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[OPINION] Why hasn’t Turkey objected to Cyprus buying Iron Dome from Israel?

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Fatih Yurtsever*

Turkey and Israel announced that they had decided to resume diplomatic relations on Aug. 17, 2022. Two days after this declaration, it was reported that Cyprus would procure the Israeli Iron Dome air and missile defense system. Turkey reacted negatively in 1997 to Cyprus’s announcement that it would purchase the S-300 air defense system from Russia. Why is Turkey silent about the news that Cyprus will buy Iron Dome while risking war to prevent the S-300 system from being deployed in south Cyprus?

S-300 air defense system crisis

The Cyprus S-300 crisis was a tense and rapidly escalating political standoff between Cyprus and Turkey between early 1997 and late 1998. The confrontation was triggered by Cypriot plans to install two Russian S-300 air defense missiles on its territory, prompting Turkey to threaten an attack or even an all-out war if the missiles were not returned to Russia. The missile deal with Russia was the first serious attempt by the Cypriot government to build a credible air defense system after years of Turkey’s superiority in the air.

On Jan. 5, 1997 Cypriot Foreign Minister Alekos Michaelides announced to the international media that the government had acquired the S-300 air defense system and associated radars from Russia. On the same day government spokesman Yiannakis Cassoulides issued a statement noting that the Cypriot government had a legitimate right to improve its “defense capabilities” and that the arms purchase was “proportional” to the Turkish military buildup in the north of the Island. At the same time, then-Turkish Defense Minister Turhan Tayan said the action would “undermine peace in the region.”

Turkey sent Turkish F-16 fighter jets to Israel’s Negev region to train on how to evade S-300 missiles. In September 1997 the Turkish navy and coast guard began boarding and searching vessels heading to Cyprus, including Russian-flagged ships in international waters, to determine whether they were carrying S-300s. The situation worried not only Greek Cypriots but also their strategic military and economic partners in Athens and Moscow, as evidenced by official statements in October 1997 suggesting that Greece and Russia would start a war with Turkey if Cyprus were attacked or blockaded. In November 1997 Turkish forces conducted a military exercise in northern Cyprus, destroying S-300 mock-ups in preparation for operations against actual S-300 missiles in southern Cyprus.

The S-300 crisis ended before it became a hot conflict, in December 1998, with the decision of the Cypriot government to transfer the S-300s to the Greek island of Crete, thanks to Turkey’s wise use of coercive diplomacy and the mediation of the US and the EU. Greece kept the missiles in storage for 14 years, only first test-firing them in a military exercise in 2013.

Israel showed its solidarity with Turkey during the S-300 crisis by providing technical and tactical knowledge about the S-300 air defense system.

3+1 cooperation mechanism

Since 2010, Turkey has undergone a radical shift in its foreign policy guided by political Islam, bringing Turkey and Israel face-to-face. With the deterioration of bilateral relations with Turkey, Israel began to draw closer to Greece and Cyprus due to the crisis in relations with Turkey. Military exercises began to be conducted by the three countries. The US also supported cooperation between the three countries in the eastern Mediterranean, and with the support of the US, the 3+1 mechanism was launched. In 2019 the US passed the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, which provides energy security and defense cooperation assistance to the three countries. In September 2020 the United States partially lifted the arms embargo on Cyprus imposed in November 1987. The partial lifting of the embargo was little more than a symbolic gesture as it only allowed Cyprus to purchase “non-lethal” military equipment such as bulletproof vests.

Israel to sell Iron Dome

At a trilateral summit held on Nov. 12, 2020 Israel, Greece and Cyprus decided to develop their relations in the defense industry.

The Greek Kathimerini newspaper reported on Aug. 19, 2022, two days after the announcement of Turkey and Israel’s diplomatic normalization, that Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system was set to be purchased for the Cypriot National Guard after its defense ministry’s approval. As reported by The Times of Israel, following the signing of contracts in the works since early 2021, the Cypriot Ministry of Defense has begun “implementing the government’s decision to purchase” Iron Dome technology.

Iron Dome is an innovative air defense system that protects Israel from missile attacks. Although the requirement for a low-altitude defense system was always on the table, a major rocket strike by Hezbollah in 2006 that resulted in more than 50 deaths and 2,000 injuries provided the impetus for developing a countermeasure against such attacks. The Israeli company Rafael began full-scale development in late 2007, and the system became operational in 2011.

Iron Dome is a mobile, all-weather air defense system capable of detecting and intercepting incoming missiles, rockets and projectiles with ranges between 4 and 70 kilometers. Each system battery consists of three components: a radar (ELM -2084 3D AESA) to detect and track approaching threats; a battle management and fire control center; and three missile launch units with 20 Tamir interceptors each. The unit can track up to 1,100 air surveillance targets. Iron Dome does not target all missiles fired from the source; it assesses the threat and engages only those that pose a threat.

Iron Dome could significantly strengthen the inadequate Cypriot air defenses, which consist of the Russian 9K330 Tor and 9K37 Buk air defense missile systems and the French Mistral missiles. While Iron Dome is known for its combat use in Israel against tiny rockets from Gaza, it is also an effective tool against drones. Cyprus has chosen Iron Dome to defend against potential Turkish threats from the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) TB -2. As of December 2019 Turkey had deployed the TB -2 in northern Cyprus. In Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine, the TB -2s have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to destroy Russian-made air defense systems.

Turkey has raised no immediate opposition to the sale of the Iron Dome for Cyprus. This is because Israel has insisted that expanding relations with Turkey will not jeopardize its regional relations, especially those with Cyprus and Greece. As for bilateral relations, Turkey is now more dependent on Israel than Israel is on Turkey. Israel is no longer an isolated state in the Middle East and is not as reliant on Turkey as it was in the 1990s. Therefore, Turkey cannot react to Israel’s sale of Iron Dome to Cyprus and prefers to remain quiet.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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