After months of bluster, and repeated threats to intervene in Syria, Turkey may be preparing to try and implement a no-fly-zone. The plan, as it has been reported, is to use Patriot to deter Syrian aircraft from entering airspace on or near the Turkish-Syrian border. The Patriot is an anti-balistic missile system designed to track and intercept long range missiles. The PAC-3 missile uses hit-to-kill technology – meaning that the missile’s warhead does not explode, but rather destroys the missile and its accompanying warhead (everyone hopes) – with kinetic energy. Patriot has a mixed track record in combat. The PAC-2 – the previous incarnation – was rushed into deployment during the first Gulf War. It was deployed in Israel and Saudi Arabia to defend against Iraqi scuds. Unfortunately, the anti-missile system was unable to intercept any of Iraq’s scuds and it was consistently confused by their irregular ballistic trajectories and by their break up upon atmospheric re-entry. (For the missile defense nerds out there, the break up mimicked the deployment of missile countermeasures – the foil for the SM-3 and the PAC-3). During the 2003 invasion, the PAC-3 shot down all nine of Iraq’s ballistic missiles that it chose to engage. However, Iraq used lower and slower flying ballistic missiles, which made the Patriot’s job a bit easier.
I remain skeptical that the PAC-3 will be used for the implementation of any type of “zone” on the border. One PAC-3 canister holds 4 interceptors and each missile costs $3.4 million dollars. The Netherlands, which loaned Turkey its interceptors in 1991 and 2003 , only has 32 PAC-3s. Therefore, the cost of using the PAC-3 becomes a very resource intense operation. NATO could augment the PAC-3s, which would be used for missile defense, with the older PAC-2 interceptor. This could allow a future coalition to deploy more missiles on or near the border. This would also allow them to have more missiles at their disposal and to deploy more batteries. This would allow for greater coverage over a wider area and help deter Syrian aircraft from entering the covered area. For now, the information about which missile is being deployed has not been released. Moreover, Turkish Prime Minster Erdogan’s curious reaction to the news about the Patriot, suggests that he is not too keen on the idea of a large NATO military footprint on the Turkish border.
In either case, Patriot does nothing to combat Assad’s artillery. In the best case scenario, Patriot, Turkey’s border deployed surface to air missiles, and NATO aircraft, ends Assad’s use of aircraft. However, the rebels would still continue to be outgunned on the ground and have no defense against the Syrian army’s heavy weapons. This would likely give way to mission creep – meaning that the NATO coalition would begin to have to target artillery, which would require violating Syrian airspace and, eventually, give close air support to the rebels. So far, no one – and I mean no one – is advocating this type of action.
However, the Patriot deployment could also be seen as the precursor to some sort of multi-lateral intervention. In this scenario, the United States’ recent efforts to unite the Syrian opposition, combined with the UK announcement that it was ready to engage with the armed rebels, could signal a willingness in the West to do more to bring about Assad’s downfall. If this is the case, one could argue that the West is taking its first baby steps towards arming the opposition. To help cope with the fall out, Turkey, therefore, has asked for the PAC-3 to protect itself against the potential of Syrian deterioration and the threats posed by Assad’s scud missiles. The PAC-2s, meanwhile, would be used to augment Turkish air defense against aircraft. Again, this is a hypothetical because no information has been released about which missile will be deployed.
This scenario, however, remains contingent on the Syrian opposition uniting. Given the news coming out of Doha today, the possibility of greater Western arms flowing to the rebels, remains very very remote. These confluence of factors suggest a number of different alternative explanations for Turkey’s decision to ask for Patriot:
1) Ankara, in collaboration with its international partners, are putting in place the infrastructure to enforce some sort of “zone” along the border (We will have to wait and see which missile is being deployed and in what numbers before making a judgement about this.)
2) Turkey is worried about the potential for Assad to use chemical weapons and is taking steps to defend against possible missile strikes. (Certainly)
3) NATO is working together to put in place the pieces to deepen cooperation with the rebels and Patriot is a passive defensive measure to ensure that Turkey is protected against further escalation in Syria. (Certainly)
4) NATO is eager to reassure Turkey and is deploying the missiles as a symbol of its commitment to Turkish defense. (Without question)
To date, nothing is really clear. However, the options being discussed should be expanded to take into account the implications of military action. Thus far, the discussion has focused solely on what the deployment of Patriot means, without mentioning the system’s limitations. Deploying Patriot, within the context of establishing a “zone”, is a very big step. If true, Ankara is admitting that it is prepared to shoot down Syrian aircraft from Turkish territory in Syrian airspace. Absent some sort of international backing, whether it be from the UN Security Council, NATO, or the Arab League, this type of action could be considered an act of war. To date, none of these organizations have expressed any willingness to further entangle themselves in an intervention and Turkey has made clear – in actions and in words – that it favors multi-lateral action. Therefore, we will have to wait and see what happens next, before jumping to conclusions about the “zone.” The first tip off will be the type and number of missiles. Stay tuned . . .