The developing partnership between Israel and Turkey is changing the military balance in the region.
THERE is a rising force in the eastern Mediterranean, one that has set off alarm bells in Arab capitals, as well as those of their European allies. In Damascus, Cairo, Athens and Moscow, leaders have voiced dismay at the strengthening bond between Israel and Turkey.
On September 8, Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz confirmed during a visit to Israel that the two countries would hold their second joint naval exercise in November. The manoeuvres have been described as a search-and-rescue exercise, not aimed at any third party.
But Arab states in the region are not convinced. Osama al-Baz, a senior advisor to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, called the planned exercises "very dangerous" and questioned the aim of "a non-Arab alliance" in the region. The official Syrian government newspaper, Tishrin, urged Turkey in an editorial to improve its relations with the Arabs and fellow Muslim states, warning that "throwing itself into Israel's arms would bring it nothing but troubles".
Convergence of interests
At first glance the two countries couldn't be more different. The tiny Jewish state, long the region's only democracy and a thorn in the flesh of its Arab neighbours, has teamed up with a nation straddling Europe and Asia, with a 99,8 per cent Muslim population but a vigorously secular constitution (enforced by an army not known for democratic niceties). The one partner is tiny, the other more than 43 times larger in size, and with 10 times more people.
Yet for a number of reasons these two countries' strategic interests have converged.
Last December, Ephraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University wrote that "both Israel and Turkey fear abandonment by the West, particularly in an international system where their contribution to contain Soviet expansionism is no longer needed. Israel seems to be in a better position than Turkey in Washington, but both are interested in strengthening their ties with the United States, which for various reasons is not sensitive enough to their security needs. Washington placed an informal embargo on arms sales to Turkey and is inclined to pressure Israel to make territorial concessions dangerous to its national security" (The Jerusalem Post, Dec 15, 1997).
Inbar described the relationship as "one of the most important international developments in the Middle East".
While both Israel and Turkey are playing down talk of a bilateral defence pact-type alliance, the growing military co-operation is undeniable. In recent years a free-trade agreement and a military industries co-operation agreement were signed. High-ranking military officials have exchanged visits, and found warm receptions.
Long cramped by tiny borders, the Israel Air Force has been able to spread its wings, enjoying the huge expanses of Turkish airspace (which not incidentally also provides new routes to enemy territory--in Syria, Iraq and Iran). Last year, Israeli fighter jets and transport helicopters
carried out a total of more than 200 sorties in Turkey, many of them practice for long-range missions.
Israel can also profit from Turkey's proximity to enemy states, and the resulting easing of efforts to collect invaluable intelligence.
Turkey benefits from the arrangement by acquiring Israeli help in upgrading its military capability. Israel has been involved in refitting Turkish F4 jets. Ankara is interested in Israel's Arrow anti-missile missile and Merkava tanks. Israel has also offered to sell Turkey anti-tank missiles, Popeye air-to-ground missiles and Galil assault rifles.
Israel and Turkey held their first joint exercise in January, with the participation of more than 1,000 sailors and five warships. November's planned operation will be a follow-up.
What Israel and Turkey have most in common is enemies--Syria, Iraq and Iran in particular. The three countries remain Israel's most dangerous foes. The Turks' problems with Iran and Syria relate to those regimes' support for the separatist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), fighting a bloody insurgency aimed at setting up an independent homeland. (Turkey has also accused Greece and Armenia of sponsoring the PKK). Turkey and Iraq remain at odds over Ankara's key role in the allied Gulf War coalition against Saddam Hussein. There are also long-running differences over water, resulting from Turkey's building of dams upstream on the Euphrates River (which goes on to run through both Syria and Iraq), as well as territorial disputes.
But although increased military co-operation between Israel and Turkey has upset the Arab and Muslim world--which continues a campaign to isolate Israel--it is on another front that the Israeli-Turkish ties are now causing concern.
Enter the divided island of Cyprus. Turkey and its western neighbour, Greece, have been engaged in a bitter dispute over the island since 1974, when Turkish forces occupied the north in a bid to stop a Greek-backed military coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece. Turkey alone recognises the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and deploys 30,000 troops there.
