The US officials scrambled on Thursday to assuage the nerves of their Turkish allies after an American F-16 fighter jet shot down an armed Turkish drone in northern Syria, where the spotted UAV was hovering very close to a US base.
It was the first time a NATO ally took direct military action against another member. The incident occurred amid a massive air campaign undertaken by the Turkish Air Force against Kurdish militant positions across northern Syria after a suicide bombing attack in Ankara, the Turkish capital, earlier this week. In retaliation, the Turkish fighter jets and drones pounded militant hideouts and bases in northern Iraq and Syria.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, recognizing the gravity of the situation, reached out to his Turkish counterpart Gen. Yasar Guler. “Following today’s incident, Secretary Austin also urged de-escalation in northern Syria and the importance of maintaining strict adherence to de-confliction protocols and communication through established military-to-military channels,” the Defense Department’s official release said.
At a press briefing, Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder divulged more details. “At around 7:30 a.m. local time, US forces observed UAVs conducting airstrikes in the vicinity of Hasakah, Syria,” Ryder said. “Some of the Turkish strikes were inside the US-restricted operating zone” that sent the troops to bunkers for safety, he added.
“At approximately 11:30 local time, a Turkish UAV entered the ROZ on a heading toward where the US forces located,” Ryder told a group of international journalists. “US commanders assessed that UAV, which was now less than half a kilometer from US forces, to be a potential threat, and US F-16 fighters subsequently shot down the UAV in self-defense at approximately 11:40 local time.”
“It’s a regrettable incident,” Ryder said, emphasizing the perceived threat that prompted the US action.
Since the early days of the Turkish incursions to curb the self-rule of the US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria over the past several years, the dreaded prospect of an accidental encounter between the two NATO allies has remained within the realm of possibility. The latest drone shooting punctuated such fears, revealing the operational hazards inherent in a congested battlefield where rival factions and regional powers are indefinitely jockeying for influence.
Last November, a Turkish drone put US forces at risk and prompted Defense Department officials to reach out to their Turkish counterparts to minimize any prospect of an accidental hit. The shooting incident underscores the longstanding tensions between the US and Turkey over their differing views on the Kurdish militia in Syria.
Ankara sees the Kurdish YPG, a key component of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as an extension of a domestic terrorist group, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In contrast, Washington sees the Kurdish group as a vital ally in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).
While the U.S. shares the Turkish view about PKK, it rejects the Turkish demands to end its alliance with the Syrian YPG, which, to the chagrin of Ankara, enjoys unflinching support from its American sponsor regarding training and advanced military hardware.
Charles Lister, the Syria Director of the DC-based Middle East Institute, weighed in on the incident on X (formerly Twitter), arguing that the downing of the drone did little to deter Turkish strikes against Kurdish positions across northern Syria.
“In the hours since a US fighter jet down a Turkish Anka-S drone over NE #Syria, #Turkey’s Air Force has continued its campaign of airstrikes on #SDF-linked targets across the region,” he wrote. “In terms of deterrence, it may only have thickened red lines around US bases.”
Another respect of the incident, according to Lister, was that the UAV was operated by the Turkish spy agency, MIT, not the Turkish Armed Forces. The de-confliction line between Turkey and the US Central Command was designed only for the armed forces operating in the tight space of northern Syria. That’s why today’s “regrettable incident,” which could have been prevented, somehow did take place. He highlighted that MIT’s involvement has added a layer of complexity to the incident.
“The US claims that this was in self-defense,” said Professor Joshua Landis, Director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, “but it does seem that the US wanted to send a message to Turkey to limit the damage it was doing to the NE of Syria and America’s allies.”
A day before the drone incident, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s former spy chief, offered a broad map of targets involving power lines, civilian infrastructure, and buildings that may house militants linked to YPG. He urged ordinary Kurdish civilians to avoid the YPG-held areas and individuals. Otherwise, he implied, they may regret the results of their choices.
Ryder depicted the talk between two defense ministers as productive. But how allies would navigate through their competing agendas in northern Syria in the aftermath of the incident remains a mystery.
The drone shooting has, in this respect, brutally revealed an enduring dilemma that has long bedeviled the U.S. efforts in Syria: treading a fine line between two of its allies, which are at odds and fighting against each other.
“The US is trying to walk a delicate line between maintaining its alliance with Turkey, which is crucial to its position in the region and its efforts in Ukraine, while at the same time trying to preserve its commitment to the people of NE Syria, its ongoing battle against ISIS, and its efforts to hurt Iran and [Bashar Al] Assad in Syria,” Landis told The Pavlovic Today, emphasizing the daunting task that awaits the US.
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