The Perils of Joining Turkey in the Fight against ISIS

Turkey's troubling track record of allowing ISIS to operate on its border raises troubling questions about Ankara’s commitment to the fight.

Turkey’s cabinet last week announced that the United States and coalition members targeting the Islamic State (ISIS) would be permitted to fly combat missions from Incirlik air base in south Turkey. This U.S.-Turkish facility is well positioned near the Syrian front, and offers the coalition greater tactical flexibility. It could certainly help in the effort, as President Barack Obama describes it, “to degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. But working with Turkey, particularly at Incirlik, comes at a price.

The story of Incirlik begins with the Cold War, when the United States sought a base close to Soviet territory to stage and recover bombers if war erupted between the two superpowers. Turkey’s unique geographic location allowed U.S. forces excellent access to Soviet territory from the south, as well as coverage of the Eastern Mediterranean, Southern and Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.

In 1951, the United States began building an airfield outside the southern city of Adana. In exchange for establishing a U.S. base in its territory, Turkey was granted NATO membership and a bilateral mutual security agreement with the United States in 1952. Turkey and the United States signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in 1954, paving the way for the Turkish Air Force and the United States to ink an agreement to share the base. Starting in 1957, the United States began using the base for U-2 reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union and deployments of fighter squadrons.

In 1958, the U.S. military used the base when Egypt and Syria threatened to overthrow Lebanon’s pro-western president, Camille Chamoun. The U.S. Air Force aircraft flew show-of-force missions, reconnaissance, and leaflet drops from Incirlik. However, the Lebanon operation was undertaken without Turkish permission, using a loophole in the existing SOFA. In 1969, Turkey took steps to restrict Washington’s use of the base through the Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA), which confined the base’s use to NATO missions rather than American interests.

After the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, tensions increased when the United States imposed an arms embargo on Turkey. The Turkish cabinet responded by revoking the 1969 DCA, suspending American military operations in the country, allowing only NATO operations at Incirlik. In 1978, the United States lifted the embargo and signed another agreement with Turkey: the 1980 Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement (DECA), which remains in effect today.

The DECA specifies that American aircraft are “authorized to be stationed at Incirlik installation in support of NATO defense plans.” The agreement does not permit the United States to use the base for its own interests and allows the Turkish government to determine whether the United States can use the base outside NATO missions. Turkey can also cancel U.S. access to Incirlik with three days’ notice.

Given these constraints, it should come as no surprise that the United States’ use of Incirlik has since been limited. During the first Gulf War, Turkey granted the United States permission to launch strikes inside Iraq, though Turkey did not directly participate in the conflict. After the war, the base supported NATO’s Operation Provide Comfort in 1991, and then Operation Northern Watch in 1997.