The Downing of a Drone in Syria: Unlikely to Worsen Turkish-US Relations

October 14, 2023
by Enes Esen, published on 14 October 2023
The Downing of a Drone in Syria: Unlikely to Worsen Turkish-US Relations

The typical pattern for the Turkish government, whenever there is a high-profile terrorist attack on its soil, is as follows: issuing a firm condemnation of terrorism, conducting numerous arrests of individuals allegedly linked to the organization blamed for the attack, and launching airstrikes against facilities of terrorist organizations in Syria or Iraq. As this cycle is predictable, and as the primary objective of the strikes is not to maximize damage to hostile forces but to manipulate domestic anger, the casualties resulting from the retaliatory airstrikes are typically limited. After the terrorist attack on the headquarters of the Turkish police in Ankara on October 1, we witnessed the same pattern. What broke this pattern was the downing of a Turkish armed drone near a US base in Syria. Despite Erdoğan’s recent statements, this incident is unlikely to deteriorate the strained US-Turkey relations further.

After a terrorist attack in Ankara claimed by the PKK on October 1, Turkish officials firmly condemned the terrorist attack and arrested over 20 people from the pro-Kurdish organizations. On the night of the terrorist attack, Turkey also launched airstrikes on targets in Iraq, destroying caves, shelters, and depots. The retaliatory strikes in Syria had to wait a bit longer because they were part of a larger strategy to deny control of northern Syria to the Kurds. Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said on Wednesday that “From now on, all infrastructure, superstructure and energy facilities of the PKK and YPG, especially in Iraq and Syria, are the legitimate targets of our security forces, armed forces and intelligence units.” to mark the scope of the airstrikes that would come the next day. “I advise third parties to stay away from PKK and YPG facilities and individuals. Our armed forces' response to this terrorist attack will be extremely clear, and they will once again regret committing such an action,” he added, implicitly threatening the US forces in the region of becoming a target if they stood in the way of Ankara. 

Despite the severity of his threats, Fidan’s statement was odd in a number of ways. First, when Turkey resorts to force, which happens quite a lot, high-level officials who represent the country's hard power, such as the President, Minister of Defense, or the Chief of Staff, typically take the lead in press conferences. They explain that terrorist attacks will not deter Turkey, that any assault on Turkish soil will be met with a strong response, and that the armed forces will rain hell on terrorist targets in Syria and Iraq. Turkish Foreign ministers generally have a supporting role in these operations, as they are supposed to serve as the government's spokesperson for the international audience. However, this time, it was Fidan, the Turkish Foreign Minister, who initially announced in a press conference that Turkey would conduct airstrikes against the YPG in Syria. Moreover, since his intended audience was Turkish citizens, he delivered his speech in Turkish. The rest of the world relied on translation to receive his messages.    

Secondly, Fidan's threat against the US military would be counterproductive in the context of Turkish strikes in the area. And this was not hard to predict. The United States maintains approximately 900 special operations forces in northern Syria. Turkey considers YPG as a terrorist organization, while the US is collaborating with it to fight ISIS. Besides, some YPG fighters and commanders are located in close proximity to the US bases in Syria. Instead of reassuring allied forces in a conflict zone with whom Turkey needs to cooperate or, at the very least, coordinate the movements of its troops and aircraft, Fidan's statement put them on alert as potential hostile targets. This subsequently led to the downing of a Turkish armed drone near a US base in Syria on October 5, as the US commander on the ground perceived his forces to be under threat. 

There was radio silence on the Turkish side after the incident. Following several high-level contacts between Turkish and US authorities, the official Turkish statement was: “During operations, one UCAV was lost due to different technical assessments in the deconfliction mechanism with third parties. Necessary measures are being taken to ensure a more effective operation of the deconfliction mechanism with the relevant parties.” Interestingly, this statement confirms that the third party referred to by Fidan was definitely the US forces. Secondly, it is evident from these ambiguous words that Turkey does not want to provide context about the incident. What is almost certain is that if the Pentagon had not held a press brief, we would not have heard much about the incident from the Turkish government.

The reason we don’t hear much from Turkey is obvious: Ankara probably mishandled coordination between its own security agencies. US forces contacted the Turkish Army Command Operations Center and issued a warning before it downed Turkey’s armed drone. However, the drone was not operated by the army but by the Turkish Intelligence, which apparently lacks experience collaborating with others for such a large cross-border operation. Regardless, Turkey should have a single, centralized command for conducting airstrikes, and the delay, if not the outright lack of coordination between its agencies, has proven to be detrimental.

After nearly ten days, President Erdoğan felt compelled to address the issue once the situation calmed down. During a press conference on October 10, he said, “There is no doubt that the incident has left a mark on our national memory, and appropriate action will be taken when the time is right.” His words clearly indicate that Turkey has no intention of taking immediate retaliatory actions. President Erdoğan referred to the incident again on October 13. This time, he used the incident as a means to deflect White House criticism that accused Turkey of undermining peace and stability in Syria. Nevertheless, his primary focus was on the cooperation between the US and the YPG, rather than the incident itself." 

Instead of exacerbating tensions in the lead-up to the operation, if Turkish authorities had reassured the US forces on the ground about their safety and effectively coordinated its own agencies, none of this would have occurred. Nevertheless, the downing of the armed drone is unlikely to worsen Turkey's strained relations with the US. This is evident from the ongoing contacts between Turkey and the US. In any case, the close relationship between the US and YPG in Syria will continue to muddy the water for Turkish-US relations for the foreseeable future.

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