The Republic of Turkey has been a reliable staging point for U.S. forces for more than six decades. Turkish bases have historically provided the U.S. military easy access to multiple theaters without having to build new infrastructure or forge new agreements. Today, American forces in Turkey are targeting the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, manning key components of the European integrated missile defense system, providing logistics for regional operations, and deterring a resurgent Russia.
However, the attempted coup of July 2016 and the war in Syria have revealed growing fractures in the U.S.-Turkish security relationship. Statements by Turkish officials in the wake of the coup suggesting that American officials were behind the failed putsch indicate that trust between the two countries is plummeting. Worryingly, these statements are now inciting anti-American sentiment across Turkey. Turkey’s decision to shut down U.S. operations against IS in the immediate aftermath of the coup, albeit temporarily, was also cause for alarm, even if it was a precautionary measure.
Even before the failed coup, tensions between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the West were on the rise. At home, Erdogan has been transforming Turkey into a more authoritarian and Islamist state, undermining the rule of law and freedom of the press. Turkey’s foreign policy choices, particularly those that have empowered destabilizing forces in the Middle East, have been increasingly been at odds with Washington. Specifically, Ankara’s support for known terrorist groups and its deliberately poor regulation of its Syrian border have exacerbated security challenges in the region. The strains have grown so great that some have suggested Turkey’s place in NATO is in question. Though Turkish actions have raised fundamental questions about the nation’s basic foreign policy orientation, there is no mechanism to expel a NATO member. Moreover, because Ankara’s place within NATO remains crucial, Washington has endeavored to address these issues in muted tones. Indeed, access to Turkish facilities have been vital for the war against IS and will likely remain so for future crises. Keeping these installations open and secure are the top priority.
But continued cooperation does not mean the continuation of the status quo. In the wake of the coup, as the Turkish government engages in an unprecedented purge of domestic foes (both real and imagined), Turkey is unstable and unpredictable. It is now essential to determine if the estimated 3,000 U.S. servicemen or the sensitive U.S. hardware based in Turkey are in any way jeopardized. In short, an assessment is needed to examine alternative basing options in the eastern Mediterranean. Such contingency planning is crucial to protect U.S. interests. But it should not supplant or encumber ongoing efforts to restore Turkish-American ties to their previous levels of trust.