Dawn Thursday, June 3 found Israel and Turkey facing glaring at each other on the brink of a military clash in the fevered aftermath of the Israeli commando raid of a Gaza-bound aid flotilla on May 31. Israel had acceded to Ankara's demand to release the hundreds of activists taken off the boats at Ashdod port.
But without waiting for their release, Turkey jumped the gun. As DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report exclusively, on Tuesday and Wednesday (June 1-2), Ankara consigned substantial military strength to its three big forward bases in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC): The international airport of Ercan, east and slightly south of Nicosia; the village of Lefkoniko in the Famagusta District; and Salamisis on the eastern coast, north of Famagusta.
Deployed on the island and in its ports at present are Turkish Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, Hercules C-130 cargo planes loaded with small paratroop units, as well as war ships, frigates, destroyers and marines in full battle gear dropped by landing craft early Wednesday at Turkish naval bases in Famagusta, Kalecik and Kyrenia.
Just 48 hours after Israeli naval troops commandeered the six "Freedom Flotilla" ships and diverted them from Gaza to Ashdod, Turkey had transformed Northern Cyprus into a vast aircraft carrier, primed to explode into action to attain two goals:
Determined to break Israel's Gaza blockade
1. To break the Israeli Air Force and Navy's blockade of the Gaza Strip
2. To exact revenge in the Mediterranean arena for Israel's commando action against the Turkish-led convoy which ended in 9 deaths and 40 injured in the battle on the Turkish Mavi Marmara, and hundreds in Israeli custody with their vessels.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told President Barack Obama on the phone Tuesday, June 1, shortly before midnight Washington time, that if the United States did not punish Israel, Turkey would do so, because "[Israel] can't wash its hands of its perpetrated crimes in the Mediterranean." Turkey, he said, is obliged to defend its citizens and national honor.
As they talked, the US early warning station atop Mount Troodos, the highest point in Cyprus – which in recent years has been sweeping airwaves across the Caucasus and Central Asia rather than the Middle East – transmitted to the White House images of Turkish seaborne military movements and the steady build-up of military strength, apparently in tactical array for engaging Israel in military action.
The reports the White House received from Israel were not rosier.
Confronted with Turkish might massed in and off Northern Cyprus less than 150 kilometers from its shores, Israel girded up for a possible military encounter. Its Navy, Air Force and Special Forces went on alert, followed Wednesday, June 2, with the mobilization of reserve units – initially the command structures of an armored division and the armored infantry corps. They were put on standby for the immediate call-up of combat troops; Israel's military chiefs calculated that a military engagement with Turkey, once begun, might rapidly spin out of control and draw Syria, the Lebanese Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza into the fray in Ankara's support.
Very soon, Israeli warplanes and spy drones were circling over Northern Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean transmitting data on the Turkish forces piling up there, while at sea, warships formed into two arcs, one facing the Turkish concentrations on and around Northern Cyprus and the other sealing off the Gaza Strip and shielding the big Israeli ports of Haifa and Ashdod.
Obama's conciliatory efforts dwarfed by events
Wednesday morning, Israel began airlifting diplomats' families from the embassy in Ankara and the consulate in Istanbul, along with the staffs of its defense missions and trading firms. The embassy and consulate were ordered to shred and burn classified materials and remove hard disks from their computers for shipping out or wipe them permanently. Security personnel made arrangements to disappear across nearby borders at a moment's notice in the event of a flare-up.
Seeking to defuse the tension, President Barack Obama made several calls to Jerusalem as well as Ankara on the critical Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, only to hear Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu say that Erdogan's military movements left Israel no option but to stand ready for a showdown.
"If Erdogan stops massing his army against Israel," Netanyahu told Obama, 'Israel will stand down too."
But the harder Obama strove for calm, the faster the military drums beat on both sides.
Inside Turkey, the prime minister mustered all the machinery of his Muslim-oriented Justice and Development Party to whip up furious street demonstrations across the country demanding revenge against Israel.
They were fueled by Erdogan's enraged speech to parliament Tuesday accusing Israel of a bloody massacre. "From now on, it is no longer possible to turn a blind eye on the lawless behavior of the current Israeli government," he said, adding he did not advise anyone to test Turkey's patience.
He came to the legislature from an emergency cabinet meeting with the military's second-ranking general, the defense minister and national intelligence directors.
Israelis see themselves as unfairly demonized
A few hours later, Erdogan told Obama that Israel's next actions would determine where his country stood, throwing the ball back in Netanyahu's court. But by then, it was judged in Washington and Jerusalem that the Turkish premier had painted himself into a corner from which he could not back down any time soon.
The US president saw his efforts overtaken and overshadowed by galloping events.
If the Turkish prime minister, or any one else, expected Israel to be contrite, they were wrong. While upset by the way the raid was handled, Israelis saw themselves unfairly demonized internationally for carrying out a legitimate defensive operation against the belligerent Hamas. International censure, they said, was misdirected against the injured party and they accused Ankara if sending out a convoy of phony "peace-lovers" to put Israel in the wrong on behalf of its enemies.
