Israel’s status at NATO headquarters gets an upgrade


NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has upgraded its ties with Israel, bringing Jerusalem even closer into its circle at a time of mounting instability throughout the Middle East.

Israel will open offices at NATO’s Brussels headquarters and will credential its representative, Israeli Ambassador to the European Union David Walzer.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu welcomed NATO’s “inviting the State of Israel to open office at the organization's headquarters,” adding that he saw the move “as an important expression of Israel's standing in the world.”

“The countries of the world are looking to cooperate with us due to – inter alia – our determined fight against terrorism, our technological know-how and our intelligence services,” he said.

In a statement posted on its website, NATA announced that it had “agreed ‎to accept the request that an official Israeli Mission be established at NATO headquarters.”

In what some interpreted to be a tampering down of Israel bravado, the statement added that “NATO has invited all partners to open diplomatic missions to the Headquarters of the Atlantic Alliance in Brussels.”

Israel has been a member of NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue since December 1994.

But the real news behind the upgrade was that that Turkey, which has used its membership in NATO to block Israel’s request for years, had lifted its veto and may, despite the lack of a formal agreement for normalization of ties, be ready to patch up a six-year rift with Israel.

Gen (ret) Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s former National Security Adviser, said that “as a small country all contacts with international organizations are important to us, both so as to bring our voice to the table and, no less, as a way of learning from one another.”

Speaking with The Media Line from Europe, he said “a small country such as ours, with real problems and needs and also the need to present its case in public forums, should actively promote all contacts with multinational groups, most definitely with a large and important organization like NATO.”

Not all Israeli experts were quite as convinced, though in Jerusalem the upgrade is viewed positively across the board.

Ephraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on Israel-Turkey relations said Turkey’s acceptance of an Israeli office at NATO headquarters “is apparently a gesture within the framework of negotiations to end the crisis between the two nations.”

“It’s not nothing,” he told The Media Line, “but it is a symbolic move. We have representative offices in all too many unimportant countries, too. It’s not that big a deal.” 

Asked about the now abandoned veto at a press conference in the Turkish capital of Ankara, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu supported the Israeli upgrade and said Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain should get similar treatment. “This isn’t just Israel, the same right needs to be given to all the southern partners,” he said.

There are any number of reasons Turkish president and strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may have decided this is the week to play nice with Israel, but simple exhaustion may be one of them.

Turkey, in crisis with the Jewish state for the past six years, since Israel staged a raid on the Mavi Marmara, a boat attempting to break the Gaza blockade, in which nine Turkish citizens died, finds itself at odds with almost every regional neighbor.

Supporting the rebels, Turkey is an undeclared war against Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. Diplomatic ties to Egypt, a regional colossus, were ruptured over Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was unseated by current President Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi. Turkey is embroiled in an ongoing civil war with nationalist Kurds. It is at an impasse with Russia, with whom it has skirmished in the Syrian theater.

For Gallia Lindenstrauss, a researcher at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies who specializes in Turkish foreign policy, loosening the anti-Israeli veto at NATO “is one of the more tangible  forms any normalization agreement will take, and Israel has waited for it for a long time.”

Speaking with The Media Line, she said it indicated that “the deal is very close.”

In 2009, in a pre- Arab Spring, pre-Mavi Marmara world in which Turkey found itself resurgent,  foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu set designed a foreign policy based on a principle he called “zero problems with neighbors.”

The congenial-sounding policy was formulated only a few months after a heated exchange about the loss of civilian life in Gaza between a fervid Erdoğan and Israel’s then-president, Shimon Peres. Erdoğan stormed off stage after protesting that Israeli air strikes were “very wrong” and saying “many people have been killed.”

But by the summer of 2013, only four years after Davotoglu’s reboot, the journal Foreign Policy published an article entitled How Turkey Went from Zero Problems to Zero Friends.

This week, he seems to have lost definitively. Now prime minister, Davotoglu resigned on Thursday after losing yet another political battle with Erdoğan, whom the British newspaper The Spectator has dubbed “the most powerful man in Europe.”

Less sympathetically, the headline is followed by “Turkey’s thuggish president has European leaders exactly where he wants them.”

Lindenstrauss points out that lifting the veto on Israel also resolved long-standing tensions between NATO and its Muslim member states. “Turkey had the role of limiting the constructive cooperation between NATO and Israel, and this has been a big problem.”

