Yves here. I had been very hopeful that the thousand-boat flotilla that Turkiye was supposedly helping organize would change the dynamic in Gaza. What would Israel do when a thousand vessels with food and other relief supplies approached Gaza? This would be too many to stop, save perhaps by mining, and could easily serve as a causus belli for countries who had citizens who were on the ship and were either harmed or captured by Israel.
For this to work, one requirement would be a lot of countries represented in the operation. Much in the way that the safety of a herd of wildebeest crossing the savannah increases with size, here both size of the fleet and diversity would matter. More countries represented would mean more countries to further alienate if Israel behaved badly. And conversely, Israel would look impotent if it decided it had to allow a lot of aid in.
However, the flotilla had been claimed to be departing on Wednesday. That looks not to have happened. As Helmer recounts it, Russian vessels had been rumored to be represented in large numbers, as on over 300. That would amount to a partially Russian sponsored operation. As Helmer explains, Moscow has been reluctant to break with Israel, to the degree that Russia is still running a lot of pro-Israel coverage despite the sympathies among Russians at large being firmly with Palestine.
There’s also a lot of harrumphing by soi-disant experts about Erdogan being a poseur and deceptive (some shows up below; there are more pointed dismissals elsewhere). While this may be true, given how Merkel and Hollande behaved with the Minsk accords, the degree of sneering about Erdogan appears to embody a lot of anti-Turk/Muslim prejudice.
Helmer does not say the boat scheme is dead, but it may be premature. But with rough winter waters coming in the Mediterranean, that means the next viable time might be, what, March? April?
By John Helmer, the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and an advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. He is the first and only member of a US presidential administration (Jimmy Carter) to establish himself in Russia. Originally published at Dances with Bears
There is one way in which regional war against Israel can be waged by the Arab states, Turkey, Iran, Russia, even China to which Israel and the US are vulnerable; against which they cannot achieve a quick and conclusive end to Hamas and prevent a multi-front, long and ruinous war for Israel; and against which the Israelis and Americans cannot fight by a firepower escalation against the major states when Israel’s survival chances are far lower than the US will risk.
This is proxy war by swarm.
The Houthis have been practising this on a sub-swarm scale with modest drone and missile salvos aimed at Israel’s southern coastline, Eilat port, and vessel movement up and down the Red Sea, as well as one Israeli-owned vessel capture on November 19.
This week Houthi missiles have also targeted a US Navy (USN) destroyer in the Gulf of Aden. “Nov. 27 Sanaa time, two ballistic missiles were fired from Houthi controlled areas in Yemen toward the general location of the USS MASON (DDG 87) and M/V CENTRAL PARK,” CENTCOM said. “The missiles landed in the Gulf of Aden approximately ten nautical miles from the ships.” This alleged Houthi attack followed an abortive takeover the day before, aimed at the Israeli-owned tanker Central Park. The ship attackers were Somali pirates, not Houthi forces, the USN has told the US press.
Against proxy war by swarm the US is currently monitoring Hezbollah along the Lebanon coast by long-range Northrop Grumman drones launched from the US airbase at Sigonella, Italy. At the same time, for safety sake, the USS Gerald Ford and its escorts have withdrawn more than a thousand kilometres westward, out of Hezbollah missile range. The Ford squadron is now reported to be under way in the central Ionian Sea continuing westward.
The USS Eisenhower and its escorts, however, are now moving into firing range of Iranian drone and missile attack, and also long-range Russian Kinzhals, as the USN force has passed through the Hormuz Strait sailing northward on what the Navy press statement says is its mission “to enter the waters of the Arabian [sic] Gulf as the Strike Group continues to support USCENTCOM missions [to] patrol the strategic waterway, located [sic] on the southeastern Arabian Peninsula, to ensure freedom of navigation.”
These operations of the US Navy (USN) and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) indicate they are meant to deter Iran from using their long-range missiles against Israeli targets. They remain sitting ducks for long-range Russian attack.
