Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today will discuss with NATO the Turkish government’s request for the deployment of Patriot missiles to the Syrian border. Russia is opposed to this deployment, while Syria is also labeling the move a ‘new act of provocation’ on the part of Turkey. Turkey will maintain operational control of the Patriot system, rather than NATO. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has publicly responded to Russian opposition to the Patriot deployment as ‘very wrong’ and bordering on interference with Turkish domestic affairs.
The Patriot missile defense system which became famous during Operation Desert Storm; defending Israel and Arab coalition allies from Iraq’s Scud missile campaign against them, is strictly a defensive weapons system with no designed capability for an offensive role. In addition to missile defense, it also has he ability to shoot down fast low flying aircraft and cruise missiles.
Turkey has now made an official request for deployment of Patriot and is contemplating a further request for support of an E-3 AWACS aircraft from NATO. An AWACS aircraft would be an asset not only for the operation of Patriot, but also for overall airborne early warning and tactical intercept of any missile of aircraft launched from Syria which entered Turkey. Syria and Russia’s concern however, is that the AWACS would also enable Turkey to monitor air traffic across all of Syria, where ground based air defense radars are unable to provide that capability.
The ‘marrying’ of Patriot and AWACS means that there is literally nowhere inside Syria from which a missile could be launched against Turkey without being detected and engaged almost immediately and that also includes anything launched by Russian military assets which may be present in Syria or Russian naval vessels off the Syrian coast. Any aircraft of any type approaching Turkey could be detected the moment they took off. AWACS would be able to vector Turkish fighter jets to intercept them the instant they entered Turkish airspace.
Turkey’s request for Patriot and AWACS though basically defensive measures, may be indicative of contingency planning on Turkey’s part. Syria has not had reason of any kind to attack Turkey, and since the Syrian Civil War began has been in no shape military to attack any nation. NATO agreement to deploy these assets with a nod from the United States, also likely means that NATO and the US are aware and have tacitly approved of Turkish plans to deal with the Syrian crisis.
Those plans most likely involve the establishment of a ‘buffer zone’ just inside the Syrian border by Turkish troops primarily for housing Syrian refugees, as Turkey is now reaching the limits of its humanitarian aid capabilities with over 100,000 refugees already being housed in Turkey.
Any such encroachment on Syrian sovereignty by Turkish military forces will be viewed by the Assad regime as an invasion, no matter how well intentioned the reason for it. It would also be viewed as an overt act of support in ‘alliance’ with Syrian rebels. Forces loyal to Assad would resist any Turkish forces entering Syria and if a sustained fight ensued, there is no guarantee that Turkey and/or NATO would not conclude that a full intervention into Syria was the only solution to the overall problem.