COMMENTARY — Why Erdoğan and partners are targeting İncirlik Airbase in Turkey

By Abdullah Bozkurt

Through the mobilization of their proxies in jihadist and ultranationalist groups, Turkey’s Islamist rulers and their neo-nationalist allies in the judicial, security and intelligence services have been working on a secret plot to create a sudden rupture in Turkey’s longstanding ties with the transatlantic alliance, using İncirlik Airbase, which is home to US and other NATO ally forces, as a catalyst.

The three-pronged strategy, temporarily shelved after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan worried more over what appeared to be an imminent economic collapse and bankruptcy in Turkey, involves a major public relations campaign to discredit US and other allies that use the İncirlik base in Turkey’s southern Adana province. Both Islamists and neo-nationalists have been working day in and day out to portray the base as a hub of major conspiracies that aim to dismember Turkey and undermine the nation’s interests in order to stoke fear among the Turkish public, which seems to have already bought in to the idea of the government’s move against the base and possibly other NATO interests.

Complementing this, the frivolous criminal investigations that were launched into personnel deployed at the base, both Turkish and US generals, were intended to shore up the false public perception that there are very substantive reasons to suspect malicious attempts by NATO allies in Turkey’s territory. Last but not least, the idea of shutting down access to İncirlik as well as closing NATO’s state of the art radar site in the district of Kürecik in Malatya province was for the first time publicly entertained by politicians in the government including Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It is also interesting to note that the crackdown on jihadist groups including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that target the base does not seem to be as robust as one might think.

As for the first phase of this scheme to shape public perception, there are two dominant groups in the Turkish media that are systematically and deliberately fanning anti-NATO sentiment in Turkey. One is President Erdoğan, whose family either directly or indirectly owns or controls most media outlets on the center and center-right including Islamist and fringe outlets. Sabah, owned by the Erdoğan family, is the most circulated paper today thanks to generous support from the government and abundant funding from advertisers who are currying favor with the regime. Hürriyet, which used to be a mainstream daily, was recently bought by Erdoğan loyalist and businessman Yıldırım Demirören after the previous owner, Aydin Dogan, was forced to sell the paper to escape the criminal cases that had mounted against him.

The independent and opposition media that were critical of the Erdoğan government were either seized or shut down, including the nation’s most highly circulated papers like Zaman or popular TV networks such as Bugün in the last three years. In the end, the mainstream and liberal media were bulldozed along with 180 other media outlets in Turkey, wiping out many traditional and online news hubs and destroying their archives that went back decades. Most critical journalists were either jailed or exiled, which put Turkey on the world map of the worst jailers of journalists. As of today, 234 journalists are behind bars and 144 are living in exile, which tells the tale of the severity of the crackdown on the free and independent media in this 80-million-strong nation.

On the other side of the coin, the center-left media is almost totally owned and controlled by Erdoğan’s neo-nationalist allies led by Doğu Perinçek, a pro-Iran lackey who was funded by groups hostile to Turkey’s NATO and Western alliance and supported by Turkish intelligence agency MİT. The flagship of the group is Aydınlık, a low-circulation paper but influential in the security and judicial branches of the government. It is certainly not a coincidence that some senior generals, prosecutors and intelligence officers assumed posts in Perinçek’s ultranationalist Homeland (Vatan in Turkish, formerly İşçi, or Labor) Party after their retirement from public service.

Perinçek has overtaken the leftist Cumhuriyet daily after a baseless criminal case was launched against the paper, charging most board members and some prominent writers under abusive counterterrorism laws. In the end, neo-nationalists seized the board in what amounted to a judicial coup and purged leftist editors and reporters from the paper. Sözcü, a far-right tabloid-style magazine that ranks third nationally in circulation, was also forced to toe the line with the Perinçek group after its owner faced frivolous criminal cases and was forced to flee the country as well. On the web, the neo-nationalists run a xenophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Western news website called Oda TV, which often plants manipulative stories, spreads fake news and distorts facts.

