The U.S. military has sharply reduced combat operations at Turkey’s İncirlik air base and is considering permanent cutbacks there, reports the Wall Street Journal. The U.S. officials told the WSJ that this shift was driven by tensions between Washington and Ankara.
The U.S. has used the base to conduct airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq since 2015, but the deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Turkey have made it challenging for the U.S. to operate at Incirlik.
Turkish government sees İncirlik as an important leverage against the U.S.
For example, in May 2017, Can Acun, a political analyst at the pro-AKP think tank SETA foundation said, “İncirlik is the main air base for the U.S.-led coalition. A sanction in this regard would place the U.S. into a tough spot”, the paper reports.
In January, the US moved A-10 ground jets from İncirlik base, leaving only refueling aircraft. The number of military members living at the base have also been reduced. At the time, the Pentagon explained the move on the basis of its decision to step up operations in Afghanistan.
According to U.S. officials, the U.S. remains committed to Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, and that there are no immediate plans for a further reduction of forces and aircraft. Yet, the officials also say that there are internal deliberations about the continued use of İncirlik, which they see “necessary to mitigate any impact from the potential loss of their ability to conduct operations from the base”.
The U.S.- Turkey relations are at a downturn for sometime due to conflicting interests and alliances in Syria.
The relations between two countries have further strained recently, after Turkey started a military operation on January 20, in Afrin, a city in north Syria. Turkey has repeatedly voiced its plans to extend the operations to Manbij, a city under the control of U.S. backed Kurdish forces.
On Friday, March 9, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that Turkey and the U.S. have agreed on the stabilization of Manbij and other Syrian cities east of the Euphrates as a result of 2 day meetings held this week to normalize relations in Washington, DC.
The U.S. did not confirm Turkish Foreign Minister's remarks.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that "The Trump administration has told Turkey it will move to rein in Kurdish fighters that have been the backbone of the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State in Syria”.
But the same Washington Post article also stated that the U.S. is not ready to end its 3.5 years yet, as one U.S. official adds, “It’s tricky for us, because we’ve spent a lot of years with those guys,” the U.S. official said of the Kurds. “Especially in terms of our [American] fighters, we’ve built profoundly deep personal relationships, and nobody wants to see those erode.”
A state department spokesperson did not mention Manbij when referring to those meetings, an email readout to Ahval, said that “We had intensive productive talks during the first meeting of the agreed-upon mechanism for this purpose.”
Meanwhile, Turkish sources talking to the WSJ believe that rather than the current situation of the U.S.-Turkey relations, the U.S. Military’s decision is a result of a shift in American priorities from Syria to Afghanistan.