When NATO countries deploy Patriot batteries along Turkey’s border with Syria, the missile-blasting system is likely to play a more symbolic than tactical role, telegraphing to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the alliance backs Ankara’s staunch support of the rebels trying to topple him.
Although Syria has hundreds of ballistic missiles, analysts say Patriots are unlikely to be fired unless an international coalition decides to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria. That’s because Assad has shown no willingness to take on Turkey, his militarily superior neighbor, at a time when his forces are losing ground to the opposition, analysts say.
“The first and overwhelming reason for this is political posturing,” said Christopher Harmer, a retired Navy pilot who has followed the Syrian conflict at the Institute for the Study of War. “There is no real threat from Syria into Turkey.”
The Turks have provided support and a haven to Syrian rebel leaders, drawing rebukes from Damascus and its allies Iran and Russia. Both nations also have criticized the Turkish request for Patriots, saying it could inflame matters.
As fighting between rebels and Syrian forces has escalated in recent weeks, Turkey argued that it needs to bolster its defenses along the border. The request took on a sense of urgency in recent days, amid Syria’s intensifying aerial bombardment of rebel positions close to the Turkish border and growing concerns that Damascus could use chemical weapons against the opposition in a last-ditch move.
Artillery rounds have landed on Turkish soil as rebels and Syrian forces have exchanged fire, although such incursions appear to have been accidental. Patriots are not designed to interdict low-flying weapons and would be of little use to stop such volleys.
The public position is that the batteries are to defend against Syrian missiles, but military experts said Patriots are equally effective against aircraft. Although Turkey and its NATO allies have been reticent to establish a no-fly zone, should the political will for one develop, the Patriots along the border could be instrumental in quickly carving out a 25-mile buffer zone.
Maj. Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman, said Turkey’s request for Patriots is for “defensive” purposes.
“It is not part of a no-fly zone,” he said. But the same system could theoretically be used to enforce one, he said, noting that “it would be a different mission.”
After Turkey asked NATO for Patriots last month, the alliance dispatched a team to survey potential sites to place them near the southeastern border. The group included military personnel from the three NATO members that could easily deploy the defenses to the Turkish border: the United States, Germany and the Netherlands.
The team is making recommendations to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, one of the main NATO military commands. The Patriot-owning nations could deploy the systems under bilateral agreements or as part of a formal NATO effort.
Military officials said it will probably take several weeks to put the Patriots in place, particularly if the German and Dutch parliaments have to sign off on the moves. Contributing nations may request strict terms for their deployment — for example, insisting that they only be used for defensive purposes.
“Turkey has requested Patriot assets to protect their population and territory,” said Canadian army Lt. Col. Jay Janzen, a NATO spokesman. He added that none of the discussions touched on other possible uses.
Janzen said Turkey did not request a specific number of batteries. The survey team may recommend a number, which could be adjusted depending on the willingness of the nations providing them.
The first generation of Patriots was developed during the 1960s as a Cold War tool to protect ground forces from aerial attack. The system’s first major wartime deployment occurred during 1991’s Persian Gulf War, with mixed results. Today, Patriot batteries are deployed around the world in spots where they could be used to foil ballistic attacks from Iran and North Korea.
Patriots have never been used to enforce a no-fly zone, Harmer said, but the latest models could easily fend off Syria’s aging Soviet-made warplanes.
“The Patriot of today is a far different weapon, with longer range and more agile,” Harmer said. “Patriots could easily handle [Syrian] aircraft.”