The United States has just cut off its nose to spite its face by announcing that Washington will halt delivery of equipment related to the F-35 fighter jet to Turkey. This makes life more difficult for both Turkey and the US as Turkey played a key role in the development of the F-35.
Is this about Russia or is it about Israel?
Throughout 2018, the US threatened to halt delivery of the F-35s to Turkey due to Ankara’s insistence that it will purchase the Russian made S-400 missile defence system. But while on the surface, the row between Turkey and the US appears to be one stemming from a reality in which Turkey has warm relations with Moscow whilst the US does not, there is an Israeli factor at hand that may be the overriding factor at play. The fact that Israel’s ally India has more or less received a green light from the US to purchase S-400s makes this reality all the more clear.
In May of last year, Russian media outlet Sputnik reporting the following:
“According to a top Israeli defence official, the Jewish state seeks to remain the only country in the region with F-35 jets to maintain its military’s qualitative edge. The discussions between Israel and the United States have also reportedly touched upon the jet’s performance-enhancing software; unnamed sources confirmed to Haaretz that the matter is ‘part of the negotiations,’ while Israel has denied having talks over the F-35 deal, under which Turkey is expected to obtain 100 stealth fighter jets”.
Whilst anti-Turkish forces do exist in the US owing to Turkey’s increasingly warm relations to countries as diverse as Russia, Iran and China, the fact that recent years and months have seen a dramatic decline in Turkey-Israel relations has clearly played a part in America’s move to effectively remove Turkey from the F-35 project that it had been a part of from the earliest stages of the jet’s development.
While the Pentagon had previously expressed its willingness to follow through with its pledged delivery of US made F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, Congressional opposition fuelled by a unique alliance of the US based Armenian, Hellenic and Jewish lobbies continues to oppose the US delivery of the jets to NATO member Turkey.
What one is witnessing in the United States is a perfect storm of geopolitical brinkmanship which has allied with domestic ethno-religious agitation groups in a malaise of open Turkophobia. From the perspective of many in Congress from both major US parties, delivering the F-35s to Turkey would violate the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) which allows for US sanctions on otherwise neutral or even allied countries who purchase weapons from nations being directly sanctioned by Washington. The directly sanctioned nations in question are Russia, Iran and the DPRK (North Korea).
Because of Turkey’s agreement to purchase Russia’s S-400 missile defence systems, Ankara is now being targeted by members of the US Congress keen to exert what amounts to a blackmail clause in CAATSA which would threaten any nation with sanctions for the “offence” of purchasing Russian weapons.
From healthy relations to the ultimate strain
Turkey was the first Muslim majority nation to recognise Israel and prior to recent decades, Ankara and Tel Aviv have had a generally healthy relationship. This dramatically changed in 2010 when Israeli commandos illegally boarded the MV Mavi Marmara in international waters. The MV Mavi Marmara was a privately chartered Turkish flagged ship carrying mostly Turkish activists on their way to Gaza in order to deliver much needed humanitarian supplies to besieged Palestinians. The gruesome raid killed ten Turks and resulted in the lowest ebb in Ankara-Tel Aviv relations until now.
A new anti-Turkish alliance in the eastern Mediterranean and among US based pressure groups
For much of the 20th and 21st centuries, the large American based Hellenic and Armenian lobbies have agitated for a less friendly US approach to Turkey. For the Armenian lobby, the main goal is to convince the US Federal government to recognise the tragic events of 1915 as “The Armenian Genocide” while the Hellenic lobby has sought to persuade Washington to pressure Ankara into acknowledging the early 20th century conflict in western Anatolia as the “Pontic Genocide”. Additionally, the US Hellenic lobby has for years attempted to persuade NATO to take a tougher line on the status of Northern Cyprus. Thus far, none of these lobbying attempts have met with the desired success of the respective lobbies at a Federal level.
While the US based Jewish lobby is traditionally more powerful than either the Hellenic or Armenian lobbies, the US Jewish lobby has generally had little negative to say about Turkey in-line with the fact that of all of the Muslim majority governments in the region Tel Aviv had its best relations with Ankara, as well as the overriding reality that Turkey never passed any antisemitic legislation as most of the powers of Europe did prior to the mid-20th century.
But with Turkish President Erdoğan openly calling for a wider pan-Islamic movement for Palestine, all the while calling Israel a terrorist state, the US Jewish lobby like Israeli politicians, have joined traditional foes of Turkey in openly agitating for a more anti-Turkish position form the US government.
