On Monday, Turkish media quoted Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as saying that Ankara was prepared to allow the Russian military to use the Incirlik airbase. The same day, Cavusoglu backtracked, saying there were no talks on Russia’s use of the base. What’s the mix-up all about, and does Moscow even need the base for its anti-terror operations?
On July 4, Turkish and then Russian and other foreign media reported that Ankara was prepared to allow the Russian Aerospace Defense Force to use southern Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, ostensibly for its anti-terrorist operations in Syria.
At present, in addition to the Turkish Air Force, the base is used by American, German, British and Qatari forces. For Washington, the base is considered the backbone of the US presence in the region, and is believed to contain some of the US B-61 nuclear bombs which are also deployed in Europe. For this reason, Svobodnaya Pressa journalist Maria Bezchastnaya commented, “information about the base being opened to the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces sounded strange.”
News on the supposed Turkish offer came from a television interview with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who was quoted as saying Monday that Ankara would cooperate with anyone fighting against the Daesh (ISIL) terrorists. “We will cooperate with everyone who fights Daesh. We have been doing this for quite some time, and we opened Incirlik base for those who want to fight terrorists. Why not cooperate with Russia as well on these terms? Daesh is our common enemy, and we need to fight this enemy.”
Cavusoglu added that he discussed issues related to terrorism with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Sochi on July 1.
However, soon after foreign policy analysts began discussing the groundbreaking implications of Ankara’s proposal, Cavusoglu refuted his words, saying that he had been misunderstood and mistranslated. Apparently, the official meant to say that the partnership with Russia which Turkey had in mind included cooperation in the fight against terror, but not the provision of the Incirlik base for doing so.
“I didn’t say that, I was referring to renewed cooperation with Russia on Syria,” Cavusoglu clarified, quoted by CNN Turk.
The Incirlik misquote was not the first apparent misreading of the words of Turkish politicians in recent days, Bezchastnaya recalled. “It began with the letter by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to his Russian counterpart, in which the Turkish leader expressed his regret about the incident involving the downed Russian aircraft. The Russian side took it as an apology, while the Turkish side began arguing that it was only ‘condolences’. Another misunderstanding arose regarding the question of compensation for the downed Russian plane. First, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that Turkey was ready to pay compensation, but then he denied his own words.”
“And despite this verbal balancing act,” the journalist recalled that “experts have suggested that Turkey really is ready to take a step toward Russia, even if it is in its own peculiar way.” The country’s main goals, she added, would be the fight against Daesh, but also an attempt to crush Kurdish militants in the country’s south.
Speaking to Svobodnaya Pressa, Anna Glazova, the head of the Center for Asia and the Middle East at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, suggested that the reasons for the Turkish leadership’s ‘verbal balancing act’ weren’t difficult to guess.
“With regard to Erdogan’s apology, the apparent contradictions were quite understandable. On the one hand, he had to apologize to Russia; on the other, to save face in front of his electorate, and not to look weak,” she noted. “In the case of compensation there’s nothing surprising. Turkey has always bargained to the last. This has always applied to all [Russian-Turkish] economic projects, and I have no doubt that the situation will be the same here as well.”
“As far as the discussion of the Incirlik base was concerned, journalists really could have misunderstood something,” the political scientist said. “The main thing is that Cavusoglu confirmed that Turkey is ready to cooperate with Russia. Judging by the latest statements coming out of Ankara, the government really does seem to have embarked on a change in regional policy, especially in relation to Syria.”
Turkey’s apparent change of heart has everything to do with the fact that its government’s ‘Assad must go’ policy has led to nothing but problems for Ankara itself, Glazova noted. “First of all, via the huge number of refugees, and secondly, in the form of the terrorist threat which now threatens the country, resulting from the government’s support for radical Islamist groups fighting in Syria all these years.”
“It seems that now Turkey has set a course for fighting terrorism for real,” the analyst continued. “In this sense, Russia’s support is absolutely indispensable. In spite of all the political statements which have been made, it’s patently obvious to everyone that Russia is the country which has exerted a maximum of effort to fight the terrorists – and Daesh first and foremost, on Syrian territory.”
