Ankara has also been told by NATO allies to shift military assets long deployed in the Aegean to deter Greece towards the Syrian border, where both the power vacuum ensuing from the country's civil war and increased PKK activity pose more significant threats to Turkish security than any posed by financial crisis-hit Greece.
Turkey has deployed air defense systems along its border with Syria after a Turkish military jet crashed off Syria in the Mediterranean in June. The Turkish government said the plane was downed by Syria in a hostile act, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said military rules of engagement have been changed so that any Syrian military unit approaching the border could be hit.
But Ankara is now being advised by NATO allies that its military assets in the Aegean region, including missile batteries and jet fighters, should be moved to the Syrian border to provide more effective deterrence.
Dempsey’s visit to Ankara comes amid a surge in PKK attacks on Turkish security forces. Eight Turkish police officers were killed and nine wounded on Sunday when a roadside mine exploded in the Karlıova district of Bingöl in eastern Turkey. The attack came a day after four soldiers were killed in another PKK attack on a military convoy in Hakkari province, near the border with Iraq and Iran.
The United States has been cooperating with Turkey in its efforts to combat the PKK by extending drone flights over northern Iraq, where the PKK has bases, to 24 hours a day. Data from flights of the drones -- four Predators deployed in İncirlik air base in southern Turkey in November -- is of critical importance in monitoring PKK movements across the border. Officials decline to say how many hours the Predators fly a day, but it is known that the US wants to keep it below 24 hours, despite repeated requests from Turkey.
The US side says personnel remotely piloting the Predators from an Air Force base in Missouri are already busy gathering information from several conflict zones across the world, including Afghanistan, and that they cannot work 24 hours a day to support Turkey’s anti-PKK operations.
Data collected on surveillance flights of the Predators are transmitted to the Missouri base before they are shared with Turkish officials.
Today’s Zaman has also learned that the US has already ended manned flights in northern Iraq to gather intelligence on PKK movements. U2 spy planes were flying over northern Iraq to provide Turkey with more intelligence on PKK activities, but Washington ended those flights after withdrawal of US forces from Iraq due to security concerns. A Turkish military source said that US officials are concerned that the safety of the pilots flying those planes could not be secured, given that US combatant forces have left the area as part of the military withdrawal from Iraq. The pilots may be captured or killed by the PKK if any of these planes crash, for example, over the Kandil Mountains, where the PKK bases are located. The flights ceased as of Jan. 1, 2012, sources said.
Syria on agenda
Dempsey’s visit is his first trip to Turkey since he was appointed to his post in October. During his two-day stay, the US commander is also expected to discuss Syria with Gen. Özel. Turkey is hosting about 80,000 Syrians fleeing a civil war in their country and says the international community should be doing more to share the burden.
Insisting that the international community should do more to help the Syrians, Ankara wants the establishment of a “secure environment” inside Syria so that civilians fleeing the conflict could be offered safety and help on Syrian territory. But Dempsey has recently indicated that he is no fan of this idea, saying such a measure could prompt retaliatory attacks from the Syrian regime and thus draw the US into a military confrontation.
Talks with Dempsey are expected to focus primarily on the refugee flow, measures to prevent possible infiltration of terrorists among the refugees and the possibility that the eventual toppling of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime could also lead to the collapse of the Syrian state and disintegration of the country.
Analysts warn that the civil war could result in the disintegration of Syria if the Alawites retreat to the country’s Alawite-populated regions and declare their own state there. Kurds, who are unwilling to support either the regime or the Sunni opposition, have already declared their rule in the country’s northern towns, bordering Turkey.
The Kurdish move has alarmed Turkey, which fears the PKK may find a fertile new ground in northern Syria to step up attacks on Turkish targets.