The U.S. government is offering families of American service members and diplomatic employees voluntary evacuation from Turkey in a sign of the increased threat caused by the start of U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria from a key Turkish air base.
The Defense Department said about 900 dependents of American troops based at the Incirlik Air Base in southeastern Turkey will be able to fly home on commercial airliners at government expense. The State Department said roughly 100 families members of people stationed at the U.S. Consulate in nearby Adana, Turkey, are eligible to leave.
“This decision was made out of an abundance of caution following the commencement of military operations out of Incirlik Air base,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters at a briefing.
Cook denied that the voluntary evacuation was being offered in response to any concrete danger from Islamic State militants or other anti-American groups.
“This is not being done because of any specific new threat,” Cook said. “We’ve been at an elevated force protection level in Turkey, at Incirlik, for some time now. This is just an extra step being taken out of an abundance of caution.”
About 1,700 American service members, most of them in the Air Force, were at Incirlik before the U.S.-Turkish agreement in July to allow F-16s flown by American pilots to bomb Islamic State fighters across the Syrian border about 75 miles southeast of the air base.
Hundreds more U.S. airmen are arriving at Incirlik to support the direct air campaign, which began Aug. 12 when the first American bombers took off from the air base.
With a population of 1.7 million people, Adana is Turkey’s fifth-largest city, located 5 miles west of Incirlik Air Base. About 200 Americans work at the consulate, whose area of responsibility covers 22 Turkish provinces along the Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian borders.
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, called the offer of voluntary diplomatic evacuation “precautionary” and said it represents “an acknowledgment that the threat level is increased due to military activities now going out of that (Incirlik) base.”
In a separate State Department travel warning for all Americans, the U.S Embassy in the capital of Ankara said it “strongly recommends that U.S. citizens avoid areas in close proximity to the Syrian border.”
American government employees are required to obtain advance approval before traveling on official or personal business in any of 16 provinces near Syria and Iraq.
“U.S. citizens traveling to or residing in Turkey should be alert to the potential for violence,” the State Department warning said. “In the recent past, terrorists have conducted attacks on U.S. interests in Turkey, as well as at sites frequented by foreign tourists. We strongly urge U.S. citizens to avoid demonstrations and large gatherings.”
While not frequent, such an offer of voluntary return home for American military and diplomatic dependents is not unprecedented.
The Pentagon and the State Department agreed to relocate the families of 40,000 American military and diplomatic personnel in northeast Japan following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in that region.
Other voluntary evacuations have occurred in Bahrain in 2011 and in Turkey in 2003 following the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014, @jamesmartinrose