NATO will deploy Patriot anti-missile systems near Turkey’s southern border, to counter the threat of cross-border attacks by Syria.
The move steps up the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s involvement in the civil war being fought to topple the regime of president Bashar al-Assad.
“In response to Turkey’s request, Nato has decided to augment Turkey’s air defence capabilities in order to defend the population and territory of Turkey,” Nato foreign ministers said in a statement.
Russia, Syria and Iran have all criticised Turkey’s request for Patriots to intercept missiles.
Turkey asked the western alliance for the missiles in November after talks with allies on how to bolster security along its 560-mile border with Syria. It has repeatedly scrambled fighter jets along the frontier and responded in kind to stray Syrian shells flying into its territory.
A major player in supporting Syria’s opposition and planning for the post-conflict era, Turkey is worried about Syria’s missile-borne chemical weapons, the refugee crisis on its border, and what it says is Syrian support for Kurdish rebels on Turkish soil.
Turkey made similar calls for military support during the two Gulf wars, when Nato deployed surface-to-air missiles on its soil in 1991 and 2003.
“We stand with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity,” Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. “To anyone who would want to attack Turkey, we say, ‘Don’t even think about it!”’
He stressed deploying the Patriot systems – which include missiles, radar and other elements – would in no way support a no-fly zone over parts of Syria nor aid any offensive operation against the Assad regime.
Nato officials say the Patriots will be programmed only to intercept Syrian weapons that cross into Turkish airspace. They aren’t allowed to penetrate Syrian territory so would have no immediate effect on any regime offensives – chemical or conventional – inside Syria’s borders.
Still, Mr Fogh Rasmussen insisted the weapons could help reduce tensions along a border across which tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled and which has emerged as a critical transit point for weapons being smuggled to anti-Assad rebels.
Germany and the Netherlands are expected to provide several batteries of the latest PAC-3 version of the US-built Patriot air defence systems, geared up to intercept incoming missiles. But the exact details of the deployment and number of batteries are still to be determined by Nato. A joint team is studying possible basing sites in Turkey, and parliaments in Germany and the Netherlands must then approve shifting assets and the possible involvement of several hundred soldiers.
The Patriot deployment comes as Syrian forces yesterday fired artillery at rebel targets in and around the capital, Damascus, amid growing western alarm about intelligence reports saying Syria was activating at least part of its chemical weapons stocks. Syrian rebels have made gains in recent weeks, overrunning military bases and bringing the fight to Damascus. Since last Thursday, the capital has seen some of the heaviest fighting in months, killing scores of people, disrupting air traffic and prompting the United Nations to withdraw staff.
“The push to take Damascus is a real one, and intense pressure to take [it] is part of a major strategic shift by the rebel commanders’ strategy,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst from the Geneva-based Gulf Research Centre. “They’ve realised that without bringing the fight to Damascus, the regime will not collapse.”