Turkish drones revolutionize Idlib conflict – analysis

Turkey has systematically taken over other areas in northern Syria, primarily Kurdish areas, where it has used Syrian rebels to fight the Kurdish YPG.

Turkish soldiers patrol along a wall on the border line between Turkey and Syria, in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 29, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/KEMAL ASLAN)
Turkish soldiers patrol along a wall on the border line between Turkey and Syria, in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 29, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/KEMAL ASLAN)
Footage of numerous Turkish drone strikes in Idlib reveal the degree to which Turkey has created a groundbreaking armed force of drones over the last several years. Turkey has now used them effectively against Syrian regime defenses and armored vehicle formations in its battle with the Syrian regime since the regime began shelling and killing Turkish soldiers in February.
Tensions in Idlib rose in January and February due to a Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive. Idlib is controlled by Syrian opposition groups, dominated by extremists around the group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Turkey has had observation posts in Idlib since 2017 and in 2018 signed a deal with Russia for a ceasefire in the province. It wants to make sure that millions of Syrian refugees from Idlib don’t come to Turkey and it wants to prevent a new conflict on its border.
Turkey has systematically taken over other areas in northern Syria, primarily Kurdish areas, where it has used Syrian rebels to fight the Kurdish YPG. However, in Idlib, Turkey has found a more complex battle space. The area is dominated by groups Turkey does not control and those groups often use their own unsophisticated drones to attack Russian bases in Latakia and harass the Syrian regime.
The Syrian regime launched an offensive to retake a strategic highway to Aleppo. It was successful and 900,000 people fled the fighting. Then Turkey deployed thousands of soldiers and armored vehicles to Idlib to prevent the regime from continuing its advance. In response the regime shelled Turkish positions and has now killed dozens of Turkish soldiers. Turkey has responded aggressively with artillery fire.
Turkey can’t fly its air force in Idlib due to an apparent ban by Russia and the Syrian regime. But Turkish drones can fly. Turkey already used drones successfully against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, the PKK, and against the YPG near Tel Abyad in Syria. It has become proficient at using them to target troop formations or what it says are “terrorists” in northern Iraq.
However, in Idlib the Turkish armed and surveillance drones have come into their own. According to accounts Turkey has devastated some Syrian regime units, damaging or destroying up to 100 tanks, 72 artillery pieces and several air defense systems. In the fog of the Syrian war, which has dragged on nine years, it is never clear if the various accounts are accurate, but videos from drone feeds don’t lie.
Some of the video is alleged to also be from Turkish drones operating in Libya. Numerous Turkish drones have been downed in Libya where Turkey supports the Tripoli-based government against the Benghazi-based government in the civil war there.  Turkey deployed troops to Libya in December and January. It has been sending drones for months.
Video feeds show drones striking columns of infantry and armored vehicles near Idlib. Turkey’s drone program has its origins in 2005, according to an article from The Intercept. A Turkish UAV pioneer named Selcuk Bayraktar encouraged authorities  to invest in a drone arm for the military. Turkey already had several General Atomic GNAT drones and also several Israeli Herons. It took many years and several different ideas, such as the larger Anka drone the Turks built, but now the country has an array of drones such as the Bayraktar TB2 that Turkey uses and exports.
There appears to be evidence of hundreds of sorties of drones over Idlib and destruction of Syrian regime units that has also angered the Russians, Iran and Hezbollah, all of whom have forces in the area supporting the Syrian regime.
According to reports the Bayraktar TB2 for instance uses a 22.5 kg Rokestan warhead. The Anka drone also uses a MAM-L smart  munition that is developed by Rokestan. Much of the details behind the strikes are not revealed to media and Turkey’s media has speculated on which drones have been used. In some instances the Bayraktar has been shot down in Libya, but less frequently in Syria. Overall the Syrian air defenses have not proved capable of dealing with the drone threat and Russian-made air defenses, such as the Pantsir, can’t be everywhere on the front line.
Turkey has shown that the drone can be used in an area where air defenses may deny the ability to fly larger jets, such as Turkey’s F-16s, but where smaller drones can operate with impunity. It has shown they can be effective tactically and score many successes, transforming the battlefield. Turkey’s widespread use of drones in Idlib, if the accounts are accurate, may be one of the largest concentrations of drones used in this manner before.
The US and Israel have used drones in widespread operations, but Turkey’s employment of them in Idlib may be unique and may herald a new kind of operational ability of drones to be studied by militaries in years to come. Clearly, the Russians and Syrian regime are  taking note, as is Iran which runs its own drone program. Iran has  exported  drones to the Houthis in Yemen who have used them against Saudi Arabia.


Tags drone