U.S. suspends drone programme with Turkey over Syria incursion - Reuters

The United States has halted a secretive military intelligence cooperation programme with Turkey that helped Ankara for years in its fights against Kurdish fighters, Reuters reported on Wednesday citing four U.S. officials. 

The United States decided to indefinitely end the programme after Turkey launched a military operation in northern Syria in October against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which forms the backbone of U.S.-led coalition forces fighting against Islamic State in Syria.

Turkey says the YPG is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed group which has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey’s southeast for more than three decades. While the United States designates the PKK as a terrorist group, it does not classify the YPG as such. 

The secretive military intelligence programme allowed Turkey to target PKK fighters in Turkey and in northern Iraq. 

One of the unnamed U.S. officials said that the U.S. military had carried out the missions using unarmed drone aircraft, which were flown out of Turkey’s Incirlik air base, where the U.S. military has a significant presence. 

The U.S. drone flights that took place within the program, which was in place since 2007, often zeroed in on mountainous territory in northern Iraq near the Turkish border, Reuters quoted another official as saying. 

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

A State Department spokesperson told Reuters that the United States did not comment on intelligence matters.

Officials from the Turkish Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment, but a Turkish official confirmed the programme had been stopped, Reuters said. 

The suspension of the drone programme adds to a list of grievances between Turkey and the United States, including Turkey’s decision to buy Russian S-400 defence systems and the countries’ conflicting interests over the war in Syria.

But Turkey has emerged as a new drone power over the last five years, significantly reducing its dependence on other countries’ technologies.

Turkey has become the second biggest user of armed drones in the world and the Turkish military has been heavily using drones produced by Baykar Makina, whose technical director Selçuk Bayraktar is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law. 

Turkey also supplies Baykar’s TB2 drones to the U.N.-recognised Libyan government in Tripoli for the fight against Egypt and Emirates-backed forces led by General Khalifa Haftar.

Baykar successfully tested its first Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV), Akıncı, in December. The new vehicle will make Turkey one of only four countries in the world able to produce UCAVs. 

The Turkish defence contractor STM and Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) also manufacture different types of drones used by the Turkish military. 

“Turkey’s dependence on her allies, mainly to the United States, significantly decreased, if not completely ended in real-time high-quality intelligence gathering and surgical strike type operations,” Arda Mevlütoğlu, a Turkey-based defence analyst, told Reuters.