NATO preparations to help shield Turkish territory from potential Syrian aerial attacks gained new backing Friday as the U.S. announced it is sending two batteries of defensive Patriot missiles to Turkey.
During a visit to a U.S. base in Turkey, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he is ordering the missiles and 400 military personnel be sent to Turkey. The Patriot missile units will be sent from Germany and the Netherlands.
"We are deploying two Patriot batteries here to Turkey, along with the troops that are necessary to man those batteries, so that we can help Turkey have the kind of missile defense it may very well need in dealing with threats that come out of Syria," Panetta told American troops at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey.
The German parliament approved the missiles' transfer by a wide majority on Friday, and NATO welcomed the U.S. announcement.
The missiles will be under NATO's control. They are scheduled to be operational by late January.
The action comes after reports this week that Damascus began using missiles against Syrian rebels across the Turkish border.
U.S. officials say Syrian troops fired Scud missiles at opposition forces Wednesday - their first use of those weapons in recent days, and an escalation of President Bashar al-Assad's fight against a 21-month rebellion. Syria denied Thursday that it had fired any Scuds.
Hopwever, Turkey has long feared that an increasingly desperate Assad government may resort to striking Turkish targets with its Russian-designed missiles and warplanes, in retaliation for Ankara's hosting and support of Syrian rebels and refugees.
IHS Jane's analyst Ben Goodlad says Syria has about 550 Scud missiles with a range of up to 800 kilometers.
Turkey won approval from other members of the NATO alliance last week for deployment of the U.S.-made Patriot missiles to its southeastern region. The Patriot is a ground-based defense system that fires missiles to intercept airborne threats, either from aircraft or ballistic missiles.
Speaking by telephone from Brussels, a NATO official said the alliance expects the three nations to start shipping the large and heavy missiles to Turkey quickly. He said the costs of transporting and operating the Patriot systems will be borne by contributing governments, a typical practice in NATO missions. The Dutch government has estimated the cost of its two-battery mission in Turkey at $55 million for one year.
The NATO official said Turkey will cover "host nation" expenses such as electricity, accommodation and food for the hundreds of foreign troops needed to run the batteries.
Turkish and NATO officials have been in talks to finalize the locations of the Patriot units. A NATO survey team visited southeastern Turkey late last month and early this month to scout possible sites, including key population centers and civilian and military installations.
The NATO team visited Adana's Sakirpasa civilian airport and Incirlik NATO air force base, Iskenderun's commercial port, naval and army bases, a radar site at Kisecik village near Antakya, and air bases in Malatya and Diyarbakir.
Ben Goodlad said he expects at least one Patriot unit to be deployed around Diyarbakir, a major city in southern Syria about 100 kilometers from the Syrian border.
Patriot interceptors can hit incoming missiles up to 20 kilometers from a launching station. Goodlad said that means the launchers need to be relatively close to population centers to protect them from missile attacks.
He said the interceptors also can target hostile aircraft as far as 160 kilometers away, enabling a Diyarbakir-based battery to shield much of Turkey's border region from possible Syrian air strikes.
For those reasons, Goodlad said there is little need to deploy Patriot units right along Turkey's more sparsely populated border with Syria. Russia, a longtime Assad ally, has expressed concern that positioning the interceptors on the border could threaten Syria and exacerbate the situation.
"NATO is keen not to position its batteries on the border itself in order to maintain a defensive posture, rather than being viewed as an aggressive move toward Syria," Goodlad said.
The NATO official said the alliance expects that any intercepts of Syrian ballistic missiles would occur over Turkish territory.
"But the precise intercept location depends on many factors, including when the attacking missile is detected, and where the closest Patriot battery is," he noted.