In the latest sign of discord between two key NATO allies, Turkey on Monday formally denied news reports that it had agreed to open a major air base to U.S. and other coalition combat aircraft fighting Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.
Use of Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey was high on the U.S. wish list when President Barack Obama sent a special envoy for the crisis to Ankara last week. “Basing rights would be helpful,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday.
For a few days, there appeared to be a deal. Reporters accompanying Hagel on a trip to South America over the weekend quoted senior officials as saying that Turkey had agreed to U.S. use of the base.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice strengthened the impression Sunday. “They have said that their facilities inside of Turkey can be used by coalition forces, American and otherwise, to engage in activities inside of Iraq and Syria,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
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But Turkey’s foreign minister shot that down Monday. “Turkey has made no decision on whether to open its Incirlik air base to the U.S.-led coalition in the fight,” Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in New York. A Turkish spokesman said the U.S. request for Incirlik was still under discussion, as was the Turkish demand for steps against the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad.
At the heart of the discord is a substantive dispute. Turkey views the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Islamic State targets as a tactical step that lacks a long-term strategy, while the Obama administration has refused to consider Turkey’s demands for steps to oust Assad.
Hagel said Saturday that creating a safe zone inside Syria for Syrians fleeing government bombing, a Turkish demand, is not “actively being considered.” And Rice said Sunday the U.S. doesn’t see it as “essential.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed his demands Monday, saying the main goal of the U.S.-led operations should be Assad’s removal.
“A no-fly zone and a safe zone should be set up, so we can be able to place the Syrians inside our country in these safe havens,” he told a university audience. Turkey now hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees.
Beyond the dispute over principles, an element of pique appears to be at play, with each side delivering calculated snubs to the other. President Barack Obama failed to send a senior aide to Erdogan’s inauguration as president in August and declined to meet him for talks during the U.N. General Assembly in September, sending Vice President Joe Biden instead.
After Biden publicly blamed Turkey and other U.S. allies for the rise of the Islamic State and then disclosed what he said was the content of their private conversation, Erdogan threatened to break all contacts with him. Meanwhile, administration aides, speaking anonymously, were quoted by major U.S. news outlets as disparaging Turkey’s contribution to the war on Islamic extremists.
The Turks are also able to deliver a snub. Obama last week dispatched John Allen, his new special envoy for the Islamic State crisis, to Ankara at the tail end of a Middle East tour, but Erdogan did not receive the retired Marine general, a conspicuous omission.
And despite a personal invitation by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Turkey’s top military officer, Gen. Necdet Ozel, will not be attending Tuesday’s meeting of top military officials from 20 countries in Washington. Pleading a scheduling conflict as well as security threats in Syria, Ozel was sending his deputy, Turkish news media reported.
The only sign of cooperation arising from the Allen visit was the announcement by the State Department that the U.S. and Turkey had agreed to train and equip Syrian rebel fighters – a move proposed by Turkey. But some of the details appear to have been settled during meetings in Washington between the head of Turkish intelligence, Gen. Hakan Fiden, and Lisa Monaco, the White House counterterrorism adviser.