Will Turkey close the İncirlik base to the US?
Turkey-U.S. relations are under scrutiny today as they have never been before. There is little to suggest that the “strategic partnership” that the sides continue to underline actually exists anymore.
U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster held talks on Feb. 11 in Istanbul with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s foreign policy advisor and spokesman İbrahim Kalın. Ankara and Washington indicated later that they discussed “the long-term strategic partnership” between the two countries.
McMaster’s visit will be followed by a visit to Ankara by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week, which U.S. officials have told reporters will involve “tough talks.”
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ also set the tone, when he said in so many words over the weekend that Tillerson should not bother to give advice while in Turkey, but rather explain how the U.S. plans to end its cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey says is a Kurdish terrorist group.
Meanwhile the general mood against the U.S. remains angry in Turkey, as is clearly visible in any perusal of the Turkish media where one question in particular keeps coming up.
One of the arguments put forward relates to the strategic İncirlik airbase near Adana in southern Turkey. “If the Americans are our enemies,” many effectively say, “as they have proved themselves to be by supporting the YPG, why do we not end their use of İncirlik.”
This argument is compounded by claims that the U.S. military is using the airbase, where American forces have been deployed since the Cold War, to assist YPG elements that the Turkish army is fighting in Syria.
Taken at face value, it seems a valid enough argument. But clearly there is much more to it behind the scenes than meets the eye, which is probably why the government is uneasy when the question of İncirlik arises.
It is obvious that doing what many in the Turkish media are clamoring for would actually break the final link in Ankara’s alliance with Washington, which has stood for over half a century so far. So whenever the issue comes up it elicits ambiguous responses from the government.
This was the case again in the recent interview by Deputy Prime Minister Fikri Işık, a former defense minister, to private broadcaster CNN Türk. Asked if whether Turkey would reassess the status of İncirlik if the U.S. continues to provide arms to the YPG and hampers the advance of the Turkish military against this group, Işık could not come up with a definite answer.
“These are topics that have to be discussed in depth,” he said. “On the one side we are highlighting the mistake that the U.S. is making and expending every effort to make it correct this. While we are doing this we are also developing a policy that will guarantee Turkey’s medium and long-term interests. If Turkey’s medium and long term interests require that we take a step, Turkey will definitely not hold back.”
Isik’s response was also circumspect when asked whether closing İncirlik to the Americans is an option on the table. “Some things cannot be mentioned. Decision-making mechanisms always keep every topic within the scope of their evaluations,” he said.
Put another way, Işık is not saying yes or no. He could be saying either but what he is not saying - and this is the crucial thing – is: “Yes we will close İncirlik to the Americans if they don’t do what we want.”
Well, it is clear that the Americans are not doing what Ankara wants. It is also evident from President Erdoğan’s angry remarks that he considers the U.S. to be more of an enemy than a friend. So the question is: Why is Ankara not using its main trump card, closing İncirlik, at a time when it says Turkey is engaged in an existential fight in which it is also confronting the U.S.?
To paraphrase a Turkish saying, it is always easy for a bachelor to talk about divorce. The question that many are asking about İncirlik may be valid at first glance, but the big picture says other things about the matter.
Işık’s remarks about “developing a policy that will guarantee Turkey’s medium and long-term interests” can also be interpreted as meaning that keeping İncirlik open to the U.S. military is a requirement of Ankara’s medium and long-term strategy.
If Ankara decides to go down the path of closing İncirlik to the U.S., the supposedly “strategic ties” with the U.S. – which both sides still say exist - will have long crossed the Rubicon.
What is clear, as Işık indicates, is that İncirlik remains one of the topics that Ankara does not want to discuss openly. The government seems worried that such a discussion could spiral out of control and force Turkey’s hands in a way that will not be in keeping with the country’s “medium and long-term interests.”