The relationship between the United States and Turkey remains tense. After the Senate, by an overwhelming majority, declared Turkey’s behavior towards the Armenians to be genocide and also threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey, it seems to have deteriorated even further.
In response, President Erdogan has now threatened to close an essential airbase for the Americans in the region. “If necessary,” Turkey could shut down the US airbase Incirlik. In particular, if “measures such as sanctions” came into force against Turkey, an adequate answer would be given, Erdogan said candidly on Turkish television.
It is not the first time that there has been a dispute over Incirlik Air Force Base. For years, Turkey has repeatedly used the military base as a means of exerting pressure on its NATO partners and the US in particular.
Should Erdogan follow through on the threat, it could pose severe geostrategic problems for the United States – at least temporarily. The US, despite still operating around 800 military bases worldwide, consider Incirlik as one of its most important ones. However, a potential shutdown would also have implications for Turkey’s status as an ally.
To this day, the military airport on the outskirts of the southern Turkish city of Adana remains a central hub for the United States in the region. According to an agreement from 1954, the US and Turkey share the base, which is about 60 miles from the Syrian border. Besides 5000 military members, the base is also an atomic hub, as the US continues to store 50 nuclear weapons here.
The early years of its existence proved the value of the presence of the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, not only in countering the threat of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, by securing NATO’s southern flank but also having served as a deterrent for more than 60 years to possible Soviet and later Russian expansion. Moreover, Incirlik has been valuable during various crises in the Middle East, such as in Lebanon and Israel.
After September 11, 2001, the base once again became a focus of American operations as it was used as its primary hub for supplying US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. When Turkey joined the anti-IS coalition in 2014, Ankara offered Incirlik as a base for combat operations against the “Islamic State,” which had then brought large areas of Syria and Iraq under its control. Because of the geographical proximity to the areas in which the IS operates, Incirlik offers itself strategically favorably. As of late, the US had utilized Incirlik for a war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
However, the importance of Incirlik extends far beyond military interests. Incirlik has been symbolizing Turkey’s allegiance to the West and its partners. Closing it down for the US would not only severely strain Turkey’s relationship with the US but also likely put its NATO membership in question if not potentially in jeopardy.
Nonetheless, the continues threats from Ankara have led the Pentagon to look for a strategic shift. As a result, the US recently invested 150 million to enhance the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan. Other bases have also been enhanced in which could be an attempt to mitigate a future change from Incirlik to many other bases in the region. However, the threats are only one side of the coin, though they appear to reaffirm the transformation Turkey has been going through in recent years.
President Erdogan, Turkey’s increasingly autocratic leader, has turned away from both Europe and the United States and has instead attempted to establish a prosperous relationship with Russia’s President Putin. It becomes evident when looking at the fact that the two have met eight times this year already, but also due to Turkey’s decision not to purchase an air defense missile system from the US but Russia. Needless to say, that the latter is incompatible with NATO’s air defense system.
If Turkish were indeed to shut down the base, it would de facto have chosen a side with Russia and against its western allies, by tilting this highly important region in Russia’s favor.
Whether or not Erdogan is willing to take the risk of pledging his allegiance to Putin, remains to be seen as the gamble, without the US’ and international protection, could backfire eventually.