July 23, 2015

Turks to allow coalition access to Turkish air base - finally

US Air Force F-16 with both air-to-air and air-to ground munitions

After months of negotiations - and clashes between its troops and fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the Syrian border - Turkey has agreed to allow the United States to launch airstrikes from the large NATO air base in Incirlik.

There were rumors last fall that the Turks were going to allow the Americans to use the base, but an agreement fell through because of Turkish perceptions of the lack of commitment on the part of the Obama Administration to the removal of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Asad. The Turks have always wanted American support for its efforts to oust al-Asad.

It is not clear what, if any, concessions were made to the Turks other than an agreement to assist Turkey in creating a buffer zone inside northern Syria.

This is a welcome development - it significantly reduces the flight time from the airbases currently being used in Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Not only can the aircraft arrive in the target area faster, they are able to remain in the area for longer periods of time dropping significantly more ordnance. The shorter flight distance also reduces the number of aerial refuelings needed, lessening the demands on the heavily used tanker aircraft fleet.

Had coalition aircraft been able to stage from Incirlik during the fighting in the Kobani area last year and again early this year, the flight distance to target would have been as short as 165 miles versus the 800 to 1500 miles using bases in Jordan and the Gulf. The battle for the city may have been shortened significantly.

Access to Incirlik will allow increased air operations against ISIS's self-proclaimed capital at al-Raqqah in northern Syria, just 200 miles from the airbase. Translated into time, that means that American pilots can put weapons on targets in the ISIS capital in as little as 50 minutes.

Aircraft based in southern Turkey can also react more quickly to the changing situation on the ground in both northern Syria and western Iraq. The reaction time to fast-changing events on the ground in northern Syria can be measured now in minutes, not hours. This becomes even more important as ISIS forces move closer to Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

According to press reports, the United States will operate both manned aircraft and Predator drones from Incirlik - at least two of the Predators will be armed with Hellfire missiles. It was an MQ-1 Predator that recently (July 8) killed a senior al-Qa'idah operative about 20 miles west of Aleppo, or just 90 miles from Incirlik. These operations will be much easier to launch from the Turkish base - more quickly and likely more effectively.

The Turks have stated that they still will not participate in coalition air operations, using their air assets only in response to threats to Turkey, its people or its armed forces. They may provide tactical air controllers inside Syria to call in American airstrikes. Although we would prefer to have Turkish troops and pilots directly involved, use of Incirlik is a welcome change.

I have often complained about the lack of support for coalition operations by the Turks. My exact words were, "If Turkey wants to be a NATO ally, they need to start acting like a NATO ally." It appears that they are - finally.