June 12, 2010
Hours before the deadly Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara and other ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza, an assault on Turkey’s Iskenderun Naval Base left seven servicemen killed and six injured (Firat, May 31; Today’s Zaman, June 6). Though earlier reports indicated the attack was on the naval installation, Hatay Governor Mehmet Celalettin Lekesiz said later that PKK members fired on a military vehicle carrying troops to sentry posts with RPG-7 grenade launchers and “long-range weapons” (TurkishPress.com, May 31). Iskenderun Naval Base is located in the Hatay province of southern Turkey on the northeast coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The base hosts the largest of Turkey’s three naval training centers. Iskenderun is well outside the usual range of PKK military attacks, though the group has carried out terrorist bombings throughout Turkey.
The deadly attack at Iskenderun came shortly after midnight, on the morning of May 31. A few hours later, Israeli commandos boarded six ships carrying humanitarian aid for Gaza in international waters, killing nine and injuring dozens more. All of the casualties were Turks, and the news of the event sparked large protests throughout the nation. Inevitably, news of the fatal attack on Iskenderun looked to many Turks like two sides of the same coin. The feeling was reflected at top levels across the political board; AKP Deputy Chairman Huseyin Celik remarked, “We do not think that it is a coincidence that these two attacks took place at the same time” (Today’s Zaman, June 2). After expressing regret over the losses at Iskenderun, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu stated, “At a time when the Israeli army continues military operations, it is meaningful that such an incident took place in Turkey” (Today’s Zaman, June 2). Turkish intelligence agencies are reported to be investigating any links between the raid on the flotilla and the attack on the naval base (Today’s Zaman, June 6). Funerals of the dead servicemen across Turkey were attended by prominent government officials and large numbers of mourners carrying flags and shouting slogans (Hurriyet, June 1).
Turkey’s top military, intelligence and counterterrorism officials met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 2 to discuss the two incidents. Following the meeting, Interior Minister Besir Atalay was cautious in his remarks, remarking, “I don’t want to say [these incidents] are related. Such investigations require close attention and we want to refrain from careless statements lacking tangibility… These subjects are delicate, especially when they have international dimensions” (Hurriyet, June 2; Today’s Zaman, June 3).
Many in Turkey’s government and military recall revelations of former Israeli commandos training Kurdish airport security and members of the Kurdish peshmerga militia prior to 2005, when political questions over their apparently illegal status in northern Iraq forced them to withdraw (Yedioth Ahronoth, December 1, 2005; Ynet, December 1, 2005). The men were employed by Kudo, a private security company run by Shlomi Michaels, a business associate of former Mossad chief and previous Kudo partner Danny Yatom. In recent months there have been reports that the Israeli military trainers have returned and resumed training of elite Kurdish military forces (Arutz Sheva, February 5; Today’s Zaman, June 9).
Sedat Laciner, head of the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization and a prominent commentator on Turkish security issues, noted that the Iskenderun attack was not typical of PKK operations. He suggested the PKK was acting as a “subcontractor” to Israel and was supported by ex-members of Mossad or the Israeli military. “It is normal that the PKK is trying to ally with Turkey’s enemies at this level… Israel also wants to show the ruling party of Turkey as something equal to Hamas. Israel wants to create such a bias in minds” (Journal of the Turkish Weekly, May 31). Other analysts pointed out that the apparent vulnerability of the Iskenderun region was of concern, given the concentration of new coal-fired and natural gas power plants in the area (Journal of the Turkish Weekly, June 5).
In Jerusalem, Mossad Chief Meir Dagan told the Knesset that Turkey was forming a new anti-Israel coalition with Syria and Iran as part of the AKP’s aim of restoring Turkish power in the Middle East. Dagan said President Erdogan has “a dream of returning Turkey’s dominance through going down the Islamic hall. He believes that through Hamas and Palestinians, additional doors will be opened for him in the Arab street” (Jerusalem Post, June 2).
Though the rhetoric on both sides is heated, there are signs that pragmatism will win the day. Turkey canceled three joint military exercises with Israel after the flotilla attack, but Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul said Turkey still expects delivery of four Israeli-made Heron unmanned aerial vehicles, part of a $190 million purchase of ten Heron UAVs. Other ongoing defense programs worth hundreds of millions of dollars are expected to continue (Hurriyet, June 3; World Tribune, June 2). Meanwhile, Turkish troops are reported to have taken losses in firefights with PKK fighters in southeastern Turkey’s Hakkari and Siirt provinces as the Kurdish rebel movement ends its ceasefire (Anatolia, June 1).