Buildings lie in ruins in Jindires, Syria, on Feb. 10 after a catastrophic earthquake that killed tens of thousands in that country and neighboring Turkey.

Buildings lie in ruins in Jindires, Syria, on Feb. 10 after a catastrophic earthquake that killed tens of thousands in that country and neighboring Turkey. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Iran and its proxies are enabling attacks on U.S. troops in Syria through clandestine weapons shipments hidden within humanitarian aid that has flowed into the region after a catastrophic earthquake killed tens of thousands earlier this year, according to classified U.S. intelligence and an Israeli military official familiar with the matter.

The findings, outlined in a leak of U.S. secrets circulated on the Discord messaging platform and obtained by The Washington Post, raise dire questions about the ability of the United States and its allies to intercept Iranian-sourced arms used routinely to target American personnel, partner forces and civilians in the Middle East. The top-secret document, which has not been previously disclosed, amplifies earlier reports of Iran’s alleged efforts to conceal defensive military equipment within aid deliveries to Syria after the February disaster devastated that country and neighboring Turkey.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive disclosures, declined to address the document’s authenticity but said the activity it describes is consistent with past efforts by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to “use humanitarian aid going into Iraq and Syria as a way to get materials to IRGC-affiliated groups.”

Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not return a request for comment. Last month, Iranian officials told the Reuters news agency that its report, detailing Tehran’s alleged use of cargo planes to smuggle air defense systems into Syria under the guise of earthquake assistance, was “not true.” Reuters attributed its reporting to nine people in Syria, Iran, Israel and the West.

Iran’s alleged smuggling of offensive weapons into Syria includes unspecified small arms, ammunition and drones, according to the leaked U.S. intelligence assessment. The document says those deliveries were made using vehicle convoys from Iraq coordinated through friendly militant groups there and the Quds Force, Iran’s elite expeditionary unit that specializes in managing proxy fighters and intelligence gathering.

The Israeli military official, who like others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information, affirmed that the Quds Force was involved in such activity.

In the earthquake’s immediate aftermath, Iran and its affiliates moved quickly to exploit the chaos, the leaked intelligence document contends. On Feb. 7, a day after the disaster leveled scores of homes and other buildings, setting off desperate rescue efforts, a militia group based in Iraq “allegedly orchestrated the transfer of rifles, ammunition and 30 UAVs hidden in aid convoys to support future attacks on U.S. forces in Syria,” it says. UAV is military shorthand for unmanned aerial vehicle.

On Feb. 13, a Quds Force officer directed an Iraqi militia group to “embed weapons within legitimate earthquake aid,” the leaked U.S. document indicates, noting that another Quds Force officer maintained a list of “hundreds” of vehicles and goods that entered Syria from Iraq after the earthquake, an apparent effort to manage where all of the trafficked weapons were headed.

The leaked U.S. assessment also implicates the “PMC chief of staff,” an apparent reference to Abu Fadak Al-Mohammedawi, a senior official with Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces. The consortium of Shiite militias, aligned in many cases with Iran, receives Iraqi government funding through its formal state body, the Popular Mobilization Committee, or PMC.

The group denied claims that its affiliates have used humanitarian assistance shipments as a conduit for weapon deliveries. The aid packages were authorized by the Iraqi government and reached Syrian people in need, said Moayad Al Saadi, a spokesperson. Such allegations, he said, “will not discourage the Iraqi people from helping the Syrian brothers and standing with them in their humanitarian ordeal, away from any political or other considerations.”

The leaked intelligence findings spotlight an uncomfortable reality: that even as 2,500 U.S. troops continue to serve in Iraq as advisers, working alongside the Iraqi army, the government in Baghdad appears unwilling to pursue PMF militants who pose a threat to both militaries.

Iraq’s prime minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, came into office last year with the backing of Iranian-linked groups. A spokesperson declined to provide a response on the record. A senior official in his office, however, denied the U.S. document’s findings, calling them “fake” and saying there is no pretext needed to supply weapons to groups in Syria that work with Iran.

“In reality the borders are wide open; in fact we are still suffering from illegals sneaking through the Syrian border,” this official said. “Which means if these documents are right, it’s possible any time. Why wait for an aid convoy as a justification?”

Israel has targeted convoys suspected of hauling weapons to Syria and Lebanon, the leaked intelligence documents says, but the risk of hitting bona fide humanitarian deliveries has posed challenges. It is “very likely” that the Israelis will continue their interdiction efforts, but they require “stricter intelligence confirmation prior to striking alleged aid shipments,” the document says.

In Syria, where roughly 900 U.S. troops work with local forces to stifle a resurgence of the Islamic State, the threat from Iranian-aligned groups is persistent, U.S. officials say.

In March, for instance, a U.S. contractor working at a base there was killed by what the Pentagon said was an Iranian-made drone. The attack wounded another contractor there, and several U.S. service members suffered head injuries from the explosion.

Scott Dubis, a U.S. military contractor, with his wife, Shay Dubis, in April 2022 after their wedding in Summerville, S.C. Scott Dubis was killed in a drone attack in Syria on March 23, 2023.

Scott Dubis, a U.S. military contractor, with his wife, Shay Dubis, in April 2022 after their wedding in Summerville, S.C. Scott Dubis was killed in a drone attack in Syria on March 23, 2023. (Dubis Family)

U.S. officials are confident that the drone that killed U.S. contractor Scott Dubis was not smuggled into the country in one of the earthquake aid convoys, the U.S. defense official said, declining to provide further details.

Dubis, a longtime U.S. military contractor from South Carolina, was killed March 23 while working on an armored vehicle on a U.S. base near Hasakah, a city in northeastern Syria. The hangar he was working in during the attack was not as well protected as the rest of the base, a second U.S. military official said. An Avenger air defense system was there to guard against aerial threats, the official said, and it remains unclear why and how the system failed to engage the drone.

Soon after Dubis’s death, U.S. fighter jets struck the Iranian-backed militias believed to be responsible for the attack, prompting a stern warning to Tehran from President Biden, who said the United States would respond forcefully to violent attacks on American personnel.

Mike Dubis, Scott Dubis’s older brother, told The Post that U.S. officials have not provided his family with any details about the investigation. The lack of information has been dispiriting, he said, because serious questions remain about how the militants were able to penetrate the defenses of a U.S. military base.

“It sounds like not enough is being done to prevent it,” Mike Dubis said.

Salim reported from Baghdad and Hendrix from Jerusalem. Louisa Loveluck in London contributed to this report.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now