Blogging on Issues of International and European Security

The geopolitical dimensions of NATO’s pending deployment of Patriot missiles on the Turkish-Syrian border

NATO has deployed Patriot missiles to Turkey twice before, in 1991 and again in 2003, during both Gulf Wars. Source: Photocredit AFP

by Evita Mouawad

NATO, Turkey and Article 4

Article 4 of the NATO charter provides for consultations when a member state feels that its territorial integrity, political independence or security is under threat. It has only been invoked three times since the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, and all three times by the same country. Turkey first invoked Article 4 in 2003 during the Iraq war, and twice in 2012 as the Syrian conflict intensified.

The first time Turkey invoked Article 4 this year was in June 2012 after the downing of an unarmed Turkish F-4 reconnaissance jet by the Syrian army, and more recently in early October, after a mortar fired from Syria landed in a residential district of the south-eastern Turkish town of Akcakale, killing a woman and four children and wounding eight others.

On 21 November 2012, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that he had received a letter from the Turkish government requesting the deployment of Patriot missiles on its border with Syria. “Such a deployment would augment Turkey’s air defence capabilities to defend its population and territory. It would contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis along NATO’s south-eastern border. And it would be a concrete demonstration of Alliance solidarity and resolve” he said[1]. He also stressed that in its request, Turkey insisted the deployment would be of a strictly defensive nature, and that it will not be used to support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation within Syria.

Patriot surface-to-air missiles were last deployed to Turkey in 1991 and 2003, during the two Gulf Wars, to protect the country from Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles. They were provided by the Netherlands on both occasions. Syria on the other hand is believed to have several hundred ballistic surface-to-surface missiles capable of carrying chemical warheads. If approved again this time, the deployment would be undertaken in accordance with NATO’s standing air defence plan and it will be up to individual member countries that have Patriot missiles available to decide if they are wiling to deploy them and for how long.  The United States, Germany and the Netherlands are the only NATO members to have Patriot missiles in their arsenals and have so far shown considerable support for Turkey’s call for more protection.

This week, a NATO delegation, including 30 Patriot missiles experts from the US, Germany and the Netherlands, will begin surveying sites for possible deployment of Patriots along the 900km (560-mile) border with Syria. Turkish military experts said the missiles will most probably be deployed in Diyarbakir, Urfa and Malatya on the south-eastern border. Patriots are anti-ballistic missile systems that are usually operated by specialist troops who are deployed with the missiles themselves. Approximately 300 military personnel will be needed if Turkey’s request materializes.

The deployment of Patriots would certainly enhance Ankara’s current air defence capability, but it is unlikely that the missiles alone will allow it to establish a so-called buffer zone on the Syrian border. At this point, the potential deployment can only be viewed as a way to get NATO allies to stand behind Turkey without invoking NATO’s Article 5 into action.   If Article 5 were to be invoked, it would entail military intervention in Syria, something NATO officials have made very clear they are not willing to take on, especially after their last venture into Libya.

Patriot missiles: not only a threat to Syria?

Turkey’s relationship with Syria has kept on degenerating since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011. Syria has repeatedly accused Turkey of harbouring, financing and training opposition fighters on its territory. Moreover, the Syrian regime’s most outspoken supporters, Russia and Iran have voiced deep criticism of the possible missile deployment in Turkey saying it would only further complicate the crisis. Both countries have demonstrated their preference for regime stability in Syria, whereas Turkey has clearly expressed its support for regime change.

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Iran and Russia have insisted on finding an internal solution for the conflict without the involvement of foreign powers. They are also clearly worried that the missiles would be eventually used to install a no-fly-zone. However, considering the overwhelming length of the border, the limited number of Patriots (30-40 in the Dutch contingent alone), and their restricted range of 50 to 60 km, it is very unlikely that they could be used to shoot down Syrian planes in the future. Patriots are purely defensive missiles designed to counter ballistic missiles as opposed to aircrafts. Moreover, even though Turkey has repeatedly asked for the establishment of a no-fly-zone over Syria, NATO has refused to engage in such a scenario.

Despite the unlikeliness of the establishment of a no-fly-zone, the reality is that the deployment of Patriots in Turkey is seen by Iran, Russia and Syria as not only related to the Syrian crisis, but also directly linked to the on-going standoff with Iran.  Both Iran and Russia have expressed concern that the deployment, even though officially justified by the Syrian conflict, could eventually facilitate a NATO operation against Iran’s nuclear facilities. In January 2012, a NATO-operated early warning system radar was activated on Turkish territory, around 450 miles from the Turkish-Iranian border. This system coupled with the possible delivery of Patriots to Turkey is causing great anxiety in Tehran and Moscow.

Whatever the potential deployment of these missiles might entail, it is clear that Turkey’s request reflects great frustration at the US and Europe’s lack of robust policy towards a conflict that has taken an entire region hostage.  Although the Patriots will certainly add to security on the Turkish-Syrian border, their deployment alone will not be successful at containing the violence that is also spilling over towards a very fragile Lebanese state. At this point, angering Iran and Russia might not be the wisest choice, simply because the failure of previous ceasefires has shown that a solution for Syria cannot be reached without their full consent.  Therefore, even though the deployment of Patriots in Turkey might seem like the most logical move for now, it is possible that it will entail further complications for the Syrian crisis in the long term.

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