The Obama administration has turned down a Turkish request for drones or for the deployment of US Predators at Turkish bases until Ankara stops threatening Israel with armed attack, DEBKAfile's military and Washington sources report. Turkey has no functioning unmanned aerial vehicles at present. The "technical problems" grounding the Herons Israel sold Ankara have crippled the Turkish army's campaign against the Kurdish PKK rebels – both in northern Iraq and in southeast Turkey.
In recent days, therefore, the rebels have stepped up their raids on Turkish territory, killing nine people including army and police personnel.
Israeli officialdom and military chiefs are doing their utmost to keep the lid on the spiraling Turkish-Israel confrontation, claiming that a military clash is not imminent because the US, NATO and Europe won't let it happen. Turkey is after all a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. However, DEBKAfile's military sources report, the confrontation has already broken surface. Despite Western efforts to contain the rising tension, the armed conflict has quietly begun.
Our sources confirm that the Ankara press report of three Turkish frigates bound for the eastern Mediteranean to challenge and disarm Israel warships outside its 12-mile territorial waters was deliberately leaked by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's office to coincide with his trip to Cairo.
Israeli officials are making every effort to conceal the arrival of the frigates opposite Israeli waters, while Washington, the NATO command in Brussels try to dissuade Turkey from carrying out its threat to disable the weapons of Israel naval vessels.
They fear that a firefight would drive the Israel-Turkish crisis into uncharted waters.
Since Saturday, Sept. 10, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has been in direct touch with Erdogan and warned him that a military clash by a NATO member with the Israeli Navy would have grave consequences for Turkey's future military ties with the US and the alliance.
Our sources explain that the denial of advanced US intelligence technology on the heels of its cutoff from Israel would present the Turkish army with serious operational, intelligence and high-tech difficulties.
These difficulties are already hobbling Ankara's counterinsurgency campaign against the PKK at a critical juncture.
Since Aug. 17, a full-blown war has been underway against PKK strongholds in northern Iraq – generally unnoticed in the West and in Israel. The US, Turkey, Iran and the Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraqi have formed an improbable coalition to cooperate in extinguishing the Kurdish rebellions staged by the PKK against Turkey and the PJAK against Iran.
The US has confined its role to relaying intelligence collected by its drones to the Turkish military and from its observation posts on the northern Iraqi-Iranian border to Iranian Revolutionary Guards units.
The data is processed through the KRG government in Irbil. The KRG has made its army's military and intelligence commands available for coordinating the allies's operations through its territory.
Turkish special operations units are backed by Turkish air strikes and coordinate their operations with the Americans and the Iranians.
The main battlefields are the Qandil Mountains region, Sinath-Haftanin, Hakurk and Gara.
The Turkish effort is impeded by three problems:
1. They are short of the knowhow for operating the intelligence and technical systems of the 10 Heron drones purchased from Israel since they expelled the Israeli technicians operating and keeping them in order last year.
Ankara says two of the drones are "non-operational" and three others suffer from intractable engine problems.
Five more were shipped back to Israel because of a Turkish complaint that they never reached the altitudes guaranteed by Israel's aerospace industries. DEBKAfile's sources report that test flights carried out in Israel showed nothing wrong with the drones' altitude capability.
2. The home-made Turkish drones (ANKA) brought into service were unable to climb high enough to perform over the rebel hideouts perched in the lofty Qandil mountain peaks. They also lacked the electronics for relaying surveillance data to their command center.
3. Both Tehran and Ankara have no doubt that the intelligence data released to them by the US military in the course of the counterinsurgency campaign is partial and limited. The complete picture remains exclusively in American hands. , Turkey sought the deployment of US Predators on its soil to fill the gap. That request was spurned until Prime Minister Erdogan backs away from his aggressive stance against Israel.
For those reasons, Turkish Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin announced Tuesday that his country would launch a cross-border ground offensive against the PKK in northern Iraq at any time.
Our military sources report that Ankara is pondering the same sort of campaign as Israel launched in Gaza against Hamas terrorism in Dec. 2008. It aims to demonstrate Turkey's ability to defeat the Kurdish rebels without US or Israeli drones.
Israel was wrongly accused of threatening to play the Kurdish card against the Erdogan government in reprisal for those threats. The fact is that Turkey is playing the Kurdish card against itself.
The Erdogan government sharply ratcheted up its threat of war on Israel Monday, Sept. 12 with a report that three Turkish Navy frigates are to sail for the eastern Mediterranean "to ensure freedom of navigation and confront Israeli warships if necessary."
As Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was set to start a visit to Egypt, Turkish naval sources reported: "If Turkish warships encounter an Israeli military ship outside Israel's 12-mile territorial waters, they will advance up to 100 meters from the ship and disable its weapon system."
The threat bluntly applied to Israel's naval enforcement of its UN-approved blockade of the Gaza Strip.
DEBKAfile's military sources report that this is more than a threat of belligerence against Israeli naval shipping; it is also an attempt to dictate the terms of its threatened military engagement at sea with Israel and arbitrarily lay down the outer limits of Israel's territorial waters. One of its goals is to deprive Israel's deep sea gas wells of naval protection.
