Merkel's Cabinet Backs Troop Pullout as Erdogan Rift Deepens

  • Turkish stance on Incirlik base unacceptable: Merkel spokesman
  • Tension between two NATO allies has spiraled since failed coup

Angela Merkel and Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend a press conference after their meeting in Ankara, on Feb 2, 2017.

Photographer: Tumay Berkin/EPA

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government backed the withdrawal of German troops from Turkey, escalating a feud between two NATO allies and major trading partners.

Germany will seek talks with the U.S. and other allies in the coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to ensure a smooth transition from Incirlik to a base in Jordan, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said after the German cabinet backed the move on Wednesday. Merkel said the redeployment may remove an irritant in relations and allow the two countries to focus on addressing other disputes.

“This can also lead to a situation where we don’t constantly have to engage in confrontation with Turkey on this issue,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin. “We have a whole series of shared interests with Turkey, plus close economic ties. So keeping channels of communication open is very important.”

German Tornado jets at Incirlik base in Turkey.

AFP / POOL / TOBIAS SCHWARZ

While the immediate dispute centers on Turkey’s refusal to allow visits to Incirlik by German lawmakers, it’s only the latest flashpoint in a relationship that’s deteriorated since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidated power after a failed coup in July. Merkel has criticized Turkey’s record on human rights and press freedom, and Turkey alleges that Germany is shielding fugitives suspected of involvement in the coup.

“Turkey is sticking to its position on lawmaker visits to Incirlik” and that’s “not acceptable” to the German government, Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s chief spokesman, told reporters in Berlin.

Redeploying to Jordan will take time, including an outage of two to three months for Tornado surveillance planes that Germany pledged to the U.S.-led coalition after the Paris terror attacks in 2015, von der Leyen said.

Germany and Turkey have a prickly relationship even though they share a web of ties. Turks make up the largest ethnic minority in Germany, and Merkel took the lead in negotiating a landmark deal with Turkey to halt refugees from entering Europe, which survives despite repeated threats by Erdogan to ditch it.

Business ties may be weathering the discord. Germany is Turkey’s biggest trading partner, with German imports expanding almost 7 percent last year to more than 15 billion euros ($17 billion), according to Federal Statistics Office data. Two-way trade increased 1.4 percent from 2015 to 37.4 billion euros.

‘Very Difficult’

While the government says the redeployment doesn’t require approval by Germany’s parliament, lawmakers may vote on a resolution to signal broad political backing.

Diplomatic tension has increased over the past year after Germany’s parliament recognized the century-old killings of Armenians by Ottoman authorities as genocide and Turkey arrested Deniz Yucel, a German-born reporter for Die Welt newspaper, in February on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Monday rebuffed a last-ditch request by his German counterpart, Sigmar Gabriel, to allow visits to Incirlik by lawmakers, whose access to foreign-based troops is an important symbol of German civilian oversight of the armed forces.

Instead, Cavusoglu pressed Germany to extradite Turks who sought asylum in the country after the coup -- something Germany says is legally impossible -- and complained about the presence of Kurdish militants and followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen in Germany. Turkey views armed Kurdish groups and Gulen’s movement as terrorist organizations.

“It’s clear that dialogue with Turkey must be maintained,” said Seibert, the German spokesman. “But talks with Turkish government officials are very difficult at this time.”

— With assistance by Patrick Donahue, Rainer Buergin, and Jana Randow

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