Turkey’s effective drone campaign over Syria’s Idlib

Turkey’s fierce retaliation against Syrian government forces for their killing of more than 30 Turkish troops late last month showcased its highly formidable drone capability.

Turkey posted footage showing what it said were air strikes by its Bayraktar TB2 and TAI Anka-S unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) using guided munitions to destroy more than 100 Syrian tanks, armoured vehicles and anti-aircraft batteries, as well as killing large numbers of Syrian troops.

It was the first time the Anka-S had been used in combat. The Bayraktar had already seen service against Syrian Kurdish forces, as well as in fighting in Libya. As well as carrying out strikes, the drones also played a key role as spotters for Turkish artillery. 

Arnaud Delalande, a freelance defence and security expert, said Turkey’s armed drones were the main strike force throughout the operation.

“This is a new tactic – because it has not yet been used before – which has taken the forces of the Syrian regime by surprise,” Delalande said.

He said Syrian forces had suffered heavy losses of armour, anti-aircraft systems and artillery, but said drones had also targeted Syrian arms depots and military bases.

“I’d say Turkey’s use of massed drone strikes has been highly effective and a good use of the military advantages that it has near the Turkish-Syrian border,” said Justin Bronk, a research fellow who specialises in combat air power and technology at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank.

Turkish drones, he said, demonstrated just how easy it is to track and then destroy armoured vehicles in relatively open terrain, which has some important implications for militaries around the world.

But, Bronk said, “it would be a mistake to discount how effective Russian medium and long-range air defence systems could have been against the Bayraktar and Anka-S UAVs, if they had been used”.

Michael Peck, a military analyst and regular contributing writer for The National Interest, said Turkey’s use of drones in Idlib was a sensible way to avoid putting pilots at risk.

“It is also a demonstration that Turkey’s investment in military drone technology is paying off,” he said.

Turkey has made impressive progress in developing its drone capability in the last decade. Before then, Turkey only possessed unarmed U.S.-made General Atomic Gnat 750 reconnaissance drones and Israeli-made IAI Heron drones. Now Ankara fields a formidable fleet of indigenously made drones of various types.

One reason Turkey developed its own drones is that the United States is a signatory of the Missile Technology Control Regime, an agreement that seeks to prevent the proliferation of missiles or drones capable of carrying 500 kg of munitions for more than 300 km. As a result, Washington has only sold armed drones to Italy and Britain in recent years.

Turkey is very proud of its ability to design and manufacture increasingly sophisticated drones. Turkey’s President of Defence Industries İsmail Demir, in a 2016 panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council, lauded the U.S. restriction on drone sales for pushing Turkey to become an independent UAV manufacturer. 

“I don’t want to be sarcastic, but I would like to thank [the U.S. government] for any of the projects that was not approved by the U.S. because it forced us to develop our own systems,” Demir quipped, adding that Turkey no longer wanted U.S.-made armed drones.

Turkey is seeking to expand its drone fleet. The government said in September it would give more than $100 million to Baykar Makina, the private manufacturer of the Bayraktar TB2s, to help double the production of TB2s with the aim of making 92 units each year.

Baykar’s chief technology officer is Selçuk Bayraktar, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law.

In the Idlib operation, Peck said, Turkey’s drones were effective because Syrian forces had questionable air defence capabilities. Turkish drones would be much less effective against air defences like those of Russia, which notably did not shut the airspace over northwest Syria to Turkish aircraft, something it demonstrated it could do in the past.

Peck has written about the continued shortage of F-16 fighter pilots in the Turkish Air Force as a result of the purges that followed the July 2016 coup attempt. But he said that Turkey still had enough pilots to carry out air strikes, as it has previously demonstrated in Syria, and against Kurdish militants in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. So that was probably not the reason for Turkey’s heavy use of drones in its strikes against Syrian government targets.

Turkish F-16 fighter jets shot down three Syrian government warplanes using long-range missiles without leaving Turkish airspace, and without Turkey losing any of its own aircraft. Damascus said it had shot down some of Turkey’s drones, but unmanned aircraft are less costly to replace and do not carry the political cost of losing pilots.

But if Russia were to choose to escalate, Bronk said, Turkey’s operations inside Syria would be in danger. Russia would be unlikely to target Turkish jets within Turkish airspace given Turkey’s NATO membership and the duty of other alliance members to come to its aid, but that does not apply outside Turkish territory, meaning that Russia could target Turkish jets in Syrian airspace without fear of a collective NATO reaction.