Turkey holding US nuclear bombs ‘hostage’
PRESIDENT Donald Trump's Middle Eastern crisis is only just beginning. His NATO ally Turkey has gone rogue and invaded Syria. So what happens to the 50 US thermonuclear warheads stored on its soil?
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month declared he wanted nuclear weapons: "We have Israel nearby, as almost neighbours. They scare others by possessing these. No one can touch them."
And, given his nation's rapidly deteriorating relationship with the West, the US stockpile could prove a tempting shortcut to becoming the region's second nuclear power.
"They tell us we can't have them." he told a party meeting last month. "This, I cannot accept."
Meanwhile, all those US nuclear devices remain locked up on Incirlik air force base - despite years of escalating Turkish internal and international turmoil.
And we've already seen a dress rehearsal for their seizure by Erdoğan's followers.
But Mr Trump seems oblivious to the fact these nuclear weapons could soon be held hostage against him.
"The United States will aggressively use economic sanctions to target those who enable, facilitate, and finance these heinous acts in Syria," Mr Trump warned today. "I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey's economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path."
Turkey was once a solid international citizen. It has been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) since 1952. Sitting as it does on the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, it was regarded to be a vital staging post for nuclear bombers during the Cold War.
It had recently begun the process of joining the European Union. And it was such a trusted ally that the United States even agreed to sell it the advanced and ultra-secret F-35 stealth fighter. But that relationship with the West appears to be rapidly drawing to an end.
Since his election as President in 2014, Erdoğan has been leading his nation down an authoritarian Islamist path.
News organisations have been shut down. Journalists, academics, lawyers and teachers have been arrested and jailed. An intensive purge of the public service has also seen many dissidents imprisoned.
Then, shortly after surviving a 2016 coup attempt, Mr Erdoğan discovered a kindred spirit in a previous rival - President Vladimir Putin. State-sponsored rhetoric has been rising against the United States and its Western allies ever since.
Turkey went so far as to accuse a US general of orchestrating the coup.
Now, Mr Erdoğan's troops - intent on eradicating the separatist Kurdish ethnic minority group - have surged into the void left behind by Mr Trump's withdrawal in northeastern Syria,
Senior members of the US government are outraged, threatening harsh economic sanctions as a penalty if the assault against the Kurds continues.
Mr Erdoğan has dismissed all criticism as "disinformation" aimed at provoking discontent with his invasion.
TICKING TIME BOMBS
The United States air force is believed to have up to 50 nuclear gravity-bombs stored at the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey.
The base is just 160km of the unfolding Turkish ground campaign against the Kurds.
Part of a series of similar Cold War-era nuclear stockpiles in Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, it now presents a deadly diplomatic challenge for the US White House and Pentagon.
How do they stop these weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands?
How do they remove them without doing a drastic diplomatic insult to Turkey?
They're questions that have been asked repeatedly in recent years.
They're questions that have fallen on deaf ears.
"Although Turkey is a NATO member and Incirlik is a key base of operations for the US air campaign against the Islamic State group, developments over the past year and a half have soured relations and raised security concerns at the base," the Arms Control Association noted.
"The risks of storing the weapons in Turkey have increased significantly … maintaining the status quo is unacceptable in light of Erdogan's anti-US rhetoric and actions."
That warning came in 2017.
Last week, Turkey openly defied the US by launching its campaign against the Kurds.
And just weeks ago, Mr Erdogan said he would "not accept" moves to prevent Turkey from gaining the technology necessary to refine uranium into weapons-grade plutonium.
"Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. "There is no developed nation in the world that doesn't have them," Mr Erdogan falsely asserted.
The New York Times today quotes one unnamed US official as saying these nuclear weapons were now essentially "Erdogan's hostages".
"To fly them out of Incirlik would be to mark the defacto end of the Turkish-American alliance. To keep them there, though, is to perpetuate a nuclear vulnerability that should have been eliminated years ago," national security correspondent David Sanger writes.
We've had a taste of what could come. A failed 2016 coup attempt against Mr Erdoğan spread to the Incirlik air base.
The joint US-Turkish facility had its power cut off for several days. Senior Turkish commanders inside were arrested. And, amid false state-controlled media claims that a US Army general had been behind the civil unrest, Turkish citizens and police rushed to blockade its gates and perimeter fence.
Rumours swirled that Mr Erdoğan's troops were on their way to seize the airfield, at which several Turkish F-16 fighter jets supporting the coup had been based.
This never eventuated.
In the following weeks, Mr Erdoğan purged some 1700 military personnel - including up to 40 per cent of its admirals and generals. And more than 60,000 military, judiciary, civil service and school employees had been either detained, removed or suspended.
Mr Erdoğan also blamed the US for harbouring Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom he asserted had orchestrated the whole thing. With no evidence of this forthcoming, Washington refused demands for the Opposition leader's extradition.
Despite the ferocious intensity of this stand-off, the Pentagon has not since indicated that its policy of maintaining nuclear weapons at the base has changed.
BREACH OF TRUST
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper was asked by Fox News yesterday whether or not Turkey was a US ally. "No, I think Turkey, the arc of their behaviour over the past several years has been terrible," he replied.
And the situation for the former US-allies, the Kurds, he said, "gets worse by the hour".
Mr Esper did not express confidence in Turkey's motives or behaviour. When asked if he feared they would deliberately attack US forces, he said: "I don't know whether they would or wouldn't."
But he confirmed the withdrawal of the 1000 US troops currently in Syria would soon be complete.
"In the last 24 hours, we learned that they (the Turks) likely intend to expand their attack further south than originally planned - and to the west," Mr Esper told Fox News.
The sudden evacuation of US troops appears to have been interpreted by Mr Erdoğan, who spoke with Mr Trump earlier last week, as tacit approval for the invasion.
Mr Esper said even if US troops had remained on the ground, they would have been overwhelmed by the 15,000 Turkish troops, actively supported by air power.
"We did not sign up to fight Turkey, a longstanding NATO ally, on behalf of the (Kurdish) SDF. This is a terrible situation," he said.
High-profile US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham yesterday condemned Turkey for its "outrageous assault" on Kurdish towns.
"Turkey's day of reckoning is coming for their outrageous assault on Kurdish Syrians," he warned. "I'm leading the effort in Congress to work with the President on the most crippling sanctions since the Iran sanctions.
"Turkey's misadventure in Syria, if left unchecked, will destabilise the Middle East as much as Iran - to the detriment of the United States and our allies."
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he was "ready to go at a moments notice". If ordered to impose sanctions, he said "they could be maximum pressure, which would destroy the Turkish economy".
They're drastic threats, even when not aimed at a country which hosts US nuclear weapons.
But the message coming from Mr Trump remains the opposite to that of his Republican Party colleagues.
"Very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change," he tweeted. "Those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars are still pushing to fight. They have no idea what a bad decision they have made. Why are they not asking for a Declaration of War?"
Statement from President Donald J. Trump Regarding Turkey’s Actions in Northeast Syria pic.twitter.com/ZCQC7nzmME— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 14, 2019
But today, he's declared all-out economic war.
"I will soon be issuing an Executive Order authorising the imposition of sanctions against current and former officials of the Government of Turkey and any persons contributing to Turkey's destabilising actions in Syria," his new statement declares.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer @JamieSeidel