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Patriots in Turkey

Dr S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 24, 2013

    Two Patriot anti-missile defence systems each belonging to the United States, the Netherlands and Germany (for a total of six such systems) are being deployed on Turkish soil along the 900 km border with Syria. The US Patriots are to be deployed at Gazientep, a Turkish town about 50 km from the Syrian border. All six systems are to be activated by end January/early February 2013 and will be manned by about 1000 troops belonging to the donor countries. These Patriot deployments are significant in that the only previous instances of such systems being deployed in a crucial NATO member state (Turkey) were during the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq war.

    In the current instance, the air borne threat from Syria including by missiles and planes is being touted as the main reason justifying these deployments. The expressed concern is that an increasingly desperate regime could use longer range missiles in its inventory against fleeing rebels or refugee populations inside Turkey. The Assad regime for instance has been accused of firing Scud missiles at rebel positions near Aleppo in December 2012.

    On 14 January, a NATO spokesperson stated that Syria had fired close to 20 short-range ballistic missiles at rebel positions over the previous 30 days, some of them ‘quite close’ to the Turkish border. The Military Balance 2012 estimates that Syria possesses about 90 tactical surface-to-surface missiles, including the 200-500 km-range Scud-B and Scud-C’s. Combat capable aircraft in its inventory number about 360.

    The Syrian government was also accused of reportedly readying chemical weapons for possible use in late November 2012, prompting strong warnings against such use from the United States and Turkey among other countries. President Obama asserted that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be ‘totally unacceptable’. On her part, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that such a development would constitute a ‘red line’ justifying a stronger US response. The Syrian Ambassador to the UN, however, refuted these charges in a December 8 letter to UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon and the UN Security Council, insisting that ‘Syria will not under any circumstances use any chemical weapons that it may have’ and instead accused the United States of backing the ‘terrorists’.

    Escalating Tensions between Syria and Turkey

    Syria-Turkey ties have taken an about turn in the aftermath of the rebellion against the Assad regime. The Patriot deployments come on top of a series of negative security developments involving the two countries as a result of the escalating instability. In June 2012, a Turkish fighter jet was shot down by Syrian forces. Five Turkish civilians were killed in October 2012 after shelling by Syrian forces ostensibly targeting elements of the Free Syrian Army.

    In the aftermath of the death of the civilians, the Turkish parliament authorised the use of military forces beyond Turkey’s borders without naming Syria. Turkish forces reacted strongly by shelling Syrian positions resulting in the death of five Syrian personnel. Damascus, on its part, has accused ‘undisciplined armed terrorist groups’ of perpetrating bombings inside Syria like that on October 2 when 34 people were killed in Aleppo. It has urged Ankara to ‘cooperate in border control and prevention of the infiltration of insurgents and terrorists.’

    Two-Front Missile Threat?

    Prior to the Patriot deployments, the Iranian missile threat was the only factor determining the deployment of NATO/US anti-missile defence systems on Turkish soil. The current deployments signify Turkey’s attempts to secure itself and/or its allies against missile threats from the two countries with which it shares borders to the east – Syria and Iran.

    Turkey has been a key member of NATO as well as of US missile defence measures against the Iran missile threat. Turkey formally agreed to host the deployment of a US X-band radar at Kurecik, 700 km from the Iranian border in September 2011 as part of the Obama administration’s regional missile defence initiatives. The Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA), which was unveiled by the Obama administration in September 2009, envisaged the deployment of such radars as well as Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors in Romania (Devesulu) and Poland (Radzikowo); these capabilities are expected to mature by 2020. Assets providing defence against medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) are to be in place by 2015, against intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBMs) by 2018 and early intercept capabilities with advanced versions of SM-3 interceptors by 2020.

    Turkey agreed to the radar deployment on the condition that it ‘will not be aimed at Iran’ and that the information gathered by this powerful 4000 km range radar would not be shared with Israel. These were put forward by President Abdullah Gul at the November 2010 Lisbon Summit. The Turkish decision to allow the basing of the radar manned by US personnel generated considerable disquiet in Tehran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted that ‘such shields can’t prevent the collapse of the Zionist regime’. During a March 2012 visit to Tehran, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan assured the Iranians that the radar was not a threat to Tehran and that it could be ‘dismantled’ if NATO did not follow through on its commitments.

    The US radar deployed in Turkey is to track Iranian missiles that could be launched against European targets. In May 2007, US officials like then Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried highlighted ‘direct threats’ to Europe by Iranian leaders. For instance, in October 2006, Ahmadinejad is cited to have stated:

    ‘We have advised the Europeans that the Americans are far away, but you are the neighbours of the nations in the region … If a storm begins, the dimensions will not stay limited to Palestine, and you may get hurt.’

    While the above cited ‘threat’ was in the context of a possible Israel-Palestine war, it is pertinent to note that Iranian missile capabilities are currently quite limited in terms of numbers, technology and lethality. Most of Iran’s IRBM inventory is liquid-fuelled and inaccurate. Various assessments including that by the IISS indicate that Iran currently has about 20-30 Shahab-3. IRBMs with a range of 800-1300 km. While the 2000 km-plus range solid-fuelled Sajjil is slated to be currently under development, the solid-fuelled Ghadr-1 was first exhibited in a 2007 military parade. Deployed numbers if any are not known.

    At the 2010 Lisbon NATO Summit, Gul highlighted the fact that NATO was a ‘defensive alliance aimed at defending its members against any ballistic threat …’ It is pertinent to note that while Gul’s statement was in the context of the Turkish role in efforts to protect NATO members from the Iran threat, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle echoed similar sentiments in the aftermath of the Turkish request in November 2012 to deploy Patriots to defend against the threat from Syria. Westerwelle stated that it would be a mistake to ‘refuse defensive support to a NATO member country …

    Missile Defence Panacea in Greater Middle East

    The Patriot deployments inside Turkey signify the strong ‘purchase’ missile defence has come to occupy in US and NATO military responses in the Middle East in the light of concerns posed by the capabilities of states like Iran or Syria. Turkey itself is expected to deploy locally manufactured missile defence systems (the US Patriots being one of the options) against long-range threats by 2015.

    Missile defence is an important part of the defence interaction that the United States has with countries in the region. Obama administration officials have reiterated that they are open to extending PAA to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to enable them to better face the ‘unique threats to the region’. The GCC countries are prominent recipients of US missile defence aid. Eight Patriot systems are deployed in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait. A third X-band radar was installed in Qatar in 2012, apart from those deployed in Turkey and Israel (Site 512, Negev Desert where it has been deployed since October 2008).

    The United States and Israel have strong missile defence cooperation, including in the development of joint theatre missile defence systems like the Arrow. Israel currently deploys the Block 2 version of the system while the Block 3 version is expected to be deployed by 2014. Both countries also conduct regular anti-missile exercises. The October 2012 ‘Austere Challenge’ exercise was one such prominent example.

    It is pertinent to note the underlying regional political tensions guiding such cooperation and deployments. Deterioration in Syria-Turkey ties in the aftermath of the armed protests and the subsequent crackdown by the Assad regime against the rebels some of whom have fled to Turkey is largely responsible for the current moves with regard to the deployment of Patriot systems. The contentious ties that GCC member states and the United States have with Iran have meanwhile underpinned the strong push given to missile defence measures in these countries’ security responses. With the difficult political conditions continuing on their current downward spiral on both the Iranian and Syrian fronts, it is a moot question whether such ‘defensive’ systems will add to the combustible regional uncertainties or help expand security comfort zones.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.