Despite the recent bleak assessments made by certain analysts, Turkey and Israel -- with intense American help -- have managed to pull off an early spring surprise and set in motion a process to restore their currently frayed relations and end a three-year drama that ultimately served nobody's interests.
Earlier today, towards the end of American President Barack Obama's three-day visit to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned his Turkish counterpart and issued an apology for the deaths that took place due to "operational mistakes" when Israeli forces raid the Turkish Mavi Marmara Gaza aid ship some three years ago. In joint statements released by the two prime ministers' offices, the two countries said they are working out on an agreement for compensation/non-liability and will work together on improving the humanitarian situation in the "Palestinian territories." With this formula, it would appear that Israel has satisfied Turkey's demands for normalizing their relations.
Are armed drones the answer to Turkey's continuing fight against the militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)? That certainly seems to be the signal coming out of Ankara, which has been pushing Washington to provide it with American-made Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, which can be armed with air-to-ground missiles.
To a large extent, Ankara's military strategy regarding the PKK fight seems to be evolving in a direction that mimics that used by the United States in Pakistan and Yemen, where drones have become a central weapon in Washington's counterterrorism efforts. Like the US has learned in Pakistan, though, Turkey has recently also discovered that relying on drones can lead to trouble. As described in this previous post, the use of UAV's has become a topic of intense debate in Turkey after the Turkish military last December killed 34 Kurdish villagers that were mistakenly thought to be PKK militants. The deadly attack on the 34, part of a convoy of smugglers heading towards the Turkish border from Iraq, came as a result of intelligence provided by an American drone on loan to Turkey that first noticed the convoy.
In a highly illuminating article, Turkey-basd analyst Aaron Stein takes a look at Turkey's efforts to develop its drone fleet and some of the politics behind it, asking the important question of whether Turkish policymakers have really thought through the implications of introducing armed UAV's into their country's military strategy. From Stein's article:
After weeks of rumor and speculation, the Pentagon confirmed that it has moved a squadron of Predator drones from a base in Iraq to Turkey's Incirlik air base. The move comes in anticipation of the American withdrawal from Iraq later this year, but also in response to Ankara's request to host the Predators, which are being used to provide intelligence and surveillance in Turkey's fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). From AFP:
The United States has deployed Predator drones to Turkey from Iraq for surveillance flights in support of Ankara's fight against Kurdish rebels, a Pentagon spokesman said Monday.
With US forces withdrawing from Iraq by the end of the year, the four American unmanned aircraft will be shifted from an air field in northern Iraq to the Incirlik air base in Turkey, Captain John Kirby told reporters.
"There is an agreement now to fly some of those ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) assets out of Incirlik at the request of the Turkish government," Kirby said.
The robotic drones, which are unarmed, had been moved to Incirlik in the last couple of weeks, he said.
"It's my understanding they are operating out of Incirlik now," he said....
...."This is to help provide ISR support to the Turkish military to deal with the specific threat posed by the PKK on their southern border."
With the current American ambassador to Turkey, James Jeffrey, being tapped to take over the U.S. mission in Iraq, it appears that a Washington battle is brewing over who will be the next ambassador in Ankara. As Foreign Policy reports, some neo-conservatives in Washington are not happy about the choice to replace Jeffery: Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr., a former ambassador to Egypt, among other places. From FP's report:
A behind-the-scenes clash is playing out over President
Obama's nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey, a key Middle East
post at a time of tense relations between Washington and an increasingly
independent-minded Ankara. The would-be envoy, Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr., is a
32-year veteran of the Foreign Service who most recently served as the deputy
ambassador in Kabul. He's served in Ankara in the past and speaks fluent
Turkish. Ricciardone also played a role in organizing the Iraqi exile community
before the 2003 U.S. drive to Baghdad.But it's his tenure as George W. Bush's envoy to Egypt that
has provoked the most criticism, particularly among neoconservatives who are
hoping to persuade Republican senators to torpedo his nomination.
The German Marshall Fund's Ian Lesser, one of the more sober minded Turkey analysts out there, has a new report out that tries to chart a future course for Turkey's relations with the West. From his report:
Expert and media commentary suggests that Turkey is becoming an exotic place, a country out of the transatlantic mainstream, pursuing an increasingly assertive and independent policy on the marches of Europe. In this sense, the fashionable controversy over “neo-Ottomanism” is actually a two-way street, reinforced by a revival of very old ideas about Turkey’s geopolitics. It is too easy by far to see the Gaza flotilla crisis and Turkey’s “no” vote on Iran sanctions as straightforward
confirmation of a Turkish drive to the Muslim East. Recent events underscore some striking changes in Turkish society and policy, and these will not make for an easy relationship between Turkey and its European and North American partners. The roots of this friction are diverse, with a strong nationalist component. Yet, important avenues for cooperation remain open and may expand even as traditional patterns wane. The new Turkish-Western relationship will be a la carte, and driven by convergent national interests rather than amorphous notions of geopolitics and identity. It could still be a rough ride.