Ankara (GPA) – Following statements by a US lawmaker, rumors that the status of Incirlik Airbase could be changing in the near future are spreading.
Incirlik Airbase, one of NATO’s most crucial sites for launching flights across the Middle East and an institution of the US Cold War strategy since 1955 has long been an important piece of maintaining ties between Turkey and their western allies. However, now this long-time operation is coming into question following comments made by US Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) claiming that Washington was considering removing US forces and assets from the base.
Johnson, who is currently the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee for Europe, made the comments earlier this month in an interview with the Washington Examiner to discuss what he described as the “disturbing” changes Turkey has undergone in the past few years.
According to Johnson, Washington’s hope is still “to maintain our full presence and cooperation in Turkey,” but that the US was looking at the issue of Incirlik Airbase “from a defensive posture” but still has “to look at the reality of the situation that the path that Erdogan is on is not good.” Although Johnson did not go as far as to say there were any concrete plans to close Incirlik Airbase, Washington still “doesn’t know” for sure and that the strategy for the moment is just “hope for the best, but we have to plan for the worst.”
Should the “worst” come to pass, Johnson says the US is already considering moving the forces in Turkey to Greece as Greco-US relations have grown in the last few weeks. Erdogan projecting soft power across the Middle East and North Africa has, so far, has not really been a problem with Turkey’s western allies but the recent disputes over gas rights in the Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece has pitted Ankara directly against an EU member state.
In response to actions by Turkey, including the launching of the ship Yavuz to carry out the disputed gas exploration off of Cyprus and Greece and running naval drills in the eastern Mediterranean. This in turn led to Greece, Russia, France, Egypt, Syria, and the US all launching naval drills of their own around the same time. Also during this period the US further upset the Turks by lifting parts of an arms embargo on the nation of Cyprus in place since 1987 and agreeing to train Cypriot security forces.
Cyprus is an important issue in Turkey due to the large population of Turks on the island that have migrated there since Ottoman times. When Greece attempted to integrate Cyprus into their country, this led to a Turkish invasion of the island in order to protect Turkish Cypriots according to Ankara. This war ended in the division of Cyprus into a republican half of Greek Cypriots and a Turkish-administered half also called a republic and recognized by Turkey. Since this division, the people of the Republic of Cyprus currently no longer have the goal of integrating into Greece but at the bare minimum would like the island reunited and the Turkish occupation ended.
It is this history that makes the US decision to improve ties with Cyprus and Greece insulting and worrying to Turkey and could imply a change in the US-Turkish relationship. This came up during a visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Cyprus on September 12th during a week-long drill between the US Navy and Cypriot forces where Pompeo clearly stated that the US was in the process of “beefing up” their presence at the US base in Greece at Souda Bay.
These statements by Pompeo and Johnson, while offering no specifics, still managed to cause the current uproar and yet another wave of confusion in D.C. as the White House and Pentagon worked to get their story straight. As usual, the result of this strategy session resulted in officials walking back the idea of closing Incirlik Airbase for the same reason they always have to reign in rash statements by Trump’s party; this proposition is infinitely more complicated than most people understand.
Walking into Incirlik Airbase is Easier than Walking Out
As stated above, the introduction of US troops to Incirlik Airbase began in the 1950s as a part of the Cold War containment strategy and seen as a key strategic asset due to Turkey’s location bordering the former Soviet Union and historical role as the meeting point of east and west. Despite acting as this geographic bridge, following World War 1 and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the new republican government of Turkey began to show a preference for the west as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk secularized and modernized the nation of Turkey.
Following World War Two when the divide between east and west became strikingly clear, Turkey soon ended up under the close guidance of NATO members and US military and intelligence officials who helped craft a military dictatorship posing as a republic. It was during this period that Incirlik Airbase became active and soon would go down as a part of a major event in Cold War history.
