Much has been made of the role of drones in the “fight against terror”, most recently the US has developed a new drone base in Niger. However, less well known, at least in the UK, has been the support by the US to the Turkish government in the provision of drones to monitor Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) activity in northern Iraq. The PKK have been in negotiations to end the conflict with the Turkish Government since the end of 2012; mid-March saw a prisoner release, which was a crucial step in the process, and a ceasefire was announced at the end of the month. American support for the Turkish government has been in place for some time; in 2011, the media reported that the US had moved Predator drones to southern Turkey.
It appears that only in the last few weeks has this US-Turkish drone relationship been more publicly established with a statement on the website of the Turkish military.
As part of this agreement, US unmanned aerial vehicles fly in north of Iraq, under Turkey’s leadership, against the terrorist organization. Four unmanned aerial vehicles based in Incirlik conduct flights without carrying arms and weapons.
The absence of weapons is significant as previous efforts to enable the export of US armed drones to Turkey have been unsuccessful.
This is in addition to the support since late 2008 provided by Israel in the form of Heron drones; a deal which has suffered from sometimes strained diplomatic relations, following the 2010 attack by Israel on a Turkish flotilla heading for Gaza. In late 2012, three of these Herons were returned to Israel, on the basis of technical problems. Though what has happened to the remaining six Herons, and indeed whether the three returned to Israel will be given back to Turkey, is unclear.
Of greater concern is that similar allegations about poor intelligence and the use of drones have been made in Turkey. In May 2012, a group of civilians, smuggling fuel across the Iraqi-Turkish border were wrongly assessed as terrorists using drone surveillance and the subsequent air strikes by the Turkish Air Force killed 34.
Soon however, Turkey’s reliance on external assistance in the provision of drones may be over. Turkey is in the process of developing its own drone technology. In January 2013, it was reported that Turkey’s first drone, the Anka (Phoenix), had been finished and its first test flights achieved. The Turkish military is thought to be developing a deal to enable the purchase of ten Anka for use by the Turkish Air Force. The deployment of this drone is expected to be in the same region, and for the same purpose, as that currently covered by the US drones. There have also been reports that this technology has also found its first external customer, in the form of Egypt. Though currently this technology is for surveillance purposes, questions arise as to the consequences of Turkey developing armed drones, assuming both Israel and the United States continue to decline to export armed drones to Turkey. Considering its geo-political significance, the impact on Turkey of the ongoing conflict in Syria, the state of play with the PKK, and the establishment of ‘new rules’ in addressing terrorism via drones (targeted killings with vague criteria and often poor intelligence), the potential use of armed drones in this context should be closely monitored. That said, as Turkey seeks membership to Europe, and the need for the development of a sustainable settlement with the Kurds should function as incentives for the Government to consider this use carefully.