U.S.-Turkey Tensions Raise Fears Over Future of Nuclear Weapons Near Syria

The deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Turkey has reportedly prompted U.S. officials to consider removing American nuclear weapons from a key air base in Turkey, just 250 miles from the country's border with Syria.

The Incirlik air base in southern Turkey is believed to host some 50 nuclear warheads. This would the most of any one European air base involved in NATO's "nuclear sharing" concept, which spreads the bloc's nuclear deterrent across the continent.

The New York Times—citing two anonymous officials—reported Sunday that State and Energy Department staff were reviewing plans to relocate the warheads. One unnamed senior described the weapons as hostages of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and suggested that their removal would sound the death knell of the alliance between NATO's two largest militaries.

Incirlik's proximity to war-torn Syria has long prompted discussions as to whether the base is still a suitable host for U.S. nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016 raised concerns that Turkey's domestic situation is too volatile to ensure the security of high-value assets like nuclear warheads.

These issues are no longer at the forefront for American planners. Instead, U.S. officials are having to contend with turbulent relations between Washington and Ankara, exacerbated by two strongman leaders keen to show muscle on the international stage.

There is no concrete indication that the U.S. is planning to remove its weapons from Incirlik, despite weeks of erratic diplomacy.

A State Department official told Newsweek by email that it was U.S. policy to neither confirm nor deny the presence or absence of nuclear weapons at any general or specific location.

Tom Plant, the director of proliferation and nuclear policy at the Royal United Services Institute, told Newsweek he would be "genuinely surprised" if U.S. weapons left Incirlik.

He noted that any discussion of U.S. nuclear warheads in Turkey exists within the wider context of NATO strategy, of which Turkey is and will remain a key pillar.

Ultimately—and speaking in very general terms—deploying U.S. nuclear weapons abroad signals that Washington has an interest in a particular country and is willing to defend it, or at least the weapons placed there, Plant said.

To start redeploying weapons would upset this relationship, and could even undermine the same agreement made with Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany, especially if there are groups lobbying against it. "You pull one of these threads and who knows? Things start to unravel," Plant said.

Taking nuclear weapons out of Turkey would cause NATO a significant headache. "I could imagine NATO nuclear planners working overtime to work this one out," Plant noted.

"If they were to move, there would be some gap that would need to be addressed in some way. And the alliance as a whole could decide that it could tolerate that, that's possible as possible. Or it could decide to move things around in some way."

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This would be much harder with any decision to remove nuclear weapons from Incirlik. The sensitivity of the weapons means that moving them is a long-term and labor intensive task.

"There's a lot of logistics involved in these things, in part for the security arrangements," Plant explained. "Just moving them safely would take a lot of time. And it would take the cooperation of the Turks as well—it's their airspace after all and these things will most likely be being flown out if that were to happen."

Such valuable and powerful weapons would mean that moving them "would be fundamentally a consensual process," Plant added. Any suggestion that the U.S. forces at Incirlik could suddenly up and leave with nuclear warheads is not feasible.

If the removal ever was to happen—which remains unlikely—Plant said it would have to be "in an orderly way. I think that's quite fundamental." Given current tensions, that seems some way off. "What I'm not seeing at the moment is a tremendous amount of order in that relationship," Plant concluded.

This article has been updated to clarify comments made by Tom Plant.

Incirlik, air base, Turkey, US, nuclear weapons
A service vehicle with a sign reading 'Welcome to Incirlik' is pictured at the air base in Incirlik, Turkey, on January 21, 2016. TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images/Getty