This event happened as the nuclear arms race began to speed up going into the 1960s. In 1961, Washington, in order to maintain first-strike capabilities against the Soviets in the event of a nuclear standoff moved Jupiter tactical nuclear weapons to Incirlik Airbase. The Soviets obviously objected to this move as soon as they knew about it but Moscow finally felt they had to make some show of retribution following the failed Bay of Pigs assault by the US to invade Cuba.
This infamous operation’s aim is well known to have been to remove the new revolutionary government of Fidel Castro who had allied with the Soviets only after being blockaded by the US for overthrowing the previous government. Even though the bay of pigs was an embarrassment for the US and even caused Kennedy to begin questioning the power of the US military bureaucracy, it was also an insult to the Soviets to have their ally illegally invaded in front of the whole world. This ended up causing the Soviets to decide to move nuclear weapons into Cuba causing the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The crisis ended when US President John F. Kennedy made a deal with Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev that if the Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba, the US would remove their missiles in parts of Europe and Turkey. In reality, the removal of the weapons from Turkey was never completed which the Soviets only learned after removing their missiles from Cuba.
Since 1961, US nuclear weapons have remained at Incirlik airbase and give the facility the legitimacy it needs for the Turks to argue against its closure. While some of the nuclear weapons stored and Incirlik were removed following the end of the Cold War, almost half remained. There were further rumors during the Syrian conflict that the US had begun removing nuclear weapons from Incirlik due to Turkey’s fairly open collusion with groups like the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda, however, this does not seem to be the case.
Currently, Incirlik is still home to a stockpile of US ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons, likely including up to 50 B61 nuclear bombs. The B61 is an air-dropped ‘tactical’ nuclear bomb worth around $10 million per unit with a payload powerful enough to be capable of destroying targets deep underground.
The storage of these weapons, along with the advantageous location of Incirlik Airbase that has allowed it to act as a launching pad for US bombing campaigns in Syria, Iraq, and other nations in the region over the decades all mean that if the US is going to ditch Incirlik, it will be seen as direct confrontation with Turkey by way of downgrading their status as an ally.
How the US plans to evacuate troops, planes, and nuclear warheads without immediately setting off any alarm bells in Ankara is simply an impossible task. This is likely why, as the Pentagon clarified after seeing the chaos caused by Senator Johnson’s off the cuff remarks, the US genuinely probably doesn’t have plans to abandon Incirlik Airbase just yet but with Cyprus looking to rebuild an army and Greece on the search for new arms deals and defense treaties the tension in the region is also unlikely to decrease.
As of now, the threats of new sanctions and punishment for Turkey have also been temporarily held at bay by Ankara agreeing to talks about drilling rights with Athens, although the Cypriots tend to believe that without the threat of sanctions Turkey is unlikely to give any ground in negotiations. So far, it seems the Cypriots most likely have the correct read of this situation as Erdogan had already planned to extend gas exploration off Cyprus by another month just days before agreeing to talks with Greece.
Erdogan has also already deployed one of his favorite tactics: framing Turkey as the victim. This attitude came through loud and clear earlier this week when Erdogan used part of his time this year’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to complain of the unfair way Turkey is treated by the international community. Combine that language with his further condemnation of “international organizations” who Erdogan feels failed to properly respond to the current pandemic and Erdogan’s message is clear: Turkey is doing its best and could do even better without all the meddling.
Erdogan and his supporters cling to this attitude every single time they find themselves in a shit scenario of their own making. That never matters and the only thing important for Erdogan is to stick to your hard lines. There’s no reason to expect any different result from these talks with Greece and Turkey will surely further alienate themselves, but as for the current state of Incirlik Airbase, the rumors seem to be untrue and Erdogan will continue holding onto nuclear weapons.
James Carey is an organizer based in Detroit, Michigan, founder of Geopolitics Alert, and an experienced analyst on Middle Eastern affairs with a particular focus on Turkey. He also covers topics ranging from Latin America and Asia to Europe. You can also hear James in his weekly podcast; The Left is Dead which he co-hosts with investigative journalist Jake Anderson.