Germany's Cabinet on Thursday approved sending German Patriot air defense missiles to Turkey to protect the NATO member against possible attacks from Syria, in a major step toward a possible Western military role in the Syrian conflict.
Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters that two batteries with a total of 400 soldiers would be sent to the border area under NATO command for one year, although the deployment could be shortened.
The decision must be endorsed by the German parliament, but approval is all but assured. The parliament will vote on the mandate between Dec. 12 and 14, according to a statement from Germany's defense and foreign ministries. Approval from parliament's lower house, the Bundestag, is not expected to be a problem, although some opposition lawmakers, mainly Greens, are against the deployment due to fears of getting caught up in a wider regional conflict. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has said he expects a broad parliamentary majority in the vote.
The cabinet of the Netherlands, another NATO country set to send Patriots to Turkey, is expected to announce approval on Friday contingent on parliamentary approval.
De Maziere said the overall mission was also expected to include two batteries each from the Netherlands and the United States.
Due to the complexity and size of the Patriot batteries -- including their radars, command-and-control centers, communications and support facilities -- they will probably have to travel by sea, NATO officials said.
The Patriot deployment will come under the command of SACEUR Allied Troops in Europe, which can also order the use of Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), said the ministries.
The Western alliance decided this week to approve sending the weapons to prevent cross-border attacks against Turkey after mortar rounds and shells from Syria killed five Turks in a border town in October.
But the announcement also appeared to be a message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime at a time when Washington and other governments fear Syria may be readying its chemical weapons stockpiles for possible use.
Syria has denounced the NATO plan, but German officials stressed that the missiles will only be used to defend Turkish territory and would not be a part of any "no-fly zone" over Syrian territory.
"Nobody knows what such a regime is capable of and that is why we are acting protectively here," Foreign Minister Westerwelle said.
Officials said the Patriots will be programmed so that they can intercept only Syrian weapons that cross into Turkish airspace. They aren't allowed to penetrate Syrian territory preemptively. That means they would have no immediate effect on any Syrian government offensives -- chemical or conventional -- that remain strictly inside the country's national borders.
"The strengthening of the integrated NATO air defense in Turkey is a purely defensive measure which, as a military deterrent, will prevent the conflict within Syria spreading to Turkey," said the German ministries. "The deployment does not represent the establishment of or monitoring of a no-fly-zone over Syrian territory or any other offensive step."
Syria: Turkish government bankrupt
Syria, on the other hand, sharpened its criticism of the NATO move to deploy Patriots in Turkey, with a senior Syrian official denouncing the development as a "provocative" step and insisting that it will not affect the Syrian government's resolve to crush the "terrorists."
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad particularly targeted the Turkish government, which made the request for NATO Patriots, saying it was "bankrupt" and was "begging for assistance from NATO countries."
"The Turkish move and NATO's support for it is a provocative move, part of psychological warfare against Syria," he told Lebanon's Al-Manar TV station. "But if they think this will affect our determination to fight the terrorists ... they are wrong."
He warned that any foreign military intervention against Syria will be "catastrophic" with severe consequences.
Mekdad also denounced claims that the Syrian government might be preparing to resort to chemical weapons. He said the chemical weapons "chorus" was part of a conspiracy that is possibly laying the foundations for a military intervention in Syria, calling accusations that Syria would use these weapons against its own people "disgusting."
Syria has been careful not to confirm it has chemical weapons while insisting it would never use such weapons against its own people
"I repeat for the hundredth time that even if such weapons exist in Syria, they will not be used against the Syrian people," Mekdad said. "We cannot possibly commit suicide, Syria is a responsible country."
Mekdad added that the Syrian government is worried the US or some European countries could provide "terrorist" organizations in Syria with chemical weapons to use, then blame the government.