Top Trump cabinet members were en route to Ankara on Wednesday, seeking detente with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government as the fate of 50 US nuclear weapons in Turkey hung in the balance.
Relations between the two NATO allies have been thrown into rapid disarray over the past 10 days after Donald Trump gave a green light, and then condemned, a Turkish military operation against America’s former Kurdish allies in northern Syria.
Officials at the State and Energy departments over the weekend were “reviewing plans for evacuating roughly 50 tactical nuclear weapons that the United States had long stored, under American control, at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, about 100 miles (160 km) from the Syrian border” the New York Times reported Tuesday.
The Turkish operation, aimed at thwarting Kurdish self-rule ambitions in the wake of the five-year war against ISIS, saw the shelling of US forces on Friday – hastening a chaotic American withdrawal.
While that attack did not result in casualties, it sparked accusations – including by the former US envoy to the global coalition against ISIS – that the close call was intentional given that the Turkish army possesses detailed grid coordinates showing them where American troops were stationed.
By Monday, outrage across the US political spectrum pushed the Trump administration to unveil sanctions on Turkey’s defense ministry and minister, casting further doubt on the decades-old alliance.
Turkish President Erdogan has meanwhile ruled out a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence in Ankara during their visit, telling Sky News he will only deal with Trump.
US outpost shelled
The week-long rampage by Turkey and allied Syrian militants has so far displaced more than 150,000 people and been marred by videotaped apparent field executions, the assassination of a Kurdish female politician, and dozens of civilian deaths.
It has also led to the escape, according to Kurdish forces, of hundreds of Islamic State fighters and their families from detention centers across the north.
The Kurds on Sunday announced they had struck a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government to repel the Turkish incursion.
It is increasingly likely that Assad and Erdogan’s common ally Russia will serve as a guarantor of a Turkish pullback.
In the meantime, US nuclear weapons are “essentially Erdogan’s hostages”, a senior US official told the New York Times, adding the caveat that to fly them out would mark the “de-facto end of the Turkish-American alliance”.
‘Nuclear sharing’ is part of NATO‘s policy of nuclear deterrence, under which member countries without nuclear weapons of their own are involved in planning for the use of nuclear weapons by the alliance.
US officials do not confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons at Incirlik airbase. But they have said that if nukes did have to be removed, it would be complicated, as talks would have to be held with a new nation willing to ‘host’ them. And it would require a significant logistical and security work – to build new facilities and to transport them.
The weapons stored in Turkey are believed to be B61 nuclear gravity bombs – Cold War-era nukes that require planes to carry and deploy them. Currently, Turkey has no certified aircraft that could carry these bombs, which have been described as “relics” that are not part of any operational war plans.
The bombs are guarded by US troops but there is concern that they could become potential bargaining chips in the two countries’ tense ties in the wake of the Turkish offensive.
“Any time nuclear weapons are moved from point A to point B, it is a major logistical challenge,” one former senior US official said. “The security is enormous that goes with this.”
There was considerable debate on what to do with the bombs in Turkey during the administration of former US President Barack Obama, according to the Guardian.
Incirlik was allegedly used by some of the plotters in the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, which led to President Erdogan cutting power to the base before moves were made to arrest the men.
Later, Turkish officials suggested that they should develop their own nuclear weapons. Indeed, Erdogan told a party rally last month it was “unacceptable” that they could not have their own nuclear arsenal.
This year there has also been tension between Ankara and NATO, after Turkey decided to accept a Russian S-400 air defense system in July.
The US and NATO allies were concerned that Turkey’s use of the S-400 could jeopardize secrecy on the F-35 and it’s stealth capabilities. That led to the US booting the nation from its F-35 program shortly after Erdogan’s deal with Russia.
Some non-proliferation campaigners are now saying that with US-Turkish ties in “total freefall” and its position in NATO increasingly shaky, the US should act unilaterally and take its nuclear weapons back.
With Turkey sheltering more than three million Syrian refugees and having signed a pact three years ago to prevent migration to the European Union, NATO member states will likely tread carefully with Erdogan.