Two United States MQ-1 Predator drones have crashed in Turkey within four days, possibly cutting the Air Force’s operational fleet of drones at NATO’s main Turkish base down to half. This comes at a moment when the future of US drone operations in the region remain in question due to heightened political tensions with the Erdogan government and the uncertain future of the war in Syria. On Monday Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, which hosts US and other NATO personnel conducting operations over Syria and Iraq, released a statement confirming the crash of the drone in southeast Turkey at around 11:50 a.m. (0850 GMT), with no further details given.
Incirlik had confirmed an earlier Predator drone crash just last Thursday (8/17) near the air base. Last week’s statement quoted a US military spokesman as saying:
“At this time the safety of our host nation civilians and the recovery and security of our asset is paramount,” said Col. David Eaglin, commander of the 39th Air Base Wing. “Our Airmen train continuously to respond to incidents such as this, and we are working closely with our host nation partners to ensure this is resolved without conflict.”
Both incidents, which are being described in official statements as accidents, are currently under investigation. While no fatalities or injuries have been reported in connection with either crash, NATO’s 39th Air Base Wing issued a notice to Turkish residents indicating that any possible property loss or damage claims could be submitted for potential reimbursement. Photos of the second crash quickly emerged on social media and appear to show a downed drone in a private corn field.
After the formal withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011, the US Air Force negotiated the transfer of one combat air patrol unit (or PAC) of Predators to Incirlik. A PAC consists of a total of four drones, which theoretically allows for constant 24 hour aerial operations within a drone unit (one aircraft over the target area, one preparing to take over operations, one returning to refuel, and one in reserve).
Though it’s unknown if the Air Force later added additional units, a Department of Defense internal briefing from 2013 indicates that the original memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the US and Turkey to allow a single drone unit transfer took five months to negotiate.
An unclassified slide from a 2013 DoD briefing on the original deployment of Predator drones to Incirlik.
Assuming there was a single PAC in continued operation at Incirlik, this means the recent back to back crashes in southern Turkey have, at least temporarily, reduced the fleet by half. This comes at sensitive time for the US which desires to maintain a drone presence at the strategically located Turkish host base. The Air Force has further already planned to phase out the Predator drones, which are set to be completely replaced by the larger MQ-9 Reapers by 2018.
But it’s the rocky and worsening US-Turkish relationship which may ultimately deal a death blow for future Air Force drone operations out of Turkey. The two NATO allies are increasingly engaged in heightened diplomatic standoff over official US support for the Kurdish “People’s Protection Units”, more commonly known by the acronym YPG, which forms the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) operating in Syria. Turkey sees no distinction between the YPG and the PKK, which operates within Turkish borders and is designated a terrorist organization by both the US and Turkish government.
Last May the US rebuffed repeat Turkish requests not to move forward with arming the YPG – something widely seen as pushing Turkey into closer cooperation with Russia. The following month American officials announced plans to charge members of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security service after they were filmed attacking protesters outside of the Turkish embassy in D.C. – further harming diplomatic relations.
But perhaps the greatest outrage came in July, when Turkish state media leaked the locations of US bases in Syria, putting US special forces personnel and local partners on the ground at risk. A prominent American analyst described the incident as “a F-you” which threatened to permanently destroy US-Turkey cooperation in the Middle East. Furthermore, among the general Turkish public anti-Americanism has long been on the rise over the past years, and US drones falling from the sky over inhabited areas will not make things any better.
With ISIS now in retreat, and with both the Iraqi and Syrian governments looking increasingly confident in terms of regaining their sovereign territory, it is unclear what purpose US drones in Turkey will serve other than to prop up the SDF in Syria. This is something Turkey already sees as intolerable – the latest drone crashes could signal the beginning of the end for such operations at Incirlik.