AMMAN — Turkey’s use of drones, meticulously documented in grainy videos released by the Turkish Ministry of Defense, has overwhelmed Syrian government forces in Idlib province and been met with great fanfare in international media.

“This is the first time weaponized drones are used to such an extent by a regular army against another state actor,” Sitki Egeli, an assistant professor at Izmir University of Economics and the former Director of International Affairs for Turkey’s Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, told Syria Direct. “Here you see a large scale use of drones as if they were manned aircraft,” he said. 

The extent to which drones have been used by Turkish forces in Idlib is unprecedented, not just in the scale of their deployment, but also in their role as the operational glue for Turkey’s “Operation Spring Shield,” acting as a forward air observer for airpower and artillery, as well as providing cover for Turkish-backed forces on the ground.  

Drones  delivered payloads to a variety of Syrian government targets while also coordinating strikes for artillery and Turkish F-16s which were sitting safely out of harm’s way in southern Turkey.

These strikes were nearly impossible to prevent for Syrian air defenses, as the Surface-to-Air missile defense systems employed by the Syrian government in Idlib, including the Russian-made Pantsir-S1, have an effective range of about “15 to 20 kilometers,” Egeli said. 

Turkish artillery has an accurate range of about 40 km, while Turkish F-16s can drop guided glide bombs from up 100 km away, according to Egeli, meaning drones could simply hover above air-defense targets and pinpoint their location to an off-site shooter. 

The risk to aircraft was further minimized by the employment of long-range, electronic jammers which may have “kept Russian and Syrian radars temporarily blinded,” Egeli said. Turkish media suggested jammers were effective in keeping the Pantsir-S1 from reacting to drones that targeted it. 

Still, what was most innovative about the use of drones in Idlib was their role in providing close air support to Turkish-backed factions on the ground. Close air support is a military tactic dating back to WWII, in which airpower provides cover for ground forces by striking enemies that are close. 

Last week, however, may have been the first time in military history that close air support has been provided at such scale by drones, rather than manned aircraft. On Thursday, February 27, the tactic paved the way for Turkish-backed factions to seize the town of Saraqeb, before it was recaptured by government forces four days later. Key to the success of drone-provided close air support, according to Egeli, was the use of small, precise munitions and close communication between drones and off site shooters. 

Turkish drones are using small guided bombs which weigh between 25 to 50 kilograms, whereas traditional aircraft bombs are much larger—around 250 to 500 kg. These bombs are Turkish-made and quite new. Even during Turkey's Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, they were not ready for widespread use, according to Egeli.

The “perfect conditions” in Idlib

While the Turkish use of drones in Idlib was undoubtedly a victory for Turkish technology and military expertise, the presence of certain key factors in the northwestern province means that this degree of success might not be replicable elsewhere. 

Idlib provided a nearly perfect venue for Turkey to deploy its drone fleet to maximum effect. The area’s geography, poor condition of Syrian government forces and its shoddy implementation of Russian air defense systems all set the stage for Turkey’s success, Egeli said. 

“Idlib is a very confined area in close proximity to the Turkish border,” he added. “You take off from Turkey and are there within minutes. Targets are also very close together, which means you don’t have to spend hours looking for them.”

Turkey’s experience in Idlib is in stark contrast to Libya, where Turkish drones have been extensively deployed. Their effectiveness has been severely limited by the great distances needed to be flown to reach disparate targets, as well as by the lack of off-site shooters which were used in Idlib, Egeli said. Given the great distances, ground relay stations need to be built for the drones—leaving Turkish drones vulnerable to attack and to being downed

Further differing from Libya, Syrian government forces have been moving in clusters of vehicles and tanks, providing clear targets for lingering drones and capitalizing on each bomb dropped. 

In addition, Russian-supplied air defense systems seem to have been employed in a patchwork fashion by Syrian government forces, limiting their ability to defend against drones and qualifying claims of the Russian-made systems being entirely ineffective. 

The Pantsir-S1 which was destroyed, for example, appeared to be sitting as a lone missile defense battery, leaving it vulnerable to attack. “If air defense units are not deployed as part of a network, they’re sitting ducks,” Egeli explained. 

The poor use of Russian-made air defense networks is most likely a product of the lack of professionalism of Syrian government forces. Government forces have not faced a conventional adversary in battle since before the beginning of the Syrian revolution; instead, Syria’s Air Force has been geared towards dropping bombs on insurgents and civilians who have neither an airforce nor the ability to shoot back. In July, a Russian-made missile shot by Syria's air defense system missed the intruding Israeli jet it was aiming for, and instead landed 12 km from Nicosia, Cyprus. 

Thus far, Turkish aircraft have avoided entering areas of Syria where Russian missile defense systems sit at the ready, so it remains to be seen how they would fare against a layered, properly-operated network of missile defense systems. 

A marketing campaign for Turkish defense industries

There has been widespread media coverage of Turkey’s drone-led military campaign in Idlib, with CNN Turk running a feature on the aircraft on a Turkish airbase on Tuesday, March 3. Other headlines point to Turkey’s employment of drones in Idlib as having 'revolutionized’ warfare and having ‘changed the game’. 

Boosting defense exports is a priority for Turkey, with the Turkish Ministry of Defense releasing a plan to boost exports from $2 billion in 2018 to $10.2 billion in 2023. The steady stream of videos of Turkish drones destroying Syrian government tanks, air defenses and other assets will no doubt have at least a positive effect on the reputation of its native-produced technologies.

Just as Russia’s intervention in Syria boosted its foreign military sales, Turkey’s well-televised experience in Idlib could have a similar boost on its defense exports. It is possible, however, that foreign military sales could run into political obstacles, as Turkey’s diplomatic isolation limits who is willing to buy its arms.

This article reflects minor changes made on 5/3/2020 at 12:26 pm.