The alliance’s 28 members decided to limit use of Patriots solely for the defensive purpose of warding off the mortar rounds and shells from Syria that have already killed five Turks.
“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.
But the announcement also appeared to be a message to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime at a time when Washington and other governments fear Syria may be readying its chemical weapons stockpiles for possible use.
“We stand with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters. “To anyone who would want to attack Turkey, we say, ‘Don’t even think about it!'”
“The situation along NATO’s south-eastern border and the repeated violations of Turkey’s territory raise grave concern. As the North Atlantic Council made clear on June 26 and October 3, we stand with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity. We, the NATO foreign ministers, declare our determination to deter threats to and defend Turkey.” the statement said.
The NATO foreign ministers said they welcome the intention of Germany, the Netherlands and the United States to provide Patriot missile batteries, subject to their respective national procedures.
“These systems will be under the operational command of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). Any deployment will be defensive only. It will in no way support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation.” the NATO foreign members said in the statement.
Fogh Rasmussen stressed that the deployment of the Patriot systems – which includes missiles, radar and other elements – wouldn’t be a first step toward a no-fly zone over parts of Syria or any offensive operation against the Arab state.
The actual deployment is expected to take place within weeks.
Rasmussen told reporters ahead of the foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels that the exact time of the deployment was not clear since a number of practical issues need to be sorted out beforehand.
“Once the political decision has been made it will be followed by the practical deployment. When that exactly will happen will depend on a number of practical issues that will be sorted out in the near future,” he said. “So I cannot give you an exact date, but I will tell you that the actual deployment will take place within weeks.”
Rasmussen also took the opportunity to repeat reassurances to Russia that the deployment is for defensive purposes only and not for the establishment of a de facto no-fly zone in Syria.
“As we have already made clear, any deployment would be defensive only. It would in no way support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation,” he said, adding that he has already told this to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was due to meet with NATO foreign ministers also on Tuesday.
“I have already told that to Foreign Minister Lavrov in the spirit of full transparency. And I expect NATO ministers to repeat it when we meet in the NATO-Russia Council shortly,” he said.
After talks with NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov repeated Russian concerns that the Syrian conflict was becoming increasingly militarised and accused NATO of over-reacting.
“Yes, there were artillery strikes but we believe that they were not intentional,” he told a news conference.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu flew to Brussels to attend the foreign ministerial talks that will continue on Wednesday. Germany and the Netherlands are expected to provide several batteries of the latest PAC-3 version of the US-built Patriot air defense system, which is optimized to intercept incoming missiles.
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.
Turkish media have reported that there was a disagreement on the number of Patriot systems to be deployed. Several reports have said Turkey sought 10 to 20 missiles while the alliance is willing to provide much less. The Hürriyet daily reported on Tuesday that the alliance is ready to offer three or four systems because the missile threat from Syria was not big enough to substantiate such a deployment.
A NATO diplomat speaking ahead of the NATO meeting said the ministers would simply agree on Tuesday to “augment Turkey’s air defenses.”
“The decision on whether or not to deploy Patriots, and for how long, is like all NATO decisions when it comes to the deployment of military forces, a national one,” the diplomat told Reuters.
Ankara, which has been highly supportive of the Syrian opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, says it wants the Patriots to defend against possible retaliatory attacks by Syrian missiles carrying chemical warheads. Syria is reported to have an array of artillery rockets, as well as short- and medium-range missiles in its arsenal — some capable of carrying chemical warheads.
Parliaments in both Germany and the Netherlands must approve the move, which would also involve several hundred soldiers. German Ambassador Martin Erdmann said the decision to deploy would likely be made on Tuesday, adding that the Bundestag will probably take up the matter next week. Russia has criticized the planned deployment of the Patriots, saying that it would further inflame tensions in the region.