A gray image taken from Turkish drone footage showing buildings, terrain, and tanks from overhead.
Category: Conflict & Security

Title: Look to Idlib: A Preview of Warfare in the New Decade

Author: Altan A. Ozler
Date Published: May 8, 2020

Drone strike footage released by the Turkish Ministry of Defense on February 29, signaling the full onset of Turkey’s drone warfare campaign in Idlib.

Similarly, Russia too was a proficient drone operator, levying overhead capabilities for ISR and targeting against Turkish forces and opposition militias. However, Russia appeared to rely on conventional air power for interdiction operations. Iran’s domestic drones also made an appearance in Idlib, but apparently were much less effective. Ultimately, Turkey’s UAV fleet proved unmatched in the conflict, halting Assad’s military advance and changing the calculus for all combatants.

Turkey’s exploits did not go unnoticed; several nations have since responded to Ankara with piqued interest and Tunisia placed an order for Turkish UAVs soon after the conflict. The pace of military drone proliferation will only accelerate around the world in the coming decade. All forces on the twenty-first century battlefield must prepare to face the low buzz of an oncoming UAV. The drone age is upon us.

Takeaway #2: …and militaries around the world lack sufficient counter-drone capabilities.

As drones took center stage in the battle, it became abundantly clear that no military operating in Idlib—Turkey and Russia included—fielded effective counter-UAV capabilities. The battle demonstrated that mass deployment of combat drones, especially in conjunction with advanced ISR and electronic warfare capabilities, can overwhelm air defense systems. NATO and US coalition partner nations must pay close attention to the growing counter-UAV capability gap.

In Idlib, Turkey operated over a hundred drones in countless sorties, yet Assad’s forces were only able to down five Turkish UAVs. Interestingly, Syria’s army initially appeared well-equipped to address the threat, operating various Russian air defense systems such as the Pantsir and Tor, as well as Soviet-era Shilka and SA-3/S-125 Pechora models. Normally, these systems are considered capable against aircraft in the short to medium air defense role. Yet, as the record shows, they were savaged by Turkish drones.

More astonishingly, online footage revealed several episodes where multiple Russian Pantsir systems, some with targeting radars active, were struck head on by Turkish UAVs. Given the Russian Ministry of Defense’s aggressive promotion of the Pantsir as a premier counter-UAV system for export and its penchant for wildly exaggerated performance claims, this viral footage of unit after unit being helplessly neutralized is certain to harm the system’s reputation.

Nevertheless, Ankara’s drones are not invulnerable. In Libya, there has been significant attrition of Turkish UAVs by adversaries armed with similar Russian equipment. The air defense failure suffered by Assad’s forces was likely rooted less in the inherent vulnerabilities in their weapons systems, and more in the poor training and operational inexperience of Syrian conscript crews who found themselves engaging novel threats in heavily contested environments. It is clear that capable air defense remains a function of capable equipment and proper training.

Furthermore, in Idlib Turkey debuted its KORAL electronic warfare platform, giving it a further edge over Syrian air defenders. News outlets in Turkey indicate that the Turkish military successfully conducted electronic warfare operations in tandem with drone sorties, implying a multi-domain approach to drone warfare.

In a similar vein, Turkey too showed a major gap in air defense capabilities. The Russian military in Syria proved adept at using conventional air power as an instrument to maintain the equilibrium between escalation and de-escalation—inflicting targeted punishment on Turkish forces when tactically necessary, but also firing warning shots to deter Turkish forces.


A scene capturing Russian Air Force’s use of warning shots to deter Turkish forces, illustrating Russian dominance in conventional air power over Idlib.

Ultimately, it was a handful of expeditionary Russian Air Force squadrons operating out of Syrian airbases which successfully suppressed opposition militias and conventional Turkish forces in Idlib, and held the line when Assad’s military broke under Turkish drone strikes. The Turkish military was incapable of deterring the Russian Air Force and paid the price in lives and territory. Yet, while Russian dominance in air power allowed it to win the battle, it still proved incapable of engaging or neutralizing the Turkish drones wreaking havoc from the skies above Idlib.

Today’s proliferation of military drones occurs after a period where many nations allowed their air defense capabilities to atrophy. Few NATO and US coalition partners field systems optimized to counter UAVs. As an illustration, a recent Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) article analyzing the battle in Idlib raised the alarm about how Western militaries were in denial over how drones have reshaped the modern battlefield, highlighting how the United Kingdom still lacked short range air defense (SHORAD) capabilities. This collective capability gap vis-a-vis drones is an imminent challenge for defense policy makers and military planners who must develop capabilities to counter this disruptive technology. As the battered Syrian Army reveals, the battlefield of the twenty-first century will decimate those who are not capable of countering a drone equipped adversary.

