The US and UK have a new rival when it comes to the ‘most prolific user of killer drones’

Killer drone flying through the air
Ed Sykes

A recent Intercept report claims that NATO member Turkey now “rivals the U.S. and the U.K. as the world’s most prolific user of killer drones”. And considering that the current Turkish regime has been found guilty of committing war crimes, that fact is all the more concerning.

Turkey setting killer drones “against its own citizens”

In 2015, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan restarted a decades-long conflict with the country’s Kurdish community. His regime would soon face allegations of looting, lying, ethnic cleansingsupport for terrorists, and alliances with neo-Nazis. Then, in 2018, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal found Erdoğan and the Turkish state guilty of war crimes against Kurdish people both at home and abroad.

And it appears that killer drones have played a key role in Turkey’s anti-Kurdish war. As Umar Farooq wrote at the Intercept:

Turkey’s drones are a near constant presence in the skies in the country’s [largely Kurdish] southeast. Nearly every day, a Turkish drone, usually a TB2, either fires on a target or provides the location of a target that is subsequently bombed by an F-16 or attack helicopter.

He also pointed out that:

Turkey stands out as not only the most advanced new developer of drones but also as the only country to regularly use them on its own soil, against its own citizens.

“Nationalist fervor” feeding impunity

Turkey has fought against the left-wing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for decades. There have been big losses on both sides; and as in most conflicts, civilians were often caught in the middle. Today, the PKK and its allies condemn all attacks on civilians. But since 2015, Erdoğan’s regime has sought to repress all of its political opponents by labelling them either terrorists or terrorist sympathisers (and killing or arresting them accordingly). European courts, meanwhile, have criticised this tactic – insisting that the PKK is a “party to an armed conflict” and not a “terrorist organisation”.

Nationalism, however, has a long history in Turkey. And in recent years, Erdoğan has engineered support for his Islamist ideology by fusing it with nationalism. His war on the Kurdish minority community in Turkey, meanwhile, has provided the perfect progressive opponent for his hybrid right-wing dogma. It has also given his regime an immense amount of power to decide who deserves to die and who doesn’t. As Farooq explained:

There is evidence that some of those killed by Turkey’s drones are civilians. But with the country swept up in a nationalist fervor, the task of identifying who should be targeted by drone strikes has been delegated to a government with a broad mandate to do whatever it takes to eliminate [alleged] terror groups — and little apparent attention to the fatal mistakes it seems to have made.

And fighting for accountability is very hard in a country which is the “world’s biggest jailer of professional journalists”. As Farooq stressed:

Talking about who the drones are killing in Turkey is not easy. Criticism is seen by many in Turkey as not only siding with the PKK but also as a betrayal of a source of pride for the country.

Drones give a dangerous boost to war criminals

In January 2018, Turkey invaded the Afrin region of northern Syria, launching a campaign of ethnic cleansing to push Kurdish people out. Afrin had previously been one of the calmest areas in Syria; and had hosted tens of thousands of refugees, with little international support. But it quickly became the site of mass looting and anti-Kurdish crimes. According to Farooq:

TB2 drones were involved in nearly a fifth of the total kills Turkey claimed, directly killing 449 individuals and providing targeting for 680 others over a three-month period… The Afrin attacks became so famous that today you can even play a smartphone game made by Turkish university students where you pilot an armed drone in Afrin. “These combat and non-combat unmanned vehicles altered the fate of the Afrin operation and gave Turkey the upper hand,” then-Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said.

Drones give those with power and money the freedom to kill people from afar. These deaths come without a trial, and often without accountability. For that reason, peace activists are right to campaign against the use of drones; especially when those using them are notorious war criminals.

Featured image via US Air Force

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