Western forces pile up on Turkey-Syria border

Western forces pile up on Turkey-Syria border

Letters of intention from France and Germany to use Turkey’s strategic İncirlik air base in their operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - or “Daesh” in the Arabic shorthand that governments prefer to use - reportedly reached Ankara this week.

The İncirlik base is only 150 km from where a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 jet on Nov. 24 after it crossed into Turkey’s air space on the border with Syria. It is also just 170 km from the Khmeimim air base in Syria near Latakia, where Russian air forces are stationed. It is 225 km from the Russian naval base at Tartus in Syria, which is Russia’s only military base in the entire Middle East and Mediterranean Sea. 

İncirlik was opened up for the use of U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition flights after Turkey fully joined the coalition in July 2015. In addition to Turkish F-16s and flying tankers, there are American F-15s, F-16s and A-10 bombers currently based there. According to unconfirmed reports, Germany is planning to deploy Tornado war planes to İncirlik, focusing especially on surveillance missions with a total of 1,200 troopers. The U.K. has not yet fully committed itself to anti-ISIL strikes, but it recently opened its air bases in Cyprus for use by France. Those bases are also within 180 km and 220 km of the bases already mentioned.

The determination of France and Germany seemingly increased after the ISIL terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov. 13, which killed 129 people. ISIL had already hit Turkey twice with suicide bombers after Turkey opened the İncirlik base for the U.S.-led flights: Once in Suruç when it killed 34 people on July 20, and once in Ankara when it killed 103 people on Oct. 10.

The timing of the French and German decisions also took place amid serious ongoing tension between Moscow and Ankara over the downed Russian plane. Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to meet Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan during the climate summit in Paris on Nov. 30, as he has demanded an apology first over the downed plane. In response, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has said that although Turkey is saddened by the loss of the Russian pilot, it will not apologize for defending its borders. This was “fully backed” by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a joint press conference with Davutoğlu.

There is another dimension to the story: Although there is no announced link, the increase in military cooperation within NATO countries against ISIL and the piling up of NATO forces near Turkey’s border with Syria take place in parallel with the recent deal between Ankara and the Brussels over Syrian refugees and the re-activation of Turkey’s EU accession bid. 

Under the circumstances, Russia is not likely to get an apology from Turkey over the downing of the jet. But as U.S. President Barack Obama pointed out after meeting with Erdoğan in Paris, Ankara and Moscow still must find a way to lower the tension – after all, it is only ISIL that is benefiting.