(CNSNews.com) – A bipartisan Senate bill aimed at pressurizing Turkey over its military offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces contains a provision requiring the administration to explore “viable alternative” locations for U.S. military troops and assets now based in Turkey.
Their current base, Incirlik in the NATO ally’s southeast, is home to the U.S. Air Force’s busiest air traffic control complex in Europe. Crucially, it’s also believed to house the largest stockpile of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.
“Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the President shall submit to Congress an interagency report assessing viable alternative military installations or other locations to host personnel and assets of the United States Armed Forces currently stationed at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey,” reads the bill.
The bill, authored by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and with 14 co-sponsors from both parties, would target for sanctions President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other senior Turkish officials, key banks, military transactions, and energy sector activities supportive of the Turkish military.
It would also prohibit U.S. military assistance to Turkey, prevent Erdogan from visiting the U.S. – as he is currently scheduled to do on November 13.
The initiative is a response to Erdogan’s military offensive against U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria, which began after President Trump earlier this month announced the pullback of a small number of U.S. troops in the immediate area of the looming Turkish attack.
U.S. and allied officials do not as a rule talk about the placement of nuclear weapons in Europe abroad, although experts say 150 Cold War-era B61 thermonuclear gravity bombs are located at bases in five NATO countries – Turkey, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Trump last week indirectly confirmed the presence of nuclear weapons at the Turkish base. Asked in the Oval Office how confident he was of the safety of the “as many as 50 nuclear weapons” at Incirlik, he replied, “We’re confident,” adding that Incirlik was “a large, powerful air base” and reminding reporters that Turkey was a NATO ally.
In a CNBC interview broadcast on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also asked about the nuclear weapons at Incirlik, in the context of a question on whether he trusts Erdogan. He did not take the bait.
“Turkey is, of course, a NATO member,” said CNBC’s Wilfred Frost. “They get lots of extra shares intelligence because of that. There is also around 40 or 50 NATO-U.S. nuclear weapons housed in Turkey. How much do you trust President Erdogan personally?”
“I never talk about trust,” Pompeo replied. “I always talk about making sure that we work closely, that we use our diplomatic skills, that we verify everything. You should know: We have a number of NATO partners that do things that aren’t consistent with what America wishes we would do. We’re partners in a NATO alliance. It doesn’t mean that we always agree.”
The U.S. has had nuclear weapons in Turkey since 1959. Nonproliferation experts say the U.S. now has 50 B61 bombs at Incirlik, one-third of the total number of B61s still on European soil.
Unlike the case in Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, there are no nuclear-capable aircraft – Turkish or U.S. – permanently stationed at Incirlik. So if the bombs there were ever required to be used, they would either have to be shipped elsewhere, or suitable U.S. aircraft would have to be deployed to Incirlik.
Because of that Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, describes Incirlik as basically a “glorified storage depot” for the nuclear weapons. Lewis was speaking in a recent podcast for his Arms Control Wonk website.
Tensions in the U.S.-Turkey relationship in recent years have prompted growing calls for the bombs to be removed.
After a failed coup attempt in mid-2016, the Turkish commander of the Incirlik air base was one of thousands of military officers and other officials detained by the Erdogan administration, adding to concerns about the safety of the nuclear weapons stored there in the event of an unfriendly regime taking power.
The New York Times reported this week that, after the abortive coup bid, “the Obama administration quietly drew up an extensive contingency plan for removing the weapons from Incirlik, according to former government officials,” but the plan that was never put into action.
In the Arms Control Wonk podcast, Lewis noted that the B61 bombs are scheduled for gradual “upgrading” to a modernized form (called the B61-12). The process of removing and upgrading them might give the U.S. the opportunity to “indefinitely delay” their return, given the tensions in the bilateral relationship, he said.
“Whatever one might think about U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, Turkey is no longer an acceptable location,” Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists, argued last week. “Erdogan’s confrontational and authoritarian leadership is rapidly undermining Turkey’s status as a reliable NATO ally, and the deteriorating security situation in the region presents a real physical threat to the weapons at Incirlik.”
“It’s time to face reality and withdraw the weapons from Turkey before they have to be evacuated under fire,” Kristensen said.
The Graham-Van Hollen legislation is separate from a joint resolution currently under consideration by the Senate, opposing Trump’s decision to withdraw the troops from northeastern Syria, and demanding that Erdogan halt the offensive.
The House passed that resolution on October 16 in a 354-60 vote, with 129 Republicans joining Democrats in favor.
Under an agreement with Vice President Mike Pence, Erdogan has suspended the offensive for five days, while Syrian Kurdish fighters withdraw from a section of the territory invaded by Turkish forces.