Turkish Drone Strikes: Acts of State Terrorism

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

Turkey is emerging as one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to using military drones, especially for targeted assassinations. This trend has had devastating impacts for the Kurds, especially for those in Rojava whose civil servants and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) officials remain key targets. Likewise, in Southern Kurdistan (northern Iraq) regular Turkish drone attacks, along with a range of other state terror tactics including murdering activists in broad daylight on the street have become a common occurrence. Such behavior harkens back to the 1980s and 90s, when Turkey was notorious for deploying JİTEM death squad assassins with daily kill lists against Kurds advocating for their human rights throughout occupied Northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey). In this way, grey drones are the Turkish state’s new “white Toros” cars.

Turkey is also gratuitously deploying their Bayraktar killer drones in their never-ending regional war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Back in March, Turkish drones killed three members of the PKK in northern Iraq. That week alone, four drone strikes had been conducted resulting in the death of six PKK members in an ongoing violation of Iraqi territorial sovereignty. In early April, The Wall Street Journal broke the news that US military officials along with the commander-in-chief of the US-backed SDF, Mazlum Kobane, had been targeted by a Turkish drone attack near Sulaymaniyah International Airport. In that particular incident, a successful strike would have killed US military personnel as well, displaying how even supposed NATO-allyship is not enough to curtail Ankara’s appetite for their drone usage. More recently on August 11th and then again on August 24th a number of drone attacks occurred resulting in several more killed and injured.

In September, three members of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s (KRI) counterterrorism forces were killed and three more were injured by another round of Turkish drone strikes. Disproving Turkey’s continuous claims that they are only using drones against the PKK. Kurdish leaders in the KRI angrily condemned the attacks and loss of life including Bafel Talabani, President of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), who stated that:

 “This criminal act is an open trespassing of the border of the Kurdistan Region and of Iraq, and it is part of the conspiracy aimed at disturbing the peace and stability of the Kurdistan Region.”

Turkish drone attacks occur with worrying regularity prompting weak statements from Baghdad and the international community around the need for Turkey to respect Iraq’s territorial integrity – statements which Ankara repeatedly ignores.

In Rojava (Western Kurdistan), Turkey has frequently utilized drone strikes to target Kurdish civil and military leaders, resulting in tensions between the Kurdish forces and the US led anti-ISIS coalition. Turkey and its repetitive attacks against the Kurds has continually jeopardized the global war against ISIS by targeting, destabilizing, ethnically cleansing, and annexing Kurdish lands and regions including Afrin since 2018 and Serê Kaniyê in 2020. Moreover, Turkey’s ongoing relations with ISIS including providing extensive intelligence, military, and medical support has also been well documented – leading Rojava officials to rightfully accuse Turkey of using their drones in an attempt to resurrect the terrorist group. Turkish drones also regularly target essential infrastructure such as water, gas, electricity, schools, and hospitals in an ongoing bid to continue to render the region under SDF control as unlivable for civilians.

Unfortunately for the Kurds, Turkey has become one of the leading global drone powers in the world, followed closely by Iran, who also regularly utilizes drone strikes in an effort to engineer political and economic changes in Kurdish areas of Iraq. Increasingly, drone attacks are becoming the main weapon of choice globally, especially for non-democratic nations, whose access to drone proliferation increased exponentially with the emergence of China becoming the world’s leading exporter of the weaponized aircraft. Consequently, the future for oppressed and endangered minorities such as the Kurds looks increasingly bleak as regimes such as Turkey utilize drone attacks with agonizing regularity.

Drones as Weapons of Terror

Drones are becoming an increasingly regular feature of warfare between state and non-state actors. Iran and Turkey, long with other regional countries such Saudi Arabia, Iraq, UAE, Pakistan, Egypt and Israel continue to proliferate drone technology and drone attacks, ensuring that drones are becoming a regular part of conflicts, hot zones, and proxy wars. Specifically drones are more commonly being used for targeted killings in alleged self-defense measures and have been described as being capable of “profoundly changing war scenarios.”

According to US military research the drone is an effective weapon because not only can it conduct reconnaissance, but also strike at the same time, a process which is cost effective as well as reduces coordination between agencies and actors. The repeated use of drones can be suffocating to the targeted groups. But just because it is a unmanned robot doing the killing, we should not lose fact of the reality, that this is essentially not much different than sending an armed assassin to shoot someone in the head on a street or in a park. For the people being targeted, this silent unseen death from above would surely fit the definition of a terrorizing experience, and meet the definition of a terrorist act as the term is commonly defined.

