ROME – Italy is to withdraw anti-missile batteries it stationed in Turkey as part of a NATO commitment to defend the country, but has claimed the move is not a reaction to Turkey’s widely condemned incursion into Syria.
Italy’s junior defense minister, Angelo Tofalo, told the Italian parliament on Thursday that preparations to bring Italy’s SAMP/T battery home from the Turkish-Syrian border were already underway, and that the system, as well as the 130-strong military team manning it, would be gone by Dec. 31.
Earlier this year Italy approved the presence in Turkey of the battery up to but not beyond Dec. 31, and Italian defense minister Lorenzo Guerini said the pull-out was scheduled, and not related to Turkey’s pursuit of Kurdish fighters inside Syria.
“The end was planned for December this year, and we are therefore carrying out what was planned,” he said in Brussels while attending a NATO defense ministers’ meeting.
Speaking at a press conference on Friday after the ministers’ meeting, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg echoed the Italian claim.
“The Italian decision was made this spring, the result of them being there for a long time and their mandate ending by the end of the year,” he said.
He appeared to confirm reports that Spain is considering removing its Patriot battery from Turkey — which was also stationed there as part of NATO support for Turkey.
“I expect any (decision about the) extension of the Spanish presence will be taken in consultation with allies,” he said.
On Wednesday, ahead of the NATO ministers’ meeting, Stoltenberg said NATO members should continue helping Turkey deploy air defense equipment on the border.
Italy’s move follows outcry among Italian politicians over Turkey’s Syria incursion this month, with Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio joining the call made by other European states to block arms sales to Turkey.
“Voters in Italy, particularly those backing the Five Star and Democratic parties which make up the government coalition, have strongly supported taking action over Turkey’s actions, which were viewed in a very negative way,” said Alessandro Marrone, a senior fellow at the IAI think tank in Rome.
By pulling out its SAMP/T battery while claiming the move was already scheduled, Rome was achieving a “double purpose,” he said.
“It serves public opinion and does exert pressure on Turkey, but at the same time maintains Italy’s commitment to NATO without actually breaking off relations with Turkey. And that is key since Turkey now hosts 3.5 million refugees, and politicians in Europe remember the political fallout when thousands came to Europe in 2015,” he said.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.