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Why are US military bases in Turkey so crucial for Washington?

  • 16 Dec 2019

Turkey’s Incirlik air base alone has been a crucial military location for Washington’s overseas missions since the 1950s, holding at least 50 nuclear bombs.

In this Dec. 15, 2015, file photo, A US Air Force F-15 fighter jet takes off from Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey. ( AP Archive )

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently signalled that Ankara may close down its Incirlik air base and Kurecik radar station, which host US forces and military equipment including nuclear warheads. 

In the Incirlik air base, the US has a sizable Air Force personnel estimated to be about 5,000 military men. 

For decades, the base has been directly used by Washington for its military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has served as a crucial location for US overseas missions in the Middle East and Central Asia, acting as a transit stop for the American troops that are deployed back and forth between different destinations. 

The air base’s long history has shown its importance to the US from the years of the Cold War to the Middle East’s current turbulent period. 

Ankara began considering closing the military bases in retaliation for Washington’s possible sanctions and the Congress’s passing of a resolution favouring the Armenian allegations on the 1915 events, accusing Turkey of an alleged “genocide”, a charge Ankara denies. 

"When necessary, we will discuss with all our delegations, and if necessary, we may close Incirlik [which is located in Turkey’s southern province of Adana] and Kurecik [which is located in the southeastern province of Malatya]," Erdogan said during a TV interview.

The US also allied with the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and NATO.

Turkey is the second biggest army in NATO. Since the 1950s, its bases have helped the alliance in protecting its southern wing against perceived threats emerging from the former Soviet Union and its successor state Russia. 

But Washington’s recent moves endanger the relations between the two NATO allies a great deal as the US domestic political turbulence puts both countries’ regional interests at stake. 

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter addresses the American troops as he stands in front of a drone at the Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey on Dec. 15, 2015.(AP Archive)

Why is Incirlik air base a crucial station for the alliance? 

Since 1956, the US has operated strategic reconnaissance missions from Incirlik air base to the areas close to the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and Central Asia, mainly to follow the moves of the former Soviet Union and later Russia and its allies. 

In 2004, the base was reportedly one of the centres of Washington’s largest military movement concerning Iraq in the US history, providing its troops what they need during their stops there after their comeback from deployments. 

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the base had also been a principal focal point for Washington’s Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. 

Since 2014, the base was used to conduct for operations against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. 

Beyond regular military missions, the Incirlik base hosts at least 50 B61 nuclear bombs in its hangars, demonstrating its strategic significance for Washington and NATO. 

The base has been one of the unique locations, holding US nuclear weapons alongside with Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, since the Cold War. 

Why is Turkey considering shutting down the bases? 

The US alliance with the YPG in Syria in the fight against Daesh has increased suspicions about Washington’s intentions in the country, leading Ankara’s policymakers to reassess its use by the American military. 

The US has sent tons of modern military equipment to the YPG, arming the group to the teeth, escalating tensions with Ankara. As Turkey conducted its anti-terror operation against the YPG/PKK, many US lawmakers expressed their opposition to Ankara’s military actions, disregarding its grave concerns in northern Syria. 

Last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a package of sanctions against Ankara on the grounds that Turkey waged a Syria operation and bought Russian S-400s despite Erdogan developing a common understanding with Trump on both issues in a November meeting at the White House. 

After that, an angered Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu warned his American counterparts that sanctions over Turkey would only produce “negative” results, triggering retaliation, which could include closing down US bases in the country. 

Turkey had previously limited the US use of the Incirlik base in retaliation after Washington placed an arms embargo and froze aid to Ankara to punish Turkey for its military intervention in Cyprus to protect Cypriot Turks after a Greek-inspired coup in the island in 1974. 

Despite the extensive US sanctions, Turkey did not bow to pressure and continues to maintain a military presence in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to protect Turkish Cypriots since 1974. 

After the US lifted the embargo and restored aid to Turkey in 1978, Ankara responded to the goodwill by fully facilitating the use of the Incirlik air base for the Americans.

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