Takeaway #3: This war will be livestreamed—the social media battlefield

One of the centerpieces of the battle for Idlib was the stream of media content pouring from the conflict zone onto social media sites, namely Twitter and Telegram. With a rifle in one hand and a smart phone in the other, combatants on all sides granularly captured the battle and shared it in real-time. This phenomenon is the culmination of a trend which can be traced back through the rise of ISIS, War in the Donbass, and all the way to the Arab Spring. Social media has become part of the battlespace, where actors shape the sentiments of populations around the world in order to impact the course of an armed conflict. It is certain that this phenomenon will accelerate in the coming decade.

In Idlib, social media was an effective platform to track the course of the battle faster than conventional news media. Some combatants styled themselves as vloggers strolling across the battlefield, and, with the diversity of fighters battling in Idlib, content was available in several languages. Particularly on Twitter, the stream of uploaded content was openly dissected by analysts, reporters, and academics to assemble a picture of what was happening on the ground. Photomapping and photogrammetry techniques allowed analysts to parse out landmarks in footage, enabling the plotting of air strikes, troop movements, and captured cities on a digital map of the warzone.


A selfie video illustrating a phenomenon particular to the conflict in Idlib where combatants would spontaneously share onto social media granular moments of the battle captured on their smartphones. With hundreds of posts a day, analysts used them the track the course of the battle in real-time.

It is worth highlighting that, unsurprisingly, a gratuitous dose of falsehoods and disinformation was injected into the mix by propagandists, bots, and partisans. Yet, while dubious content was common, the sheer volume of content available created a healthy number of data points to triangulate and fact-check most major claims. Interestingly, it was often possible to find footage of the same moment, captured at different angles.

Given the interconnectedness of societies over social media, it should come as no surprise that this flow of content from the warzone has the power to shape public opinion of a conflict in real-time.

During the conflict, no incident captured on social media rattled society and the political elite as intensely as the Russian airstrike that killed thirty-four Turkish soldiers. Within an hour of the bombing, images of the wounded emerged online. Rumors and speculation spread like wildfire, triggering concerned crowds to form around the hospital in Reyhanli where the casualties were being received—and mobilizing angry mobs outside the Russian consulate in Istanbul.

The shocking news moved so quickly that the Turkish government shut down Twitter and Facebook for hours in a ham-fisted attempt to slow its spread. In these critical hours, the Turkish military allegedly made the critical decision to fully unleash its drone armada over Idlib. The following day, the Turkish Ministry of Defense uploaded onto social media an impressive montage of drone strikes, assuaging the Turkish population that retribution was being achieved.

In twenty-four hours, the narrative out of Idlib transformed from the story of Turkey’s deepening losses at the hands of Russian air power to Turkey achieving its own UAV “shock and awe” moment. This montage has since made rounds around the world, from Voice of America to Al Jazeera. Similarly, pro-Turkish Twitter accounts packaged and released sleek videos showing the drubbing of Pantsir and other Russian systems by Turkish drones. These images will reverberate through the defense industry and policy circles around the world, shaping future acquisition decisions. This episode illustrates social media’s ability to accelerate narratives and put real pressure on decision makers to change the trajectory of an armed conflict.

As was seen in Idlib, actors who recognize the battlespace in the digital domain, and who act decisively to shape the narrative, will have an impact on the course of a conflict by influencing the perceptions and sentiments of their population at home and onlookers around the world.

The Future

These takeaways from the recent battle of Idlib should be viewed as a snapshot in time of trends that will continue to transform warfare in the new decade. These will only continue to accelerate in the coming years: drones will become more deadly and proliferated, air defense capabilities will be vital for operational success, and social media will have an even bigger impact on the course of a conflict. Those defense policymakers and military planners that see the writing on the wall in Idlib and act on these trends will be better prepared to prevail in the face of an ever more disruptive battlefield.

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Altan A. Ozler is a professional in the US defense industry. He holds a Master of Science in Foreign Service and a Master of Business Administration from Georgetown University. His areas of scholarly focus include geopolitics, Russia, China, military modernization, European security, and Turkey. You can follow him on Twitter @OzlerAltan.