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.
The 2003 Iraq war revealed tensions between Ankara and Washington. Because the U.S.-led war did not receive U.N. or NATO backing, Turkey barred U.S. combat operations from Incirlik. It also denied the U.S.-led coalition from opening a northern front through Turkey, prolonging the initial invasion and allowing remnants of the regime to slip away. The Turkish government did, however, give the United States permission to use the base for logistical operations to move men and equipment in and out of Iraq. By 2008, 74 percent of the cargo being transferred to Iraq traveled through Incirlik. Had the United States been forced to rely on alternative routes, it would have added $160 million per year to American military spending on the operations in Iraq.
When the campaign against the Islamic State began in 2014, the United States pressed Turkey to open Incirlik to the U.S. military because of its close proximity to territory controlled by the terror group. Turkey had authorized four unarmed drones as well as logistics and humanitarian missions to be flown from Incirlik, but despite reports that armed Predators had been authorized in March, it was not until earlier this month that a drone carrying weapons had been permitted to launch. This has severely limited operations into Syria and, to a lesser degree, Iraq since the drones have had to fly from Kuwait to ISIS territory, where intelligence has been hard to glean. The distance has put a high demand on the already stressed drone fleet, resulting in fewer airstrikes.
With the opening of Incirlik to U.S. forces, the shortened distance between eastern Turkey and ISIS-held territory should allow strike aircraft to spend more time over targeted areas and greatly reduce fuel and maintenance costs. It would allow coalition drones to linger longer over Syria if more were deployed from Incirlik rather than Kuwait, thus increasing the amount of intelligence gathered. More importantly, it could also allow for an increased tempo of airstrikes.