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.