As the fighting in Syria continues to rage, the United States and NATO have reportedly ordered the deployment of two Patriot missile batteries and 400 American troops to Turkey. The small force could be there as soon as mid-January.
The missiles and troops will be under the overall control of NATO. But the missiles will be operated by U.S. forces with the ability to choose whether to override computer systems that automatically order firing against any incoming Scud missiles, according to U.S. military officials.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that he had signed orders for the Patriot missiles, emphasizing that he was sending a clear message to Syria that NATO will defend Turkey.
Syrian rocket and artillery fire have landed in Turkey and Syria has launched short range Scuds close to the Turkish border.
“We’ve made very clear to them that were going to protect countries in this region,” Panetta said. “We have to act to do what we have to do to make sure that we defend ourselves and make sure that Turkey can defend itself.”
Turkey asked for Patriot missiles as a defensive measure after several Turkish civilians were killed in cross border incidents.
But the recent Scud firings also clearly changed the alliance’s view of the risks on the expanding battlefield.
“Scuds, which are medium surface-to-surface missiles, are particularly worrisome because they can carry chemical payloads,” said Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, in a posting on his blog.
Stavridis said the missiles will “protect major population centers in Turkey from any possible incursions into NATO airspace.”
The 400 U.S. troops will comprise all support elements, including communications, intelligence and basic supply and transportation forces.
Could this be the full extent of America’s physical presence in the Syrian conflict, or is this a sign of more things to come?