Lethal Drone Attack Hits US-Turkish Mil. Relations

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal about a Turkish military attack last December that left 34 Kurdish smugglers dead has led to intense debate inside Turkey and has given rise to new questions about the level of American involvement in Ankara’s fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The attack, which took place near a village called Uludere on the Turkey-Iraq border, came after the Turkish military came to believe that a convoy of PKK fighters was trying to enter Turkey through a mountain trail. After Turkish warplanes struck the convoy, based on intelligence provided by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), it turned out that it was actually made up of villagers — mostly teenagers — smuggling fuel into Turkey. Although the Turkish government promised to investigate the incident and has also paid the victims’ families compensation, there has still been no explanation as to what caused the intelligence failure that led to 34 innocent people being killed.
The WSJ article from two days ago adds a new and dramatic wrinkle to the story: the original intelligence about the convoy was given to the Turkish military by an American UAV. Reportsthe Journal:

It was a U.S. Predator drone that spotted the men and pack animals, officials said, and American officers alerted Turkey.

The U.S. drone flew away after reporting the caravan’s movements, leaving the Turkish military to decide whether to attack, according to an internal assessment by the U.S. Defense Department, described to The Wall Street Journal. “The Turks made the call,” a senior U.S. defense official said. “It wasn’t an American decision.”

There is nothing unusual about an American UAV providing Ankara with intelligence. US drones have supporting Turkish military efforts since 2007, when Washington set up what is known as the Combined Intelligence Fusion Cell, a complex in Ankara where American and Turkish officers sit together and jointly monitor live drone video feeds. But that cooperation has been increased over the last year. As previously reported on this blog, last November the US moved a squadron of Predators from a base in Iraq to Turkey’s Incirlik airbase as part of an effort to deepen military ties with Ankara and to increase cooperation in the fight against the PKK.

As the WSJ article makes clear, though, there are some in Washington — in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill — who are concerned about how the intelligence provided by American drones might be used by Ankara:

A former senior U.S. military official, involved in sharing intelligence with Turkey before the December attack, said he and fellow officers were sometimes troubled by Turkish standards for selecting targets. The former official said Turkish officers sometimes picked targets based on a notion of “guilt by association” with the PKK. A current U.S. intelligence official defended the partnership. “That is going to be the exception. It is a horrible exception. It’s a tragic exception,” he said of the caravan strike. “But the vast majority of efforts to expand our information sharing and to work with our partners and allies around the world are going to have positive outcomes.”

U.S. personnel work in the Ankara Fusion Cell, in part, to monitor Turkey’s use of U.S. intelligence, U.S. officials said.

Turkish officials have assured the U.S. of their measures to avoid civilian casualties. They say privately that Predator drones help reduce attacks on the PKK using less precise weapons, such as artillery.

But U.S. officials say such mistakes are feeding a debate within the intelligence community and the Defense Department about setting better guidelines for sharing of U.S. intelligence.

Intelligence officials are divided on the issue. Some say the U.S. should withhold intelligence if it believes an ally might abuse the information. Others warn new rules could slow intelligence sharing during emergencies.

The report, meanwhile, has put the Turkish government in a tight spot. The suggestion that Turkish authorities gave a green light to attack the convoy after refusing an American offer to provide more Predator surveillance could make Ankara vulnerable to charges of negligence and could further inflame an already tense situation in Turkey’s predominantly-Kurdish southeast region. At the same time, regardless of how the intelligence was used, Ankara likely doesn’t want to be perceived domestically as working too closely with Washington or, worse, being somehow under American command. Not surprisingly, both the Turkish military and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have denied the claims made in the WSJ’s story. The allegations in the article were “made up,” Erdogan said.

One way or another, it’s clear that this incident will likely lead not only to a change in how Turkey uses UAV-provided intelligence, but also in how Washington controls what is done with the drone intelligence it provides Ankara.