“Out-Cirlik”: After months of tensions, domestic pressure drives German cabinet to vacate Turkey’s Incirlik Airbase diminishing support for assault on Raqqa

Magdalena Kirchner

Magdalena Kirchner, Ph.D. is a political scientist and conflict researcher, currently a Transatlantic Postdoctoral Fellow in International Relations and Security (TAPIR) at the RAND Corporation in Arlington, VA. Previously, she held research positions at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and the German Council of Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. Since 2009, she has co-edited the Security Policy Reader, published by the Federal Ministry of Defense. Throughout 2014 and 2015, she worked as Senior Project Coordinator at the German Atlantic Association and was a member of the extended board of Women In International Security Germany. Since 2015, she has served as Vice President of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association, whose German chapter she has headed since 2014. Magdalena studied Political Science and History in Heidelberg and Aarhus, DK, and holds a doctoral degree from the University of Heidelberg. Before relocating to Berlin in 2012, she was a lecturer at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Heidelberg, head of the Working Group “Conflicts in the Middle East and Maghreb” of the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, and gained international work experience at think tanks and research institutions in Turkey, Israel and Jordan.

She is a 2016-2017 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

German-Turkish relations, experiencing their fair share of turbulence in the past months, reached a new low last Wednesday when Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet decided to redeploy some 260 German soldiers and Tornado surveillance as well as tanker planes that have been stationed at Turkey’s Incirlik airbase since December 2015 to Jordan. According to defense minister Ursula von der Leyen, this move will deprive the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS of German reconnaissance and air fuelling capacity over the Northern Syrian airspace for at least two months—just when the battle over ISIS’ stronghold in Syria, Raqqa, is entering a decisive phase. The good news is that Germany will continue operations in support of NATO’s airborne early warning mission from another Turkish airbase thanks to deft allied mediation.

The withdrawal from Incirlik differs considerably from previous German redeployments, such as when the several hundred troops Berlin had contributed to NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defense Task Force Active Fence in 2013 returned home from Kahramanmaras, Turkey, after more than two years in late 2015, where they reportedly experienced  “magnificent cooperation and hospitality.” In contrast, Germany’s departure from Incirlik is not triggered by a perception of mission accomplished or reduced threat. Quite the contrary, German soldiers are leaving Incirlik because of Ankara’s continued unwillingness to commit to any kind of status of forces agreement compatible with a core principle of Germany’s security policy. The idea of a parliamentary army (“Parlamentsarmee”), which is inherent to the German understanding of civilian control over the military, implies that the parliament should be in a position to monitor the Bundeswehr missions abroad—inter alia by on-site visits to respective bases in host countries. German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel was therefore stating the obvious during his visit to Ankara on Monday, June 5, when he linked the troop withdrawal to “domestic political reasons” in Germany. Beyond the high importance of the issue to lawmakers and foreign policy makers, Germany is heading toward elections this September—and 93 percent of the German public expressed distrust toward Ankara in a nationwide poll this February.

The debate on Incirlik has sparked tensions not only between governing and opposition parties in Germany, but also within the grand coalition of conservatives and Social Democrats in the government. German officials had voiced their frustration, on the one hand, over the fact that the Turkish government had shown little interest in improving relations, instead accusing German officials of “Nazi methods” for preventing Turkish ministers from campaigning among expatriate voters in Germany and complicating legal and political access to detained and jailed journalists holding German citizenship in Turkey. On the other, they have now come to the conclusion that Ankara would continue to use differences over Incirlik as a useful stick to strong-arm the German government into supporting Ankara’s own domestic agenda, ranging from the Bundestag’s Armenia resolution in June 2016 to alleged support, or at least tolerance, of PKK and coup plotters’ activity in Germany since July 15, 2016. Merkel herself, so far reluctant vis-à-vis a troop redeployment, might have reached a similar conclusion after her one-on-one meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during NATO’s special meeting in late May.

Eventually, and amid mounting demands from Gabriel’s Social Democratic Party and the opposition to redeploy troops to Jordan, the domestic price for “Saving Incirlik” appeared too high even for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) coalition. Conservative foreign and security policy experts in particular had repeatedly expressed concerns that a withdrawal could raise doubts over Germany’s commitment to the counter-ISIS coalition and lead to a further worsening of relations with Turkey, which remains a key partner for Germany in the context of economic relations, migration, homeland security, and many other issues.

Withdrawing from Incirlik is providing the German government with more leeway in bilateral relations, yet only in the short term. There are many other issues where Berlin and Ankara currently only manage to agree to disagree.

For Berlin and Ankara’s transatlantic partners, the only silver lining of this episode seems to be that a withdrawal of the German Armed Forces’ second deployment in Turkey, NATO’s AWACS mission in Konya, had been averted at the last minute. In contrast to Incirlik, withdrawing the German element from here could put the entire mission at risk—a devastating blow to NATO’s cohesion and a demonstration of rifts in the transatlantic alliance that should be avoided at all costs, especially as NATO has recently decided to formally join the counter-ISIS alliance. Hence, many observers expressed concerns when Gabriel stated during a visit to Washington on May 18 that Konya and Incirlik could not be separated from each other—especially as Ankara had also denied some lawmakers access to the NATO base. In a clear counterexample to those calling the alliance obsolete, NATO served as a highly effective platform for intra-alliance mediation and facilitated a compromise between Ankara and Berlin—the latter would no longer demand German lawmakers have permanent access to Konya in their national capacity as a condition for its ongoing commitment, while the former agreed to allow their visits under the umbrella of NATO. As consensus on Incirlik could not be reached during the Merkel-Erdogan meeting and NATO decided to refrain from any interference that could put other allies’ deployments or its own strategy of containment at risk, it became clear in Brussels that Germany’s presence there could hardly be continued.

How long German policymakers will be able to enjoy their current sense of liberation from Turkish pressure and NATO allies can prevent simmering tensions between Ankara and Berlin from disrupting allied cooperation remains to be seen.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.