By Menekse Tokyay
Turkey’s threat to close its strategic southern Incirlik Air Base to US-led international coalition flights seem to have paid off, according to analysts.
The US recently announced its decision to provide regular aerial intelligence to support Turkey in its military operation against the Islamic State (Daesh) around the Syrian town of Al-Bab.
Incirlik does not belong to NATO, but is a Turkish base that remains open to the operations of NATO forces due to Ankara’s responsibilities under the alliance.
The US move came after calls, made for more than a month, by Turkey’s top officials — Ibrahim Kalin, the top aide of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Mevlut Cavusoglu, the minister of foreign affairs — for Washington to support Turkish forces in their fighting against Daesh.
There was also questioning over the use of Incirlik airbase by coalition forces that were perceived as not standing by Turkey as the country faced ever-mounting casualties in its Operation Euphrates Shield at Al-Bab, a critical location in the fight against Daesh.
Washington’s close cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in the fight against Daesh also disappointed Turkey, which emphasizes the need to enclose Kurds to the east of the Euphrates and to end the cooperation with them.
Ankara also considers YPG to be an offshoot of the Kurdish PKK, which is deemed a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US and EU, and which has been carrying out a three-decade-old insurgency in Turkey’s southeastern provinces.
The Incirlik airbase since July 2015 has been used by anti-Daesh coalition forces in their joint operations against militants in Syria, while manned and unmanned US warplanes deployed at the base carry out strikes against Daesh from Turkey.
Since February, Incirlik has also been used by Saudi fighter jets to target Daesh with airstrikes. Turkey is also part of the Saudi-led military alliance against terrorism launched in 2015.
Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim traveled to Baghdad on Jan. 7 and held talks with his Iraqi counterpart, Haider Al-Abadi, concerning Turkish troops deployed in northern Iraq’s Bashiqa camp. Although considered an “occupying force,” by Baghdad, Ankara claims that it trains Sunni forces in this camp in their bid to liberate Mosul.
Turkey’s Defense Minister Fikri Isik, who said on Jan. 4 that “the lack of coalition assistance for Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation raises questions about the mission of the Incirlik airbase,” announced Wednesday that Turkish forces will not withdraw from Bashiqa camp until Daesh is eliminated.
Iraq’s Ambassador to Ankara Hisham Al-Alawi said Wednesday Turkey would withdraw from Bashiqa after the Mosul operation, hopefully within three months.
A boost to Turkey’s operation
Michael Stephens, research fellow for Middle East studies and head of the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) Qatar, considers the US support to Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation a positive step.
“It should add a level of precision and increased effectiveness to Turkish military operations, and certainly have beneficial effects, which include lowering the risk of civilian casualties and disabling Daesh activity quicker and with greater impact,” Stephens told Arab News.
However, for the moment, Stephens said he does not believe this will benefit Turkish military activity with Syrian Kurds involved in the fight against Daesh, and as such will be subject to some protection as a result.
The new Trump era
With the incoming Trump presidency on Jan. 20, Turkey is expecting that a new page will turn with the US in terms of regional cooperation.
“The unknown of course is how a Trump administration might change policy on this particular issue, but if all things remain constant US weaponry and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) will not be used to target the YPG,” Stephens noted.
According to Stephens, Turkey’s rhetoric over a potential closure of its most strategic airbase to coalition partners was partially influential in the recent decision by the US; but the decision to help was primarily strategic.
“The US also realized it needed to do more to help Turkey, and that the Al-Bab operation was crucial to preventing the uniting of the cantons of northern Syria, which would have triggered a war between Turkey and the Democratic Union Party (PYD, which is seen by Turkey as the Syrian affiliate of the PKK),” he said.
“Nevertheless, the US wishes to keep Turkey very firmly within the NATO family and the use of the base is important to this sense of shared security goals and understanding,” he added.
Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who now chairs the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), said he believes that the US air intelligence support would be welcomed by Turkey during the ongoing and difficult Al-Bab operation where this additional facility can help to limit casualties.
“It is not likely to change Turkey’s outlook on the PYD and will not also affect any potential decision to move against the PYD positions in and around Manbij as the next stage of the cross border military campaign,” Ulgen told Arab News.
Ulgen also noted that the implications around the use of Incirlik airbase were conceived as a demonstration over the unease in Ankara over the US reluctance to end its support of the PYD.