Additionally, research conducted by experts between 2011-2019 has demonstrated that non-democracies are eight times more likely to acquire armed drones. As both non-state and state actors increasingly proliferate drones and their associated technologies, such targeted killings become progressively likely, with such actors killing with increased impunity and almost total anonymity. According to experts, drone attacks require far less physical and military infrastructure, are more cost effective than ground attacks and less politically risky. Further, due to the emergence of the Chinese market the CH-4 and the Wing Loong 2 drones are estimated at a low cost of between $1m and $2m. The US equivalents are markedly more expensive to acquire at around $16m.

Nevertheless, US ‘bestsellers’ like the Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk are some of the most in demand drones. While countries such as Turkey have developed their own Bayraktar TB2 as an alternative, which costs around $5m per drone. Consequently, not only does Turkey buy and proliferate drones, but it is also a global supplier of drones too. In more recent years, Turkey has increased its sales of drones and has undoubtedly contributed to increased global proliferation. The TB2 is known for its precision in striking targets, including  against “armored vehicles, fortifications, and personnel, effectively contributing to Turkey’s aerial capabilities and increasing its operational effectiveness on the battlefield.”

Azerbaijan for instance, used Turkish Bayraktars to conduct regular and devastating airstrikes in its continued assault on the Armenians of Artsakh. In that instance, Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s dictator utilised the devastating power of the TB2 to target Armenian troops and vehicles and then proudly exhibited the footage of the attacks on digital billboards in the capital city of Baku. Azerbaijan had ready access to a range of Turkish and Israeli supplied drones, while Armenia on the other hand, had to struggle against the much better supplied Azerbaijan, with only undeveloped unmanned aerial reconnaissance capabilities as well as almost nonexistent unmanned offensive capabilities.

Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 have been widely used in Ukraine too “and has been a huge export success, catapulting the firm to becoming one of the largest Turkish defence exporters.” Its popularity rose to an all time high after it destroyed a Russian patrol boat and military truck in the Kherson region on the same day. Viral videos of the drones attacking Russian assets have added to the global fame and sale of the Turkish produced unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). The Ukrainian Minister for Strategic Industries Oleksandr Kamyshin stated in early July that the Turkish defense company Baykar has already started constructing a factory in Ukraine to produce Bayraktar drones.

According to James Rogers, assistant professor with the Center for War Studies, Turkey has become the leading user of drones. Indeed, Turkey’s use of drone power is not only “most prolific”, but also the Erdoğan regime uses the drones to “project prestige and power.” According to Rogers:

“The workhorse of the Turkish military is the Bayraktar TB2, an armed drone developed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law, Selcuk Bayraktar. The TB2 has a flight time of up to 27 hours and can carry a lethal payload of 330 pounds. These drones have played a pivotal role in Erdogan’s ambitious plans to project Turkish power across the region and support key allies.”

Erdoğan signs a drone as Turkish soldiers stand at attention.

Other experts have argued that the Bayraktar TB2 has not only changed the nature of warfare, but has also presented precision air-strike capabilities to Ukraine along with other countries. The result has been the development of a powerful diplomatic device which has enabled Turkey’s rise and significance in the military arms arena.

Research produced by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, indicates that drone powers such as Turkey, China, USA amongst others use:

“remotely operated military technologies as the spearhead of state power, at the cost of thousands of lives. The burgeoning international market for drones, which comes with its own ‘drone diplomacy,’ drives this trend.”

In other words, not only do these drones and associated technologies propel and establish state power and control over the lives of civilians, especially those whose citizenship is contested or whose minority position and demands for increased access to state power and resources places them in direct opposition of the centralized authority of the states, but also a lucrative market is emerging in which drone sales and development ensure a steady supply of these weapons of destruction to state and non-state actors. To put it more bluntly, Turkey is making a killing out of its drone technology development and sales.

