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Interviews Reveal Chaos at Incirlik on Night of Coup Attempt in Turkey

Two A-10C Thunderbolt II attack aircraft taxi down the flight line after landing at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, in October 2015. U.S. Air Force photo
Two A-10C Thunderbolt II attack aircraft taxi down the flight line after landing at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, in October 2015. U.S. Air Force photo

Incirlik Air Base was a chaotic scene on the night of the attempted coup in Turkey.

U.S. warplanes flying out of Incirlik were on missions over Syria and Iraq when power went out to the control tower that would guide them back. A Turkish aircraft had just taken off from Incirlik to refuel Turkish F-16s that would bomb the Turkish parliament as part of the coup.

The Turkish commander at Incirlik walked across the tarmac to beg the Americans for political asylum. He was refused and later arrested.

The details of what went on at Incirlik on July 15 emerged from interviews with officers and enlisted personnel at the base in southeastern Turkey given to The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Back at the Pentagon on July 15, officials were clueless. "The people we talk to just aren't picking up the phone," one official said.

Air Force Col. David Trucksa, commander of the 447th Air Expeditionary Group and one of more than 2,000 U.S. personnel at Incirlik, said one of his subordinates told him to flip on the TV -- a coup was underway.

"We had a portion of our forces still airborne over Turkey, Iraq and Syria," Trucksa said. "So the question is: If this base gets attacked, what do we do? And then -- boom -- the power went out."

The base quickly switched to emergency power from generators to get the control tower back online.

Turkey closed its airspace the next day -- a Saturday -- but flight operations out of Incirlik resumed on Sunday. Commercial power to the base was not restored for another several days.

As Trucksa sought to get his planes back, Air Force Master Sgt. Derrick Goode went around banging on doors to roust personnel. By daybreak, the base was on full alert.

"It was shelter-in-place kind of stuff, because of the unknown -- because we didn't know what was going to happen," Trucksa told The New York Times.

In the next few days, Turkish police would occasionally drive onto the base to arrest someone, but they never questioned U.S. personnel or searched U.S. facilities, Goode told The Washington Post.

U.S. personnel never ran out of supplies during the power outage, Goode said. "We had plenty of water and plenty of food. Nothing was ever rationed at any point."

As the coup began to unravel, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted control, Turkish Air Force Gen. Bekir Ercan Van, the commander at Incirlik, made contact with U.S. commanders at the base but was denied asylum.

Van reportedly was told that Incirlik was Turkish soil and the U.S. could do nothing for him. Turkish national police later arrested him. Van was among more than 150 generals and admirals arrested in a wide-ranging purge of the military ordered by Erdogan that included the shutdown of Turkish military academies.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford was at Incirlik on Tuesday following meetings in Ankara with his counterpart, Gen. Hulusi Akar, the Turkish chief of staff. Akar has told Turkish media that coup plotters put a gun to his head, trying to force him to sign a proclamation against Erdogan. Akar said he refused.

"I specifically didn't get into detailed discussions today with General Akar," Dunford told reporters traveling with him. "And I made it a point to say: 'Look, my friend, last week I was happy to hear your voice, I'm happy just to see you now and make sure you're OK. How are you? How are your family? We're going to work through these issues together.' "

Dunford said the main mission of his trip was to get assurances from the Turks on continued operations from Incirlik and Turkey's continued involvement in the anti-Islamic State coalition.

However, Erdogan has kept up a drumbeat of criticism of the U.S. and warned of repercussions for U.S.-Turkey relations unless the U.S. extradites 75-year-old Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally now living in exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan has blamed Gulen for fomenting the attempted coup, a charge which Gulen denies.

On Tuesday, Erdogan demanded that the U.S. speed up the extradition process. "We have no time to wait six months or one year, which is simply intolerable," he said.

Erdogan and other Turkish officials have also accused senior U.S. commanders of being complicit in the coup attempt. Last week, Erdogan charged that Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, was guilty of "taking sides" in the coup, putting Votel in the position of issuing a statement denying any involvement.

In his meetings with Akar and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Dunford, who was the first senior U.S. official to visit Turkey since the coup attempt, said the message he received was that "to deal with the challenges of the region is going to require the United States and Turkey to cooperate."

"The consistent theme throughout the day was a reaffirmation of the importance of the U.S.-Turkey relationship -- the need for us to cooperate," he added. "We will have all the access we need to Incirlik, Diyabakir [air base] and other facilities as necessary to prosecute the counter-ISIL fight," Dunford said, using another acronym for the Islamic State.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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