The American Deconfliction Disadvantage: Ankara’s Drone Campaign in Syria and Iraq

Aaron Stein

The Turkish government has increased the frequency of its drone strikes against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria and Iraq since 2019. Turkey’s strategy is easy to understand. Ankara is using low-cost, persistent airpower to strike PKK leaders and lower-ranking cadres in areas that it could not previously reach. Following a series of Turkish military offensives, the strikes have further intensified pressure on the PKK and its affiliates and have pushed them further from Turkey’s southeast border.

In the coming years, these drone strikes are likely to remain a persistent feature of Turkey’s counter-terrorism campaign. Ankara has no incentive to stop them. At the same time, these strikes will not incapacitate the PKK or end its four-decade-long fight, despite the strikes showing clear signs of degrading the group’s capabilities. As a result, Turkey’s drone strikes will create more tension in the U.S.-Turkish relationship and more tensions between Washington and its counter-Islamic State partners in Syria.

Washington almost certainly will not apply sufficient pressure on Ankara to stop these strikes. For the United States, there is no Kurdistan, so Kurdish issues are subordinated to the relations with countries in which Kurds reside. This reasonable approach means that Washington will almost certainly favor Ankara over a non-state actor, outside the pressing national security concerns created by the war against the Islamic State. Rather than engage in a futile debate about whether the United States can or should stop Turkish drone strikes, policymakers should focus on managing the fallout across the region.

Turkey’s Forever War

Turkey has been fighting the PKK since the 1980s. The latest round of the conflict began in July 2015, with the end of a troubled — but promising — peace process. But Turkey’s own “forever war” retains a high level of support from the government and the broader population. In this context, Ankara has prioritized the development of indigenous drones. Their deployment has proved valuable in decreasing risks to Turkish soldiers and striking PKK lines of communication inside northern Iraq and northern Syria. In short, the use of low-cost airpower is not a significant drain on Turkish resources and has had positive military outcomes.

As Turkish drone use has expanded, so have the number of drone strikes, marrying drone technology with Ankara’s cross-border operations in Syria and Iraq. This has increased Turkish presence in traditional PKK strongholds in eastern Iraq. Ankara has managed to leverage its dominant economic position to carve out tighter ties with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls Erbil and is the most powerful Iraqi Kurdish political party. Iraqi Kurds, in general, are riven by division and the Kurdistan Democratic Party benefits from its close relationship with Ankara. As a result, while drone strikes have generated popular protest in northern Iraq, there is little political cost for Ankara.

The PKK, in response, has grown more diffuse, attacking Turkish military targets inside Iraq and using proxies to conduct a persistent insurgency in Turkish-occupied Syria. These tactics, for Ankara, are indicative of PKK weakness. The group has been pushed from its traditional strongholds inside Turkey, and the main areas of contact are now inside Iraq. This position is advantageous to Ankara, even if it does little to politically address the drivers of Kurdish anger toward the state or the appeal of the PKK to a minority of Turkish citizens.

American Incoherence

Turkey’s drone strikes pose a political problem for the United States. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Syrian-Kurdish militia with which Washington partnered to defeat the Islamic State, has direct links to the PKK, and Turkey’s strikes have repeatedly targeted its officials. These strikes are occurring while U.S. forces are on the ground in Syria working alongside the group. The Turkish strikes in Syria began after Turkish talks with Washington to establish a permanent presence in northeastern Syria failed and then led to the start of Operation Peace Spring, the name Ankara gave to its October 2019 invasion. In Iraq, the drone strikes have increased in frequency during this same time period, mirroring the country’s technological advances with drones and munitions.

In the Middle East, there is a pervasive belief that Washington is omnipotent and, if properly motivated, can force countries to do its bidding. For this reason, the Syrian Kurdish leadership is convinced that Washington has the power to stop Turkish strikes if it wanted to, but that the U.S. government simply chooses not to. The U.S. military, therefore, is facing a situation where its partner forces will come under attack, despite the presence of U.S. forces in the area.

This reality demonstrates the importance of the deconfliction mechanisms that Washington and Ankara already have in place. But it also clearly shows that these mechanisms cannot do anything more than provide notification for Turkish air operations in places the United States is also present. Indeed, the instruments that Washington uses to deconflict with Turkey do not hinder Turkish air operations. In Syria, the United States has ceded much of the border to Turkey, giving Ankara a clear cut “deconfliction box” from which to fly and strike in support of its goals.

Making matters more complicated, the United States actually supports Turkey’s airstrikes against PKK targets in Iraqi Kurdistan. When Washington made the decision to deepen support for the Syrian Kurds before the assault on Raqqa, it sought to overcome Turkish objections by providing Turkey assistance with its kinetic strikes in Iraq. But, even were Washington to stop, Turkish capabilities have grown considerably in recent years and now account for the vast majority of intelligence in the area.

Turkish-American Deconfliction

Put simply, the United States has no true solution to this new reality, nor does it have a clear policy regarding Turkish drone strikes.

