by Ömer Özkızılcık
Increasingly used in Turkey’s fight against terrorism and in its foreign policy, UCAVs have also played an important role in Syria. Turkey’s use of UCAVs in Syria was widely recognized by the international community with Operation Spring Shield. However, since August 2021, Turkey has started to use UCAVs directly against the PKK/YPG in Syria, often targeting the organization’s leaders. Turkey’s use of UCAVs to assassinate leaders of the organization is a new innovation and was first introduced along the Turkey-Iraq line. This strategy, which was later applied in Syria, has created new opportunities for Turkey.
This report will present and analyze open-source data (1) on Turkey’s UCAV operations. It will examine the intensity of UCAV operations, target areas and the profiles of those targeted. In addition, the tactical success and strategic status of UCAV operations in Syria will be discussed.
Unmanned aerial vehicles have a very serious use in the Syrian arena. Especially with the use of drones and the attacks carried out with them, all actors in Syria have changed all the conditions of asymmetric warfare. Similarly, the use of UCAVs by Turkey in Syria has not only changed the fate of Syria and the nature of warfare through Operation Spring Shield, but has also been an important innovation in terms of the use of UCAVs for assassinations. Although Turkey has a longer history of using UCAVs along the Iraqi line, the strategy of targeting the organization’s leadership in Iraq was later adapted to Syria. Between August 2021 and November 2023, a total of 182 UCAV operations were conducted by Turkey in Syria. While 178 of these operations targeted the PKK/YPG, four UCAV operations targeted the MLKP, which is aligned with the YPG. In this report, due to the MLKP’s collaboration with the YPG, an analysis will be made without differentiating between the two organizations. A detailed approach to the MLKP can be the subject of another study.
A total of 182 UCAV operations have been conducted by Turkey along the Syrian border since August 2021. As a result of these operations, nearly 200 members of the terrorist organization were neutralized. Mostly organized by the National Intelligence Organization, the UCAV operations target the organization’s mid- and senior-level executives. The UCAV operations against the organization’s command level executives in Syria started in August 2021 and constituted a turning point in the context of Turkey’s Syria policy. As a matter of fact, although Operation Euphrates Shield, Operation Olive Branch and Operation Peace Spring were conducted against terrorist organizations in Syria until that date, Turkey did not conduct any airstrikes or UCAV operations outside the period of these operations. When we look at the intensity of UCAV operations conducted by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), the main phenomenon that stands out is the increasing regularity. In the first year, an average of 2.42 UCAV operations were conducted per month, while this rate increased to 7.25 per month the following year. Since August 2023, the monthly average has been 15.75. However, the main reason for this intensity was the air operation carried out after the terrorist attack in Ankara on October 1, 2023.(2) As a matter of fact, a record was broken in October 2023 with 38 UCAV operations per month. If October is ignored, there has been a monthly intensity of 8.3 attacks since August 2023, and this increase in the monthly average has continued.
UCAV operations per month
When we look at the targeted areas, it is seen that Turkey’s UCAV operations were carried out against the organization’s targets in areas where both Russian and American troops were present. This is one of the important details that cannot be ignored when talking about Turkey’s UCAV operations. Turkey conducts UCAV operations in both the Russian and American spheres of influence. In fact, 52% of the UCAV operations were conducted in the American sphere of influence, while 46% of the operations were conducted in the Russian sphere of influence. The exact location of 3 UCAV operations is unknown.
When analyzing the UCAV operations by regions, Qamishli and Malikiyeh come first with 32 UCAV operations. With 24 UCAV operations, Ayn al Arab ranks second. Amoudah, Ain Issa, Manbij and Tal Temr regions are in third place with 12 UCAV operations.
Targeted regions with UCAVs
When looking at the profiles of those targeted in Turkey’s UCAV operations, the most striking factor is the nationality of the targets. The total number of those neutralized is 179. Of the 179 people neutralized, information on the nationality of only 80 can be obtained from open sources. Considering only the 80 people whose nationality is known (this information is generally reflected in open sources close to the organization or the organization), it is understood that 81% of those neutralized were of Syrian nationality. Another 19% of those neutralized were of Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian nationalities.
