INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey — The U.S. Air Force presence in Turkey may still have a future even as U.S., British and Turkish officers mark the end of 12 years of coalition no-fly missions over northern Iraq.

But with an ongoing assessment of the U.S. military footprint in Europe and the Middle East, no one can say how bright that future might be.

Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald, and other U.S. officers, along with Turkish and British commanders, brought Operation Northern Watch to an official close on Thursday.

At the same time, Wald, deputy commander of U.S. European Command, made a surprise announcement that family members and non-essential civilian employees assigned to the 39th Wing are free to return to Incirlik.

About 1,400 civilians, including about 600 students at Department of Defense Dependent Schools, left Incirlik during a voluntary evacuation just as American bombers launched the opening salvo against Iraq on March 19.

After more than a month of speculation on the future of Incirlik Air Base in south-central Turkey, Wald’s announcement seemed to confirm that — aside from ONW — U.S. operations will be returning to normal for the near future.

Whether the support operation at Incirlik is reconstituted remains to be seen. But dependents can return immediately, Wald said. “It’s up to them.”

About 1,400 personnel remain at the base supporting U.S. operations in Afghanistan and other areas. But with U.S. and British forces victorious over Saddam Huessein’s forces, planes based at Incirlik no longer have a reason to fly ONW missions, Wald said.

“Now that he’s gone, our mission is over,” he said.

As he closed ONW, Wald said that EUCOM commander, Gen. James Jones, and U.S. policy makers are searching for greater flexibility and deployability to deal with what they see as a changing threat.

It’s a new chapter that may or may not include Turkey.

With seven countries east of Central Europe about to join NATO, EUCOM officials are assessing locations where it can operate “unhindered by environmental concerns and politics,” Wald said.

For 50 years, Wald added, Turkey’s location has made it politically and militarily significant, “and that strategic importance has not lessened.”

However, there are no plans for any mission on the scale of ONW to take up residence in Turkey, or the American force here to approach its peak of more than 5,000 people — once the biggest permanent U.S. presence in the Middle East.

No-fly missions began April 6, 1991, at the end of the first Gulf War, in support of humanitarian missions in northern Iraq, and to stop Saddam’s air forces from attacking about 1 million Kurdish refugees who clustered on the Turkish border.

The mission was a sometimes controversial.

Although U.S. policymakers claimed a U.N. mandate, opponents such as original coalition member France departed, arguing the mandate only extended to protecting humanitarian efforts.

ONW allowed Kurds and other minorities above the 36th parallel to prosper, Wald said. It also allowed the United States not only to contain Saddam, but also to degrade his air defense systems each time he tried to attack ONW aircraft.

In more than 300,000 sorties, the U.S. and Britain never lost a plane to enemy fire, “even with a bounty” on the heads of U.S. pilots, said Brig. Gen. Robin E. Scott, the last ONW co-commander.

ONW’s accident rate was a fraction of the Air Force’s overall accident rate of 2½ accidents per 100,000 hours of flying time. It was so good that officers didn’t talk about it, Wald said. “It was a superstition; that it might bring bad luck if you mentioned it.”

Some of it was good luck, he added, “but most of it was a damn good job” by maintainers and flight crews, Wald said. “I don’t know. Maybe we were on the side of the angels.”

The only U.S. ONW plane lost was in 2001 when an F-16 fighter jet crashed in southeastern Turkey due to mechanical failure.

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