Syria’s civil war has dragged on for almost two years and has resulted in over 60,000 casualties. The uprising has spilled into Turkey since it shares a 600-mile border with Syria. Syria shot down a Turkish warplane in the Mediterranean Sea and killed two crew members last June; five Turkish civilians were killed when a mortar round fired in Syria struck a house in October; shells fired from Syria have landed in Turkey; NATO has detected launches of several unguided short-range ballistic missiles in Syria along the border of Turkey; and an abundant number of Syrian refugees are trapped in Turkish recovery camps.
NATO approved Ankara’s request for military assistance in early December. Germany, Netherlands, and the U.S. have begun to each deploy two Patriot surface-to-air missile systems to Turkey’s southern and southeastern regions — being the only three countries in the Western military alliance that have the most advanced models — stressing that it is for defensive purposes only. The Patriot anti-missile system is designed to shoot down any incoming missiles from Syria and to intercept chemical weapons according to NATO Secretary General Fogh Rasmussen.
Turkish media reported that it hoped for 18 to 20 of the Patriot systems in total, but that would mean a large part of all existing Patriot systems would be deployed in the area. German troops are stationed 60 miles north of the Syrian border, the Dutch about 66 miles west of the border, and U.S. troops about 31 miles north of Syria. In terms of strategic positioning, German and Dutch troops are too far away to reach Syria and a U.S. rocket launched from where troops are stationed would hardly reach Ankara’s southern neighbor, further showing that the deployments are for defense purposes only — it is very likely that soldiers are looking at quiet time since Damascus has no reason to launch attacks on Ankara. Some critics have stated that the missile defense is a symbolic act since the Patriot missiles protect a relatively small area and major cities like Diyarbakir or Batman remain outside of the protection zone.
Since the civil war began in March 2011, Turkey has become one of the harshest critics of Syria, supporting Syrian opposition and rebels and providing shelter to refugees. Currently, there are approximately 15 refugee camps in Turkey holding more than 150,000 refugees and tens of thousands more are living in cities throughout the country.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has labeled all opponents of his regime as “enemies of God and puppets of the West.” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated it is impossible for al-Assad to stay in power and has predicted that the Turkish and Syrian people will have a deeper relationship in trade and tourism once Assad departs.
Close allies of Syria sing a different tune. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has claimed that Syrian shelling in Turkey was unintentional (“threats should not be over stated”) and his country continues to supply Syria with weapons ordered prior to the crisis. Also, a top military commander from Iran warned that stationing NATO systems on Turkey’s territory risks conflict with Syria.
The appealing thing about Patriot deployments in such a tense, conflicted situation is that they are an unambiguously defensive move that threatens no one. NATO collective security arrangements were established so that no member would have to stand alone when danger looms, and in the present crisis Patriot deployments seem like the most appropriate, non-provocative response.