BRUSSELS – NATO announced Tuesday that it will deploy Patriot anti-missile systems near Turkey's southern border, shoring up defenses against the threat of cross-border attacks and bringing the United States and its allies closer to the civil war raging between Syrian rebels and President Bashar Assad's regime.
The alliance's 28 members decided to limit use of Patriots solely for the defensive purpose of warding off the mortar rounds and shells from Syria that have killed five Turks. But the announcement also appeared to be a message to the Assad regime at a time when Washington and other governments fear it may be readying its chemical weapons stockpiles for possible use.
"We stand with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters. "To anyone who would want to attack Turkey, we say, `Don't even think about it!"'
Fogh Rasmussen stressed that the deployment of the Patriot systems -- which includes missiles, radar and other elements -- would in no way support a no-fly zone over parts of Syria nor aid any offensive operation against the Arab state.
But the decision to deploy the systems takes the United States and its European partners closer to the war, with the possibility of U.S.-made and alliance-operated hardware being used against the Assad regime for the first time.
Officials say the Patriots will be programmed so that they can intercept only Syrian weapons that cross into Turkish airspace. They aren't allowed to penetrate Syrian territory pre-emptively. That means they would have no immediate effect on any government offensives -- chemical or conventional -- that remain strictly inside Syria's national borders.
Still, Fogh Rasmussen insisted that the weapons could help de-escalate tensions along a border across which tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have fled and which has emerged as a critical transit point for weapons being smuggled to the rebels fighting to overthrow Assad.
Germany and the Netherlands are expected to provide to Turkey several batteries of the latest PAC-3 version of the U.S.-built Patriots air defense systems, which is optimized to intercept incoming missiles. The U.S. would likely fill any gaps, possibly by sending some from its stocks in Europe.
But the exact details of the deployment and the number of batteries are still to be determined by NATO. A joint team is studying possible basing sites in Turkey, and parliaments in both Germany and the Netherlands must then approve shifting assets and the possible involvement of several hundred soldiers. It's unclear if any American soldiers would need to be deployed.
Due to the complexity and size of the Patriot batteries -- including their radars, command-and-control centers, communications and support facilities -- they cannot be flown quickly by air to Turkey and will probably have to travel by sea, alliance officials said. They probably won't arrive in Turkey for another month, officials predicted.
NATO, like the U.S., doesn't want to be drawn into the Syrian conflict. Washington has refused to entertain proposals for no-fly zones over Syria or providing military support to Syrian rebels, fearful of making the conflict even more violent after 21 months in which more than 40,000 people have died.
The U.S. also cites the risk of extremists among the rebels getting their hands on weapons they may later use against U.S. allies such as Israel.