The next round of Israeli-Turkish talks, which are expected to be critical, is scheduled for later this month. Most of the points of contention have been resolved, including the issue of Israel scaling back its blockade of Gaza—Israeli has purportedly agreed to enable Turkey to carry out a number of infrastructure projects there, such as building a new power plant (in a collaboration with Germany) and building a long-awaited desalination plant. The principal open question regards the activities of Hamas in Turkey, where Israel claims the planning and financing of West Bank terrorism is conducted sotto voce.

NATO approves Israeli representation to its headquarters


NATO said on Wednesday it had agreed to non-member Israel setting up representation at its Brussels headquarters, a tentative sign of rapprochement between the Jewish state and NATO member Turkey.

Israel and Turkey have stepped up efforts to patch up a relationship badly damaged following an Israeli raid in 2010 on a Turkish boat, the Mavi Marmara, which had been trying to breach a blockade on the Gaza Strip.

NATO said in a statement that Israel's ambassador to the European Union, David Walzer, would now also head its mission at alliance headquarters.

The foreign ministry of Israel, which is not a NATO member but has partner status as a participant in the alliance's Mediterranean Dialogue programs together with six other non-NATO countries in the region, welcomed the move.

Turkey's mission to NATO had no comment on Wednesday but Ankara previously opposed some forms of NATO cooperation with Israel following the Mavi Marmara incident.

In 2010, Israeli commandos raided the Mavi Marmara, which was the lead ship in a group of boats trying to break the blockade, and killed nine Turks in clashes with activists.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that Ankara has discussed the opening Israeli mission at NATO with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

“We said we may welcome this if all countries are treated equally,” Cavusoglu said. “It's important that not only Israel but other southern partners are granted the same right.”

Russia and Turkey refuse to back down in row over jet downing


Russia sent an advanced missile system to Syria on Wednesday to protect its jets operating there and pledged its air force would keep flying missions near Turkish air space, sounding a defiant note after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet.

Underscoring the message, Russian forces launched a heavy bombardment against insurgent-held areas in Latakia on Wednesday, near where the jet was downed, rebels and a monitoring group said.

The United States and Europe both urged calm and continued dialogue in telephone conversations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a sign of international concern at the prospect of any escalation between the former Cold War enemies.

The downing of the jet on Tuesday was one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between a NATO member and Russia for half a century, and further complicated international efforts to battle Islamic State militants in Syria.

President Tayyip Erdogan made no apology, saying his nation had simply been defending its own security and the “rights of our brothers in Syria”. He made clear Turkish policy would not change.

Russian officials expressed fury over Turkey's action and spoke of retaliatory measures that were likely to include curbing travel by Russian tourists to Turkish resorts and some restrictions on trade.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described it as a planned act and said it would affect efforts towards a political solution in Syria. Moscow would “seriously reconsider” its relations with Ankara, he said.

Jets believed to be Russian also hit a depot for trucks waiting to go through a major rebel-controlled border crossing with Turkey, Bab al-Salam, the head of the crossing said.

Syrian jets have struck the area before, but if confirmed to have been carried out by Russia, it would be one of Moscow's closest air strikes to Turkish soil, targeting a humanitarian corridor into rebel-held Syria and a lifeline for ordinary Syrians crossing to Turkey.

DO NOT WANT WAR

But the Russian response was carefully calibrated, indicating Moscow did not want to jeopardize its main objective in the region: to rally international support for its view on how the conflict in Syria should be resolved.

“We have no intention of fighting a war with Turkey,” Lavrov said. Erdogan also said Ankara had no intention of escalating tensions with Russia.

In Paris, where deadly attacks on Nov. 13 claimed by Islamic State prompted France to step up its aerial bombing of the militant group in Syria, President Francois Hollande expressed concern over the war of words between Ankara and Moscow.

“We must all work to make sure that the situation (between Russia and Turkey) de-escalates,” Hollande told a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Hollande was due to discuss Syria and the fight against Islamic State with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday.

Putin said an advanced weapons system would be despatched to Russia's Khmeimim air base in Syria's Latakia province.

“I hope that this, along with other measures that we are taking, will be enough to ensure (the safety) of our flights,” Putin told reporters, in an apparent warning to Turkey not to try to shoot down any more Russian planes.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was forced to fly missions close to the Turkish border because that was where the militants tended to be located. Russian operations would continue, he said.

MUTUAL RECRIMINATION

Turkey said the downed jet had encroached on Turkish air space and was warned repeatedly to change course, but Russian officials have said the plane was at no time over Turkey.

The crew ejected, and one pilot was shot dead by rebels as he parachuted to the ground. A Russian marine sent to recover the crew was also killed in an attack by rebels.

The surviving pilot was quoted by Russian agencies as saying the crew “knew the region like the back of their hand”, that they did not fly over Turkish air space, and that there were no visual or radio warnings from Turkey.

