Ankara, Turkey – As Turkey wages a widening military campaign for influence from North Africa to the Caucasus, its forces have relied on a potent weapon to gain a battlefield edge while drumming up indigenous support for foreign interventions: indigenous armed drones.
Their impact has been substantial. The drones played a central role in recent months in shifting Libya’s civil war in favor of the Turkish-backed government based in the capital, Tripoli, and they helped Azerbaijan, an ally of Turkey, prevail over Armenian forces in the fighting over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, according to military analysts.
In northern Syria, Turkish drones played a major part this year in a series of devastating attacks on Syrian armored forces that caught some military observers by surprise and helped bring a Syrian government offensive against rebel areas to a halt.
At home, the growing sophistication of the indigenous drones have made them a symbol of Turkish technological innovation and self-sufficiency, boosting national confidence amid a severe economic downturn and friction with some other NATO countries.
Turkey’s foreign forays had “stymied” Russian military ambitions in places like Syria and Libya, and “that’s not a bad thing.” At the same time, Turkey scares the hell out of most everyone in West Asia. Turkey is very unpredictable and very ambitious, and is moving into vacuums.
The rapid growth of Turkey’s drone industry has made it a competitor to long-established producers of unmanned aerial vehicles such as China and Israel. The drones have provoked little controversy at home. They are seen as a source of national pride and an unmistakable symbol that Turkey is able to take care of its own.
Turkey carried out strikes on Syrian forces. The Turkish Defense Ministry said the counterattack destroyed dozens of tanks, armored personnel carriers and ammunition depots. Hundreds of Syrian soldiers were “neutralized.” Aerial footage posted by the ministry showed a series of targets as they were destroyed by explosions. Turkish officials told news outlets that the attacks were carried out by a deadly drone “swarm.”
While military analysts said the specific impact of the drones was probably overstated, the Turkish counterattack did demonstrate a sophisticated capability to coordinate the growing drone fleet with other weapons. This was a conceptual breakthrough, Turkey had integrated rocket systems and artillery batteries with the drones.
Within days, Russia – which backs the Syrian government – and Turkey agreed to a cease-fire in Idlib, temporarily halting a Syrian government offensive that had threatened the lives of millions of civilians living in the province.
Turkey drew a lesson from its Idlib experience, Turkey really broke the back of the Syrian regime elements. That brings them confidence. As your confidence builds, the way you look at your next problem changes. Resorting to coercive means becomes easier.
The birth of Turkey’s domestic defense industry is usually tied to a US arms embargo imposed on Turkey in 1975 after its troops intervened in a conflict in Cyprus. The weapons ban was considered “a strategic trauma in the eyes of Turkish elite. The homegrown drone industry, in particular, emerged after Turkey stopped purchasing Israeli drones for political reasons and was barred from acquiring US-made Predator drones.
Thanks to the United States for spurring the development of the Turkish drone program, the difficulty in acquiring American drones “forces Turkey to develop its own things.
Turkey was aiming for a moment where Turkey no longer need anyone. The United States has threatened to impose sanctions and halted sales of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey after Turkey bought the Russian S-400 missile defense system. Turkey says the sanctions will not matter.
As Turkey’s military policy has became more and more expeditionary, drone warfare has played a crucial role. It requires less commitment of human resources and entails fewer Turkish casualties, which could engender political opposition at home.
A few months after the drone attack in Syria helped cement the Idlib cease-fire, Turkey deployed its drone fleet again, this time to fight in another pivotal battle, hundreds of miles away, for control of an air base in western Libya.
Turkey had intervened in the Libyan civil war in 2019 on behalf of the government based in the capital, Tripoli, aiming to counter the United Arab Emirates, a regional rival of Turkey that was supporting a renegade Libyan general Khalifa Haftar. Turkey, in part, wanted to prevent another state hostile to Turkey from gaining strength in West Asia.
Turkey used its military power in Libya, with drones a critical component, as both a carrot and a stick.
The Turkish military had held off on providing full support to its Libyan allies until they agreed to sign deals affording Turkey expansive energy exploration rights in the Mediterranean Sea. But once the deals were signed, Turkey spared no effort to beat back an offensive on Tripoli by the UAE-backed Libyan National Army, or LNA. Turkey deployed Syrian mercenaries and launched its armed drones to disrupt the LNA’s supply lines.
A critical moment came in May when Turkish drones, in coordination with Turkish warships, attacked the strategic al-Watiya air base, about 80 miles south of Tripoli, allowing government forces to capture the base and ending the LNA’s Tripoli offensive.
The six-week conflict this fall between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh brought new prominence to Turkey’s drone program.
The conflict flared in September, marking the collapse of a decades-long peace process. Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s support, retook swaths of territory it had lost in the 1988-1994 war over the region. It used Bayraktar TB2 drones and Israeli kamikaze drones to overwhelm Armenia’s defenses. One estimate tallied Armenian losses of nearly 200 tanks, 90 armored vehicles and 182 artillery pieces.
Azerbaijan’s military gains, which included about 40 percent of Nagorno-Karabakh, appeared to hand Turkey another strategic victory.
But Russia, which has jostled with Turkey for regional supremacy, also benefited, by negotiating a cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan that elevated Russia’s role as a power broker. After the peace deal was signed, Russia thwarted a Turkish attempt to send its own peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh.
In other places, too, Turkey has struggled to turn battlefield successes to its strategic advantage.
In Syria, the Idlib cease-fire staved off an imminent humanitarian disaster but did nothing to solve the underlying tensions in the province, which Syria and its Russian backers are determined to recapture from Syrian rebel forces that control it.
In Libya, it is extremely unlikely that the Turks will be able during peace negotiations to secure a settlement that legitimizes their interests and cements their presence. It’s quite difficult to convert that military victory into political gain.