As claims arose that chemical gas was used in a recent attack in Syria, killing more than 1,000 and injuring many more in Damascus, Turkey reinforced its defensive measures against any chemical attack along the Syrian border due to the threat of chemical weapons in the war-torn country.
Speaking to Today's Zaman, a senior official from the Prime Ministry's Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) said that approximately 400 Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) specialists, who work within AFAD, have started extra exercises in Turkey's southern provinces of Hatay, Kilis, and Şanlıurfa as a measure to contain any chemical attacks from Syria.
“Our CBRN team has deployed the necessary technical equipment in those provinces and is screening injured Syrians at the border to determine whether they have been exposed to any chemical attack. So far, no evidence of chemical attacks has been found,” said the official.
The official also added that since five months ago, CBRN specialists, who are well-trained in responding to chemical attacks, have been performing regular practices in several provinces of Turkey along with health and security units.
“After the recent chemical gas attack, we intensified our measures along the border,” added the official.
The team, which is prepared for an immediate chemical attack from Syria, is making every effort to reduce the risk of such an incident. In the case of a chemical attack, CBRN teams will arrive in the danger area with special clothing and equipment to create a secure area. Then people who have been exposed to the attack will be removed from danger and the area will be purified. With the support of health units, exposed people will be cared for by first responders, and then they will be sent to hospitals.
Speaking at a press conference held on Friday at AFAD headquarters, Fuat Oktay, head of AFAD, stated that security measures against a chemical attack have been intensified and the necessary efforts are being made to determine the exposure levels in Syria. “A UN team is already working in Syria at the moment. Our Health Ministry is also doing unobtrusive research,” said Oktay.
Turkey stated that a UN investigation team should launch a swift investigation into claims that the Syrian regime used chemical gas in a recent attack that killed more than 1,000 and injured many more in Damascus.
The alleged chemical attack came at a time when a UN chemical inspection team was in Damascus to look for evidence of chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime during the civil war.
On Tuesday the state's official news agency rejected claims that the Syrian regime carried out chemical attacks, saying additionally that Syrian news agencies are circulating reports such as these as part of a campaign against Bashar al-Assad.
In March, AFAD deployed an inspection team to Hatay's Cilvegözü border gate to screen injured Syrians at the border and determine whether they were exposed to chemical weapons, following claims that the Syrian regime is using chemical weapons in its fight against the Syrian opposition.
The search and rescue directorate at AFAD's Adana branch stationed a team of eight experts with an inspection vehicle to screen refugees for possible exposure to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons at the border gate as a measure against suspected chemical weapon usage in Syria.
In late December, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu stated that Turkey does not expect Syria to use chemical weapons in the near future but wants to be prepared against the risk. “We do not see an imminent chemical weapon danger but the risk always exists. There is always a risk if you have chemical weapons and the necessary missile capability,” Davutoğlu said.
At the time, US officials said that they have intelligence that Syria is transporting the components of chemical weapons and warned that the use of such weapons is a “red line” that could trigger military action. Syria has rejected claims that it might use chemical weapons and warned that the opposition forces fighting to topple Assad are using them instead.
Turkey's defense against ballistic missile threat weak
As the only NATO member bordering Syria, Turkey is also concerned that Assad's forces may use chemical weapons against Turkish interests in a situation when the regime is pushed to the limit. Although Turkey has been preparing for a doomsday scenario in the event of a chemical attack, according to Sinan Ülgen, chairman of the İstanbul-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), Turkey is not ready to defend itself against a ballistic missile attack from Syria.
“Although Turkey's air defenses are strong, its defenses against Scud missile attacks are weak. Due to this weakness, it has asked NATO to send Patriot anti-missile systems to boost its air defenses against a missile threat from Syria,” said Ülgen to Today's Zaman.
In order to reinforce Turkey's air defenses and calm its fears of a missile attack, potentially with chemical weapons, from Syria, the US, Germany and the Netherlands have all sent two Patriot systems each to the NATO-member country, and these six systems are deployed in Adana, Kahramanmaraş and Gaziantep.
Ülgen has maintained that in the case of an international intervention in Syria, Turkey would be the direct target of any chemical attack by the Syrian regime as Ankara would not hesitate to take part in such an operation.
“The Syrian regime has different types of missiles that might include chemical and biological warheads. Turkey would be in serious danger if it failed to determine and destroy such missiles. It is still not very clear how effective the NATO Patriot system would be in the case of a missile attack from Syria against Turkey,” noted Ülgen.
Syria is one of three countries in the Middle East that is not party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an international framework aiming to reduce the threat from chemical weapons, that took effect in 1997. Because Syria is not a party to the CWC, the Organization for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (OPCW) has no legal mandate to conduct inspections in the country and verify the possible existence of chemical weapons or related activities. According to assessments, Syria has a stockpile of approximately 1,000 tons of chemical weapons including mustard gas and nerve agents such as sarin and VX.
UN, AFAD calls int'l community to strengthen support to Turkey
Meanwhile, in a joint press conference held on Friday at AFAD headquarters, UN and AFAD officials called on the international community to strengthen its support for Turkey over the Syrian refugee issue.
AFAD head Oktay stated that there were in total 500,000 Syrians currently in Turkey. “200,000 of them are in camps, while 300,000 of them are living outside the camps. The refugee issue requires a political solution and this solution should come from the UN,” said Oktay, calling on the international community to fulfill its responsibilities over the issue.
Oktay stated that the UN estimates another 500,000 Syrians will flee to Turkey by the end of the year, saying that Turkey is making the necessary preparations for such a number.
A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative, Carol Batchelor, has stated that inside Syria there are 2 million displaced children while 1 million are displaced outside of Syria. “We are trying to support the leadership of AFAD to assist with the humanitarian needs. Support for Turkey from other countries should be strengthened,” said Batchelor.