But the USN-IDF combination is incapable of deterring, let alone defending against proxy swarms of either unarmed balloons or civilian motor yachts – unless they attack and destroy them. The futility of doing that with violence, as the IDF has done before, is the weapon the Palestinians hold – of winning the war by not losing, and in the process to demonstrate that Israel is a US-NATO protectorate for race hatred and genocide.
The impotence of the US Air Force was demonstrated in February of this year in its protracted engagement against a single high-altitude, unarmed “spy balloon” from China. Greek sources have reported speculation of a balloon swarm in support of Hamas; there has been no press reporting of this yet.
On November 21 the Turkish and Arab media reported that “approximately 1,000 international boats will gather in Turkiye on Wednesday [November 22] before heading toward Gaza to break the Israeli blockade…In an interview with Turkish news website, Haber7, Volkan Okcu, one of the organisers of the protest, indicated the boats will carry 4,500 people from 40 countries, ‘including anti-Zionist Jews’. Among the 1,000 vessels would be 313 boats filled with Russian activists, and 104 filled with Spanish activists, he said. Only 12 Turkish vessels will join the flotilla…The maritime convoy is set to make a first stop in Cyprus before continuing toward the Israeli port of Ashdod. Some participants in the flotilla will also reportedly take their spouses and children on board.” The same report has appeared here and here.
In an Israeli newspaper version of the same story, Okcu was quoted as saying: “The Zionist regime seems to have no chance to repeat the Mavi Marmara incident…The vessels sail under the flags of the US, UK, Luxembourg, Russia, Germany, Spain, Poland, and many other countries…The moment we enter Gaza’s territorial waters, [Israeli forces] can only search us or tow us to their ports, and impose fines, but will not be allowed by international law to raid the convoy in international waters, the way they assaulted the Mavi Marmara in 2010. [Israel] would pay a heavy price for attempting any crazy action against such a large international peace fleet.” That was published on the morning of November 21.
A week has now elapsed without the flotilla materialising in Turkey, and without a sign in Moscow that more than 1,200 Russians are aboard the reported 313 vessels with Gaza as their destination. Moscow sources refuse to discuss the operation openly amid signs that if there has been Russian government and military backing for the proxy swarm, there is now a Kremlin veto on the operation, at least for the time being.
The first news of the Gaza blockade-busting plan appeared in Tass, the state news agency, on November 16. The report was datelined Ankara, and came directly from “a source in the Turkish IHH humanitarian organization that has an office in the Gaza Strip”. According to Tass, “a number of humanitarian organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are preparing a major international campaign to deliver aid to the Gaza Strip and potentially breach the enclave’s blockade.”
IHH is a well-known Turkish Muslim charitable organisation with aid programmes around the world. It had been the co-sponsor of the June 2010 operation by six vessels with 663 participants to sail from Turkey and Cyprus to Gaza, aiming to break the Israeli naval blockade and deliver humanitarian supplies to the Palestinians. That operation resulted in the Israeli interception at sea – international waters, in fact — of one of the vessels, the Mavi Marmara, and the shooting deaths of nine of the passengers on board for allegedly resisting the Israeli commandos. The Israeli government later paid $20 million in compensation for their killings.
The compensation terms also allowed IHH to open an aid office in Gaza. It did not result in the lifting of the Israeli blockade of the sea approaches to Gaza.
MAP OF ISRAELI BLOCKADE OF GAZA COAST LINE
According to the November 16 Tass report from its Ankara source, “’right now, efforts are underway for the preparation of a new humanitarian action, similar to the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla. We [Turkey’s IHH] are not the only ones taking part in it, it will also involve other humanitarian organizations, activists and NGOs from around the world. It will potentially be the largest international action for Gaza that will involve representatives from both Europe and other countries of the world. We aim to breach the blockade and deliver the aid, but whether we will manage to breach the blockade will depend on the reality in the region,’ the source said.”
He noted that “consultations and negotiations with potential participants are currently underway on how and in what format this campaign will be implemented. Right now, negotiations are underway on what ships will take part in the action. It could be rescue ships, as well as private ships owned by organizations and activists. As for the participations, discussions are also underway. At the very least, the participants will include those who took part in the 2010 event. But now, their geography is even wider,” the source said.
