Turkey and Germany are heading for a showdown over Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, which could hamper operations against the Islamic State conducted out of the base and further damage Ankara’s already tarnished image in NATO.At issue is Turkey’s refusal to allow German parliamentarians from visiting their troops at Incirlik. Ankara initially made this decision in retaliation against the adoption by the German parliament in June 2016 of a resolution referring to the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 as “genocide.”
German media reports show that Ankara is already feeling the fallout from its dispute with Berlin. Germany reportedly headed the list of countries that refused to accept President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s invitation during last week’s NATO summit to hold next year’s alliance summit in Istanbul.
In the meantime, Germany is considering redeploying the 260 soldiers and the reconnaissance aircraft it has in Incirlik to Jordan if an agreement with Ankara cannot be reached by mid-June.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel will be in Ankara next week to try to clear up the situation. Ankara, however, remains defiant.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said recently that Turkey will not “beg” for German troops to stay. “If they want to leave, let’s just say goodbye,” he told a private channel.
Since the Armenian resolution, tensions between the two countries have increased even more over other differences. These include the fact that Erdogan and Turkish government ministers were not allowed to hold rallies in Germany prior to the constitutional referendum on April 16, which aimed to concentrate all power in Erdogan’s hands, in order to canvass for support among the large number of Turks there.
The fact that sympathizers of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is outlawed in both countries, were allowed to hold rallies in Germany around the same time and chant anti-Erdogan slogans aggravated the situation further.
Germany’s refusal to extradite supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic cleric Ankara accuses of masterminding last year’s failed coup against Erdogan, and offering many of them asylum instead, has poured more fuel on Ankara’s anger.
The arrest and imprisonment in Turkey of journalists Deniz Yucel and Mesale Tolu, both of whom are German citizens of Turkish origin, on charges of aiding PKK terrorism has not helped either.
Matters came to a head when a German delegation of deputies was not allowed by Turkey to visit Incirlik on May 16. Turkish media quoted official sources who merely said, “This visit was not considered appropriate at this time.”
Cavusoglu’s remarks on the topic were equally vague. “We see that Germany supports everything that is against Turkey,” Cavusoglu told a news conference May 30. “Under these circumstances, it is not possible for us to open Incirlik to German lawmakers right now. … If they take positive steps in the future, we can reconsider.”
Turkey’s demands from Berlin clearly include a disowning of the Armenian resolution by the German government, a ban on the activities of pro-PKK elements and the extradition of those sought by Ankara in connection with last year’s attempted coup.
Diplomats sounded out by Al-Monitor said these demands are unlikely to be met given the increasing anger among German lawmakers toward Turkey. The Green Party — with support from within the Social Democratic Party, Merkel’s coalition partner — want German troops to move out of Turkey immediately.
They argue that Erdogan is making short shrift of European democratic values and should not be emboldened further by being allowed to use the German military presence in Incirlik as a pawn against Berlin.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union, however, favor a more cautious approach. Germany has over 3 million Turks, which ensures the need for significant cooperation between the two countries on multiple levels. This is what is driving the desire for caution and dialogue with Turkey, rather than burning bridges.
Barcin Yinanc, a veteran foreign policy commentator for Hurriyet Daily News, believes Germany’s need for Turkey will be even greater in the future. She pointed out in a recent article that if Merkel wins the German elections in September, she and newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron will effectively lead Europe.
“And if these two decide to take Europe’s fate in their own hands, it would only facilitate their leadership if they were to have Turkey, a key NATO member, at the epicenter of everything that matters to the EU — from relations, to Russia, to the refugee crisis — on their side” Yinanc argued.
Merkel’s suggestion after last week’s NATO summit that Europe had to rely less on the United States and look to providing its own security in the future gives added importance to this view.
Merkel has pinned her hopes now on Gabriel’s talks in Ankara next week to come up with a face-saving compromise for both sides. Neither side appears prepared, mainly for domestic political reasons, to be seen as the one climbing down.
While Ankara says it won’t beg for German troops in Incirlik to stay, it is clear that if they were to be redeployed somewhere else in the Middle East, Turkey would lose prestige. It would also prompt new questions about Turkey’s reliability as a NATO ally.
“Turkey mistakes defiant short-term steps for a coherent foreign policy, but this will only increase its international isolation and leave it with having gained little in the end,” a diplomat talking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said. “It is restraint on the European side that has so far prevented ties from breaking down completely,” according to the diplomat.
“Turkey’s strategic place means it will remain vitally important for Europe, whether Erdogan is at the helm or not. This does not mean, however, that Ankara will have it its way every time,” he added.
Retired Ambassador Osman Koruturk, whose past postings include Berlin, said Turkish-German ties are deeply intertwined socially, economically and politically and criticizes the way Ankara has been conducting its foreign policy under Erdogan.
“The biggest mistake is conducting foreign policy over the media, while this should be done face to face and behind closed doors,” Koruturk, who is currently a deputy for the main opposition Republican People’s Party, told Al-Monitor.
“Otherwise the danger is that you will be unable to stand behind your defiant public statements and be forced to climb down,” he added, pointing out that this is what he expects to happen with Germany, as was the case with Russia and Israel before.
Koruturk also pointed out that the crisis with Germany is ultimately a crisis between Turkey and NATO. “Turkey has already lost its predictability for NATO. The situation with Germany will not help get rid of the negative perceptions that have emerged about Turkey,” Koruturk said.
With the lines drawn as they are, however, it remains to be seen which side will blink first. Given Erdogan’s penchant for escalating international tensions, this crisis with Germany could still get out of hand to the detriment of all concerned.