Sunday, March 11, 2018

U.S. Pares Back Use of Turkish Base Amid Strains With Ankara: Military reduces presence at site key to fighting Islamic State in Syria

The Wall Street Journal
By Gordon Lubold,  Felicia Schwartz and  Nancy A. Youssef
Updated March 11, 2018 9:58 a.m. ET

WASHINGTON—The U.S. military has sharply reduced combat operations at Turkey’s Incirlik air base and is considering permanent cutbacks there, according to U.S. officials, a shift they said was driven by tensions between Washington and Ankara.

The base was the centerpiece of the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State for several years, but conflicting aims in Syria have driven a wedge between the U.S. and Turkey. The drawdown is among the strongest consequences yet of those fraying ties.

A squadron of American A-10 ground attack jets was moved from Incirlik to Afghanistan in January, leaving only refueling aircraft currently at the Turkish base. At the time, the Pentagon said it was stepping up operations in Afghanistan.

At the same time, the U.S. military has gradually reduced the number of military family members living on the base, shrinking its footprint in Turkey.

U.S. officials maintain that the U.S. remains committed to Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, and that there are no immediate plans for a further drawdown of forces and aircraft. The A-10s, officials said, could return to the base at any time.

An American drawdown at the base could rattle the NATO alliance amid tensions between the U.S.-led coalition and Russia over the war in Syria, where Moscow backs the regime of President Bashar al-Assad while the U.S. has supported his opponents.

Turkey hasn’t imposed any formal new restrictions on use of the base, U.S. officials said. But U.S. military officials said it has become challenging to operate at Incirlik, whose use Ankara has long used as leverage against the U.S. The officials said they view internal deliberations about the continued use of the base as necessary to mitigate any impact from the potential loss of their ability to conduct operations from the base.

“We’ve been looking at that possibility for a while,” a U.S. military official said of reducing use of the base.

A Turkish official acknowledged the downturn in the pace of U.S. airstrikes but said officials there didn’t believe it stemmed from new restrictions by Ankara.

The Turkish official said the decline reflects a shift in American priorities from Syria to Afghanistan, rather than a downturn in U.S.-Turkish relations.

Turkey and the U.S. have had a rocky relationship for many years. The most recent tensions have been over the war against Islamic State in Syria, where the U.S. has supported local Kurdish forces that are seen by Ankara as a threat.

In recent weeks, Turkey has pressed an assault on the Kurdish-dominated Afrin region of Syria, seeking to keep Kurdish-controlled territory away from its border. On Wednesday, the Turkish government demanded the U.S. prevent Kurdish fighters from moving toward Afrin.

The Incirlik base plays an important role for the U.S. military and reflects the commitment between the two countries, said Capt. Wendy Snyder, a spokeswoman for the U.S. European Command.

“We have a strong mil-to-mil relationship with Turkey, and they are an important stakeholder,” she said.

The base was built with U.S. help in the 1950s to assist NATO in countering the Soviet Union.

There are no permanently assigned aircraft at Incirlik, according to U.S. officials. In addition to the refueling planes, the U.S. has F-22 Raptor and F-15 Eagle jet fighters there.

American officials said the reduction in combat operations began last summer, as the U.S. prepared its assault on Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa.

U.S. military officials pointed to one episode involving a key ally as a wake-up call. In June, Germany withdrew its forces from Incirlik after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he no longer would commit to allowing German lawmakers access to their forces there. Berlin transferred its troops, aircraft and other equipment to a base in Jordan.

Turkey has hosted U.S. jet-fighter and logistics-flight operations on and off at Incirlik since the first Gulf War. In 2003, in the run up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Turkey unexpectedly refused to allow combat flights to take off from the base, forcing last-minute changes to that war plan.

Since 2015, the U.S. has operated out of Incirlik by agreement with Ankara to conduct airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Security concerns stemming from an attempted coup in Turkey prompted the Pentagon in 2016 to order the evacuation of military families; about 700 people departed.

The U.S. shift also stems from an overall decline in the tempo of U.S. military operations against Islamic State. The decline reduces the need to base U.S. jet fighters and logistics aircraft at Incirlik, officials said.

But the challenge of the U.S.-Turkish relationship has spurred the pointed discussion about the American military’s posture at Incirlik, according to U.S. military officials.

Two U.S. officials said Turkey has been making it harder to conduct air operations at the base, such as requesting the U.S. suspend operations to allow high-ranking Turkish officials to use the runway. Officials said this sometimes halts U.S. air operations for more than a day.

Such restrictions, along with the U.S.-Turkish strains, contributed to the recent decision to remove the A-10 fighters from the base to ensure uninterrupted flight operations, officials said.

—Julian E. Barnes in Brussels contributed to this article.

Original article can be found here ➤

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