Nato to deploy missiles on Turkish border

Wed, Dec 5, 2012, 00:00

Nato announced yesterday that it will deploy Patriot missile batteries on the border between Turkey and Syria to defend Turkey, a Nato ally, from possible retaliation by Damascus.

“We stand with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity,” Nato secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Brussels. “To anyone who would want to attack Turkey, we say, ‘Don’t even think about it!’”

Turkey fears that Bashar al-Assad’s regime might attack it for harbouring Syrian rebels and allowing weapons into Syria in the 21-month-old civil war that has claimed 40,000 Syrian lives. At least five Turks have been killed by cross-border artillery fire from Syria.

The move coincided with stern warnings to Syria by President Barack Obama, secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Fogh Rasmussen that it must not use chemical weapons.

“I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command,” Obama told a symposium at the US National War College late on Monday, “the world is watching. The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences, and you will be held accountable. We simply cannot allow the 21st century to be darkened by the worst weapons of the 20th century.”

Chemical stockpiles

US intelligence agencies have alerted congressional committees to movements of chemical stockpiles in Syria, interpreted as a sign they might be used.

Syria has the third-largest chemical arsenal in the world, after the US and Russia. Analysts fear an increasingly desperate regime might use mustard gas, the nerve agent sarin or VX gas against its own population, or weaponise them on surface-to-surface missiles capable of reaching Turkey or Israel.

Officials stressed that the Patriot missiles, which will be deployed by the Netherlands, Germany and possibly the US in coming weeks, will be purely defensive. “I would in no way support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation,” Fogh Rasmussen said. Nato temporarily deployed Patriots on Turkey’s border with Iraq during the 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars.

Attending the summit as a guest of his Nato counterparts, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov deplored that the Syrian civil war “is being increasingly militarised”. When meeting Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul on Monday, Russian president Vladimir Putin warned that Patriot missiles could “exacerbate” rather than “defuse” tension between Turkey and Syria.

Clinton, who also attended the Nato summit, said the US and Russia still had major differences regarding the transition of power in Damascus. She stressed that Nato’s effort to promote missile defence in general “is not targeted at Russia, nor does it threaten Russia”.

Repeated warnings

The decision to deploy the Patriot batteries and repeated warnings against the use of chemical weapons come as the Obama administration considers stepping up its involvement in the Syrian conflict, for example by arming the rebels directly or recognising the opposition as the legitimate government, as Britain and France have done.

“We will continue to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people – engaging with the opposition, providing them with humanitarian aid and working for a transition to a Syria that’s free of the Assad regime,” Obama said.

US and Jordanian officials told the Wall Street Journal that the Pentagon had dispatched military trainers to Jordan to develop a plan with Jordanian special forces to secure Syrian chemical weapons.

In the same speech in which he excoriated Syria, Obama reached out to “our Russian friends”, asking Moscow to renew the 20-year-old Nunn-Lugar agreement, named after former Sen Sam Nunn and outgoing Sen Richard Lugar. Under the agreement, the US has helped to dismantle 7,600 nuclear warheads as well as hundreds of intercontinental missiles, bombers and submarines in former Soviet republics.

Russian-US relations have worsened since Putin returned to the presidency this year. Moscow announced in October that it would not renew Nunn-Lugar when it expires next spring.

Obama spoke as if renewal of the agreement were still negotiable.

In Prague in 2009, Obama promised to work for a world without nuclear weapons, but disarmament was not a high priority in his first term.