Anxious to take the flotilla incident off world headlines, Netanyahu promised the US president to speedily deport the hundreds of foreign activists questioned and jailed after they were taken off the boats at Ashdod port. And indeed, by Wednesday night, most were bound for the international airport on buses and flown out, while 124 citizens of Arab and Muslim countries left through neighboring Jordan.
The prime minister cause a domestic outcry by resisting demands from the state attorney, the military and the public to bring to justice the activists filmed on the Marmara's deck beating up Israeli soldiers.
Members of the Istanbul-based IHH- Insani Yardim Vakfi were described by other passengers as having organized the ship's routine on military lines and being armed ready for the Israeli raiders.
Netanyahu told the US president that the group had been formed by the IHH of a hodge-podge from various international jihad movements, including al Qaeda's branches in Turkey, Bosnia and Bulgaria (See HOT POINTS of June 2 below).
A clash would be a nightmare for Obama
He accused the Erdogan government of generously bankrolling this group and arranging for donations of $1.8 million for the purchase of the Mavi Marmara, the intended spearhead of the convoy for breaking the Gaza blockade. The Istanbul authorities were instructed, he said, to let these terrorists board the ship and sail out of port without passports or any other identifying documents.
Sponsoring Islamist terrorists and letting them loose against Israel may make Erdogan look good in Damascus and Tehran, Netanyahu said, but is not something we can accept.
As we write this, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington, Jerusalem and Ankara sources do not see Obama managing to dampen the flames, although a military clash between Israel and Turkey would be a nightmare for him as he approaches his second year in office.
Jerusalem is therefore under heavy pressure to again give ground to Ankara's demands, including letting the Irish-flagged Rachel Corrie go through to the Gaza Strip early next week. This ship was left behind by the main convoy because of technical troubles and has made a detour to Istanbul to gain Turkey's blessing for its voyage to finish the flotilla's failed mission to break the Gaza blockade.
The flare-up of hostilities between two of America's most important Middle East allies – in defiance of the US president's efforts to rein them in – would diminish his authority and reflect badly on America's standing in more than one part of the world.
Turkey, a time bomb in the heart of NATO
At the outset of the crisis, the Turkish prime minister said he was determined to invoke not only the UN Security Council for condemning Israel but also NATO for collective action against the Jewish state for attacking a member nation. He was not mollified by the watered down UN condemnation.
So far, Erdogan has not followed through on his demands of NATO. But should Ankara decide it was expedient to freeze its participation in NATO operations as a means of extorting alliance backing for its moves against Israel – up to and including military action against the Jewish state – the strain could prove overwhelming: NATO unity already fraying over its members' refusal to send more troops to Afghanistan might well buckle completely.
In direct contrast, the rival alliance taking shape between Turkey, Iran, Brazil, Syria and other radical anti-American nations, with Russia standing by in the wings, would profit from a military showdown between Turkey and Israel. It would most likely scuttle the fragile US-sponsored proximity talks scarcely broached by Israel and the Palestinians and knock down the keystone overarching Obama's Middle East strategy.
The rejectionist Hamas would be able to celebrate another tactical victory along with its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus.
But the Turkish prime minister has not yet burned all his bridges to the West, although for now he cannot afford to sharply apply the brakes on the momentum he has sent rushing towards a clash with Israel without losing face at home. He would be accused of failing to follow through on steps for defending national honor and this would nullify four years of strenuous efforts to raise his country to the highest level of esteem in Muslim eyes.
Erdogan's dilemma, Netanyahu's quandary
Because other countries, preferably America, have not come forward to punish Israel, Erdogan cannot be seen to shirk the "incalculable consequences" he publicly threatened. He therefore instructed Turkey's armed forces to go forward with preparations for military action, while at the same time keeping an eye on Washington and Jerusalem.
Netanyahu's choices are just as tough as those faced by Obama and Erdogan.
He spent his first year as head of government investing heavily in preparing the country for a military showdown threatened collectively by Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizballah. Never in their wildest dreams did he or his generals imagine that this confrontation with the radical Muslim bloc would kick off with Israel's longstanding military partner in Ankara.
Wednesday, the Israeli prime minister declared in a live television speech – and later to foreign correspondents – that ending the Gaza blockade would open the door to Iranian ships bearing hundreds of heavy missiles for Hamas and the establishment of an Iranian port on the Mediterranean.
At the same time, he must deal with Erdogan's ultimatum to end the blockade altogether – or face the music.
It is clear to the Israeli prime minister that the music he would face at home for surrendering to Ankara could finish him for good politically. He would lose the respect of the country and its armed forces if he were seen to be climbing down on the cardinal tenet of Israel's defense doctrine against terrorism by opening the floodgates for heavy Iranian hardware to flood Hamas-ruled Gaza.