Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Wednesday (11 December) that the United States could be barred from using two strategic air bases in retaliation to possible US sanctions against his country, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
Çavuşoğlu’s comments came amid reports that US lawmakers had agreed on a defence bill that also includes calls to sanction Turkey over its decision to proceed with the purchase and deployment of Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems. The same bill envisages sanctions for Western firms involved in the Nord Stream 2 and Turkish Stream pipeline projects.
“In the event of a decision to sanction Turkey, the Incirlik and Kurecik airbases can be brought to the agenda,” Anadolu quoted Çavuşoğlu as saying.
He said: “Congress members must understand that it is not possible to get anywhere with sanctions.”
Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey has been a main base for US operations in the Middle East and more recently in the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, while Kurecik, in eastern Turkey, is a key NATO base.
But Incirlik also hosts US B61 gravity nuclear bombs stocked there from the Cold War period. Their number is estimated at up to 50. The US military have said they are reviewing plans to evacuate those tactical nuclear weapons in the light of the ongoing tensions with the host country.
The weapons are stored in a reinforced underground bunker and guarded by US troops. The provision of the US-Turkish agreement governing the placement of those weapons required both governments to agree to their deployment.
The weapons were classed as tactical or theatre weapons and were originally intended to be used against concentrations of Soviet infantry and armour in the event of a Soviet invasion of Turkey.
While the US military as a rule does not comment on where it stores nuclear weapons in Europe, a NATO-affiliated report released in April confirmed what was an open secret in security circles: US nuclear weapons are stored at bases in Kleine Brogel in Belgium, Buechel in Germany, Aviano and Ghedi-Torre in Italy, Volkel in the Netherlands and Incirlik in Turkey.
In NATO, only France and the UK have a nuclear arsenal of their own. But according to scenarios, in case of conflict, Belgian, Italian or German planes can dock US bombs. But not all military jets are equipped to dock US bombs. Belgium recently opted to buy the US F-35 precisely because among the four competing aeroplanes, only F-35 is able to operate the nuclear strike mission carrying the American B-61 nuclear free-fall bomb.
According to a number of US government sources, Erdogan has privately warned the US against removing the nuclear devices from Incirlik, and threatened to develop his own weapons if the US bombs are removed.
Asked recently by EURACTIV what it would mean if the US nuclear bombs from Incirlik are moved to the US base Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, as such rumours exist in the region, Russia’s envoy to the EU Vladimir Chizhov said such a move would amount to “gross violation” of existing international obligations on nuclear non-proliferation.
In 2017 Germany pulled its forces from Incirlik base, officially because of restrictions on German lawmakers seeking to visit troops there. The minister of defence at that time was Ursula von der Leyen.
(Edited by Benjamin Fox)