The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Turkey’s military campaign beyond its borders is powered by homemade armed drones

A Turkish-made drone flies in the northern Syrian region of Afrin in February 2018. (George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

ISTANBUL — As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wages a widening military campaign for influence from North Africa to the Caucasus, his forces have relied on a potent weapon to gain a battlefield edge while drumming up domestic support for foreign interventions: homemade armed drones.

Their impact has been substantial. The drones played a central role in recent months in shifting Libya’s civil war in favor of the Turkish-backed government based in the capital, Tripoli, and they helped Azerbaijan, an ally of Turkey, prevail over Armenian forces in the fighting over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, according to military analysts.

In northern Syria, Turkish drones played a major part this year in a series of devastating attacks on Syrian armored forces that caught some military observers by surprise and helped bring a Syrian government offensive against rebel areas to a halt.

At home, the growing sophistication of the indigenous drones have made them a symbol of Turkish technological innovation and self-sufficiency, boosting national confidence amid a severe economic downturn and friction with some other NATO countries.

But the battlefield successes pose an urgent foreign policy challenge for the incoming Biden administration: what to do about Ankara’s expansionist policies, which have put Turkey in conflict with a range of other U.S. allies, including Greece and the United Arab Emirates.

Iran’s president blames Israel for killing nuclear scientist and vows to respond at the ‘right time’

James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey who served until recently as the Trump administration’s special representative for Syria, said Turkey’s foreign forays had “stymied” Russian military ambitions in places like Syria and Libya, and “that’s not a bad thing.” At the same time, he said, “Erdogan scares the hell out of most everyone in the Middle East.” The Turkish leader “is very unpredictable and very ambitious. He is moving into ­vacuums.”

The rapid growth of Turkey’s drone industry has made it a competitor to long-established producers of unmanned aerial vehicles such as China and Israel. It has also provoked human rights concerns, stirred by reports of civilian casualties and the cross-border use of drones for the targeted killings of suspected militants. At least two foreign companies that supply components used in Turkish drones have announced in recent weeks that they are suspending sales to Turkey, saying their products were intended only for civilian use.

The drones have provoked little controversy at home. They “are seen as a source of national pride and an unmistakable symbol that Turkey is able to take care of its own,” said Ahmet Kasim Han, a professor of international relations at Altinbas University in Istanbul. “I would say that is the extent of the public debate.”

Counterattack in Syria

A signal moment for the drone program occurred last winter after 36 Turkish soldiers were killed in what Ankara said was a Syrian airstrike in Syria’s northern Idlib province, a rebel stronghold where Turkey had deployed troops. It was the highest death toll Turkey’s armed forces had suffered in decades.

In retaliation, Turkey carried out strikes on Syrian forces. The Turkish Defense Ministry said the counterattack destroyed dozens of tanks, armored personnel carriers and ammunition depots. Hundreds of Syrian soldiers were “neutralized.” Aerial footage posted by the ministry showed a series of targets as they were destroyed by explosions.

Turkish officials told news outlets that the attacks were carried out by a deadly drone “swarm.”

Escalating violence in strategic Syrian city belies Assad’s claim that he’s in control

While military analysts said the specific impact of the drones was probably overstated, the Turkish counterattack did demonstrate a sophisticated capability to coordinate the growing drone fleet with other weapons. “This was a conceptual breakthrough,” said Can Kasapoglu, director of the Security and Defense Studies Program at EDAM, a Turkish think tank. “Turkey had integrated rocket systems and artillery batteries with the drones.”

Within days, Russia — which backs the Syrian government — and Turkey agreed to a cease-fire in Idlib, temporarily halting a Syrian government offensive that had threatened the lives of millions of civilians living in the province.

Ankara drew a lesson from its Idlib experience, Han said. “Turkey really broke the back of the Syrian regime elements. That brings them confidence,” he said. “As your confidence builds, the way you look at your next problem changes. Resorting to coercive means becomes easier.”

Homegrown industry

The birth of Turkey’s domestic defense industry is usually tied to a U.S. arms embargo imposed on Turkey in 1975 after its troops intervened in a conflict in Cyprus. The weapons ban was considered “a strategic trauma in the eyes of Turkish elite,” Kasapoglu said. The homegrown drone industry, in particular, emerged after Turkey stopped purchasing Israeli drones for political reasons and was barred from acquiring U.S.-made Predator drones, he said.

In remarks delivered in Washington in 2016, Ismail Demir, the president of Turkey’s defense industries, thanked the United States for spurring the development of the Turkish drone program, saying the difficulty in acquiring American drones “forces us to develop our own things.”

Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh mourn a lost war but doubt that peace will last

Selcuk Bayraktar, an MIT-educated engineer, helped transform his family’s company into the supplier of the Turkish military’s most important unmanned aerial vehicle: the Bayraktar TB2. The advanced drone, which can fly for 27 hours and carries laser-guided munitions, has turned Bayraktar, who is also Erdogan’s son-in-law, into a national hero and the face of Turkey’s era of military adventurism.

Speaking about drones and local defense production last year, Erdogan said, “We started from 20 percent domestically produced, and now we are producing 70 percent.”

Turkey was aiming for a moment “where we no longer need anyone,” he said. Some of his comments were directed at the United States, which has threatened to impose sanctions and halted sales of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey after Ankara bought the Russian S-400 missile defense system.

“The sanctions,” Erdogan said, “will not matter.”

Deployment in Libya

As Turkey’s military policy has became “more and more expeditionary,” according to Kasapoglu, drone warfare has played a crucial role. It requires “less commitment of human resources” and entails fewer Turkish casualties, which could engender political opposition at home.

A few months after the drone attack in Syria helped cement the Idlib cease-fire, Turkey deployed its drone fleet again, this time to fight in another pivotal battle, hundreds of miles away, for control of an air base in western Libya.

Turkey had intervened in the Libyan civil war in 2019 on behalf of the government based in the capital, Tripoli, aiming to counter the United Arab Emirates, a regional rival of Turkey that was supporting a renegade Libyan general. Turkey, in part, wanted to prevent another state hostile to Turkey from gaining strength in the Middle East, according to Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Turkey used its military power in Libya, with drones a critical component, as both a carrot and a stick, he said.

The Turkish military had held off on providing full support to its Libyan allies until they agreed to sign deals affording Turkey expansive energy exploration rights in the Mediterranean Sea. But once the deals were signed, Turkey spared no effort to beat back an offensive on Tripoli by the UAE-backed Libyan National Army, or LNA. Turkey deployed Syrian mercenaries and launched its armed drones to disrupt the LNA’s supply lines.

A critical moment came in May when Turkish drones, in coordination with Turkish warships, attacked the strategic al-Watiya air base, about 80 miles south of Tripoli, allowing government forces to capture the base and ending the LNA’s Tripoli offensive.

A suspected Turkish drone strike that killed civilians the following month drove home the perils of drone power. The strike, outside the city of Sirte, killed four men who had gone to help people escape fighting in the town of Tarhuna, according to Omar Khamis Ali Abdulrahman, 24, who said in a telephone interview that he had been injured in the strike.

A family of four, displaced from Tarhuna, was also killed, he said. It was not clear why Turkey would have attacked the area, but he speculated that Turkish forces might have mistaken a column of civilian cars for a military convoy.

“I remember cars being set alight. A family burning and dying. Then I woke up in the hospital,” he said.

The Turkish Defense Ministry did not respond to queries about the strike or reports of civilian casualties.

Assistance to Azerbaijan

The six-week conflict this fall between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh brought new prominence to Turkey’s drone program.

The conflict flared in September, marking the collapse of a decades-long peace process. Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s support, retook swaths of territory it had lost in the 1988-1994 war over the region. It used Bayraktar TB2 drones and Israeli kamikaze drones to overwhelm Armenia’s defenses. One estimate tallied Armenian losses of nearly 200 tanks, 90 armored vehicles and 182 artillery pieces.

Azerbaijan’s military gains, which included about 40 percent of Nagorno-Karabakh, appeared to hand Turkey another strategic victory.

Deaths of Syrian mercenaries show how Turkey, Russia could get sucked into Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

But Russia, which has jostled with Turkey for regional supremacy, also benefited, by negotiating a cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan that elevated Moscow’s role as a power broker. After the peace deal was signed, Russia thwarted a Turkish attempt to send its own peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh.

In other places, too, Erdogan’s government has struggled to turn battlefield successes to its strategic advantage.

In Syria, the Idlib cease-fire staved off an imminent humanitarian disaster but did nothing to solve the underlying tensions in the province, which Syria and its Russian backers are determined to recapture from Syrian rebel forces that control it.

In Libya, Lacher said, it is extremely unlikely that the Turks will be able during peace negotiations to secure a settlement “that legitimizes their interests and cements their presence.” He added, “It’s quite difficult to convert that military victory into political gain.”

Zakaria Zakaria in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.

France recalls ambassador from Turkey after Erdogan says Macron needs ‘mental’ treatment

Amid Mediterranean tensions, retired Turkish admiral grabs the spotlight touting supremacy at sea