WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Wednesday it was removing 12 fighter jets from Incirlik air base in Turkey after sending them there last month to bolster the fight against Islamic State and to help reassure Turkey after Russian incursions its airspace.
The Pentagon played down the decision, saying the jets had completed what was always meant to be a temporary deployment within Europe. It noted new commitments by allies France, Britain and Germany since the high-profile U.S. deployment.
“I wouldn’t read anything into us moving these out of there as any sort of less combat capability that we have within the coalition of being able to strike in Syria,” said Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis.
The move came less than a month after NATO ally Turkey shot down a Russian warplane, heightening tensions between Moscow and Ankara and leading Russia to stiffen its air defenses in Syria.
Six of the American warplanes had been F-15Cs, designed for aerial combat and deployed in response to a Turkish request for support securing its airspace.
The jets flew training missions with Turkey’s air force and Davis noted that Turkey and the United States also reached an agreement during the deployment outlining procedures for carrying out combat air patrols in the future.
“It’s not only about the actual combat air patrols that you fly, it’s about the fact that you’re demonstrating the capability to do it,” Davis said.
The other six F-15Es were deployed in a combat mission against Islamic State. The United States had described their deployment as part of an effort to thicken air strikes against Islamic State in Syria.
The U.S. military noted that it still had 12 A-10 strike aircraft as well as drone aircraft at Incirlik.
“Coalition aircraft operating from Incirlik are expected to increase and continue to increase in the coming months,” European Command said in a statement.
The announcement came a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Incirlik and spoke with U.S. troops there. He has publicly pressed Turkey and other coalition allies to take a more assertive role in the campaign against Islamic State.
European Command said the jets were being sent back to a base in Britain.
Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by David Alexander and James Dalgleish