Journalist Seth J. Frantzman: No more international law, now there is chaos

In recent years, we have witnessed that states and non-state organizations have increasingly invested in armed-unmanned drones, and drones play a decisive role in conflicts in Libya, Ukraine and the Caucasus countries.

The Turkish state, which is waging a dirty war against the Kurdish people, is using the armed drone system it has recently produced, which it calls 'domestic and national', against the Kurdish people. It continues its threats and attacks against Kurds by bombing civilian settlements with drones, especially in Northern and Eastern Syria, Shengal and Maxmur.

We spoke with Seth J. Frantzman, author of the book: The Struggle for America, Iran, and the Middle East.

Seth J. Frantzman is an Israeli Jerusalem-based journalist with a PhD in History and Geography from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Writing mainly on conflict, foreign policy, immigration policy and security policy, Frantzman is the executive director of the Middle East Center of Reporting and Analysis and a Middle East Forum writer.

My first question is about drone technology, something you wrote books about it. As we see, from Israel to Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, including some terrorist organizations, use these technologies. Are there rules that regulate the use of these technologies? Who controls the drone technology?

Drones have been around for a long time. The concept of a drone is not complicated, it is just a small airplane used by remote control or sometimes even without control. So, it is not technology which is complicated. However, I think what has made a difference in the last thirty years is that we started to see technology being put onto a simple plane which involves real-time video, pictures and missiles and, currently, what we see now are these Kamikaze drones. So, we started to see them using all sorts of new applications and I think that’s what you see as a revolution. Countries like the US and Israel began using them for surveillance and then the US began using them during the war against terrorism to target people. For instance, we know the US killed Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike. The US has made a lot of mistakes. They killed lots of innocent people. On the other side of the coin, we have started to see the same technology being developed in China, a little bit in Russia, Turkey, Iran and being used all over the world. Now, you see basically every major country and many smaller regional powers require drones. But I think that the measure of whether they are very successful is mostly that they require just a few drones here and there and there are not really a lot of countries that have a systematic concept or doctrine of how to use them, they are just using them as a kind of tool, but they are not really revolutionizing their whole armed forces around the idea of drones. You can also use robots on land. I think that we are talking about the future which will come with that.

Which countries or companies are in the position of producers? Do they have any control over the mechanism of this technological transfer?

I don’t think so. The technology itself is not that complicated. You can build a plane and we can see them with the Iranians or even ISIS. First of all, you can buy a commercial drone and install a weapon on it or use it to transport drugs. So, first of all, you can use it as a simple commercial drone. If you are talking about big drones, you are basically talking about any country that has any kind of industry related to aerospace or airplanes. Because anyone that can build planes can build drones. So, in that sense, you are talking about any country that has a kind of modern economy and, obviously, you are talking about most Western European countries, including Russia, China, Turkey and Iran, of course, nowadays. So, those are the countries that are building drones, also South Africa, Gulf countries and Israel. I think that we can look at the big drone superpowers in terms of sales. Israel was for a very long time a big player in the market and now what we see is China is taking a leading role as a drone exporter and seller. The military answers…We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of business, maybe eventually billions. A lot of money is involved in this type of system. And the US also has a lot of big military drones, but the US does not like to sell them. For instance, Turkey is going into the drone market. That’s why the Gulf countries are going into the drone market. That’s why we see more and more countries are using this technology. Also, the Iranians are building drones because they cannot buy fighter planes because of the sanctions. So, they are building a kind of air force on the cheap because drones are cheaper than the F35. Why would we buy  an F35, if you can build thousands of drones? So, I think that’s why you see a lot of countries like Azerbaijan require small drones, because why would you wait 20 years to buy an F16 from the US when you can buy drones? I just think that a lot of countries understand that the procurement process is very expensive and way too long. You can get drones in a week, weeks or months, train the pilots like a video game. You can use it like Ukrainians use it now in Donbass.

How did the Turks have these opportunities? Which states and companies cooperated? Now Turkey is transferring them to the Caucasian countries and Africa. What kind of rate is that?

Turkey did not have an existing aerospace industry. In old days, when they were friends with Israel in 90’s or early 2000s Turkey did require several surveillance transfers from Israel and those were manual systems. But you have to remember Turkey’s relations with Israel fell apart in the 2010s and I think if you look at what happened in Turkey is that the relations with the US and Israel began to decline, Turkey understood drones are a very great way that you can supplement. The fact that they are requiring  F35s. So, I think it is Erdogan’s son-in-law, Bayraktar Industries that builds several types of drones. They are not very big and they are so fast but Turkey understood that they can use them to export to countries that are fighting non-state actors because the Bayraktar drone is not designed to take on a first world military. They are designed to fight the US or France. The Bayraktar is designed to fight in places like Syria, Donbass or Libya. So, it is a perfect machine for those battlefields. And I think that the Turks have been very smart at sticking missiles on them and building a relatively cheap machine that can be exported and works quite well. And also it is not being shot down so often by Russian radars in Syria and Libya. It gives Turkey the ability to wage the kind of conflicts that it likes and where it does not have employ Western weapons systems.

Today is World Kobane Day which marks the anniversary of the liberation of Kobane from ISIS as you know. Turkey has used drones in Libya and South Kurdistan, including Sulaymaniyah, Shengal and Rojava. How does the international public react to Turkey targeting civilians?

I don’t think that the international community cares. I think that the evidence shows that nobody cares what Turkey is doing. As far as I can tell that Turkey has a sort of impunity. Turkey is a member of NATO and if you are a NATO country then it is kind of a……There is no problem if you want to do what you want to do. As long as you are attacking another NATO country. So, Syria is also a kind of non-government state. It seems like a place where any country does what it wants. The US, Turkey Russia Iran… It is kind of free in the international order. When you talk about northern Iraq, the Kurdish Autonomous Region and Sinjar, Turkey has been able to carve out this very strange concept in relations with those countries. It says Turkey is allowed to do whatever they want up to a certain kilometre and the Iraqi government is weak. So, Turkey takes advantage of that. What we see in the Caucuses and Libya, Turkey is taking advantage of a failed state. So, I think that Turkey is basically using these countries as a testing ground for this technology. They are bombing areas with their civilians. Sometimes they kill civilians. They claim they are killing militants or terrorists. So, it does seem that nobody cares. And that’s partly because for ten years the US was involved in using drones and when people wrote reports about it and not much has changed. The US used drones and by mistake killed a…… family and nobody is going to do anything about it. We live in a world where there is no real international law and there is chaos. Authoritarian regimes have arisen like Turkey and they are allowed to get away with everything. I think that’s just the way the world works today. It is not the way it worked in 1990’s there was at least more rule of law or whatever.


Thanks for your thoughts. Anything else you want to add?

Drones are new technology and I think the big question at the end of the day is that if you use it to bomb civilians and houses and if you use artillery, it is the same munition. You’re just doing the same thing; it is not necessarily different. I think that drone technology allows countries to do these things more secretively and they don’t face any risks. Because if you use a drone and it is shot down, so what? It is just a piece of machine. Countries are able to take more risks because of technology. And I think that’s why we are seeing break down of more and more this international order especially involving drones. I would point out the fact that not just countries like Turkey are abusing this. I think the US uses drones all over the world and that kinda gave a green light to other countries like Turkey or whoever. They say it is ok we’re doing the same thing. For instance, you see that Iran is doing that, using drones against Israel and in Gulf countries. We are going to see more and more of that. And that will force other countries to build better air defences which we also see happening.