In 1913, General Otto Liman von Sanders became the head of the German military mission to the Ottoman Empire, part of a long line of Prussian advisers to Ottoman forces. Almost exactly a century on, up to 400 of Sanders's successors will be making the same trip, this time accompanied by a Patriot missile defense system. It will be the third Patriot deployment to that country since the end of the Cold War.
The deployment is being heralded as a major development in the conflict within Syria, even being compared on Al Jazeera, quite absurdly, to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rumors -- some seemingly encouraged by Turkish officials, others by Russians -- have declared that this is the first step to the establishment of a no-fly zone. Others have suggested that the Patriots are the prelude to an Israeli strike on Iran. The truth, however, is much more prosaic.
As the Syrian civil war has intensified, to the point where the CIA estimates Assad has only a couple of months left, Turkey has grown increasingly anxious at the spillover and frustrated at its failure to make the case for overt military intervention.
Syria has one of the most formidable arrays of ballistic missiles in the region, built around the ubiquitous Scud. Syria's arsenal is mostly comprised of short-range missiles, each with limited numbers of launchers. There are no reliable public estimates for the size of Syria's inventory, but Turkey's foreign minister has put the number at 700.
But the road-mobile and liquid-fueled Scud-D has a range of 700 kilometers, capable of striking nearly all Turkish territory, including the capital Ankara, if fired from northern launching points. Northern Syria will likely slip out of Assad's hands in short course. Nonetheless, Ankara and other cities remain within range of western launch-points in the coastal areas, where the regime might find a stronger political base. Syria is also believed to possess an array of chemical weapons, some of which are alleged to have been prepared for use over the last week. There are conflicting assessments as to which of Syria's missiles are chemical-capable, but various U.S. government estimates suggest at least a portion of Syria's Scud force is equipped for the task.
Turkey's concerns are threefold. First, desperate regimes can make desperate choices. In 1991, Saddam Hussein fired 88 Scuds at Israel and coalition forces during the First Gulf War. Last year, Colonel Gaddafi fired a Scud-B at rebels in eastern Libya, just one week before his regime was deposed. Turkey, having hosted and helped arm the Syrian opposition on its soil, is a prime target. Second, Ankara may be concerned that Syrian missiles aimed at rebel-held positions near the northern border could overfly their targets and strike Turkish territory. Third, Turkey -- despite its threats of unilateral action -- has made it a priority to pull NATO into the conflict. Yet Turkey's allies are largely unaffected by issues such as Kurdish empowerment in Syria or mass refugee flows. Patriot deployment is a relatively simple means for NATO to demonstrate alliance solidarity and protect against remote but serious ballistic missile threats -- while minimizing its exposure to the civil war itself.
This is where the specific features of the Patriot become important. The Turkish Foreign Ministry is rumored to have leaked news that the Patriots were part of a broader plan to enforce a no-fly zone, a prospect that worried German legislators debating the deployment. Turkish officials appear to have made that leak partly to deter Syrian military action near the border area by generating further ambiguity over the status of airspace and the risk of escalation -- and to force NATO's hand by creating a diplomatic fait accompli.
In truth, the Patriot has a tightly circumscribed military role and is ill-suited for the expansive military intervention for which Turkey has been clamoring. The system is comprised of a ground-based radar and three generations of interceptor missiles, two of which -- the PAC-2/GEM and more advanced PAC-3 -- are employed for missile defense purposes.