Ankara has claimed it will have sole responsibility for the routes and missions of four US Predator drones deployed to an air base in southeastern Turkey last month to help with efforts to track down and gather intelligence on Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists. The drones in Turkey will be operational after those in Iraq take off for their last mission on Nov. 22.
“In line with the US plan to pull out of Iraq, predators will fly for the last time from Iraq on Nov. 22; from then onwards the four predators currently based in Turkey will be taking over surveillance missions,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was quoted by the Anatolia news agency as saying on Saturday.
The foreign minister’s words came following media reports that the US had deployed four drones in Turkey. He confirmed that two of the Predators were already based at İncirlik Air Base in Adana and would be taking up surveillance in a timely manner so as not to leave any gaps after US forces leave Iraq. “The data provided by those predators will be shared in real time by a unit in Turkey and the routes for the Predators will be determined solely by the Turkish Armed Forces [TSK] and our military officials,” Davutoğlu said, brushing off speculation that the US might remain in charge of the drones’ operations after they are based in Turkey.
The foreign minister clarified it was Turkey that requested the continuation of drone surveillance after the US pullout as the country has greatly benefited from data obtained by the unmanned aerial vehicles in its fight against the PKK. Any gap in the gathering of intelligence by the drones could endanger Turkish forces, which often experience ambush attacks from the PKK. The timely deployment of the Predators before the US concludes its flights in Iraq is expected to enable the surveillance to go uninterrupted.
The four US drones arrived at İncirlik in late October, the Taraf daily reported on Friday, as it claimed that their deployment happened days before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan discussed a request to purchase drones to be used in the fight against the PKK with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the recent G-20 summit in Paris.
The deployment of the US drones in Turkish territory is separate from the request to purchase drones from the US. In September The Washington Post reported that Turkey sought the deployment of a fleet of US drones in its territory as a measure against the PKK following the US withdrawal from Iraq. Later in September Erdoğan said the US had agreed in principle to the Turkish request to deploy its drones on Turkish soil. In addition to hosting the US drones Turkey also intends to buy its own armed drones from the US. Turkey is seeking to purchase MQ-9 Reapers, a larger and more modern version of the Predator.
Taraf reported that the drones would be used to monitor the PKK’s movements but they would not provide real-time data from their surveillance flights for Turkish authorities, and data from the drones’ flights would be sent to the US before reaching Turkish officials. Davutoğlu brushed off this claim by saying that Turkish personnel would be involved first-hand in the command of the flights and the intelligence gathered would be delivered to Turkish authorities without any delays.
UAV pieces in fishing net on Turkish shore spark Heron controversy
Pieces of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that were found in a fisherman’s net on the southern coast of Turkey have sparked a controversy as they might belong to a Heron, a trademark piece of equipment from the Israeli military that is used to gather intelligence, giving way to speculation that Israel might be conducting surveillance missions over Turkey, which maintains a closed airspace to Israeli military planes.
Media reports on the discovery of debris from an UAV by fishermen fishing close to the southern coastline of Turkey’s Mersin province stirred controversy over the weekend as some media outlets reported that the pieces belonged to Israeli Herons and not to US Predators. Turkey’s airspace is closed to the Israeli air force ever since the countries entered a bitter phase in their relations in the aftermath of last year’s bloody raid on a Gaza-bound humanitarian aid ship that not only claimed the lives of nine peace activists, but also caused Turkey to slam Israel with sanctions, freezing military agreements and downgrading the level of diplomatic contact sharply.
On the same night of the flotilla raid, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) assaulted the İskenderun Naval Base, where seven Turkish security personnel were killed. Turkish officials at the time reacted to the timing of the assaults as being “significant” in the sense that it might reveal cooperation between the PKK and Israel, the Cihan news agency reported on Saturday. More than a year after the assault, the piece of an UAV fueled allegations of such a cooperation and raised questions whether Herons may have actually gathered information on the İskenderun base and relayed it to the PKK to enable the attack, Cihan reported.
The piece from the vehicle was reportedly brought to the General Staff headquarters in Ankara for further investigation, as local authorities said they did not know for sure how the piece may have gotten to the Turkish shore. It is also speculated that the piece might have been carried by the waves across the Mediterranean before reaching the Turkish coast, but details on the exact location or time of the discovery remain unclear.