The Future of Incirlik Air Base

The Future of Incirlik Air Base
U.S. Air Force photo by SSgt Rebeccah A. Woodrow
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Despite the sweltering Turkish summer, American pilots shopped for handsewn leather jackets at Pop's Leather. Sitting on the edge of the NATO airbase at Incirlik, Pops is just one of many businesses that have for decades depended upon American clientele.

Today, they receive nary a visitor says Shafak Acikgoz whose family has run Pops since the 1960s. Neither do the other "alley shops" that long sold souvenirs and good to foreign soldiers.

Shafak is the second generation to work in Pop's Leather. Pops Leather was started in the late 1960s by his Acikgoz's father, Yashar. Then Incirlik was little more than a village when today it is a suburb of Adana – Turkey's fifth largest city by population. His father who opened the shop insisted Safak learn English to help grow the business.

American pilots were the shops target customers. On a good day, the shop would sell as many as ten leather jackets.

"It takes six hours and the labor of six workers to make each jacket," he says. He describes in detail the cutting, gluing, stitching, ironing, and cleaning of the finished product that goes into every jacket.

Acikgoz says it has been this way since 2015 when the Americans vanished behind the long fence which surrounds the NATO airbase. The U.S. military decided that it was too dangerous for American personnel to venture off base as the NATO hub became key in the war on terror. The 3320-acre airbase is home to thousands of personnel, including roughly 2,200 Americans, and now handles over a third of all air refueling operations of "Operation Inherent Resolve" – as anti-ISIL operations as known- - the airbase handles roughly a fifth of all close-air support operations refueling, according to Pentagon reports. The base is also vital for Operation Inherent – America’s military mission in Afghanistan.

Soon, Acikgoz and customers of the other ‘alley shops’ may be gone for good, because of the war on terror and the state of U.S.-Turkish relations. In recent months an unusual mix – a former American general and Turkish secularists - have called for ending America's presence at the base.  Such a move would have broad strategic and local consequences, reshaping Turkish-American relations as it delivers a blow to the small Turkish businesses that have depended on the goodwill of American and NATO troops.

Incirlik has long been a vital U.S. base and the frontline of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. In July 2016, the base found itself at the center of the crisis when a faction of Turkish military officers launched a coup against the nation's ruling Justice and Development Party (often referred to as the AKP).

The Turkish government's investigations linked Incirlik's Turkish Commander Gen. Bekir Ercan Van to the coup at the height of the crisis. Turkish authorities said that General Van had allowed rebel aircraft to refuel at the base during the coup. Van subsequently attempted to seek asylum in the United States but, was denied.

"The situation in Turkey is a cause of concern because the military-to-military relationship was our bread-and-butter regarding deepening the U.S-Turkish relation." said a U.S diplomat who spoke off the record regarding the incident.

There is some support - especially among Turks who subscribe to the ideology of "Kemalism," a nationalist and secular ideology based on modern Turkey’s founding father, Moustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk, Turkey's first president, preached a secular, virulently nationalist and mildly socialist ideology.

Omer Fadil who works in a café nearby is an ardent Kemalist. Fadil lives and works in the sprawling Turkish metropolis of Adana a mere six miles from the airbase. Fadil trained in political science at university but, has only been able to find this job. He blames the Americans for driving up prices and taking jobs in the area over the years.

"I'm a proud Kemalist, and the U.S. military prescience in Adana is a disgrace to the ideas of Moustafa Kemal and the ideas of a free Turkey. It's one thing to be part of an alliance, it's another thing to allow them into your home," says Fadil citing the founder of the Turkish Republic.

Fadil is not alone. In March, a Kemalist newspaper called for closing U.S. troops access to Incirlik over American support for Kurdish groups.

For Kemalists, Adana and its environs have a special significance. It was here that as the local history museum proudly notes that Moustafa Kemal first had the idea to fight to create the Turkish Republic out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1943 Kemal's successor, President Ismet Inonu, met British Prime Minister Winston Churchill near Adana. That same year Turkey, the United States, and the United Kingdom laid the groundwork for the creating of the base after the war.

Tensions at Incirlik following the coup attempt are further complicated by the presence of at least 50 American tactical nuclear weapons at the base according to the New York Times.

"We don't discuss locations of our nuclear weapons." Said Pentagon spokesperson Michelle Baldanza in a written response to a query regarding the presence of nuclear weapons at the base. A source close to CENTCOM told RealClearDefense that in light of regional tensions the nuclear weapons had been quietly removed.

Some Americans also believe that in the context of the events of July 2016 it is time to find a new home for American air assets in Turkey:

"[I]t's time to find an alternative to Incirlik. The best solution would be to build a new airfield in Iraq — specifically, in territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government," wrote Charles Wlad, a former air force general and commander of the airbase, in an op-ed last year. Wlad has also called for closing the U.S. base at Al-Udeeid 

Such a move would come at a steep cost. Logistics and operations cost making up over $5 million per day a day of the $13.2 million per day spent in the fight against. Relocating significant air assets from Incirlik to another field of operations could increase those costs.

On the edge of Incirlik, relocating the base is unthinkable for shop-keepers. They instead look forward to the day the gate re-opens, with many using social media to keep in touch with their American friends. In addition to Pop's Leather, only a handful of shops remain. Many small bars, trinket shops, and tailors have all folded. Some of the empty storefronts remain covered in the stickers of various American military units who visited the site. Only Turkish personnel are allowed off the base these days. However, most choose to shop in their home communities rather than "the Alley."

"Of course the gate has been closed, before it was closed for six months during the 1991 Gulf War but, now it has been two years. The gates have never been closed this long, and our businesses don't know if we could survive" Acikgoz said.

When the gates finally reopen the vendors worry there could be a steep decline in business due to American dependents being sent home in 2016.

"All the people in this area we love the Americans. I think there is a certain affinity between American people and Turkish people, " Shafak says.

Shafak thinks the events of 2016 are long forgotten by the Turkish government and are unlikely to trouble the future of the base.

"The closing of the gate due to security concerns only impact shopkeepers, not U.S.-Turkish relations. However, if the U.S. keeps arming YPG terrorists," Acikgoz says using a term for Kurdish groups in Syria viewed as a terrorist organization by the Turkish state, "that could lead to a serious rupture in U.S.-Turkish relations.

AMI Senior Reporter Joseph Hammond was able to travel to Germany to develop this story after receiving a Transatlantic Media Fellowship from the Heinrich Böll Foundation in 2017. You can learn more about that program and the work of the Heinrich Böll Foundation here.


Joseph Hammond is a senior contributor with the American Media Institute. As a former Cairo correspondent for Radio Free Europe during the 2011 Arab uprisings, he has also reported from four continents on issues ranging from stability in Somalia to the M23 rebellion in the Eastern Congo.



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