Turkey is drawing up contingency plans with the NATO military alliance to fortify its border with Syria, and a Patriot missile deployment is one option on the table, Turkish officials say.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul told reporters Thursday that due to the ongoing civil war in Syria and its possible repercussions for NATO-member Turkey, every measure was being considered to counter the risks.
Discussions have been ongoing “within NATO… in terms of defensive measures” and many defensive scenarios are being looked at as a precaution, Gul said when asked whether Turkey was seeking to acquire Patriot missiles from NATO.
International and Turkish media reported Wednesday that the government planned to ask NATO to station Patriot missiles along the border with Syria, but the prime minister denied the report.
“We have not made such a request. Let me be clear, we are not thinking about or in a position to buy Patriots at this time,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters during a visit to Bali Wednesday. He seemed angry about the media reports, insisting that the foreign ministry official said to be the source for the information had no right to make such a statement.
Ankara has been careful to note that it does not plan to take offensive action and does not want a war with its southern neighbor, with which it shares a 822-kilometer (about 511-mile) border.
“It is out of the question that Turkey has any intention of going to war with Syria. I hope that it is also out of the question for Syria to engage in this kind of inconceivable action toward Turkey,” said Gul.
“But when there are these types of last-minute developments, when these types of potential risks are present, undoubtedly all sorts of precautions are taken in these situations. One of these precautions is against ballistic missiles as well as mid-range and near-range missiles,” he added.
The U.S.-made Patriot missile system — which became well-known during the first Gulf War, when it was used to protect American allies against Iraqi Scud missiles — works well against short- and medium-range missiles.
Two decades later, reports about the possible deployment of Patriots have emerged as tensions steadily escalate between two other Middle Eastern neighbors.
Schools were closed in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar Thursday as intense fighting raged in the area between loyalist Syrian forces and fighters from the rebel Free Syrian Army.
“We can hear the sounds of fighting. The town is very quiet today, not a lot of stores opened up,” said Mehmet Saitavci, a neighborhood mayor from Ceylanpinar.
“People here have a lot of relatives on the other side and they are coming up to the border and the Turkish military takes them and brings them into Turkey. We were told we can have our relatives be our guests for a few days by the municipal mayor,” said Saitavci, who also reported that two Turks were injured, but not seriously, due to stray gunfire.
Last month, Syrian artillery shells hit the Turkish border town of Akcakale, killing five Turkish citizens. Soon after, the Turkish parliament approved a resolution that would allow the military to carry out cross-border incursions. Since that deadly incident, Turkish officials have confirmed more than a dozen cross-border artillery strikes believed to have been carried out by the Syrian military. In each case, Turkish forces retaliated swiftly against Syria using artillery.
Last June, Syrian anti-aircraft defenses shot down a Turkish military reconnaissance jet, killing two pilots, after it briefly crossed into Syrian airspace in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Today, Turkey is adamant that its airspace not be used to supply the military of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. An Armenian plane headed for Syria landed in the Turkish city of Erzurum for a “technical inspection” Thursday.
“We are allowing the humanitarian aid to go in Syria. So it was agreed beforehand. They knew and agreed to land,” a Turkish foreign ministry official wrote to CNN, on condition of anonymity.
A similar flight was also asked to land in Turkey for inspection of its cargo last month. In that case, Armenian officials confirmed that the Turkish search was part of a scheduled stop.
But just a few days before the Armenian flight was stopped, a Syrian passenger plane from Russia was forced to land, with Turkish F-16s escorting it to a runway in the Turkish capital. Turkish authorities announced they suspected the aircraft of carrying military equipment to Damascus. Turkish authorities later confiscated military equipment from a Russian arms manufacturer that was addressed to the Syrian defense ministry.
Once cozy relations between Syria and Turkey have all but collapsed since the Syrian uprising began more than 19 months ago. Turkey is officially hosting more than 111,000 refugees, but the Turkish government says tens of thousands of unofficial refugees also live in Turkish cities and towns near the Syrian border.
Meanwhile, Damascus has repeatedly accused its former ally of meddling in internal Syrian affairs by funding and arming the Syrian opposition, as well as providing sanctuary and medical care to Syrian rebels.
Turkish, American and British diplomats are attending a Syrian opposition conference in Qatar this week, part of a U.S.-backed initiative to reorganize and restructure the fractured opposition movement.