In a dramatic turn of events on November 5, pro-Palestinian protesters in Turkey gathered in front of the Incirlik air base, a key US military installation in the Middle East. The protestors, carrying Turkish and Palestinian flags, sought to express their opposition to the Israeli offensive in Gaza. The situation escalated as thousands attempted to breach the compound, leading to a forceful response from the police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd.
Incirlik: A Strategic Hub with Nuclear Stakes
The Incirlik air base holds a unique position as a symbol of both NATO and US presence in Turkey due to the storage of American nuclear weapons on its grounds. The incident coincided with a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Ankara, where he faced tensions, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not receive him. This convergence of events raises questions about the trustworthiness of Turkey as a NATO partner, especially with such potent weapons housed at Incirlik.
Estimates suggest that the base once housed approximately 50 nuclear weapons, constituting a significant portion of the total 150 US nuclear bombs believed to be in Europe. In recent years, this number has reportedly decreased to around 20. The secretive nature of Washington regarding the location and quantity of its nuclear arsenal adds an additional layer of complexity to the situation.
Incirlik’s Historical Significance
Incirlik’s strategic importance dates back to the Cold War when it served as a central hub for supplying American soldiers during conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Turkey’s integration into Western security structures, culminating in its NATO membership in 1952, was driven by the Soviet Union’s territorial claims against Turkey. Even today, Turkey remains a pivotal ally, offering a crucial geographic position between Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Caucasus.
“The geostrategic value of Incirlik is enormous,” emphasizes Alper Coskun, a Turkish expert at the Carnegie Foundation in Washington. In addition to Incirlik, Turkey hosts the Kürecik radar station, which plays a vital role in early warning systems against ballistic missile attacks.
Fraying Relations and Regional Challenges
Recent geopolitical shifts have strained the relationship between the United States and Turkey. Erdogan’s declarations supporting Hamas as freedom fighters, accusing Israel of war crimes, and portraying it as a pawn of the West have intensified tensions. Pro-Palestinian protests during Blinken’s visit further underscored the strained ties.
Calls in Washington to reduce Ankara’s influence and explore alternatives to Incirlik have been persistent. Past attempts, such as the 2019 bill to counter Turkish aggression, signal concerns within the US government. The US has expanded relations with Greece, sparking speculation about reducing dependence on Ankara. However, the Pentagon denies viewing Greece as a direct replacement for Incirlik.
Exploring Alternatives: A Complex Endeavor
While alternatives like Jordan, Cyprus, and Iraq are considered, their non-NATO status complicates cooperation. Some experts suggest the possibility of constructing a new military airfield in Iraq, particularly in the government-controlled, regional Kurdish area. However, maintaining Turkey within the US sphere of influence remains a priority for American security interests, despite the challenges presented by anti-American sentiments.
“Washington should not burn any bridges now,” advises Turkey expert Coskun, emphasizing the strategic difficulty of replacing Incirlik. As tensions rise, keeping Turkey within the US sphere is seen as crucial to preventing potential shifts toward Russia or China.
The events at Incirlik highlight the precarious balance of geopolitical alliances and the challenges the US faces in maintaining partnerships. The incident, coupled with ongoing regional conflicts, raises questions about the future of US-Turkey relations and the strategic importance of Incirlik. As the world watches, the delicate dance between nations continues, with Incirlik at the center of a complex geopolitical stage.