Pentagon Launching Armed Drones From Turkey
First drones, then U.S. fighter planes, will operate from Turkish bases.
For the first time, American forces are flying armed drones out of Turkey’s Incirlik air base in support of the U.S.-backed rebels battling the Islamic State in Syria.
The drones will operate mainly as a protective umbrella for the handful of Syrian fighters trained by U.S. forces to fight the militants, in effect giving the 60 or so guerrillas their own air support capability with American precision-guided missiles. The Pentagon has spent about $36 million on this first class of trainees — or about $600,000 each — as part of $500 million program that originally promised to have 5,000 fighters ready to go by the end of this year.
Lawmakers from both parties on Capitol Hill have derided the number of fighters as woefully inadequate. Nonetheless, the White House has requested another $600 million to train Syrian forces in 2016.
While the New Syrian Forces, or NSF, have pledged only to fight the Islamic State, the U.S. strikes will target anyone who picks a fight with them. This includes Syrian government forces — many of whom are at least nominally fighting the Islamic State — or other rebel groups not currently in the coalition’s crosshairs.
A U.S. airstrike supporting the NSF on Friday illustrated this point. The NSF and allied rebels from the so-called 30th Division in northern Syria were attacked by the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, who were then hit by American warplanes. U.S. officials couldn’t confirm that this was the first time that al-Nusra Front fighters were targeted in the year-long bombing campaign, which has focused on the Islamic State.
The drone strikes come after a deeply embarrassing incident last week when a group of rebels who had gone through the training program were captured almost immediately upon entering the country by Nusra fighters. It is not clear precisely how many were captured, but U.S. defense officials insist that they were not part of the group of 60 NSF fighters sent into Syria.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters on Monday that the U.S. airstrike on Friday “was coordinated with anti-ISIL forces on the ground,” acknowledging the NSF has some ability to call in coalition airstrikes. He said the United States has so far not carried out any drone strikes to protect its Syrian allies.
The strike on Friday came after months of hand-wringing by Pentagon and White House officials over what kind of protection the United States owes the NSF fighters — who have been trained in Turkey by U.S. special operations forces — once they have been sent back into Syria to fight.
U.S. pilots will be somewhat constrained in their support of the rebels, however. The overall policy to hit the Islamic State when and where the U.S.-led coalition finds them will remain in place. But pilots can only provide “defensive fire support” for the NSF after the group is attacked.
No new American assets have been moved to Turkey as part of the new drone program. The aircraft flying over Syria were already in place at Incirlik, but had only recently been given the green light to fly. More American fighter planes are expected to arrive in Turkey in the coming weeks now that Washington and Ankara have agreed to Turkish participation in the broader fight and to allow U.S. attack aircraft to operate from Turkey.
In a statement released Monday afternoon, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), long a harsh critic of President Barack Obama’s Syria policy, derided the drone plan as another “incremental step” in helping the rebels that “has allowed security conditions to spiral into chaos.”
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