US halts secretive drone program with Turkey over Syria incursion: US officials

A US surveillance drone. (File photo: AFP)

The United States has halted a secretive drone intelligence program with Turkey over Ankara’s October incursion into Syria, according to US officials.

The United States has halted a secretive military intelligence cooperation program with Turkey that for years helped Ankara target Kurdish PKK militants, four US officials told Reuters.

The US decision to indefinitely suspend the program, which has not been previously reported, was made in response to Turkey’s cross-border military incursion into Syria in October, the US officials said, revealing the extent of the damage to ties between the NATO allies from the incident.

The US officials, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the United States late last year stopped flying the intelligence collection missions that targeted the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both the United States and Turkey classify as terrorists.

The US military had carried out the missions using unarmed drone aircraft, which one official said were flown out of Turkey’s Incirlik air base, where the US military has a significant presence. The base is also a key hub for US spy agencies operating in the region.

The US drone flights that took place within the program, in place since 2007, often zeroed in on mountainous territory in northern Iraq near the Turkish border, another official said.

A Pentagon spokeswoman did not directly comment on any specific programs but noted that the United States has designated the PKK a terrorist organization since 1997.

“We have supported Turkey in their fight against the PKK in many ways for decades. As a matter of policy, we do not provide details on operational matters,” the spokeswoman said, when asked about a halt in assistance.

A State Department spokesperson said the United States does not comment on intelligence matters.

Officials from the Turkish defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment, but a Turkish official confirmed the program was stopped.

The halt to US assistance will test the limits of Turkey’s military and intelligence capabilities at a time when its forces are already deployed on multiple fronts in northern Syria and as Ankara mulls deeper engagement in Libya.

“This makes the anti-PKK campaign more difficult and more costly for Turkey,” one of the four US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said.

It also adds to a laundry list of grievances between the United States and Turkey, including Ankara’s purchase of Russian air defenses and broader splits over the war in Syria, despite what appears to be a strong relationship between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan.

“In recent years, Turkey has not been struggling to obtain the information it needs through drones it produces itself,” the Turkish official said. “However, as an ally the steps taken on this issue do not contribute to ties between the two countries.”

Turkish incursion

Turkish military forces advanced into northeastern Syria in October to attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who had fought with the US against ISIS. Turkey said it was establishing a "safe zone" for Syrian refugees, but was criticized by international actors including Washington.

The statement comes as Turkey faces strained relations with both the US and Russia over its role in Syria, where it has intervened militarily in the north of the country.

The US expelled fellow NATO member Turkey from its F-35 fighter jet program in response to Ankara's acquisition of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia, which Washington said would risk compromising the safety of the F-35 program for NATO allies.

Yet Turkey is also at loggerheads with Russia over clashes between the Russian-backed Syrian regime and Turkish-supported opposition forces in Idlib, the last opposition stronghold in the country.

(With Reuters)

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