The military aspect of normalization with Israel

After several rounds of talks in the last couple of months, Turkey and Israel are set to sign a deal to normalize diplomatic relations. The parties are reportedly working on the details to finalize the agreement, seeking common ground to meet Turkish demands in Gaza without forsaking Israel’s security concerns.

Perhaps a relatively downplayed aspect of normalization – even as it arouses utmost curiosity – is the potential course of military cooperation between Turkey and Israelafter any deal.

A bomb attack in March that killed three Israeli citizens in Beyoğlu was a tragic event that brought the two countries closer together. Following the attacks, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told Israeli President Reuven Rivlin – in his first conversation with an Israeli leader in three years – that Turkey was ready to cooperate with Israel against terrorism.

Subsequently coming to Turkey, Israeli Foreign Ministry chief Dore Gold praised the Turkish government and said: “The Turks went above and beyond to coordinate with Israel.”

In early May, as a gesture of goodwill, Turkey lifted the veto it had imposed in 2010 at NATO, allowing Israel to open offices at the alliance’s headquarters.

Though Israeli experts by and large agree that relations will not return to the 1990s level and that building trust was essential for the enhancement of intelligence cooperation, they also admit that the restoration of ties might pave the way for increasing cooperation, particularly at a time when Turkey faces imminent threats at home and abroad.

Fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on its border and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the southeast, Turkey has been seeking ways – including with foreign cooperation – to upgrade its defensive and offensive capabilities against rocket threats.

The alleged downing of a Turkish attack helicopter on May 13, by a man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) fired by the PKK was perceived as a game changer in the field, challenging the conventional strategies of the Turkish Armed Forces against the PKK as the army had heavily relied on the use of attack helicopters.

What’s worse, since mid-January, rocket attacks from ISIL have killed 21 people killed and wounded over 70 in the border province of Kilis alone. Fırtına howitzers deployed along the border fall short of effectively deterring these attacks because of range issues.

“Against this changing security environment, the use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – known as drones – has been on the rise for quite a while due to their tactical and strategic advantages. Of particular importance, they are effective in reducing the loss of personnel,” says Ahmet Han, an IR Professor at Kadir Has University.

Can Kasapoğlu, a security analyst at EDAM, asserts that “as Turkey’s non-state adversaries improve their capabilities with mobile rocket systems, antitank guided missiles, and Manpads, Turkey needs to adapt to the new security environment and devise strategies to meet these threats.”

During a panel at the Atlantic Council last month, Defense Undersecretary İsmail Demir revealed Turkey’s frustration at the U.S. restrictions on the sale of some weapons systems, a fact that has driven Turkey to develop its own technologies.

Since 2008, the U.S. Congress has been dragging its feet on approving the sale of armed drones to Turkey, citing concerns about the Turkish army’s operations in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq.

Turkey has thus given weight to domestic research and development in defense technologies, developing tactical unmanned aircraft and indigenous fighter jets not only for domestic use but also for export.

“While Turkey’s promising drone program has shown impressive improvements in testing the Bayraktar and ANKA platforms, the urgency of the rocket threat necessitates well-balanced offensive and defensive capabilities immediately. Regarding the defense counter-measures against the rocket threat, the Israeli-made, combat-proven Iron Dome system provides over 90 percent interception rates, which could have been a silver-bullet solution for Turkey’s Syrian border areas. Besides, as a stopgap measure, Turkey could have opted for prioritized procurement of Israel’s armed drones, which were proven effective in several conflicts,” says Kasapoğlu, leaving the door open for future cooperation between Turkey and Israel.

Turkey’s ultimate goal is to become self-sufficient in defense technology in order to free itself of any political entanglements, as evidenced by its sometimes stormy relationship with the U.S. Amid the pressing threats, domestic R&D does not necessarily rule out the procurement of military systems from third parties, especially from those who are less sensitive about the use of these military systems.

The golden era of cooperation between Turkey and Israel in the fields of security and intelligence might belong to the past. But it feels a lot like the 1990s, doesn’t it?