The Turkish military later released what it said was an audio recording of a warning to a Russian fighter jet before it was shot down near the Syrian border. A voice on the recording can be heard saying “change your heading” in English.

The Turkish military said it had explained the rules of engagement that led to the downing of the jet to Russian military attaches and had tried to rescue the pilots.

At a business event in Istanbul, Erdogan said Turkey had made a “huge effort” to prevent such incidents but that the limits of its patience had been tested after repeatedly warning Russia about air space incursions in recent weeks.

“Nobody should expect us to remain silent against the constant violation of our border security, the ignoring of our sovereign rights,” Erdogan said.

Turkey has been angered by Russian air strikes in Syria, particularly those near its border targeting Turkmens, who are Syrians of Turkish descent.

TRADE TIES

Russia made clear it could target Turkey economically.

“The direct consequences could lead to our refusal to take part in a whole raft of important joint projects and Turkish companies losing their positions on the Russian market,” Medvedev said in a statement.

Russia is a major exporter of grain and energy to Turkey, and sends over four million tourists each year to Turkish resorts, second only to the number of German tourists.

The Russian government has already said it will discourage Russian tourists from traveling to Turkey, though the immediate impact will be limited because Turkey is now in the off-season.

But while Russia may mothball deals with Turkish firms and curb imports of Turkish goods, it is unlikely to let the fallout affect energy exports that are the core of their economic relationship.

“Erdogan is a tough character, and quite emotional, and if Russia pushes too far in terms of retaliatory action, I think there will inevitably be a counter reaction from Turkey (like) tit-for-tat trade sanctions, perhaps extending to things like the Russia nuclear deal,” said Nomura strategist Timothy Ash.

“But I think there is also a clear understanding that any such action is damaging for both sides, and unwelcome. The ball is in Russia's court now,” he wrote in a note.

Turkey downs Russian warplane near Syria border, Putin warns of ‘serious consequences’


Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border on Tuesday, saying the jet had repeatedly violated its air space, in one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between a NATO member country and Russia for half a century.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the plane had been attacked when it was 1 km (0.62 mile) inside Syria and warned of “serious consequences” for what he termed a stab in the back administered by “the accomplices of terrorists”.

“We will never tolerate such crimes like the one committed today,” Putin said, as Russian and Turkish shares fell on fears of an escalation between the former Cold War enemies.

Each country summoned a diplomatic representative of the other and NATO called a meeting of its ambassadors for Tuesday afternoon. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov canceled a visit to Turkey due on Wednesday and the defense ministry said it was preparing measures to respond to such incidents.

Footage from private Turkish broadcaster Haberturk TV showed the warplane going down in flames, a long plume of smoke trailing behind it as it crashed in a wooded part of an area the TV said was known by Turks as “Turkmen Mountain”. 

Separate footage from Turkey's Anadolu Agency showed two pilots parachuting out of the jet before it crashed. A deputy commander of rebel Turkmen forces in Syria said his men shot both pilots dead as they came down.

A video sent to Reuters earlier appeared to show one of the pilots immobile and badly wounded on the ground and an official from the rebel group said he was dead.

But a Turkish government official told Reuters the pilots were believed still to be alive and that Ankara was working to secure their release from Syrian rebels. 

Russia's defense ministry said one of its Su-24 fighter jets had been downed in Syria and that, according to preliminary information, the pilots were able to eject. “For the entire duration of the flight, the aircraft was exclusively over Syrian territory,” it said.

The Turkish military said the aircraft had been warned 10 times in the space of five minutes about violating Turkish air space. Officials said a second plane had also approached the border and been warned.

“The data we have is very clear. There were two planes approaching our border, we warned them as they were getting too close,” another senior Turkish official told Reuters. 

“We warned them to avoid entering Turkish air space before they did, and we warned them many times. Our findings show clearly that Turkish air space was violated multiple times. And they violated it knowingly,” the official said.

A U.S. military spokesman said it was an issue between the Turkish and Russian governments and that U.S.-led coalition operations in Syria and Iraq were continuing “as planned”.

In Washington, an official said the United States believed the incursion probably lasted only a matter of seconds before the jet was downed. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the incident was still being investigated.

RUSSIA TARGETS TOURISM

Russia's decision to launch separate air strikes in Syria mean Russian and NATO planes have been flying combat missions in the same air space for the first time since World War Two, targeting various insurgent groups close to Turkish borders. 

Russia’s military involvement in Syria has brought losses, including the downed jet and the bombing by militants of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt. But there is no sign yet that public opinion is turning against the operation in Syria and the Kremlin said it would continue.

