US officials said to be looking at moving nuclear devices as Congress plans sanctions
An estimated 50 nuclear bombs stored at a US airbase in Turkey have become potential bargaining chips in the tense relationship between Washington and Ankara in the wake of the Turkish offensive into Syria.
Although Donald Trump gave a green light to the offensive in a phone call eight days ago with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the US Congress is planning to impose severe sanctions on Turkey. Trump, facing a backlash from his party for acquiescing in the invasion, has backed punitive measures.
On Monday the EU declared an arms embargo on Turkey, and a planned bipartisan bill in Congress would sanction Turkish leaders and cut off US weapons supplies.
Erdoğan has said he will respond aggressively to western attempts to isolate Turkey and has vowed not to halt the offensive.
“We are determined to take our operation to the end. We will finish what we started,” the Turkish leader said during a visit to Baku, Azerbaijan. “A hoisted flag does not come down.”
The presence of B61 nuclear gravity bombs at İncirlik airbase, which is about 100 miles from the Syrian border and which the US air force shares with its Turkish counterpart, is complicating Washington’s calculations.
In recent days administration officials have been quietly reviewing plans to move the bombs, the New York Times reported on Monday. The report quoted a senior official as saying the bombs had become Erdoğan’s hostages and that flying them out of İncirlik would be the de-facto end of the Turkish-American alliance.
Plans to remove the bombs have frequently been considered but never put into action. Officials are not supposed to discuss the existence of forward-deployed bombs in Turkey and four other Nato member states but they are an open secret. They are a cold war relic with no operational function in a war plan. To deploy them the US would have to fly in planes to carry them. Turkey has no planes certified to carry nuclear weapons.
Discussions within Nato over the past three decades about withdrawing them have foundered on opposition from member states including Turkey, who saw them as valuable symbols of US commitment to their defence through extended deterrent.
A former official said there was considerable discussion in the Obama administration on what to do with the bombs, both because of Barack Obama’s disarmament agenda and particularly over security fears after the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. The base was used by some of the plotters including a general who at one point sought protection with his US colleagues, which was denied. Erdoğan’s government cut off power to the base before moving in to arrest suspects.
According to one former official, Turkish diplomats responded to suggestions that the bombs might be removed by saying Turkey would develop its own nuclear weapons.
“The potential problems have been discussed for over a decade. And now we’ve finally gotten to a point where this is a problem that we can’t ignore any more,” the former US official said.
Erdoğan underlined that threat last month, declaring at a party rally that it was “unacceptable” for Turkey not to have its own arsenal. He claimed falsely: “There is no developed nation in the world that doesn’t have them.”
As a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Turkey has committed not to acquire nuclear weapons.
Alexandra Bell, a senior policy director at the Centre for Arms Control and Non-proliferation, said the Trump administration did not have confirmed officials in key posts that would normally be tasked with dealing with such nuclear dilemmas.
“The president is sending out angry tweets and I don’t think giving the proper amount of attention and concern to what is a potentially volatile situation,” Bell said.
Jeffrey Lewis, a non-proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said: “The US doesn’t need Turkey’s agreement to remove the weapons. The US can do it unilaterally, and I think the US should do it unilaterally and do it immediately. If people are really concerned that this is going to somehow be the final nail in the coffin, it’s kind of silly as the coffin is firmly nailed shut. The relationship is in total freefall.”
However, Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert and political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said removing the weapons would not be straightforward. “Extracting them under these circumstances may be incredibly risky since it would involve removing 50 nuclear weapons from the vaults, moving them on a Turkish base and flying them out of Turkish airspace,” Narang said. “They could be vulnerable to accidents, theft or attack.”
As the Turkish offensive continues, Turkey’s place in the Nato alliance has come under increasing strain. At a meeting on Monday, EU foreign ministers agreed to follow France and Germany’s lead in ceasing arms sales to Turkey, while condemning Turkey for undermining “the stability and security of the whole region, resulting in more civilians suffering”.
As most EU states are Nato members, Brussels had to turn to a lesser-used legal mechanism to stop weapons sales, prompting concerns of a pretend embargo. The EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, insisted the measures would have the same effect as a conventional arms embargo and promised EU officials would check on national enforcement of the ban.
The EU statement, which also described Turkey as “a key partner”, underlines Europe’s dilemma over a military ally on its doorstep that shelters more than 3 million Syrian refugees and prevents would-be migrants from travelling to the EU under a 2016 pact. “It is not a kind of relationship that you can define as a black and white one; it is a complex multilayered, dimensional partnership,” Mogherini said.
The British government initially opposed using the word “condemns” in the EU statement but relented. EU diplomats played down the significance of the UK’s late agreement: “It shows they have been otherwise engaged in the last few months and that they are already looking beyond their [EU] exit,” one diplomat said. “That’s legitimate.”
British officials, having long said privately that no departing member state should block EU decisions, were keen to stress the importance of acknowledging Turkey as a crucial partner in the region.