by Mochament El Saer
Turkey has become an unreliable ally to the NATO alliance. The situation that Turkey has created for itself has now become a source of considerable trouble for the security architecture of the West. Turkey’s aggressive behaviour with regards to the Kurdish struggle for autonomy, the Syrian civil war, and its internal anti-democratic moves has shorn the leadership of Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of any goodwill within NATO. It is particularly with the most recent purchase of the Russian anti-air missile defence system (active defence system), the S-400, that Turkey has crossed a hazardous threshold. In fact, Turkey has affected the alliance to such a degree that the American nuclear weapons on Turkish territory should be withdrawn until its actions and align with the alliance’s policies.
Presently, Turkey constitutes one of the five non-nuclear NATO members (Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands) that maintain American nuclear warheads within their territories for defence and deterrence. These weapons, which are estimated to be approximately 50-80 B61 nuclear gravity bombs, are physically located on the Incirlik Airbase. These weapons were placed there to provide Turkey with security guarantees regarding historical and contemporary Russian threats to the Bosporus, to keep a lid on any conflicts in West Asia, and to ensure Turkey and its neighbours do not break the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1970 and develop their own nuclear program. Having said that, the Bosporus links Russian ports and its naval bases in Latakia and Tartous. As such, this area presents special importance as the 1936 Montreux Convention grants control to Turkey but nevertheless gives freedom to international naval and commercial ships (including Russian warships).
However, Turkey’s recent acquisition of the S-400 weapon system shows that the country has now decided to pursue an independent strategy in defiance of NATO. Why? The main reason why Turkey is pursuing such a foreign policy, even against the broader interests of the NATO coalition, is the development of its own indigenous nuclear capabilities. Policy-wise, Turkey has diverged from NATO’s doctrine and grand strategy and sustains asymmetric relations with Russia and surreptitious exchanges with regimes such as those of Iran and Pakistan. The asymmetric relation with Russia is not as an evident anti-NATO coalition but is more a relation that by reciprocally serving Turkish-Russian self-interests, jeopardises the policies and cohesion of NATO. In doing so, Turkey has radically weakened the mission of NATO to sufficiently deter Russia and, other regional powers such as Iran, from dominating Asia. By purchasing the S-400 system, which is a direct threat to the premier air superiority and air dominance fighters of the NATO alliance—the F-35 Lightning II—there can be no other purpose for this purchase than to ensure the security of a nuclear arsenal. And despite the American concerns over the exposure of technical functions and potential vulnerabilities of the new flagship F-35 Lightning II, Turkey has already received S-400 batteries.
This should not be a surprise to anyone. President Erdoğan has previously called the non-proliferation regime hypocritical. Even stating at the United Nations (24 September) that, ‘’the position of nuclear power should either be forbidden for all or permissible for everyone.’’ Nevertheless, this statement probably reflects a wider perception articulated mainly by North Korea and Iran. According to this perception, while superpowers possess significant nuclear arsenals, they prohibit the acquisition of nuclear weapons to states outside the superpower club. In addition, a few days after that Turkish President stressed that ‘’several countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But [they tell us that] we can’t have them. This I cannot accept.’’ These statements should be taken as a declaration of the ultimate plan of his regime: the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
While Turkey is indeed a member state of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty and has legally committed itself to forgo any proliferation of nuclear weapons, breaking international law is not a new tactic. The Invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and its invasion and cleansing of Kurdish areas in Syria, ake it clear Turkey has little intention to hold to international law when its security is threatened by even (e.g. Kurds).
However, will a potential relocation of the nuclear warheads from Turkey have a catastrophic effect on NATO’s deterrence capability? This is a challenging question. But it is one with a simple answer: NATO’s deterrent capability will not vanish as long as the nuclear arsenal is transferred to a nearby location. In moving the nuclear arsenal, it will also make clear to Turkey there are severe repercussions for its actions. Specifically, this move will rebuke Turkey and remind it that without NATO’s security collaterals and guarantees, Turkey cannot survive in the emerging multipolar and anarchic – from a realist perspective – international system. Therefore, either Turkey must totally align with the interests and decisions of the alliance, minimising its aggressiveness and unilateral actions, or it will lose its strategic importance within the alliance. Undoubtedly, Turkish role in the strategic agenda of NATO and the U.S. is important as it gives direct access as to the Asia and the Black Sea as to the Middle East and Mediterranean Sea. However, it does not mean that Turkey can exploit its role and, if this is the case, NATO should present zero tolerance.
There is an easy solution to where to move this arsenal as well. Because of its proximate location to Turkey, it retains all the original purposes of this arsenal, keeps it within a close distance should they be necessary to be used, and increases cooperation with an ally that is in need of protection: Greece. Or more specifically, the NATO Missile Firing Installation (NAMFI) at Souda Air Base on the island of Crete. Nonetheless, regardless of what one might do with the nuclear arsenal at Incirlik, the question remains: so long as Turkey does not serve its principal role in the NATO alliance, and jeopardises the cohesion of the alliance, defying serious concerns about Western security, what is the benefit of sustaining the vital nuclear weaponry of NATO in Turkey any longer?
As far as I am concerned, NATO should press Turkey by relocating its nuclear arsenals to another proximate member. This is not only because Turkey should be punished but mainly because NATO’s preliminary mission is to secure the cohesion and sustainability of the alliance. And currently, the political situation of Turkey does not offer stability to NATO. Once stability and certainty are recovered, NATO’s nuclear arsenal can be restored.
Mochament Elsaer is a political scientist and a Master’s candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has been awarded the prestigious Chevening Award by HM Foreign & Commonwealth Office. He has served at the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs.