The frequent battles between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) constantly direct the world’s focus to the Turkish-Iraqi border area. Over 450 miles to the north and west, however, and six miles from Turkey’s fourth largest city, Adana, lies a prime U.S. asset in the ongoing military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—Incirlik Air Base. Incirlik has been and remains a near-constant “hostage,” used as a policy lever by Turkey because of its key strategic location, close to the battlefields in the Middle East.
Opened in 1955 as Adana Air Base, Incirlik was renamed in 1958 and has since played a role in the U.S. response to many of the region’s potential and actual crises, from the Cold War to the current military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. With a 10,000-foot main runway, a 9,000-foot alternate runway, a base staffed by thousands of U.S. and Turkish personnel, as well as the storage capacity to serve two theaters of conflict simultaneously, Incirlik is far and away the foremost airbase in NATO’s southern region.
Typical of the variety of missions for which Incirlik has proved itself capable, the base served as a conduit for supplies intended for Iraqi Kurds in 1991 after the first Gulf War, as the “home” for the initial U-2 flights over the then-Soviet Union, as a transit point for thousands of U.S. troops leaving Iraq in 2004 at the end of their tours and as the departure point for UN relief supplies to Pakistan after a 2005 earthquake.
The example of Incirlik Air Base makes the case that nothing of value comes to the recipient for free. Rather than a long-term lease—such as the one under which the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is occupied, or the former British Colony of Hong Kong—permission for the U.S. military’s use of Incirlik is renewed by Turkey periodically. A recent renewal in 2005 was achieved only after months of negotiations involving details such as whether the United States would operate under a “blanket” agreement or, alternatively, have to seek Turkish permission for each individual flight (al-Jazeera, April 26, 2005). This style of arrangement ensures Turkey that an asset valued highly by the United States is available to Ankara as a bargaining chip of sorts, whether for defeating the passage of a Congressional Resolution on the issue of the alleged Armenian genocide, generating support for Turkey’s conflict with the PKK or any other issue of importance. This modus operandi is, however, a double-edged sword. The provision of intelligence data on the PKK by the United States to Turkey from surveillance flights operating out of Incirlik would certainly terminate if Turkey should fail to renew the agreement.
Nevertheless, there has been recent political and popular pressure within Turkey to use the importance of Incirlik as a means of leverage in relations with the United States. As tensions in the relationship increased in October over the Armenian genocide bill and U.S. inaction over the PKK threat, Turkish officials stated that, while there was no official decision to impede operations, “there has been a move toward restrictions and slowing things down in procedures that we carry out on a regular basis.” These included a limitation in the number of authorizations granted for U.S. overflights of Turkish airspace, including those of U.S. military flights in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (Milliyet, October 22). At the same time, Gündüz Aktan, a retired ambassador and a leading MP of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), issued a call for Turkey to “shut down Incirlik Air Base” (Turkish Daily News, October 16). There was little opposition to such calls from Turkish trade unions whose members work at the base: “We accept being unemployed if the nation’s interests are at stake” (Turkish Daily News, October 16).
Mindful of the vagaries of international events and shifting alliances, the United States is reported to have already been searching for alternatives to Incirlik Air Base for some time. Candidates to the south in the Middle East include Qatar’s al-Udeid Air Base, which has served in the past as a headquarters for the U.S. Central Command’s air arm. Qatar has also housed U.S. logistical supplies. Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Iraq and Saudi Arabia also have airfields proven capable of supporting U.S. operations in the area. None, of course, has the track record of the reliably secular Muslim nation that is Turkey. Northward, within newly-friendly Bulgaria and Romania, other airfields and bases are candidates. The United States currently operates Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Tajikistan has a major civilian/military air base at Dushanbe and also hosts an Indian military air base at Farkhor/Ayni.
For a variety of reasons, not every option can be pursued. In 2005, U.S. officials denied reports that the Department of Defense was negotiating with Turkmenistan for the use of the Mary Air Base, described by a Russian Air Force general as “one of the best military air-fields in the post-Soviet space” (Interfax/AVN, August 31, 2005). Turkmenistan’s authoritarian government and dismal human-rights record creates political difficulties for Washington in negotiating the use of Turkmen military facilities. U.S. pressure on Uzbekistan to reform its human-rights record was a factor in Uzbekistan’s decision to evict the U.S. Air Force from the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in July 2005. Pressure from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (comprising Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) to keep U.S. bases out of Central Asia continues to make any agreement in the area considerably more tenuous than the existing one in Turkey (Ria Novosti, July 11, 2005).
Turkey continually walks a political tightrope in the context of being a Muslim nation repeatedly granting permission to a non-Muslim country to fly missions from Incirlik to attack other Muslim nations directly or indirectly. The importance of the base to U.S. strategy in the Middle East has been noted by Osama bin Laden, who suggested to a small group of Turkish would-be jihadis that they attack U.S. facilities at Incirlik. Put off by the installation’s tight security, the militants instead used car bombs against two Istanbul synagogues on November 15, 2003, killing 27 people and injuring hundreds (Independent, December 18, 2003).
In the near term, with approximately 70 percent of U.S. materiel flowing through or over Incirlik on its way to Iraq and Afghanistan (New York Times, October 12), the base will continue to have an extremely high value to Turkey as well as to the United States. In the longer term, U.S. policy will find it useful to have alternative locations should new difficulties arise in the U.S.-Turkish relationship.