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09.13.11

Turkey’s Tricky Drone Diplomacy

As relations between Turkey and Israel deteriorate, Turkey is now more reliant on U.S. military assets. Owen Matthews reports on the complex situation in the Middle East.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan set off on a triumphant tour of the Middle East Monday, days after he’d expelled Israel’s ambassador to Turkey and threatened to send Turkish gunboats to escort ships challenging Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Erdogan’s visit, which will take him to Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, is likely to confirm Turkey’s newfound position as the region’s economic and political powerhouse—it’s been boosted in the eyes of the Arab street by Erdogan’s championing of the Palestinian cause.

But even as Erdogan sounds off against Israel, his bellicosity is tempered by the need to keep another common ally—the United States—on board. Indeed Erdogan’s recent cutting of military ties with Israel has in fact made Ankara more reliant on Washington. The Turkish military relies on 10 Israeli-made Heron drones, purchased from Israel in 2004 for $183 million, as its eyes in the sky. But at least five of them are currently undergoing maintenance in Israel—leaving the Turkish military reliant on American Predator drones to spy on Kurdish separatists.

Over the last month the Turkish military has stepped up a war against Kurdish rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, largely based in the mountains of northern Iraq. With the uneasy blessing of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government, Turkey has been bombing the PKK on and off since 2007. But this latest campaign is by far the most intensive. According to the Turkish military’s own account, 160 PKK militants have been killed in thousands of air raids. Last week Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu traveled to northern Iraq to placate the Iraqi Kurds and possibly pave the way for ground operations by Turkish troops on Iraqi soil. Gen. Necdet Özel, chief of Turkey’s General Staff, also inspected troops near the border last week, further raising speculation about a ground offensive.

But crucial to all Turkish anti-PKK operations is intelligence gathered by U.S.-operated Predators currently stationed inside Iraqi Kurdistan. Those drones are due to be withdrawn along with the rest of U.S. forces by Dec. 31. But last week Ankara renewed a 2009 request to have six MQ-1 and MQ-6 Predator drones moved to Turkish soil in order to continue the fight against the PKK. Turkey’s original request was squashed after concern from U.S. lawmakers about Erdogan’s friendship with Iran and hostility toward Israel. Since then those concerns have, of course, only intensified—and this time it’s likely that pro-Israeli lobbyists in Washington will strongly oppose more aid to Turkey.

Refusing Erdogan’s request, though, could be a major error for the U.S., since drone intelligence is one of the few remaining points of leverage left to Washington over Turkey, an increasingly independent NATO partner. Ankara’s war against the PKK could easily spill into a conflict with Baghdad—as well as have further regional implications if outside powers are found to have been backing the Kurdish rebels. (During a 40-year insurgency against Turkey that has left 40,000 dead, the PKK has been backed periodically by various enemies of Turkey, including Syria, Iraq, and Greece.) Last week, in the wake of the diplomatic meltdown between Israel and Turkey, the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had suggested a meeting with PKK leaders in Europe to discuss cooperation. The Israeli Foreign Ministry denied that such a plan had been discussed.

Turkish officials made clear that any Israeli backing for the PKK would be considered an act of war.

Turkish officials made clear that any Israeli backing for the PKK would be considered an act of war. “With such statements, it is becoming clear who is and will be behind these terrorists,” said Cemil Çiçek, speaker of Turkey’s Parliament, on Saturday. In a further ominous development, the Turkish Star newspaper reported that new radar software for Turkish jet fighters, warships, and submarines no longer automatically identifies Israeli planes and ships as friends. The new Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system developed by Turkey's Military Electronics Industry, or ASELSAN, supersedes older, U.S.-made IFF systems installed in F-16 jet fighters as well as other U.S.-made hardware that automatically showed Israeli vessels and planes as friendly.

Meanwhile, Ankara is working hard to break its dependence on Israel and the U.S. for military hardware. Last year Turkey unveiled its own drone, known as the ANKA surveillance craft, capable of staying aloft for 24 hours. It’s expected to go into production next year. In the meantime U.S. diplomats are busy trying to patch up the fallout from the latest Turkish-Israeli spat, which followed Jerusalem’s refusal to apologize for a May 2010 commando raid on a Turkish ship that left nine Turkish activists dead. They are hoping that Erdogan’s talk of gunboats was aimed at whipping up support on the eve of his Middle East progress—and that when he returns calmer counsels will prevail. Indeed it was only four months ago that Erdogan’s government was persuaded by Washington to call off a second Mavi Marmara–style aid flotilla to Gaza. And just last week Erdogan agreed to station NATO antimissile radars in southeast Turkey, an important strategic win for the U.S. and a snub to Iran. Getting Turkey to switch its Identification Friend or Foe systems for Israel from “neutral” back to “friend” is likely a tall order. But it’s crucial for U.S. interests in the Middle East that they don’t ever get switched to “foe.”