A rescue exercise some see as a threat Arabs and Greeks view Israeli-Turkish operation as a 'sinister alliance'

January 08, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABOARD THE USS JOHN RODGERS, the Mediterranean Sea -- The distress call reached the USS John Rodgers yesterday morning: A sailboat cruising from Cyprus to Israel was taking on water.

The American destroyer, alerted by the Israeli navy, dispatched a Seahawk helicopter toward the stranded boat. The Israelis also radioed two Turkish navy vessels in the area for help. The coordinated rescue mission ended happily and as expected: The Americans handily pulled two life-size mannequins from the calm, blue sea.

The exercise, dubbed Reliant Mermaid, might seem harmless enough: a peaceful rescue practice at sea. But the latest sign of alliance between Israel and Turkey -- the strongest military powers in the region -- has set off alarms among the Arabs and even the Greeks, who are Turkey's abiding rivals.

"A sinister alliance," warned Syria's government-controlled newspaper Tishrin. "It is un-Islamic to forge alliances with the enemies of Islam and Muslims."

Israeli Rear Adm. Yedidia Ya'ari scoffed at the protests. Reliant Mermaid was solely a humanitarian exercise, he said, "no more, no less."

The search-and-rescue exercise "is not intended against any country," said Turkish Col. Husnu Dag.

"Any time nations come together for a humanitarian purpose, nothing but good things can come about," added Commodore Joseph A. Sestak Jr., the Navy's top officer on the exercise and a 1974 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

But the implication of an expanding alliance between the Jewish state and Turkey's military-driven government has been a source of concern to Israel's enemies, especially since Turkey has awarded Israel $705 million in contracts to remodel its air fleet.

Syria, Iran and Iraq, Israel's chief enemies in the region, condemned the joint maneuvers from the start. Last month's conference of Islamic nations in Tehran, Iran, denounced members who forge relationships with Israel. Turkey, whose Islamic empire for centuries included most of the Middle East, is a member of the Islamic Conference.

Even Egypt, the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, cautioned the Turks. Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said: "Turkey must know that any military alliance will lead other countries to form a counter military alliance."

Greece also is wary of an Israeli-Turkish alliance because of Turkey's occupation of northern Cyprus; Greek Cypriots control the southern part of the island. Greece and Turkey also have broader conflicts over the Aegean Sea.

Israeli political analyst Barry Rubin said the three-nation maneuvers had been "blown out of proportion." Egypt's comments stem from an "exaggerated concern" of a "new counter-alliance to their leadership in the region, said Rubin, of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Illan University near Tel Aviv.

Syria, on the other hand, should worry, said Rubin. Through its sponsorship of Kurdish insurgents against Turkey and Islamic guerrillas fighting Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, Syria has created two enemies, one to the north, the other to the south, he said.

While observing the rescue mission yesterday, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said such drills assist Israel in defending "itself against any threats that can happen in the region."

Turkey and Israel have been building a relationship since the 1993 Oslo peace agreements between the Jewish state and the Palestinians. They solidified their relationship with a 1996 pact that permits the two nations' military to train in each other's airspace. Trade and intelligence-sharing arrangements followed.

"Muslim Turkey and Jewish Israel are a natural fit," said Alan Makovsky, writing for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Both states are Western-oriented and pro-U.S., with military inventories based mainly on U.S. equipment. Both are deeply concerned about terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

"Non-Arab and largely secular, both are generally mistrusted in a region dominated by Arabs and conservative Islam."

Rebuffed recently in its long-standing attempt to join the European Community, Turkey is pushing ahead with its Israeli ties. Trade between the two countries, virtually nonexistent in 1990 and now worth about $450 million, will reach more than $1 billion by 2000, Makovsky says.

Despite the Arab rhetoric, Turkey, Israel and the United States have not suffered from the alliance. "In fact, Turkey's trade with -- the Arab world is increasing," said Rubin of the BESA center.

For the Americans, yesterday's 12-hour maneuver was one of 80 100 exercises in which vessels of the Navy's Sixth Fleet participate annually in the Mediterranean and Black seas. A similar exercise conducted by Egypt and attended by the United States, Britain, Italy and the United Arab Emirates took place off the coast of Alexandria in October.

Israel took the lead yesterday, coordinating the search-and-rescue operations carried out by the participating ships. A representative from Jordan's navy observed the exercise.

A half-hour after the distress call, sailors on the USS John Rodgers readied the first of its choppers for flight.

Lt. j.g. Laura Herath of Arnold, Md., gave the go-ahead from her bubble-domed flight pit at the stern: "Beam's open. Green deck. Cleared the lift."

The Seahawk, released from its anchoring wire, whirred into the blue. Within two hours, the chopper hovered over the sailboat in distress. The ship's infrared radar system spotlighted two bodies in the water -- the "man" and "woman" pulled from the sea by a Navy diver, Petty Officer 2nd Class Juan Caro of Puerto Rico.

Standing on the destroyer's deck, his wet suit glistening in the sun, Caro was asked about the significance of the joint exercises.

"We are here to save people. It doesn't matter where they're from."

Pub Date: 1/08/98

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