Instead the Kremlin, helped by state-controlled television, has used these reverses to rally public opinion, portraying the campaign as a moral crusade that Russia must complete, despite indifference or obstruction from elsewhere.

A U.S. official said U.S. forces were not involved in the downing of the Russian jet, which was the first time a Russian or Soviet military aircraft has been publicly acknowledged to have been shot down by a NATO member since the 1950s. 

The incident appeared to scupper hopes of a rapprochement between Russia and the West in the wake of the Islamic State attacks in Paris, which led to calls for a united front against the radical jihadist group in Syria.

Russia's main stock index fell more than two percent, while Turkish stocks fell 1.3 percent. Both the rouble and lira were weaker.

Lavrov advised Russians not to visit Turkey and one of Russia's largest tour operators to the country said it would temporarily suspend sales of trips.

SHOT AS THEY FELL

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was briefed by the head of the military, while Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was due to report on the incident to NATO ambassadors. He also informed the United Nations and related countries.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the warplane crashed in a mountainous area in the northern countryside of Latakia province, where there had been aerial bombardment earlier and where pro-government forces have been battling insurgents on the ground.

“A Russian pilot,” a voice is heard saying in the video sent to Reuters as men gather around the man on the ground. “God is great,” is also heard.

The rebel group that sent the video operates in the northwestern area of Syria, where groups including the Free Syrian Army are active but Islamic State, which has beheaded captives in the past, has no known presence.

A deputy commander of a Turkmen brigade told reporters on a trip organized by Turkish authorities that his forces had shot dead both pilots as they descended. A U.S. official said the pilots' status remained unclear.

“Both of the pilots were retrieved dead. Our comrades opened fire into the air and they died in the air,” Alpaslan Celik said near the Syrian village of Yamadi, close to where the plane came down, holding what he said was a piece of a pilot's parachute. 

In a further sign of a growing fallout over Syria, Syrian rebel fighters who have received U.S. arms said they fired at a Russian helicopter, forcing it to land in territory held by Moscow's Syrian government allies.

Turkey called this week for a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss attacks on Turkmens, who are Syrians of Turkish descent, and last week Ankara summoned the Russian ambassador to protest against the bombing of their villages.

About 1,700 people have fled the mountainous area due to fighting in the last three days, a Turkish official said on Monday. Russian jets have bombed the area in support of ground operations by Syrian government forces.

NATO says Turkey no longer balks at missile shield helping Israel


Turkey has accepted assurances a planned NATO missile defense system in which it is playing a part is not designed to protect Israel as well, the alliance's deputy secretary-general said on Wednesday.

Alexander Vershbow said objections by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government had resulted in part from confusion about a Turkish-hosted NATO radar. Ankara had been further assuaged by alliance Patriot anti-missile batteries assigned to protect its territory from Syria.

A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2010 described the Islamist-rooted Erdogan, under whom Turkey's once-solid ties with the Jewish state have deteriorated, as worrying that the NATO shield might provide cover for a threatened Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites.

Addressing an Israeli security forum, Vershbow said there had been “a lot of confusion” in Turkey, including over the similarity between its NATO radar and a U.S. radar posted in Israel to help it spot any ballistic missile launches by Iran.

“I think that there was misperception that somehow the NATO system would be focused on the protection of Israel and that Israeli-based assets would be part of the NATO system, whereas in fact these are two separate issues,” he told Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

“So I think that issue has receded. It may still be a problem among some parts of Turkish public opinion, but I think Turkey is now as a government supportive of missile defense.”

He linked that support to the fact the Erdogan government has “been benefitting from the deployed Patriots now for more than a year, deterring the Assad regime from firing some of its Scud missiles against civilian population centres in Turkey”.

Ankara agreed in 2011 to host an early-warning radar system as part of the NATO ballistic missile defence system.

 

RUSSIAN “PROPAGANDA”

The NATO missile defence system, which Vershbow envisaged being complete by the early part of the next decade, has encountered fierce opposition from Russia though the alliance insists the plan is not to counter its capabilities.

Vershbow chided Moscow for not taking up NATO offers to cooperate on missile defence and for apparently ignoring the assessments of Russian experts that the shield's technologies and deployment were inconsistent with a threat on the country.

“This has actually been documented in numerous scholarly articles by Russian generals and rocket scientists in Russian journals,” said Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow and Pentagon official.

“But the bad news is that Russian leaders and senior officials seem to pay no attention to their experts … Instead they continue to beat the drum about the purported threat posed by NATO's missile defence system to Russia's strategic retaliatory capability coupled with ominous warnings of retaliation against a threat that does not exist.”

