Foreign ministers from member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization approved Turkey’s request to deploy a missile-defense system along the border with Syria.
Turkey asked NATO for the Patriot system, designed to intercept aircraft or missiles, after weeks of talks about how to shore up security on its 900-kilometer (560-mile) border with Syria as the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad deepens. The 21-month conflict has killed more than 41,000 people, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“In response to Turkey’s request, NATO has decided to augment Turkey’s air-defense capabilities in order to defend the population and territory of Turkey and contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis,” the military alliance said today in a joint statement of its 28 members. “We welcome the intention of Germany, the Netherlands and the United States to provide Patriot missile batteries.”
Syrian warplanes attacked targets close to the Turkish border last week as officers from the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands arrived to evaluate possible sites for Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries. NATO hasn’t become directly involved in the uprising.
Syria has called the Patriot plan “provocative,” and allies Russia and Iran have protested what they regard as a first step toward implementing a no-fly zone or military action against Assad’s government. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Turkey yesterday for meetings with officials including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also said Syrian use of chemical weapons would spark an international reaction to the uprising against Assad’s rule.
His warning came a day after U.S. officials reported that satellite images showed Syrian forces moving chemical weapons into positions where they could be used more quickly. The officials, speaking under condition of anonymity, also said intelligence sources intercepted Syrian orders to prepare Sarin nerve gas for potential use.
“The possible use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable for the whole international community,” Rasmussen said in Brussels, according to a transcript posted on NATO’s website. “If anybody resorts to these terrible weapons, I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community.”
NATO’s warning over the possible use of chemical weapons echoes similar remarks by the U.S.
“I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: the world is watching,” President Barack Obama said yesterday in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington. “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.”
Foreign ministers from NATO’s 28 members convened two days of meetings today in Brussels. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, an ally of Syria, also attended the meeting.
Russia is concerned that threats from Syria are being “overstated” and that “the conflict is being increasingly militarized,” Lavrov said. Allegations that Syria is moving chemical weapons are based on rumors that haven’t been confirmed in Russia’s communication with Assad’s government, he said.
“Major differences on Syria” remain with Russia, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said today at the meeting. “We must speak frankly about these and other differences and redouble our efforts to advance our shared agenda in key areas where progress is possible.”
Rasmussen called Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons a “matter of great concern. We know Syria possesses missiles. We know they have chemical weapons and, of course, they also have to be included in our calculations, and this is also the reason it is a matter of urgency to ensure effective defense and protection of our ally Turkey.”
The measures are meant to bolster Turkey’s air defence and “have nothing to do with the establishment of a no-fly zone,” Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in an e-mailed statement after NATO ministers approved the plan.
“Turkey will continue the initiaties it has been undertaking with a view to solve the Syrian crisis through peaceful ways,” the ministry said in the statement.