Against the backdrop of the West’s condemnation of Turkey’s military operation code-named ‘Peace Spring’ launched in north-eastern Syria against pro-American Kurdish militants, the topic of Turkey’s “nuclear umbrella” began gaining a lot of attention in the media.
The discussion escalated even further, once Turkey’s leader Erdogan threatened the EU to open Turkey’s borders allowing millions of migrants to travel onward to Europe in response to ever increasing criticism of the operation provoked by the mounting civilian death toll in Syria.
Here’s where The New York Times dropped a bomb by stating that US State and Energy Department officials were quietly reviewing plans for evacuating roughly 50 tactical nuclear weapons that the United States had long stored, under American control, at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, about 250 miles from the Syrian border.
According to Zero Hedge, Turkey is among a handful of states that approved the deployment of American nuclear devices on its territory during the Cold War days, when Washington was adamant about containing the Soviet Union. This decision resulted in US allies surrendering their ambition to pursue the creation of their own nuclear arsenals.
It is noteworthy that during the initial years of the Syrian conflict, it was the above mentioned Incirlik Air Base that hosted American intelligence and military experts working in cooperation with their Turkish counterparts to advance a proxy war against the Assad government. These experts were tasked with formenting protests and supporting militant groups that are now killing Syrian Kurds and Christians in Syria’s northeast.
Regarding the “nuclear umbrella” that Turkey has been hosting for decades now, it finds itself in violation of numerous agreements on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons that were designed to preserve the Middle East as a region free of nuclear weapons. Thus, in 1980, Turkey signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, a decision that was followed by Ankara’s accession to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1996. In spite of this, the country still hosts American nuclear weapons. Some people may not be aware that the decision to deploy these warheads to Turkey resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which nearly provoked a nuclear war between Moscow and Washington.
However, it is unlikely that some sort of pressure from Washington affects Erdogan’s desire to retain this “nuclear umbrella” under its control. Turkey is fully aware of the benefits of having a massive “club” ready in-hand for regional troublemakers, while being fully aware of the fact that some Middle Eastern players have already acquired their own “nuclear umbrellas.”
That’s why Erdogan has recently announced to the representatives of the ruling AK Party in the Turkish city of Sivas that:
Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But (they tell us) we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept, We have Israel nearby, as almost neighbors. They scare (other nations) by possessing these. No one can touch them.
At the same time, in his speech, the Turkish president assured that his country is still capable of defending itself without nuclear weapons, that’s why he’s been buying Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft systems in spite of the pressure Washington applied on Ankara in a bid to cancel the deal. However, some observers say, that the acquisition of those systems doesn’t automatically imply that Turkey pursues militarization, as it can be an example of Ankara’s desire to increase its prestige in the region instead.
Since 2012, Erdogan has accused the international community of duplicity, as a great many international players are willing to criticize Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear program and, on the other hand, remain silent about the fact that Tel-Aviv is in possession of some 250-300 nuclear warheads.
Against this background, the statement that Turkey’s leader made back in 2018 about nuclear weapons representing the principal threat to the security of Turkey and the entire region becomes particularly noteworthy.
Considering the possibility of Ankara pursing an ambition to develop its own “nuclear umbrella”, it is appropriate to recall that Turkey made its first attempts to obtain nuclear technologies in the 1980s. Back then, a number of Turkish generals approached Pakistani military circles to negotiate a possible trasfer of technology, but negotiations failed. The exact reason for this failure remain unknown. It is possible that the Pakistanis did not want to share its secrets, but it’s more likely that the main sponsor of the Pakistani nuclear program – Riyadh – objected to this development.
Are there states capable of selling nuclear devices to Turkey today? Absolutely not, since the US still holds a grudge against Ankara, while neither Russia, nor China, nor any other of the “nuclear club” powers could be interested in letting lose such an ominous toy. Therefore, Ankara has to build them from scratch.
Moreover, there’s nobody willing to sell Turkey uranium ore, and Turkey itself doesn’t possess its own capabilities for the extraction of this ore from its own negligible deposits scattered across its territory.
Although the Turkish Institute of Nuclear Research has a small experimental reactor (TR-2) , nevertheless, this country does not yet have the required number of qualified scientific personnel to pursue such an endeavor.
To make matters worse, the country possesses no modern means of delivery for nuclear warheads, such as ballistic missiles or next-generation bombers.
Then, there’s the dire state of the Turkish economy that is on its last legs already and it cannot reliably fund the research and the development of nuclear wrapons, as Ankara cannot even afford the construction of nuclear power plants these days.
Today, Erdogan is building a “New Turkey”, striving to demonstrate to everyone its independence with a certain claim to the status of a great power. According to his own statements, he’s convinced that no independent player can survive without nuclear weapons on the international stage. But Turkey’s ability to develop such weapons leaves much to be desired.
However, if we’re speaking about Turkey’s ambition to obtain nuclear weapons in the mid-term, it cannot be ruled out that if Erdogan is determined enough, it will be difficult for anyone to prevent him from achieving this goal. And there’s an important factor here, it’s the US withdrawal from the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty), that was designed to eliminate the imminent threat of the next nuclear war. Washington is back in the nuclear race, a fact which leads to the consistent deterioration of its relations with Russia, China, North Korea, and Turkey as well, as the latter can undertake desperate steps to ensure its possession of nuclear weapons. At least to establish some balance of power, for “defensive purposes.” In actuality, the United States itself, as well as the EU, are pushing Ankara toward this decision, after indefinitely blocking Ankara from joining the EU for almost half a century, never accepting it into the “family.”
All this strengthens Erdogan’s conviction that Turkey must survive on its own. Now that it has found Washington’s and Brusell’s Achilles heel, it’s going to exploit the matter of nuclear weapons by skillfully playing all the major powers.
That is why the whole world should have been carefully listening to Erdogan’s statement on September 4.
Valery Kulikov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine ‘New Eastern Outlook