Alongside the White House and the Capitol building on the alleged terrorist hit list for September 11 was another, little-noticed target: Incirlik, a US airbase in southern Turkey. In a recent raid on a suspect’s apartment in Detroit, the FBI found extensive drawings and materials relating to the base. Why Incirlik?
For the past ten years the base has been home to several thousand US military personnel and the fifty US fighter planes used for bombing the northern no-fly zone in Iraq. But it was during the Gulf War that the base earned its notoriety in the region. Throughout the war, Incirlik served as a headquarters of US operations, providing the launching pad for major troop offensives and thousands of bombing missions.
Built in 1951 by US Army engineers as a cold war outpost, Incirlik is one of the most strategically important footholds for the United States in the Middle East. It is not only within striking distance of Iran and Syria but also a short flight from the oil- and gas-rich former Soviet republics. Recent events have further enhanced the base’s value; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has even floated the idea of shifting the center of future regional operations there. With the imminent possibility of stepped-up attacks on Iraq, this shift could occur sooner rather than later.
The recent history of Incirlik offers a small window on the moral incoherence and dubious alliances that characterize US foreign policy in the region. Since Turkey reviews US access to the base every six months, it has had a powerful lever with which to influence the United States–and in turn, the United States has made costly compromises to preserve its access. “If a Turkish Ayatollah Khomeini came to power tomorrow,” a high-level military official recently commented to me, “the US would still stay on bended knee to avoid losing that base.”
The most scandalous of these compromises involves the US role in northern Iraq. The ostensible humanitarian purpose of the northern no-fly zone is to safeguard 3.3 million Iraqi Kurds. Unfortunately, US concern for the Kurds extends only to those being attacked by our enemy Saddam, not to those being attacked by our ally Turkey. Over the past fourteen years more than 23,000 Kurds fighting for greater autonomy and self-determination in southern Turkey and northern Iraq have died at Turkish hands. When Turkey sends US-made F-16s or thousands of troops to attack the Kurds across the border, as it did last December, Washington looks the other way. It’s an “obscene piece of hypocrisy,” writes John Nichol, the British pilot who was shot down in 1991 and tortured by Iraqi forces. “Turkish authorities ground our aircraft so that their own can attack the very Kurds that [we were] protecting just a few hours before.” One investigation by Air Force Times revealed that the Turks were grounding more than 50 percent of US missions.
Incirlik is a factor on other fronts as well. Last year our House of Representatives was poised to vote on a resolution to recognize the 1915 Turkish massacre of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians. As the bill gathered support, Turkish officials threatened to end US access to Incirlik. President Clinton quickly persuaded the bill’s sponsor to drop it.
After September 11, Washington immediately turned to Turkey, the only Muslim nation in NATO, for public support. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit enthusiastically stepped forward, while also criticizing past US softness toward terrorism as an attitude of “let the snake that does not bite me live for a thousand years.” Meanwhile, despite the fact that more than 70 percent of Turkish citizens oppose US military action against Afghanistan, the government has already begun making widespread arrests of human rights workers and leftists protesting the recent airstrikes.
Emboldened by a sense of indispensability, Turkish generals have been appearing regularly on television boasting that Turkey will be admitted to the European Union, a long-sought goal. But the constitutional reforms recently passed by the Turkish Parliament duck the main human rights requirements demanded by the EU as a condition of admission. “It’s a step backward,” says Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. Where real improvements might previously have been possible, the Turks are now advancing mere “cosmetic measures to ease relations with international partners.” The death penalty and basic limitations on the right of ethnic minorities to free expression are safeguarded, and provisions in the Constitution that facilitate the widespread use of torture remain unchanged. The few improvements Turkey has made do not apply to the southern Kurdish regions, where almost all of the cases of torture occur.
Despite its abysmal human rights record, Turkey is one of the largest recipients of US arms, which average more than $800 million annually. This number is sure to grow now that Washington plans to pay for Turkish support with increased weapons transfers. Soon after George W. Bush announced that he would ease restrictions, Turkish military officials called an emergency meeting to speed up negotiations on a range of major purchases, including a $4.5 billion deal to buy 145 King Cobra attack helicopters from US defense contractor Bell Textron. The deal had been blocked by a dispute over whether a portion of the source code for the helicopters’ mission computers could be withheld for security reasons. Since US officials have not ruled out an invasion of Iraq as part of its antiterrorist campaign, Incirlik’s value is at a premium. “Now more than ever, no one needs to mention the base by name,” remarked Kate Kaufer, analyst for the Arms Trade Oversight Project. “It forms the backdrop to all these military transactions.”
Not everyone in Turkey will fare as well as the military. Already in a deep recession, the Turkish economy took a further dive last February, leaving some 600,000 Turks without jobs. Unemployment has risen by 42 percent in the past year, while the Turkish lira has shed half its value. IMF austerity formulas such as tighter controls on unions and social spending come at a particularly vulnerable time. Suicides, domestic violence, prostitution and petty theft are all up. Turkey is currently the single largest debtor to the IMF, owing more than $9.6 billion, which gives the Bush Administration leverage to use for its own strategic purposes. When Turkey needed an emergency bailout this past summer, it was Bush who did the bidding. After September 11, Turkey again turned to the United States to pressure the IMF for a delay of loan repayment.
Recently, at a reception in the US Embassy in Ankara, Gen. Carlton Fulford Jr., deputy commander of US forces in Europe, spoke of the ever-growing closeness of US and Turkish armed forces. He closed by saying that this relationship “will only get stronger in the days ahead.” The question not answered was: at what cost?