The US military has significantly reduced its operations at Turkey’s İncirlik air base. Permanent cutbacks are under consideration as tensions between the two NATO allies continue to flare. Now that the warplanes are gone, only the refueling aircraft are left. There have been reports that the A-10 Warthogs have left for Afghanistan. The number of personnel and their family members has been decreased. US officials complain Turkey is obstructing its air operations. It should be noted that the voices calling for the eviction of the US military from Incirlik have been heard in that country before.
Ankara sees the base as leverage it can use against Washington. With no operations based there, the US military would be in a tough spot. Perhaps it already is.
The WSJ article about the US leaving Incirlik appeared right after the bilateral working groups met in Washington on March 8-9 to try to improve their declining relationship. Not much has been reported about the results of those talks, but if it were a success story, we would know by now. Washington was definitely at sea when Turkish forces launched an operation to take control of Afrin. It looks like it still is.
Meanwhile, the disagreement about the policy on Syria appears to be intractable. Turkey still insists it should establish control over the Syrian town of Manbij, which has a large Kurdish population, making Washington choose between Ankara and the Kurds. The town is patrolled by the US military and if Turkish forces move in, that will result in a very real clash. In its remarks about the meetings between the working groups, the State Department made no mention of Manbij. They would be delighted to report on any progress that had been achieved, but no, they avoided the issue. Evidently that relationship is really teetering on the edge.
Syria is not the only irritant in that partnership. On March 12, Vladimir Kozhin, Putin’s presidential aide for military cooperation, announced on television that Russia would start delivering S-400 Triumf air-defense systems to Turkey in early 2020. NATO has expressed concern over the deal because the S-400 is not compatible with NATO architecture. US officials have recently warned Ankara about possible consequences, including sanctions, if the purchase goes through.
The rift between Turkey and NATO is truly deep. At least 19 members of the alliance worked to block Ankara from hosting the 2018 NATO Summit. They were successful. Last October, it was announced that the summit would take place in Brussels on July 11-12. Last year, the German military left Incirlik as those bilateral relations edged closer to the brink of conflict. The newly-formed German ruling coalition intends to freeze negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the EU under the pretext of human-rights abuses. In 2017, President Erdogan said the governments of Germany and the Netherlands were “Nazi remnants and fascists” because they refused to allow pro-Erdogan rallies on their soil before the parliamentary elections in Turkey. Turkey even suspects NATO of harboring plans to attack it.
Some Turkish analysts believe that the alliance has left Ankara on its own in its fight against terrorism. On March 11, the Turkish leader slammed the allies’ refusal to back his offensive in Afrin. Ankara is predictable. It pursues its own agenda, putting it at odds with its obligations to NATO. The country is currently actually semi-detached from that bloc.
Now that Turkish forces have approached Afrin, the Kurdish soldiers of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance are leaving their positions in other locations in order to defend the town against the Turkish offensive. Some SDF operations have been halted. With the fighters gone, there will not be enough soldiers to hold the captured territory in the eastern part of the country. The whole US policy in Syria will be in ruins. America will also suffer defeat if it loses an important NATO ally such as Turkey. So Washington is in a bind. It will take a lot of ingenuity to fix this problem.
Turkey has always been a bit of a black sheep. Its invasion of Cyprus in 1974 caused a rift in the alliance, prompting Greece pull its forces out of the bloc’s command structure until 1980. Today its shift away from NATO and the West in general is clear. A marriage of convenience is possible on some issues but Turkey is definitely not a real ally of the US, NATO, or the EU. It will find its own way while the West finds itself between a rock and a hard place.
If the US continues its military activities in Syria, it will need the Kurds. But it risks losing Turkey. Abandoning the SDF in order to forestall a possible clash with Ankara would damage its credibility in the region. The SDF is already doing its own thing as its fighters move in to defend Afrin. They are taking no orders from American commanders.
The US has no major actor to side with in Syria. It would be a good policy to coordinate its activities with Russia, which is on friendly terms with everyone, but Washington has flatly rejected such an approach.
Today America’s maneuverability in Syria is very much constrained. It has no vested interest in that country. Losing Incirlik significantly weakens its military capabilities in the region. It could be an ominous sign warning that there may be graver consequences yet to face. The best thing the US could do is pull its military out of Syria. With the Islamic State defeated, it’s no longer America’s war. By staying it has nothing to gain, but risks losing a lot.