Neutralized targets whose nationality are known
However, it would be highly misleading to comment on the profile of those targeted based on this data. As a matter of fact, the open-source coverage of Turkish nationals is the result of information provided to Turkish media outlets by the relevant authorities. Since the Turkish authorities do not share information with the public about every UCAV operation in Syria and the target of these operations, open source information is dominated by the YPG. As a matter of fact, the two Iranian and two Iraqi nationals in the open sources were not identified by the organization, but as a result of the information provided by local sources.
In the information it shares with the public, the organization provides explicit information about terrorists of Syrian nationality, while it generally does not provide information about those of Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi nationality. Underlying this communication strategy is the organization’s policy of denying and dismissing the relationship between the YPG and the PKK. By not sharing the nationality and identity of the targeted foreign nationals, the organization tries to protect the organization’s Syrian identity and its international perception. As is known, the YPG is internationally referred to as ‘Syrian Kurds’.
It is not possible to speculate on the nationality of the 100 people whose nationality is unknown. However, it can be assumed that at least a significant number of them are not Syrian. This suggests that many of the organization’s mid- and senior-level members, who are likely to be targets for UCAV operations, are not Syrian, but Turkish, Iranian or Iraqi. As it is known, although the official leadership of the organization is held by Syrian nationals and the organization has been in control in Syria since 2012, it is observed that non-Syrian Qandil cadres within the YPG continue to dominate.(3)
On the other hand, it also sheds light on some of the concerns raised by different experts. Indeed, as some experts on counterterrorism issues have pointed out, if Turkey were to prioritize non-Syrian nationals with its UCAV operations in Syria, there might be a danger that it could indirectly serve the US strategy of differentiating the YPG from the PKK. However, the data shows that members of the organization with Syrian nationality are being targeted by drone strikes.
Tactical Assessment and Strategic Situation
Turkey’s UCAV operations in Syria mark the beginning of an operational shift. In the Syrian theater of Turkey’s fight against terrorism, UCAV operations constitute the backbone of the tools used in the fight against terrorism. Indeed, since Operation Peace Spring in 2019, Turkey’s most important military moves against the YPG have been the above-mentioned UCAV operations. In this four-year period, UCAV operations against the YPG on the Syrian border have come to the fore.
Turkey’s UCAV operations in Syria have had a major impact on the organization’s activities in Syria. As a matter of fact, the YPG’s request for assistance from both Russia and the United States and its open call for both states to prevent Turkey’s UCAV operations are the most important indicators of this.(4) Before the UCAV operations, the organization’s presence in Syria faced two military threats from Turkey. The first threat was the bombardment of the YPG by Turkish artillery units using fire support vehicles. While these bombardments regularly target the organization, they have a limited impact in terms of geographical depth and military destruction. The second threat was Turkey’s cross-border ground operations with the Syrian National Army. Although these operations, which were limited in terms of time and geography, had a devastating effect on the organization, the organization was able to maintain a secure life in the remaining areas after the operations stopped.
UCAV operations have disrupted the organization’s de facto safe zone beyond a certain depth. It prevents the organization from moving freely in Syria and creates a regular pressure on the organization. Duran Kalkan, the so-called co-chair of the PKK, made the most meaningful statement in this context: “Erdoğan mobilized MİT to kill us. They have announced our names on a list, they kill us every day and no one says a word. We are under attack everywhere in the media defense areas, in the tunnels in Bakur. We are being killed in Qandil, in Shengal, in Rojova. He kills every day. No one says a word. They have created lists. About our leadership. Red list, yellow list, green list, gray list, that is, they put thirty or forty names on each list. They put pictures. These are not just wanted lists. It is a list of those who will be killed publicly (5) This statement shows that the organization has lost its safe zone in Syria and is exposed to UCAV operations in all regions. In particular, the flat topography in Syria, unlike Iraq, makes UCAV operations even more effective and puts the organization at a geographical disadvantage. In addition, as this statement points out, the intelligence capabilities of the National Intelligence Organization on the Syrian border are evident. As a matter of fact, the listing and finding of the targeted individuals and targeting them with UCAV operations is the result of very serious field intelligence.
