Friday, 13 August 2021

An Analyst’s Perspective: Cicilline and Bilirakis’ Turkish Drone Letter Rebuked

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Much attention has been devoted to Turkey's rise to a global drone power in the past several years. While some argue that Turkish developments in this field have been highly beneficial to NATO and several individual member states in particular, others view Turkey's drone industry and profileration as a threat that should be contained through suspending exports of drone technology or even by imposing further sanctions on Turkey. The subject is frequently covered by political spectactors, which has given rise to arguments of highly politicised character on more than one occasion.

In the latest of such back-and-forths, two Members of the United States Congress called for an investigation into Turkey's deployment of unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs) in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The stated purpose was to uncover whether they constitute a ''violation of NATO rules and bylaws'' while also urging for an immediate suspension of export permits for drone technology in the meantime. In doing so, the authors and the 25 Members of Congress that signed the letter placed themselves in the camp of political spectactors with little understanding of the way Turkish drones have been deployed, apparently politicising the debate to support their own political agenda.
The letter, which can be read in its entirety here, is characterised by a clear lack of neutrality and a seemingly deliberate misinterpretation of Turkish drone use and profileration worldwide. Although opinions usually tend to vary wildly when it comes to analysing Turkey's military endeavours (as perhaps they should on any such topic) for a variety of reasons, the apparent bias in this letter might well stem from the fact that its authors, David Cicilline and Gus Bilirakis, have personal views that closely allign with two of the nations that have both historically and recently been at odds with Turkey: Armenia and Greece. 

David Cicilline is awarded the Medal of Gratitude by the President of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh in 2018

As we've frequently analysed the deployment and combat history of the Bayraktar TB2 in the past, including in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, we are in a uniquely informed position to examine the claims in Bilirakis' and Cicilinne's letter.
Despite the (unsourced) claim brought forward in the letter, there is no evidence that suggests that any Armenian civilians were deliberately targeted or even accidentially killed by Azerbaijani drones, either by Turkish Bayraktar TB2s or Israeli loitering munitions. Not even Armenia has brought substantiated claims of any of its citizens being killed by Azerbaijani drone strikes in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), although it certainly had incentive to do so during the 44-day long war. The fact that U.S. Members of Congress include such a claim without even feeling the need to justify it suggests that no serious attempt was made at verifying the authors' preconceptions, thereby exacerbating the spread of misinformation about the conflict. 

In Syria, Turkish drones have occassionally carried out targetted assassinations of Kurdish military commanders (it's often impossible to find out whether these belonged to the PKK or YPG). In early 2018, Turkish Bayraktar TB2s flew strikes against YPG (itself the primary faction in the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance) positions in Afrin, although the Kurdish forces entrenched there took no part in fighting Islamic State (ISIS). Despite the claim that suggests the contrary, no major aerial drone campaign has been launched against YPG forces in Syria.

In Libya, Turkish drones proved instrumential in preventing Russia from gaining a definite military foothold on the southern border of NATO. Turkey's highly efficient use of drones in Libya boosted its growing foreign policy assertiveness to shape an entirely new foreign policy. Based around small-footprint interventions that seek to maximise both political and military impact at low financial and humanitarian cost, this policy is in fact so effective that without it the internationally-recognised government could well have been wiped out in Libya. There seems to have been no serious attempt at grasping the geopolitical context of this conflict, with the author instead defaulting to a hard-line anti-Turkish stance.

The notion that Turkey is currently discussing joint production of UCAVs with Russia similarly has no basis in truth. The future deployment of indigenous UCAVs from Turkish amphibious assault ships is correct (a welcome change of pace in a letter otherwise riddled with inaccuracies), but the real significance of this development appears lost on the authors.
The deployment of Turkish drones to Libya eventually forced the LNA to the negotation table, stabilising the situation in Libya. This in stark contrast to U.S. policies, with the current tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan just the latest in a line of ineffectual and destructive attempts at nation building through armed conflict. In that respect, a fresh approach to handling crises nowadays rampant across the Middle East and Africa should be more than welcome, especially since it originated from within NATO itself rather than a geopolitical adversary. What is more, within the rest of NATO and Europe the delivery of TB2 drones to Poland and Ukraine has allowed these countries to build up a viable deterrent and realistic wartime capabilities at little costs, staving off Russian interventionism and strengthening the NATO alliance.

Everyone is entitled to their own personal opinion, and this is perhaps most importantly so when it comes to political matters. However, one of the fundamental problems of our time seems to be that the wild growth of information devaluates facts, and that opinions have even come to be valued over facts ― in this case influencing foreign policy on a false basis. In this instance specifically, David Cicilline has frequently lobbied on behalf of Armenia and has called for the recognition of the Republic of Artsakh by the U.S. while Gus Bilirakis is of Greek descent and also is an outspoken supporter for Armenia and critic of Turkey. [1] [2] Bilirakis has also boasted about urging former U.S. President Donald Trump to impose sanctions and tariffs against Turkey and the presence of the Greek flag in his campaign poster leaves little doubt with regards to his political allegiance. [3] [4]

A further question arises with respect to why neither David Cicilline or Gus Bilirakis have called for an investigation into the use of Israeli drones and ballistic missiles among a host of other weaponry during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, the same conflict that is the source of many allegations against Turkish drones in this letter. The answer to this question could perhaps be answered by the fact that Bilirakis is the founding Co-Chair of the Congressional Hellenic Israel Alliance while the page of Cicilline’s website about U.S.-Israel relations is an explicit expression of his warm feelings towards the country. While good relations with Israel are in no respect a vice in and of themselves, no country has a monopoly on violence or arms exports, and the matter reeks of preferential treatment. 

An Azerbaijani Lora quasi-ballistic missile system of Israeli manufacture. These were used with great effect against Armenian targets during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War

Turkey's rise as a major drone-producing power can be handled from a number of widely different approaches. Castigation and isolation could drive a wedge in NATO at a crucial time in history, whereas the benefits of closer cooperation have increased now that Turkey can offer a valuable contribution in new armament. Disregarding personal bias, there have likely been few developments in the past years that have benefited NATO as much as the proliferation of cheap but highly-capable Turkish drones like the Bayraktar TB2. Apart from preventing Russia from gaining a definite military foothold on the southern border of NATO, the TB2 has also strengthened the alliance through Poland's (and arguably also Ukraine's) acquisition. Countries like Latvia and Lithuania seem poised to follow these countries in their footsteps, indicating that future NATO cooperation with Turkey on UAV operations is only to increase in the nearby future.

With several European NATO-member states showing interest in the Bayraktar TB2, photos like this one might become more common in the near future

[1] Congressman David Cicilline calls on U.S. to recognize Artsakh
[2] Congressman Gus Bilirakis Pledges to Bring Armenia Closer to Greece, Cyprus, and Israel as New Armenian Caucus Vice Chair

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