STUTTGART, Germany — NATO foreign ministers on Tuesday formally approved a plan to send Patriot missiles to Turkey as part of an effort to shield an ally from potential Syrian missile strikes. The move comes amid alarm over the Assad regime’s access to chemical weapons that could be mounted on missiles or directed at Syrian rebel forces.
“We stand with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity and we stand ready to take the necessary steps for the defense of Turkey,” said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen during a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Members of the 28-nation alliance gathered on Tuesday for two days of talks, where the crisis in Syria was at the top of the agenda.
The delivery of Patriot missiles to Turkey’s volatile border with Syria will happen in a matter of weeks and involve assets from Germany, the Netherlands and the United States — the three alliance members who have the advanced missile system, Rasmussen said.
"We, the NATO foreign ministers, declare our determination to deter threats to and defend Turkey," NATO said in an official declaration of support. "We welcome the intention of Germany, the Netherlands and the United States to provide Patriot missile batteries, subject to their respective national procedures. "These systems will be under the operational command of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). Any deployment will be defensive only."
“Practical issues,” such as details of how the deployments will unfold, including the size and force composition of the mission, are still being worked out, Rasmussen said.
It has been two weeks since Turkey formally requested alliance support to bolster its air defenses.
Tension along the Turkish border has steadily increased after months of cross-border shelling that has killed Turkish civilians. Uncertainty surrounding the security of Syrian chemical weapons sites has added to the angst.
“The Patriot missiles would be effective as interceptors whether attacking missiles carrying chemical weapons or not,” Rasmussen said during a news conference. “It is a deployment that aims at protecting and defending Turkey’s territory from any missile attack.”
While the Patriots would be for defensive purposes only, Rasmussen also cautioned that if Syria were to deploy chemical weapons it would generate an “immediate reaction” from the international community. Rasmussen did not elaborate, but his comments suggest that allies could be prepared for a military response if Syria elected to use its chemical weapons.
Rasmussen’s statement also echoed those made by President Barack Obama, who on Monday warned Syrian President Bashar Assad that “there would be consequences” if chemical weapons were used.
There is concern that, under increased pressure from rebel forces in the country, Assad could become desperate enough to deploy chemical weapons in an attempt to maintain his grip on power. Those fears have intensified amid reports that some chemical weapons have recently been relocated within Syria.
“We know they have chemical weapons and of course they also have to be included in our calculations and this is also the reason why it is a matter of urgency to ensure effective defense and protection of our ally Turkey,” Rasmussen said at the start of Tuesday’s meetings. “Let me add to this that the possible use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable for the whole international community and if anybody resorts to these terrible weapons I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community.”
Rasmussen, however, emphasized that the Patriots are not part of any offensive effort by the alliance, and he ruled out a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Syria.
“As we have already made clear, any deployment would be defensive only,” Rasmussen said.
On Tuesday, foreign ministers also met with their Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in an attempt to ease concerns that the deployment of the Patriots would result in an escalation of tensions.
“I do believe that a deployment of Patriot missiles will serve as an effective deterrent and de-escalate the situation along the Turkey-Syria border,” Rasmussen said. “The mere fact that Patriot missiles have been deployed make it necessary for any potential aggressor to think twice before attacking Turkey.”