US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta paid a surprise visit to US troops at İncirlik Air Base in Adana on Monday as Washington authorized the dispatch of two Patriot batteries and 400 troops to Turkey to shore up its NATO ally's defense in the face of a possible threat from Syria.
Germany and the Netherlands have already agreed to send two Patriot batteries after NATO approved on Nov. 30 a Turkish request for the anti-missile systems near its border with Syria. On Friday, Pentagon press secretary George Little said Panetta signed a deployment order en route to Turkey from Afghanistan that calls for 400 US soldiers to operate two batteries of Patriots at undisclosed locations in Turkey. Little was speaking to journalists accompanying Panetta on his trip from Afghanistan.
The German Parliament, debating a government decision to send two Patriot batteries and up to 400 German troops to Turkey since Wednesday, also voted for the deployment on Friday, formally finalizing the authorization process. Lawmakers voted 461-86 to approve the deployment of the Patriot missile batteries. The mandate allows Germany to deploy a maximum of 400 soldiers through January 2014.
The Patriot systems are now expected to be operational in the coming weeks. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Thursday that the Netherlands, Germany and the US are working closely with Turkey "to ensure that the Patriots are deployed as soon as possible" but he predicted that they would not become operational before the end of January.
A number of Syrian shells have landed in Turkish territory since the conflict in the Arab state began in March 2011. Five Turks were killed when a mortar bomb fired from Syria landed in a Turkish border town in October. Turkey has condemned the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, supported Syrian opposition forces seeking to topple him and provided shelter to Syrian refugees. Ankara is particularly worried that Assad may get desperate enough to use chemical weapons.
During his brief stop at İncirlik, en route from Afghanistan, Panetta told US troops that Turkey might need the Patriots, which are capable of shooting down shorter-range ballistic missiles as well as aircraft.
He said he approved the deployment "so that we can help Turkey have the kind of missile defense it may very well need to deal with the threats coming out of Syria.”
But he played down the risk of Syrian attacks in response to the Patriot deployment. "Frankly, I don't think they have the damn time to worry,” he said, because the Syrian regime is focused on its struggle to stay in power.
When he was asked by an Air Force member what the US would do if Syria used chemical or biological weapons against the opposition forces, Panetta said he could not be specific in a public setting, but added, "we have drawn up plans" that give President Barack Obama a set of options in the event that US intelligence shows that Syria intends to use such weapons.
The Pentagon chief did not say how soon the two Patriot batteries will head to Turkey or how long they might stay.
Earlier this week in Berlin, German Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Link told lawmakers that current plans call for the missile sites to be stationed at Kahramanmaraş, about a 100 kilometers north of Turkey's border with Syria.
Separately, NATO will deploy its Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, or AWACS, to Turkey on a training exercise this month, said a NATO official who spoke on condition of anonymity because alliance rules do not allow him to speak on the record.
He said the exercise was not connected to the deployment of the Patriots.
The aircraft, which can detect launches of ground-to-ground missiles, will exercise command and control procedures as well as test the connectivity of various NATO and Turkish communications and data sharing systems, the official said.
Turkey has been a NATO member since the early 1950s. Its air defenses consist mostly of short-range Rapier and Stinger systems, and US-made Hawk low-altitude missiles. Ankara has been looking to acquire a new high-altitude defense system to replace its Cold War-era Nike-Hercules batteries.
NATO has emphasized that the deployment of Patriots is purely for defensive purposes and is not aimed at establishing a no-fly zone over part of Syria. The missiles are expected to be programmed in such a manner that they will only intercept Syrian missiles crossing into the Turkish territory, meaning that they will not be able to fire into Syrian territory preemptively.
German officials have also made it clear that the deployment does not represent the establishment of or monitoring of a no-fly-zone over Syrian territory or any other offensive step.