Among such messages have been media reports of new Russian missile deployments in Kaliningrad, a western enclave of Russia lodged between NATO members Poland and Lithuania.

“After some days of ambiguity they made clear that they haven't yet deployed them,” he told Reuters.

“There is expectation that they will replace the older generation (of missiles). They have recast this system thing that they had planned to do and they are characterising it as a retaliation at least in part to (NATO) missile defence.” (Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Suicide bomber kills guard at U.S. embassy in Turkey


A far-leftist suicide bomber killed a Turkish security guard at the U.S. embassy in Ankara on Friday, officials said, blowing open an entrance and sending debris flying through the air.

The attacker detonated explosives strapped to his body after entering an embassy gatehouse. The blast could be heard a mile away. A lower leg and other human remains lay on the street.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said the bomber was a member of the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), a far-left group which is virulently anti-U.S. and anti-NATO and is listed as a terrorist organization by Washington.

The White House said the suicide attack was an “act of terror” but that the motivation was unclear. U.S. officials said the DHKP-C were the main suspects but did not exclude other possibilities.

Islamist radicals, extreme left-wing groups, ultra-nationalists and Kurdish militants have all carried out attacks in Turkey in the past. There was no claim of responsibility.

“The suicide bomber was ripped apart and one or two citizens from the special security team passed away,” said Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

“This event shows that we need to fight together everywhere in the world against these terrorist elements,” he said.

Turkish media reports identified the bomber as DHKP-C member Ecevit Sanli, who was involved in attacks on a police station and a military staff college in Istanbul in 1997.

KEY ALLY

Turkey is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East with common interests ranging from energy security to counter-terrorism and has been one of the leading advocates of foreign intervention to end the conflict in neighboring Syria.

Around 400 U.S. soldiers have arrived in Turkey over the past few weeks to operate Patriot anti-missile batteries meant to defend against any spillover of Syria's civil war, part of a NATO deployment due to be fully operational in the coming days.

The DHKP-C was responsible for the assassination of two U.S. military contractors in the early 1990s in protest against the first Gulf War and launched rockets at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul in 1992, according to the U.S. State Department.

Deemed a terrorist organization by both the United States and Turkey, the DHKP-C has been blamed for suicide attacks in the past, including one in 2001 that killed two police officers and a tourist in Istanbul's central Taksim Square.

The group, formed in 1978, has carried out a series of deadly attacks on police stations in the last six months.

The attack may have come in retaliation for an operation against the DHKP-C last month in which Turkish police detained 85 people. A court subsequently remanded 38 of them in custody over links to the group.

“HUGE EXPLOSION”

U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone emerged through the main gate of the embassy shortly after the explosion to address reporters, flanked by a security detail as a Turkish police helicopter hovered overhead.

“We're very sad of course that we lost one of our Turkish guards at the gate,” Ricciardone said, describing the victim as a “hero” and thanking Turkish authorities for a prompt response.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned the attack on the checkpoint on the perimeter of the embassy and said several U.S. and Turkish staff were injured by debris.

“The level of security protection at our facility in Ankara ensured that there were not significantly more deaths and injuries than there could have been,” she told reporters.

It was the second attack on a U.S. mission in four months. On September 11, 2012, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three American personnel were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The attack in Benghazi, blamed on al Qaeda-affiliated militants, sparked a political furor in Washington over accusations that U.S. missions were not adequately safeguarded.

A well-known Turkish journalist, Didem Tuncay, who was on her way in to the embassy to meet Ricciardone when the attack took place, was in a critical condition in hospital.

“It was a huge explosion. I was sitting in my shop when it happened. I saw what looked like a body part on the ground,” said travel agent Kamiyar Barnos, whose shop window was shattered around 100 meters away from the blast.

CALL FOR VIGILANCE

The U.S. consulate in Istanbul warned its citizens to be vigilant and to avoid large gatherings, while the British mission in Istanbul called on British businesses to tighten security after what it called a “suspected terrorist attack”.

In 2008, Turkish gunmen with suspected links to al Qaeda, opened fire on the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, killing three Turkish policemen. The gunmen died in the subsequent firefight.

The most serious bombings in Turkey occurred in November 2003, when car bombs shattered two synagogues, killing 30 people and wounding 146. Part of the HSBC Bank headquarters was destroyed and the British consulate was damaged in two more explosions that killed 32 people less than a week later. Authorities said those attacks bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda.

Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul, Mohammed Arshad and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Stephen Powell

Netanyahu among 13 leaders Obama calls post-election


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of 13 world leaders that President Obama called to thank for congratulatory messages following his reelection.

“In each call, he thanked his counterpart for their friendship and partnership thus far and expressed his desire to continue close cooperation moving ahead,” the White House said Thursday in a statement.

In his own statement, Netanyahu said he told Obama that his reelection was “a vote of confidence in your leadership.”

Netanyahu and Obama have had a relationship notable both for enhanced defense cooperation between their countries and for some tense periods, particularly over Israel's settlement building and what red lines are appropriate in dealing with Iran.

Middle Eastern leaders in addition to Netanyahu who were called included President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

The Obama administration is coordinating closely with Turkey on how to deal with the unrest in Syria, and Saudi Arabia, like Israel, is a principal regional ally in the bid to isolate Iran until it stands down from a suspected nuclear weapons program.

Obama is navigating an uneasy course with Morsi, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader who has demonstrated ambivalence if not hostility toward sustaining the peace treaty with Israel. 

The other leaders on Obama's call list mostly included allies, including from Germany, France and Britain, as well as the secretary-general of the NATO alliance.

Syrian clashes intensify near Turkey border


NATO said on Tuesday it had drawn up plans to defend Turkey if necessary against any further spillover of violence from Syria's border areas where rebels and government forces are fighting for control.

Rebel suicide bombers struck at President Bashar Assad's heartland, attacking an Air Force Intelligence compound on the edge of Damascus, insurgents said. Activists living nearby said the bombing caused at least 100 casualties among security personnel, based on the ambulances that rushed to the scene.

“Assad…is only able to stand up with crutches,” Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, once a close ally of Assad, told a meeting of his ruling AK Party.

“He will be finished when the crutches fall away.”

Erdogan, reacting to six consecutive days where shells fired from Syrian soil have landed on Turkish territory, has warned Ankara will not shrink from war if forced to act. But Ankara has also made clear it would be reluctant to mount any major operation on Syrian soil, and then only with international support.

Syrian forces and rebels have clashed at several sites close to the Turkish border in the last week. There has been no sign of any major breakthrough by either side, though activists said rebels killed at least 40 soldiers on Saturday in a 12-hour battle to take the village of Khirbet al-Joz.

It was not clear whether the shells landing on the Turkish side were aimed at Turkey or simply the result of government troops overshooting as they attacked rebels to their north.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Brussels the 28-member military alliance hoped a way could be found to stop tensions escalating on the border.

“We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary,” he said.

Just outside Hacipasa, a village nestled among olive groves in Turkey's Hatay border province, the sound of mortar fire could be heard every 10-15 minutes from around the Syrian town of Azmarin. A Syrian helicopter flew high over the border.

Villagers used ropes and small metal boats to ferry the injured across a river no more than 10 meters wide into Turkey. On the Syrian side, men wearing surgical masks and gloves tended to the wounded on mats laid on the ground.

“They are burning houses in the town,” said Musana Barakat, 46, an Azmarin resident who makes frequent trips between the two countries, pointing at plumes of thick smoke in the distance.

“There are rebels hiding in and around the town and they are going to make a push tonight to drive Assad's forces out,” he said, a Syrian passport sticking out of his shirt pocket.

A crowd gathered around a saloon car, the blood-stained body of a man who had been pulled wounded from the fighting slumped across its back seat. Those with him said he had been rescued alive but died after being brought over the border.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said on Monday the “worst-case scenarios” were now playing out in Syria and Turkey would do everything necessary to protect itself.

Gul and Erdogan, in seeking Western and Arab support, have repeatedly warned of the dangers of fighting in Syria spilling over into a sectarian war engulfing the entire region.

Turkey's chief of general staff General Necdet Ozel flew by helicopter to several bases in Hatay province on Tuesday, part of Turkey's 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria.

U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will go to Syria soon to try to persuade President Bashar al-Assad's government to call an immediate ceasefire.

SUICIDE BOMBERS

The militant Islamist group al-Nusra Front said it had mounted the suicide attack on the air force intelligence building in Damascus because it was used a centre for torture and repression in the crackdown on the revolt against Assad.

“Big shockwaves shattered windows and destroyed shop facades. It felt as if a bomb exploded inside every house in the area,” said one resident of the suburb of Harasta, where the compound was located.

But much of the fighting in the 18-month-old uprising has concentrated around the border area.

The shelling of the Turkish town of Akcakale last Wednesday, which killed five civilians, marked a sharp escalation.

Turkey has been responding in kind since then to gunfire or mortar bombs flying over the border and has bolstered its military presence along the frontier.