The United States and Turkey have historically cooperated on aerial surveillance. This cooperation has been fraught and marred by distrust. The Turkish Air Force has operated consistently in northern Iraq for close to three decades. The United States and Turkey have a deconfliction agreement there that Washington manages in coordination with the Iraqi government. According to my interviews with U.S. military officials, there is deconfliction line drawn across northern Iraq. Ankara has control over areas to the north of the line. The United States has control to the south. The areas of control are subdivided into boxes dubbed keypads that correspond to a place on a map, with a pre-notification mechanism to manage flights inside keypads to the north and south of the line. Before most flights, Ankara informs the United States of where it intends to fly, if the flight is armed or not, and whether a strike is planned. The United States can “non-concur” with planned strikes, but Turkey is not obligated to listen to Washington.

In parallel, the United States also devoted its own surveillance assets to assist Turkey. This intelligence relationship increased during the Syrian civil war, particularly since 2017 when the United States began devoting more Reaper drone orbits and allowing for the resulting intelligence to be used for lethal strikes. However, U.S. officials familiar with the program have told me that the Turkish side was unwilling to share sensitive data about the PKK with the United States, and that the United States did not share all of the data needed to conduct an airstrike. Instead, Washington shared coordinates and information that have allowed Turkish drones to get very close to suspected targets, where they could then conduct the strike on its own. Therefore, U.S. assets do not often yield much usable intelligence for Ankara but have led to strikes on numerous occasions. In any case, this cooperation was reportedly halted after Turkey’s October 2019 invasion, ending a program that had begun in 2007 and was expanded during the nadir of the relationship.

The proliferation of indigenous Turkish drones has extended Ankara’s reach, which has undermined any coercive effect from the program’s suspension. The United States, according to my interviews, has little understanding of Turkish targeting methodology or how strikes are planned or carried out. Regardless, it is clear that Ankara is striking more targets than ever before and striking more high value targets and mid-tier PKK commanders throughout Iraq and Syria.

Ankaras Deconfliction Box in Syria

The United States and Turkey have a similar deconfliction agreement in Syria. Turkey can now operate freely on the ground and in the air within a “box” stretching roughly 20 kilometers into Syrian territory along the border between the towns of Tel Afar to Tel Abyad. The agreement on Turkey’s “box” stemmed from Ankara’s escalatory actions and repeated threats to invade U.S.-held territory in northeastern Syria. In August 2019, Turkish threats became more credible, prompting U.S. diplomatic action to try and manage the threat from the Turkish military. This approach resulted in the formation of a Combined Joint Operations Center, or CJOC, based in Sanliurfa, Turkey, where the two countries coordinated joint ground and helicopter patrols. This diplomatic approach allowed for the Turkish Air Force to overfly Syria, necessitating participation in the Air Tasking Order — the mechanism used to control all coalition airstrikes and activity during Operation Inherent Resolve. This initially involved unmanned surveillance platforms but, with the start of joint ground patrols, grew to include armed Turkish F-16s on-call for troops in potential contact situations.

This arrangement did not prevent a Turkish invasion. In October 2019, the Turkish army occupied a stretch of Syrian territory across the border. The Turkish Air Force does have the option to strike targets in Syria from inside its own airspace. However, the flight time for most weapons Ankara uses to strike inside Syria is somewhere between five and 10 minutes from weapons release to impact. This means that fleeting targets cannot really be struck from positions inside Turkey, thereby requiring overflight to hit moving targets. As a result, Turkey has dramatically increased the number of drone strikes within its “box.” Outside of this area, however, the situation is more chaotic. During Ankara’s October 2019 invasion, for example, Air Force pilots I interviewed explained how U.S. jets, Turkish drones, and Russian jets were all operating in close proximity with one another with no coordination or deconfliction. The situation has stabilized, somewhat, because the United States has less overhead presence in areas Turkey controls. It is unclear if Russia and Turkey have a similar deconfliction arrangement, but anecdotal evidence from Idlib suggests the two sides have an agreement to not directly target each other’s platforms.

A Constant Irritant

Turkish strikes against Syrian Democratic Forces officials have led to widespread protests and calls for Washington to take action. For Ankara, of course, the fact that its drone strikes disrupt U.S.-Kurdish ties is a net positive. The United States is seeking to simultaneously support its NATO ally with counter-terrorism assistance and work with Ankara’s enemy to defeat the Islamic State. Ankara has objected to this arrangement, and its drone campaign takes advantage of American incoherence on the topic.

The United States may have little leverage to stop Turkish action, but the split policy means that Washington is riven by division and cannot agree on pushing for de-escalation between the two groups. The provision of lethal support, for example, was intended to sooth Turkish concerns about the rise of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Instead, the lethal support has indirectly helped increase the frequency of drone strikes, which leads to Kurdish reprisal attacks and a continued cycle of violence. The ideal off-ramp, of course, is a return to peace talks, but Washington has few good options to pressure Turkey to return to a peace process. More importantly, the politics in Turkey do not support such a move. Until this political reality changes, Turkish drone strikes will be a constant irritant to U.S. interests that have to be managed.

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