Has The Time Come To Take U.S. Nuclear Weapons Out Of Turkey?
It was a wakeup call for some: pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Turkey tried to storm the U.S. base Incirlik where nuclear weapons have long been stationed. There is more discussion than ever about whether the NATO partner is still a trustworthy military ally with such potent weapons within reach.
BERLIN — They came with Turkish and Palestinian flags and tried to enter the grounds of one of the most important U.S. military bases in the Middle East: On November 5, thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey to protest Israel's offensive in Gaza. The police dispersed the crowd with tear gas and water cannons.
The American airbase is a singular symbol for the presence of both NATO and the U.S. on Turkish territory for one reason above all: U.S. nuclear weapons are stored there.
Shortly after the demonstrators attempted to enter the site, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Ankara, though was not received by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. These coinciding events once again raise the question of whether the U.S. can still trust Turkey, a full-fledged NATO member, as a partner — and whether the Incirlik military base and its atomic arsenal is a wise choice.
According to estimates, the number of nuclear weapons stationed there had been around 50, accounting for one-third of the total of 150 U.S. nuclear bombs thought to be in Europe. In recent years, experts believe the U.S. is said to have reduced its arsenal at Incirlik to perhaps around 20.
Washington itself provides no information on the location and quantity of its nuclear arsenal.The Americans also control their counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East from Incirlik, such as the missions against the terrorist group ISIS, which continue to this day.
Geostrategic, past and present
During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the base was also the central hub for supplying U.S. soldiers to potential combat zones. Back when the base was built in the 1950s, the Cold War was the determining factor in the West's security policy.
The ultimate security policy in an insecure world.
The Soviet Union's territorial claims against Turkey prompted Ankara to integrate itself into Western security structures, and it became a member of NATO in 1952. The alliance with its nuclear umbrella, said Turkey expert Dimitar Bechev recently, was Turkey's "ultimate security policy" in an insecure world, where threats could come from Russia or Iran. This is still the case today.
On the other hand, Turkey, with its key geographical position between Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and the Caucasus, is of great importance to NATO — and with the airbase especially for the Americans.
"The geostrategic value of Incirlik is huge," says Alper Coskun, Turkey expert at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington.
Turkey is also home to the Kürecik radar station, an early warning system against ballistic missile attacks. For a long time, the Turkish government blocked NATO's northern expansion to include Sweden and Finland — Stockholm is still waiting for the green light — and acquired a Russian air defense system and took military action against Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria who were fighting alongside the Americans against ISIS.
Now, the war in the Middle East risks a deeper rupture to the relationship. Erdogan has declared Hamas to be freedom fighters, accused Israel of war crimes and described the country as a pawn of the West.
Turkish police fired tear gas to disperse a pro-Palestinian rally outside the U.S. Incirlik Air Base before the arrival of Antony Blinken in Ankara.
Threats to Blinken
"Relations between Washington and Ankara are strained," says Coskun.
During his visit earlier this month to Ankara, Blinken spoke with his counterpart as pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered in front of the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
Earlier, the police had stopped a protest march during which, according to agency reports, students shouted "Murderer Blinken — get out of Turkey."
There have been repeated calls in Washington to reduce Ankara's leverage and look for an alternative to Incirlik. In the past, the Turkish government had threatened to close the Turkish-American base.
In October 2019, shortly after the start of a Turkish military operation against Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria, senators from both the Democratic and Republican parties unsuccessfully tried to push through a bill "to counter Turkish aggression." The draft included a request to the then President Donald Trump to explore alternatives to Incirlik.
"Washington should not burn bridges."
In fact, the U.S. has expanded relations with Greece in recent years, which some observers have seen as an attempt to reduce dependence on Ankara. In 2021, Washington and Athens extended a contract by five years for the use of the naval and air base near Souda on the island of Crete — previously it had to be renewed annually. The Pentagon has denied that the U.S. saw Greece as a possible replacement for Incirlik.
Jordan, Cyprus and Iraq are also considered alternative options, though the three countries are not part of NATO, which would make cooperation more complicated. In a 2016 article for the website "Defense One," former U.S. Air Force officer Charles F. Wald wrote: "The best solution would be to build a new military airfield in Iraq — in the area controlled by the Kurdish regional government."
Still, many American security experts agree that it is in the interests of the U.S. to maintain Turkey within its sphere of influence in order to prevent it from turning to Russia or China. "Washington should not burn any bridges now," says Turkey expert Coskun.
Incirlik is not an easy location for Washington to replace, especially since anti-American resentment appears to be growing everywhere.
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