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US-Turkey frictions raise nuclear concerns


A US Air Force F-15 takes off from the Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey, on Dec. 15, 2015.

Photo: AP

Frayed US relations with Turkey over Ankara’s incursion in Syria raise a sensitive question rarely discussed in public: Should Washington remove the nuclear bombs it has long stored at a Turkish air base?

It is a tricky matter for several reasons, including the fact that by longstanding policy, the US government does not publicly acknowledge locations of nuclear weapons overseas. Still, it is almost an open secret that it has as many as 50 B-61s stored under heavy guard at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey.

US President Donald Trump implicitly acknowledged the stockpile this week when asked by a reporter how confident he was of the bombs’ security.

“We’re confident,” he said.

Turkey, a NATO ally, has reportedly hosted US nuclear weapons for 60 years. The bombs could be dropped by US planes.

The arrangement at Incirlik is part of NATO’s policy of linking Turkey and other member countries to the alliance’s aim of deterring war by having a relatively small number of nuclear weapons based in Europe.

Removing them would be a diplomatic complication.

There is no known evidence that the nuclear weapons at Incirlik are at direct risk, but relations between Washington and Ankara are low and the war in Syria has grown more complex and unpredictable.

Incirlik is about 300km from Syria by road.

A US deal with Turkey to pause its offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria might have slowed the deterioration of relations, but the overall direction has been decidedly and increasingly negative.

“The arc of their behavior over the past several years has been terrible,” US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on Sunday last week, adding that Ankara defied repeated US warnings not to purchase a Russian air defense system that the White House has likened to a portal for Russian spying.

“I mean, they are spinning out of the Western orbit, if you will,” Esper said.

In July, the Pentagon kicked Turkey out of its F-35 jet program because Turkey refused to halt its purchase of the Russian system. This was a major blow to US-Turkey relations and raised questions in Washington about whether Turkey was a reliable ally.

Eric Edelman, a former US ambassador to Turkey and senior Pentagon official, said on Friday that he believes the nuclear weapons are safe and secure.

He sees risk in removing them.

“I’m not in favor of taking any actions that would potentially accelerate Turkey’s thinking about pursuing its own independent nuclear deterrent,” he said, adding that Erdogan as recently as last month mentioned this possibility.

Some arms control experts say the bombs would be safer in another NATO member.

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists said in an interview that a review of options for the bombs is long overdue.

The US Air Force, which is responsible for the bombs, has grown concerned about their security in recent years, he said.

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