Patriot Missiles Arrive in Turkey: How They Affect the Syria Equation

While many Turks are protesting the presence of NATO patriot batteries, one border city and its environs enjoy a measure of relief at the deployment

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A soldier of the German armed forces stands next to a radar, which is part of the Patriot system, at a Turkish military base during media day in Kahramanmaras, Turkey on Jan. 31, 2013.

Barely 40 miles from the Syrian border, Gaziantep, a booming Turkish city of 1.3 million people, seems worlds removed from the conflict engulfing its southern neighbor. Yet, signs of the war raging next door are not hard to find. The local economy, although still buoyant, is losing some of its spark. Exports to Syria have been halved since 2010, and are continuing to fall. A few years ago, many of the Syrians arriving in Gaziantep were wealthy traders from Aleppo, less than two hours by car. Now, most are refugees, thousands of whom are unable or unwilling to settle in Turkish camps by the border. Locals might occasionally grumble about the impact of the influx on rent prices, but most remain sympathetic to the Syrians fleeing the regime of President Bashar Assad. Family and religious ties — like the Syrian newcomers, the vast majority are Sunni Muslims — are one reason why.

In recent weeks, NATO’s deployment of Patriot missile batteries along Turkey’s 560-mile border with Syria — in response to a formal Turkish request last November — has sparked protests across the country. Given the depth of anti-American sentiment in Turkey, it was hardly surprising that small demonstrations also took place in Gaziantep, where a contingent of U.S. Patriots arrived in January. Still, at least here, the deployment seems to have met with muted approval. Ever since Syrian artillery shells began straying into Turkey last fall, and especially since one of these claimed the lives of five people in the border town of Akçakale, local concerns about a large-scale attack have increased, says Gökhan Bacik, a professor at Gaziantep’s Zirve University. The Patriots, he says, “are observed here as a mechanism to appease those feelings.”

Once up and running, NATO officials say, the total of six batteries — two each sent by Germany, the Netherlands and the U.S. — and manned by roughly 1,200 alliance troops will protect up to 3.5 million people from any potential missile threat. The Dutch and German batteries, based 100 miles west and 60 miles north of the Syrian border, respectively, were declared active earlier this week. According to Royal Reff, a public affairs officer with the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, the U.S. Patriots should be fully operational “by next week.” Although Turkish officials will be involved at each level, the system will remain under NATO command.

At one level, the deployment is symbolic. Turkey, after all, has tried in vain to persuade NATO to stage a more muscular intervention in Syria, such as a no-fly zone to protect those under fire from the regime. Western powers continue to decline any direct involvement in the conflict, however. Although the shelling in Akçakale was cited by Turkey as the immediate motive behind its appeal for NATO assistance, the Patriots offer little protection against a recurrence — the advanced system is designed to intercept missiles, not artillery shells.

That isn’t to say that the Patriots’ value is illusory. Syria is said to possess a large stock of medium-range missiles, including Soviet-built SS-21 Scarabs and Scud-Bs. According to NATO reports, regime forces have already fired more than 20 such missiles at rebel strongholds inside Syrian territory over the past month alone. Turkish officials fear that if and when Assad finds himself on the ropes, he could unleash his arsenal against Turkey, the main lifeline to rebels fighting to bring down his regime.  It is in that scenario that the Patriots would play a vital role in the country’s defense.

For now, however, “it is unlikely that Syria or rogue Syrian elements would choose to launch a concerted ballistic missile attack against Turkey unless Turkey was to seriously intervene in the conflict,” says Nick de Larrinaga, of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. “The most likely practical threat at this point looks to come from Syrian missiles which having been fired against rebel positions malfunction and carry on into Turkey.”

The Patriots, even if their number is lower than Turkey requested, should be effective in protecting major population centers close to the Syrian border, de Larrinaga believes. However, he points out, the locations selected will “leave a significant area of the (560-mile) border unprotected from the threat of Syrian ballistic missile attack.” The area in question, he notes, is far less populated and less affected by the conflict in Syria.

Officials from NATO countries have insisted throughout that the nature of the deployment is strictly defensive. Those assurances track with the capabilities of the Patriot system, which, de Larrinaga points out, is unable to attack targets on the ground. And while it may be technically possible to use the Patriots’ capability to shoot down aircraft, doing so would require moving the batteries to the border, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Even then, the system could cover only “a relatively narrow area.” The PAC-3 Patriot missile may have a range of 160 kilometers (100 miles), says Cordesman, but this would be “much closer to something on the 40-60 km level in terms of providing a secure no fly zone.”

Still, says Cordesman, the current deployment may force Syrian pilots to think twice before entering within the Patriots’ range. Deterrence, he says, “is not always a matter of specifications and technical capabilities.”

The Patriot deployment may offer yet another element of pre-emption, according to Semih Idiz, a Turkish commentator. “Syria might think that Turkey is a paper tiger,” Idiz wrote recently in Al-Monitor, “but Assad is probably still clear-headed enough to realize that an attack that kills American or German troops operating Patriot batteries means full-blown NATO intervention, and that is an outcome that he desperately wants to avoid.”