Incirlik Air Base: Shared Military Asset and Political Bargaining Chip

Alexander Snow – Research and Editorial Intern, THO

Since it became operational in the mid-1950’s, the Turkey-based Incirlik Air Base has played an important role in U.S. military and humanitarian strategy. It is also a symbol of the U.S.-Turkey military partnership: valued, historic, and occasionally fraught.


The historical trajectory of Incirlik’s strategic value has unsurprisingly mirrored U.S. priorities in the region. The base’s origin story begins with the Cold War; specifically, with the Truman Doctrine. This policy, prompted by “Soviet meddling in Greek and Turkish affairs,” stipulated a U.S. commitment to the prevention of Soviet influence abroad. [1] National Security Council Report 68, written in 1950, buttressed the doctrine by calling for a colossal uptick in military spending, a global strategy of containment, and increased military aid for allied countries. Turkey was an obvious candidate for such support. Attempts by the USSR to strong-arm Ankara coupled with Turkey’s general strategic value meant both Ankara and Washington were amenable to the idea of an American air base in southeast Turkey. For its part, along with the security a U.S. military installation would offer against Soviet aggression, Turkey wanted NATO membership. Ankara was thus happy to agree to the construction of an air base on Turkish territory, as it would bolster Turkey’s claim to full NATOmembership – a status Turkey received in 1952. [2]

Incirlik’s specific location was selected because it enabled a year-round, 1,600-km flight path to Moscow unencumbered by inclement weather, and it was less than 60 km from the Mediterranean Sea. [3] U.S. construction on the base went ahead in 1951, and the U.S. Air Force signed a joint use agreement for the base in late 1954. [4]

Mandate and Missions

While the U.S. military originally exercised wide latitude in Incirlik’s use, its mandate was narrowed in 1969, when the Turkish government restricted its missions to NATO operations only. [5] In 1980, the two countries redefined Incirlik’s use when signing the Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement (DECA). Per the DECA, Turkey was empowered to revoke U.S. tenure of the base with three days’ notice; the base was to be used for “joint defense measures”; the U.S. was not to use the base for its own purposes; and Turkey was granted veto power over U.S. use of the base for even NATO operations. [6]

In any case, some of the highest profile missions conducted from Incirlik have fallen outside the NATO scope. The base provided support in various capacities for the Iraq-focused operations of the 1990’s, such as Operation Desert Storm, Operation Provide Comfort, and Operation Northern Watch (all non-NATO). Incirlik also served as a hub for the provision of U.S. humanitarian assistance in the region and in Turkey itself (such as in response to the Van earthquake of 1976 and the Istanbul earthquakes of 1999). It has become an even more important center of military activity following the turn of the millennium, providing support in varied capacities for U.S. military activities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

The Future of Incirlik Air Base

Throughout its history, Incirlik Air Base has been both a strategic linchpin and a tangential topic of discussion in disagreements between the U.S. and Turkey. After Turkey’s 1974 intervention in Cyprus, the U.S. declared an arms embargo on Turkey. Ankara responded by threatening to close Incirlik, and the Turkish military took control of the facilities in mid-1975. [7] The status quo was restored after the U.S. lifted the embargo in 1978. The base again became a source of friction in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Turkey’s parliament officially denied the U.S. use of the base for the duration of the war, though by 2004, U.S. troops and equipment were tacitly allowed to transit through Incirlik. [8]

In 2014, a U.S. request that Incirlik be used for combat operations against ISIS received a tepid response from the Turkish parliament. Washington was mollified only in mid-2015, when the Turkish government officially sanctioned Incirlik’s use in a bombing campaign. [9] Yet in 2017, Ankara threatened to shut down the base over disagreements concerning the U.S.’s Syria policy. [10] The strategic leverage of such a step is not lost on Turkey, as the base is critical to U.S. military capabilities. For instance, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, in the fight against ISIS, “33 percent of air refueling operations are conducted out of [Incirlik] air base, as well as around 30 percent of all U.S. close-air support missions. UAVs [drones] operate out of the air base as well.” [11]

The use and future of Incirlik is also a recurring topic of discussion on the U.S. side. A recent slump in U.S.-Turkey relations has spurred talk of change in Washington, and sites in Jordan, northern Iraq, and Cyprus have all been mentioned as possible alternatives to Incirlik. [12] 2016’s coup attempt in Turkey also prompted policymaker handwringing over Incirlik’s housing of U.S. nuclear weapons. [13] Some of the above mentioned alternative sites do offer similar strategic capabilities regarding U.S. operations in the Middle East. Yet Incirlik’s strategic value has more than military significance. The base serves as a symbol of the historic cooperation between two powerful NATO partners; as such, any discussion of the future of Incirlik Air Base is ultimately a discussion of the future of U.S.-Turkey relations.


[1] The Truman Doctrine, 1947. (n.d.). The U.S. Department of State: Office of the Historian. Accessed on June 22, 2017. Retrieved from

[2] Cappello, J., Megahan, P., Hannah, J., & Schanzer, J. (2016, August). Covering the bases: Reassessing U.S. military deployments in Turkey after the July 2016 attempted coup d’etat. Washington, D.C.: FDD Press. Retrieved from content/uploads/documents/Covering_the_Bases.pdf

[3] Bolme, S. (2007). The politics of Incirlik Air Base. Insight Turkey, 9(3), 82-91. Retrieved from Incirlik_Air_Base

[4] Incirlik Air Base history. (2013, May 17). U.S. Air Force: Incirlik Air Base. Retrieved from Sheets/Display/Article/300814/incirlik-air-base-history/

[5] Cappello et al. (2016).

[6] Cappello et al. (2016).

[7] Bolme (2007).

[8] Bolme (2007).

[9] Cappello et al. (2016).

[10] Zaman, A. (2017, January 4). Turkey brandishes Incirlik card to threaten U.S. Al-Monitor. Retrieved from http://www.almonitor.

[11] The alternatives to Incirlik. (n.d.). Bipartisan Policy Center. Accessed on June 22, 2017. Retrieved from

[12] The alternatives to Incirlik (n.d.).

[13] The Stimson Center. (2016, August 14). U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey at risk of seizure by terrorists, hostile forces [Press release]. Retrieved from

Incirlik Air Base: Shared Military Asset and Political Bargaining Chip