Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1124, 29 November - 5 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Patriots on the border

Turkey finds itself in a tug-of-war between NATO, Russia and Iran, reports Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

The attention in the Turkish media accorded to Turkey’s Jafari Shia community on Friday as it commemorated Ashoura, the annual mourning of the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed, at the battle of Karbala, is remarkable. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) deserves at least some of the credit for this. Since coming to power in 2003 it has taken concrete steps to demonstrate its openness to ethnic and religious minorities, of which there are many in Anatolia. But more amazing on this occasion was that Ali Larijani, the current speaker of parliament in Iran, took part in the commemorations, during which he delivered a speech in which he did not omit words of condemnation for the world’s “false idol”. However, the speaker of the Iranian speaker of the Majlis was primarily in Turkey for talks with regard to Syria.

“The deployment of Patriot missile systems on Turkish territory will not be conducive to solving the Syrian crisis,” Larijani said in a brief statement delivered to the Turkish ATV news station before heading off to Dolmabahçe Palace for a meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. No statement was issued following the talks, which lasted two hours, but it was reported that Hakan Fidan, chief of Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency, had sped to the famous palace on the banks of the Bosphorus to attend the meeting.

Naturally, the talks brought no substantive change in Ankara’s position toward the Syrian regime and on the deployment of the missiles along the border with Syria. But, as a gesture of diplomatic courtesy, Erdogan made a point of stressing, in the presence of his Iranian guest, that the Patriots were solely to defend Turkish territory and would not be used in any offensive operation against Syria.

For the most part, Turkish officials have been quite tight-lipped on the matter of the missiles. For several months, specifically since Syrian anti-aircraft missiles downed the Turkish F-4 fighter plane over the Mediterranean in June, Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu has engaged in a series of secret talks on the subject in Brussels with the secretary-general of NATO. Although Ankara had not yet made its request official at that time, it had initiated discussions on the possibility of deploying Patriot missiles in order to safeguard its border with Syria. The request became official in October after several missiles from Syria landed in Turkey. As tensions between the two countries soared, fears began to mount in Ankara that the Bashar Al-Assad regime might resort to a scorched earth policy towards Turkey and dispatch a barrage of missiles carrying chemical warheads.

A major reason why Turkey has been generally vague and evasive on the subject of its request from NATO was that it wanted to avoid stirring the alarm or anger of other neighbours, notably Iran and Russia. Neither Tehran nor Moscow are keen to see a missile shield installed in the southern Turkish province of Malatya. But recently Prime Minister Erdogan broke the silence with the announcement that his government had “responded to a request from NATO” to deploy a missile shield in Turkey and that the Patriots are due to arrive on 12 December.

On Monday, a multinational delegation of 35 experts, mostly from the US, the Netherlands and Germany, arrived in Turkey to begin surveys and other fieldwork to identify the locations and prepare the ground for the missiles. So far it looks like there will be six missile batteries that will be distributed between Diyarbakir (where the Second Air Command base is located), Malatya (headquarters of the Second Army Regiment) and Urfa which is located on the border with Syria. Between 250 and 300 NATO military experts are expected to take part in the training on how to use the missile batteries. Again, in order to allay the anxieties of other governments, the Turkish chief of General Staff announced four days ago that the missile system was solely for defence purposes and that it would not be used to “support a no-fly zone or any offensive operation” against Syria.

Such reassurances did nothing to stem the reactions that Turkish officials had anticipated and that quickly became headline news in the Turkish press and media. Russian Foreign Ministry spokespersons issued stern statements criticising the deployment of the missile system. It would only exacerbate the deterioration of the situation in Syria, they said, adding pointedly that the Turkish government should be more serious in its efforts to play a constructive role, which would be to persuade the Turkish opposition and the Free Syria Army to sit down with the Syrian government and begin a dialogue. This would be more beneficial for the Syrian people than missiles, they said.

The Patriot missiles are certain to top the agenda of talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish officials during his forthcoming one-day visit to Turkey on 3 December. Some observers also believe that Moscow may threaten to obstruct the flow of natural gas to Turkey at the outset of this winter season and that it may deploy other pressure cards as well.

Negative reactions did not only hail from abroad. Inside Turkey a gamut of opposition parties harshly criticised the missile shield, warning that it would drag the country into a proxy war against Syria. There was no need whatsoever for NATO intervention in the Syrian crisis, they added. Many critics also complained of the extreme stress and anxiety being inflicted on the people in the border area as the result of the F-16s flying over their towns and villages, sometimes at very low altitudes. The sense of alarm was heightened recently when missiles from the Syrian side landed on the outskirts of Yayladagy, a town in the Hatay province.

To make matters worse, it was announced anti-terrorist units had arrested persons that had been infiltrating across the Turkish-Syrian border. Until now, no official comments or statements have been issued with regard to the interrogation of reportedly dozens of Americans and Germans. However, some security experts believe that this cross border infiltration activity is connected to Turkey’s plans to install a Patriot missile shield. Perhaps this incident offers a small glimpse into some of the dimensions of the troubles that might plague Turkey if it gets sucked further into a crisis that could have handled differently.

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