A US fighter jet shot down an armed Turkish drone on October 5 after it was assessed as a threat to American forces stationed in northeast Syria, US media have reported.
The episode, reported by outlets including The Wall Street Journal [paywall] and CNN, occurred as Nato member Turkey continued with a stepped-up wave of air attacks against Kurdish militants it blames for a terrorist bomb attack in Ankara’s government district on October 1.
The Turkish Defence Ministry claimed that the drone did not belong to the Turkish armed forces, Reuters reported. But US media cited American officials describing it as an armed Turkish drone and as saying that the US was aware of its origins before it acted and issued more than a dozen warnings before it did so. Several drones made repeated approaches toward US troop positions in Hasakah, CNN reported officials as saying.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Turkish counterpart following the shooting down of the drone.
“The Secretary reaffirmed that the United States remains in Syria exclusively in support of the campaign to defeat ISIS [Islamic State],” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said. “The Secretary also acknowledged Turkey’s legitimate security concerns and underscored the importance of close coordination between the United States and Turkey to prevent any risk to US forces or the global coalition to defeat ISIS mission.”
The 900 US special operations forces present in a part of northern Syria that is a Kurdish-run autonomous region are an irritant to Turkey, given that they are allied with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who proved indispensable to Washington in the gruelling campaign to stamp out Islamic State in Syria in 2019. The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) make up most of the SDF's ranks, meaning Ankara views the forces as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), proscribed as a terrorist group by Turkey and also the US.
On October 4, the commander of the SDF, Mazloum Abdi, accused Turkey of “looking for pretexts to legitimise its ongoing attacks on our region [in Syria] and to launch a new military aggression".
In posts on social media, Abdi denied that the two men Turkey says committed the Ankara terrorist attack "passed through our region", adding: "The threat to target the region's infrastructure, economic resources, and populated cities is a war crime, the thing we have witnessed before."
However, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said on October 4: "It has become clear that the two terrorists came from Syria and were trained there."
"From now on, all infrastructure, large facilities and energy facilities belonging to [armed Kurdish groups] in Iraq and Syria are legitimate targets for our security forces," Fidan added. "I recommend that third parties stay away from these facilities."
His remarks caused analysts to caution that there could now be an increased risk of a Turkish strike endangering US troops in Syria.
The US aircraft that downed the drone, which was armed with air-to-ground munitions, was an F-16 and the action was taken as American troops were conducting operations nearby, a US official was reported as saying by the WSJ.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July dropped his opposition to Sweden’s bid to join Nato after talking with US President Joe Biden. His opposition was partly founded on claims that Sweden does not do enough to arrest and extradite to Turkey individuals that Ankara says are actively involved with the PKK. Lately, Erdogan has been indicating that the Turkish parliament ratification of Sweden’s application to join the Western defence bloc is not a done deal. There is now speculation that as well as demanding sales by the US to Turkey of major arms in return for the ratification, Erdogan could insist Washington drops its alliance with the SDF.