Turkey says it could shut down American military facilities if the United States sanctions it over buying Russian arms and its intervention in Syria.
The U.S. Air Force has announced that it will pay eight different Turkish firms tens of millions of dollars to update the infrastructure and complete other construction projects at facilities it operates in that country over the next five years. This comes amid threats from Turkey’s government, including from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to suspend or outright terminate American access to various bases in the country, including Incirlik Air Base, where the United States presently stores approximately 50 B61 nuclear bombs.
The Pentagon announced the Air Force deals, worth $95 million in total, in its daily contracting announcement on Dec. 23, 2019. The notice does not say how much each of the Turkish companies received. The Air Force only considered offers from local companies in accordance with the U.S.-Turkey Defense Economic Cooperation Agreement (DECA), which the two countries signed in 1980 and includes guarantees for Turkish participation in military construction projects.
The contracting announcement does not say what bases in Turkey will see construction projects under the deals, but does say they will be limited to Air Force facilities. The contracts cover “design-build, partial design, and full design infrastructure requirements” and the “work will consist of multiple disciplines in general construction categories for the military base facilities of Air Force and support units within Turkey,” according to the notice.
Though Incirlik is the best known of American facilities in Turkey, the U.S. military had eight major operating locations in the country as of September 2017, according to the most recent publicly available Department of Defense Base Structure Report. The Air Force is the lead service at seven of those sites, with the U.S. Army being responsible for operations at the Kurecik Radar Station, near the city of Malatya, also known as Site K, which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone story.
Air Force facilities in Turkey have been important staging bases for U.S. forces, including special operations forces, operating in the region, especially against ISIS in neighboring Syria. Turkey also continues to exist in a strategically important position along the Black Sea and Russia’s southern flank.
The Turkish companies now under contract to the Air Force could perform work as mundane as repaving roads and runways, renovating underground piping for water and sewage, and other general infrastructure-related work, based on planned U.S. military projects in Turkey outlined in Pentagon budget documents in recent years. It could also include more intensive projects, such as renovating larger existing facilities, such as housing or office buildings, or erecting entirely new facilities.
It’s possible that the Turkish companies could find themselves involved in the design and construction of new or revised security features, even at the part of Incirlik where the B61 bombs are stored. In 2015, Turkey’s Kuanta Construction, working as a subcontractor to the Aselsan Cooperation, built a new security perimeter for the so-called “NATO area” of that base where the nuclear weapons are secured.
Whatever the Air Force expects the Turkish contractors to do, with the work expected to run through at least 2024, at least a portion of the contracts could very well become moot. U.S. relations with Turkey have been steadily eroding since a coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016 and have experienced an even more pronounced chill following the Turkish military’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems the following year.
The S-400 deal had already led the Pentagon to boot Turkey form the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program over operational security concerns, which you can read about in more detail in this previous War Zone story. There is still the looming threat of U.S. sanctions over the purchase of the Russian air defense systems.
In addition, there have been growing calls in Congress for even harsher punitive actions against Turkey in light of its military intervention into Northern Syria, which began in October 2019 and has been aimed primarily at U.S.-backed forces, which are predominately Kurdish.
“If this is necessary, together with our delegations, we will close down Incirlik if necessary,” President Erdogan said in an interview on Turkey’s A Haber television network on Dec. 15, 2019, following U.S. lawmakers’ passage of a resolution recognizing the genocide of ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. “If it is necessary for us to take such a step, of course we have the authority.”
“If they are threatening us with these sanctions, of course we will be retaliating,” he continued.
Erdogan also threatened to shut down Site K in the same interview. It’s unclear whether these threats extend to other American facilities in the country. The U.S. is already considering finally pulling the B61s out of Incirlik and there are unconfirmed reports that it may have already begun doing so.
The Turkish President has adopted increasingly authoritarian policies in recent years and stoked unsubstantiated conspiracy theories of direct U.S. involvement in the 2016 coup attempt, and has moved his country closer to Russia’s sphere of influence, as well. Turkey is also deepening its commitments to the internationally-recognized government of Libya and has prompted a major maritime dispute as a result of a recent deal with Libyan authorities, issues you can read about in great detail in this War Zone piece, which are examples of increasingly assertive foreign policy.
Other Turkish officials have made similar remarks in recent weeks, as well. “We will evaluate the worst-case scenario and in the event of a decision to sanction Turkey, the Incirlik and Kurecik airbases can be brought to the agenda,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Dec. 12, 2019, in his own televised interview. Cavusoglu had also made similar threats earlier in the year and Turkish officials have done so on multiple occasions in the past without following through, but U.S.-Turkish relations seem especially strained at present. Turkey has suspended certain types of U.S. access to Incirlik, in particular, on multiple occasions in the past.
U.S. sanctions themselves could upend the military contracts with the various Turkish firms, depending on how severely they restrict the U.S. government’s ability to do business in the country. A proposed sanctions package presently making its way through Congress would enact close to a total arms embargo against Turkey, but would not outright prohibit the U.S. government from contracting with companies there to provide services to American forces. Addition restrictions imposed under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAASTA, could also create hurdles. It is important to note that there are provisions in both CAASTA and the proposed legislation for waivers in light of national security concerns.
When any sanctions might take effect and what form they might take remains to be seen. U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration have argued against sanctions and other actions that are critical of Turkey as they seek to try to negotiate with Turkey to resolve the S-400 issue and other impasses.
So, in the meantime, Turkish contractors will be getting to work on various construction projects at U.S. facilities, even if it’s not clear what the future will hold for American forces in the country.
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