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US F-16 shoots down a Turkish drone over Syria

The Turkish drone was armed with air-to-ground munitions and flying over US forces in Syria.
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turkish drone
Two U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft fly over the U.S. Air Force Central Command area of responsibility in April 2021. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Trevor T. McBride

A U.S. F-16 fighter shot down a Turkish drone over Syria on Thursday, Task & Purpose has confirmed, – a rare incident of U.S. forces engaging that of an ally and fellow NATO member.

The drone, which was armed with air-to-ground munitions, flew over an area where U.S. ground forces were operating, Task & Purpose has learned. Turkish officials did not respond to a dozen calls warning that U.S. troops were in the area and the American military would engage the drone in self-defense if it did not leave.

The “regrettable incident” occurred after several Turkish drones had conducted airstrikes earlier in the day near U.S. troops operating in Syria, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Thursday.

Turkey is an ally and a member of NATO, but the U.S. military has partnered with Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria whom the Turks have accused of being terrorist groups. The shootdown comes after a suicide bomb attack in Ankara on Sunday, which the Turkish government has blamed on the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK.

Reuters first reported on Thursday that the U.S. had downed a Turkish drone, although a Turkish defense official denied that the drone belonged to Turkey’s military.

Video posted on “X,” the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, appeared to show the Turkish drone exploding mid-air.

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Ryder said some of the Turkish airstrikes carried out by the drones on Thursday morning took place inside a declared U.S. restricted operating zone about 1 kilometer away from American troops on the ground, who took shelter in bunkers.

At roughly 11:30 a.m. local time, a Turkish drone re-entered the restricted operating zone on a heading toward U.S. troops, Ryder said. American commanders determined that the drone, which came within less than half a mile from U.S. troops, was a potential threat so an F-16 shot the unmanned aircraft down.

Ryder also said that the U.S. military had communicated with Turkish officials prior to the shootdown, but he did not specify with whom.

No U.S. forces were injured in the incident and defense officials have no indication that the Turkish drone was intentionally targeting American troops, Ryder said.

When asked why the U.S. military felt that the drone posed a potential threat if defense officials later determined that it was not targeting American troops, Ryder replied: “At the time, you don’t know what you don’t know. You’re making observations and you have to take quick action to, again, ensure the inherent right of self-defense.”

Ryder stressed that Turkey is an important and valuable NATO ally and the United States supports  Turkey against the PKK.

Roughly 900 U.S. troops are deployed to Syria to fight the Islamic State group along with the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, a mostly Kurdish organization that includes Arab and Turkmen militias.

American troops first entered Syria in 2015 as part of the anti-ISIS mission, and two years later the U.S. military shot down an Iranian-made drone and a Syrian Su-22 fighter bomber in separate incidents The 2017 shootdown of the Su-22 marked the U.S. military’s first air-to-air kill since 1999.

Since then, U.S. troops in both Syria and Iraq have come under attack by drones. After one such attack in March that killed an American contractor and wounded five service members in Syria, the U.S. military launched airstrikes against “groups affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.”

But Thursday’s incident was different from past aerial confrontations because the U.S. shot down an allied aircraft.

This is the latest altercation between the United States and Turkey, which invaded Syria in October 2019 to push Kurdish forces away from its border. Then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper initially announced that all U.S. troops would leave Syria as a result of the Turkish incursion, but former President Donald Trump later announced that American forces would remain in the country to protect oil fields.

The SDF has issued a statement claiming that Turkey has launched several attacks on its forces since Sunday’s terrorist attack in Ankara, which Turkey has blamed on Kurdish terrorists.

“Regarding the results of the Turkish UAV aggressions against our areas, we have suffered a total of nine martyrs, comprising two from the SDF, six members of the Internal Security Forces who were guarding the Power Station in the Amuda area, and one civilian in addition to 10 other civilians were injured,” the statement says.

UPDATE: 10/05/2023; this story was updated with comments from Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman.

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