Turkey's deadly drone campaign in northern Syria

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6 min read
16 August, 2022
Analysis: Ankara's drone strikes against the Kurdish-led SDF follow widespread opposition to its planned military invasion of northern Syria, with the campaign largely tolerated by both Russia and the US.

Turkey has been intensifying its campaign of drone strikes in northern Syria. Rather than target the Islamic State (IS) remnants in the region, these lethal strikes are focused exclusively on targeting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). 

The SDF is the main ally of the United States against IS in Syria and has done more than any other armed group to combat the group and destroy the Syrian wing of its self-styled caliphate.

The US-led coalition has regularly extolled the SDF for its efforts and sacrifices in their joint fight against IS.

On the other hand, Turkey views the Kurdish-led group as a terrorist organisation with inextricable links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and has repeatedly vowed to take any measures, including military force, it deems necessary to eliminate it.

"The Turkish strategy is tolerated by the US and Russia because it is a way to weaken Ankara's argument that it must use a larger military invasion of northeast Syria"

Are Ankara's drone strikes a 'middle ground'?

Since May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to launch another cross-border offensive against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the multi-ethnic SDF, in the north-western Syrian cities of Tal Rifaat and Manbij.

However, Ankara has not yet launched another operation, likely due to the unequivocal opposition from the United States and Russia. 

But Turkey has ratcheted up drone attacks against the SDF to an unprecedented level. On 11 August, the Syria-based Rojava Information Center reported that "Turkish drone attacks have been the deadliest in August than any other month in 2022". 

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On 9 August, the independent media organisation reported that more civilians and people overall were killed in eight Turkish drone strikes in the preceding three weeks "than in the rest of 2022 prior". It is estimated that at least 35 people have been killed and 80 injured by these attacks since the beginning of the year. 

That same day, a drone attack against the Syrian Kurdish city of Qamishli killed four members of the SDF and injured three civilians. 

Through these lethal drone strikes, Ankara appears to have found a way to inflict serious harm against the SDF/YPG without launching another large-scale air and ground operation. 

Turkey captured the north-western Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin from the YPG in early 2018 and a large swath of north-eastern Syrian territory from the SDF in late 2019. It occupies both areas with its Syrian militia proxies to the present day.

"From what's publicly known, these Turkish drone strikes are striking SDF/YPG fighters and leadership throughout the north of Syria," Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at RANE, told The New Arab.

Turkey's deadly drone campaign in northern Syria
Mourners chant slogans during the funeral of a fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Qamishli on 10 August 2022 a day after the fighter was killed by a Turkish unmanned aerial vehicle. [Getty]

"It's hard at the moment to ascertain how damaging the strikes are on the SDF in terms of capabilities (there haven't been any high-profile killings so far), but what is clear is that the attacks are enraging the SDF and their supporters and pushing them to find ways to retaliate against Turkish forces," he added.

"As with all drone campaigns, these strikes carry with them a latent risk of civilian casualties, though how high a risk depends on where the targets are – urban targets being more likely to incur civilian casualties, for example."

Nicholas Heras, Deputy Director of the Human Security Unit at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, noted that Turkey has followed a clear strategy of "using drone strikes to whittle away at PKK-connected leaders inside northeast Syria" since 2019. 

"Turkey's approach is based upon Ankara's assessment that it can make it difficult for the PKK to establish a long-term base of operations in northeast Syria," he told TNA. "The Turkish strategy is tolerated by the US and Russia because it is a way to weaken Ankara's argument that it must use a larger military invasion of northeast Syria to achieve its goals against the PKK."

"Ankara is choosing this drone campaign as its best option until it can somehow convince Russia to allow it to carry out an invasion"

"There is not much that the SDF leadership can do about these drone strikes without American and Russian pressure to stop them," Heras said. "Neither Washington nor Moscow are inclined to intervene against Turkey's drone strike campaign against the SDF in northeast Syria because this is a type of pressure release for Ankara."

Bohl pointed out that the drone campaign "is not causing the same kind of international outrage that the last major Turkish invasion in October 2019 did" since it's effectively covert from a diplomatic and media standpoint.

"It's probable that the Russians have also greenlit this campaign, given how they control much of Syria's airspace, as an attempt to avoid another Turkish invasion of more Syrian territory," he said.

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"But Turkey remains fixed on a new military operation in northern Syria to clear the territory from the SDF/YPG, so ultimately, I think Ankara is choosing this drone campaign as its best option until it can somehow convince Russia to allow it to carry out an invasion." 

At the same time, the US "appears unmotivated to take a strong stance against this campaign" given Turkey's "heightened importance to NATO in the wake of the Russo-Ukrainian war." 

Nevertheless, Bohl anticipates that this could change if Turkey assassinates a high-profile SDF leader or if one of its drone strikes harms US troops – which, while unlikely given the few remaining US troops in northern Syria, is nevertheless "in the realm of possibilities given close SDF-US operations and cooperation." 

"It's hard at the moment to ascertain how damaging the strikes are on the SDF in terms of capabilities, but what is clear is that the attacks are enraging the SDF and their supporters"

No strategic game changer

While, for the reasons outlined above, these drone strikes do give Turkey a means to maintain pressure and inflict pain on its SDF/YPG adversaries, they are by no means a strategic game-changer for Ankara.

"From a tactical perspective, these drones do allow Turkey to carry out higher risk strikes without necessarily causing a major military escalation or international crisis; they make a covert war a lot easier," Bohl said.

"However, drones, as demonstrated by the US in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, Israel in Gaza and Syria, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen, are not strategic game changers against an insurgency (like the Taliban, Houthis, and IS) or entrenched opponent (like Hamas or Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria)."

"They can help degrade and deter rivals but not defeat them, and so long as there are ideological drivers for cross-border Kurdish attacks into Turkey, then Turkish drones will only be part of the campaign to mitigate such attacks rather than eliminate them altogether," he concluded.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon