Components of Patriot missiles began arriving in Turkey today, part of a NATO effort to defend the country against hostile action by the regime in neighboring Syria, according to Turkish Ambassador to the U.S. Namik Tan.
“Some parts have started coming as of this morning,” Tan said today at a breakfast with reporters in Washington. He said it isn’t yet clear when the batteries will become operational. Turkey is consulting with visiting delegations from other countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as to where the missiles will be placed, Tan said.
Asked if the missiles could be used to establish a no-fly zone to provide rebels with air cover for operations, or whether they could be used offensively, Tan said “These Patriots are defensive, there is no offensive target.”
The missile components are arriving in Turkey as Syrian rebels and a Palestinian group that backs President Bashar al-Assad clashed inside a Damascus refugee camp. Since the conflict began in March 2011, more than 41,000 Syrians have been killed and an additional 1.2 million have been forced from their homes, according to opposition and United Nations estimates.
Support from Turkey’s NATO allies has been “ironclad” ever since it invoked the alliance’s Article 4, which calls on members to consult, the ambassador said.
“We have no intention of acting unilaterally,” Tan said. “We do not want anything like a military confrontation with the regime forces.”
Throughout the conflict in Syria, Turkey has been meeting with Iran, an ally that is also the Syrian regime’s key backer. In meetings “at all levels, starting down from our president,” Turkey has conveyed “very clearly” that “their position is not leading them down the right path,” Tan said.
Getting Iran to acknowledge this, Tan said, “requires more effort.”
Yesterday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the deployment of Patriots would only create more tension and wouldn’t establish security, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.
Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad canceled a visit yesterday to Turkey due to what his office said was his “busy schedule,” Iranian state-run Press TV reported. Ahmadinejad had scheduled a one-day visit at the invitation of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Press TV said on its website.
Turkish support for anti-Assad forces has been limited to helping them “put their act together,” Tan said, as Turkey would like to see a more unified and cohesive opposition.
Turkey has taken in almost 200,000 Syrians fleeing the violence, with 140,000 of them living in 14 refugee camps that dot the border and have cost his country more than $400 million, Tan said.
While Tan wouldn’t offer scenarios on the endgame of Assad’s regime, he said Turkey wants to see Syria remain intact territorially.
Turkey is preparing for all contingencies, Tan said, including a chemical weapons attack within Syria that crosses the border. Turks are working closely with the U.S. politically, militarily and on intelligence, he said.
“This is a red line for everybody,” Tan said. “I hope they don’t cross this red line.”