Although Tass headlined the blockade-busting operation as an “international campaign”, the evidence in the report is that one-third of the vessels and participants is Russian. Source: https://tass.com/
For more detail on the 2010 Gaza flotilla operation and the lethal Israeli attack, read this.
Greek sources report a long history of vessel sabotage and assassinations by Israel aimed to stop international efforts to break the Israeli blockade by ship movement from Greece and Cyprus into Gaza. In this documentary report of the blockade-busting operation of August 2008, it is clear the unopposed landing on Gaza for the first time since the 1967 war was successful because the Greek Cypriot government of the time protected the vessel, its crew, and passengers at Limassol port, defying Tel Aviv and Washington.
August 28, 2008.
The lesson the IDF and the US Government learned from this success was to intensify the killing methods used against the Mavi Marmara in 2010 and to threaten the same against the “US boat to Gaza” operation in mid-2011 with the vessel, Audacity of Hope.
Three years later, when an American organised effort to run the Israeli gauntlet into Gaza from Greece was attempted during the calm seas of the summer of 2011, Ray McGovern has reported that the Israeli government warned the Obama Administration that the Americans would face the same military treatment as the Turks on board the Mavi Marmara the year before. The US then pressured the Greek prime minister at the time, George Papandreou, and his mother Margarita Papandreou, not to allow the Americans to sail from Greece to Gaza. The vessel was at first impounded in Piraeus port, and then when it was underway, it was stopped by the Greek Coast Guard at the limit of Greece’s territorial waters, returned to port, and impounded again.
According to McGovern, a 27-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), “before leaving the United States, I was cautioned by a source with access to very senior staffers at the National Security Council that not only does the White House plan to do absolutely nothing to protect our boat from Israeli attack or illegal boarding, but that White House officials ‘would be happy if something happened to us.’ They are, I am reliably told, ‘perfectly willing to have the cold corpses of activists shown on American TV.’”
After the Hamas breakout operation of October 7 and the start of the current war, there have been hints from Ankara of an aid operation by sea using amphibious vessels of the Turkish navy and army. At the same time the Greek Cypriot President, Nikos Christodoulides, has advertised a shipborne humanitarian corridor between Limassol and Gaza, secured by the French navy and special forces. Christodoulides made his proposal public at a European Union (EU) heads of government meeting on October 26. It has come to nothing.
Instead, Cyprus air bases have been a safe haven for US and NATO resupply lines of ammunition, weapons and military replacement parts into Israel, as well as for Israeli civilians and reservists fleeing the war.
The Cyprus and Israeli presidents meet on October 21, 2023 – “President Isaac Herzog this evening, (Saturday, 21 October 2023), met with President Nikos Christodoulides of Cyprus who came to make a visit of solidarity with the Israeli people following the barbaric terror attack by Hamas on October 7…Whatever we're carrying out now, we are carrying out fully under the international humanitarian law, under the rules of international humanitarian law.”
The Israeli government has also said it would consider a “a maritime humanitarian corridor, with aid being sent to Cyprus that would be examined [in Cyprus] by Israeli officials. The aid would then be delivered to a small port in Gaza.”
A Cypriot presidential adviser, now retired, is equally skeptical of the public announcements of Christodoulides and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Of Erdogan the source said he “talks from both sides of his mouth, but with the political language of Islam when addressing Muslims. As for what he has actually done so far, he sent his navy to practice with live fire but [that was] between Turkey and Cyprus not in the Mediterranean. That’s typical of him. Except for Hamas, I do not think anyone wants the Turks to play a role. The Turks are too vulnerable economically to do anything. But even if that wasn’t the case, they cannot deal with powers stronger than they are. Theirs is bully behaviour and public rhetoric for domestic consumption. I do not think they are stronger than they were 2010-11. As for the appearance this month of the Gaza flotilla plan, absolutely not — no flotilla [for Erdogan].”
When the Tass report was followed by the detailed reports of the extent of the Russian participation in the proposal new flotilla, Moscow sources say that if there are as many Russian vessels and Russian activists participating in the new Turkish flotilla as have been announced – 323 vessels, at least 1,200 crew and participants — there must be Russian intelligence or military support for their involvement. According to one source, “it looks like an especially clever plan for proxies, unarmed humanitarians, to challenge the IDF and the Americans behind them.”
