By Lieven Dewitte
In a rare use of force by one NATO member against another a USAF F-16C block 40 shot down an armed Turkish Anka-S drone on Thursday as it came too close of American troops and Syrian Democratic Forces at the Tal Baydar base in northeastern Syria.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, called it a “regrettable incident” and said U.S. troops were forced to go to bunkers for safety as Turkey bombed targets nearby.
The F-16 belonged to the 555th EFS which are currently on deployment at Muwaffaq Al-Salti AB, Jordan.
The decision to shoot down an ally’s armed drone “was made out due diligence and the inherent right of self-defense to take appropriate action to protect U.S. forces,” Ryder said, adding that “we have no indication that Turkey was intentionally targeting U.S. forces.”
U.S. officials earlier told The Associated Press the shootdown was ordered after more than a dozen calls to Turkish military officials stating that U.S. forces were on the ground in the area and that the U.S. military would take action to protect them if the drone didn’t leave. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to provide details of a sensitive military incident.
Ryder said U.S. forces observed Turkish drones doing airstrikes around Hassakeh at about 07:30h local time, and some strikes were inside a so-called American “restricted operating zone” just a kilometer (about a half mile) from U.S. troops. He said a bit later a Turkish drone re-entered the restricted area “on a heading toward where U.S. forces were located.”
Commanders assessed that the drone armed with air-to-ground missiles, which was now less than half a kilometer (500yards) away from U.S. troops, was a potential threat and U.S. F-16 fighter jets shot it down at roughly 11:40h.
No U.S. forces were injured during the incident, and a Pentagon spokesperson stated there was no indication that Turkey was intentionally targeting U.S. troops.
The Turkish military acknowledged that an unmanned aircraft was shot down but denied ownership of the drone, according to Reuters.
Turkey has recently stepped up attacks on Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria after Kurdish militants claimed responsibility for a bomb attack in Ankara on Sunday. Turkey views the Syrian Democratic Forces as a wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which numerous nations have designated a terrorist organization.
Syria has been in a civil war for more than a decade, and the country is split into areas controlled by the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad; al-Qaida-linked militants and Turkish-backed opposition fighters in the northwest; and Kurdish forces in the northeast that the U.S. partners with to conduct missions against the Islamic State group. So far, the war has killed half a million people, wounded hundreds of thousands and left many parts of the country destroyed.
Typically, the U.S. and Turkish militaries, which are NATO allies, work in close coordination in conducting air maneuvers. But Turkey considers the Kurdish forces that work with the American troops to be aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
The U.S. has about 900 troops in Syria conducting missions to counter Islamic State group militants.