Turkey borders Syria, Iran and Iraq
Turkey borders Syria, Iran and IraqIsrael news photo

The threat of the anti-Israel axis north of the border worsened Wednesday with the announcement that Turkey, which has close ties with Iran, conducted joint military drills with Syria after snubbing Israel.

The maneuvers were held last week, revealed Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, who made the announcement on the Qatar-based Arabic-language Al Jazeera news network. "One week ago, Syria and Turkey carried out maneuvers near Ankara," Moallem announced. "This is important because it refutes reports of poor relations between the military and political institutes in Turkey over its strategic relations with Syria."

The Syrian-Turkish military exercises were apparently being held at the same time that Turkey was informing Jerusalem that it would ban the IAF from participating in the joint Anatolian Eagle exercise, a move that was not made public by Israel until Sunday. The war games, scheduled to be held together with Turkey, the U.S. and Italy, reportedly were to include mock bombing raids in air space near the borders of Iran, Iraq and Syria. Israeli planes are believed to have passed through Turkish air space two years ago during the attack on a Syrian nuclear facility under construction.

Two decades of close ties between Ankara and Jerusalem appear to be coming to an end, the Asia Times reported Wednesday. It explained that demands from the Arab world and from hard-line Muslims in Turkey have influenced the government to distance itself from Israel, which has supplied Ankara with hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of equipment for refurbishing tanks and airplanes.

"This is a seriously worrying development," former Israeli Air Force Commander Eitan Ben-Eliyahu told an interviewer on Israeli television. "Turkey is critically essential in the training of our air force over wide spaces, particularly given Turkey's strategic location adjacent to both Iran and Syria."

Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Tzachi HaNegbi (Kadima) stated that the cancellation of the joint military exercise is a "troubling" development.

Turkish officials tried to calm harsh Israeli reactions to the surprise cancellation, but Israeli officials charged that the government of Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan is trying to punish Israel for the three-week Operation Cast Lead counterterrorist war against Gaza that concluded in mid-January.

Prime Minister Erdogan also has been in the forefront of criticizing the United Nations decision last month not to discuss the Goldstone Report that accused Israel of war crimes in the Gaza operation. The U.N. now is considering reversing its position.

End of an Era?

The change in the friendship between Turkey and Israel, which one senior Israeli official admitted may “have simply ended,” leaves Israel without any friendly nation close to the northern border. The Asia Times noted that the cancellation of the aerial exercise may have severe implications on the effort to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

A Turkish-Syrian treaty signed Tuesday included plans to strengthen military ties and to end visa requirements for each country. Ten Turkish ministers flew to Syria for the high-level meeting with Syrian counterparts.

Syria also praised Turkey for pulling out of the military exercise with Israel and urged other Muslim countries, mainly Jordan and Egypt, to cut diplomatic ties with Israel. Jordan this week threatened to withdraw its ambassador to Israel if Israeli police enter the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount.

Turkey also played a critical role as intermediary in indirect talks between Syria and Israel during the term of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Turkey Tries to Calm Crisis

Ankara nevertheless may be trying to calm the current crisis with Israel. Zamanonline, a Turkish news web site, reported Wednesday that the failure of Israel to deliver UAVs to help Turkey fight terror was the reason behind the cancellation of the aerial exercise with Israel.

It quoted an anonymous senior air force official as saying that politics is not involved with the current crisis with Israel. The official reportedly said that Israel is not making good on a four-year-old $180 million contract with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Elbit Systems for 10 Heron UAVs.

“Turkey needs those vehicles in its fight against terror. What led to the recent crisis between Turkey and Israel was the delay in the delivery,” he said.

“As Israeli authorities failed to satisfactorily convince Turkey that they would be able to achieve the planned date for delivery of the Herons, the Air Forces Command informed the General Staff of the situation,” he told the web site. “The General Staff asked Israeli authorities one last time about the delivery of the Herons. Israeli authorities refused to give an exact date and said they planned to deliver the vehicles by the end of 2009, whereupon the General Staff decided to cancel the international part of the exercises.”

Israeli engineers explained they ran into problems because of the weight of Turkish-made electro-optical payloads, which require a stronger engine for the Heron UAV. Two of the Herons have been delivered, but Turkey claims they are not satisfactory.

Relations between Turkey and Israel deteriorated after the three-week Operation Cast Lead counterterrorist campaign ended, with Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan storming out two weeks later during a panel discussion with President Shimon Peres about the war with Hamas.