NATO foreign ministers are expected Tuesday to approve Turkey's request for Patriot anti-missile systems to bolster its defense against strikes from neighboring Syria, which Western governments fear is a growing possibility given the increased desperation of President Bashar Assad's regime.
Turkey has been highly supportive of the Syrian opposition and wants the Patriots to defend against possible retaliatory attacks by Syrian missiles, some of which are capable of carrying chemical warheads. Syria is reported to have an array of artillery rockets, as well as short- and medium-range missiles in its arsenal, and cross-border mortar rounds and shells from across the border already have killing five Turks.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned as he arrived for a two-day meeting of foreign ministers that "if anybody uses chemical weapons I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community." His comments echoed a Monday warning from President Barack Obama that there would be consequences if Assad made the "tragic mistake" of deploying chemical weapons.
Though Fogh Rasmussen offered no specifics, U.S. officials say the White House and its allies are weighing military options after U.S. intelligence reports showed the Syrian regime may be readying them and desperate enough to use them.
The Patriots, however, are strictly defensive weapons. Officials say they would be programmed so that they could only intercept Syrian weapons that have crossed Turkish airspace, and not penetrate Syrian territory pre-emptively. That means they would have no effect on any government offensives — chemical or conventional — that remain strictly inside Syria's national borders.
Germany and the Netherlands are expected to provide to Turkey several batteries of the latest PAC-3 version of the U.S.-built Patriots air defense systems, which is optimized to intercept incoming missiles. The U.S. would likely fill any gaps, possibly by sending some from its stocks in Europe.
The exact details of the deployment and the number of batteries to be sent will be determined by NATO's military committee based on a report by a joint team that has been studying possible basing sites. Parliaments in both Germany and the Netherlands must then approve the move, which would also involve several hundred soldiers. It's unclear if any American soldiers would need to be deployed.
NATO doesn't want to be drawn into the Syrian conflict and Fogh Rasmussen stressed that any missile deployment would be defensive only.
"It would in no way support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation," he said.
German ambassador Martin Erdmann said the Bundestag will probably take up the matter next week. The actual deployment would then occur "within weeks" once the political decision is made, Fogh Rasmussen said.
Due to the complexity and size of the Patriot batteries — including their radars, command-and-control centers, communications and support facilities — they cannot be flown quickly by air to Turkey and will probably have to travel by sea, alliance officials said.
NATO foreign ministers are also meeting Tuesday with their Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. Russia has criticized the planned deployment of the Patriots saying that it would further inflame tensions in the region. The Kremlin has stymied more than a year of international efforts to apply global pressure on the Assad regime, its strongest ally in the Arab world, but officials say it has expressed equal concern about the threat of any chemical weapons use.
Syria, which is party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning chemical weapons in war, has repeatedly insisted it would not use them even if it did possess such weapons.
Turkey, which has been a NATO member since the 1950s, has been one of the harshest critics of the Assad regime. It shares a 566-mile (911-kilometer) frontier with Syria, and has allowed rebels leaders to take shelter and organize on Turkish soil along with tens of thousands of refugees living in camps across the border. The frontier is also a main transit point for weapons smuggling by rebels.
NATO installed long-range Patriot batteries on Turkish territory during the 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars. They were never used and were withdrawn a few months later.
The Patriot, which first entered service three decades ago, has been successively upgraded over the years. Although optimized for anti-aircraft defense, advanced versions can also be used against cruise missiles and against medium- and short-range ballistic missiles. They have a maximum range of about 160 kilometers (100 miles) and can reach altitudes of about 80,000 feet.
Syria is reported to have an array of artillery rockets, as well as short- and medium-range missiles — including Soviet-built SS-21 Scarabs and Scud-B missiles — in its arsenal. The latter are capable of carrying chemical warheads.
Syria's conflict started 20 months ago as an uprising against President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, at least 40,000 people have been killed in Syria since March 2011.