“But why have the Turks announced it so publicly in advance?”
“Of course,” the source added, “the Cyprus and Greek governments are now fully subservient to the Israelis, so the US and NATO are using the Greek and Cyprus bases to run arms and ammunition replenishment flights into Israel as the war continues. If the flotilla is to rendezvous in Cyprus and sail to Gaza from there, it will have to be at the port of Famagusta, in Turkish Cyprus. This would also be quite an advertisement by Erdogan of his claim to be the protector of the Muslims of Palestine – and of the cowardice of the Greeks and Cypriots in this war.”
Suspicion of the Turkish president’s duplicity is expressed by a US-NATO operations veteran. “Erdogan is doing almost exactly what the Turks did during the Iran-Iraq war. Taking advantage of the situation to turn a profit and make gains at someone else’s expense, while hiding under NATO’s skirt. This is Turkish state policy. The only difference I see now is how today’s Turk has picked up the Koran and is playing ‘Defender of the Umma’. This is how Erdogan cloaks Turkish expansionism, and his family’s graft while, again, keeping NATO as his shield. The Turk’s supposed support for the Palestinians, looking more tokenistic by the day, is as cynical as his annexation of Syrian territory to ‘protect’ the Arab population.”
Erdogan has spoken by telephone with President Vladimir Putin twice since October 7, both times on Putin’s initiative. On October 10, the Kremlin claims the two men “emphasised the need for an immediate ceasefire by both sides and resumption of negotiations and expressed mutual readiness to actively contribute to this end. The sides underscored that a long-term peaceful settlement of the Middle East crisis was only possible on the basis of the ”two-state“ formula approved by the UN Security Council, which provides for establishing an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. The parties also touched upon separate issues of Russian-Turkish cooperation in various fields.”
Did they agree to cooperate in secret on a proxy blockade-busting operation into Gaza?
On October 24 Putin telephoned Erdogan again and according to the Kremlin communiqué, they “reviewed the active efforts undertaken by Russia at the UN Security Council, as well as the corresponding political and diplomatic steps taken by Turkiye to stop the bloodshed and ensure the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid to those in need. It was emphasised that Russia and Turkiye have practically overlapping positions, focused on implementing the well-known two-state solution, which provides for the creation of an independent Palestine coexisting with Israel in peace and security. In addition, issues related to the accelerating pace of mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation in various fields were touched upon.”
In parallel, according to the record of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s meetings and communications, there is no sign that Lavrov discussed with his Turkish counterparts a joint Russian-Turkish seaborne aid corridor to Gaza. Instead, the Russian ministry has emphasised the role of the Arab states and Iran “in resolving the region’s issues. Abandoning confrontational rhetoric and the desire for a political-diplomatic settlement of disagreements in the preceding period resulted in the stabilisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the resumption of Syria’s participation in the League of Arab States and a step-by-step building of a dialogue between Damascus and Ankara. Third parties must not be allowed to exploit the unraveling Palestinian-Israeli confrontation to break these positive trends and plunge the region into chaos. The involvement and unity of the states in this region along with the political will of the Palestinians and the Israelis to hold talks on a package of issues for a final status is a key condition for restarting a comprehensive peace process in the Middle East.” That was on November 6.
From the start of the Gaza war, Russian public opinion has been overwhelmingly favourable towards the Palestinians and hostile to Israel, but the Foreign Ministry and Kremlin have tried to dampen public enthusiasm. Instead, the Russian state propaganda organs have been running Israeli commentaries hostile to Hamas “terrorism”, and focusing on release of Palestinians and Israelis with dual Russian citizenship through the Rafah checkpoint in southern Gaza. On November 22, Putin asked for a report on what is happening to the “910 people [who] asked for help in evacuating, including 639 Russian citizens and 271 Palestinians who are their family members. The Russian Emergencies Ministry aviation division has received no evacuation applications from citizens of other states. To date, 484 citizens of the Russian Federation and 87 non-Russian citizens who are their family members have crossed the Rafah checkpoint. Six Emergencies Ministry flights have transported 553 people, including 259 children, to Domodedovo Airport, while 18 people are still in a hotel in Cairo, waiting to be evacuated. Upon arrival in Russia, nine people, including six children, were sent to medical institutions. Two of them, including one child, were diagnosed with COVID.”
