Nato is to authorise the deployment of Patriot missile batteries to the Syrian border amid apprehension that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad may launch attacks using its stock of chemical weapons.
The alliance’s Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said he was confident that a ministerial meeting of member states in Brussels would agree to a request by Turkey to the deployment of the system, which could then take place “in a matter of weeks”.
Mr Rasmussen insisted that the stationing of the missiles was a “purely defensive and not an offensive” measure. However, the decision is likely to lead to charges that the West risks getting drawn further into the bloody 22-month civil war as well as polarising international relations over the conflict.
Russia, which has backed the Damascus regime, has criticised the prospect of the Patriots being deployed. Moscow’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, is arriving in Brussels tomorrow and is expected to reinforce his country’s objections. Iran, another supporter of Assad, has been highly critical of the move, accusing Nato of “going down the road of aggression”.
During a visit to Turkey today, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said of the Patriot deployment: “Creating additional capabilities on the border does not defuse the situation but on the contrary exacerbates it. You know, as they say, if a gun is hung on the wall at the start of a play then at the end of the play it will definitely fire. Why should we need extra shooting at the border? We are urging restraint.”
Mr Rasmussen, however, said that Nato had a duty to provide protection for Turkey, a member state. “We know the Syrian regime has missiles and it also has chemical weapons; this must be taken into consideration in making our decision,” he said. “We are not saying that the regime will use chemical weapons, we have no information about that, but it is not something we can ignore either.”
The Secretary-General said that the deployment was not a precursor to the establishment of a no-fly zone or other military action: “We have no intention of becoming militarily involved in Syria, there are no such plans. We want to see a political solution to the crisis. But a request has been made by Turkey, a member, an assessment is being made [about the deployment]. I expect it will take place in a few weeks.”
Mr Rasmussen added that the Patriots were meant to be used only to intercept missiles, rather than aircraft. However, a senior military officer from a Nato state claimed that no decision had yet been made on whether Syrian jets would also be among possible targets, pointing out that they, too, pose a threat to the Turkish population.
The Patriot systems will be controlled from Ramstein, in Germany.
The Syrian regime is believed to be in possession of mustard and sarin gas as well as VX, a nerve agent. US President Barack Obama has been among Western leaders who have declared that use of the chemicals would be a “red line” which may lead to Western intervention. US officials have stated recently that they had observed activity around bases where the chemical stock is stored.
According to the New York Times, an intelligence officer said: “They’re doing some things that suggest they intend to use the weapons. It’s not just moving stuff around. These are different kind of activities.”
Turkish officials claim they have information that the Assad regime plans to use chemical weapons if their operations fail to hold back rebel fighters and that its arsenal of Warsaw Pact Scuds and North Korean SS-21 missiles are likely to stray across the border.
Meanwhile, the United Nations announced it was pulling “all non-essential international staff” out of Syria as the situation around the capital Damascus deteriorates. As many as 25 out of 100 international staff could leave this week. All field trips outside the capital are being halted as staff were at “increased risk” from indiscriminate shooting and clashes by both sides. Eight UN staff have been killed since the conflict started.