While preventing safe space, UCAV operations allow Turkey to carry out ‘punitive’ operations in response to possible attacks by the organization. In this context, the UCAV operations in October 2023 are an important indicator for this.(6)
Finally, perhaps the most important operational context of UCAV operations is ‘decapitation’. This concept, which describes the process of neutralizing the organization’s leadership within an effective strategy, disrupts the organization’s hierarchical structure, command echelon and chain of command, as Can Acun notes.
As Acun states: “These operations, in which UCAVs are used very effectively, are managed by agents on the ground. On the one hand, Turkey conducts military operations in a conventional manner, while on the other hand, MİT, whose capabilities have been enhanced in every sense and which has gained a new strategic mission, conducts simultaneous operations in many countries to eliminate elements that threaten its national security. MİT, which has reached a capacity that only a few intelligence agencies in the world can reach, has become a rising organization in the global context and a very important force multiplier for Turkey (7) .
In short, for Turkey, the UCAV operations have provided significant operational value, while for the YPG, they have eliminated the de facto safe zone in Syria and forced the organization to change its course of action. The chain of command within the organization was disrupted.
In terms of punishment, UCAV operations have provided a new opportunity in the triangle of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Namely, in response to PKK terrorist attacks in Turkey, Syria or Iraq, punitive operations can be carried out against the organization. In Syria, strategic and economic targets of the organization can be bombed by UCAVs, especially when the organization’s presence in Turkey is extremely limited and the topography in northern Iraq provides protection to the organization. The targeting of YPG-controlled energy infrastructure in Syria following the terrorist attack in Ankara was the primary example of this(8) . Another case in point for Turkey is the aftermath of the PKK’s two terrorist attacks in northern Iraq on December 22 and 23, in which 12 Turkish soldiers were martyred. For the first time, Turkey bombed targets in Syria following a development in Iraq(9). This move is in line with Turkey’s thesis that the PKK equals the YPG, and the actual practice is in line with this reality. Thanks to UCAVs, both the strategic targets of the organization are bombed and the organization’s attacks in Iraq can be punished in Syria, which is a relatively easy target. Indeed, in terms of impact-cost, UCAV operations in Syria have a greater impact multiplier than F-16 bombardment in northern Iraq.
While Turkey’s UCAV operations provide operational value, they do not help overcome strategic obstacles. Especially in an environment where Russia deployed to YPG-controlled areas and provided military protection to the YPG in coordination with the United States after Operation Peace Spring, and Turkey has not organized a new ground operation against the organization for four years, it is seen that UCAV operations have not changed the field reality in Syria. In this context, it is understood that UCAV operations do not have the power to prepare this ground. As a matter of fact, the administrative and military structure of the YPG was not significantly affected by the UCAV operations and the organization’s routine activities continued. There was no change in the administrative order established by the organization, and the YPG’s military presence in Syria did not show any visible weakness.
Although Turkey’s UCAV operations are an important asset, they do not help overcome strategic obstacles. Indeed, since 2019, Russia has expanded its presence in Syria and placed the YPG under its military protection. The US, on the other hand, has kept the threat of sanctions against Turkey alive to protect the YPG against a possible new ground operation. The presidential decree issued by US President Donald Trump is regularly extended every year(10). The presidential decree provides for automatic economic sanctions in the event of a possible Turkish ground operation against the YPG.
On the other hand, Russia not only protects the YPG with its military presence on the ground, but also does not open Syrian airspace to Turkish warplanes. Although it is seen that Russia has temporarily given the green light from time to time,(11) Russia’s general stance on airspace continues. Especially in the aftermath of the Ukraine war, Russia’s continuation of this stance is noteworthy. Although the two S-400 Air Defense Systems stationed in Syria do not engage the Israeli Air Force(14), when it comes to the Turkish Air Force, Syria closes its airspace to Turkish jets(12).
In a similar approach to Russia, the US does not open its American-controlled airspace against Turkey. In 2021, the US even broke new ground by opening its airspace east of the Euphrates to Russia, paving the way for Russia to provide more effective military resistance against Turkey and protect the YPG. Prior to this US decision, Russian troops in the east of the Euphrates had no air cover. With the opening of the airspace to Russia, Russian airplanes were able to fly over the Russian soldiers assigned to protect the YPG(13).
