The deterioration of US-Turkey relations represents two big military and political dilemmas for Washington that could see all parties involved in the chaos lose. Firstly, while it is very unlikely that Turkey would be expelled from NATO, Erdogan will nonetheless see himself isolated within the group of allies as sanctions and overall diplomatic discontent flow in his direction. This will potentially result in Western allies being denied access to Incirlik air base in southeast Turkey, a key staging point for access to the Middle East where the alliance runs aerial surveillance operations from Incirlik and the US has nuclear weapons stationed there.
This represents a second big issue. An estimated 50 nuclear bombs stored at a US airbase in Turkey have become potential bargaining chips in the tense relationship between Washington and Ankara in the wake of the Turkish offensive into Syria.
The presence of B61 nuclear gravity bombs at İncirlik airbase, which is about 100 miles from the Syrian border and which the US air force shares with its Turkish counterpart, is complicating Washington’s calculations.
The New York Times reported on Monday that US officials have been discussing plans to move the bombs out of Syria, with one official describing the weapons as Erdogan’s hostages.
Removal of the bombs would signify a potentially irreversible blow to relations between the US and Turkey, and could even lead to Erdogan initiating the development of nuclear weapons.
Erdogan underlined that threat last month, declaring at a party rally that it was “unacceptable” for Turkey not to have its own arsenal.
He claimed falsely: “There is no developed nation in the world that doesn’t have them.”
Donald Trump withdrew troops from Syria last week, essentially giving the green light for NATO ally Turkey to force its military across the Syrian-Turkish border to establish what Ankara refers to as a ‘safe-zone’.
READ MORE: Turkey vs Syria war: How Trump’s ‘green light’ could spark Syria war
On Monday the EU declared an arms embargo on Turkey, and a planned bipartisan bill in Congress would sanction Turkish leaders and cut off US weapons supplies.
This comes after Trump and Erdogan came to blows over the placement of Russian S-400 missiles in Ankara, sparking fears that Vladimir Putin could gather intelligence on F-35 fighter jets used by NATO allies.
Turkey may be attracting worldwide condemnation, but the nuclear bombs that remain in Erdogan’s hands could prove a sticky bargaining chip for Washington to overcome.