Turkey’s Drones: Freedom for Ukrainians, Death for Armenians and Kurds
Turkey’s Bayraktar drones have become a controversial symbol inspiring both fear and pride. Ukrainians love them, Armenians and Kurds hate them—but either way, the symbolic status of the drones helps Turkish military profiteers line their pockets.
Ukraine loves Bayraktar. The pop song “Bayraktar,” written by soldier Taras Borovok, wafts from car radios and speaker systems around the country. There are Bayraktar-themed t-shirts, coffee mugs, baseball bats, jigsaw puzzles, throw pillows, and plush dolls on sale online. One blogger even got a Bayraktar tattoo.
The Turkish drone has become a symbol of Ukraine’s plucky resistance to Russian aggression. Maria, a young Ukrainian journalist told us that the “Bayraktar” became a “symbol of unity and a really important word in wartime.”
Maria herself organized one of the countless fundraising campaigns to buy Bayraktars for the Ukrainian military. These campaigns became ubiquitous in Ukraine and sympathetic European states — and the manufacturer Baykar welcomed them gleefully, even offering three drones for free.
But on the plains of northeastern Syria, the Bayraktar means something quite different. For years, Turkey has used drones to surveil and kill revolutionaries who cooperate with the Kurdish-led democratic confederalist movement. In late November, the Turkish military launched massive airstrikes against the region’s energy and transportation infrastructure.
One Syrian aid worker from the region said his own father is afraid to drive the family pickup truck due to the presence of Turkish drones in the sky. He asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of his work.
The proxy conflicts of the past decade have allowed Turkey to make itself a leading exporter of military drones. For many Ukrainians, Poles and Balts, the Turkish drones are part of the arsenal of freedom, a nimble hi-tech defense against the lumbering Russian war machine. But for those at odds with the Turkish state — Kurds, Armenians, and Syrian leftists — the Bayraktar is the embodiment of the evil empire itself.
All over the planet, Turkish drones have been a weapon in the hands of people fighting their compatriots. During the recent Libyan civil war, they helped the Tripoli-based government shore up its position against the rival Tobruk-based government. In Ethiopia, the government of Abiy Ahmad has used Turkish, Iranian, Emirati, and Chinese drones in its war against the Tigrayan nationalist uprising.
One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, as the old expression goes. The Bayraktar has been used by all—those who call themselves freedom fighters and those who claim to be fighting terrorists. But at the end of the day, it is an instrument of Turkish state power—one that has allowed Ankara to expand its influence and the Turkish defense industry to reap massive revenues.
Turkey first purchased unarmed American and Israeli drones in the 1990s to surveil Turkey’s southeast, which was undergoing a Kurdish uprising. But the Turkish military was frustrated by how long information from the drones took to reach ground forces, The Intercept reported. Relations with the United States and Israel also started to fray in the early 2000s.
US-educated engineer Selçuk Bayraktar, the son of a religious family that owned an aerospace firm, had a solution: he would build a homegrown drone for the Turkish military. Bayraktar first demonstrated an unarmed surveillance drone to a group of officials in 2005, according to The Intercept’s report, and won his first bid to supply the Turkish military in 2006.
The armed Bayraktar TB2 made its debut in 2015, shortly after Turkey broke off peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and resumed its war in the southeast.
Bayraktar became an Elon Musk-esque millionaire celebrity, even marrying President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s daughter Sümeyye. His Instagram is ripe with sleek photos of him engaging in philanthropy, meeting the people — ubiquitously in a loud red pilot jacket. His speeches and interviews are full of nationalist rhetoric, praising Turkey’s power.
The company’s drones, Bayraktar said in a recent speech, are not just “war machines,” but a way to communicate “in the spiritual realms,” that Turkey “will be free and independent in its skies.” The newest Bayraktar drone, the state-of-the-art Kızılelma, “embodies the values of justice, goodness and compassion of our civilization,” the millionaire CTO said.
Armenians might beg to differ.
“Turkey is the successor of the Ottoman Empire, responsible for the Armenian Genocide, for killing more than 1.5 million Armenians, and stealing their land and wealth,” said Ani Avetyan, chief of the international news department at Armenia TV. “And now, 100 years later, Turkish drones [used by Azerbaijan] killed thousands of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh.”
Just like Bayraktar’s public presence, the drones themselves are a propaganda tool made for the social media age. During the Turkish intervention in Libya, the Twitter page ClashReport shared first-person footage from Bayraktar drones.
While the account presents itself as the work of “open source intelligence” enthusiasts, the New America Foundation called it “likely a cut out for the Turkish government.” In any case, the videos were widely disseminated by journalists and social media users excited about gritty combat footage.
Anton, a medical student living in Kyiv, is a fan of such videos from the Ukrainian war. (He asked his name to be changed.) He said that whenever he hears the word “Bayraktar,” he thinks of combat footage, “where you can see the fall of the projectile and its explosion.”
Anton, who has donated to Bayraktar fundraising drives, said that the Bayraktar has become a “kind of an ‘object’ of culture, you can write a song, poem or just make a meme about it, and people will understand what you’re talking about.”
Bayraktar’s pop culture status may have helped cover up some of the drone’s shortcomings. Last year, a United Nations expert panel concluded that Bayraktars had been ineffective against enemy ground fire in Libya. A few months later, Russian propagandists apparently tricked Ukrainian official Sergey Pashinsky into saying on tape that “there is more PR and corruption in Bayraktar than combat use.”