Tensions mounted after the Greek Cypriot government announced last year it would buy S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia, due to be delivered this month. Turkey protested that this would jeopardise the sensitive military balance on the island and warned that it would block the missiles' delivery to the new airbase at Paphos--using military means if necessary. Greece, which has a defence pact with Greek Cyprus, said such action would be a cause for war.
Israel has been drawn into the dispute. Last April, Cyprus accused Israel of sending F-16 jets to spy on Turkey's behalf. Israel denied the allegation, and apologised for what Jerusalem said was an accidental violation of the island's "radar airspace". Two months later, Turkish F16s trained at an Israeli Airforce "Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation Range" in the Negev desert, practising evading surface-to-air missiles like the Russian S-300s soon to be deployed by the Greek Cypriots.
NATO sources claimed two months ago that the Israeli Air Force has provided Turkey with reconnaissance photographs taken during the April F-16 flight, which have been used to build a mock-up of the Paphos base in preparation for a possible air strike.
The Greek Cypriot-led government in Nicosia insisted earlier this year that the missiles were defensive and would be used only if the island is attacked. It would only consider cancelling the deal if there was an agreement to demilitarise the island, or if considerable progress had been made in reunification talks.
The Jordanian connection
According to a September 10 Global Intelligence Update, Turkey is "engaged in forging the alliances necessary to allow it to carry out military action against the [S-300] missiles".
The Update, provided by an Internet-based security and business intelligence service in the US, presented Jordan as a possible third partner.
Turkish PM Yilmaz visited Jordan on September 6, and signed three bilateral military agreements. The two countries agreed to hold joint military exercises in Jordan next year.
Although Crown Prince Hassan afterwards played down speculation about a Turkish-Israeli-Jordanian pact, he told newsmen that he hoped "those of you ... who are concerned with regional alliances would look at Syria, look at Iraq, look at Iran, look at Greece, and ask yourselves: These countries and many others, how many defence agreements and how many bilateral relations have developed over the years in terms of security?"
Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu told a Turkish newspaper shortly before Yilmaz's regional tour: "We are working to transform the Turkish-Israeli cooperation into a regional security system ... I hope that Jordan will also join this system." (Milliyet, Sept 5)
The Israeli daily Ma'ariv reported that the head of the Jordanian Intelligence Service, Samir Battikhi, secretly visited Israel on September 6 to discuss the possibility of Jordan joining an Israeli-Turkish alliance. Jordanian officials denied the report.
Jordan sent an observer to monitor the previous Israel-Turkey naval exercise. (Egypt was also invited to do so, but refused).
The Global Intelligence Update said Israel had turned down a Turkish request to provide political and military assistance against the deployment of the Russian missiles. What Israel could do, however, is draw off Syria from helping Greece against Turkey, should hostilities break out over Cyprus--but it would only do so, according to the Update evaluation, with Jordanian support.
Analysts say it is improbable that Jordan would take steps that incur Arab wrath. Yet the Hashemite kingdom has often surprised observers by its willingness to co-operate with Israel, even when this has been seen as breaking Arab unity.
What about Russia?
The Global Intelligence Update writers believes Russia is the wildcard to watch: "Russia has several excuses and reasons to come to Greece's aid. If the Russian missiles come with Russian technical experts, and all are bombed together, Russia would have reason to retaliate.
"The Russian navy could also intervene in a Turkish-Greek war on the grounds that it was securing the Bosporus for free international commercial transit. By intervening, Russia would reassert itself an a regional power in the Black Sea, the Aegean, and the Eastern Mediterranean."
The recent appointment in Moscow of PM Yevgeny Primakov is worth close attention in this regard.
Primakov has a colourful past. Suspected of spying for the KGB while working as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, he later became head of Russia's foreign intelligence agency. He is a friend of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, and is considered an Arabist and "one of the champions of the traditional Soviet anti-Israel policy" (The Jerusalem Post, Nov 1, 1991).
Russian intervention in a dispute over Cyprus would strengthen Moscow's alliances among Arab states by challenging Turkey--and by extension, its Israeli ally.
* Global Intelligence Updates can be found on the Internet at: http://www.stratfor.com/