Turkey’s Killer Drone Swarm Poses Syria Air Challenge to Putin

Turkey deployed swarms of killer drones to strike Russian-backed Syrian government forces, in what a senior official said was a military innovation that demonstrated Ankara’s technological prowess on the battlefield.

The retaliation for the killing last week of 33 Turkish soldiers by Syrian forces involved an unprecedented number of drones in coordinated action, said the senior official in Turkey with direct knowledge of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Syria policy. It was the first time a country had commanded the air space over such a large area using drone swarms, according to the official.

The series of strikes since Thursday by dozens of the remotely-controlled aircraft targeted Syrian bases and chemical warfare depots, the Turkish military said. But Turkey also located and destroyed some Syrian missile-defense systems, raising questions about the effectiveness of the Russian-made equipment intended to deter such air attacks.

“That’s something only Israel had been recorded publicly to have done until now,” Charles Lister, director of the Extremism and Counterterrorism Program at the Middle East Institute, said on Twitter, in reference tovideo footage taken by a Turkish drone allegedly showing the destruction of a Syrian army air-defense system. Turkey was waging an “air campaign run entirely by armed drones backed up” by heavy rocket artillery, he said.

The tactic threatens to bring NATO member Turkey into direct confrontation with Russia, adding tostrains in relations between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin as they prepare to meet this week in an effort to ease tensions over Syria. The two leaders have worked together to try to end the Syrian civil war, despite backing opposing sides, but have repeatedly stumbled over who should control the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib that borders Turkey.

Russia dominates the skies over Syria as part of Putin’s military support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, deploying advanced S-400 missile-defense systems to secure the air space while its warplanes aid Syrian forces battling to take the last rebel stronghold in Idlib. Turkish forces back the rebels and Ankara says it fears a fresh exodus of refugees flocking into Turkey if Idlib falls to Assad.

Syria reacted to the Turkish drone campaign by declaring the air space in Idlib closed, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported Sunday. “Any aircraft that violates the Syrian airspace will be dealt with as a hostile aircraft that must be downed,” SANA reported, citing an unnamed military official.

Turkey announced Sunday that its forces had shot down two Syrian Su-24 warplanes and destroyed three more Syrian air defense systems, while confirming that one armed Turkish drone was hit.

Turkey wants to carve out a zone that it controls in northern Syria as part of efforts to resettle millions of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. Putin has said Assad’s forces should control all of Syria’s territory as the best way to guarantee Turkey’s border security.

Russia denied involvement in the Feb. 27 air strike that inflicted the biggest single-day loss of Turkish troops for decades, though Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow can’t prevent Syrian forces striking at “terrorists” on their soil. Turkish officials accuse Moscow of doing too little to rein in Assad.

Turkey has long hosted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Anatolian Eagle military exercises, which simulate attacks on similar Russian missile-defense systems including with electronic warfare. Israeli forces also participated in the drills once. Turkey deployed an array of electronic jammers in Syria before it launched the drone strikes as part of its “Spring Shield” campaign.

Ankara appeared eager to show off its aerial firepower. The Defense Ministry posted a series of videos on Twitter showing Syrian tanks and artillery being destroyed in apparent drone attacks.

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