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Charles Wald: Get Ready to Walk Away from Incirlik

Defense One

Monday, October 24, 2016

Turkey’s Incirlik airbase has supported America’s most vital strategic needs for more than a half century, first during the Cold War and more recently in the fight against terrorists. Now, as its host country becomes less stable and less friendly to the United States, the best way to ensure continued access to this large and well-located base is to prepare to do without it.

In July, the Turkish government publicly accused the U.S. of backing a failed coup. More recently, Ankara pledged to deepen military cooperation with Russia, bombed U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish units fighting ISIS, then complicated the war against ISIS by picking a fight with Baghdad over Mosul. After Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s recent tense trip to Turkey, there is no better time for Washington to rethink its reliance on Incirlik.

The sprawling air base and its U.S. presence there have long been a tangible symbol of Washington’s commitment to defend Turkey, yet there is a perception in Ankara that the United States needs its Turkish ally more than vice versa. This has been shown by the Turkish government’s willingness to use its geostrategic role — as a neighbor to war-torn Syria, as a host to U.S. forces — to put pressure on the United States. Even before the failed coup, the Turkish government appeared to act without fear of censure in either domestic or foreign affairs. At home, Turkey engaged in a broad crackdown on the press and freedom of speech. Regionally, it has repeatedly refrained from supporting, at best, or undermined, at worst, U.S. attempts to defeat ISIS. All this has been fueled by the belief—unfortunately, validated by the U.S. government—that the country’s strategic importance would inoculate it from U.S. criticism.