In the context of these strategic obstacles faced by Turkey, UCAVs appear as an intermediate and intermediate formula. As a matter of fact, in an environment where no ground operation decision has been taken and air operations with fighter jets cannot be carried out, UCAV operations constitute an important alternative in the context of Turkey’s security needs. The UCAV operations organized in October set a very serious and important example in this respect. The downing of a Turkish UCAV by the U.S. Army’s Central Command (CENTCOM)(15) and the increasing number of UCAV operations despite this downing(16) are indicative of this.
In an environment where there are strategic obstacles and two of the world’s largest military powers are cooperating to protect the YPG, Turkey finds a defensive gap with UCAVs. By taking advantage of this gap, it pierces the umbrella provided to protect the YPG. However, it is also observed that this hole is not big enough to create a strategic change in the Syrian arena.
In fact, there is another example of Turkey creating strategic change with a similar approach. Turkey’s Operation Spring Shield in the Idlib region in 2020 was conducted with UCAVs and changed the entire strategic and military balance in Syria(17). The reason for the lack of a similar strategic shift in the context of the YPG is that the use of UCAVs was different in the two cases. In Operation Spring Shield, the Turkish Armed Forces, with the support of the National Intelligence Organization, conducted a large-scale UCAV operation. However, the UCAV operations discussed in this report (with the exception of October) are limited-scale and decapitation-based UCAV operations.
The first thing that comes to the fore when analyzing Turkey’s 182 UCAV operations in Syria is that this course of action was introduced in August 2021, and in this context, it is a very important innovation. Indeed, prior to August 2021, Turkey’s engagements against the YPG were limited either in time or in depth. Turkey was able to conduct regular operations in limited depth and with limited power but with regular operations with fire support vehicles. On the other hand, it was conducting limited but comprehensive operations with Operation Euphrates Shield, Operation Olive Branch and Operation Spring Shield. In 2019, as a result of the Russian-American cooperation against Turkey, no new ground operation was organized and the YPG did not face a regular and deep military threat for almost two years. The organization’s ‘safe zone’ was penetrated with UCAV operations.
When we look at the intensity of UCAV operations, we are faced with a gradually increasing average monthly number. In the first year, the monthly average was 2.42, in the second year it reached 7.25 and in the last year the average increased to 15.75. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Ankara, not only the number of terrorist attacks increased significantly, but also strategic locations under the control of the terrorist organization were targeted in addition to the organization’s leadership. Looking at the targeted areas, it is noteworthy that the UCAV operations were conducted simultaneously in areas within both the American and Russian spheres of influence, and in the airspace controlled by the world’s two largest military powers. 52% of the operations took place in the American sphere of influence and 46% in the Russian sphere of influence.
In terms of the nationality of the targeted members of the organization, according to open sources, 81% of those targeted were Syrian nationals. However, since the organization does not disclose the identities or nationalities of Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian nationals, it can be estimated that slightly more than half of the targets are actually Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian nationals.
Turkey’s UCAV operations in Syria represent a very important and serious tactical gain. The UCAV operations, which punctured the YPG’s ‘safe zone’ in Syria, forced the organization to change its course of action in Syria and disrupted the chain of command within the organization. The decapitation strategy applied to the organization in Iraq has been extended to Syria. In addition to the decapitation process, ‘punishment’ against the organization was achieved through UCAV operations. The UCAV operations targeting the oil basins and energy infrastructure controlled by the YPG have been a more effective method of punishment in terms of cost-effectiveness balance than the F-16 bombardment in northern Iraq.
Although tactically important, in strategic terms, the US-Russian cooperation that protects the YPG against Turkey has not been disrupted and there has not been a significant change in the balance on the Syrian ground. For example, compared to the UCAV operations conducted during Operation Spring Shield, the UCAV operations against the YPG did not lead to a strategic change and transformation in Syria.
