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U.S. shoots down armed drone flown by NATO ally Turkey

In this file photo, a U.S. military vehicle patrols near the northeastern Syrian town of Qamishli in December 2022. The U.S. said it shot down an armed Turkish drone in the region on Thursday when it came close to U.S. forces.
Baderkhan Ahmad
In this file photo, a U.S. military vehicle patrols near the northeastern Syrian town of Qamishli in December 2022. The U.S. said it shot down an armed Turkish drone in the region on Thursday when it came close to U.S. forces.

An American F-16 shot down an armed Turkish drone after it flew close to U.S. forces in northeast Syria and ignored warnings to stay away. Officials said it was the first time the U.S. has shot down an aircraft from Turkey, a NATO ally.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said it was a "regrettable incident" and said U.S. troops had to go into bunkers at their base in Hasakah for safety while Turkey bombed Syrian Kurdish fighters less than a mile away.

The Syrian Kurds are working with some 900 U.S. troops in Syria to go after the remnants of the Islamic State, or ISIS. But Turkey considers these Syrian Kurds allied with Turkish-based Kurds who are opposed to the Turkish government, which considers them terrorists.

One defense source tells NPR that the U.S. ground troops made a "dozen calls" to Turkish military officials stating that US forces were on the ground in the area, even providing a detailed location, and said the U.S. would act in self defense if the drone didn't leave the area. There was no response from Turkish officials, the source said, and the F-16 destroyed the drone.

"The decision was made out of due diligence and the inherent right of self defense to take appropriate action to protect U.S. forces," Ryder said.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Turkish counterpart and spoke of close coordination between the two countries, a conversation Ryder called "fruitful." And the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. C.Q. Brown spoke with the Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces Gen. Metin Gürak by phone.

"The two leaders discussed our shared objective of defeating ISIS and the need to follow common deconfliction protocols to ensure the safety of our personnel in Syria following today's incident," said Joint Staff spokesman Col. Dave Butler.

A Turkish Defense Ministry official told Reuters the drone that was shot down did not belong to the Turkish armed forces, but offered no other details.

Ongoing U.S.-Turkey tensions

The drone shootdown comes amid long-standing tensions between the U.S. and Turkey over the American support for the Syrian Kurdish fighters, the YPG. Turkish forces have increased attacks on those fighters, while the U.S. has mounted continued attacks and capture of ISIS leaders.

Turkey launched a series of drone attacks Thursday, with targets that included gas and oil stations. In a statement, the security forces said Turkish attacks killed six members of the internal security forces in northeastern Syria, and two civilians in two separate strikes. Turkey also hit targets in Iraq it said were part of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party or PKK.

While the U.S. defeated the ISIS caliphate in 2019, there are still pockets of ISIS in the country. U.S. officials say there are at least two training camps it has targeted recently.

That same year, U.S. troops came under attack by Turkish artillery and one U.S. soldier told NPR his unit almost responded.

And in 2020, NPR visited an oil field in northern Syria within sight of the Turkish border that was protected by soldiers from the West Virginia National Guard. Armed drones struck the site before dawn, dropping bombs that left big circular holes in the grounds and pockmarks on one of their military trucks.

"We immediately sprung, got in the vehicle," said Sgt. 1st Class Mitch Morgan. "We were out in two minutes. As we were going out, they was raining down mortars on top of us."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.

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