Middle East

Syria slams Turkey's NATO missiles bid

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem. (Archive Photo/The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: Syria on Friday condemned Turkey's request for NATO to deploy Patriot defence missiles near their common border, calling it "provocative", after a spate of fighting there that has raised fears of the Syrian civil war embroiling the wider region.

In the first Syrian response to Ankara's request earlier this week, a ministry source told Syrian state television that Damascus would hold Turkey's prime minister responsible for increasing tensions along the frontier.

The 20-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has grown increasingly bloody and heavy clashes often erupt right along Syria's northern border with Turkey. Ankara has repeatedly scrambled fighter jets and responded in kind to stray shells flying into its territory.

Turkey's missile request may have riled Damascus and its allies because it could be seen as a first step toward implementing a no-fly zone. Syrian rebels have been requesting one to help them hold territory against a government with overwhelming firepower from the air, but which most foreign governments are loath to impose for fear of getting sucked into the conflict.

The Patriot system is designed to intercept aircraft or missiles. Turkey asked for its deployment after weeks of talks with its NATO allies about how to shore up its 900-km (560 mile) border, where it fears security may deteriorate as the Syrian army steps up fighting against rebel advances.

"Syria stresses its condemnation of the Turkish government's latest provocative step," the ministry source told Syria TV.

The source said that Syria would respect Turkish sovereignty but also said that it "holds (Tayyip) Erdogan responsible for the militarisation of the situation on the Syrian-Turkish border and increased tensions".

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Thursday that the possible deployment of Patriot missiles was "purely defensive" and would "serve as a deterrent to possible enemies even thinking of attacks".

The U.S.-led Western alliance has had some talks on the Turkish request but no decision is expected before next week.

Asked about Syria's remarks, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Damascus was at fault for heightened tensions by having attacked its own people with tanks and warplanes "without any regard for any rules of war".

"There exists such a situation now right next to Turkey, that (Turkey) has to take its own measures...aimed at defence.

"If this measure is not needed then it will not be used, but if there is any kind of risk to Turkey's security, all kinds of steps will be taken, both within Turkey's national capacity and within the framework of Turkey's membership of NATO. Nobody should have a need to question this," Davutoglu added.

Russia, an ally of Assad and Syria's main arms supplier, has opposed the deployment of surface-to-air missiles. It is not a NATO member and cannot block alliance decisions, but planned talks with NATO on Friday about a move it argues "would not foster stability in the region."

Analysts Michael Stephens of the RUSI think-tank in Doha said Turkey's request was a symbolic gesture. He said the Patriot system would do little to stop incoming mortars.

"It could be a first step to a no-fly zone, but what does that take? NATO would need a mandate, which means a United Nations Security Council resolution, and Russia will obviously say no to that," said Stephens.

"This eases the pressure on Erdogan, who may be reluctant to further disrupt the (regional) balance of power. If the missiles are there, it takes the decision out of his hands and puts it on NATO."

With global powers in deadlock over how to defuse Syria's conflict, the number of dead is rising rapidly by the day. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 40,000 had died and the number may well be higher because both sides appeared to be under-reporting their casualties.

Erdogan has become a caustic critic of ex-ally Assad but stopped short of serious action to back the insurgents, although he has given them sanctuary on Turkish soil. For its part, Syria has shown few signs of outright aggression towards Turkey.

Rebels appear to have been advancing in recent weeks, seizing several military bases in the eastern Deir al-Zor province, northern Aleppo and even around the capital Damascus.

Their tactics have improved as they focus on controlling roads and choking off military sites. Recent rebel gains in the eastern oil-producing province of Deir al-Zor, including the capture of the Mayadeen artillery base on Thursday, have meant large amounts of weapons and a wider swathe of territory passing into insurgent hands.

But Assad's forces remain in the main city of the province, also called Deir al-Zor, and will be much harder to dislodge.

The insurgents still lack advanced heavy weaponry they need to oust Assad's well-armed troops ensconced in the main cities and remain vulnerable to increasingly frequent air strikes.

Many surface-to-air missiles seized in recent rebel raids appear to be missing some of the equipment needed to fire them, weapons analysts say. This means it is likely the rebels only have the means to fire a few anti-aircraft missiles at a time. Until those capabilities increase, the balance of power may stay the same.

"What you see in Deir al-Zor is a reflection of what is happening everywhere else. The rebels have made big advances in the countryside and even into the main city, but they cannot take it," Stephens said. "This is another brick the rebels have taken down, but it is not critical for toppling the regime."

Deir al-Zor province abuts the long Iraqi border but seizing the frontier may not offer the same advantages seen by rebels near the northern border with Turkey, where the fighters can go in and out easily.

Iraqis are slipping in to fight on both sides. Their loyalties are likely fall along the sectarian lines that have increasingly come to define the Syrian conflict.

Iraq's majority Shi'ite Muslims largely support Assad, whose Alawite minority, derived from Shi'ite Islam, has dominated the country since the president's late father seized power 42 years ago. Sunni Muslims in Iraq generally support the revolt, which is spearheaded by Syria's Sunni majority.

Assad met in Damascus on Friday with Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker of Iran, another major ally of Damascus, and said he was pursuing national dialogue at the same time that his forces were "fighting terrorism", which he said threatens to erode Syria's security as well as regional stability.





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