But for Anton, just like for other Ukrainians we spoke to, Bayraktar’s meme status is rooted in hard reality: “as far as they do not allow Russia to capture more territory or kill more people, my life depends on the Bayraktars.”
Bayraktars were instrumental for the Ukrainian resistance, counterbalancing the massive quantities of Russian machinery and significantly leveling the playing field. The cheap drones can avoid Russian air defenses and take out priceless military equipment.
During his taped conversation, Pashinsky implied that Bayraktars were much more effective in tandem with ground-based missile systems.
Notably, Ukraine reportedly used Bakraktars along with other weapons to sink the infamous Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship “Moskva,” which had sailed with a piece of the True Cross on board. The sinking drastically impeded Russian operations in the Black Sea. Ukraine also reportedly used the drones to bring the fight to Russian territory, hitting an oil depot in the city of Bryansk, 370 km from Moscow.
People in northeast Syria have had the exact opposite experience. As part of its war against the democratic confederalist movement, the Turkish military has attacked predominantly Kurdish areas of Syria. Two invasions—one in January 2018 and another in October 2019—displaced hundreds of thousands of people, who fled a violent occupation by Turkish-backed militias.
The Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, and other fighters defending this region have few tools to counter enemy airpower. The Syrian aid worker stated bluntly that Bayraktars are “killing machines, not only targeting military targets, but purely ordinary civilians.”
A combined American-Russian intervention has kept the frontlines relatively stable so far. However, Turkey has continued to launch air raids deep into Syrian territory and neighboring Iraq, as part of an assassination campaign targeting democratic confederalist organizations.
One airstrike killed three members of a politically-active family at once. Another killed a deputy chair of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria while he was receiving medical treatment in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan.
As Ankara threatened a renewed invasion in November 2022, the Turkish military launched a devastating bombardment campaign against northeast Syrian infrastructure. The attack included aerial bombing, heavy artillery shelling, and drone strikes.
The Kurdish Peace Institute documented one “double-tap” airstrike against an electrical station in Teqil Beqil. After the first round of bombardment, rescuers showed up to tend to the survivors. Drones continued to circle overhead. Turkish forces then bombed the site a second time, killing eleven rescuers and wounding six more.
The continued presence of Bayraktars reminds locals that the threat is still there. Although the drones often fly too high to be seen, their sound distinguishes them from other aircraft, explains Jamie Parks of the Rojava Information Center.
“In the cities…the noise is covered by local noise of traffic and generators etc. But at night or early in the morning they can sometimes be heard,” said Parks, a researcher based in the region. “Around the frontlines as far as I know they are an almost constant presence.”
Azerbaijan, a close ally of Turkey, has used the drones to settle its own scores against the Armenians of the Nagorno-Karabakh exclave. In late 2020, the Azerbaijani military launched a campaign to realize its longstanding claims to the disputed region. Bayraktars played a star role in the war, cutting through Armenian forces that had no viable countermeasures.
Azerbaijan’s victory caused a mass Armenian exodus. Despite Baku’s claims that Armenians could continue to live under Azerbaijani rule, masses of Armenians fled the region amidst reports of atrocities by Azerbaijani troops, including rape and beheading. Azerbaijan is now blockading the remaining Armenian communities in Nagorno-Karabakh.
“The families of hundreds of soldiers in Armenia know that their sons, fathers, brothers were killed being attacked by Turkish drones,” said Avetyan, the Armenian television journalist.
Azerbaijan has hinted that it will push further, even claiming that internationally-recognized parts of Armenia are historically Azerbaijani territory. President Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly laid claim to the Armenian capital Yerevan and Avetyan’s home province of Syunik-Zangezur.
For all of these reasons, the perceptions of Bayraktars are of course wildly varied from Syria, to Ukraine, to Armenia. Many give this contradiction little thought.
“I don’t know what impact they have elsewhere, but we know that these are the evil tools that harm innocent civilians and terrify locals,” said the Syrian aid worker.
A few are more pensive.
Avetyan told us that “everyone is free to choose their way of self-defense. I just would like Ukraine, which is now surviving the same horrible war, that Armenians went through, to not count Armenians as enemies just because Azerbaijan and Turkey are supplying them with drones.”
Anna, another Ukrainian activist whose name has been changed, referred to the Shahed-136 drones that Iran has supplied to Russia: “Ukrainians don’t like Shaheds, Russians do, Kurds probably don’t care…c’est la vie.”
“I think that if a group of Kurds, for example, was to seize a Bayraktar, it’s unlikely they’d burn it out of hostility, they’d probably repurpose it,” Anna added. “I mean that everything depends on the one in whose hands the weapon is and against whom it is used.”
All in all, no matter who uses Bayraktars, the cultural impact of the drone helps line the pockets of Baykar stakeholders.
Last year, the United Arab Emirates purchased twenty TB2 drones as part of a $2 billion arms deal. More recently, Kuwait signed a $370 million deal for eighteen more drones.
Whether it symbolizes resistance or oppression, the drone’s reputation serves as free advertising to powerful states looking for a cheap military tool of their own.
(Photo: BIROL BEBEK/AFP via Getty Images)