BRUSSELS — NATO agreed Tuesday to send new American-made air defenses to Turkey’s volatile southern border with Syria, a boost to an alliance member on the front lines of Syria’s civil war and a potential backstop for wider U.S. or NATO air operations if the situation deteriorates further.
The alliance’s approval of Patriot anti-missile batteries represents NATO’s first significant military involvement in the 20-month-long crisis, even if it falls well short of rebels’ demands for help.
NATO and U.S. officials insisted that the system is entirely devoted to defending Turkey and is not a precursor to a military intervention in Syria. The Patriots will provide no protection for Syrian civilians or rebels fighting to unseat President Bashar al-Assad.
However, the system, likely to deploy early next year, could be repurposed as part of a wider air campaign or to provide air cover for action in Syria should NATO change its mind. Military experts said Patriots are as effective against aircraft as they are against missiles, and deploying the system at the border could be instrumental in quickly carving out a 25-mile buffer zone.
The threat that a besieged Assad might resort to chemical weapons as rebels gain ground gave new urgency to NATO’s debate. Syria, which is party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning chemical weapons in war, has repeatedly insisted that it would not use such weapons, even if it possessed them.
It has called the Patriot plan “provocative” and considers it a possible first step toward a no-fly zone, airstrikes or an invasion.
For now, U.S. and NATO officials say the system is designed to bolster the NATO member most directly affected by the Syrian civil war, and nothing more. Although the alliance counts the 2011 Libya no-fly zone as a success, it opposes similar action in the Syrian conflict. The Obama administration also remains opposed to intervention in a civil war that has claimed as many as 40,000 lives, including at least 15 on Tuesday when mortar rounds slammed into an elementary school.
“Turkey has asked for NATO’s support, and we stand with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after approval by the 28-member alliance at a meeting in Brussels. “To the Turkish people we say, ‘We are determined to defend you and your territory.’ To anyone who would want to attack Turkey we say, ‘Don’t even think about it.’ ”
Syria is believed to have the world’s third-largest store of chemical weapons, along with medium- and long-range missiles that could deliver them inside or outside the country. The weapons, which can kill large numbers of soldiers or civilians, can also be delivered by aircraft.
U.S. officials said Monday that satellite images showed Syrian forces moving chemical weapons into positions where they could be used more quickly. Although Rasmussen offered no specifics, U.S. officials said the White House and its allies are weighing military options to prevent or defend against a chemical attack.
President Obama warned on Monday of consequences if Assad made the “tragic mistake” of deploying chemical weapons.
On Tuesday, Rasmussen said: “The NATO ministers unanimously expressed grave concerns about reports the Syrian regime may be considering the use of chemical weapons. Any such action would be completely unacceptable and a clear breach of international law.”
However, he said, the Patriot deployment is unrelated to the recent reports. “The aim of this deployment is to ensure effective defensive protection of Turkey against any missile attack, whether the missiles carry chemical weapons or not.”
No NATO nations had to expressly vote for the deployment, which some worry is a slippery slope toward intervention. Instead, the decision was made by unanimous consent.
In practice, the decision involves only the United States, Germany and the Netherlands — the three nations with Patriots or a parallel system. All three are expected to approve a limited number of the anti-missile batteries, probably with small contingents of service members to operate them. NATO is studying where to put the remotely operated systems.
The Patriots that will be sent to Turkey will be configured to intercept only missiles, not aircraft, U.S. and NATO officials said. American officials stressed that the Patriots will track incoming missiles from Syrian territory but will try to intercept them only if they cross into Turkey. U.S. officials also noted that the Patriot interceptors will have no warheads — they will any destroy incoming warheads by running into them.
There is precedent for the decision. NATO installed long-range Patriot batteries on Turkish territory during the 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars. They were never used and were withdrawn a few months later.
The potential for expanded or offensive use is part of the reason that longtime Syria ally Russia has been leery of the Patriot deployment, although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday that his country is not opposed. Moscow considers the deployment an entirely defensive, internal NATO decision, he said.
Lavrov spoke in Russian after a meeting with NATO foreign ministers. Russia, as a nonmember, often attends large alliance gatherings for sideline meetings such as Tuesday’s NATO-Russia council.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used that forum to highlight differences with Russia over Syria. Moscow has stymied stronger U.N. action to condemn or constrain Assad, and the Obama administration has all but given up hope for a shift.
“We have major differences on Syria, where Russia has declined to embrace the political transition the people of that country need,” Clinton told Lavrov and NATO delegates in the closed-door session. Her prepared remarks were provided by the State Department. “We must speak frankly about these and other differences and redouble our efforts to advance our shared agenda in key areas where progress is possible.”
Germany and the Netherlands are expected to provide Turkey with several batteries of the latest PAC-3 version of the U.S.-built Patriots. The United States will probably fill in any gaps after the Europeans commit their resources. The U.S. Patriots could come from stocks in Europe.
Turkey, a NATO member since the 1950s, asked the alliance for the surface-to-air system after weeks of talks about how to shore up security on its more-than-500-mile border with Syria. Last week, Syrian warplanes attacked targets close to the border as NATO soldiers scouted possible sites for the Patriots.
Earlier, mortar rounds and artillery shells from Syria killed five people inside Turkey. Patriots are not designed to intercept such weapons.