A regular military exercise involving the U.S., Israel, Italy, Turkey (and other NATO elements) was suddenly cancelled last week, just days before it was scheduled to begin.
The U.S. suddenly scrapped plans for the Antolian Eagle drill after Ankara announced plans to pull-out of the exercise, citing participation by Israeli Air Force units. Turkish officials told their counterparts in Tel Aviv they could not abide IAF participation in the exercise, believing the Israeli jets would be the same ones that bombed Palestinian targets in Gaza earlier this year, during Operation Cast Lead.
According to the Jerusalem Post (and Israeli Radio), the final cancellation came after U.S. and other NATO members threatened to pull out if the IAF was not allowed to participate.
While Ankara is clearly trying to improve its standing with neighbors (read: Russia) that supply much of its energy needs. Moscow, of course, has substantial investments in nearby Iran--investments that could be threatened if the IAF launches an attack against Tehran's nuclear facilities.
Given their relationship with Tehran (and the money they stand to make) the Russians have a clear motive for keeping the IAF out of an exercise that could sharpen skills for a near-term strike on Iran. As for the Turks, barring participation by the IAF not only placates Moscow, they also score brownie points in the Muslim world, by taking a belated stand against Israeli "aggression."
Turkey's sudden aversion to the IAF would creates operational issues for Tel Aviv. For starters, the recently-announced ban would make it more difficult for the Israelis to access training facilities in Turkey. Israeli fighter squadrons have routinely deployed to Turkish air fields over the past decade, taking advantage of range facilities and vast areas of uncontrolled airspace, allowing IAF pilots to practice the long-range navigation, dogfighting and weapons employment skills that would be used during an attack against Iran.
Ankara's decision would also make it difficult, if not impossible, for Israeli jets to use Turkish airspace for a strike on Tehran's nuclear facilities. Analysts have long speculated that the most feasible attack route lies near the border between Iraq and Turkey, utilizing a commercial air corridor.
Under that scenario, Israeli tankers would masquerade as civilian airliners, with the strike aircraft flying close behind, in "resolution cell" formation, hiding inside the radar shadow of the larger jets. Turkish cooperation would make the long distance flight much easier, and increase chances for tactical surprise.
But there may be a method to Ankara's apparent madness. By suddenly rejecting the aerial participation of a long-time ally, the Turks are giving themselves breathing room, in anticipation of an Israeli strike against Iran. That way, when the IAF streaks across Turkey's southern border, Ankara can claim that the raid was conducted without their support and approval. Like other Muslim countries, Turkey cannot be publicly viewed as condoning an Israeli strike, even if many officers on Ankara's general staff support its goals.
That may explain why Israel's reaction to the Turkish decision was rather muted--and why the U.S. reacted to quickly in cancelling the exercise. Truth is, the drill could have proceeded without Israeli participation, but Washington's decision gives a little bit of political cover to all involved.
There is a chance that the new "rift" between Tel Aviv and Ankara in genuine, and rooted in Turkey's reaction to the Israeli campaign in Gaza. But there is also the very real possibility that the exercise cancellation is a hint of things to come--an operation that may require access to Turkish airspace, without the "formal" approval of the general staff, or the civilian government.