‘Incirlik is yours’: How Turkey’s Erdoğan handed major military base to the Americans

The US and UK militaries refuse to tell Declassified if a US Air Force flight from Turkey to the UK’s Cyprus base was carrying weapons for Israel, as leaked American cables shed new light on Incirlik’s use by the US military.

5 January 2024

US President George W. Bush (R) meets with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the Oval Office at the White House, 2 October 2006, Washington DC. (Photo: Jay L. Clendenin-Pool/Getty Images)

  • “Incirlik is yours…you must enjoy it,” one of then prime minister Erdoğan’s top military officers privately told the US months after 2003 Iraq invasion
  • Erdoğan privately asked the Americans “to maintain a low profile” on Incirlik’s use for US troop rotation from Iraq
  • US official noted Erdoğan “wants to avoid being labeled pro-American”
  • In November, the Americans flew a military transport plane from Incirlik to Britain’s Cyprus base, which the US is using to supply weapons to Israel
  • The previous day, the same US aircraft had been at a NATO base in Italy which houses munitions for the F-16, which Israel is using to bomb Gaza

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan handed wide ranging powers to the Americans to use a major base in the country, leaked US cables show. 

The cables, published by WikiLeaks, show that while Erdoğan was vocally opposed to the 2003 war in Iraq, he was secretly giving the US major concessions on using its Incirlik base in Adana in the south of the country.

Erdoğan took power on 14 March 2003, a week before the US began bombing Iraq. He would serve until 2014 when he became president.  

Incirlik is home to the US Air Force’s 39th Air Base Wing, which describes its role as to “project global power through strategic deterrence” and “agile combat support”. Some 5,000 US military personnel are stationed there. 

The base has come back into the spotlight recently after Declassified revealed that on 5 November, a US C-130J Hercules military transport aircraft flew from Incirlik to RAF Akrotiri, Britain’s major air base on Cyprus. 

The US is moving arms to Israel from around Europe using RAF Akrotiri. But both the UK Ministry of Defence and the US Department of Defense refused to tell Declassified if the US C-130 was carrying weapons for Israel. 

Flight path of the US Air Force C-130J Hercules military transport aircraft which flew from Incirlik, Turkey, to RAF Akrotiri on 5 November. (Screengrab: RadarBox)

Israeli newspaper Haaretz has reported that over 40 US transport aircraft have flown to RAF Akrotiri carrying equipment, arms and forces for Israel. The planes have been loaded with cargo from strategic depots belonging to the US and NATO in Europe. Around half the US flights are said to be “delivering military aid”.

RAF Akrotiri had not received any flights from Incirlik in the two months before Israel’s bombing of Gaza began. Records going further back were not available. The C-130 can carry 128 combat troops and 19,600kg of cargo. 

Declassified can now reveal the C-130 Hercules had arrived the day before at Incirlik from Aviano, another US air base in northeastern Italy. 

The Aviano air base is home to the US 31st Munitions Squadron, which “maintains and supports combat ready stockpiles, people, and equipment”. It calls itself the US Air Force’s “benchmark for quality weapons, munitions, and munitions systems maintenance”. 

The unit has more than 250 active duty employees who “support munitions and armament requirements” for F-16s. It maintains four separate stockpiles valued at $790m.

Benjamin Netanyahu was recently recorded saying privately: “We need three things from the US: munitions, munitions, and munitions.” The F-16, a fighter jet produced by Lockheed Martin, has been described as the “workhorse” of Israel’s bombing of Gaza. 

Flight path of the US Air Force C-130J Hercules military transport aircraft which flew from Aviano, Italy, to Incirlik on 4 November. (Screengrab: RadarBox)

Handing over Incirlik

In June 2003, Turkish official Suna Ilicak told the Americans that the Turkish cabinet had approved the use of Turkish bases and ports for humanitarian and reconstruction operations in Iraq. 

Ilicak said the decision came in the form of a decree and did not require parliamentary approval or a formal agreement. The decree covered “US aircraft transporting goods and supplies…to stop at Incirlik and then proceed to Iraq”.

Soon after, in September 2003, Erdoğan’s Air Chief General, Ibrahim Firtina, met US ambassador Eric Edelman in Istanbul. Edelman asked how Firtina saw the future of Incirlik. 

“Incirlik is yours,” the Turkish military chief answered. “We hear rumors you are considering other places, but Incirlik is unique. It’s irreplaceable. We’ve given you the opportunity to use it – you must enjoy it.”

A US Air Force C-130J Hercules military transport aircraft. (Photo: US DoD)

The next concession granted to the Americans by Erdoğan was the use of Incirlik for troop rotations into and out of Iraq.

One 2003 cable noted that on 19 December, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs “provided us a diplomatic note approving the use of Incirlik Air Base for the operation to rotate US personnel and their associated equipment in and out of Iraq.”. 

Days after, Turkish official Ahmet Banguoglu told US officials his government “intended to keep the issue quiet for the time being”.

The cable added: “The [Turkish government] did not intend to issue any public statement and asked the US to do the same.”

Weeks later, in January 2004, another cable noted that Erdoğan’s administration had been “forthcoming in the arrangement to use Incirlik for troop rotations and open to deepening strategic cooperation with the US.”

However, it noted again it was Erdoğan’s “preference to handle the troop rotation issue in a low-key manner”. 

The cable stated: “In a January 2 meeting, the [US] Ambassador and Prime Minister Erdoğan agreed to maintain a low profile on the rotations…in deference to Turkish public opinion sensitivities.”

A leaked US cable sent from Ankara to Washington in September 2003. (Screengrab: WikiLeaks)

Incirlik cargo hub

Later in 2004, the Americans asked the Turkish government to use Incirlik “as a cargo hub in support of [Iraq and Afghanistan] operations”.  

Erdoğan approved the request and “was anxious to finalize the agreement as quickly as possible”, another cable added. 

The new agreement, the Americans stated, would “reduce wear and tear on [US] military airlift aircraft and free up some for other missions.”

Six C-17 military transport aircraft alongside 150 support personnel were then stationed at Incirlik “to support intra-theater cargo movements”. 

Then, in February 2007, the US 22nd and 23rd Fighter Squadrons completed a six-week long Weapons Training Deployment (WTD) at Incirlik. 

It was “the first significant WTD to take place in Turkey since 1991”, a US cable noted. Over 60 pilots conducted more than 600 sorties and completed low altitude and night flight training requirements. 

An aerial view of Incirlik air base on the outskirts of the city of Adana in southern Turkey. (Screengrab: Google Earth)

US military officials

General Peter Pace, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “appreciated Turkey’s efforts in the GWOT [Global War on Terror] — including in Afghanistan and Iraq,” one cable noted.

A US official added in 2004 that Erdoğan “sees his task as managing Turks’s ambivalence toward us; at the same time he wants to avoid being labeled pro-American”.

The cable continued that “he has taken several supportive steps, while being careful not to be too closely associated with us since opening Turkish airspace for the Iraq war.”

It added a list of how much the Turkish prime minister had helped them.

“Erdoğan agreed to a ground line of communication for Coalition forces in Iraq,” it noted. “He pushed through authorization for a Turkish deployment in support of the Coalition. He agreed to US troop rotation through Incirlik airbase.”

Last week, Erdoğan said that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was no different from Adolf Hitler and likened Israel’s attacks on Gaza to the treatment of Jewish people by the Nazis.

The British Ministry of Defence declined to answer Declasssified’s questions about the flight from Incirlik to RAF Akrotiri. The US Department of Defense did not respond to Declassified’s queries about the same flight.