International human rights organizations have voiced deep concerns over the use of drones in warfare and conflicts precisely because of its increased likelihood to violate and contravene international human rights as well as warfare norms. In a special report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions expert, Agnes Callamard has argued that the world has entered what she states is the “second drone age.” This second age involves a terrifying trend in which:

“the uncontrolled proliferation of armed drones, the most advanced of which are stealthier, speedier, smaller, and more capable of targeted killings than a previous generation.”

The Turkish Bayraktar TB2 represents this exact technology and lethality.

James Rogers, highlights that the dangers of drone use on civilians can be not only devastating and can cause extensive killings of civilians, but also contribute to large number of wounded as well. Perhaps most importantly, they contribute to a deep sense of fear and daily terror as civilians live “under the constant anticipation of a drone attack.” Along with Turkey, other countries such as the Saudi Arabia-UAE coalition have well-documented evidence of war crimes including through the use of drone strikes, which have also been used in crimes against the long suffering Yemeni population. In places like Yemen, drone use has “killed more than 8,000 Yemeni civilians in the past eight years.”

Additionally, modern drones with their increasingly developed technologies have the capacity to remain in the air for hours and even days at a time before returning to base. Experts argue that modern drones are getting larger and increasingly resemble aircrafts, indicating the near perpetual state of war and terror on civilian populations.

In other research, Rogers points out that the targeted assassination of Qasim Sulaimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, in the territory of a third-party country, resulted in a dramatic shift in the established rules around the use of drones. The result has been the widespread misuse of drones in violation of territorial integrity of third-party nations since then. However, the murder of Qasim Sulaimani by the US occurred in January 2020. While countries such as Turkey were actively engaging in such targeted killings especially of Kurds for a number of years prior to the Sulaimani assassination. A trend which has remained largely unnoticed or ignored by the international community and experts.

Unfortunately for the Kurds, Turkey and Iran have been identified by experts as the most prolific drone powers, whose unprecedented and wide-ranging use of drones has dramatically altered the “rules of war.” In these cases, drones strikes are seen as clinical and precision devices that “neutralize” their deserving victims, and obfuscate the reality that they are essentially large hovering killing machines, which can burn alive their victims in a fiery and gruesome way. Not to mention that often civilians are also disproportionately affected in these strikes.

Turkey’s use of drones are most prominent in the Kurdish region of Rojava where the Turkish army and their jihadist mercenaries have increased their attacks against the Kurdish-led forces in Syria. One of the most recent drone strikes which occurred on September 17 killed the People’s Protection Units (YPG) commander Aslan Qamişlo, and also injured eight civilians. Last week, two Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) were killed and at least two more injured when a Turkish drone targeted a vehicle in the northern Syrian city of Manbij. According to SOHR, since the start of this year, at least 62 people, including 13 civilians have been murdered by Turkish drone strikes in  SDF controlled regions.

Unfortunately, the Turkish TB2 has been described as a “spectacular propaganda machine, and Erdoğan has used its success to promote his vision for Turkish society.” The drones and increased developments in drone warfare is integral to Erdoğan’s vision of a military advanced regional ‘leader’. This vision involves an indiscriminate use of modern weaponry in wars and conflicts fostered by Turkey’s increasing regional and neo-Ottoman aspirations including most effectively and devastatingly across Greater Kurdistan. For Ankara, it allows them to be seen as a “strong” and “formidable” military power, when in reality they are randomly incinerating cars of unarmed Kurdish people driving on the road who were posing no threat to them or the Turkish state. Whereas placing a bomb in the trunk of a car is traditionally seen as a terroristic act, blowing up a car from the sky curiously is not.

And that is perhaps the most inconsistent element of drone use. Most states rightfully decry authoritarian states who poison dissidents or use hitmen to kill their human rights critics, but when a Bayraktar drone is used to murder Kurdish women advocating gender equality in Rojava, or burn alive four Kurdish teenage girls playing volleyball at a UN school, the distance somehow excuses the illegal and deadly war crime to the international community. Yet, it is hard to argue that such heinous actions would not meet the definition of terrorism, and they should not be excused away just because a state (Turkey) is carrying them out. Ultimately, the greatest measure of success for Erdoğan and his military capabilities is the indiscriminate number of Kurds murdered.


  • Hawzhin Azeez

    Dr. Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch) as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), as well as being a visiting scholar at their CGDS (Center for Gender and Development). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava while a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise include gender dynamics, post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic confederalism, and Kurdish studies.

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