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One More Wrinkle in Turkey Chaos: 50 US Nukes

Pentagon reportedly rethinking whether it's still safe to keep them there
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 14, 2019 11:42 AM CDT
One More Wrinkle in Turkey Chaos: 50 US Nukes
Local residents cheer as Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters drive around the border town of Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, on their way to Tal Abyad, Syria, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019.   (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

(Newser) – The military situation near the Turkish border in Syria remains in flux, with allegiances shifting quickly amid uncertainty of how everything will shake out. But the fast-moving developments also have drawn attention to a lesser-known fact of US foreign policy: The Pentagon has about 50 tactical nuclear weapons stored in Turkey at its Incirlik Air Base, reports Business Insider. The big question: Is it still safe to keep them there now that US-Turkey relations are fraying? Related coverage:

  • Under review: Officials in the State and Energy departments have begun "quietly reviewing" plans to evacuate the weapons, reports the New York Times. "Those weapons, one senior official said, were now essentially Erdogan’s hostages," writes David Sanger. "To fly them out of Incirlik would be to mark the de facto end of the Turkish-American alliance. To keep them there, though, is to perpetuate a nuclear vulnerability that should have been eliminated years ago."
  • In vaults: The bombs have been stored in underground vaults at Incirlik since the 1960s, per a backgrounder in the New Yorker. That goes back to the days when Incirlik turned into a crucial Cold War base. The story says the vaults "hold about fifty B-61 hydrogen bombs—more than 25% of the nuclear weapons in the NATO stockpile."

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  • Old question: Business Insider notes that experts have been questioning the safety of keeping the weapons in Turkey even before the latest developments. "An airbase is a not a fortress; it is not intended to withstand a siege by the host government any more than an embassy might," wrote Jeffrey Lewis of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at Middlebury College in 2016. The base is less than 100 miles from the Syrian border, where the new conflict in unfolding.
  • Deterrent: A piece at Quartz notes that one reason the stockpile has remained in Turkey all these years has been the hope that it would deter Turkey from seeking nuclear missiles of its own. However, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last month that he could "not accept" arguments to keep Turkey out of the nuclear club.
  • Still allies? Trump has been threatening to unleash economic doom on Turkey if it goes too far in its Syria incursion, raising the question of whether the two nations are still trusted allies. On Monday, Trump tweeted that Kurds—who were until this month allied with the US but are now allied with Syria because of the US withdrawal—may be deliberately releasing ISIS prisoners "to get us involved. ... Do people really think we should go to war with NATO Member Turkey?" he asked.
  • That phone call: The phone call between Trump and Erdogan that set off the recent chain of events is under scrutiny, too. An analysis at Axios suggests that Erdogan "called Trump's bluff" about the US president wanting to remove American troops from the border region, but that Erdogan also incorrectly thought "Trump would restrain him" in regard to the subsequent invasion.
  • Putin happy: Whatever the US and Turkey hoped to get out of this situation, the real winner appears to be Syrian ally Vladimir Putin, writes James Hohmann at the Washington Post. "He got to sit back and watch the Turks and the Americans unravel five years of success and not only did it not cost him anything, he didn't even have to try to make it happen," says a Western military official in the story. Meanwhile, a New York Times investigation alleges that Russian jets have been bombing hospitals in Syria to wipe out the last bit of resistance to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
(Read more nuclear weapons stories.)

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