U.S. F-16 fighter jets shot an armed Turkish drone out of the skies Thursday over northeastern Syria after the drone flew too close to U.S. troops on the ground.
Pentagon officials said U.S. commanders observed the drone early Thursday when Turkish forces carried out a series of drone strikes near Hasakah, just a kilometer away from where U.S forces were based.
The U.S. troops were sent to their bunkers while efforts were made to communicate with Turkish commanders. But when the armed drone approached again later, coming within half a kilometer of U.S. forces, the decision was made to shoot it down.
“This is certainly a regrettable incident,” Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters Thursday, defending the decision to shoot down the drone.
“Based on the observation of airstrikes being conducted and the fact that this drone was upwards of nearly half a kilometer from U.S. forces, U.S. commanders made the determination that it was a self-defense threat,” he said. “Appropriate action was taken.”
The incident prompted high-level phone calls between U.S. and Turkish defense officials.
The Pentagon described one call between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Turkish Minister of National Defense Yasar Guler as “fruitful.”
A second call between U.S. General CQ Brown, the newly installed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Metin Gurak, chief of the general staff of the Turkish armed forces, focused on “the need to follow common deconfliction protocols to ensure the safety of our personnel in Syria,” according to a Pentagon readout.
Turkey has been carrying out a series of airstrikes across northern Syria in retaliation for a terror attack Sunday, claimed by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, that killed two police officers at Turkey’s Interior Ministry.
Both Ankara and the U.S. view the PKK as a terror organization. But Turkey views the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, as an extension of the PKK, while the U.S. has supported the SDF as a key partner in the fight against the Islamic State terror group.
“When it comes to the PKK, we recognize and have declared the PKK a foreign terrorist organization and again, fully understand Turkey’s legitimate right to defend itself,” Ryder said.
Ryder did not elaborate about why communications between U.S. commanders in Syria and Turkish officials failed to stop the Turkish drone from approaching U.S. forces in an area the U.S. had designated as a restricted operating zone.
As for the hostilities between Turkey and the SDF and other Kurdish groups in northeastern Syria, Ryder said the U.S. would continue to urge all sides to de-escalate to allow U.S. and coalition forces to focus on eliminating the last Islamic State terror cells in the region.
“Turkey does remain a very important and valuable NATO ally and partner to the United States,” he noted. “We have no indication Turkey was intentionally targeting U.S. forces.”