- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Relations between Ankara and Washington have grown so fraught during recent months that the Pentagon should prepare alternatives to a key Turkish air base for regional operations, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey said Tuesday.

U.S. forces have operated out of Incirlik Air Base since the 1950s, but growing distrust between the NATO allies — from U.S. backing of Kurdish militias in Iraq to its refusal to extradite U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen — has put that military relationship at risk, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attempted to use the base — which has become a prime hub for air operations against Islamic State, al Qaeda and the Taliban in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — as leverage to get U.S. cooperation against Mr. Gulen, whom Mr. Erdogan and his allies claim was behind a failed 2016 military coup against his government.

“In the aftermath of the coup, there were several attempts to impress upon the United States that Incirlik could be cut off at any time” to American forces, said Mr. Edelman, now a senior adviser at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

While access to Incirlik is not seen as imminently in danger, Ankara’s recent efforts to ratchet up pressure on the U.S. embassy in Ankara should prompt the Trump administration to keep its options open on continuing the American military presence there.

“We need to be prepared now for the possibility that we might lose access to Incirlik or that we may choose to leave at some point,” Mr. Edelman said during an FDD-sponsored symposium on the state of U.S.-Turkish relations on Tuesday.

“I would not put that on the table [just] yet, but we do need to be prepared for it,” he added.

Despite sharp criticism from Mr. Erdogan, U.S. officials defend the role of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in the American-backed coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Turkey has been dealing with its own violent separatist Kurdish movement for decades and fears the Syrian Kurds’ success could embolden their Turkish counterparts.

But the Kurds’ battlefield exploits against Islamic State, culminating in the liberation of the terror group’s Syrian capital of Raqqa earlier this month, have made the YPG elements invaluable to Washington and its allies.

“The United States government works closely with Turkey. We work with Turkey to try to fight terrorism and increase regional stability,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Monday. “We expect all parties to avoid actions that would be seen as offensive or create any additional tensions.”

U.S.-Turkish tensions flared up earlier this month with the arrest of Metin Topuz, a Turkish national who was working as liaison officer of the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul. Ankara ordered his arrest on the suspicion that Mr. Topuz was a Gulen supporter.

Separately, Mr. Erdogan said Tuesday that an operation to impose a “de-escalation” zone in Syria’s northern Idlib province is “to a great extent complete.”

Addressing legislators from his ruling party in parliament on Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan suggested that Turkish troops could now target Syria’s border region of Afrin, which is controlled by Syrian Kurdish groups, The Associated Press reported. Turkey sent troops into Syria earlier this month to set up “observation posts” in the border province that is dominated by al Qaeda-linked militants as part of a deal reached with Russia and Iran.

— This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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