A powerful California lawmaker wants Congress to consider moving U.S. personnel and military equipment out of Turkey into other Middle Eastern countries in the wake of an attempted coup in Turkey in July.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the Republican chair of a House subcommittee on emerging threats, said the relationship between Turkey and the United States had changed over the past decade and that Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, could no longer be counted on as an ally.
“Ten years ago Turkey was a solid NATO ally and a staunch opponent of radical Islam and a friend of the United States, and today that’s all in question,” said Rohrabacher, who represents Orange County. “Erdogan is purging pro-Western people throughout his country who are in positions of influence. He himself has become more aggressive in his Islamic beliefs, and there’s reason for us to be seriously concerned.”
On Wednesday, Rohrabacher will preside over a hearing whose topic is “Turkey After the July Coup Attempt.” The hearing comes as others are beginning to question the U.S. relationship with Turkey.
On Monday at a seminar on Turkey, retired Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, former head of the U.S. European Command and former top military commander of NATO, will be among the discussants of a new report, compiled by the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, that suggests options should tensions increase with Turkey.
The U.S. European Command supports 3,700 people in Turkey, about 3,000 of whom are stationed at Incirlik Air Base. Air Force Lt. Col David Faggard, a spokesman for the command, said the number of U.S. personnel based in Turkey “has risen from 1,300 in the beginning of 2015 to roughly 3,000 in July 2016” due to the expansion of the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State.
The military coup in July rendered that population vulnerable to the whims of a spurned Turkish president and angry government, said Jonathan Schanzer, one of the report’s authors and vice president of research for the foundation. In the aftermath of the coup, the Turkish government cut off electricity to Incirlik Air Base for more than four days – a move that forced officials to halt anti-Islamic State bombing missions over Syria.
“The goal here is to make sure the United States is not caught flatfooted,” he said. “In other words, if the anti-American sentiment continues, if these policies continue to pose problems for Ankara and Washington, the last thing we want to see is for the United States to not be prepared to make these moves.”
Despite the recent signs of instability, Turkey remains important to the U.S. geographically and relationally.
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C.
Some of those options include relocating personnel to Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan or perhaps using one of the many bases left empty in Iraq following the drawdown of coalition forces between 2003 and 2011, according to the report.
Finding alternative basing options for U.S. personnel and military assets is necessary given that the relationship between the United States and Turkey has become increasingly strained, Schanzer said.
“Whether it’s flirting with the Russians, whether it’s flirting with the Iranians, challenging American foreign policy, you know, making it difficult for Incirlik to operate, shutting down counter-ISIS operations over that short period of time – these are the sort of things that should be viewed as a red flag,” he said. “Not necessarily a defining moment where we need to move now, but again, a red flag, and one that should be an indication to military planners that contingency plans should be made.”
We have to wait and see what’s going to happen in Turkey but we do know it’s going the wrong direction.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.
Asked for comment, House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., didn’t take a firm stand for or against a reassessment.
“Our men and women taking the fight to ISIS are making great sacrifices every day, and we must do all that we can to ensure their safety,” Royce said. “Our relationship with Turkey is long-standing and important, and I am hopeful we can overcome the growing challenges we face.”
Rep. Mark Walker, a North Carolina Republican who traveled to the Middle East in July as part of a congressional trip, saw the situation differently.
“Despite the recent signs of instability, Turkey remains important to the U.S. geographically and relationally,” Walker said. “During the coup attempt, our military personnel and assets remained secure. It is unnecessary to consider alternate basing options at this time.”
Walker, who represents North Carolina’s 6th District, along the Virginia border, is a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
Rohrabacher dismissed the possibility that examining alternative options would cause further friction with Turkey.
“What’s causing any friction that is diplomatic with Turkey are changes that are going on in Turkey, and not what is going on the United States,” he said.
Turkish diplomats were unavailable for comment Friday. Phone calls to the Turkish Embassy in Washington were met with an English recording: “We’re sorry, the party you have dialed is not accepting calls at this time.”
States with most airmen stationed at Incirlik
North Carolina: 28