DEBKAfile Exclusive Report October 2, 2011, 11:10 AM (GMT+02:00)
Increasingly assertive Turkey is setting the scene for clashes in the eastern Mediterranean. Since Thursday, Sept. 29, Turkish warships have been harassing Israeli merchant vessels in waters off Cyprus, debkafile's military sources report. They come close enough to establish wireless communication and caution the Israeli vessels they are in contravention of international law and ordering them to change course. The Israeli crews mostly ignore these "orders", treating them as Ankara's latest bid to assert Turkish naval mastery of the Eastern Mediterranean. But the situation is getting explosive enough to spark a major incident.
Over the weekend, Israeli Air Force planes circled near the sites of the incidents but not directly over the Turkish vessels. At the same time Israeli missile ships sailed close to Cyprus's Exclusive Economic Zone waters, where the Houston-based Noble Energy began drilling for natural gas on Sept. 19 in the face of Turkish threats. The rig is situated 160 kilometers south of Cyprus adjacent to Israel's Leviathan gas field.
Western naval sources tracking the new Turkish and Israeli deployments reported Saturday, Oct. 1: "Turkey and Israel are in a constant muscle-flexing contest in the eastern Mediterranean. They are metaphorically shaking fists in each other's faces and raising the risk of a confrontation that could quickly veer out of control."
Last week, Ankara retaliated for Cypriot and Israeli deep sea gas explorations by sending an exploration ship of its own escorted by a frigate and a submarine to Cyprus. Ankara sources also disclosed that Turkish F-16 fighters had been deployed in the northern part of the island.
Voicing concern over Turkey's assertiveness, NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Friday, Sept. 30, said: "Obviously, the tensions between Turkey and Israel are a matter of concern. It's a bilateral issue – NATO is not going to interfere with that. But it is the interest of the alliance to see these tensions eased, because Turkey is a key ally and Israel is a valuable partner for the alliance."
The NATO Secretary contradicted Ankara's claim that Israel would not be allowed to open an office at alliance headquarters in Brussels. "NATO defense ministers agreed during the meeting in April that NATO partners can have offices… This includes all partners," he said.
Referring to concern about the tensions over natural gas exploration "between Turkey and Cyprus as well as Israel," Rasmussen said: "I urge all parties to find peaceful solutions to disputes through constructive dialogue." He said he did not expect armed clashes in the region. However, he suggested that Turkey has to be managed carefully as it asserts a growing role on the global stage.
Also Saturday, Cyprus President Dimitris Christofias had this message for Ankara: "I wish to underline to all those who attempt to question this right of the Republic of Cyprus: our sovereign rights are non-negotiable."
Five days ago, the prime ministers of Greece and Turkey, George Papandreou and Tayyip Erdogan talked by phone. And four days ago, Adm. James Stavridis, Commander of NATO forces in Europe, flew to Ankara directly from Israel for talks with Turkish leaders.
Turkish harassment of Israeli cargo vessels began after those interchanges, indicating that the Erdogan government has no intention of meeting exasperated US and NATO efforts to cool rising tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.