At the same time, Glazova is convinced that political contacts between Moscow and Ankara on resolving the Syrian crisis in general are likely. “It is possible that the Turkish government will abandon its idea about the unconditional departure of Assad, and begin to look for some common ground with our country on this issue,” she said.
“As for the base at Incirlik, it’s worth recalling that Turkey has regularly extorted Washington over the possibility of using the base. Only recently did they give the go-ahead for the deployment of the anti-terrorist coalition there. As for ourselves, we have absolutely no need for this base, since Russia already has a sufficient capacity to carry out military operations in Syria without it.”
Finally, with regard to the idea that Turkey’s priority will now be to fight not only against Daesh, but the Kurds as well, Glazova suggested that Ankara’s main priority will be to persuade Moscow not to support the federalization of Syria and the creation of a Kurdish-governed zone there. “For Turkey, such a scenario would be much more of a threat than Daesh, and the country’s leaders have repeatedly said as much. I believe Ankara will attempt to find some agreement with Moscow on this issue.”
As far as Russia’s interests are concerned, its main goal, according to the analyst, is cooperation on resolving the war in Syria. “For us the main issue is not the Kurds’ self-determination; in the end this is an issue to be decided by the Syrian people. For us, the most important thing is for the Turks to finally close their borders and stop supporting radical Islamist groups through the provision of weapons and warm bodies and to begin the settlement process.”
Asked whether Turkey can be trusted to carry out a real battle against Daesh terrorism, Glazova suggested that in light of the spate of terror attacks rocking Turkey, Ankara has been forced to take the threat more seriously. “Whether Ankara likes it or not, they will have to choose – either stability and fighting the threat of terrorism, or supporting terror. In the latter case, Turkey itself might become the next flashpoint, and lose not only tourists from Russia and Europe, but suffer serious economic and prestige losses, which would affect Erdogan’s approval ratings.”
“I am often asked whether Erdogan’s apology was sincere. There’s no doubt in my mind that there was no sincerity behind it. It’s hard to expect sincere words from politicians of this kind. It was a question of pragmatism. For seven months, Erdogan ‘did not understand’ what Russia wanted from him and what it was that he should apologize for. Seven months later, when the situation in the country threatened his approval ratings, when Turkish resorts sit empty, causing growing discontent from ordinary Turks who could not understand why it was necessary to shoot down a Russian plane, pragmatism has outweighed pride. All actions by the Turkish leadership should be viewed from this perspective,” the analyst concluded.
For his part, Alexei Obraztsov, a senior research fellow at the Higher School of Economics’ Center for Asian and African Studies, suggested that there is no way Russia would to take Ankara up on the supposed offer to use Incirlik anyway.
“Even if such an offer was made, Russia would be unlikely to use Incirlik. The base houses NATO forces, NATO infrastructure; out of security considerations alone, it would be inappropriate to do so.”
Obraztsov also believes that it’s much too early at this point to expect Turkey to stop supporting Islamist militants in Syria. “It’s possible that the rapprochement with Russia is aimed at pushing Ankara’s European and American partners to reduce their anti-Turkish rhetoric. European policy in relation to Turkey, if it has not ended in complete failure, has at a minimum failed to deliver the expected results…Therefore, Ankara’s declarations on cooperation with Russia must be assessed in light of Turkey’s relations with Europe and the West in general.”
For its part, the Russian news and analysis website Vzglyad was even more blunt about the prospects of using Incirlik:
“Russia has never appealed to Ankara over the use of Incirlik or any other Turkish military base, and would not do so even in a fevered dream. For the Russian contingent in Syria, and more broadly, for the Russian military presence in the region, Incirlik is of no interest. Indirectly, it might be useful for carrying out operations in northern Iraq…But Moscow is fully capable of coming to an agreement with Baghdad, if it were necessary to do so…”
Moreover, Vzglyad noted, “using Incirlik would entail so many difficulties for the Aerospace Defense Forces that it would be better not to get tangled up in the idea in the first place. What would we have to gain from American military police, from the multilevel scanning of the airwaves at the base, from total eavesdropping, from Turkish technicians and support staff with fake documents? The base at Hmeymim in Syria is quite sufficient. Moreover, it operates according to official agreements between Moscow and Damascus, while any hypothetical status for Russian military forces at a NATO base, and one formally owned by the United States at that, would truly be ‘for the birds’.”