At the peak of the optimism about the Russian-Turkish rapprochement in the summer rumours circulated of Turkey expelling the US from Incirlik air base in Turkey.
Incirlik is the single most important US and NATO air base in the east Mediterranean region. Built by US engineers in the 1950s with a 3,000 metre concrete runway, there are 5,000 US personnel permanently stationed there, in a base equipped with 57 hardened aircraft shelters and which stores US tactical nuclear missiles.
Russia’s Khmeimim air base is by comparison a hurriedly improvised affair using the 2,800 metre asphalt runway of a former civilian airport, which is less suitable for high performance aircraft such as supersonic fighters and (especially) bombers since their high engine heat can cause the asphalt to melt.
Incirlik was a key US asset during the Cold War, but it has also been used by the US to project its air power into places like Iraq and Lebanon. It is a key US and NATO strategic asset, and though it is the US air force which dominates the base, the British, German and Turkish air forces also operate from there.
Incirlik’s size and importance means that the US would be certain to react very strongly to any serious threat to its use of the base. Suffice to say that its loss would be an exceptionally heavy blow to the US strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean and in the Middle East. The importance of Incirlik to the US however also means that it provides a valuable tool for Erdogan and the Turkish government to gain leverage over the US if they are minded to use it.
Back in the summer, when rumours that Turkey was reviewing US use of Incirlik first circulated, I was extremely skeptical and discounted them, just as I discounted parallel rumours that Turkey was preparing to grant Russia use of Incirlik to conduct air operations in Syria. In the event the weeks passed and the US was neither expelled from Incirlik, nor was Russia allowed there, nor was there any evidence of Turkey restricting US air operations from there.
What was however just a rumour in the summer is now for the first time becoming a genuine public threat. Over the course of the last few days senior ministers of the Turkish government have called into question the US’s use of Incirlik to carry out air operations in Iraq and Syria.
The reason this is happening is because of the US refusal to provide air support to the Turkish troops fighting ISIS close to the strategically important Syrian town of Al-Bab. Lack of air support caused the Turkish army to suffer a stinging defeat at the hands of ISIS close to Al-Bab, resulting in a call from Turkey to its erstwhile NATO ally – the US – to provide air support to its troops fighting ISIS near Al-Bab. The US, caught between its loyalty to Turkey as a NATO ally and its support for the Kurds, immediately refused, provoking a furious reaction from Turkish President Erdogan, who accused the US of supporting ISIS. This has caused Turkey to turn to its new friend Russia, which is providing Turkey’s troops with limited air support near Al-Bab in place of the US, though it is doing so in a quiet and discrete way.
These events have no led to the Turks for the first time using seriously the leverage Incirlik gives them to put pressure on the US. A string of statements has come from senior Turkish ministers questioning why the US is being allowed to use Incirlik when it is refusing to provide air support to Turkey. Here is what Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu is reported to have said
Our people ask, ‘why are they using the Incirlik Airbase. We allowed not only the US but also other countries’ jets to use Incirlik to jointly fight [Islamic State]. What purpose are you serving if you do not provide aerial support against Daesh [Islamic State] 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.
(bold italics added)
Çavuşoğlu’s talk of a “confidence crisis” in relations between the US and Turkey will ring particular alarm bells in Washington.
Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Işık has been if anything even more outspoken, and has made the link between Turkish anger over US use of Incirlik and the US’s failure to provide air support to Turkish troops fighting ISIS near Al-Bab crystal clear
We hope that all coalition forces, primarily the U.S., give air and other support that Turkey needs in the Euphrates Shield operation and the necessary step will be taken soon. But it is thought-provoking that despite the fact we have been NATO allies for years, and that a coalition has been established to fight against ISIL, the coalition does not support the Euphrates Shield operation launched by the Free Syrian Army and supported by the Turkish Armed Forces. Al-Bab is a very critical location in the anti-ISIL fight
(bold italics added)
RT meanwhile is reporting that Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak has told broadcaster A Haber that the issue of the Incirlik is on “the [Turkish] government’s agenda”.
Reaction from the US has been predictably swift, with RT reporting US Air Force Col. John Dorrian, the US anti-ISIS coalition spokesman, telling reporters in Baghdad in response to the Turkish statements that any steps to limit or ban air operations at Incirlik would be “disastrous”.
The entire world has been made safer by the operations that have been conducted there. It’s a very important base to the coalition and to the ongoing fight against Daesh (ie. ISIS – AM).
It is important at this point to say that Turkey is not threatening to throw the US out of Incirlik or to make the base available to Russia, as was being wrongly reported in the summer. The only threat Turkey is presently making is to limit or ban US operations from Incirlik against ISIS. Moreover this threat is so far being made only implicitly, with Turkey merely “questioning” the “usefulness” of the US’s of the base, not actually threatening to stop it doing so.
It is also important to say that these Turkish statements have about them a frankly theatrical look. Frankly they look more like threats and complaints, rather than serious warnings of future action.
It remains most unlikely that Turkey would risk the massive rupture with the US which would certainly happen if it were to throw the US out of Incirlik, whilst it is difficult to believe that Turkey – which is regularly accused of helping ISIS – would risk the media storm if it were to place restrictions on US anti-ISIS operations from Incirlik.
What this episode however shows is how fraught relations between Turkey and the Obama administration have become. Even allowing for the fact that President Erdogan is a difficult partner, a situation where a key NATO ally like Turkey is now publicly threatening – however implicitly – to limit US operations from a NATO base, is practically unprecedented, and should never have been allowed to happen. It is further testament to US President Obama’s disastrous mishandling of US foreign policy.
In their comments the Turkish ministers have been careful to leave the door open to Donald Trump to repair the damage. No doubt he will act swiftly to do so. Until then the question mark over Incirlik forms a not insignificant item in the bulging in-tray of foreign policy problems Barack Obama is bequeathing him.