Geopolitical Insights

Academy SITREP – U.S. Jet Shoots Down Turkish Drone Over Syria

October 6, 2023
What has Happened:
  • Yesterday, a U.S. F-16 shot down an armed Turkish drone after it flew near U.S. forces in northeast Syria and ignored warnings to depart the area.
  • While the Pentagon had no reason to believe that Turkey was targeting U.S. forces in the region, there have been other close calls such as in 2019 when U.S. troops in northern Syria came under Turkish artillery fire.
  • Turkey’s national intelligence agency recently carried out strikes in Syria against Kurdish militants after a bomb attack in Ankara last weekend.
  • U.S. support for Kurdish forces in northern Syria (that are helping in the fight against ISIS) has been a source of tension with Turkey, which views these forces as a wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK).
  • This incident comes at a time when relations between the U.S. and Turkey have been strained over Sweden’s application to join NATO (which Erdogan agreed to approve back in July, but the Turkish parliament has yet to ratify).
  • Turkey is a key NATO ally and critical partner of the U.S. in the region, including in the Middle East and in Ukraine.
  • U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had a “fruitful” conversation with his Turkish counterpart after the incident and the two sides will make every effort to deconflict and communicate better moving forward.
Why it Matters:

“Turkey has publicly accused both the PKK and YPG of executing a terror assault last Sunday (stating that the attackers came from Syria). The U.S. State Department has publicly said that we “stand firmly with our NATO ally Turkey and the Turkish people in their fight against the PKK, which has been designated a FTO (Foreign Terrorist Organization) by the United States.” When pushed on the topic, the U.S. State Department said that it did not yet have sufficient evidence to support that this attack was conducted by the PKK/YPG from Syria. This is a 20+ year discussion between the U.S. & Turkey. Keep in mind that although we classify the PKK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, we like that they “terrorize” Iran as well. Not sure that I see the drone shoot down as significant enough to alter our relationship with Turkey. Likely status quo for now.” General Mastin Robeson  

“Kurds are a challenge for Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. We continue to balance our relationship over Kurdish issues with Turkey and Iraq, and we don’t mind the disruption caused in Iran and Syria. For a while during the Iraq war, we provided howitzers, ammo, and planners to target PKK (mostly to ensure that the Turks did not expand the target sets). These are historically deep-seated issues that will continue in my view. I don’t believe that this issue is any graver than what we have seen in the past. The U.S. and the Turks will work it out.” General Frank Kearney

  “For the most part the U.S. gives Turkey a lot of room regarding the Kurds and the PKK. The SDF/YPG is more complicated but has been relatively well managed for the past several years during U.S. ground operations in northern Syria. As General Robeson and General Kearney have stated, this is not that big of an issue and won’t put the U.S./Turkish relationship under any undue pressure. The State Department declared that the PKK was a FTO in 1997 and we have not wavered from that position. The wild card is how Erdogan may play this in relation to Sweden's nomination (if at all). It’s unknown how Erdogan may spin PKK activity from an overall accountably perspective with Sweden and the West.” General Robert Ashley