Turkey is reconsidering America’s use of Incirlik airbase
Turkey’s Incirlik airbase, located in the suburbs of the large city of Adana, is not only used by the Turkish air force, but is also an important NATO base.The US-led coalition uses it for airstrikes against ISIL and it is also the home of a number of tactical nuclear bombs. While American use of the Incirlik airbase extends back into the 1950’s, there is currently some indication they may have worn out their welcome.
As I have already written about,1 Turkish-US relations are souring, partly due to Turkey’s displeasure at how the US is handling Fethullah Gülen and the Kurdish militias in northern Syria. More recently Turkey has a new grievance against the US, the fact that the latter has been providing minimal assistance in their ongoing onslaught on al-Bab, a town in northern Syria held by ISIL.
The lack of US help, compounded by the fact that Incirlik is only ~210 kilometeres away from al-Bab, has led some Turkish officials to openly ponder why they are even allowing the US and NATO to use their airbase. On this issue Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated:2
“Our people ask, ‘why are they [coalition forces] using the İncirlik Airbase [if the coalition does not provide aerial support to the Euphrates Shield operation]. We allowed not only the U.S. but also other countries’ jets to use İncirlik to jointly fight [ISIL]. … What purpose are you serving if you do not provide aerial support against DEASH in the most sensitive operation for us? … The U.S. is a very important ally for us. We have cooperation in every field. But there is the reality of a confidence crisis in the relationship at the moment.”
Speaking to journalists Defense Minister Fikri Işık said:
“We hope that all the coalition forces, mainly the US, will give the aerial support and other kinds of support Turkey needs for its Operation Euphrates Shield and that the necessary steps are taken without any delay. It is thought provoking that the countries with which we have been together for years in NATO and those which established a coalition against Daesh have not supported this operation launched by the Free Syrian Army and supported by the Turkish Armed Forces against Daesh in the critical region of al-Bab.”
Erdoğan’s spokesman, İbrahim Kalın also chimed in, “We have the right to shut down İncirlik, but before doing that the situation would have to be evaluated.”3 Furthermore, according to Hürriyet columnist Abdulkadir Selvi, during the first Turkish Cabinet meeting of 2017, attended by Erdoğan, the issue of denying the US access to Incirlik was debated.4
At face value it appears that the Turks are seriously considering booting out the Americans from Incirlik, although all of their threats may simply be intended as a bargaining tool to help compel the US to cave into their demands (extraditing Gülen, stopping support of the Kurds, and assisting in the offensive against al-Bab, etc.).
It is interesting that according two US military officials, Turkey has already turned down an American offer of assistance with regards to Operation Euphrates Shield, and has instead accepted Russian aerial assistance.5 So maybe Turkey is playing hardball with the US or maybe they think US assistance is not all that helpful. In support of the latter possibility, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told of a recent Turkish request for assistance:6
“Last week, there was a request… when some Turkish forces came under fire for air support and there were flights conducted by the coalition at that time. … My understanding of that was there was not a strike specifically, but there were aircraft involved in that effort, a visible show of force if you will, by coalition aircraft.”
With such assistance already being given, it is understandable why the Turks are not too keen with subsequent US offers of help and why they instead prefer increasing cooperation with Russia.
The US response to the Incirlik matter, has been, via Air Force Col. John Dorrian, to stress that the base has been “absolutely invaluable” to the fight against ISIL and that “The entire world has been made safer by the operations that have been conducted there.”7
Ultimately we will have to wait and see how this situation unfolds. Are the Turks serious in their threats to evict the US air force from Incirlik? Or are they just releasing some rhetorical bluster for negotiation purposes? Will Turkey continue to realign with Russia and move further away from the US?
Obviously the outcome will be greatly effected by the incoming Trump administration, which appears to be keen on improving relations with Turkey. Furthermore, it seems that Turkish officials are also cautiously hopeful that relations between the two countries will improve under a Trump Presidency. According to Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş:8
“We have a strained relationship with the United States at the moment but I don’t think it will last long. I think this tension will soon be eased. … I believe the U.S. will undergo a clear change in its position and will cooperate with a state like Turkey [under Trump].”
We will soon see if this is the case or not.