The Syrian Crisis: Patriots and Preparing the Battlefield


2012-12-11 by Richard Weitz

As we pointed out earlier, “defense against missile attacks [and chemical weapons] involves offensive operation as well as defense itself.  Indeed, an attack and defense enterprise is required and not a pure defense system.”

In this regard, it is important to note how missile defenses, formally described as defensive systems, create offensive options. 

The December 4 meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, citing the clear threat to Turkey from Syria as well as the principle of allied solidarity, formally approved the deployment of the alliance’s Patriot surface-to-air missiles near Turkey’s border with Syria.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had earlier termed Turkey’s request “entirely a defensive measure against possible attacks from the other side.’’ NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen encouraged the request, arguing that the Patriots would help defend Turkey’s population and territory, “contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis along NATO’s south-eastern border,” and serve as “a concrete demonstration of Alliance solidarity and resolve.”

NATO’s Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) Missile Interceptor Batteries are some of the most sophisticated air and missile defense systems in Western inventories.

They are designed to attack hostile aircraft, tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and UAVs. Each battery has 16 PAC-3 interceptors, each of which can be fired individually.

Footage from Turkey shows the imminent aftermath of a mortar strike launched from within Syria on the town of Akcakale, which killed five people and later prompted retaliatory strikes. Photo: REUTERS

Each interceptor missile weighs 340 kg and flies at 5,000 km/h. The interceptor has a range of 100 miles (160km), and can reach altitudes of about 80,000 feet. Combined with the high accuracy of their radar sensors and targeting systems, the Patriots can command an area well beyond the Turkish-Syrian border–all of northern Syria up, including the embattled towns of Aleppo and Homs.

Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States are each expected to send two batteries to Turkey, along with NATO Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft.

The German Cabinet has already approved sending two batteries of Patriots, with a total of 400 soldiers, to the border area under NATO command for one year, although the deployment could be shortened. The decision must be endorsed by the German Parliament, which is expected to take the matter up between Dec. 12 and 14, but approval is expected.

The Dutch Cabinet is expected to soon make a similar decision, also contingent on parliamentary approval.

Although the parliamentary approvals are considered a formality, it will probably take at least another month before the Patriots are relocated to Turkey and become operational given the large number and physical size of the PAC-3 systems, which include the interceptor missiles, the launchers, their radars, an engagement control station, a power plant, and other components.

NATO officials said the decision resulted from the daily incidents of mortar rounds and shells falling on Turkish territory, as well as the frequent Syrian airstrikes against rebel-held towns near the Turkish border.

They also cited the threat of Syria’s chemical weapons.

They called the Patriots defensive weapons and deploying them a “precautionary” measure to prevent an escalation of the conflict.

They see the missiles as directly enhancing Turkey’s defenses against possible Syrian air and missile attacks. They also believe that this augmented defense capability will help deter such attacks and even reduce the risk of accidents since the Syrian military will prove more cautious about its operations near the Turkish border.

But the Patriot deployments have tactical capabilities that, while defensive, create potential offensive opportunities. 

For example, the Patriots will reduce fears among an anxious Turkish public about Ankara’s aggressive role in organizing the insurgency against Assad. They might also further raise the guerrillas’ morale as well as serve further demoralize Syrian officers and soldiers, who will increasing exercise the option to defect to the insurgency if it they look to will win.

By erecting an effective air and missile shield that could easily extend deep into Syrian territory, the Patriots could help enforce a no-fly zone over Syria that extends from Idlib to Shogor Bridge, to Al-Zaweya Mountain, and finally to Aleppo from Turkey.

In June 2012, Turkey had requested that NATO develop contingency plans for such a no-fly zone to protect Turkish territory from Syrian aggression.

With this air shield, the insurgents would find it easier to establish secure logistics and communications corridors to provide munitions and other supplies to their fighters in Syria. They could more ambitiously try to establish a base of operations inside Syria and, as the insurgents used Benghazi in Libya, launch offensives against the Syrian military more effectively from their new forward operating bases.

The deployment would also serve to engage NATO more directly in the Syrian War, something Ankara has long sought but NATO has resisted. Unlike in the case of Libya, thus far NATO has largely remained aloof from the Syrian crisis. But with the Patriot systems will come hundreds of NATO troops to operate, maintain, and protect the Patriot interceptors, their radars, and their other support elements.

In effect, the NATO personnel would become a “trip wire” that would make NATO military intervention more likely during the inevitable future Syrian-Turkish border clashes. NATO’s Supreme Commander, not the Turkish government, would operate the systems and decide whether and how to use them.  The issue of Syria’s CW further complicates matters.

Although NATO leaders insisted that the Patriot deployments would not contribute to any of the offensive actions described above, international alarm about Syria’s chemical weapons potential—also cited as a threat by Turkish officials–has continued to increase, and could serve as a legitimate pretext for a more assertive policy by NATO—and Turkey—in the region.

Ironically, the triumph of the Patriots might prove financially costly for their manufacturers.

Turkey was planning to announce a $4 billion tender to purchase its own air and missile defenses. Eurosam, maker of the Surface-to-Air Missile Platform/Terrain Aster 30 system, Russia’s Rosoboronexport, offering the S-300 system; and China Precision Machinery Export-Import Corp., offering its HQ-9, are all competing with a Raytheon-Lockheed partnership marketing the Patriots.

NATO experts have been warning Turkey not to purchase the Russian or Chinese systems, noting that they would present interoperability problems for Turkey’s predominately US/NATO weapons as well as intelligence vulnerabilities.

Although the timely appearance of the Patriots might make Ankara feel obliged to buy the system for themselves, NATO’s repeated deployments of these systems in Turkey, which are paid for out of common NATO funds, might lead Turkey to decide to cancel their tender and rely on continued allied generosity.  

Credit Photo:

The video above shows the Dutch deploying their Patriot batteries.

The video below discusses the NATO decision.