On the abuse of the criminal justice system, Erdoğan and his allies are busy orchestrating frivolous cases that target staff at İncirlik Airbase while signaling impunity for those who violate the security of the base. The latest example that shows how Perinçek’s neo-nationalists can easily manipulate criminal cases was seen on Oct. 5, 2018, when the Adana 10th High Criminal Court ruled to acquit three members of a youth group affiliated with Perinçek after they assaulted a US soldier on the base.

The case was launched by public prosecutors last year when two members of the Turkish Youth Union (Türkiye Gençlik Birliği, or TGB), a branch of the Homeland Party, managed to get on the base and started assaulting an American soldier named Nicholas Allen Rockwell, trying to put a sack over his head. The act was touted as a response to US troops detaining Turkish soldiers in Iraq’s Sulaymaniyah on July 4, 2003, and putting sacks on their heads. One of them tried to punch Rockwell and guards detained the attackers, identified as former TGB Adana chairman Yalçın Semir Akarsu and TGB Adana provincial head Cenk Kızılırmak. The incident was video recorded and published on the TGB website.

The two along with the mastermind of the incident, Sinan Sungur, a former TGB secretary-general, were indicted on three counts of insult, violation of the law on prohibited military and security zones and trespassing in a prohibited military zone by a Turkish prosecutor who demanded 12 years in prison for their crime. That did not deter the neo-nationalists, who were confident they would be protected by “big brother,” who directed them to commit the assault in the first place.

Sungur even said they had been waiting to stage such an act for two years and that the April 16 event at the base that marked Turkey’s National Sovereignty and Children’s Day gave them the opportunity to do so. It suggested the group has good intelligence and operational capabilities. They must have had inside help to pull off such a stunt. All the suspects were immediately released from a brief detention pending trial, and none of them were convicted in the end. The judge deemed the assault on the US soldier a “democratic protest” and ruled that no trespassing took place at the base. Hailing the court decision as a victory, TGB General Secretary Okan Özkan vowed that they would continue attacking US soldiers wherever they see them and that they would attempt to put sacks on their heads.

This is certainly not an isolated incident. Similar attacks on US soldiers in various provinces of Turkey since 2011 by Perinçek’s thugs were hushed up and the assailants acquitted despite clear evidence of violations of Turkish law. They are part of a deliberate scheme concocted by Erdoğan’s allies to boost the feeling of impunity when it comes to targeting the US and other Western interests in Turkey. While Turkish courts whitewash serious violations of the law in these cases, they were also flooded with frivolous criminal cases based on fabricated or dubious evidence that was produced by Erdoğan and Perinçek and company. The İncirlik base commander and other senior Turkish officers at the base were arrested and tried in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup when there was no direct evidence suggesting they were part of the putschist attempt. More than two years have passed since the abortive coup, yet an officer from İncirlik base still gets detained nearly every month to feed the false narrative and spread the conspiracy concerning the base.

As if that were not enough, Erdoğan’s judiciary has taken seriously a criminal complaint filed by members of an organized crime syndicate called Tay-Der, a thuggish group that serves at the pleasure of Erdoğan, against several high-ranking US generals. Operatives of Tay-Der, backed by Erdoğan’s close confidante Metin Külünk, who once ran an armed wing of the radical Islamist group Akıncılar, filed a motion with the prosecutor’s office asking authorities to arrest Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of the US Central Command; retired US Army Gen. John F. Campbell; and Air Force Brig. Gen. Rick Boutwell, director of regional affairs, Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force. US officers Col. John C. Walker, Col. Michael H. Manion, Col. David Eaglen, Col. David Trucksa, Lt. Col. Timothy J. Cook, Lt. Col. Mack R. Coker, Sgt. Thomas S. Cooper, Sgt. Vegas M. Clark and others deployed to İncirlik Airbase were also named in the brief.

The complaint also asks authorities to issue a search and seizure warrant for İncirlik to gather evidence and to halt all outbound US military flights from the base. Not surprisingly, the 60-page criminal complaint appears to have been written by the Perinçek group, whose Aydınlık newspaper was extensively quoted in the complaint leveling false coup accusations against US troops deployed at the base. In other words, what was published as fake news in the propaganda media was later considered to be evidence in a court of law, which is how the criminal cases in many instances have been pursued in Turkey under the Erdoğan regime.

