US halts drone programme with Turkey over Syria incursion

The halt to US assistance will test Turkey’s military and intelligence capabilities at a time its forces are deployed on multiple fronts in northern Syria.
Sunday 09/02/2020
A US MQ-1B Predator remotely piloted aircraft as it flies overhead during a training mission, in Nevada. (AFP)
Insight from the skies. A US MQ-1B Predator remotely piloted aircraft as it flies overhead during a training mission, in Nevada. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The United States has halted a secretive military intelligence cooperation programme with Turkey that for years helped Ankara target Kurdistan Workers’ Party militants.

The US decision to suspend the programme was made in response to Turkey’s military incursion into Syria in October, US officials said, revealing the extent of the damage to ties between the NATO allies from the incident.

US officials, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the United States late last year stopped flying intelligence collection missions that targeted the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which both the United States and Turkey classify as terrorists.

The US military carried out the missions using unarmed drone aircraft, which one official said were flown out of Turkey’s Incirlik Airbase, where the US military has a significant presence. The base is a key hub for US spy agencies.

The US drone flights in the programme, which has been in place since 2007, often zeroed in on mountainous territory in northern Iraq near the Turkish border, another official said.

A Pentagon spokeswoman did not directly comment on any specific programmes but noted that the United States has designated the PKK a terrorist organisation since 1997.

“We have supported Turkey in [its] fight against the PKK in many ways for decades. As a matter of policy, we do not provide details on operational matters,” the spokeswoman said, when asked about a halt in assistance.

A Turkish official confirmed the programme was stopped.

The halt to US assistance will test Turkey’s military and intelligence capabilities at a time its forces are deployed on multiple fronts in northern Syria and as Ankara considers deeper engagement in Libya.

“This makes the anti-PKK campaign more difficult and more costly for Turkey,” said one of the four US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

It also adds to a laundry list of grievances between the United States and Turkey, including Ankara’s purchase of Russian air defences and broader splits over the war in Syria, despite what appears to be a strong relationship between US President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“In recent years, Turkey has not been struggling to obtain the information it needs through drones it produces itself,” the Turkish official said. “However, as an ally, the steps taken on this issue do not contribute to ties between the two countries.”

Trump, long a sceptic of US military involvement in Syria, has been blamed by Democrats and even some Republicans of abandoning US-backed Kurdish fighters to the Turkish onslaught and, in so doing, unravelling US policy.

The Turkish offensive took aim at Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in Syria, which had been the United States’ top ally in the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist organisation, indistinguishable from the PKK but US policy has drawn a bright line between the two groups, helping Turkey fight the PKK even as US military forces worked with the YPG militia to combat ISIS.

The PKK took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984, waging an insurgency for autonomy in Turkey’s largely Kurdish south-east. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict. Kurds, as an ethnic group, make up about 20% of Turkey’s population.

Turkey’s military has often struck targets in Iraq’s Kurdish region near the PKK’s stronghold in the Qandil Mountains and has also carried out cross-border operations into northern Iraq targeting the militant group.

Since the inception of the secretive US intelligence cooperation programme, Ankara has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to advance its own defence capabilities and reduced its dependence on US and Israeli drones, which it had frequently used since the late 1990s.

Turkey’s privately owned Baykar Defence, whose management involves Selcuk Bayraktar, a son-in-law of Erdogan, began working on developing Turkey’s first drone fleet in the 2000s.

Within a decade and a half, it developed armed and unarmed drones and was selling them to the Turkish Army as well as to Ukraine and Qatar. As of July 2019, 86 Bayraktar drones were in service with Turkey’s security forces. Some of those were regularly used during Ankara’s Syria operations in 2016, in 2018 and again last October.

Arda Mevlutoglu, a Turkey-based defence analyst, said the recent advance has equipped Ankara with greater flexibility and freedom in its operational capabilities.

“Turkey’s dependence on her allies, mainly to the US, significantly decreased, if not completely ended in real-time high-quality intelligence gathering and surgical strike-type operations,” Mevlutoglu said.