(Bloomberg) -- Germany is poised to withdraw troops from a base in Turkey after talks to resolve an escalating dispute between the NATO allies ended in acrimony.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, made no headway during a visit to Turkey on Monday, when his counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, rebuffed requests to allow German officials access to the Incirlik base and went on to accuse Germany of harboring Turkey’s enemies.
The upshot is that Chancellor Angela Merkel returns to public engagements on Tuesday facing newly inflamed relations with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a time when she’s already subject to mounting pressure from President Donald Trump over Germany’s trade surplus with the U.S. and his demands to spend more on defense. Merkel’s cabinet will decide on withdrawing from Incirlik on Wednesday, Gabriel told Deutschlandfunk radio.
The latest flashpoint with Turkey came as Cavusoglu bluntly refused Gabriel’s request to allow visits to Germany troops stationed at Incirlik, Turkey’s main NATO base near the Syrian border, saying that Turkey will continue to block access. Cavusoglu also said that a German reporter held in Turkey was arrested for his involvement in terrorism, not his journalism.
The refusal leaves Germany little choice but to pull out of the base, further souring Turkey’s relations with its most important trading partner while deepening cracks in the NATO military alliance. Merkel has called Turkey’s approach on Incirlik “deplorable,” and said that Germany would abandon the base if Turkey continues to block German lawmakers from visiting.
German leaders, who are in the midst of a national election campaign, have said they’re prepared to move surveillance planes and personnel based at Incirlik to Jordan.
Merkel’s governing coalition, which includes her Christian Democrat-led bloc and Gabriel’s Social Democrats, approved the deployment to help fight Islamic State in Syria and Iraq after the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015.
“Turkey sees no possibility for broad visiting rights for Incirlik. Therefore we will need to withdraw soldiers,” Germany’s Foreign Ministry said in a tweet, citing Gabriel. “We have a mutual interest in achieving an improvement in the relationship, but it will be a difficult path.”
Germany and Turkey have a prickly relationship even though they share a web of ties. Turks make up the largest ethnic minority in Germany, while Germany is Turkey’s top trading partner, accounting for about $14.8 billion in exports and $21.5 billion in imports last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Merkel took the lead on negotiating a landmark deal with Turkey to halt refugees from entering Europe, which survives despite repeated threats by Erdogan to tear it up.
In Ankara on Monday, a meeting between Gabriel and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was called off, according to Turkey’s Haberturk newspaper. However, Gabriel met Erdogan for an hour later in the day, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported, without giving details on the content of their discussion.
‘Conditions Not Right’
Cavusoglu, speaking to reporters after his meeting with Gabriel, said that German officials could visit troops in Konya, a smaller base in the west of the country, since “the conditions aren’t right to visit Incirlik right now.”
Cavusoglu complained about the presence of Kurdish militants and followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen in Germany. Turkey considers armed Kurdish groups and Gulen’s movement to be terrorist organizations. Asked about Deniz Yucel, the German-born reporter for the Die Welt newspaper who’s been jailed in Turkey since February, Cavusoglu accused European nations of using journalists for their secret services.
The tactic had become a “fashion in Europe lately,” Cavusoglu said, “because when they’re caught, they want to say ‘a journalist was arrested’ and start a campaign.”
One of the more recent campaigns is for the release of Mathias Depardon, a French photographer working for National Geographic, who’s been held without charge since May 8, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which called for his release in a May 25 statement that cited “Turkey’s extreme abuse of the press." Turkey now holds more reporters in jail than any other country in the world ever has at one time since CPJ started keeping records, it said.