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Incirlik Air Base becomes focus of US-Turkey relations again

A US Air Force F-15 fighter jet takes off from Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey. (File photo: AP)
A US Air Force F-15 fighter jet takes off from Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey. (File photo: AP)

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ANKARA: Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base is once again at the center of debates over Ankara-Washington relations, following US President Joe Biden’s recognition on Saturday of the Ottoman Empire’s mass deportations and killings of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1917 as genocide. 

Biden’s decision to recognize the Armenian Genocide has angered decision-makers in Ankara who assert that there are no historical or legal grounds to classify the mass killings in this way. 

During times of tension between Ankara and Washington, Incirlik Air Base — commonly used by the US for operations in the Middle East, particularly attacks on Daesh — has always been a bargaining chip for Turkey against America. 

The base, around 100 miles from the Syrian border, has been used under the Defense and Cooperation Agreement between Turkey and the US since March 1980. The US reportedly stores dozens of B61 nuclear weapons at the air base for delivery by Turkish or American aircraft.

If Turkey were to close the base, it would likely trigger the de facto end of the Turkish-US alliance, and lead Washington to abandon Ankara as a regional partner. 

There has, so far, only been speculation that Turkey may lower the US flag at the air base in protest at recent US decisions. 

On Monday, demonstrators gathered outside the US Consulate in Istanbul to protest Biden’s recognition of the genocide and demand an end to America’s use of Incirlik Air Base by shouting: “American soldiers, get out of Turkey!” 

“Due to its geographic location and being in a stable and secure country, Incirlik is the (cheapest) and most effective air base the US Air Force has in the region,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Arab News. Therefore, he continued, it has become an “important card” for Turkey in diplomatic relations with the US, but one that can only be played once.

“Once that card is used, we can safely assume that the relationship between the US and Turkey relationship is damaged. Despite all of the mutual grievances accumulated over time, I don’t think we are close to that point,” he said. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to close Incirlik Air Base in December 2019, when the US Senate adopted a resolution that recognized the Armenian Genocide. At the time of writing, there has been no similar high-level response from senior government figures linking the future of Incirlik to Biden’s recent statement.

However, Turkish Defense Ministry officials were quoted by Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency on April 28 as saying: “Incirlik is one of our air force bases belonging to the Turkish Armed Forces. It is a Turkish base, and its ownership, along with all the facilities on it, belongs to the Turkish Republic.” 

The officials also said that the Turkish Republic “lets the United States government take part in joint defense measures at the Turkish Armed Forces facilities in Incirlik.”

“While the (defense ministry’s) statement may be seen as yet another signal to the US that relations with Turkey are (closely) linked to the fate of the US presence in Incirlik, it seems much more likely, under current circumstances, that it was made mainly for domestic consumption to prove to the nationalistic electorate — maybe also to some officers in the army with nationalistic or Euro-Asiatic credentials — that the government is reacting to Biden’s statement,” Karol Wasilewski, an analyst at the Warsaw-based Polish Institute of International Affairs, told Arab News. 

According to Wasilewski, Erdogan’s reaction has to be muted, as he cannot afford another fight with the US when the Turkish economy is so fragile. Wasilewski speculated that officials may have used the government’s control over the media to create an image that its response to Biden’s statement was more forceful than it actually was.

“It is also possible that the Ministry of Defense officials felt they needed to react to Dogu Perincek — believed to be influential among Euro-Asianist circles in particular — who said the Turkish Armed Forces should establish full control of Incirlik,” he added. 

Perincek is the leader of the ultra-secularist Vatan Party, and is believed to side, ideologically, with the government’s recent anti-Western discourse and policies. 

Meanwhile, at a virtual Foreign Press Center event on April 28, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Turkey not to buy further arms from Russia, saying that such a purchase could trigger more sanctions.

Blinken referred to ongoing talks between Moscow and Ankara regarding Turkey’s procurement of a second batch of Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems.

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