This has expressed itself both domestically in the US and geopolitically in terms of Israel’s new regional partnerships. Against this background, it is perhaps not surprising that Gilad Erdan, a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud faction has called for Tel Aviv to recognise the events of 1915 as an “Armenian Genocide”. If Israel were to officially to do this, it would represent a clear break between Tel Aviv and Ankara and quite possibly a point of no return. The more Turkey stands up for Palestine, the more voices like those of Erdan will become amplified in arguing for a move that is less about Armenia (a traditionally anti-Zionist nation) than about sending a clear message to Turkey that the partnership has run its course.
Israel and The Craiova Group
Formed in 2015, the fledgling Craiova Group is a partnership between Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania aimed at fostering deeper cooperation between the four south-eastern European nations. While the group has generally been far less notable in terms of its aims and accomplishments vis-a-vis the Three Seas Initiative linking Baltic eastern and central Europe with the European nations of south-east, this month the Craiova Group came into its own as the official organisation which will carry out Israel’s attempt to isolate Turkey in the wider eastern Mediterranean region.
On the 2nd of November, 2018, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu took part in a Craiova Group summit in Varna, Bulgaria. There, Netanyahu said,
“I am here at the summit of four countries – Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Romania.This is the first time that they have invited a leader outside these four countries to participate in their summit. This is a great honor for Israel and reflects Israel’s rising status in the world.
Each one of the leaders has individually told me that they will try to improve their consideration of Israel in relevant votes both at the EU and the UN. They all want to promote the gas pipeline from Leviathan to Europe and the Balkans.They are also very interested in Israeli gas and Israeli technology, and they would very much like Israel’s friendship. This is a good sign”.
Netanyahu also discussed making the Craiova Group integral to Tel Aviv’s plans to construct the East Med Pipeline, a joint Israeli-Hellenic project that will see a gas pipeline travelling from disputed Israeli waters through to disputed Cypriot waters and finally into mainland Europe via The Hellenic Republic. But while Netanyahu’s speech talked about unity against the supposed threat of Islam which clearly played to the sentiments of many in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania where the racist anti-Turkish/anti-Muslim hashtag “#nokebab” has become a cultural phenomenon, the pipeline alliance that Israel is trying to secure is clearly aimed at boxing Turkey into a corner in its own territorial waters.
At present, Ankara and Nicosia are in the midst of a heated row regarding rights to offshore gas fields in the waters off the island of Cyprus. At present, while there is no realistic plan for Nicosia to militarily enter the Turkish North of the divided island, Nicosia is opposed to Turkish plans to begin extracting gas in the waters off of the disputed territory of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (aka Northern Cyprus). To put it another way, in spite of rhetoric to the contrary, the government in Nicosia clearly cares about controlling the waters off of Cyprus more than it cares about controlling the island’s total landmass.
But far from being just a new chapter in the age old Hellenic-Turkish disputes of the region, this particular conflict is also being driven by Israel whose government is keen to see Tel Aviv, Nicosia and Athens work jointly on an East Med pipeline that excludes Turkey while at the same time impinging on offshore territory that Turkey claims it has an inalienable right to exploit. Now, Israel looks to bolster these plans which have already seen Egypt pivoting ever closer to Tel Aviv and Nicosia by also drawing Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania into the project.
When one remembers that during the ultimately brief Turkish-Israeli rapprochement of 2016, there were talks of a joint gas project between Tel Aviv and Ankara, the underpinnings of the present conflict become all the more clear.
To further understand the background of the severe downgrade in Turko-Israeli relations that has now become a rivalry for energy supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean, it is important to understand the following that was originally published in Eurasia Future in May of last year:
“The Turkish government has just announced the effective expulsion of Eitan Na’eh, Israel’s Ambassador to Ankara. According to the Daily Sabah,
‘Na’eh was asked to leave Turkey indefinitely by the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs following the Israeli bloodshed and his tweets’.
Pipeline politics no more
Against this background, erstwhile plans for a Turkey to Israel East Mediterranean pipeline have stalled. As a result, Tel Aviv has pivoted closer to Turkey’s regional rival Egypt (which has said next to nothing about Palestine in recent days), while most importantly there is now talk of an EU sponsored East Mediterranean pipeline between Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Italy.
According to a report from New Europe,
“The EastMed gas pipeline would circumvent Turkey, which has increased tensions with Cyprus, Greece and Israel recently, providing a way to transport newly discovered gas supplies from the East Mediterranean to Europe. The talks in Nicosia in May follow a memorandum of understanding regarding the EastMed pipeline, which was signed in December.
