Yesterday in Washington the House of Representatives voted to end the thirty-two year old US arms embargo on Cyprus. The move came as part of the annual defense authorization bill, which has already made it through the Senate. Later in the afternoon the House passed a compromise foreign aid package that increases security aid for Cyprus, and censures Turkey for its oil, and natural gas exploration activities off the coast of Cyprus. The Turkish foreign ministry responded with a statement warning that the US move “will have no outcome other than hampering efforts towards a settlement on the island and creating a dangerous escalation.” US-Turkish relations are at their lowest point in years and threaten to deteriorate further as a result of Turkey’s activities in Libya, Cyprus, and in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The settlement mentioned in the foreign ministry’s statement refers to the fact Cyprus has been a divided island since 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to a coup backed by the Greek government. Cyprus has been gaining international attention recently as oil, and gas exploration off its coast threatens to bring about a new crisis. Turkey has been at odds with Greece, Cyprus, and Israel since signing an agreement with Libya that claims extensive areas of sea between the two nations for Turkey. This deal violates international law, and undercuts claims made by Greece, and Cyprus. On Monday, a Turkish UAV landed in northern Cyprus, known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This comes after an Israeli research vessel was intercepted in Cypriot waters by Turkish warships and escorted out of the area.
The deal between Turkey and Libya has raised tensions in the region. If the Libyan government collapses it will be interesting to see how Ankara responds, and how it will affect the oil and natural gas scramble now going on in the Eastern Med.
Things appear to have settled down in Syria following last weekend’s clash between Iran and Israel. An Iranian drone’s violation of Israeli air space set in motion retaliatory air strikes by Israeli warplanes against an Iranian command and control site that was responsible for guiding the Iranian UAV. The Iranian site was situated at the T-4 airbase near Palmyra, Syria. An Israeli F-16 was hit by an SA-5 surface-to-air missile and went down over northern Israel. Not long after the initial raid, Israel’s air force took to the skies again and targeted a large number of Syrian air defense sites, as well as Iranian-manned facilities. The strikes pushed tensions in the area high enough that Russia had to intervene in order to halt further escalation.
What transpired last weekend shouldn’t come as a shock given what has been going on in the vicinity of the Israeli-Syrian border recently. Iran has been maintaining a heavy presence and high level of activity along the border for some time. Israel has bent over backwards to send warnings to Iran, Syria, and Russia through every possible channel that it will not tolerate Iranian activity on its border. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that a military option would be pursued if an acceptable diplomatic solution was not found.
When the Iranian UAV violated sovereign Israeli air space, Tel Aviv recognized the act as Iran crossing a red line. Diplomacy had failed, and the time came for Israel to unsheathe its sword.
Right now none of the major players in Syria are ready to risk a full-scale conflict. The Assad government, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, are holding most of the cards. If Tehran provokes Israel now it serve the interests of no one, and could affect the balance of power in Syria as it currently stands. Iran will continue to defy Israeli red lines, though it may choose a different arena, and other methods to continue the conflict. Lebanon comes to mind immediately as the most likely next area, and Hezbollah provides a number of options for future Iranian action against Syria.
The situation has quieted for the moment, however, the pause will not be permanent. More clashes between Iran and Israel can be expected in the coming months.
Tensions in the Middle East are heightened this Saturday after Israel launched air strikes against Syrian air defense sites, and Iranian targets inside of Syria following an earlier incident when an Iranian UAV entered Israeli air space and was shot down. During the Israeli raids one F-16 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed in northern Israel. The pilots ejected safely, however, one sustained serious injuries according to reports. The incident marks the first time since the 1980s that an Israeli warplane has been shot down as a result of enemy action. Even more disconcerting is the fact that drone incident, and air strikes mark the first direct clash between Israeli and Iranian forces inside of Syria.
Israeli fighters struck the site where the drone was launched first. Subsequent strikes were made against other Iranian military targets in Syria, as well as Syrian air defense batteries. IDF reports do not indicate whether the F-16 was downed by AAA fire, or a SAM. The fighter carried a two man crew, indicating that was likely a type of F-16 that Israel uses in the SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) role, leading to the conclusion that the Israelis were probably targeting SAM batteries. (note: Right before posting I learned the aircraft was in fact struck by an SA-5 SAM)
Today’s shootdown is the third one to take place in the Syrian skies this week. A Russian Su-25 Frogfoot was downed by FSA forces last Saturday, and earlier today it was confirmed that a Turkish helicopter over northern Syria was attacked and destroyed by Kurdish forces sometime in the past 24 hours.
The consequences of the action in Syria and northern Israel remain to be seen. There is a strong possibility that Israel’s response could be heavier air strikes against targets in Syria, possibly as part of a bigger effort to put more pressure on Iran.
Although the Olympic games are supposed to bring peace and goodwill to mankind, it would appear somebody forgot to tell that to Iran and Syria.