Turkish drone strikes targeting leaders in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and Kurdish civil society groups present a growing threat to governance, stabilization, and counter-ISIS efforts in the region. To preserve security and stability in North and East Syria, a comprehensive response is necessary.
Turkey’s Drone Campaign
Turkey targets both security personnel and political and social leaders in North and East Syria. These men and women form the core of the institutions tasked with keeping a volatile region secure and building successful civil institutions to govern nearly one-third of Syrian territory. Turkey’s proven willingness to strike on major roads and in populated cities means apolitical civilians are often killed as well—and leaves local populations in constant fear of new attacks.
On June 22nd, Anti-Terror Units (YAT) commander Jiyan Tolhildan was killed in a Turkish drone strike while returning from a conference on North and East Syria’s women’s movement in Qamishlo.
Tolhildan, who is originally from Afrin, was one of the founding members of the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ). She participated in nearly every major battle against ISIS in North and East Syria and trained hundreds of women in both military matters and the Kurdish movement’s political philosophy of women’s liberation.
YPJ commander Roj Xabur, from Darbasiyah, and fighter Barin Botan, from Afrin, also lost their lives in the strike.
In June, AANES Executive Council Deputy Chair Ferhad Shibli was killed in a strike outside of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he had traveled in order to receive medical treatment.
In April, the Co-Chair of the Defense Committee of Kobane Canton, Rodîn Ebdilqadir Mihemed, was killed in a drone strike targeting her vehicle. Mihemed, a YPJ veteran, fought ISIS in Kobane and Raqqa before assuming a leadership role in Kobane’s local administration.
In November of last year, three members of a politically active Kurdish family in Qamishlo—Yusuf, Mazlum, and Mihemed Gulo—were targeted in a crowded residential neighborhood of the city.
According to data from the Qamishlo-based Rojava Information Center, at least 47 Turkish drone strikes targeted AANES territory in the first six months of 2022. The Center documented 89 such strikes in all of 2021.
Turkey seems to choose its targets based on their affiliation with the SDF, the AANES, or affiliated civil society structures—not on any given individual’s current involvement in military action against Turkey. The majority of notable victims of these drone strikes appear to be Syrian citizens. Strikes often take place well behind active front lines, in violation of U.S.- and Russian-brokered ceasefire agreements.
These patterns suggests that the strikes are not carried out due to military necessity, but as part of a Turkish strategy to weaken the AANES by measures that, while destructive, fall short of all-out war. In this regard, they align with continued instability on existing ceasefire lines and long-term economic and environmental pressure imposed by Turkey on northern Syria as a set of policies that pose serious threats to the AANES without rising to a level that would invite international scrutiny.
Impacts on the Ground
Because of Turkey, officials in North and East Syria are forced to navigate credible threats to their own lives and the lives of those around them while also contending with major post-war challenges of security provision, governance, and reconstruction. This creates a serious trade-off: limiting their movements in ways that protect their personal safety impedes their ability to fight ISIS, serve their constituents, and engage in other necessary work.
The level of military and political expertise and local legitimacy that leaders need in order to address the problems North and East Syria faces takes years to cultivate—and is thus impossible to replace on short notice. By killing individuals with years of experience and strong ties to their communities, Turkey is leaving North and East Syria without some of its most capable personnel. The prospect of ending up on a Turkish hit list may discourage new leaders from stepping up and advancing in their careers. This is a direct threat to security and stability in the region.
The negative impacts are by no means limited to AANES and SDF structures. Turkey’s disregard for civilian life in its drone campaign and its penchant for striking its targets in populated areas causes real civilian harm creates fear among the population, discouraging Syrians in the northeast from planning long-term futures there.
The strikes also discourage reconstruction and economic recovery. Individuals and companies who fear that their investments may be destroyed—or that their personnel may be killed—simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time are less likely to invest in North and East Syria. The recent U.S. sanctions exemption, intended to promote desperately-needed economic recovery in the region, will have little effect if strikes are not stopped.
By failing to respond proactively and only registering protest after the fact on some occasions, the United States appears to have given Turkey a tacit green light to carry out targeted killings of Syrians on Syrian soil based on their affiliation with the AANES or the SDF. This harms the fight against ISIS and post-ISIS stabilization efforts for the reasons described above.
It may also reinforce a perception among people in North and East Syria that the U.S. is not interested in the region’s long-term future. If actors like Russia were to take the opportunity to address the drone problem and impose consequences on Turkey for destabilizing and demoralizing ceasefire violations, it might gain political goodwill and an upper hand in negotiations.
To guarantee stability and security in North and East Syria, the United States and the Coalition must take action before this threat has an even greater impact on local capabilities and perceptions.
First, they should provide protection to SDF and AANES personnel whose lives may be at risk. This should include an assessment of the full extent of Turkey’s intention to target individual SDF and AANES leaders, and the provision of any and all information the United States has about Turkey’s plans to target specific individuals to SDF and AANES authorities and to the individuals themselves.
Turkey must then face meaningful consequences for carrying out a drone campaign that is destabilizing, detrimental to governance, and likely often in violation of international law.
A reasonable place to start may be blocking the sale of US-origin weapons and technology that are likely to be used in strikes targeting SDF and AANES-affiliated individuals. A 2021 investigation by Hetq found that Turkey’s Bayraktar TB-2 drones contain at least six U.S.-origin components.
This would likely find bipartisan support in Washington. Last year, 27 members of Congress sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for an investigation of Turkey’s drone program and urging the suspension of exports of drone-related technology. More recently, members of Congress opposed to F-16 sales to Turkey expressed concern that the jets would be used against the Syrian Kurds who fought ISIS on the ground.
There are also many punitive measures that can be used to pressure Turkish leaders and institutions involved in the drone campaign. In extending authorities under Executive Order 13894, the Biden Administration stated that Turkey’s offensive into northeast Syria “undermines the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, endangers civilians, and further threatens to undermine the peace, security, and stability in the region.” Drone strikes that kill SDF and AANES leaders and Syrian civilians are a part of this campaign, and explicitly contribute to all of the negative developments listed.