The air wars in the Middle East and Turkey

Middle Eastern politics has traditionally been obsessed with territorial disputes. »»

Middle Eastern politics has traditionally been obsessed with territorial disputes. In a sense, the very history of the region is the history of land.

The main focus not only of politics but also of the regional armies has been land. For example, air force commanders are rarely appointed chief of General Staff in Turkey. Tradition dictates that the chief of General Staff be appointed from the land forces.

Yet Middle Eastern airspace is under the near monopoly of two states: the US and Israel. Regional states like Turkey have strong air forces, but they lack the air intelligence capacity that enables them to dominate every square centimeter of their land. Ironically, Turkey, a country that has spent more than $200 billion on fighting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), has no sophisticated system of air intelligence units, so it buys them from Israel. Simply, Turkey is dependent on Israel and the US for its airspace security. And, with an airspace intelligence system as weak as this, Turkey has exactly zero chance of stopping terrorist activity on its lands.

Turkey has long been a buyer of Israeli-made Herons, a kind of medium-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). However, political tension with Israel has now forced Turkey to seek alternatives. Turkey's great ambition is to reorganize its air intelligence system with the US-made Predators. The Predators are known to be the most advanced air intelligence UAVs. However, there is a strong lobby against this plan.

Indeed, Predators will increase Turkey's air control capacity not only vis-à-vis the PKK problem but in general. In other words, Israel believes that a Turkey with Predators will challenge its traditional air hegemony. Meanwhile, there are rumors in Turkey that Israel is sharing its air intelligence with several other actors, among them the Syrian government and even the PKK. The Turkish military has confirmed several times that Israeli UAVs have appeared over Turkish territory.

Naturally, Predators will consolidate Turkey's strategy for becoming a regional leader. The political calculation is not difficult. Turkey is becoming the biggest economy in the region. Despite the size of its population being close to that of Egypt, Turkey's economy is three times bigger than Egypt's. Turkey's other competitor, Iran, will not be able to compete with Turkey's economic development. Turkey's economic strength seems to be skyrocketing when compared with other regional states' economies, including Israel's. When it comes to democracy, the calculation is simple for Turkey, as no serious challenger to Turkey's regional leadership exists. Despite many problems, Turkish democracy is far more advanced than that of any of its regional competitors. Turkey will monopolize all the fruits of democratization in foreign policy in the Middle East in the foreseeable future. The missing link in this calculation is indeed Turkey's weakness in airspace intelligence. Even though Turkey's main purpose is to use Predators against the PKK, some regional states (not only Israel!) are critical of this.

Another perspective is that the Predator issue is now a litmus test of Turkish-American relations. Turkey, despite domestic and regional opposition, has done its best to settle a NATO radar system on its territories. Now it is the White House's turn to return this favor. The Predator bargain may seem to be a simple technical military issue, but it is not. The Predator issue is now one of the most important turning points since the end of the Cold War in the Turkish-American alliance. If it works well, the Predator issue may go down in the history of bilateral relations as another instance of grand cooperation on the level of the Truman Plan.