back of the aircraft, but the UAVs in the video appear to have wings that sit at least a few inches forward from the rear of the plane. It's unclear whether the wings are attached at all to the body, as they may just be sitting on stands, set up for PR purposes.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one missile expert who watched the video doubted the aircraft would be airworthy. He noted that the delta wing design is made for high-speed aircraft, not for a UAV that would loiter and surveil a target, and that the body of the UAVs appeared to be from a device meant to be attached under the wing of a larger aircraft, not made for autonomous flight.
IISS's Barrie calls the the Ababil "a pretty rough-and-ready system" -- a cheap, easy-to-use, and flexible drone. Most pictures show the drone being launched from a stand on a truck, but Barrie says they can be launched from a simple metal stand -- making them potentially quite useful in tight urban-warfare environments. In addition to being easily launched, the Ababil can be armed with a 40-kilogram warhead and turned into a sort-of loitering missile. "With a system like the Ababil, where the costs are compartively low, it could be used as a glorified gladed [fixed wing] weapon." (Here is a good rundown of the different Ababil models)
If these are indeed Ababil drones, they wouldn't be the first Iranian UAVs to find their way to Syria, and the rebels' video is powerful evidence of Iran's hand in the conflict.
If they're not, it's simply evidence of the FSA's increasingly sophisticated social-media strategy in the war against President Bashar al-Assad.
-- Zach Peterson