After weeks of rumors and some hemming and hawing, NATO officials began surveying possible sites on Tuesday for the deployment of Patriot missiles in Turkey. Despite the ludicrous claims of CHP opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu that Turkey is receiving Patriots now, rather than six months ago, as a result of negotiations with the Israeli government and that the Patriots are actually intended to intercept Iranian ballistic missiles headed to Israel, the deployment of Patriots is intended to assuage Turkish fears of Syrian aggression. Kılıçdaroğlu denied that there is any missile threat from Syria during his bashing of the government yesterday, which naturally led to his conspiracy theorizing about Turkey being in cahoots with Israel, but the fact remains that providing Ankara with some peace of mind is worth the cost irrespective of whether the threat from Syria is real or not. While the Patriots make no sense if Turkey is trying to mount a no-fly zone, they do provide protection from chemical weapons mounted on Scuds should Assad ever go that route and they symbolize a NATO commitment to Turkey, so this is a no-brainer from NATO’s perspective.
Now that the decision to station Patriots along the Syrian border appears to have been finalized, the next question is who will control them. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that NATO, and not Turkey, will command the Patriot batteries and decide if and when they will actually be used. This will no doubt cause some angst within Turkey, and the government will probably get hit hard by the nationalist MHP for letting an outside entity assume control over Turkey’s defense against Syria. In fact, Turkish defense minister Ismet Yılmaz has stressed that Turkish defense officials are among the people in the Patriots’ command center and Hüseyin Çelik has claimed that Turkey will be “holding the trigger” so it is obviously a sensitive topic.
Taking a step back though and looking at the wider goals, Turkey should actually be begging off from having to man the Patriot batteries or take any control over them at all. The reason for this is quite simple; if non-Turkish NATO troops are operating the Patriots and NATO is deciding when they should be used, the likelihood of deterring Assad – assuming that he can be deterred, which is a big if – from lobbing missiles toward Turkey or from shelling the Patriot positions is greatly magnified. This is the tripwire theory of deterrence, which purposely places troops in harm’s way in order to ensure that an offensive will be met with a forceful response. The prototypical example of this is the U.S. posture along the DMZ between South Korea and North Korea. Any move on Seoul by North Korea would cause huge U.S. casualties since there are nearly 30,000 American soldiers deliberately standing in the line of fire, and the theory behind this is that North Korea will not risk attacking South Korea since it would automatically embroil it in a war with the U.S. If Turkey is genuinely afraid of Syrian shelling and Syrian missiles, then the same principle applies here as well and Turkey should be doing everything it can to get as many foreign NATO soldiers stationed along its border as it can, since this will theoretically reduce the chances of the Syrian army mounting an assault on Turkey. Syria might think that Turkey is a paper tiger, but Assad is probably still clear-headed enough to realize that an attack that kills American or German troops operating Patriot batteries means full-blown NATO intervention, and that is an outcome that he desperately wants to avoid.
This is the subtext to Germany’s beseeching Turkey to pare down its demands for Patriots, as Germany, the U.S., and the Netherlands are the countries set to send Patriot batteries to the Syrian border. German troops are required to man the German Patriots, and Berlin has a general policy of not getting involved in international conflicts outside its borders, which is eminently understandable in light of WWI and WWII. The German government knows that it only takes one stray artillery shell to embroil Germany in a wider war with German troops so close to a hot border, and thus it would like to limit its commitment to filling Turkey’s missile defense request. Rather than arguing with NATO for a larger role, Ankara should be smart in realizing that the more foreign troops along the border, the safer Turkey will be. It is inevitable that Ankara wants to assert a strong nationalist posture when it comes to defense policy, but this is one instance in which Turkey might be better off swallowing its pride, since doing so will resound to its benefit.