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Originally published December 3, 2012 at 7:11 PM | Page modified December 4, 2012 at 5:58 AM

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NATO plans missile defenses in Turkey to counter possible Syrian attacks

NATO is expected Tuesday to endorse deploying U.S., German and Dutch Patriot missile-defense batteries to buttress Turkey against potential attack from Syria.

The New York Times

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BRUSSELS — NATO's plan to buttress Turkey against potential attack from Syria calls for deploying U.S., German and Dutch Patriot missile-defense batteries under the operational control of the alliance's military command, Western officials said Monday.

The plan, which is expected to be endorsed by NATO's foreign ministers when they meet in Brussels on Tuesday, would be the most direct action in the Syrian conflict yet by an alliance that has remained cautious about intervention there.

The move has been given added impetus by reports in recent days of increased activity at some of Syria's chemical-weapons sites, officials said. For months, Turkey has expressed growing concerns about the potential of missile attacks from Syria as relations between the two countries have worsened, and last month it requested the deployment of Patriot batteries.

A senior NATO official said the political strategy was for the alliance to declare its support for Turkey's request for help in strengthening its air defenses and to welcome the intention of the three allied nations that have Patriot missile batteries to deploy the systems in Turkey. It then would be up to the United States, Germany and the Netherlands to decide how many batteries to deploy and how long they should stay.

Surveys are being conducted of 10 potential sites, mostly in southeastern Turkey, each of which could be defended by one or more Patriot batteries. But the alliance does not have enough batteries to cover all of the sites, so fewer sites will be protected, the NATO official added, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

A senior U.S. official traveling to the NATO meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday said it probably would take several weeks to deploy the missile-defense systems in Turkey.

The Patriot batteries, the official said, would be configured to defend against a ballistic-missile attack from Syria.

In an anti-missile mode, the Patriot missiles fired by the batteries would have a range of 16 miles, which means they would not be able to cross into Syrian airspace.

The move to deploy the Patriots has spurred speculation among some experts who favor greater international involvement in the conflict in Syria that it might be an indirect means to extend protection to the forces opposing President Bashar Assad in northern Syria by programming the batteries to target Syrian warplanes that are mounting attacks in that part of the country.

But NATO and U.S. officials were adamant that that was not the purpose of the Patriot deployments, and that the point would be made explicit when the action was approved.

"There is no safe haven," the senior U.S. official said, referring to proposals by nongovernmental experts that the Patriots be used to protect northern Syria. "There is no de facto cross-border aspect to this."

The possible establishment of a no-flight zone in Syria, officials added, is not on NATO's agenda this week. In essence, the purpose of the Patriot deployment at this stage, officials said, is to contain the crisis in Syria. By deploying the Patriot batteries, NATO is seeking to discourage Syria from threatening Turkey for its support of Syrian insurgents. At the same time, the alliance is sending a message to Turkey that it has NATO's support and, thus, should not feel pressured to intervene in Syria to head off attacks against its territory, officials said.

Once deployed, the batteries would be under the operational control of NATO's top military commander, Adm. James Stavridis. So the United States, which has been extremely cautious in its policy toward Syria, and other NATO members would maintain control.

The Turkish military, which has been seeking support for the Patriot deployment from NATO, despite the alliance's wariness about getting involved in the Syrian conflict, made a similar point in a statement Monday, asserting that deployment was "a measure entirely aimed at defense."

The Turkish-Syria border has been tense, with Syrian artillery fire striking Turkish territory. On Monday, a Syrian airstrike on a Syrian town near the border prompted Turkey to scramble F-16 fighters, Reuters reported.

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