ANKARA/WASHINGTON, D.C. – US Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday said he needed to speak with his Turkish counterpart to understand how serious Ankara about shutting down two strategic airbases.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Sunday that Turkey could close Incirlik and Kurecik air bases in response to threats of Washington sanctions and a US Senate resolution that recognized the Armenian Genocide, Daily Sabah reported.
“It has not been brought up to me before. The first I heard of it was reading it in the papers as you just mentioned and so I need to talk to my defense counterpart to understand what they really mean and how serious they are,” Esper told reporters.
The Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey has been the main base for US operations in the Middle East and more recently the invasion of Syria, while Kurecik, in eastern Turkey, is a key NATO base housing a key radar station.
“If the Turks are serious about this, I mean, they are a sovereign nation, to begin with… they have the inherent right to house or not to house NATO bases or foreign troops,” Esper said on a plane as he flew back from Belgium, where he had attended the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.
“I think this becomes an alliance matter, their commitment to the alliance, if indeed they are serious about what they are saying,” he added.
Esper also noted he was disappointed by the direction Ankara seems to be taking, moving away from NATO and getting closer to Russia. Last week, the US Senate unanimously passed the Armenian Genocide bill, a historic move that infuriated Turkey and dealt a blow to the already problematic ties between Ankara and Washington.
The US Congress has been united in its opposition to Turkey’s recent policy actions. Republican senators have been incensed with Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system, which the US says poses a threat to its F-35 fighter jets and cannot be integrated into NATO defenses.
They have also moved to punish Turkey over its Operation “Peace Spring” in northern Syria. A US Senate committee backed legislation Wednesday to impose sanctions on Turkey, pushing President Donald Trump to take a harder line on the issue.
Some NATO diplomats worry that Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and a crucial ally in the Middle East, has increasingly acted unilaterally. Meanwhile, Turkey has been critical of its NATO allies for failing to recognize its security concerns on the Syrian border and leaving it alone in its fight against terror threats.