US reducing presence at Turkish airbase amid tensions with Ankara

The US military has sharply reduced combat operations at Turkey’s İncirlik Air Base and is considering permanent cutbacks there, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.

US officials told the WSJ that this shift was driven by tensions between Washington and Ankara.

The US has used the base to conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) since 2015, but deteriorating relations between the US and Turkey have made it challenging for the US to operate at İncirlik. The Turkish government sees İncirlik as important leverage against the US.

In May 2017 Can Acun, a political analyst at the pro-Justice and Development Party (AKP) think tank Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) said that “İncirlik is the main air base for the US-led coalition. A sanction in this regard would place the US into a tough spot,” the paper reports.

In January the US moved A-10 jets from İncirlik, leaving only refueling aircraft. The number of military members living at the base has also been reduced. At the time the Pentagon explained the move on the basis of its decision to step up operations in Afghanistan.

According to US officials, the US remains committed to NATO ally Turkey, and there are no immediate plans for a further reduction of forces and aircraft. Yet, the officials also say that there are internal deliberations about the continued use of İncirlik, which they see as “necessary to mitigate any impact from the potential loss of their ability to conduct operations from the base.”

However, the Pentagon has refuted “speculative” claims that the US military has reduced its operations at Turkey’s İncirlik Air Base due to long-standing tensions between Washington and Ankara. Johnny Michael, the spokesperson for the United States European Command (EUCOM), said the claims were “just a speculation” and that all military operations are continuing at İncirlik, a statement also confirmed by Turkish sources, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Monday.

US-Turkey relations have suffered for some time due to conflicting interests and alliances in Syria. Relations between the two countries were recently further strained after Turkey launched a military operation on Jan. 20, in Afrin, northern Syria. Turkey has repeatedly voiced its plans to extend the operation to Manbij, a city under the control of US backed Kurdish forces.

On Friday Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that Turkey and the US agreed on the stabilization of Manbij and other Syrian cities east of the Euphrates after two days of meetings in Washington last week to normalize relations. The US did not confirm Çavuşoğlu’s remarks.

RUSSIA TO BEGIN DELIVERING S-400 SYSTEM TO TURKEY IN 2020

Meanwhile, a Russian presidential aide on military cooperation on Monday said Russia will begin fulfilling a contract with Turkey for the delivery of an S-400 air defense system in early 2020, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

“Turkey expressed a wish to accelerate its implementation, and we managed to find the most appropriate solution as we agreed to accelerate the contract’s implementation, so I think we will begin to fulfill it some time in early 2020,” Vladimir Kozhin told the local Rossiya 24.

Kozhin also said Russia has received requests from Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration for new arms supplies, but he added it was too early to give any details.

Turkey and Russia signed a $2,5 billion agreement for Moscow to supply Ankara with an S-400 missile defense system, finalizing a deal the two countries have been working on for more than a year. The S-400 deal has caused concern in the West because Turkey is a member of NATO and the system cannot be integrated into NATO’s military architecture.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced in September that Ankara had signed a deal with Russia to buy an S-400 missile defense system despite opposition from NATO allies.

Pentagon spokesman Johnny Michael said the US had relayed its concerns to Turkish officials over the purchase. Michael said that a NATO inter-operable missile defense system was the best option for defending Turkey from the full range of threats in the region.

NATO also stated in September that Turkey had not informed the alliance of the details of its agreement to purchase an S-400 air defense system from Russia.

On Aug. 1, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said that Ankara procuring an S-400 anti-missile system from Russia concerned the Pentagon. “Our only concern about it is one of interoperability. Turkey is a NATO ally. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea for allies to buy interoperable equipment,” Davis said, expressing Pentagon concerns about the damage Russian-made systems could cause to US joint operations with NATO ally Turkey.

Pentagon officials said their concern is about the potential of confusion on the battlefield between Ankara and alliance members due to the use of Russian systems by a NATO ally.

Reacting to critics from the West, Erdoğan in July said “Greece, a member of NATO, has been using the S-300 for years.”

“You [NATO] neither share technology and respond to demands for joint production, nor present an offer that is financially effective. Hence, you are not in a position to say ‘Don’t buy a non-NATO system’,” Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık said in a statement in April. (SCF with turkishminute.com)

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