Despite the personal rapport often shared by their leaders, Turkey and the U.S. are currently at odds over a number of issues, but the U.S. interest in bases on Turkish soil endures, according to a foreign policy analyst.
The U.S. Congress is currently trying to pressure Turkey with sanctions over a number of recent choices it made, including purchasing a Russian S-400 missile defense system, launching its anti-terror Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria this October, rejecting congressional recognition of Armenian claims over the incidents of 1915, and blasting U.S. support for the YPG/PKK terror group in northern Syria.
In response to the U.S. moves, Turkey recently announced it “might” consider shutting down two key military bases located in southeastern Turkey that play an important role in NATO and the U.S. missions and operations in the Middle East.
Located in Turkey’s Adana province just 110 kilometers (68 miles) from the Syrian border, Incirlik Air Base has been a strategic element since its establishment in 1954 as it played major roles during the Cold War, 1990-1991 Gulf War, and U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve targeting Daesh/ISIS elements in Syria and Iraq.
Kurecik, a radar station located in the Malatya province, was used for three decades until the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union for NATO to counter ballistic missiles. What makes it vital for NATO — which Turkey has been a member of for nearly 70 years — is that the AN/TPY-2 radar (Army/Navy Transportable Surveillance) deployed in Kurecik can shield ballistic missiles fired from Russia and Iran as well as protect NATO members.
A political tension often blamed on internal U.S. political rivalries currently dominates ties, but this has ended up making Turkey question the American military presence in the country.
In 1974, after Turkey’s Peace Operation to save ethnic Turks on the island of Cyprus from ethnic violence, the U.S. slapped sanctions on Turkey. In retaliation, Ankara moved to cut off access to bases on its soil. Incirlik remained open for NATO responsibilities only, meaning that it could not be used by any other member of the alliance, including the U.S.
In 1978, the base went operational again after the U.S. Congress lifted its embargo on Turkey.
From a military perspective, Incirlik, due to its geographical location, offers two significant advantages for troops and jets stationed there: Time and fuel.
The air base allows fighter jets to use less for fuel to get to Iraq, Syria, and Iran, all countries bordering Turkey. This allow enables fighter jets to perform more maneuvers.
In addition, the location of the air base enables fighting elements to take action immediately and strike targets with pinpoint accuracy in short order, leaving enemies with little or no time to escape.
Thus closure of the base might damage Turkey-U.S. ties significantly and prompt even closer ties between Turkey and Russia, which sold its S-400 system to Ankara after the U.S. declined to sell its Patriot defense system.
“The friction in Turkish and American bilaterals paved the way for a period in which both sides confront one another with their trump cards,” Oytun Orhan, a political analyst and researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) in the Turkish capital Ankara, told Anadolu Agency.
Orhan said Turkey’s anti-terror campaign in northern Syria against the YPG, an offshoot of the PKK terror group, triggered resentment in the U.S. that transformed into sanction threats and deepening political tension.
Turkey long argued against U.S. ties with the YPG/PKK to fight Daesh, arguing that using one terrorist group to fight another made no sense. In its 30-year terrorist campaign against Turkey, the PKK took over 40,000 lives. The YPG is its Syrian branch.
-Closing base would hobble US operations
Orhan emphasized that Incirlik is one of the key elements of bilateral relations and so he does not expect the base to be closed in the short term due to deep-rooted political ties.
If Incirlik was closed, the “operational capability of the U.S. in the Middle East would be hobbled,” he said.
Despite the U.S. seeking alternative air bases, they do not have the upper hand here, he added.
“The military bases in Erbil [northern Iraq] were used in recent operations, but they are far from providing the opportunities offered by Incirlik Air Base,” he said, explaining that these bases are not close enough to the Mediterranean Sea and their logistic capabilities fall short.
Citing a Dec. 23 U.S. statement saying that Turkish companies were awarded $95 million to upgrade U.S. facilities in the country, he said Washington clearly has not lost interest in the air bases.
He pointed out that U.S. President Donald Trump warned Congress that sanctions would further undermine bilateral tiles, blaming the current political tension on internal political rivalries in the U.S. — an argument often highlighted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turning to Turkish-NATO relations, Orhan said Turkey has been critical of the recent NATO attitude on Turkish policies, saying that they fail to live up to “the spirit of alliance.”
He ruled out any claims of Turkey and the alliance parting ways.
“No member of NATO can remove another one, and I do not think that the member countries would give up deterrence provided by the defense pact,” he said, adding that NATO’s London meeting this month showed that the member countries will continue to work together despite crises of confidence.
He explained that serious differences of opinion divide heavyweights in NATO, and trans-Atlantic relations have faced tough times, with Berlin and Paris raising objections to the U.S., the alliance’s main financial provider.
It is necessary to gauge whether the recent political escalation between the U.S. and Turkey is a structural or periodic issue, he said, arguing that the U.S. partnership with the terrorist group PKK/YPG led to emotional reactions by both Washington and Ankara.
The U.S. is unlikely to abandon ties with Turkey, he added, as this would lead to further Russian influence in the Caucasus, Balkans, and the Middle East.
Orhan concluded the world political stage has seen a change in recent years following the end of the bipolar world order.
“The world is moving towards a multipolar order, with regional actors following more independent policies that occasionally cause political escalation with global powers. We should not expect a fully stable process like in the old days,” he said.