Escalating the issue further on top of media and legal attacks against the İncirlik base, Erdoğan and his political associates have also started entertaining in public the idea of closing the base. In July 2018, talking to embedded reporters on board the presidential plane, Erdoğan for the first time raised the issue of closing İncirlik Airbase, followed by similar comments from his ally in the security branch, Perinçek. Erdoğan’s associates had been forcefully bringing the issue to debate long before he made this comment on İncirlik. For example, in February 2016 Erdoğan’s then-aide and now chief ombudsman Şeref Malkoç claimed İncirlik might be closed to the Americans. By the way, Malkoç’s son-in-law is Abdurrahman Gül, the current justice minister of Turkey who was designated under sanctions by the US Treasury for his role in the wrongful detention and prosecution of American pastor Andrew Brunson.

In August 2017 professor of constitutional law Burhan Kuzu, a senior member of Erdoğan’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and his advisor, asked prosecutors to investigate NATO and the İncirlik base over the failed coup. In January 2018 Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on government TV network TRT that he delivered to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the Turkish people’s demands regarding İncirlik during a meeting in Vancouver. In February 2018 Çavuşoğlu repeated the same threats and said the Turkish people demanded the closure of both the İncirlik and Kuroki bases. In May 2018 he took it further and threaten the US with the closures if the normalization efforts between the US and Turkey failed.

In the meantime, Erdoğan-backed pro-Iranian groups have long been itching to see the closure of the airbase. They also seized on this euphoria to advance their causes. For example, İbrahim Karagül, the chief editor of Erdoğan’s favorite Islamist daily, Yeni Şafak, wrote a column on Jan. 29, 2018 with a title saying, “The US is the enemy of Turkey. One day thousands of people will besiege İncirlik as well.” This so-called journalist, who often traveled with Erdoğan on the presidential plane, was a suspect in a confidential probe into the Islamist Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force in an espionage case that was hushed up by Erdoğan in 2014. The probe incriminated Turkish intelligence agency head Hakan Fidan, a pro-Iranian figure, as well as dozens of senior Turkish officials who had secretly been working with Quds Force operatives in Turkey. On Dec. 23, 2016, he also wrote that the US and NATO organize terrorist groups against Turkey from İncirlik. The daily also runs an Internet poll claiming the results showed that 94 percent of participants demanded the closure of İncirlik, in May 2017.

The last but not least ally in this coalition of strange bedfellows is ISIL, which kept its eye on İncirlik, where the anti-ISIL coalition forces led by the United States have been hammering and destroying pockets of ISIL in both Syria and Iraq. The ISIL case in Adana revealed how ISIL militants had operated with relative ease in targeting the base before they were rounded up on intel that most likely came from the US intelligence services. The first case was exposed in June 2017 when police raided ISIL safe houses in Adana, where İncirlik is located, arresting more than a dozen people on terrorism charges. The indictment revealed that Turkish national Fevzi Taşkıran, a suspect in the case, was planning to attack the base with suicide bombers using dump trucks and other vehicles.

In August 2017 a Russian national named Renat Bakiev was arrested in Adana while he was preparing to attack a US aircraft at İncirlik Airbase with a drone or a suicide bombing on US service members there. Bakiev, who reportedly faced an outstanding arrest warrant in Russia and was listed on the Interpol database, was detained in Turkey as he crossed into the Turkish border province of Kilis from Syria but was let go by Turkish authorities. The Kilis High Criminal Court had already convicted him and sentenced to six years, three months, yet he was roaming free in Turkey, scouting the base. Interestingly enough, when Bakiev checked into a hotel, he was visited by police officers and briefly questioned according to the hotel owner’s testimony. Yet, the police let him go and did not detain him in his hotel room.

Erdoğan and his allies have borrowed their playbook in crafting policies from the Iranian mullahs, and they are bent on severing Turkey’s longstanding strategic ties with the transatlantic alliance. For that, they need a major incident to justify that breakup, and İncirlik Airbase is a perfect pretext for them to fulfill their dreams of turning Turkey into another authoritarian regime run by ideological zealots. They have laid the necessary groundwork to make that happen, and they are waiting for the right opportunity. (

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