Importance of NATO’s Incirlik Airbase for Turkish-American relations

By Mehmet Bildik

Turkey and United States have been close security partners for more than half a century. Their partnership was forged in the early days of Cold War and shaped by the Soviet threat. Stalin’s territorial demands after World War II, including demands for a base on the Straits and border adjustments at Turkey’s expense, were the driving force behind the establishment of the US’s security partnership with Turkey. The World is divided into zones: the “heartland geopolitical area”,comprising much of Central Asia, and the “rimland geopolitical area” , which extends from Western Europe through the Arabian peninsula to the Asia coast. In the rimland, the most important waterways are located in the Middle East. According to World Island theory of Mackinder “who controls the rimland rules Eurasia, who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of world.” To that end, the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine on March 12, 1947 led to the expansion of U.S.. defense ties to Turkey and laid the ground work for Turkey’s eventual incorporation in NATO. Turkey’s strategic importance to the United States provided a bridge to the Arab world and served as a stabilizing force in the Middle East; hence, the continued access to Incirlik Airbase remains important factor for preserving U.S.. national interest in the Greater Middle East.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction of  the Incirlik Airbase in the spring of 1951. The U.S. Air Force initially planned to use the base as an emergency staging ground and recovery site for medium and heavy bombers including more than 20 nukes. The Turkish General staff and the U.S. Air Force signed a joint-use agreement for the new airbase in 1954. On 21 February 1955, the airbase was officially named Adana Air Base, with 7216th Air Base Squadron as the host unit. This base was renamed “Incirlik Air base” on 28 February 1958. Establishing Incirlik Airbase created an “advanced defense front” against the threat of potential Soviet incursion through the southern wing of Turkey. Another important reason for the creation of the southern wing was preservation of oil resources in Middle East and paving the way for the Alliance of Periphery to expand its sphere of influence by which the Turkish membership to NATO has pushed the alliance front further east and right after Israel gained independence from Britain, the Alliance of Periphery was formulated by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. The alliance called Israel — as secular democratic state in the Middle East — to develop a close strategic alliance with Turkey and the United States in order to counteract against pro-Soviet Arab regime. From the military and strategic point of view, military operations from NATO’s Incirlik Airbase are representing Pax-Americana or American super power to protect democracy, stability and oil resources in the Middle East.

In the case of the Suez Crisis in 1956, a massive retaliation strategy provided the upper hand to United States and other European NATO allies in terms of “rimland geopolitics”, thus preventing the Soviet Union from securing a foothold in Egypt. The Suez Crisis enhanced Israel’s military capability while guaranteeing the United States’ position as the major Western power broker in the Middle East. All of this has also increased the importance of NATO’s Incirlik Airbase in Adana, Turkey. With the start of Lebanon Crisis in 1958, the U.S. Tactical Air Command Composite Strike Force, and the U.S. Air Force in Europe and supporting personnel were deployed to NATO’s Incirlik Airbase. The base was used by U.S.. Forces during the intervention into Lebanon later that summer. During the Cold War, the feeling that Turkey derived important benefits from its security relationship with the United States was widespread among the Turkish elite and general population alike.

NATO Incirlik Airbase was keeping the nuclear weapons as a political signal for alliance unity. Having nukes in Incirlik is a pride for Turkey and Ankara considers them as one of the “main benefits of being NATO.” The United States has long had nuclear weapons in Turkey, most notably Jupiter missiles that President John F. Kennedy secretly withdrew from Incirlik Air Base following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when Soviet Union and America climbed down from the brink of a nuclear confrontation. This was the first time concerns have been raised about providing nuclear umbrella to NATO nations. This perception began to change after the  Cyprus crisis in 1963 -1964. The famous “ Johnson Letter” in which president Lyndon Johnson warned that the United States might not come to Turkey’s defense if Turkish intervention in Cyprus provoked a Soviet response –came as a shock to Turkey. In this view, Turkish state-centric domestic policy in addition to the NATO’s flexible response strategy and 1973 Arab-Israeli War have further determined Turkish Middle East strategy which subsequently led to Turkey’s intervention as a guarantor on 20 July 1974 in conformity with its treaty rights and obligations. Israel has underpinned Turkey because of its interests laying with Turks for various historical, ideological and political reasons on basis of the peripheral alliance given the fact that insufficient support of United States to Israel during Yom Kippur War.

