The Turks are playing with fire. It appears that Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is crossing the fine line between verbal escalation coupled with a diplomatic fight against Israel and the facilitation of military confrontation. This man, whom everyone believed was engaged in methodical, well-planned anti-Israel conduct with clear aims, is starting to go with his gut. The psychiatric aspects in the Israel-Turkey crisis are starting to overcome logic.
Over the holiday, the Turks published a report about what they characterized as “Israeli military provocation.” They claimed that Israeli fighter jets hovered above the Turkish Navy’s taskforce securing the gas drills planned by Turkey near Cyprus. The IDF denied the report, but it makes no difference. This is the message the Turks convey: Physical friction exists between Israel and us.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials are starting to monitor Turkish naval moves in the Mediterranean with special attention. A few weeks ago, a medium-sized Turkish battleship sailed in the Mediterranean’s eastern basin, from north to south, taking the same route as the Marmara did while moving abnormally close to Israel’s shores. While the ship did not enter Israel’s territorial waters, it sailed in ranges where military vessels usually update friendly states about their presence in order to avoid misunderstandings.
This set off alarm bells in Israel: Could it be that Erdogan, using the Turkish Navy, is checking Israel’s alertness and conduct?
On September 20th, a Turkish Navy taskforces sailed to the drill site near Cyprus. The force comprised frigates, missile boats, a supply ship, a tugboat, and apparently two submarines as well. This did not look like a security presence, but rather, as a force heading towards “hostile” states such as Cyprus, Greece and possibly Israel as well.
Generally speaking, Turkey has boosted its operations in the Mediterranean theater, both in the air and at sea, for no reason and without any perceptible strategic threat. The flights performed by the Turkish Air Force in the region are different than what we saw in the past.
A senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official recently summoned Arab ambassadors in Ankara and boasted about scrambling jets on several occasions and chasing away Israeli fighter jets flying near Syria’s shores. Regardless of whether these are half-truths or fantasy, one thing is clear: Turkish rhetoric has shifted from cursing to war games.
These games could end up badly. Senior NATO officials pled with their Turkish counterparts, deploring them to stop playing with fire. The Turkish officers responded that as far as it depends on them, there will be no military clash. However, Turkey’s military leaders are scared of Erdogan. Turkey’s public sphere is also different than Israel’s, and Erdogan’s acts and conduct are not transparent and are not under constant scrutiny. He can feel quite confident in the face of domestic public opinion – which in any case perceives Israel as an insane state that goes with its gut.
The Americans are also warning the Turks: Should you continue playing these games, you could end up losing a ship. However, Erdogan’s hubris is leading to military escalation.
Under such circumstances, Erdogan should not be surprised to see a Turkish or Israeli pilot, who suddenly feel threatened, pressing the button and firing the missile. The distance between provocation and a regional flare-up could be several seconds long. So who will be stopping Erodgan?