ANKARA — While the last of six Patriot anti-missile batteries are deployed in Turkey, ostensibly to protect Turkish airspace from a potential missile strike from neighboring Syria, some officials claim the primary purpose is to protect a radar that would track Iranian missile launches.
The fifth Patriot battery stationed in Turkey became operational Feb. 5 and deployment of the sixth is near completion. Officials and analysts here said the mini missile defense architecture actually provides the pretext to protect a U.S.-owned, NATO-assigned radar deployed since last year in Turkey in the event hostilities break out with Iran.
The five current Patriot batteries, belonging to the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands, are operating under NATO command and control. NATO says the missile defense system will protect roughly 3.5 million Turks in the country’s south and southeast. The mission is expected to last up to one year but NATO officials say this can be shortened or extended.
“It won’t be shortened but definitely extended,” said a missile defense expert here. “The Patriots are here to protect the NATO [missile defense] radar in Kurecik.”
A NATO official based in Brussels told Defense News that “the NATO deployment in Turkey is for defensive purposes. The system has been designed to de-escalate the tension in neighboring Syria and to deter and counter any possible missile threat to Turkish territory.”
Asked if the Patriots could be used against potential missile attacks from Iran, the official said, “I said ‘any missile threat,’ which should be clear enough to mean ‘any threat’ against Turkey. What matters is that this deployment will augment Turkey’s air defense system.”
Last year, Turkey, a NATO member, agreed to station the U.S. early warning missile detection and tracking radar system in Kurecik in the country’s southeast. Ankara has said that because of Turkish support for the armed opposition groups fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it fears Syria could attack Turkey with Scud and Scud-derivative missiles tipped with chemical warheads in a final, desperate act.
Assad, whose regime has been fighting rebels in a civil war that has already claimed 60,000 lives, has said he would never use chemical weapons against his people but would against foreign invaders.
A senior Turkish diplomat dealing with Syria said the threat of Syrian chemical weapons was not as serious as it sounds.
“It’s always a risk when you have a dictator as neighbor who possesses chemical weapons and missile capabilities to deliver these weapons. But, honestly, we are not sleep-deprived because of that. Assad may be a ruthless dictator but not an insane man,” the diplomat said.
Another Turkish diplomat dealing with security issues talked about “possibly a double mission.” He said: “The Patriots can be used against the threat of cross-border attacks from Syria, but their essential mission is to protect the NATO radar.”
And that brings Iran into the picture.
“The U.S. encouragement for the deployment of the Patriots in areas near the NATO radar in Turkey was to do more with providing protection for this radar complex against Iranian threat than with protecting Turkey from Syrian threat,” said a prominent defense analyst. “The U.S. naval assets in the Mediterranean are unable to protect Kurecik from potential Iranian missile threat. Kurecik’s protection is essential for the alliance.”
Kurecik’s mission is to provide U.S. naval assets in the Mediterranean with early warning and track information if Iran launched missiles at allies, including Israel, the analyst said.
Ankara officially has argued that the Kurecik radar is not aimed at any specific country.
But Moscow and Tehran, which have been staunch supporters of the Assad regime, have charged that deployment of NATO assets on Turkish soil are part of a wider plan by the U.S.-led alliance to neutralize Russian and Iranian missile capabilities. Russia has claimed that the Patriot deployment in Turkey is to protect the radar system in Kurecik.
A military official said the location of the Patriot batteries and the radar makes any connection between the two impossible. The batteries are deployed in Adana, Kahramanmaras and Gaziantep. But the defense analyst disagrees.
“Patriot is a road mobile system. It takes minutes to dismantle a battery, say in Kahramanmaras, and redeploy it closer to Kurecik in a matter of hours, and you can always do that quite discreetly, too,” he said. The distance between Kahramanmaras and Kurecik is about 200 kilometers.