Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Is Incirlik a “Game-changer” in Destroying the Islamic State?

by Micah Zenko
August 25, 2015

An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve on August 12, 2015. (Ardrey/U.S. Air Force )


On July 22, after months of negotiations, Turkey finally agreed to allow the United States to use its bases, most importantly Incirlik Air Base, for manned and unmanned strike sorties against the self-declared Islamic State. Prior to this, Turkey had only permitted that its sovereign territory be used for unarmed surveillance drone flights and (apparently) a combat search and rescue element. This latest development was characterized as a “game-changer” by a senior Obama administration official, in particular for more intensive bombing of the Islamic State in northern Syria. Rather than flying from carriers or Persian Gulf bases, flying out of Incirlik significantly increases the time that coalition strike aircraft can loiter above Islamic State-controlled territories and, potentially, provide close air support for coalition-backed opposition forces on the ground, including the Pentagon-trained rebels that entered Syria on July 12.

On August 5, the United States began conducting armed Reaper strikes from Incirlik into Syria. Four days later, six F-16s and three hundred support personnel were deployed from Aviano, Italy to Incirlik; there are also an unknown number of aerial refuelers. On August 12, the United States began flying those F-16s out of Incirlik to attack Islamic State militants, fighting positions, and equipment in Syria. Late last week, Brig. Gen. Kevin J. Killea, chief of staff of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, described access to Incirlik as “a fantastic, strategic location for us to fly from to support anti-ISIL efforts in Syria and Iraq,” adding “the broader use of Incirlik for air operations in Syria is already proving to be a great effects multiplier on the battlefield. Armed [remotely piloted aircraft], strike fighters and aerial refueling tankers originating from Turkey have combined to produce devastating effects against ISIL targets.”

In the limited time since the United States has had expanded access to Incirlik, the devastating effects against the Islamic State have not been apparent. Turkey may be placing restrictions on which opposition force ground units the United States can support: the Turkish Foreign Minister spokesperson has said, “Support to People’s Protection Units (YPG) is not one of the elements of the agreement,” while the State Department spokesperson said the opposite two days earlier: “[YPG] have already benefited from coalition air support.” There also might be fewer readily available Islamic State targets that the F-16s and Reapers have been authorized to strike. Finally, after an initial limited number of strikes on July 23, Turkey itself has apparently not conducted any additional strikes against the Islamic State in Syria.

Whatever the reasons, the data shows that—like other purported incremental and tactical enhancements to the war against the Islamic State—access to Incirlik has not been a “game-changer.” For the anti-Islamic State airpower coalition, including the United States, there have been fewer airstrikes in Syria in the thirteen days after Incirlik was made available, than in the thirteen days before. The wholly unrealistic strategic objective of “destroying” the Islamic State is no closer to fruition.

IS Strikes from Incirlik

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Kir Komrik

    Thanks again for a great post, and in particular the table you provided.

    I would state again my support for a multi-national, possibly clandestine, reaction force that would be supported by air power. If such a policy were pursued, the numbers in that table might make more sense.

    I do not know the cycle time of flights prior to 12 August, but I’m guessing it was longer. When you have people on the ground, the “shelf-life” of information gathered, being short-lived as it often is, means that short cycle times from a ground station at, say, Incrilik, makes a world of difference. So, even though the numbers may be the same, the quality of each cycle is likely far greater. And this has exponential ramifications for operators on the ground and their safety. If such a reaction force existed, then this could well be a game changer. It is all about how the advantage is managed.

    Sadly, the story of ISIS isn’t a Sunni one, it’s a story of pedestrian sociopathy with “adherents” finding a place and time to enjoy themselves far too much. This will sully all of Islam, quite possibly sully the works of religion generally, undermine attempts at rule of law throughout the region, and set back the lives of millions for generations if not addressed assertively. Incirlik could be the key to that aim if commitment to the projection of ground power is made.

  • Posted by Duke

    Type your comment in here…
    Turkey is a proven terrorist state how can you allow them to control targets & support?
    Kick them out of NATO

  • Posted by Rae

    Kir, your last paragraph erked me to the extent it led me to post a reply. Of course the problem of IS is not a Sunni one! It’s a problem of failed nation states and quasi-governments that are struggling to keep nations together that shouldn’t have existed in the first place. IS is a creation that arose from drawing imaginary boarders and forcing an ethnically diverse group of people together without regards to their religious beliefs, or their economical interests and tribal relations. Those numbers do not make sense–Turkey is exercising its power to prevent its immediate political threat that could jeopardize the boundaries of its own boundaries. The rise of the Kurds in neighboring Iraq and Syria are bad news for Turkey’s internal stability. With the recent 10% vote for pro-Kurdish HDP party the fear of the Kurds rising to power, both externally and internally, is very much real. Turkey’s mission is to keep its borders in tact first, and assist with operation IR second. But that’s not the point I am trying to make here. Turkey and it’s internal politics aside, what does it take for a couple of failed nations to collapse? IS is not a creation that stems from religion. It is a nightmare that stems from forced boundaries and the politically and economically driven foreign policies trying to keep those borders in place because of a century old treaty. Do not confuse IS as a religious group; they are not as simple as boko haram. IS uses religion to appeal to fanatics to recruit externally and to feed off of the destabilizing quasi-governments and religious tensions felt internally.

  • Posted by Barry Sierer

    I agree with Kir about the use of a “reaction force”. The fact that the US is allowed to use Incirlik alone is no “game changer” in itself. What will matter is the type of units deployed there and how they are used. If the units sent there are not appropriate to the mission, or they have restrictive (or contradictory) rules of engagement, very little will be achieved. Publishing the numbers of air strikes or sorties is a red herring for public consumption. These numbers fail to illuminate the actual effectiveness of the campaign.

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