The Turkish precedent

Russia’s S-400 sale to Ankara – and the US response – should worry Jerusalem

Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses a meeting of his ruling AK Party in Ankara on July 26 (photo credit: CEM OKSUZ/TURKISH PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses a meeting of his ruling AK Party in Ankara on July 26
There are a few important lessons for Israel, the Middle East and the West to draw from the supply of the Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft batteries delivered to Turkey in July. One is that Turkey can’t be trusted as a Western ally. The second is that the US president’s foreign policy, if he has any at all, is crumbling. World leaders don’t take Donald Trump seriously, and have no fear of him.
Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan defied threats from the US and NATO and went ahead with the deal he had signed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to purchase the batteries, considered to be one of the most advanced in the world.
In response, Trump ordered a halt to the supply of US-made F-35 “stealth” warplanes to Turkey (which ordered 100), and that the nation be expelled from the exclusive club of nations that participated in the production program.
The list of the countries that ordered the most advanced fighter plane and or take part in the program includes major US allies: Israel, the UK, Australia, South Korea, Netherlands, Italy, Japan, Denmark, Norway and Belgium.
Israel has known for a decade or so that Turkey was treacherous. The realization came the hard way. For nearly four decades the two countries were close strategic
allies. The Turkish Army was an important customer for Israeli weapon manufacturers in deals over the years worth a total of
$3 billion.
The Mossad and its Turkish counterpart, MIT (National Intelligence Organization), shared intelligence on common enemies – mainly Syria – and plotted against Arab nationalists and terrorists. The Israel Air Force was allowed to use Turkish airspace to train and simulate strikes against Iran.
But the military intelligence cooperation came to a screeching halt when Erdoğan was first elected prime minister, and later president, with great powers. As a disciple of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and a believer in its religious-political ideas, he bashed Israel and its leaders and rushed to support Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the same movement.
In the years after the Second Lebanon War of 2006, foreign reports claimed that the Shi’ite movement of Hezbollah exposed an important network of local spies for Israeli intelligence, which included a general and officials in key places. According to these reports, most of them were arrested and given long jail terms, some were hanged, and a few escaped to Israel where they were rehabilitated.
A few explanations were given on why the network collapsed. One talked about the supply of sophisticated communication gear by France and the US to Lebanese intelligence and the army, which eventually landed in the hands of Hezbollah’s counterespionage units and may have helped to expose the spies.
But recently I heard from well-placed Western intelligence sources that it was Turkey’s MIT, acting under Erdoğan’s orders, which betrayed Israel and its spies.
Israel, according to my sources, shared the by-products of the intelligence gleaned from its Lebanese spies with the US, which, in turn, and after Israeli permission, delivered some of the information to Turkey. The MIT concluded that the source of the information was Israeli spies in Lebanon and decided to share it with Iran, Israel’s sworn enemy.
Iran tipped off Hezbollah, and the network’s fate was sealed.
Nevertheless, despite the animosity between the two nations, the danger to Israel is not that Turkey may in the future transfer the batteries or its know-how to Israel’s enemies, above all Iran. That’s not going to happen because the contract with Russia forbids Turkey transferring it to a third party. Israel, too, has similar contracts and arrangements preventing it from sharing or transferring US-made systems and know-how to third countries.
Yet the Turkish-Russian deal by its sheer precedent poses a challenge, and even a threat, to Israel’s security. It shows that Russia has no inhibitions when it comes to its military industries and arms sales.
In that sense Russia is no different from Israel, whose Defense Ministry aggressively promotes Israeli security firms and their weapons on world markets.
Thus it’s important for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to understand that his good personal relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin – which help the Israel Air Force operate against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria – have no real influence on Russia’s economic, political or military interests.
If Putin decides that it is in his country’s interests to sell more S-400 batteries to other countries in the Middle East, even to Syria and Iran, he will simply ignore Israeli pleas.
We saw it with Putin’s recent decision to sell Syria S-300 anti-aircraft batteries. Israel failed to persuade the Kremlin to refrain from the sale and deployment of the systems. True, IAF pilots have trained in Greece, and it has been reported that they have the skills and know-how to deal with the S-300. But the Russian-Syrian deal is just an illustration of Putin’s non-emotional attitude and his realpolitik.
More and more nations in the region are looking to Russia as a potential or alternative source of weapons supplies, and the list gets longer and longer: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and, of course, Iran. If and when it suits Putin, he will not hesitate to sell his advanced toys to anyone, regardless of whether they pose a threat to Israel.
This leads us to one more essential lesson: the role of the US. A few years ago, Russia signed a multi-billion-dollar deal to sell Iran the S-300 batteries. Joint Israeli-American pressure, persuasion and economic incentives and benefits convinced the Kremlin to change its mind. The deal was suspended, then delayed, and eventually canceled.
It was at the time when the US administration led by Barack Obama had a clear strategy and vision in the Middle East. That clarity helped the US devise a coherent policy of carrot-and-stick, working together with its regional allies against hostile nations.
Trump has neither vision nor strategy regarding the region, his policy and actions in the Middle East being capricious and zigzagging.
It is true that Trump wholeheartedly supports Israel. But, at the same time, he will not hesitate to throw the Jewish state under the bus if it suits his agenda. We witnessed such a development when he declared a year ago, despite Israeli apprehensions, that the US would withdraw its troops from Syria. Eventually the US president changed his mind and only reduced the size of the US contingent there.
President Teddy Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Trump, it seems, does the opposite. He speaks tough but his actions are weak. He threatened North Korea, and then met with its leader Kim Jong-un, and since then, he has appeased and flattered him with no results.
Pyongyang still has nuclear weapons and refuses to disarm its arsenal. The US president imposed harsh sanctions on Iran and prepared to use his military might against Tehran, but at the last minute backed out. Now Trump is asking Iran to negotiate with him.
More and more countries around the world, including in the Middle East, realize that Trump cannot be trusted. They also see from the Turkish precedent that you can disobey Trump and walk away without serious punishment.
Yossi Melman is co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. He tweets at @yossi_melman