Turkey is becoming increasingly concerned about security along its border with Syria, in an area of the Southeast where Ankara is also fighting an emboldened wave of terrorist attacks waged by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkish officials earlier said the country is in talks with NATO allies about the possible deployment of Patriot surface-to-air missiles to guard against a spillover of Syria's conflict.
“They have asked that we work with them to try to see what we can do to give them some missile defense capability. And we are working with them. And our hope is that we can help provide that kind of assistance,” Panetta said during an interview with Voice of America (VOA) on Thursday.
‘Rules of engagement with Syria still in effect'
Meanwhile, President Abdullah Gül said on Friday that Turkey's new rules of engagement announced to deal with the intensifying threat from the Syrian border remain in effect.
“Unfortunately, the conflicts are taking place right on the other side of our border. There are residential areas. The Turkish Armed Forces and the government have explained this issue. The rules of engagement that have been announced are in effect,” Gül stated to Turkish reporters.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had earlier announced that the military's rules of engagement had been changed and that any Syrian element approaching Turkey's border and deemed a threat would be treated as a military target, after the Syrian regime shot down a Turkish RF-4E Phantom, an unarmed reconnaissance jet, on June 22.
Since that incident, Turkey has boosted its military presence and air defenses along its 900-kilometer border with Syria.
“We are, of course, taking the rules of international law into close consideration. On the other hand, Turkish troops are waiting on alert to use our deterrent force to prevent any of our rights from being violated. We have no hesitation in that regard,” Gül said.
Gül also added his views on the newly formed coalition of the Syrian opposition, saying that “the most important development in Syria is that the Syrian opposition has been restructured to represent all Syrian people, and that the opposition has presented itself with more force as the legitimate representative of Syrian people.”
Syrian anti-government groups struck a deal Sunday under intense international pressure to form a new opposition leadership that will include representatives from the country's disparate factions fighting to topple President Bashar Assad's regime.
The opposition has been deeply divided for months, despite the relentless bloodshed in Syria and repeated calls from their Western and Arab supporters to create a cohesive and representative leadership that could present a single conduit for foreign aid. The agreement was reached on Sunday after more than a week of meetings in the Qatari capital of Doha.
Syria's use of chemical weapons have also been a topic of conversation, as President Gül recently expressed concern about their potential use against Turkey, suggesting that NATO's Patriot missiles could counter such a threat. In an interview with the Financial Times, Gül said it is no secret that Syria has chemical weapons and that Damascus has old Soviet delivery systems to deploy them. “So 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. Gül's remarks came on the same day that the leader of NATO said the alliance will defend its only Muslim member, Turkey, and has “all plans in place” to do so.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said last week that Turkey was yet to make a formal request to NATO for deployment of a Patriot missile system along the Syrian border but added that consultations are under way with the defense organization over possible security measures to be taken to in a bid to counter any threat stemming from the festering Syrian conflict.