Turkey’s Erdoğan uses airbase as bargaining chip against United States

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is again threatening to close the country’s strategically important Incirlik Airbase to the United States if Washington pushes ahead with sanctions against Ankara for its purchase of Russian S-400 air defence missiles.

“If it is necessary for us to take such a step, of course, we have the authority… We will close down Incirlik if necessary,” Erdoğan said last week.

His comments came shortly after U.S. senators voted to impose measures on Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). President Donald Trump has so far resisted signing off on the sanctions, saying it would harm relations with a strategic partner.

It would not be the first time Turkey has stopped the United States using Incirlik – the government of the day did the same thing in 1974 after the United States imposed an arms embargo over the 1974 Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus.

U.S. forces used Incirlik to impose a no-fly zone over northern Iraq in the 1990s, but Turkey's parliament voted against allowing Turkish territory to be used for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which briefly soured relations. Turkey also blocked U.S. forces from using Incirlik to bomb Islamic State Syria in September 2014.

With U.S.-Turkish relations already at a low-point, it is not clear whether Erdoğan will carry out his threat.

“President Erdoğan seems to continue to believe that President Trump will protect him from sanctions even after the confrontational meeting with five members of the Senate in the Oval Office,” said Eric Edelman, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, referring to a testy Nov. 13 meeting that led to a heated debate over the Turkish cross-border offensive in Syria.

“His bluster about Incirlik is undoubtedly meant to remind Trump of the potential costs of sanctioning Turkey,” he told Ahval. “So far his bet on Trump has paid off and has emboldened him to pursue even more purchases of S-400 missiles and test the system using U.S.-supplied aircraft, all of which is provocative to the Congress.”

“Erdoğan is counting on traditional U.S. bureaucratic instincts (‘Turkey is too big to fail’) kicking in along with Trump’s support,” he said.

Edelman anticipates that “U.S.-Turkish relations are headed for very choppy waters.”

“There is no more support for Turkey in the U.S. Congress, as the recent Armenian genocide vote makes clear, and Trump’s ability to shield Erdoğan from the consequences of his actions in Congress is not unlimited,” he said.

Shashank Joshi, the defence editor of The Economist, said that there was “a long history of U.S.-Turkey tensions over the issue of basing and Incirlik, as well as a long record of exaggerated Turkish threats on this subject”.

“It seems more likely to me that access to the base might be restricted than the U.S. presence removed entirely,” Joshi told Ahval. “This also depends on the severity of sanctions,” he said. “It seems to me there is still room for diplomacy at this point.”

While Joshi is sceptical that “things will deteriorate to the level of the 1970s” he nevertheless does not rule it out.

Turkey’s closure of the base could also compel the United States to remove its B61 nuclear bombs stored in the facility.

“If base access is severely curtailed then I think there is a high risk that the B61s would be removed, if of course they have not already been evacuated. We have no firm way of knowing this,” Joshi said.

“I think that any change to NATO nuclear sharing would worry the alliance and its members because it would draw attention to a scheme that may be divisive and unpopular in host nations like Germany.”

More generally, however, Joshi anticipates that “any change to Turkey’s status in the scheme doesn’t mean the whole thing would be in trouble; NATO as a whole still sees value in the arrangement, particularly as other areas of the alliance are going through a rockier patch.”

Süleyman Özeren, a Turkey expert at George Mason University, believes that Erdoğan’s statement about Incirlik was “an attempt to send a message to the U.S. administration just before the U.S. Senate passing the bill sanctioning Turkey.”

“But this bill is not the red line for Erdoğan,” Özeren told Ahval.

“There are two dimensions in the relationship between Turkey and the United States: U.S.-Turkey and Erdoğan-Washington,” he said.

“There are bilateral tensions between two countries, but there are also Erdoğan’s issues, including the Reza Zarrab and Halkbank cases which have become serious liabilities for Turkey,” Özeren said referring to the U.S. prosecution of the Turkish state-run bank for its part in a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran run by Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab.

“Erdoğan’s problem with the United States emanates from his personal issues and political Islamist ideology,” he said. “He will continue to use the Incirlik base as a bargaining chip as long as it serves into his interest.”

But Özeren does not believe Erdoğan has “the luxury to turn his back to the U.S. and burn the bridges”. That said, “if the U.S. Congress passes the bill sanctioning him and his family – which is the real red line for him – then things could go south.”

“However, given the steps the United States has been taking, the days of leveraging the Incirlik base could end for Erdoğan sooner than he might expect.”

Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, pointed out that Incirlik was both “politically important” and had even become “a key symbol of the U.S.-Turkish relationship”.

“Functionally, it is a transit hub for U.S. forces going to Iraq or Afghanistan, and a storage depot for nuclear weapons, and a hub for the defence of Turkey with multinational Patriot missile deployments,” Stein told Ahval. “The U.S. has requested access to the base, or sought to use assets at the base to strike Iraq for close to two decades. Ankara’s default answer was no. Which is fine.”

Turkish restrictions on use of the base can be overcome, he said, but “politically it will be viewed as another symbol of the dysfunctional and hostile bilateral relationship”.

Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said that, while Incirlik was important, “it is not indispensable for U.S. operations in the Middle East. The U.S. has a network of airbases in the region, including one at Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan, that can more than make up for the loss of Incirlik”.

Heras said that after the Turkish parliament “voted not to support the U.S. campaign against Iraq that was launched in 2003, American military planners have hedged their bets with Incirlik and U.S. operations in the Middle East do not need the Turkish airbase to succeed.”

“If anything, Incirlik is far more important for Turkey than it is for the U.S., because Incirlik gives Turkey prestige within NATO and its presence serves as a deterrent against foreign actors, especially Russia,” he said.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.