Incirlik is leverage in Turkey extradition demand

A U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, on Dec. 16, 2015. The air base plays key role in the U.S. air war against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Analysts say the upheaval following a failed coup attempt could jeopardize continued use of the base for the U.S.



Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, which plays a key role in the U.S. air war against the Islamic State, could become a bargaining chip as Turkey seeks to pressure the U.S. to extradite a cleric accused of orchestrating a failed coup attempt.

“This is a very bad moment in the fight against ISIS, unfortunately,” said retired Adm. James Stavridis, who commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Europe until 2013. He used an acronym for the Islamic State group. “A great deal of (the U.S.-led coalition’s) military effort is moving out of bases in southern Turkey.”

Stories on Turkey's attempted military coup and its aftermath

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded the U.S. extradite Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Muslim cleric and accused mastermind of Friday’s coup attempt. Gulen has lived for years in rural Pennsylvania but has a strong following in Turkey, including among the army and police.

Erdogan has made no secret about his disdain for the cleric, his former ally until the two fell out in 2013 over corruption allegations. The Turkish president believed the allegations were orchestrated by Gulen as a smokescreen for attacks against his supporters.

Now, the U.S. will be forced to weigh the evidence and weigh the consequences of rejecting Erdogan’s demand.

“Incirlik’s future and the access of the U.S. to the base, may eventually turn into bargaining chips,” said F. Doruk Ergun, a security analyst at the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul.

And Erdogan may have the stronger hand, analysts said.

“If Turkey can present evidence (Gulen was involved) and he is not turned over, there will be enormous backlash,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the George Marshall Fund’s office in Ankara.

“I think our Western allies don’t understand the psychology right now in Turkey,” Unluhisarcikli said. “They might think there is anger from just Erdogan’s supporters, but it is much more than that. Turkey’s parliament was bombed, Turkish civilians were shot and (the coup attempt) is regarded as a crime against humanity. That is how it is perceived here.”

The United States has publicly backed the Erdogan government as it reasserts control, but has cautioned Turkey to abide by the rule of law.

The government has rounded up more than 6,000 Turkish military personnel, including some of the military’s most senior leaders, and fired judges suspected of backing the coup. On Wednesday, Turkey placed a travel ban on the country’s academics and ordered the firing of tens of thousands of teachers.

Erdogan has said “outside powers” may have been involved in the coup attempt. But in an interview with Al-Jazeera, Erdogan said relations between Turkey and the U.S. “are based on interests, not feelings. We are strategic partners.”

However, pro-government media outlets have accused the U.S. of direct involvement in the coup attempt.

“President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on the hit list of an organization protected and controlled by the U.S.,” said a commentary in Istanbul’s daily Yeni Safak which reflects the views of Ergodan’s political party. “The U.S. administration tried to kill Erdogan.”

Bosko Jaksic, a Serbian foreign policy analyst who has followed events in Turkey for decades, said Erdogan would now focus on consolidating his power, and that support for the U.S.-led coalition targeting Islamic State militants in neighboring Syria and Iraq would not be a high priority.

“Erdogan is demonstrating to the Americans that he will no longer do their bidding,” Jaksic said. “The latent showdown between Washington and Ankara will become public if the Obama administration balks on extraditing Gulen.”

Turkey first denied a U.S. request to use Incirlik at the start of the air campaign against the Islamic State in 2014, before relenting in the late summer of 2015. Turkey also refused use of Incirlik during the Iraq War in 2003. Flight times to targets in Iraq and Syria are much shorter from Incirlik, located about 80 miles from the border, than from aircraft carriers or bases in and around the Persian Gulf.

Even if the U.S. is allowed to continue flying sorties out of Incirlik, there are concerns that Turkey will lose focus on the war against the Islamic State as it deals with internal strife, making it a less reliable partner in the fight.

“The Turkish military itself will be consumed with investigations, retribution, arrests; they will lose their effectiveness as a fighting force,” Stavridis said. “One of the real winners here will be the so-called Islamic State.”

Not all of Turkey’s interests align with the U.S., however.

While the U.S. sees the Islamic State group as the prime security concern, Turkey’s outlook is more complicated. Ankara views U.S.-backed Kurdish forces as a threat to Turkish sovereignty, fearing Kurds in Syria and Iraq could secure territory as part of a push for an autonomous state that could incorporate Kurdish regions in Turkey.

For now, Turkey is fixated on getting its “house in order” in the wake of the attempted coup, said Ergun.

Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan has sought to reduce the power of the military, which has played an outsize role in the country since the founding of the Turkish state in 1923.