By Andrea Shalal and Jan Lopatka
BERLIN/PRAGUE (Reuters) – Germany is in discussions with Turkey to ensure that the German military can keep flying reconnaissance missions from Incirlik Air Base in support of a U.S.-led fight against Islamic State, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday.
Merkel said she expected the German military to continue operating effectively from the NATO base despite threats by some German lawmakers to end the mission unless Ankara allows them to visit the base. Merkel said such visits were vital given that German lawmakers authorize military missions.
Turkey in June denied lawmakers access to the base, angered by a German parliamentary resolution that branded the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces genocide, and has said it may block a similar visit in October..
“I expect that missions of the anti-IS coalition will continue to be able to be flown from Incirlik,” Merkel told reporters during a visit to Prague. “Part of that, given that we have a parliamentary army, is that German lawmakers must be allowed to visit Incirlik if they want to.”
Merkel said Berlin was in discussions with Ankara to resolve the dispute, but gave no details.
A spokesman for the German Defence Ministry on Thursday said the armed forces were studying other basing options for six Tornado reconnaissance planes, a refuelling plane and 250 soldiers if German lawmakers vote to end the use of the base.
Ties between the two NATO allies have also been strained by the thwarted coup in Turkey on July 15, with Ankara angry about what it called Germany’s sluggish response in condemning the action.
Rainer Arnold, defence spokesman for the Social Democrats, junior partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition government, told Reuters his party would demand withdrawal of German soldiers and equipment from the base if Turkey refused to allow parliamentarians to visit again in October.
He said his party expected an answer in September.
“We will only send our soldiers to countries where we can be certain that we can visit them,” Arnold told Reuters.
Without the SPD’s approval, the government cannot extend the mandate for the mission when it expires in December.
Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland media group that it was in the interest of both countries to continue the work at Incirlik.
Asked if the military was ready for a rapid withdrawal from the base, von der Leyen said, “Smart military planning always looks at fallback options.”
Turkish officials said last week they would not approve an October visit planned by members of the German budget committee, but Arnold said they had not received a definitive answer.
The ministry spokesman said alternative potential bases had been identified in the region, but gave no details.
Der Spiegel magazine reported on Thursday that the armed forces were studying whether they could move the planes and troops to Jordan or Cyprus. Such a move would interrupt the flights for at least two months, it said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Andreas Rinke and Hans-Edzard Busemann, Editing by Ralph Boulton)