Next-door Danger: A rebel fighter points his weapon at regime forces in an industrial area of Syria's eastern town of Deir Ezzor on Sept. 2. Experts say Turkey is ill-prepared to protect itself from a chemical attack from Syria. (AFP / Getty Images)
ANKARA — Turkey borders three notoriously volatile countries, but its defenses against a potential chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) attack have been largely neglected, with the exception of two programs, according to industry sources.
“This is a relatively new technology for Turkey, but the market looks promising under the current political realities,” said one local executive who asked not to be named because his company has been investing in research in this unspoiled business. “All indications show that Turkey will feel threatened, somehow, by one or more of its neighbors in the near future.”
Turkey has been spearheading regional and international efforts to end Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, making Turkey a target of possible Syrian chemical attack. Assad allegedly killed more than 1,400 opponents in a chemical attack in August, and the US is pondering a limited military strike to punish Damascus.
Last year, Assad pledged to resort to chemical weapons if his country was attacked by foreign powers. Immediately after, the Turkish military dispatched some of its CBRN defense units to the country’s 500-mile-long border with Syria.
The US and NATO have said they would militarily protect Turkey if it came under Syrian fire. Turkey is the only NATO ally that shares a border with Syria. Ankara also has tense relations with its other Muslim neighbors, Iraq and Iran, with the latter believed to be pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
A Turkish procurement official admitted there could be a need to launch further CBRN programs. “The government may decide to acquire more CBRN [defense] equipment, depending on how urgent it views the threat,” he said. “Usually, such programs take time before deliveries [are] completed and we may need to rush. We are also thinking of ways to give pace to the current programs.”
Under a 2008 contract, local enterprise group CAN is manufacturing CBRN protective clothing for all four military services. The US $60 million contract involves the delivery of 162,000 sets of CBRN protective clothing, including suits, boot covers and gloves. In February, CAN delivered the first batch of 2,000 sets. It plans final deliveries by 2017. CAN’s products are 80 percent locally made.
“Turkey may have to seek an alternative, stop-gap solution when you consider that a 2008 contract has so far produced slightly over 1 percent of all planned deliveries,” said one industry source.
In a separate, 2010 contract, Turkey will acquire a military laboratory that will detect, analyze and identify CBRN material coming from the enemy. That contract went to Indra Sistemas and now is going through acceptance and examination tests.
According to Serdar Erdurmaz, head of the Mass Destruction Weapons Department at the Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis, a think tank, Turkey would suffer casualties in a chemical attack due to the insufficient number of chemical gas detectors along its borders.
“The Turkish Army has detectors, but those are meant for use in combat zones for military units. Because chemical gases are invisible and odorless, premonitory chemical gas detectors, which I doubt Turkey has enough of, should be deployed all along the border,” he said.
Chemical gases also can be absorbed by the skin, and experts often warn that it is not enough to distribute gas masks; protective clothing also should be provided to everyone living near the areas bordering the source of threat.
Analysts say all Turkey has are mostly expired gas masks supplied several years ago by the United States, and even if Turkey acquired new masks, these can protect only some Turkish military units — not civilians — near the Syrian border. They fear any chemical attack from Syria would result in heavy losses.
Sait Yilmaz, an expert, told Turkish daily Today’s Zaman that Patriots — anti-ballistic missiles provided by NATO — would not be effective against short-distance missiles. He said if Syria fired a large number of missiles on Turkish targets at such a short distance, most would go uncountered.
The Syrian regime is believed to possess different types of missiles with chemical and biological warheads.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the necessary measures have been taken against a possible chemical attack from Syria. “All of our related units have taken all kinds of security measures over not just [a possible chemical attack] but also over all the possible threats that could come from Syria and will continue to take such measures,” he said.
Syria is one of three countries in the Middle East that is not party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an international framework aiming to reduce the threat from chemical weapons that took effect in 1997. Because Syria is not a party to the CWC, the Organization for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has no legal mandate to conduct inspections in the country and verify the existence of chemical weapons or related activities. According to various assessments, Syria has a stockpile of approximately 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and nerve agents such as sarin and VX.