Germany mulls moving its troops from Turkey as tensions rise
London - Germany is considering moving hundreds of its troops out of Turkey, where they are helping US-led operations against the Islamic State (ISIS), due to a series of rows between the two countries, which are closely tied by trade and the presence of some 3 million ethnic Turks living in Germany.
Some 270 German troops are stationed at the Incirlik Airbase in southern Turkey, from where they operate a squadron of Tornado reconnaissance aircraft and a refuelling jet as part of the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Incirlik, built by the US military in the 1950s, was a cornerstone of NATO’s south-eastern defence during the Cold War. The base is home to about 1,500 US military personnel operating A-10 close support aircraft and F-15 and F-16 tactical fighters in the mission to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would consider moving the German troops out of Incirlik after Turkish authorities refused to allow German members of parliament to visit the base. Germany’s military is overseen by parliament.
“We will continue to talk with Turkey but in parallel we will have to explore other ways of fulfilling our mandate,” Merkel said on May 16. “That means looking at alternatives to Incirlik and one alternative among others is Jordan.”
Turkey refused to allow the visit due to Germany’s decision to grant asylum to Turkish soldiers accused by Ankara of taking part in last July’s failed coup.
At least 450 Turkish diplomats, soldiers, other officials and family members have sought asylum in Germany, German officials said. About 7,700 Turkish citizens are currently applying for asylum in Germany. There was a 228% jump in Turkish asylum applications to EU countries in the last quarter of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, EU statistics indicate.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on May 16 said Germany’s decision to accept the asylum applications was a “significant development in the regression of our relations again.”
Later that day, two Turkish generals asked for asylum after arriving at Frankfurt airport.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told the German newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung that if “the German parliament is to be blackmailed, then the limit of tolerance has been reached.” He called on the Turkish government to change its mind. “Otherwise, the German parliament will certainly not leave soldiers in Turkey.”
Moving German forces out of Incirlik would not be without issues, German military analysts said, due to the loss of the close support and cooperation with US, British and other NATO troops there. Options such as Cyprus and Kuwait were under consideration, though Jordan topped the list, German news magazine Der Spiegel said.
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen is to inspect an alternative site in Jordan in the coming days, the magazine said.
“If they want to leave, that is up to them,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said May 18 in an interview with broadcaster NTV. “We are not going to beg. They were the ones who wanted to come and we helped them. If they want to go, we would say ‘Goodbye’.”
Cavusoglu said Germany should change its attitude towards Turkey.
“You can’t treat Turkey as you wish anymore,” he said. “If you want to get closer to Turkey, treat it like a friend, don’t act like a boss.”
The spat with Germany is the latest dispute in which Turkey has become embroiled, mostly because of its involvement in the Syrian civil war where it has backed the Free Syrian Army coalition of nationalist and Islamist groups fighting President Bashar Assad. As a result, Turkey has come up against Russia and Iran, which back Assad, but is also at odds with the United States due to US support for Syrian Kurds against ISIS.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan angered European leaders by threatening to throw open the borders and allow 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to head west.
Erdogan’s bellicose rhetoric has played well domestically but his accusations, such as saying German leaders were behaving like Nazis for not allowing rallies in Germany for the Turkish April referendum, have not endeared him to European political leaders.
Turkey has potentially more to lose from any escalation of the feud with Germany, which has long been its biggest trading partner. Trade between the two countries totalled more than $35 billion in 2016, Turkish official statistics stated. German official figures, however, show that Turkey is Germany’s 17th biggest trading partner.
Germany has long struggled to integrate the approximately 3 million people of Turkish descent, mostly the descendants of the guest workers who filled labour shortages from the 1950s onward. More than 63% of Turkish citizens in Germany who voted in Turkey’s April referendum approved Erdogan’s bid to extend the powers of the presidency, leading to soul-searching among traditionally liberal Germans.
The head of Germany’s Green Party Cem Ozdemir, the son of Turkish immigrants, said the result showed there was a long way to go in terms of integration.
“We must fully accept the values and constitution of our country if we want to be here in the long run,” he said.
German officials have balked at allowing Turkish citizens in Germany to vote in a referendum Erdogan has said would call on reinstating the death penalty.
“It is politically inconceivable that we would agree to such a vote in Germany on a measure that clearly contradicts our constitution and European values,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert said at a news conference. “I assume that we would use all legal means to prevent something like this.”
Add to that Turkey’s ongoing detention without trial of two German journalists and it appears unlikely there will be an immediate end to tensions between the two countries, analysts said.
The standoff, Ian Lesser, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels office, told Deutsche Welle, reflects a “general crisis of confidence and cooperation in Turkey’s foreign policy relationship with Western partners.”