A U.S. Air Force F-16 shot down a Turkish drone over northeastern Syria considered a threat to U.S. forces there, a U.S. official told The War Zone Thursday. The incident took place amid an increase in Turkish drone attacks on Kurdish targets in that region following a bombing in Ankara on Sunday that the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) claimed credit for, according to Reuters.
“The U.S. was definitely aware it was a Turkish drone,” said the official, speaking to The War Zone on condition of anonymity to discuss operational details. The official did not know what kind of drone was shot down.
The Turkish Defense Ministry (MoD) said that the drone did not belong to the Turkish armed forces, according to Reuters.
The U.S. has about 900 troops in that area, continuing the ongoing fight against the ISIS jihadi group. Forces assigned to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) continue to partner with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in that fight, which were instrumental in the ultimate defeat of ISIS physical caliphate in 2019. Last month, there were eight partnered operations in Syria, with one ISIS operative killed and seven detained, according to CENTCOM.
The U.S.-SDF relationship has long created tensions with NATO ally Turkey, which considers the SDF an extension of the PKK.
Turkish officials on Wednesday claimed the two attackers who bombed Ankara had come from Syria. The bombing killed both attackers and wounded two police officers. The SDF denied the bombers passed through their territory.
Turkish officials said any infrastructure and energy facilities in Iraq and Syria controlled by the PKK, as well as People's Protection Units (YPG), were legitimate military targets, Reuters reported.
"The PKK and the YPG are the same terrorist organisation, they are our legitimate target everywhere. Turkey conducted operations whenever and wherever necessary in the past, and these operations will continue if needed again," a Turkish Defence Ministry official said.
Turkey has a history of drone strikes against Kurdish targets throughout Syria, including one that the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said killed 20 in an attack on SDF leadership near Zahraa on Aug. 19.
However, the tempo has greatly increased in northeastern Syria since the Ankara attack, according to groups on the ground there.
SOHR said that there were 17 Turkish drone attacks in that area just today, resulting in at least 10 deaths.
SOHR said Turkey attacked military and civilian infrastructure targets. They included the Hamma Water Station north of Al-Hasakah, an oil facility in Ger Dahol village in Terbespiyeh, the western dam electricity transfer station, which supplies large parts of Al-Hasakah city and its countryside, a petrol station in Al-Qahtanyah village and an electricity station on Al-Hezam Al-Gharby road near the COVID hospital in Al-Qamishli.
How Turkey will ultimately react to what the U.S. says was a deliberate shootdown of one of its drones remains unknown at the time. Also unknown is what, if any effect, the current Turkish operations against the SDF will have on that organization's relationship with the U.S.
After an Aug. 3 Turkish drone strike killed four SDF members, Kurdish authorities called on the U.S.-led coalition to make clear where it stands regarding these strikes that have killed and wounded dozens of Syrian Kurdish fighters over the past months, ABC News reported at the time.
This is a developing story. We will update it when new information becomes available.
Update 2:11 PM Eastern:
Both Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. C.Q. Brown have called Turkish officials about this incident, according to Al-Monitor.
Update 3:45 PM Eastern:
Today’s incident in northeast Syria began about 7:30 a.m. local time, when U.S. forces observed drones conducting airstrikes near Hasakah, the Pentagon’s top spokesman told reporters, including from The War Zone.
“Some of those strikes were inside a declared U.S. Restricted Operating Zone (ROZ),” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder. Those strikes were taking place about a kilometer from U.S. forces, who relocated to bunkers, Ryder said.
At about 11:30 a.m. local time, a Turkish drone re-entered the ROZ “on a heading toward where U.S. forces were located. U.S. commanders assessed that the UAV, which was now less than half a kilometer from U.S. forces, to be a potential threat and U.S. F-16s subsequently shot down the UAV in self defense at approximately 11:40 a.m. local time.”
There were no U.S. troops injured and no indication that Turkey was intentionally targeting U.S. forces, Ryder added.
Ryder confirmed that Austin talked with his Turkish counterpart about the incident and there were assurances that the two nations can continue working together.
While condemning Sunday’s attack in Ankara and reconfirming that the U.S. considers the PKK a terrorist organization, Ryder expressed concern that the escalation of violence in northeastern Syria could adversely affect the anti-ISIS fight.
Update 5:04 PM Eastern:
The Turkish Defense Ministry was apparently correct when it said the drone shot down by U.S. F-16s today was not one of theirs.
The drone actually belonged to Turkish intelligence, according to The Messenger.
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