Turbulence in Turkish-US ties: The İncirlik crisis

The failed coup attempt on July 15 is the latest episode in a long history of military interventions in Turkey, which has witnessed army coups, memorandums and coup attempts in 10-year intervals throughout its history. With memories still fresh from its threatening “e-memorandum” ahead of a referendum on the presidency in 2007, it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that we are still paying for the mistakes that were committed at the time.

Addressing the nation on a TV station via the unorthodox medium of FaceTime on July 15, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the coup attempt was “a movement from within the army encouraged by the parallel structure.” The fact that Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen – the man referred to with the euphemism “parallel structure” – has been residing in the United States since 1999 only served to strengthen the Turkish public’s widespread view that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had a hand in the coup attempt.

With the government restoring control, tweets of “Your boys couldn’t do it this time!” – a reference to an apocryphal story that the Americans welcomed the 1980 coup with the enunciation “Our boys have done it!” – began circulating. U.S. President Barack Obama’s message that it supported Turkey’s democratically-elected government was largely dismissed after arriving late. According to daily Hürriyet’s Tolga Tanış, news that many experts in the U.S. had spoken in favor of the coup and that Erdoğan had already escaped abroad added fuel to the fire.

The tension between Ankara and Washington rose even further the day after when Labor and Social Security Minister Süleyman Soylu declared the U.S. to be behind the coup attempt.

The accusation brought a retort from Secretary of State John Kerry, who said the allegations would harm bilateral ties. Kerry also noted that Ankara had lodged no formal request for Gülen’s extradition but that the U.S. would evaluate any concrete evidence of the scholar’s involvement in the coup attempt. Despite this, the problems between the U.S. and Turkey have continued to increase amid a morass of disinformation.
Many have suggested a connection between Turkey’s temporary closure of the İncirlik Air Base to the coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Gülen’s potential extradition.

Those alleging U.S. involvement in the coup attempt have highlighted the role Brig. Gen. Bekir Ercan Van and nine officers at the base played in the attempt, the fact that Van requested asylum in the U.S. before being caught, the fact that jets taking off from İncirlik participated in the bombing of Ankara and the fact that airborne fuel supply planes for the jets also took off from İncirlik. As it is, Turkey justified its temporary closure of İncirlik by noting the need to reestablish control at the base.

Despite reports of a power outage at the base, İncirlik was reopened for operations. The U.S.’ special envoy on ISIL, Brett McGurk, said the operations were continuing at full speed and that in the 24 hours after the base was reopened, seven sorties on Manbij had been conducted.

The truth of the matter is that İncirlik is not just used by the U.S. but also all NATOmembers. At the same time, it also houses nuclear weapons, and experts have highlighted the security weaknesses that could occur due to the chaos in the military administration at the base.

But for Turkey to use the base as leverage in its disagreement with the U.S. would bring it into conflict not only with Washington, but also NATO. Such a situation would severely weaken the coalition’s fight against ISIL, which has accelerated in the wake of the attacks in Istanbul and Nice, ultimately harming Turkey’s security.

The question of Gülen’s extradition, however, will doubtlessly play an important role in determining the direction of Turkish-U.S. ties. In the event that the two allies fail to reduce the tension and foster mutual trust, the delicate balances in Syria and Iraq that are serving as the foundation for attempts at collaboration could be damaged.

The tension with the U.S. and the European Union stemming from the government’s discussions about reintroducing the death penalty against the coup plotters could spill over into the matter of democracy and human rights. Even though a correction was issued later on, Kerry’s comments that “bringing back capital punishment could harm Turkey’s NATO membership” indicate that, if necessary, Washington will not shy away from playing all its cards.

Even if the U.S. does not extradite Gülen, other measures to terminate his residence in Pennsylvania, such as canceling his green card or convincing him to head to a third country, could help calm those who believe Washington was behind the coup attempt. Amid tremendous uncertainty at the present, exiting the current turbulence would greatly benefit the two allies.