While Turkish-Western relations have been overshadowed by clouds of differences over the past few years, Greek media recently reported that the US eyes relocating its forces from Turkey’s Incirlik airbase to another base in one of the Greek islands. Washington Examiner news website, quoting Senator of Wisconsin who chairs Senate Foreign Affairs Subcommittee Ron Johnson, reported that the UN navy is building a base in Crete island in the Souda Bay south of the country.
How did rumors start?
In recent years, tensions between the US and Turkey increased considerably, especially when Washington started its support to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK, in the battle against the Turkish government for over 30 years, has been blacklisted by both Turkey and the US a terrorist organization.
Turkey opened Incirlik for the US-led Western coalition’s air operations in Syria in June 2015, with the leading party launching airstrikes in Syria from the Turkish base being the US.
But the YPG played as the US infantry on the Syrian battleground in the regions lost by the Syrian government to the ISIS terrorist organization, something seen by Turkey as a threat to its national security. This vision to the Kurds in northern Syria motivated Ankara to launch several campaigns in a bid to check the Kurdish militias’ power gain.
Before the Syria issue, the attempted coup of mid-July 2016, which Ankara blamed on the US-based Turkish preacher and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foe Fethullah Gulen, was the main cause of the US-Turkey fraying of ties. Turkey blacklisted Gulen’s secret organization as a terrorist entity and called for the Pennsylvania-based preacher extradition. The Turkish demand remains unaddressed by Washington, pushing Erdogan to suggest that the US is a backer of coup plotters.
Immediately after the power grab attempt was thwarted, Turkey closed down Incirlik, saying that some forces in the airbase were part of the plot.
The range of the dispute even widened as Turkey said it planned to buy S-400 air defenses from Russia, a move Washington seeing as against the spirit of the NATO alliance and arguing that through it Moscow can discover the Western technology secrets like those of the modern F-35 fighter jets. When the efforts to dissuade Turkey went nowhere, the US kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program. Turkey was part of the massive supply chain of the stealth fighter. Another response was blocking the scheduled delivery of the jets to Ankara. Additionally, Congress in late 2019 imposed sanctions on Turkey under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), triggering Erdogan’s response.
In December 2019, Erdogan threatened that if Washington realizes its economic sanctions on Turkey for Ankara purchase of the Russian air defense systems, he will close down two strategic US bases on the Turkish soil.
“If necessary, we’ll close Incirlik and also Kurecik,” Erdogan told broadcaster A Haber, referring to two military bases used by the United States. “If the threat of sanctions is implemented against us, we’ll respond to them in the framework of reciprocity.”
Incirlik involvement in the Ankara-Washington disputes is not limited to the recent years. In the 1970s, when the US government decided to impose an arms embargo on Turkey for the latter’s military action against Cyprus, their relations were hit by a crisis. Turkey in response closed down all of the bases hosting the American forces across the country and transferred their control, except for Incirlik and Izmir bases, to its military. The reason the two remained open was an agreement with NATO allies.
Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952. The military base is controlled by the Turkish military but according to a 1980 defense and economic cooperation agreement between Washington and Ankara, the US military has the right to use Incirlik for NATO operations.
The decision to build Incirlik airbase was made during the second Cairo conference in 1943. Still, the construction was delayed to 1951 due to the eruption of the Second World War.
The base played a significant role during the Cold War due to its proximity to the Soviet Union frontiers. Another significance was its accommodation of troops close to Lebanon and the Israeli regime. If the need arises, other NATO members are allowed to send troops to Incirlik within the NATO operations framework. The base is located in Adana, one of the largest Turkish cities that only 50 kilometers separate it from the Mediterranean Sea in the south. Incirlik is home to about 2,500 American troops along with hundreds of Turkish service members.
In the base, there is a squadron of A-10 Warthog aircraft. Also, about 33 percent of the aerial refueling flights and about 30 percent of the short-range air support operations are launched from the base. The US also holds about 60 B-61 nuclear bombs in this base.
Although the Turkish base played a big role in the US campaigns in Afghanistan and Syria, in the recent years, the Americans tried to reduce reliance on it and instead expanded the capacity of their base in Jordan and also built bases in northern Syria where allied Kurdish forces hold control. One reason for the US seeking replacement is the Iraq war. Turkish parliament rejected a US call to be allowed to store ammunition and weapons in 2003 ahead of the invasion of Iraq.
Incirlik nuclear bombs
One of the issues that bring Incirlik to the US and European concerns about the expansion of the tensions with Turkey is the existence of nukes at the Turkish base. Reports say that the US is considering the relocation of them to Greece as the tensions are growing with Ankara.
Amid geopolitical tensions between Ankara and the US regional allies like Greece, the Israeli regime, and Egypt in the Mediterranean and also the increasing enmity between the Turkish-led Muslim Brotherhood camp and the Saudi-Emirati alliance, Erdogan seeks to close the nuclear gaps with these countries, especially that the UAE and Saudi Arabia recently have accelerated their mysterious nuclear programs.
Although Turkey signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1980 and also joined an adjunct one in 1996, in October last year Erdogan openly expressed disappointment with Turkey not having nukes.
“Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But (they tell us) we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept, There is no developed nation in the world that doesn’t have them. We have Israel nearby, as almost neighbors. They scare (other nations) by possessing these. No one can touch them,” the Reuters news agency quoted him as telling his ruling AK Party members in the eastern city of Sivas.
Heading to confrontation
As over the past years gaps inside the most important Western military alliance have been growing, tensions between Turkey and the European countries are the main reason.
Only a couple of days have passed since Turkey amassed heavy weapons on the border with Greece, another NATO member. The move forced Athens to shore up its combat readiness and ask European countries for help. Meanwhile, a statement published by France, which said that in case of a war between Turkey and Greece, Paris will stand by Athens, inflamed the al-ready unstable situation. Paris recently protested to Turkey for what it said threats Turkish warships posed to its naval vessels in the Mediterranean.
As the tensions gain heat, many experts say that Ankara could any time block Bosporus and thus close the way of the passing warships. Analysts suggest that Turkey in fact will have to close the link between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, especially if the NATO allies want to compound the situation for Turkey. In March, Turkey warned it will close down Bosporus if the smallest threats are posed to its interests.
Meanwhile, the threat to evacuate Incirlik can be part of the US measures in support of Greece in its tensions with Turkey, especially that Washington has already sent out symbolic warnings to Ankara through joint military drills with Greece and also when it recently lifted a three-decade arms embargo on Cyprus.