An American F-16 fighter jet shot down a Turkish military drone on Thursday that entered a restricted zone in northeastern Syria and came within about 550 yards of U.S. ground forces, according to Pentagon officials.
No American troops were harmed in the incident, U.S. officials said.
“Turkey is one of our strongest and most valued NATO allies, and that partnership continues and will continue,” Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters. “So this is certainly a regrettable incident.”
Multiple Turkish armed drones carried out airstrikes in a restricted U.S. zone around 7:30 a.m. local time on Thursday, General Ryder said. At 11:30 a.m., one of the drones re-entered the area, and U.S. troops went into bunkers for protection. Ten minutes later, an American pilot flying an F-16 shot down the drone.
The locations of such zones, the general said, are shared with multiple governments and actors in the region — including Turkey — and define areas where U.S. forces may take defensive measures to protect themselves.
The United States, which has hundreds of troops in Syria, has worked for years with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia in northeastern Syria, to fight the Islamic State in Syria. But that partnership has angered Turkey, which views Syria’s Kurdish fighters as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. That group has fought a bloody, decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state aimed at gaining independence or greater autonomy.
It is unclear what the drone was targeting on Thursday, though the Turkish military has occasionally launched attacks against Kurdish forces in the area.
U.S. forces in Syria have been threatened by aerial weapons in the past. In March, an American contractor was killed in a drone attack in the same area, near the town of Hasaka. Another contractor and five American troops were wounded in the attack.
Hasaka, which is in a Kurdish-controlled region of Syria, is home to al-Sinaa Prison, which housed 3,000 Islamic State fighters and was the site of an intense battle to free them in January 2022.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with his Turkish counterpart on Thursday regarding the drone incident.
“The secretary reaffirmed that the United States remains in Syria exclusively in support of the campaign to defeat ISIS,” General Ryder said. “The secretary also acknowledged Turkey’s legitimate security concerns and underscored the importance of close coordination between the United States and Turkey to prevent any risk to U.S. forces or the global coalition to defeat ISIS.”
Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Gen. Metin Gurak, on Thursday. They discussed the need to follow shared protocols “to ensure the safety of our personnel in Syria,” said Col. Dave Butler, a spokesman for the Joint Staff.
An American defense official said that U.S. commanders made a dozen calls to Turkish military officials saying that American forces were on the ground in the area and providing a detailed location of those forces.
Turkish officials were warned that the U.S. forces would engage in self-defense if the drone did not leave the area, according to the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the incident and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute in Washington said the Turkish foreign minister had warned on Wednesday that his country would target “third parties” that got in the way of Turkish attacks on the Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F.
The U.S. decision to shoot down the drone was intended to send a message to Turkey to stop its campaign against the S.D.F. and to stay away from U.S. bases, he said, and the phone calls between Mr. Austin and his counterpart in Ankara were meant to de-escalate any tensions.
“There’s clearly no desire to see this get any worse and it won’t,” Mr. Lister said. “It’s an unmanned drone. This is the advantage of drones. We can send a message here without causing any human fatalities and without risking those kinds of escalatory steps.”