()Türkiye’s Enemy Killed in Action (EKIA) Dataset verileri: İçişleri Bakanlığı ve TSK açıklamaları ile ana akım medyada yer alan terörle mücadele operasyonlarında ölü olarak ele geçirilen teröristlerin kimlik bilgileri ve operasyon detayları 14 farklı parametreye göre sınıflandırılmıştır. Sibel Düz tarafından koordine edilen çalışma açık verilere dayanmakta olup, “Türkiye’s Disposition Matrix” adlı proje kapsamında geliştirilmeye devam edilmektedir. Veri toplama sürecinde Elif Cerrahoplu ve Mehmet Salah Devrim katkıda bulunmuştur.
()TRT Haber, “Ankara’da bombalı saldırı girişimi”, 1 Ekim 2023,https://bit.ly/3vdHSek (Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023)
()Necdet Özçelik, “PKK-PYD Çekişmesinde Konjonktürel Pragmatizm: KCK ve Neo-KCK Tartışması”, Ümran Stratejik Araştırmalar Merkezi, 7 Mayıs 2023, https://bit.ly/3TZlsYP (Erişim tarihi: 26 Aralık 2023)
()BIANET, “Syrian Democratic Council calls for international action against Turkey’s strikes”, 10 Ekim 2023,https://bit.ly/48bpCRl(Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023)
()Can Acun, “MİT, Seçimler ve PKK”, Mayıs 2023,https://bit.ly/4aKr5js(Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023)
() Oytun Orhan, “GÖRÜŞ – Türkiye’nin Suriye’de terör örgütü PKK/YPG’ye karşı operasyonları: Hedefler, sonuçlar ve beklentiler”, Anadolu Ajansı, 10 Ekim 2023, https://bit.ly/4awFGyK (Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023)
()Can Acun, “MİT, Seçimler ve PKK”, Mayıs 2023, https://bit.ly/4aKr5js (Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023).
() Oytun Orhan, “GÖRÜŞ – Türkiye’nin Suriye’de terör örgütü PKK/YPG’ye karşı operasyonları: Hedefler, sonuçlar ve beklentiler”, Anadolu Ajansı, 10 Ekim 2023, https://bit.ly/4awFGyK (Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023).
()Ömer Özkızılcık, “After the death of six Turkish soldiers yesterday and another six today in northern #Iraq, Turkish airforce bombed 29 sites of the #PKK/YPG in nortern #Syria and Iraq. This is the first time, Türkiye bombing the #YPG over developments in Iraq. The political message: PKK=YPG.”, Twitter, 23 Aralık 2023,https://bit.ly/48wuMas (Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023).
() North Press Agency, “US president extends emergency over Turkey’s offensive in NE Syria”, 13 Ekim 2023, https://bit.ly/3TI1G3I (Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023).
() Yeni Şafak, “Rusya Suriye hava sahasını yıllar sonra ilk kez Türkiye’ye açtı”, 20 Kasım 2022, https://bit.ly/3tyS5S4(Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023).
() Büşra Aksu, “Rusya İran’ı Dengelemek İçin İsrail Saldırılarına Alan Açıyor”, 18 Ocak 2022, 21. Yüzyıl Türkiye Enstitüsü, https://bit.ly/3tyA4mW (Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023).
() GDH, “Rusya Suriye’de yeni bir harekatı neden ve nasıl engellemeye çalışıyor”, 16 Haziran 2022, https://bit.ly/3NJ2aCO (Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023)
() Ömer Özkızılcık, “What does CENTCOM gain by helping Russia in Syria?”, TRT World, 28 Ekim 2021, https://bit.ly/3NGzQkw (Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023)
() Idrees Ali ve Huseyin Hayatsever, “US jet shoots down Turkish drone in Syria, Pentagon says”, Reuters, 6 Ekim 2023, https://bit.ly/3vhRbKm (Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023)
()Yücel Acar, “Suriye’nin Kuzeyinde Düşürülen SİHA ve Hukuki Değerlendirmeler”, SETA, 7 Ekim 2023, https://bit.ly/47j16g3 (Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023)
() Ömer Özkızılcık, “Can drones save lives?”, TRT World, 25 Şubat 2021, https://bit.ly/48uyWQ2 (Erişim tarihi: 25 Aralık 2023)