NATO announced Tuesday that it will deploy Patriot anti-missile systems near Turkey's southern border, shoring up defences against the threat of cross-border attacks from Syria and bringing the United States and its allies closer to Syria's civil war.
The alliance's 28 members decided to limit use of Patriots solely for the defensive purpose of warding off the mortar rounds and shells from Syria that have already killed five Turks. But the announcement also appeared to be a message to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime at a time when Washington and other governments fear Syria may be readying its chemical weapons stockpiles for possible use.
"We stand with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters. "To anyone who would want to attack Turkey, we say, 'Don't even think about it!'"
Fogh Rasmussen stressed that the deployment of the Patriot systems, which includes missiles, radar and other elements, wouldn't be a first step toward a no-fly zone over parts of Syria or any offensive operation against the Arab state.
But the decision to deploy the systems takes the U.S. and its European partners closer to the war, with the possibility of U.S.-made and NATO-operated hardware being used against the Assad regime for the first time.
Officials say the Patriots will be programmed so that they can intercept only Syrian weapons that cross into Turkish airspace. They aren't allowed to penetrate Syrian territory pre-emptively. That means they would have no immediate effect on any Syrian government offensives, chemical or conventional, that remain strictly inside the country's national borders.
Still, Fogh Rasmussen insisted that the weapons could help de-escalate tensions along a border across which tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled and which has emerged as a critical transit point for weapons being smuggled to the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad.
Germany and the Netherlands are expected to give Turkey several batteries of the latest PAC-3 version of the U.S.-built Patriots air defence systems, which intercepts incoming missiles. The U.S. would likely fill any gaps, possibly by sending some from its stocks in Europe.
But the exact details of the deployment and the number of batteries are still to be determined by NATO. A joint team is studying possible basing sites in Turkey, and parliaments in both Germany and the Netherlands must then approve shifting the assets and the possible involvement of several hundred soldiers.
It's unclear if any American soldiers would need to be deployed.