Turkey’s request to NATO for Patriot missiles has created confusion among many politicians and experts. Why exactly does Turkey need the weapons and why has the Turkish government requested the missiles now?
Turkey on Wednesday received the "green light" from NATO for its request to deploy NATO's Patriot surface-to-air missiles along its border with Syria. With a deployment possible within weeks, NATO is taking its boldest step so far in the Syria crisis, and the 20-month-long conflict could reach a new level. While some Western politicians see NATO being dragged into the conflict, many security experts see the deployment as deterrence, a concrete measure that can prevent the fighting from spilling over onto Turkish territories.
Prof. Mustafa Kibaroglu, a prominent Turkish academic and expert on security and missile defense issues, cautioned against too much speculation. "Turkey's request for Patriots is more of an attempt to strengthen deterrence," he told Deutsche Welle.
"Can Syria, Iran or another country even dare to launch a missile attack against Turkey, after seeing that NATO is openly and clearly standing behind Turkey?" he said, stressing that deployment would primarily have a political significance, but also provide Turkey with stronger protection if the conflict were to escalate further.
Fear of chemical weapons
Last week, Turkish President Abdullah Gül expressed his concern that Syria may use chemical weapons against Turkey and suggested that NATO's Patriot missiles could counter the threat.
Gul told the Financial Times newspaper that Syria has chemical weapons and old Soviet delivery systems to deploy them. "In case there is in some eventuality some sort of madness in this respect and some action is taken, contingency planning has to be put in place and this is something NATO is doing," he said. The Syrian government said in July that it would only use deadly chemical or biological weapons if it was attacked by outside forces.
Turkish security experts do not see a Syrian military attack on Turkey, as it would mean an attack on NATO, however concerns remain that should the regime lose control of the situation, shadowy military or other security groups may exploit the power vacuum. Patriot missiles would offer a significant improvement over Ankara's current air defenses, but as they are designed specifically for defense purposes against advanced missiles and aircrafts, they do not provide protection against the immediate security problem Turkey faces.
Due to the Patriots' larger scope, Turkey's request from NATO has been interpreted by some observers as the first stage of a larger plan to impose a no-fly zone over Syria. Turkey has long been an advocate of creating a no-fly-zone in Syria which would safeguard refugees and also provide insurgents a safe haven and protection from Syrian airstrikes. But Ankara has failed to convince its allies so far.
Western diplomats stress that such a zone would have to be backed by a strong air force and that it involves serious risks, as the Syrian regime has advanced air defense capabilities. In order to convince European allies of the need for the deployment of Patriots, Turkey underlined in its request to NATO that the deployments would be "defensive only."
"The deployment will in no way support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh-Rasmussen said on Wednesday. "Such a deployment 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," Rasmussen stressed.
Relief from isolation
Many Turkish observers see the deployment as a relief for the Turkish government, which had been increasingly isolated due to its hawkish and assertive policy against the Assad regime.
According to Kibaroglu, NATO members are positively evaluating the deployment of Patriots as a sign of solidarity and as a move to strengthen deterrence, but they also expect the deployment to foster closer cooperation with Turkey and give NATO greater leverage on Turkey concerning its Syria policy.
"This deployment can prevent an escalation of the crisis and can deter any uncontrolled Syrian reaction toward Turkey's hawkish policies," Kibaroglu said. "There also seems to be an expectation that Turkey would have closer cooperation with NATO on Syrian policy, addressing NATO's concerns and expectations."
Wider concerns in the region
The Turkish government's move to request Patriots has been criticized by the Turkish opposition, which is blaming the Erdogan government for major failures in foreign policy which they say have led to an escalation of tensions in the region.
"The AKP government is hiding the realities from the public," said Faruk Logoglu, Turkey's former ambassador to Washington, and senior deputy of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP). "The reason why the Erdogan government has decided now to request the Patriots is not because of the crisis with Syria," Logoglu said. "Following Israel's Gaza operation, the Iranian threat against Israel has become more serious. The Patriots will defend NATO's new radar station in Kurecik, which is essential for the protection of Israel's air space. The Patriots will help Israel's security," he said.
Security expert Prof. Mustafa Kibaroglu also says wider regional concerns have played a role in Turkey's decision. "The deployment of Patriot missiles can be seen as a measure not limited to protecting Turkey from Syria, but also from a possible threat in future from Iran," he said. "Following Israel's operations against Gaza, future developments in the region are far from clear. There is a need to protect Turkey's air space, in case of a possible future confrontation between Israel and Iran," he said.