Defense minister: If forces at İncirlik pose threat to Turkish interests, status will be re-evaluated

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Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık arrives for the UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial meetings at Lancaster House in London on September 8, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS

Adding to a series of comments on the status of İncirlik Air Base in southern Turkey and revoking US access to the base, Defense Minister Fikri Işık said on Friday that İncirlik is not a NATO base and that if the deployment of foreign forces there poses a threat to Turkish interests, its status would be re-evaluated.

In response to a question about the debate to revoke US access to İncirlik on Habertürk TV, Işık said: “Not that it is going to be shut off overnight. İncirlik is not a NATO base. They remain there with Turkey’s permission. If it poses a threat to Turkish interests, it will be re-evaluated.”

Işık further stated that Turkey is continuing talks with its counterparts and noted that Turkey expects “sincerity” from the US and other countries. “We will continue talks until the end, but the ultimate decision lies with Turkey.”

Yesterday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said İncirlik Air Base in southern Turkey is valuable to the US for its strategic location for operations in the region and expressed appreciation to Turkey for the access provided.

In a press briefing on Thursday, Cook said the US looks forward to having continued access to the air base.

“We are operating out of İncirlik … and we look forward to that continuing,” he said.

Stressing the importance of the strategic airfield, Cook said: “We certainly will continue to have our conversations with Turkey and make that point clear. It’s a valuable and important part of our operations and we certainly hope and expect that it will continue.”

Following a debate in Turkey’s media over revoking US access to İncirlik Air Base, the spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, İbrahim Kalın, had said on Thursday that Turkey always has the right to shut off access to İncirlik.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also commented on the issue during his visit to United Nations headquarters in New York on Thursday and said that Turkey has no immediate plans to shut off access to İncirlik Air Base.

However, earlier in the week, Çavuşoğlu had said the Turkish people want to revoke US access to İncirlik Air Base following a column by pro-government columnist Abdulkadir Selvi in the Hürriyet daily that claimed revoking US access to İncirlik was debated in the first Cabinet meeting of 2017.

İncirlik is considered a pivotal and convenient location for US operations in Syria and in the greater region.

Speaking on the pro-government Kanal 24 TV station, Kalın had responded to a question on access to İncirlik, saying, “We have the right to shut off [access to] İncirlik, but before doing that the situation would have to be evaluated.”

Selvi referred to major terrorist attacks that have taken place in the country as well as a failed coup on July 15 in his column.

Selvi, known for his close connections to the Turkish government, wrote in Hürriyet that the rise in terrorist attacks targeting Turkey was followed by granting the US-led Global Coalition to Counter ISIL access to İncirlik on July 22, 2015. He claimed that in the first Cabinet meeting of the year, which was led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the suggestion to restrict American access to İncirlik was made.

Selvi concluded his column by saying that due to high expectations from US President-elect Donald Trump, Turkey would not make any decision on the issue until he takes office and his stance becomes clear.

Selvi’s column had appeared on the same day that Minister Işık said the lack of support from the US-led coalition forces in Syria for a Turkish-backed operation in the al-Bab region in Syria’s north aimed at clearing it of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants has caused Turkey to question the status of its İncirlik Air Base.

“We hope that all the coalition forces, mainly the US, will give the aerial support and other kinds of support Turkey needs for its Operation Euphrates Shield and that the necessary steps are taken without any delay. It is thought provoking that the countries with which we have been together for years in NATO and those which established a coalition against Daesh [another acronym for ISIL] have not supported this operation launched by the Free Syrian Army and supported by the Turkish Armed Forces against Daesh in the critical region of al-Bab,” Işık said on Wednesday.

Çavuşoğlu had also voiced similar concerns. “But there is the fact that there are trust issues. We did not see any air force support from the US in the al-Bab operation,” Çavuşoğlu pointed out in reference to Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria against ISIL targets.

In August, amid rapprochement with Moscow,  Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım had said that “if necessary” Russia could use İncirlik Air Base as well.

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