According to the Public Gas Corporation of Greece (DEPA), the EastMed will connect the recently discovered gas fields in the Levantine Basin, in the southeast Mediterranean, with mainland Greece and is projected to carry 8-14 billion cubic meters per year of natural gas to Greece and Europe.
According to DEPA, the approximately 1900 kilometer long pipeline (700 kilometers on-shore, 1200 off-shore) consists of the three following main sections, as well as compressor stations located in Cyprus and Crete: a pipeline from the fields to Cyprus, a pipeline connecting Cyprus to Crete, and a pipeline from Crete crossing mainland Greece up to the Ionian coast.
From there the EastMed can link up with the offshore Poseidon pipeline enabling the delivery of additional diversified sources from the Levantine to Italy and beyond. The EastMed pipeline is preliminarily designed to have exit points in Cyprus, Crete, and mainland Greece as well as the connection point with the Poseidon pipeline”.
The deal to create such a pipeline was sealed in December of 2017 while glowing reports from pro-EU media touted the deal as a means of allowing Europe to decrease its dependence on Russian gas while also offering Israel a chance to swap Turkey for EU partners. As Turkey’s long paralytic bid to join the EU is now de-facto over, both Europe and Israel’s cooperation over a new East Mediterranean gas pipeline has the effect of drawing Russia and Turkey into an even closer partnership than the one they are currently in.
At the moment the Turkstream pipeline designed to bring Russian gas into Europe via Turkey is a major joint project between Moscow and Ankara. Now, both the EU and Israel are looking to challenge this route with a pipeline of their own in a similar region. In reality, there is enough demand for gas in Europe and Israel to mean that both pipelines can coexist, but the geopolitical optics are clear enough. Tel Aviv has joined forces with the most anti-Ankara states in the EU in order to cut Turkey out of Israel’s future.
The importance of Turkey’s Soft Power in the Sunni Muslim world
President Erdoğan has already proved himself to be the ‘Sultan of Soft Power’ in the wider Sunni Muslim world. Without clear leadership from Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Qatar and with Saddam’s always controversial Iraqi government long out of power, Erdoğan has positioned himself as a champion for Palestine not only in Turkey and the Sunni Arab world but beyond. Because of this, one should never underestimate how far Turkey will take its support of Palestine vis-a-vis Tel Aviv, not least because the more Erdoğan voices his opinions in support of Palestine, the more he is respected and supported both in Turkey and far beyond.
Israel supporting Turkey’s main rivals
Because Israel has taken clear moves away from Turkey and towards its hated Hellenic rivals, officials in Ankara who in the past may have been hesitant to sever ties with Tel Aviv because of economic considerations may now be much closer to doing so. Israel’s intensifying military cooperation with both Greece and Cyprus are a further sign that when it comes to Turkey, Tel Aviv is doing everything in its power to replace its once healthy Turkish partnership with that of countries with notoriously poor and always heated relations with Ankara.
Then there is the issue of Kurdish ethno-nationalism in both Syria and Iraq. Uniquely in the world, the United States and Israel are supporters of Kurdish separatism both in northern Syria and northern Iraq. President Erdoğan has already made it clear that this is one of several red lines that Israel can cross in respect of maintaining even semi-normal relations. During the attempted illegal Kurdish succession from Iraq in the autumn of 2017, Erdoğan posed the following rhetorical statements to Kurdish secessionists in Iraq,
“Who will recognize your independence? Israel. The world is not about Israel?…
…“You should know that the waving of Israeli flags there will not save you!”
In order to connect these dots, one must ask some vital questions:
1. Why is the US treating its longstanding NATO partner Turkey much worse than it is treating its new Indian partner over the purchase of the same Russian made S-400 defensive weapons?
2. With Turkey and Israel competing for regional soft power influence, regional influence in respect of gas pipelines and competing in respect of building new diplomatic alliances in the Eastern Mediterranean, could Israel be preparing options to lead military assaults on Turkish assets (perhaps in Cyprus) and as such fears Turkey’s ownership of F-35 as well as S-400s?
3. As Russia is both an Israel and Turkish ally, is Tel Aviv attempting to use the US to pressure Turkey to choose between its Russian and American partners knowing that Moscow will not do so?
4. As Israel owns F-35s but not S-4000s, is Tel Aviv worried that if Turkey had both, it would be able to seriously counter possible Israeli aerial bombardments against Turkish assets in the wider region?
When one looks at the overall state of Turkey-Israel relations and what Israeli officials have themselves said about Turkey and the F-35s, it begins to become ever more apparent that the F-35/S-400 issue is as much if not more about Tel Aviv than it is about the neo-Cold War between Washington and Moscow.