“We are living in constant fear. The mortar sounds have really picked up since this morning. The children are really frightened,” said Hali Nacioglu, 43, a farmer from the village of Yolazikoy near Hacipasa.

A mortar bomb landed in farmland near Hacipasa on Monday.

Unlike the flat terrain around Akcakale, the border area in Hatay is marked by rolling hills with heavy vegetation. Syrian towns and villages, including Azmarin, are clearly visible just a few kilometers away.

“It's only right that Turkey should respond if it gets fired on but we really don't want war to break out. We want this to finish as soon as possible,” said Abidin Tunc, 49, a tobacco farmer also from Yolazikoy.

NATO member Turkey was once an ally of Assad's but turned against him after his violent response to the uprising, in which activists say 30,000 people have died.

Turkey has nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees in camps on its territory, has given sanctuary to rebel leaders and has led calls for Assad to quit.

Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Adrian Croft in Brussels, John Irish in Paris; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Daren Butler and Ralph Boulton

Israel says Syrian mortar strike was attack on NATO


Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said on Thursday a deadly Syrian mortar strike on a Turkish town had to be considered an attack on a member of the NATO alliance.

Israel is technically at war with Damascus and occupies the Golan Heights that it seized in the 1967 war and later annexed, but it has generally taken a cautious line on the uprising in its Arab neighbor.

“One has to say that according to the NATO treaty, it was an attack on a member of NATO, and that means France,” Meridor told reporters during a visit to Paris, referring to France's membership of NATO.

Syria and Israel have not exchanged fire in three decades, and a parliamentary briefing in July by the Israeli armed forces chief about the risk of “uncontrollable deterioration” in Syria were interpreted by local media as a caution against opening a new fighting front with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Meridor said he did not want to go into details about the incident but said the deaths in Syria had to end.

“Syria is in a horrible situation, a civil war. Each day men, women and children are being killed and it must be stopped,” Meridor said after meeting France's foreign and defense ministers.

“We are in a process that isn't finished. We don't see the end for now.”

Turkey's government on Thursday said “aggressive action” against its territory by Syria's military had become a serious threat to its national security and parliament approved the deployment of Turkish troops beyond its borders if needed.

Immediately after the incident, Ankara, which has the second-largest army in NATO, called a meeting of the organization's North Atlantic Council.

Syria has apologized through the United Nations for the mortar strike in Turkey and said such an incident would not be repeated.

Israel has been particularly worried that Hezbollah, the Iranian-inspired Shiite militia in neighboring Lebanon, may gain access to the chemical weapons should Assad's grip slip amid a 18-month-old insurgency.

Assad, from the minority Alawite sect, considered an offshoot of Shia Islam, has close ties both with Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollah, which was originally set up to oppose Israel.

“The alliance with Iran is extremely worrying (for us). Iran on one side, Hezbollah on the other, with Syria in the middle. For us, it's very important that this unholy alliance is broken,” Meridor said.

“If the Assad regime were to fall, it would be a vital strike on Iran,” he said.

Reporting By John Irish

Russia says downing of Turkish plane not provocation


Russia said on Tuesday Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish warplane should not be seen as a provocation and warned world powers against using the incident to push for stronger action against Damascus.

It was Moscow’s first reaction to Friday’s downing of a Turkish military aircraft by Syrian air defenses, which gave a new international dimension to the worsening conflict in Syria.

Turkey’s NATO allies condemned Syria’s action as unacceptable but stopped short of threatening any military response. Turkey also plans to approach the U.N. Security Council.

“It is important that what happened is not viewed as a provocation or a premeditated action (by Syria),” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement on its website.

Moscow repeated its calls for restraint, warning that any political escalation would be “extremely dangerous” and threaten international efforts to salvage a moribund six-point Syrian peace plan drawn up by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

“Once again, we call on all sides to act exclusively in the interests of such an agenda (the peace plan) and not to take steps that go beyond its limits,” the ministry said.

“We believe that the best course of action is restraint and constructive interaction between the Turkish and Syrian sides in order to clarify all the circumstances of the incident.”

Syria provides Moscow with its firmest foothold in the Middle East, buys weapons from Russia worth billions of dollars, and hosts the Russian navy’s only permanent warm water port outside the former Soviet Union.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he would attend a meeting on Syria that Annan is trying to arrange on Saturday but suggested it would not produce results without the participation of Iran, a close Syrian ally.

“Iran must be present. Otherwise the circle of participants will be incomplete and will not gather everybody who has influence on all Syrian sides,” Lavrov told reporters, on the sidelines of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Jordan.

