Turkey is prepared to kick the U.S. military out of Incirlik and Kürecik airbases if Washington imposes sanctions on the country, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said. On December 23, The U.S. State Department, in a memo to U.S. senators, expressed its disagreement with the sanctions bill against Turkey. As stated in a memo to U.S. senators, American diplomats fear that such a move would lead to the rapprochement of Ankara and Moscow and would harm the US national interests. On December 24, a message appeared that the Pentagon had concluded a contract with several Turkish companies for construction work at the Incirlik airbase. According to Aaron Stein, Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Ankara will surely try to minimize the damage. However, history is not always predictive, and Ankara can upend NATO missile defense and end its partnership with the United States. The choice is Erdogan’s.
Faced with growing commitments to the defense of Europe, and considerable concerns about the Turkish military’s ability to deter a Soviet invasion, the United States began to discuss with their counterparts in Ankara the viability of storing nuclear weapons at Adana Air Base. In 1959, the United States and Turkey formalized this arrangement, reaching agreement on the “Agreement for the Cooperation on the uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defense Purposes” to store and deploy nuclear weapons in Turkey at the renamed Incirlik Air Force Base. The American defense of Turkey, for the entirety of the Cold War, depended on close cooperation with the Turkish military and an arrangement for Turkish Air Force to be prepared and trained to deliver U.S. nuclear weapons to thwart a Soviet attack. Incirlik was the centerpiece of this defense and the base was — and remains — an important node for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) plan to defend Turkey during conflict.
Turkey has, historically, separated its bilateral relationship with the United States and its role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In 1975, for example, Turkey drew a line between U.S. operations from facilities in Turkey, and U.S. operations from bases that supported NATO operations, following Congress imposing an arms embargo on Turkey. U.S. action was intended to punish Ankara for its use of American weapons in the July 1974 invasion of Cyprus. The congressional action had no support from the executive branch, who feared that legislative action would upend the American-Turkish relationship. In 2019, there are clear parallels to the tensions over Cyprus, which could meant that Ankara’s position within NATO and its hosting of U.S. nuclear weapons remain intact. However, Turkey’s threats to upend NATO missile defense, if followed up on, risks further intra-alliance strain.
In response to the latest Congressional sanctions threat, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to close Incirlik Air Force Base and a small, U.S. Army operated radar facility in Kurecik that supports European missile defense. Ankara can limit its response to the United States and its operations in Turkey, but if it expands any response to include NATO functions, a critical firewall that seeks to insulate the transatlantic relations from this spat could be undermined.
The American presence in Turkey has never been popular, but the leadership in Ankara understood that, as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey benefited from strong and close ties with the United States. These ties, however, did not always ensure close bilateral relations. In 1975, for example, the U.S. Congress imposed an arms embargo for Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, prompting Turkey to take action against U.S. bases and listening posts that the United States had come to rely on to monitor Soviet communications and nuclear testing. The decision had an important caveat: American flown jet fighters, rotating through Turkey from bases in southern Europe, could remain as part of Turkey’s commitment to NATO. In 1980, Turkey and the United States codified the status quo during the 1975-1978 embargo period, specifically limiting U.S. activities to NATO-related activities, unless approved by the Turkish government.
Following the Cold War, the United States withdrew considerable personnel and equipment from Europe, and the Turkish Air Force made the decision to decertify the pilots that it had once trained to deliver U.S. nuclear weapons. While the American bombs remained at Incirlik, Turkey had no pilots to deliver them, and the United States had no permanent presence at the air base. The tensions in U.S.—Turkish relations, even before Syria, are linked to Ankara’s hesitance to support American combat operations in the Middle East. Outside of NATO, the Turkish government has, since the first Gulf War, mostly refused to allow U.S. forces access to Turkey to conduct offensive operations neighboring Iraq and, in the case of Syria, was extremely reluctant to allow U.S, aircraft to use Incirlik for strike missions against the Islamic State.
Even in the case of the TPY/2 in Kurecik, which is for NATO and defensive in purpose, Ankara was hesitant to overtly signal that the NATO missile system was designed to defend against its neighbor, Iran, and its growing missile arsenal. Still, after negotiations, Turkey agreed to host the radar, Turkey acquiesced to the decision and lent its support to the ballistic missile defense architecture now being built in Poland and Romania. A Turkish decision to end its support for this mission would undermine a NATO mission, complicating Ankara’s relationship with its North Atlantic allies, and expanding what is a bilateral issue with Washington to include much of Europe.
The Turkish government can certainly curtail its support for NATO, but history suggests that it will try to wall this issue off from its tensions with Washington. However, if this firewall erodes, and Ankara decides that it will punish NATO for U.S. Congressional action, Turkey could find itself at odds with the entirety of the Western alliance. In the short-term, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, may delay bringing sanctions to the floor so as to give Trump time to consider imposing CAATSA sanctions. However, with the clock ticking towards Ankara’s use of the S-400, now scheduled for April 2020, the United States Congress is most certainly going to continue to pressure Trump to sanction Turkey. If this happens, Ankara has indicated it will take action at Incirlik and Kurecik. There is a way for Ankara to minimize the damage to NATO, keep this limited to a bilateral issue, and continue to negotiate with Washington to resolve the numerous outstanding issues. The ball is in Turkey's court and, if history serves as a guide, Ankara can be counted on to try and contain the damage. However, history is not always predictive, and Ankara can upend NATO missile defense and end its partnership with the United States. The choice is Erdogan’s.