The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the U.S. military scrambled in Turkey to keep working during the coup attempt

Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tours parts of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey that were destroyed during the July 15 coup attempt alongside his Turkish counterpart, Gen. Hulusi Akar, in Ankara on Aug. 1. (Dominique A. Pineiro/Defense Department)

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey — During the first night of the coup, the lights went out here around 2 a.m., as local authorities shut off this sprawling airfield’s power, beginning what would be a kind of siege of the joint Turkish-U.S. base.

U.S. Air Force Col. David Trucksa, the commander of the 447th Air Expeditionary Group, had been at his post commanding a contingent of U.S. ground attack aircraft and refueling jets at Incirlik for little more than two weeks when — on the night of July 15 — his second in command called and told him to flip to the news.

It was his first notice that a coup was underway outside the base.

Trucksa immediately started calling up his chain of command and summoning key personnel who were off-duty. It had been a long week of flying, he said, and people were spread across the base starting their weekend.

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“And then boom, the power went out,” said Trucksa in an interview with a small group of reporters here.

Incirlik is a key facility in the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State.

“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? A lot of things were going on in [a] short amount of time.”

Though the power was out, Trucksa said key components of the base, including communications, were backed up immediately by generators, which would run until July 22 when power was restored.

With the base on emergency power, the Americans could communicate with the outside world and get their aircraft back to the tarmac, Trucksa said.

Air Force Master Sgt. Derrick Goode was trying to get ahold of seven of his people when the base’s power went out. Goode, who usually uses Facebook Messenger to communicate with subordinates, was instead forced to drive to the dorms and start banging on their doors to get them up.

By daybreak, the base was on full alert and U.S. Air Force security forces had ramped up their patrols around the American portions of the airfield.

Sometime after dawn, the Turkish military closed the airspace around Incirlik, grounding reconnaissance and attack aircraft used in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.

One U.S. official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss operations, said that even though U.S. aircraft couldn’t fly for little more than a day, operations in the region were “severely impacted.” He added that the fighting around Manbij — a key city in northern Syria through which Islamic State fighters are funneled to various battlefields — was effectively stopped as air support for local ground forces was almost non-existent.

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“Having Incirlik back open is a major thing,” the official said. “To say that Incirlik closing wouldn’t have a significant impact on our operations is not a true statement.”

When the coup attempt began, the base’s control tower, manned by both Turkish and U.S. Air Force personnel, but under the authority of the Turks, had allowed at least one Turkish KC-145 refueling aircraft to launch.

The tanker reportedly assisted a number of F-16 fighter jets controlled by the plotter who bombed the Turkish parliament buildings and other government structures. But as the coup unraveled, the man likely responsible for authorizing the launch of the refueling aircraft, Turkish Air Force Gen. Bekir Van, contacted his U.S. counterparts and sought asylum, according to U.S. and Turkish officials.

Van was told that the United States could do nothing as the base was Turkish soil, and later that morning Turkish national police quietly drove on base and arrested him.

In the following days, Turkish police would arrive periodically and take Turkish Air Force members off the base, said Goode. He added that they would arrive with no warning, but did not search any of the U.S. facilities or question U.S. personnel.

With the coup over, Incirlik limped into the next week running on generators that required constant refueling. Most facilities kept working. The commissary closed for a day, but only because the Turkish locals couldn’t get on base, said Goode. The mess hall continued to serve hot food and, because of the summer heat, showers without functioning electric heaters still had hot water for days after the outage.

“We had plenty of water and plenty of food,” Goode said. “You saw a lot of images of MREs coming in and water; all of that was just backup.”

“Nothing was ever rationed at any point,” he added.

In the days since the coup there have been periodic protests near the base — the byproduct of a sharp spike in anti-American sentiment because of allegations of U.S. participation in the failed uprising — but operations at the base have returned to their normal tempo.

The United States has denied any involvement in the coup, and on Monday, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with high-ranking Turkish officials to discuss Turkish-U.S. cooperation, including the U.S. presence at Incirlik.

“One thing that was very clear to me is that they believe, as I do, that Turkey and the United States working together against [the Islamic State] is a hell of a lot better than us not working together,” Dunford told reporters after the meetings.