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US Drone Program May Have Helped Turkey Kill Kurds for Over a Decade

A largely secret program appears to have been using drones to help Turkey stalk and kill Kurds.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (right) returns from a mission to an air base in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016.

Donald Trump is justifiably condemned for approving Turkey’s assault against the United States’s Kurdish allies in the war against ISIS. What is not widely known is that the U.S., in a largely secret program dubbed Operation Nomad Shadow, appears to have been using drones for over a decade to help Turkey stalk and kill Kurds.

Although the U.S. is now publicly opposing the Turkish push into Syria, is Nomad Shadow continuing to be used secretly to support Turkish attacks on Kurdish forces there, given, among other things, the apparent U.S. desire to continue operating from Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base and to maintain its nuclear weapons there?

In the Shadows

What little public information exists on Nomad Shadow shows that it was created in 2007 using MQ-1 Predator drones based in Iraq to assist Turkey in preparing for an invasion into Iraq to suppress the powerful Kurdish separatist movement known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since the 1970s, the PKK has sought to create an autonomous state for 30 to 35 million Kurds living in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

The three-month long Turkish invasion in 2007 and 2008 did not overcome the PKK, and the Turks called on the U.S. to continue using its drones to “hover above the rugged border with Iraq and beam high-resolution imagery to the Turkish armed forces, helping them to pursue PKK rebels as they slip back and forth across the mountains,” The Washington Post reported in 2013.

In 2008, U.S. military personnel involved in Nomad Shadow became eligible to receive the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal.

The Post article, the most thorough report available on Nomad Shadow, says that in 2011, at the urging of Turkey, the U.S. began basing Nomad Shadow MQ-1s at Incirlik Air Base, controlled remotely by satellite from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. The article reports that, “Neither side has been eager to publicize the arrangement.”

Although the U.S. began to back Kurdish fighters in Syria in 2014 to defeat ISIS, there is evidence that the U.S. has continued Operation Nomad Shadow to the present, possibly limiting its surveillance to stalk Kurds primarily in Turkey and Iraq and otherwise outside the ISIS combat zone.

In 2017, The Drive reported, “According to heavily redacted documents … previously obtained via [the] Freedom of Information Act, this mission, known as Operation Nomad Shadow, was still ongoing in some form as of July 2014. However, Nomad Shadow was not on a list of active U.S. European Command operations released in response to another [Freedom of Information Act] request three months later.”

The report continues: “Whether or not the United States curtailed its support for Turkey’s fight against the PKK, the two countries have increasingly sparred over how to handle that organization, as well as support for Kurdish groups across the border in Syria…. Turkish authorities see no distinction between the PKK and People’s Protection Units, more commonly known by the acronym YPG, who form the core element of U.S.-supported [forces] now pushing their way deeper into ISIS de facto capital of Raqqa and other areas. The dispute has already pushed Turkey to cooperate closer with Russia, including helping develop a plan for so-called ‘de-escalation zones’ in Syria.”

A 2016 commentary by Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, in War on the Rocks indicated that U.S. MQ-1 drones were then assisting Turkey in identifying PKK targets in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Although the Pentagon’s list of active operations provided to The Drive did not include Nomad Shadow, it does appear on the Pentagon’s list of active operations as of February 6, 2018.

In addition, the 2018 report of the adjutant general of the Arizona National Guard notes that the 214th Attack Group stationed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson flew MQ-9 Reaper drones in Nomad Shadow, among other operations.

On September 14, 2019, The Buffalo News provided the most recent report of Nomad Shadow activity: “In the past year, the 107th [Attack Group at Niagara Falls Air Guard base] has begun flying drones in the Middle East, as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and Operation Nomad Shadow.” The News report cited the aforementioned Washington Post report in explaining that Nomad Shadow “supplies intelligence to Turkey about movements of Kurdish rebels.”

Nomad Shadow Now?

There are dramatic similarities between the 2007-2008 Turkish invasion of Iraq to suppress the Kurds and its current invasion of Syria, including the argument that Turkey only seeks to create a safe zone at its border that will allow it to protect itself from the Kurds. And, of course, there is the massive suffering that is being rained down on poor people and also the historic betrayal of the Kurds by the U.S.

Given the long survival of Nomad Shadow, the Turkish commitment to drone stalking and killing, and U.S. reluctance to avoid a complete break with Turkey, it appears possible that Operation Nomad Shadow is being used to assist Turkey in its current invasion as well as by the U.S. to monitor the invasion.

The Role of Drones

Nomad Shadow has enabled the U.S. to relatively easily join Turkey’s war against the PKK because no U.S. troops have been involved in this ongoing campaign, which has had a wide impact, ranging at various times since its beginning over parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and perhaps Iran.

It is a campaign that from time to time seems to have subjected whole communities to attack, particularly in cases in which Kurdish fighters were believed to be in the communities, with U.S. drone video, heat-sensing and other surveillance equipment spotting targets for Turkish conventional aircraft, drones and ground forces. Because of the secrecy or the program and the fact that Turkish forces were collecting evidence on the ground, we may never know how many of those killed were civilians or fighters.

This 2015 Human Rights Watch report gives a sense of the intensity of Turkish attacks against Kurdish populations and their human impact:

Kurdish civilians, including women, children and elderly residents, have been killed during security operations and armed clashes since July 2015 in southeastern Turkey.… Wounded people have been denied access to medical treatment. The populations of entire neighborhoods have had their water and electricity cut during state-imposed curfews and have been left without access to food. Many have fled their homes to escape fighting.

Who were the people who were being targeted for Turkey? Were they a direct threat to the U.S.? What was the justification for their killing? Was the U.S. assisting in genocide or other war crimes against the Kurds? Were any of those killed lending their voices to peace and reconciliation? Did their killing and the wide-ranging destruction of Kurdish civil society and sense of community, enabled by drone surveillance, contribute to ongoing strife in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran?

These are some of the considerations that the U.S. Congress is supposed to weigh before committing the United States to any type of war. But drone technology has made it easy for U.S. politicians to enable war without fearing the historic consequences of war, and Congress, also under pressure from the war industry, has avoided taking responsibility for controlling U.S. drone warfare.

Nomad Shadow may not have resulted in U.S. casualties, but it appears that the operation has made the U.S. an accomplice in the deaths of an uncounted number of Kurds and caused great harm to their civil society. These profound human losses have had and will have profound human consequences — consequences that U.S. citizens are unlikely to escape.

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