“After completing all the necessary procedures, 116 people, including 44 children, left the airport to reach their places of residence on their own. The rest were taken to temporary accommodation centres in the Moscow and Kaluga regions. Work is underway to arrange accommodation for these people in other regions of Russia. To date, there are 313 people staying in these centres, including 161 children.” The Russian television and social media have not allowed these evacuees to broadcast their eye-witness accounts of Israeli attacks.
Russian military and intelligence sources either claim not to have heard about the Turkish plan for the Gaza flotilla, or they refuse to respond to questions. The Moscow sources don’t doubt that the size of the reported Russian participation is so large as to represent a planned proxy operation, but they are skeptical that after several weeks of difficult negotiations to rescue almost a thousand Russians under Israeli attack in Gaza, the Kremlin would risk many more Russians on board the flotilla if the IDF repeats its Mavi Marmara attack.
“I can’t see Putin letting them be killed”, a Moscow source comments, “as the Turks were in the 2010 Gaza Flotilla, or the crew of the USS Liberty in 1967. Yes, in a swarm of a thousand vessels the IDF would be unable to repeat a shipboarding commando operation. But the Israelis might mine the seas in front of the flotilla, or strafe the vessels from the air. Committing the small but potent Russian navy squadron at Tartous to covering the flotilla would defeat the proxy cover story.”
Source: https://www.itamilradar.com/ (November 23).
Both the US and Russian navies appear to be withdrawing from the possibility of close encounters in the Eastern Mediterranean; the USS Gerald Ford is currently in a position between Italy and Greece. The U.S. 6th Fleet command ship USS Mount Whitney remains in the Eastern Mediterranean along with French and British Navy warships, but exactly where has been concealed since the Mount Whitney left the Italian port of Gaeta in mid-October. As of November 23, the Russian fleet at Tartous consists of a frigate, two corvettes, an intelligence vessel, oiler and repair barge.
Current location of the USS Gerald Ford -- source: https://www.itamilradar.com/
If the Americans suspected the Russians of preparing to cover the movement of the new aid flotilla into Gaza, sources believe the fleets would be moving toward each other and the waters between Famagusta and Gaza. There’s no sign of this at present. There is no speculation of this in the Russian military blogs following the war in Gaza, such as Rybar and Colonel Cassad.
“In theory,” comments a US source, the Turkish plan is “the opening of another front. The organisers are certainly aware of of the unprecedented naval presence in the area. So the vessel swarm is upping the ante. But only if Erdogan and Putin decide to let it happen.”
A Moscow source concedes “this is a very fluid situation changing by the hour or the minute. It’s impossible to differentiate statements from intentions, or actions from counter-actions. If the major power are coordinating, then they are coordinating not getting involved right now. I just do not see the Turks, Indians, Chinese or Russians getting into any posture in the Middle East which might seem confrontational. Especially when the Saudis and Emiratis are not doing it, the Chinese and the Russians won’t. Iranian restraint speaks more than anything else.
I also believe this is the right approach, especially if Hamas can drag the war on for another 90 days. The condition of the released hostages tells that Hamas is well-entrenched. They have a lot more fight in them. A multi-day ceasefire might give them the long war which Netanyahu wants but Biden does not. However, I see no one coming to fight with them.”
“Let us say a Turkish aid flotilla materialises and gets to the new port and marina the Turks have built in North Cyprus. There are several problems with that. Small craft, especially leisure yachts and motor boats cannot ply the Eastern Med during the storm weather from December until April. Moreover, if Hamas is running the current ceasefire, it does not want Erdogan to give a reason for Israel to break it. A flotilla is therefore just PR at this stage.”
“The Gaza genocide will pave the way to something bigger, but later.”