August 25, 2016 | Monograph

Covering the Bases

Reassessing U.S. Military Deployments in Turkey After the July 2016 Attempted Coup d’État
August 25, 2016 | Monograph

Covering the Bases

Reassessing U.S. Military Deployments in Turkey After the July 2016 Attempted Coup d’État

Foreword by Ambassador Eric Edelman

The modern Republic of Turkey remains one of the “pivotal” states in the international system. The country’s role as a U.S. treaty ally sitting astride the division between Europe and the Middle East, as a Black Sea littoral state bordering on a revanchist Russia, and an important energy hub insures that it will remain a crucial player. Since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S.-Turkish relationship has been on a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows.

While bumpy patches have been more the norm lately, there have been eras of warm ties. The EU decision to open
accession talks with Turkey in December 2004 – a longtime objective of U.S. national security policy since the 1960s – stands out in that regard (and it is no coincidence that U.S. standing among the Turkish public, as measured in the Pew Charitable Trust’s poll, was at its highest then). More often than not, however, the relationship has been marked by serious differences over the political future of
Iraq (and the best way to deal with the PKK challenge to Turkey emanating from the Kurdish north), how to deal with a nuclearizing Iran, and most acutely, the roiling conflict in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State (IS). It is an unfortunate fact that on occasion these differences
have given rise to outbursts of popular anti-Americanism in the often febrile Turkish media.

Even before 9/11, the rise of the Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the convulsions that followed in the Middle East, the U.S.-Turkish relationship had been marked by ups and downs. The one steady element in the relationship always appeared to be the military-to-military ties that bound the two countries together. Turkey had the second largest military establishment in NATO, one of the largest International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs in the world, and important bases near the Soviet Union that made it an important military partner for the United States during the Cold War. In particular, for over 70 years, the Incirlik Air Base near Adana in southeastern Turkey played a vital role in U.S. military planning and in maintaining the “northern tier” strategy of blocking Soviet access to the eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf.

When the Cold War ended, some analysts questioned the continuing utility of Incirlik and the ongoing U.S. presence, but the first Gulf War quickly brought that debate to an end. President Turgut Ozal’s courageous decision, overruling his then chief of defense, to join the U.S.-led coalition to reverse Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait ushered in an era of very close U.S.-Turkish collaboration. By the end of the decade, President Bill Clinton proclaimed a U.S.-Turkish “strategic partnership” in his speech to the Turkish Grand National Assembly. Today, in the wake of the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, those words seem increasingly hollow.

Even before the botched effort by elements of the military to overthrow the AKP government, Turkey was on a domestic trajectory marked by increasing authoritarianism and troubling government relationships with dangerous Islamist groups. In the wake of the coup, a rising tide of officially sanctioned and, in some cases, government-instigated anti-Americanism, coupled with the hollowing out of the Turkish military and continuing terrorist attacks by both Kurdish and Islamist extremists, have once again raised the question of the future utility of
America’s continued presence at Incirlik.

Although I join most observers in continuing to believe that the U.S.-Turkish relationship is crucial and that Incirlik’s role is particularly important in the context of the anti-IS struggle, it is clearly time to face the possibility that the U.S. may, against its will, be forced to leave. This would be a serious discontinuity in the NATO alliance and the U.S.-Turkish relationship, and it ought not to be approached in a “fit of absence of mind.”

This meticulous Foundation for Defense of Democracies study provides the broader context for considering the prospects for Incirlik’s future. It not only charts the history of the base’s role and our military-to-military ties, but it lays out the serious issues that would follow from a U.S. exit, and it also canvasses the alternatives.

The best outcome would clearly be for the U.S. to remain in Incirlik for reasons that include the effectiveness of the campaign against IS and the ongoing need for U.S. extended nuclear deterrence in Europe. Yet, suggesting that the U.S. has alternatives may serve an important purpose. It can help Turkish officials recognize the importance of the U.S. connection to Turkey. It might even help preserve it.


The Republic of Turkey has been a reliable staging point for U.S. forces for more than six decades. Turkish bases have historically provided the U.S. military easy access to multiple theaters without having to build new infrastructure or forge new agreements. Today, American forces in Turkey are targeting the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, manning key components of the European integrated missile defense system, providing logistics for regional operations, and deterring a resurgent Russia.

However, the attempted coup of July 2016 and the war in Syria have revealed growing fractures in the U.S.-Turkish security relationship. Statements by Turkish officials in the wake of the coup suggesting that American officials were behind the failed putsch indicate that trust between the two countries is plummeting. Worryingly, these statements are now inciting anti-American sentiment across Turkey. Turkey’s decision to shut down U.S. operations against IS in the immediate aftermath of the coup, albeit temporarily, was also cause for alarm, even if it was a precautionary measure.

Even before the failed coup, tensions between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the West were on the rise. At home, Erdogan has been transforming Turkey into a more authoritarian and Islamist state, undermining the rule of law and freedom of the press. Turkey’s foreign policy choices, particularly those that have empowered destabilizing forces in the Middle East, have been increasingly been at odds with Washington. Specifically, Ankara’s support for known terrorist groups and its deliberately poor regulation of its Syrian border have exacerbated security challenges in the region. The strains have grown so great that some have suggested Turkey’s place in NATO is in question. Though Turkish actions have raised fundamental questions about the nation’s basic foreign policy orientation, there is no mechanism to expel a NATO member. Moreover, because Ankara’s place within NATO remains crucial, Washington has endeavored to address these issues in muted tones. Indeed, access to Turkish facilities have been vital for the war against IS and will likely remain so for future crises. Keeping these installations open and secure are the top priority.

But continued cooperation does not mean the continuation of the status quo. In the wake of the coup, as the Turkish government engages in an unprecedented purge of domestic foes (both real and imagined), Turkey is unstable and unpredictable. It is now essential to determine if the estimated 3,000 U.S. servicemen or the sensitive U.S. hardware based in Turkey are in any way jeopardized. In short, an assessment is needed to examine alternative basing options in the eastern Mediterranean. Such contingency planning is crucial to protect U.S. interests. But it should not supplant or encumber ongoing efforts to restore Turkish-American ties to their previous levels of trust.


Syria Turkey