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Incirlik Base in Turkey Is Cause for Great Worry to the Pentagon.

Updated on January 15, 2020
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A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.


Turkey joined NATO in 1952. One cannot understand the compulsions of Turkey at that time to join NATO, but join they did and became a front line partner of the US in its fight against the Soviet Union. Turkey also became a member of the Baghdad pact (which became defunct after Lt General Kaseem executed the entire pro-American royal family in Iraq). Subsequently, the US set up CENTO and Turkey was again a prominent partner.

The USA began to trust Turkey and the Pentagon decided to position nuclear missiles targeting Russia in Turkey. However, after the 1962 missile crisis, Kennedy had no choice but to remove the missiles, which were removed in 1963. The weapons were subsequently again stationed and Turkey allowed itself to become a frontline state against Russia.

Turkey has been a US ally and prominent NATO partner for over 60 years. It maintains the largest army among NATO powers and with a population of 80 million has ample manpower to leverage positions in its region and Europe.

The Coup Attempt

The situation was somewhat peaceful until a coup by the army against Erdogan took place. Erdogan escaped, but hundreds died in the fighting. The Russians, eager to fish in troubled waters under Putin, were keeping track of all activities in Turkey and recorded a chatter between some officers of the Turkish armed forces and some CIA agents. These conversations they duly passed on to Erdogan.

The evidence was flimsy but Erdogan was convinced that the CIA along with his old foe Fethullah Gulen had engineered the coup. Gulen is a cleric who is in self-imposed exile in the USA. He is given asylum there. The coup was crushed with popular support from the people who did not want military rule. Popular demonstrations on the streets strengthened the hands of Erdogan and the coup leaders panicked and the coup collapsed. But the danger of a coup brought home to Erdogan that he was extremely vulnerable and he set about making mass arrests all over. It's a mind-boggling exercise to learn that he arrested over 50,000 Turks from all walks of life from soldiers to clerics and judges.

The US protested at these arbitrary arrests and this convinced Erdogan that the USA had a hand in the coup. He demanded that Gulen is handed over and the USA refused. This convinced the Turkish president that there was a connection between the coup and the CIA.

Aftermath of the Coup

As the coup unfolded Erdogan, on the evidence provided by the Russians, closed the airspace over the Incirlik base. This completely stopped the flights of US combat aircraft mainly the F-15/16 from the base. Only the aircraft returning from a mission against ISIS in Syria were allowed to land. The commander of the air force base was arrested. He had earlier sought asylum in the USA but was refused.

Erdogan also cut off the external power supply to the base and the installations all had to be ran on captive power. The situation was dangerous as the base which is just 70 miles from the Syria border also stores some 60-B-1 nuclear weapons. These nuclear assets were put under special guard by the USAF which has over 2000 personnel stationed on the base.

Later the airspace restrictions were lifted, but it has brought home to the USAF and Pentagon that the base is extremely vulnerable to Jihadi attacks who could make a suicidal attack to lay hands on the nuclear assets. The US had been wanting to shift the nuclear assets to Romania, but the coup and Turkish restrictions have put paid to US plans. Now Erdogan may not allow the weapons to be shifted.

The Future

The situation is serious as the Incirlik airbase is the main base of the USAF to strike at the ISIS targets in Syria. Erdogan has compounded the US problems by making overtures to Putin and he has gone and met the Russian leader. Putin has reciprocated warmly and there are reports that the Russians may be offered facilities at the base to conduct operations in Syria. It will create a piquant situation and there is no parallel between Russian and US aircraft operating from the same base. If one adds the nuclear assets stored in the base, the fat is in the fire.

Erdogan is not bothered as he moves around to consolidate his power. He is also mulling the reintroduction of the death penalty even as the EU has warned him, that this step will go against his membership of the EU. The USA is on the horns of a dilemma and one does not know what will happen. Storage of nuclear weapons in Turkey was a cardinal mistake and the USA may have a heavy price to pay.

Last word

Much water has flown down the river since then. Erdogan has taken many steps that have surprised NATO and the USA. He has signed a deal with Russia for the S400 missile system despite vehement opposition from the USA. He has begun to flex his muscles and has invaded Syria and sent troops to Qatar and Libya. Erdogan has begun to try and restore the old glory of the Ottoman Empire. In all this, the USA has one hand tied behind its back as it has nuclear assets in the Incirlik base.


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