In a belligerent speech to officials of his ruling AKP party on Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he “cannot accept” nuclear powers denying Turkey access to nuclear weapons of its own, and threatened to “open the gates” and flood Europe with Syrian refugees if the United States does not work with Turkey to resettle the refugees in a new “safe zone.”
“Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept,” Erdogan said.
“There is no developed nation in the world that doesn’t have them,” Erdogan incorrectly asserted.
The Turkish president then related an odd anecdote in which he claimed another unnamed national leader, identified only as a fellow “president,” told him of plans to double his nuclear arsenal to have as many nuclear warheads as Russia and the United States. The number of warheads Erdogan threw out during his story was much higher than the most generous estimate of actual American and Russian inventories, and no other country currently possesses half as many nuclear weapons as the U.S. or Russia.
Erdogan made it clear he was primarily obsessed with Israel’s rumored nuclear arsenal, insisting their nuclear arsenal serves to “scare” hostile neighboring states so that “no one can touch them.”
The Times of Israel jousted back at the Turkish leader on Thursday by suggesting he should worry more about Iran’s ambitions to become a nuclear power.
Turkey is a signatory to both the 1980 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, international agreements Erdogan seemed to be suggesting his predecessors were foolish to sign. He did not explicitly threaten to withdraw from the agreements or begin developing nuclear weapons in violation of them, however.
Newsweek’s review of Erdogan’s speech suggested he brought up nuclear weapons because his nationalist pride chafes at the thought of having dozens of American nuclear weapons stored at the Incirlik airbase in accordance with NATO defense policy, and perhaps because he dreads the potential future humiliation of having those weapons removed because the U.S. deems they are no longer safe on Turkish soil.
Erdogan may also have felt the need to tweak American sensibilities after Washington’s angry reaction to his purchase of Russian surface-to-air missiles, or hopes to use the threat of Turkish nuclear weapons as leverage in negotiations with the Trump administration to buy American missiles as well.
The rest of Erdogan’s remarks on Wednesday put a great deal of emphasis on the situation in Syria, so he could be talking about nuclear weapons to get more deference from Washington on that topic.
Erdogan threatened to “open the gates” and flood Europe with Syrian refugees if the U.S. does not work with Turkey to establish the “safe zone” (i.e. Kurd-free zone) Turkey demands on the Syrian side of its border.
Turkey wishes to resettle a million Syrian Arab refugees in the safe zone, viewing them as a population vastly preferable to the Kurdish militias currently active in the region. Erdogan’s government views these Kurdish groups, which were battlefield allies of the United States against the Islamic State, as extensions of the extremist PKK separatist party in Turkey and believes the Syrian Kurds are a threat to Turkish national security.
“We cannot be forced to handle the burden alone,” Erdogan said of the refugees currently camped in Turkey, which currently hosts about half of the estimated 6.6 million refugees.
“We are saying we should form such a safe zone that we, as Turkey, can build towns in lieu of the tent cities here. Let’s carry them to the safe zones there,” Erdogan said, alluding to criticism from humanitarian organizations of the deteriorating tent cities inhabited by the refugees.
“Give us logistical support and we can go build housing at 30 kilometers depth in northern Syria. This way, we can provide them with humane living conditions,” he proposed.
“Either you will provide support, or excuse us, but we are not going to carry this weight alone. We have not been able to get help from the international community, namely the European Union,” he complained.
Erdogan followed up on Thursday by announcing Turkey will begin unilaterally establishing the safe zone “by the last week of September,” with or without U.S. cooperation. The U.S. has warned Turkey against launching a unilateral invasion of Syrian territory.
Erdogan also repeated his threat to use the refugees as a weapon, remarking that “we may have to let them cross into Europe to get support.”
The European Union insists it has lived up to the $6.5 billion commitment it made to Turkey in 2016 and then some, having established a new $142 million fund in July to bolster the huge amount of financing it has already provided.
For whatever their opinion might be worth in Ankara, Syrian Kurdish leaders said on Wednesday that creation of the safe zone is off to a good start, although many details remain to be worked out. The Kurds fear the United States will abandon them to Erdogan’s mercy and would like more American troops to police the safe zone, while President Donald Trump would prefer to withdraw American forces from Syria. Syrian Kurdish leaders have unsuccessfully pressed Turkey to pull back its own forces to increase calm in the safe zone region.