NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Tuesday are expected to approve the deployment of Dutch and German missile defense batteries to Turkey.
Turkey, which supports the large Sunni uprising against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, asked its allies for Patriots last month. Only Germany, the Netherlands and the United States field the most sophisticated version of the defense system which can be used to intercept missiles and planes.
In the two European nations, there is broad parliamentary consent for supporting Turkey although most political parties have cautioned that the Patriot deployment should not be a first step toward the enforcement of a no-fly zone in Syria. NATO enforced a no-fly zone over Libya last year where it supported a popular uprising against the dictatorship of Muammar al-Gaddafi.
NATO’s secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted in a press conference on Tuesday that any missile defense deployment in Turkey would be for defensive purposes only. “It would in no way support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation,” he said.
The alliance previously deployed Patriot missiles to Turkey during the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003. In both cases, they were provided by the Netherlands.
Despite repeated Syrian provocations, including the downing of a reconnaissance jet in June and the shelling of a Turkish border town in October, Turkey is reluctant to intervene directly in Syria’s civil war. It did respond to a Syrian mortar attack on one of its villages near the border, which Syria insisted was accidental, with minor skirmishes in the region but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stressed that he was not interested in “something like starting a war.”
Turkey runs the risk of uniting Kurdish militants both within its own borders and in Syria against it if it involves itself in the conflict. It would also likely upset the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in the north of Iraq with which Ankara has cultivated close commercial relations. The central government in Baghdad, moreover, could interpret Turkish behavior as a push to reclaim Ottoman “hegemony,” as Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki put it in April of this year, while Turkey would further sever relations with Iran which is the only country in the region that still supports Assad.