1990-1991 Gulf War had a profound impact on Turkish security perceptions such that many American officials tend to regard the war as a kind of “golden age” of U.S.-Turkish cooperation. By the end of the air phase of Operation Desert storm, Incirlik Airbase would have launched nearly 5000 sorties, pumped 30 million gallons of fuel and seen USAFE-F15 shoot down four Iraqi aircraft at a prize of zero coalition combat losses. Incirlik again proved its value to security in the Middle East. The war as an opportunity to demonstrate Turkey’s continued strategic importance and cement closer defense ties to the United States. In addition the war marked a major escalation of Turkey’s Kurdish problem. The establishment of de-facto Kurdish entity in northern Iraq gave new impetus to Kurdish nationalism and provided a logistical base for attacks on Turkish territory by the terrorist group PKK.

At this point, Turkey looked for partners in the Middle East that could help to meet the growing security challenges from Iran, Iraq and Syria. Israel was the perfect choice, as it shared Turkey’s threat assessment and Israel was a strong pro-western democratic country with considerable relations with U.S. Moreover, Jerusalem could provide military technology that the West was reluctant to sell to Turkey, an important NATO ally, that would enable it to more effectively fight against PKK terrorism. Turkish-Israeli cooperation against terrorism has created maneuvering room in favor of the U.S. in the Middle East. NATO’s Adana Incirlik Air Base was used for “The Operation Northern Watch” in January 1997 with the task to enforce the United Nations-sanctioned “no-fly zone” north of the 36th parallel in Iraq. On the other hand, close ties with the State of Israel have benefited Turkey in terms of fighting against PKK – the leader of the terrorist organization Ocalan’s 1998 expulsion from Syria and Damascus. During this time, a protocol was signed with Ankara in the southern Turkish city of Adana promising to cease Syria’s support to PKK. In the protocol, Pax-Adana was representing a regional balance.

In light of historical facts, NATO Incirlik Airbase still preserves its valuable importance in the 21st century. When ISIL (Daesh) came out in Middle East in 2014, the United States launched Operation Inherent Resolve. As of 2015, the Turkish government agreed to open the Incirlik Airbase for U.S.-led coalition’s warplanes to hit locations of ISIS. The United States has deployed a dozen new warplanes to NATO’s Incirlik Airfield as part of its ongoing fight against ISIS. A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack planes have arrived in Incirlik in 2015 to replace F-16 jets as part of a regular rotation. The deployment of the A-10 Thunderbolt planes to Incirlik Airbase to fight against Daesh underscores the vital role of the aircraft. The U.S. and NATO have given full support to NATO member Turkey not only in words, but also in practice by reinforcing their military presence close to Syria and in Turkey’s strategic Incirlik Air Base in Adana

Russian expansion in the Middle East and Kurdish problem are still the main source of problem for Turkey and United States. Given the fact that United States passed through formidable election process dealing with domestic issues, the influence of Operation Inherent Resolve decreased. It follows that Turkey filled the vacuum by starting Operation Euphrates Shield, an ongoing cross-border operation by the Turkish Military in the Syrian Civil War. Turkish ground forces have been fighting against ISIL since 24 August 2016. These operations created balance in the region until President elect-Donald Trump assumes office. Turkey which has ground forces in northern Syria and shares the burden of huge refugee crisis, Turkey shall insist on “no fly zones” for areas of liberated from the terrorist groups by the Turkish Army. This area would be safe haven for Turkish operations against Kurdish separatists and Turkey would block Kurdish-populated areas from access to the Mediterranean. The United States is a great and important ally of Turkey and it should be noted that first grand achievement of Trump administration will be liberation of Mosul. Second accomplishment could be establishing control over northern Syria and that would definitely increase the importance of NATO’s Incirlik Airbase in 2017.

Mehmet Bildik is a political scientist and Research Fellow on Military and Strategic Affairs. He is research assistant at the military and strategic affairs cyber security program of the The Institute for National Security Studies under the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He received his MA degree at Bucharest National School of Political Science and Public Administrative Studies, Security and Diplomacy Scholarship holder under the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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