US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has said he needs to speak with his Turkish counterpart to understand how serious President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was when he threatened to shut down Incirlik Airbase, which stores American nuclear warheads, Al Jazeera reported.
Erdoğan’s warning on Sunday that he could close the strategic base — also used as a staging point to attack the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — came in response to threats of US sanctions and a US Senate resolution that recognized the mass killings of Armenians a century ago as genocide.
“It has not been brought up to me before. The first I heard of it was reading it in the papers as you just mentioned, and so I need to talk to my defense counterpart to understand what they really mean and how serious they are,” Esper told reporters on Monday.
The US has kept nuclear weapons in Turkey for decades, a legacy of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Turkey could also close the Kürecik radar base used by NATO forces, Erdoğan said.
Esper said if Turkey was serious about closing down Kürecik, it would have to be discussed by NATO.
“They are a sovereign nation to begin with, so they have that inherent right to house or to not house NATO bases or foreign troops,” he said.
“But again, I think this becomes an alliance matter, your commitment to the alliance, if indeed they are serious about what they are saying.”
Last week, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution that highlighted the mass killings of Armenians a century ago, a historic move that infuriated Turkey and dealt a blow to already-problematic ties between Ankara and Washington.
Erdoğan said Turkey may respond with parliamentary resolutions recognizing the killings of Indigenous Americans in past centuries as genocide.
The US Congress has been united in its opposition to Turkey’s recent policy actions. Republican senators have been incensed by Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system, which the US says poses a threat to its F-35 fighter jets and cannot be integrated into NATO defenses.
They have also moved to punish Turkey over its Oct. 9 military operation in northern Syria. A US Senate committee backed legislation last week to impose sanctions, pushing President Donald Trump to take a harder line against Ankara.
The Trump administration has so far not imposed sanctions despite the president signing a sanctions law in 2017 that mandates financial penalties for countries that do business with Russia’s military.
“I think the issue here is once again what is Turkey’s direction with regard to the NATO alliance and the actions they are taking on any number of issues,” Esper said. NATO diplomats worry that Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and a critical ally in the Middle East, has increasingly acted unilaterally.