Growing concerns about US nuclear weapons in Turkey

For more than a decade, Turkey's leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has turned his country from a largely secular, mostly free democracy into an Islamist state.  In some ways, it happened so gradually that until very recently, there were several European countries who were sponsoring Turkey's proposed membership in the E.U. 

That's almost certainly not going to happen now, as Erdoğan has concentrated most of the power of the state in the hands of the president.  His stranglehold on power and his growing hostility to the West have precipitated a debate over whether U.S. nuclear weapons based in Turkey should be withdrawn.

Turkey is a member of NATO, but there are legitimate questions whether Erdoğan will fulfill his obligation to the alliance if member-nations agree to go to war.

Recently, German members of parliament were not guaranteed access to Incirlik Air Base to visit German troops.  So Germany moved its planes and men to Jordan.  The hostility to Germany raised alarms in Washington because the U.S. has nuclear weapons at the air base. 

Washington Examiner:

U.S. European Command, which oversees U.S. operations at Incirlik Air Base, while not acknowledging the presence of nuclear weapons at the base, said there are no security concerns overall. "Our strategic assets are stored under highly secure conditions and under U.S. control," said Air Force Capt. Joe Alonso. "We are confident that they are safe."

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, considered the foremost authority on the subject, said the U.S. keeps about 50 B-61 nuclear gravity bombs at Turkey's Incirlik base, each with a maximum yield of 170 kilotons, or 10 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

All this just about an hour-long drive from Syria, the most active war zone in the world, where in addition to a raging civil war, the international coalition led by the U.S. is battling ISIS, a terrorist group that would love to get its hands on a nuclear weapon.

"We should be concerned, and it is certainly past time to think about relocating them," Fitzpatrick told the Washington Examiner. "The nuclear weapons in Turkey are not currently under direct threat of seizure, but the circumstances over the past year give strong reason to take them out as a precaution."

Arm control advocates such as Ploughshare's Cirincione said there are many arguments for pulling U.S. nuclear weapons out of Turkey before something goes wrong.

He points to when, during the attempted coup last year, senior Turkish officers were accused of being among the leaders of the coup and flying missions from Incirlik in support of it.

The United States temporarily lost access to the base, and then for several days Turkish forces loyal to Erdogan surrounded Incirlik and cut off power, which Cirincione said effectively trapped some 2,500 U.S. military personnel along with the 50 nuclear weapons.

A week later, he pointed out, the base was again under siege, surrounded this time by thousands of anti-American protesters who burned American flags and demanded the government close the base.

"When you have four or five indicators that are all blinking red, and no sound strategic rationale for keeping the weapons there, you should err on the side of security, you should pull them out," Cirincione said.

The U.S. continues to say publicly that Turkey remains a strong and vital ally.

One expert on our nuclear arsenal says there are about 50 nuclear bombs being stored at Incirlik.  If Erdoğan were so inclined, he could make Turkey an instant nuclear power by seizing those weapons.  How much resistance could U.S. forces offer if Erdoğan made a grab for the nukes?  I'm sure our people would give a good account of themselves, but realistically, they would be hopelessly outmatched.

NATO is such a mess right now that questions about Turkey's membership in the alliance are on the back burner.  But even before those questions are resolved, the U.S. should play it safe and withdraw our nukes – without warning – to keep them out of the hands of an Islamist dictator.