Although the US and Turkey have been allies since the latter joined the NATO alliance in 1952, tensions between the two nations have grown in recent years as the interests of Washington and Ankara become increasingly contradictory.
Whether in Syria, where Turkish forces raced past American outposts to attack US-allied Kurdish militias last October, or when Ankara bought Russian S-400 air defense systems over US objections and was removed from the F-35 program in response, fears have only increased that the fraught relationship could imperil the key Incirlik Air Base, which has served as a military logistical hub for NATO in the region for decades.
“We don’t know what’s gonna happen to Incirlik,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee for Europe, told the Washington Examiner for a Friday story. “We hope for the best, but we have to plan for the worst.”
“We want to maintain our full presence and cooperation in Turkey,” Johnson continued. “I don’t think we want to make that strategic shift, but I think, from a defensive posture, I think we have to look at the reality of the situation that the path that Erdogan is on is not good.”
“We’re already looking at Greece as an alternative,” Johnson added.
The US naval base on Souda Bay is the only deep-water port in the eastern Mediterranean capable of docking US aircraft carriers, so the base on Crete’s northern coast is already a very busy place.
Adjacent to the Souda Bay facility is Chania International Airport, which is also used as an air base by the Hellenic Air Force. However, given that Chania is already Greece’s sixth-busiest airport, taking on the increased workload of handling the US planes that would have once flown into Incirlik could be a daunting task.
“It’s very unfortunate the path that Erdogan is taking Turkey, or has put Turkey on,” Johnson said. “It’s disturbing. It’s very concerning, which is one of the reasons we certainly are increasing and improving our military cooperation with Greece … beefing up our presence in Souda Bay, because our presence, quite honestly, in Turkey is certainly threatened.”
However, Johnson said nothing about the roughly 150 nuclear weapons the US stores at Incirlik.
Aykan Erdemir, the senior Turkey analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank and a former Turkish lawmaker, told the Examiner that “Washington is not necessarily thinking of one alternative to Incirlik, but a number of rebasing options which are complementary as a contingency plan to Incirlik.”
“This has been going on for quite some time, in steps. I would definitely argue that it’s nothing new, but it might be changing qualitatively in terms of the nature and the extent of US presence and investments in that,” he said.