Turkish naval sources report that the frigates assigned the mission against Israel belong to its Southern Sea Area Command.
DEBKAfile reported earlier Monday, Sept. 12:
While Egypt and Israel acted to cool the crisis in relations sparked by last Friday's mob attack on the Israeli embassy, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan threatened another inflammatory speech against Israel during his Monday visit, Sept. 12 - this one from Tahrir Square in a bid to buy the popularity of the Arab street. Jerusalem and Washington are concerned that it will have the effect of stirring up anti-Israel riots in Egypt and Jordan, Israel' second peace partner, as well as encouraging the Palestinian terrorist Jihad Islami lurking in Sinai to proceed with its threatened cross-border attack.
Sunday, Sept. 11, the military rulers of Egypt instructed the local media to tone down their coverage of the mob attack on the Israeli embassy Friday night. They announced that 130 rioters would be put on trial. Israel too made every effort to play the episode down by focusing attention on the "courageous stand" taken by the six security guards "only a door away from death" in order to distract attention from the absence of an Israeli ambassador in Cairo after thirty years of normal relations.
DEBKAfile's sources report that while Israel and Egyptian report efforts to reinstate the envoy soon, it will be some time before the next Israeli ambassador Yakov Amitai takes up his post. First, Israel will have to build a fortified embassy building like US and British premises in Cairo and other world capitals, for which the necessary Egyptian permission cannot be taken for granted. Political sources in Washington and Jerusalem are profoundly concerned by four fraught developments unfolding this week - all capable of sending Israel's ties with Egypt and Turkey into another perilous tailspin:
1. The Turkish prime minister's Tahrir Square speech Monday afternoon. His anti-Israel campaign has drawn from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood an enthusiastic welcome and the promise of a mass turnout. The MB declared the mob attack on the Israeli embassy a legitimate protest operation in defiance of the Egyptian government's position.
Above all, Erdogan will not stand for the Arab League foreign ministers' session in Cairo on the same day – to approve the Palestinian bid for UN membership – stealing the thunder of his official visit to Egypt.
Concern about the coming speech was heightened when the full, unedited text of the Turkish prime minster's interview to the Arabic television station Al Jazeera Thursday, Sept 8 reached Washington and Jerualme and was compared with the adulterated version circulated by Ankara and TV channel.
It reveals that Erdogan actually called Israel's interception of the Mavi Marmora in May 2010 (during which nine armed activists were killed) an Israeli casus belli for Turkey and extended his threat of aggression to the off shore oil and gas wells of Israel and Cyprus.
According the original text of the speech, Erdogan declared that Turkey will never accept the accord Israel and Cyprus concluded last year marking out their maritime zones for exploration. What Israel is doing, he said "will not happen" – a phrase he repeated with great determination.
The adulterated version released by Erdogan's office Friday, Sept. 9, the day after the interview read: "As long as Israel does not interfere in the freedom of navigation, we do not plan on sending any warships to escort humanitarian aid ships."
This is termed by DEBKAfile's sources no more than a play on words leaving the first threat to have Turkish warships escort aid vessels to the Gaza Strip and visit the eastern Mediterranean fully in place. The potential for a Turkish-Israeli clash at sea appears to be low but remains credible.
He knows Israel is determined not to lift the naval blockade on the Gaza Strip – certainly not after the UN pronounced it legal and necessary. He also knows therefore that his warships cannot avoid running into the Israeli Navy. His purpose remains provocative, because Turkey is free to consign unlimited humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip through Egypt – not to mention Israel.
DEBKAfile's sources disclose that this "amended" statement was produced in response to heavy pressure from NATO leaders to quit his belligerent stance against Israel.
2. The Turkish prime minister said Sunday that his campaign against Israel has five stages of which only two have been implemented.
Word has reached Jerusalem that Erdogan is preparing more sanctions against Israel to be enforced in days. They include cutting off diplomatic ties, a ban on Turkish trade with the Jewish state and acquitting Turkish businesses and industrialists of their contractual obligations to Israel firms, including debts totaling $400 million.
3. Israel's government and military leaders worry that the Palestinian Jihad Islami terrorists lurking in Sinai for the past three weeks will choose this moment to strike – whether to kidnap Israelis still vacationing on its beaches or a cross-border attack in Israel. The gunmen have met no Egyptian military interference and they will no doubt be encouraged to take advantage of the incendiary climate generated by the Turkish prime minister and Cairo mob's sacking of the Israeli embassy.
The Palestinian group's Iranian and Hizballah sponsors will not miss the chance of further undermining Israeli security. Sunday night saw the first indications of trouble when an Israeli border patrol north of Eilat came under fire from Egyptian Sinai. No one was hurt but Israeli troops guarding that precarious border are more on their toes now than ever.
4. The Muslim Brothers, Hamas and other radical Palestinian organizations in Jordan have used Facebook to rally "a million-strong march" on the Israeli embassy in the Jordanian capital of Amman for Thursday evening, Sept. 15, to push for the expulsion of Israeli Ambassador Danny Nevo.
Jordan security forces are on alert to prevent the Israeli embassy sacking in Cairo from being repeated in Amman.