Annan has also said Iran should attend, but diplomats say the United States, Saudi Arabia and others objected to the idea.

Putin later on Tuesday also voiced support for involving Iranian officials in talks seeking an end to the violence, saying it would be “counterproductive” to neglect Syria’s neighbor in negotiations to resolve the conflict.

“The more Syria’s neighbors are involved in the process the better because almost every neighboring country has some influence on some forces inside the country,” Putin said.

“It is better to involve Iran in this conflict resolution, receive its support,” he said.

Russia has used its power of veto in the U.N. Security Council to shield Syria from harsher international sanctions over Damascus’s crackdown on the 16-month-old revolt.

Moscow has backed Annan’s plan, insisting it is the only way to end the bloodshed in Syria and arguing firmly against any kind of military intervention.

So far Annan’s attempts to get the Syrian opposition and government to begin talks aimed at ending the conflict have failed, but he is pushing for a meeting of key regional players and permanent U.N. Security Council members in Geneva on Saturday, hoping to kickstart political negotiations.

Reporting by Gleb Bryansky in Amman and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow, editing by Andrew Heavens

Turkey says Israel not welcome at NATO summit


Turkey blocked the participation of Israel in next month’s NATO Summit in Chicago, a Turkish newspaper reported.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vetoed Israel’s participation during a NATO foreign ministers meeting last week in Brussels, the Hurriyet Daily News reported Monday.

“There will be no Israeli presence at the NATO meeting unless they issue a formal apology and pay compensation for the Turkish citizens their commandos killed in international waters,” a senior Turkish official told Hurriyet, referring to the deaths of nine Turkish activists during an Israeli naval commando raid on the Turkish ship the Mavi Marmara as it attempted to break Israeli’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2010. 

“Those countries who wish to see normalization in ties between Turkey and Israel should advise Israel to apologize and to compensate the killing of Turks in international waters,” the official told the news service.

Israel, as well as other countries including Egypt, Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco, is a member of the Mediterranean Dialogue, a NATO outreach program.

Turkey has previously vetoed Israeli attempts to participate more fully in NATO. It vetoed an Israeli request to open an office at NATO headquarters and its participation in some Mediterranean Dialogue group activities, according to Hurriyet.

“You are talking about being partners and partnership values. But partners, first of everything, should act like partners, so that we’ll treat them accordingly,” Davutoglu said during last week’s NATO meeting, according to Hurriyet

Arab League cracks down on Syria


The Arab League stepped up sanctions against Syria over its violent suppression of a popular revolt.

The Cairo-based umbrella group of Arab countries, which last month expelled Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, announced a travel ban Thursday against 17 Syrian VIPs. Assad himself was excluded from the blacklist, but his brother Maher, Syria’s second most-powerful leader, was included.

The Arab League sanctions compound punitive measures imposed on Damascus by the European Union over its almost yearlong crackdown on a Syrian uprising that in recent months has taken on aspects of a civil war. Thousands of Syrians have been killed in the revolt.

Turkey, a NATO power and Syria’s neighbor and biggest trading partner, also has curtailed dealings with the Assad regime. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has urged Assad to step down, saying he risked sharing the fate of the slain Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The world’s largest Muslim body, the Organization of Islamic Conference, on Wednesday urged Syria to “immediately stop the use of excessive force” against its citizens.

Turkey veto threat nixed Israeli NATO initiative


Turkey’s foreign minister said his country threatened to veto an Israeli initiative in NATO in an effort to hurt Israel in international forums.

Ahmet Davutoglu reportedly told CNN Turk in an interview Sunday that Turkey had threatened to veto Israel’s recent effort to open a NATO office in Brussels as part of the alliance’s outreach to non-member groups through the Mediterranean Dialogue initiative. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952. Israel joined the Mediterranean Dialogue initiative in 1995 with Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia and Egypt; Jordan and Algeria were added later.

Davutoglu added that the veto threat could change according to political circumstances, according to reports.

Israel withdrew the initiative after the threat, according to the Turkish news service Today’s Zaman. .

The threat comes amid increased tension between Israel and Turkey following Israel’s refusal to apologize for the deaths last year of nine Turkish nationals after Israeli naval commandos stormed a flotilla ship attempting to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Israel has expressed “regret” for the incident.

Turkish officials have vowed to attack Israel in as many international forums as possible, and Turkey has downgraded diplomatic relations with Israel and cut defense trade ties.

Meanwhile, Israel will remove its police representative in Turkey after a lack of cooperation from Turkish authorities, Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told Israel Radio Monday.