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Syria risks new Turkey-US tensions post-coup bid

Istanbul: The future use by the United States of a key Turkish air base near Syria risks causing new tensions between the key NATO allies after the botched coup attempt, but using it as a bargaining chip could prove risky for Ankara.

Washington has since 2015 used the Incirlik base in the southern province of Adana as a highly convenient launch pad for bombing raids against Islamic State (IS) jihadists in Syria.

Before being granted permission by Turkey to use Incirlik for the air strikes – after tough negotiations — US planes had to use bases far further away in Jordan and Kuwait.

 Syria risks new Turkey-US tensions post-coup bid

Representational image. AP

However Friday's failed coup, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames on US-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, has raised anti-American rhetoric in Ankara.

Turkish officials are furious that the United States has so far turned a deaf ear to requests for his extradition, with the Labour Minister Suleyman Soylu even saying Washington was "behind the coup".

This has raised fears that Ankara could use Incirlik as a lever to pressure Washington for Gulen's extradition to face trial in Turkey.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund's office in Ankara, said Turkey-US tensions were already high because of Washington's support for Kurdish militias in Syria.

"The situation would only get worse if Washington does not answer Turkey's calls for Gulen's extradition," he told AFP.

'Risks backfiring'

Gulen, a reclusive 75-year-old Islamic preacher, has been in exile in the United States since 1999, but wields enormous influence in Turkish society, with supporters in the media, police and judiciary.

The United States has so far shown little interest in Turkey's repeated demands for his extradition since a vast corruption scandal that shook Erdogan's government in 2013, which was also blamed by Ankara on Gulen and his loyalists in the police and judiciary.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Programme at The Washington Institute, said Turkey would be making a mistake to use Incirlik to speed up Gulen's extradition.

"In my view, if Ankara did that, it would backfire," he told AFP.

"While access to the base is important for US operations against the Islamic State, it is not indispensable.

"Washington gained access to the base only in 2015 and before then, it was handling anti-IS operations very well without access to Incirlik or other Turkish bases," he said.

"If Turkey forces the United States, Washington can go back to that option again."

Incirlik houses 1,500 US troops and is just 70 miles (110 kilometres) from the Syrian border.

It has notably been used to deploy drones, Prowler electronic warplanes and A-10 ground attack aircraft in the fight against IS.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday that Washington would assist Turkey in the investigation of the failed coup, inviting Ankara to share any evidence it has against Gulen.

Unluhisarcikli said any use of Incirlik as a bargaining chip would dent Washington's reliance on Turkey as a partner in anti-IS operations and would push Americans to seek an alternative.

"And that would not be smart," he told AFP.

'Active anti-IS player'

Already, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Sunday that the events in Turkey had raised questions about its "reliability" in the fight against IS.

And after Friday's turmoil, Turkey briefly shut down Incirlik, forcing its Nato ally to halt strikes in Syria.

Turkish authorities also detained at the base a senior air force general and a dozen other suspects accused of backing the failed coup.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Sunday that operations against IS had resumed from the base after its air space reopened.

After long being accused of not doing enough in the fight against the jihadists, Turkey has played a fuller role in the US-led anti-IS coalition and carried out its own artillery strikes.

"Turkey is an active member of the international coalition," a Turkish official said.

But Turkey had also lamented the delay in the delivery of American light multiple rocket launchers — High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) — to be deployed along its border with Syria to combat IS.

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Updated Date: Jul 18, 2016 16:12:20 IST