Delusion of relying on İncirlik as an asset for US-Turkish ties

Delusion of relying on İncirlik as an asset for US-Turkish ties

The spokesperson for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Ministry of Peshmerga, Helgurt Hikmet, said in a statement on Monday that the United States was ready to build a military base near the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Arbil. The base will be used for ongoing coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)  positions, according to Hikmet.

News about U.S. plans for a military base in northern Iraq has been out before, so the latest official statement does not come as a surprise. But does this mean we have reached the point where the U.S. is taking initial steps to replace the İncirlik base in southern Turkey with a new one in Iraqi Kurdistan?

As a result of Turkey’s unwillingness to let the U.S. use the İncirlik base against ISIL, the Wall Street Journal suggested last September that the U.S. needed to find a better regional ally, saying that perhaps it was “time to consider replacing İncirlik with a new U.S. air base in in northern Iraq.”

So is Washington thinking about replacing İncirlik? The experts I have spoken to say it is too early to jump to that conclusion. Firstly, it is not so easy to replace a military base the size of İncirlik with a new one. Secondly, northern Iraq is still doomed to remain unstable for at least a decade - a key factor that will count against such a huge financial and political investment. Thirdly, although Turkey and the U.S. may no longer be called strategic partners, and although their relations might be under tremendous strain at the moment, they are not yet at the point of no return, suggesting that at least minimum cooperation will remain on strategic issues.

For a Turkish administration that not only wants to be a regional player, but also a global actor - which even the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) elites need to accept requires being on working terms with the world’s superpower - the above analysis may come as a relief.

But here lies the danger: This fact should not lead the government (and the president) to fall into the trap of thinking that “the U.S. will always need us.” The delusional comfort of relying on the strategic position of Turkey and the İncirlik base in the long term should not blind Ankara to the negative short term fall out from the strain in ties with Washington.

Indeed, by investing in a logistical base in northern Iraq, Washington is giving the message that it does not lack alternatives, which is already a worrying signal between two allies. But the disagreement over İncirlik is not just about Ankara’s relations with Washington; it is also about Turkey’s position as a regional actor with the ability to affect developments in accordance with its national interests.

Washington wants to use İncirlik because the current alternative (U.S. planes taking off from other bases in the Gulf) does not prove as effective and timely in bombing ISIL targets.

Turkey’s objection stems from it fear of retaliation from ISIL. And retaliation is certainly undesired ahead of a tourism season in a country that welcomes more than 35 million tourists every year. At first sight, that might appear to be a reasonable objection. But unfortunately this shows how Turkey has become vulnerable against ISIL, and indeed that it is in a negotiating relationship with a terror organization: “I won’t target you, so don’t target me.” But a short term understanding with ISIL will not save Turkey from the long term threat it poses.

Turkey also wants to use İncirlik as leverage to force Washington to act more concretely to topple the al-Assad regime in Damascus, thus making its consent conditional. However, negotiations are currently not yielding any results. So not only will Turkey lose its ability to use İncirlik as leverage in the short term, it might also end up finding itself increasingly isolated on general developments about Syria.

So there are a lot of messages Ankara should take from recent statement coming out of northern Iraq.