NATO plans to bolster Turkey’s air defense at Syrian border

Meeting in Brussels, NATO foreign ministers have agreed that the situation on Turkey’s border with Syria and Iraq is “highly unstable” and committed to bolster Turkey’s air defense, amid efforts to defuse tensions between Turkey and Russia after Ankara shot down a Russian jet last week due to an airspace violation.

Attending the Brussels meeting, US Secretary of State John Kerry also said on Wednesday that Turkey and the US will consult on how air and ground forces will cooperate to close the Syrian-Turkish border as well. US President Barack Obama on Tuesday called on Turkey to do a better job of sealing its Syrian border.

NATO allies plan to send patrol aircraft and missiles to boost Ankara’s air defense, after the decision by Germany and the US to remove their Patriot missile batteries from Turkey. Spain is the only NATO ally that has Patriots in Turkey’s Adana province.

“We must make full use of the capabilities we have to counter threats on NATO’s southern flank,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told Reuters in Brussels during meetings with other NATO foreign ministers, as offers of ships and aircraft began to trickle in from allies.

“We must support our ally Turkey,” he said. Diplomats said measures are likely to include more ships from NATO members in the eastern Mediterranean, more NATO planes based at the Turkish base in Incirlik and more missile defense batteries in addition to that of Spain. Foreign ministers said in a statement that the situation on Turkey’s border with Syria and Iraq was “highly unstable” and committed to increase Turkey’s air defenses, which they described as “assurance measures.”

“We remain determined … to continue developing additional NATO assurance measures and allies are working to prepare other possible contributions,” the ministers’ statement said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he expected a decision on a package “within weeks” but sought to portray the reinforcements as separate from Russia’s air incursions and called for Russia and Turkey to seek a solution to the tensions.

Interceptor jets

NATO deployed its Patriot surface-to-air missiles along the border in January 2013 to shoot down any missiles from Syria’s conflict fired into Turkish territory. Ankara had appealed to the alliance to maintain the defenses even before the flare-up of tensions with Russia over airspace violations.

Turkey shot down a Russian bomber in its airspace on Nov. 24, the first known incident of its kind since the Cold War and one that has deeply strained ties between Turkey and Russia.

Moscow, which denies violating Turkish airspace, has responded to the incident by announcing it will deploy its advanced S-400 missile defense system that can hit missiles and aircraft up to 400 kilometers (250 miles) away.

Russian news agencies also reported that Su-34 fighter bombers were in action in Syria on Monday for the first time, equipped with air-to-air missiles for self-defense.

While the Turkish air force has shown it is capable of intercepting Russian jets on bombing raids in Syria that stray into Turkish airspace, ministers say sending military support to Turkey is also designed to reassure Ankara and calm tensions.

Some, including Germany and the Netherlands, want Turkey and NATO headquarters to discuss the air incursions with Russia.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders told reporters that NATO and Russia need to talk to avoid military confrontations.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for NATO envoys to hold a special meeting with Russia. Such meetings were suspended by NATO foreign ministers in April last year after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula.

So far, the United States has moved special fighter jets designed to intercept bombers and reconnaissance aircraft to the Turkish NATO air base at Incirlik, while Britain has said it will also send jets to the region once NATO’s decision is formalized.

Germany and Denmark are sending ships to the NATO fleet in the eastern Mediterranean. NATO could also send its surveillance planes, called Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), which can be used to direct air fights, too.

The German cabinet approved plans on Tuesday to commit up to 1,200 soldiers to support the international coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria.

The mandate still requires parliamentary clearance, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition has a huge majority and its approval looks assured. Senior lawmakers from her conservative bloc expected a vote on Friday.

Following the Paris attacks, Merkel agreed to honor a request from France to provide support for its operations against ISIL in Syria.

Germany plans to send up to six Tornado reconnaissance planes, tanker aircraft and a frigate to help protect the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the eastern Mediterranean, but won’t actively engage in combat.

Two Tornados and a tanker could be sent to Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base next week if parliamentary approval comes this week, though for logistical reasons reconnaissance flights won’t start before January, Defense Ministry spokesman Jens Flosdorff said.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the daily Bild that he doesn’t expect Germany to have 1,200 soldiers participating at any one time. He said that upper limit includes a significant “safety buffer.”

“We are doing what is militarily needed, what we can do best and can accept politically,” he said.

Left-leaning opposition parties in parliament are deeply skeptical, questioning whether there is sufficient legal basis for the move.

“The legal question is not the only one,” Simone Peter, a leader of the Greens, told ARD television. “We say clearly that this deployment also has no political aim, no political concept, and so it is irresponsible.”

The German military’s biggest current foreign deployment is in NATO’s Resolute Support training mission in Afghanistan, where it has just under 1,000 troops. It had some 5,000 soldiers there at the height of the previous combat mission.

Germany also asked Turkey to allow access to Incirlik Air Base in Adana province for its military jets, according to a report by the Hurriyet daily. Turkey has already allowed access to the US military jets as part of the US-led campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria and is expected to allow German jets access as well.

Germany’s defense minister is due for talks in Turkey on Thursday as Berlin considers sending aircraft to Incirlik Air Base as part of operations to confront ISIL, Reuters reported based on diplomatic sources on Wednesday.

“Turkey’s approval and an agreement is necessary before we can deploy German planes to Incirlik Air Base and the final decision has not been made,” one source said.

During her visit, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is expected to discuss both the fight against ISIL and the Vienna talks aimed at forging a political breakthrough in the wider Syria conflict after nearly five years of bloodletting.

French President Francois Hollande has also intensified efforts in the fight against ISIL. He ordered the dispatch of aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to the eastern Mediterranean. According to Hurriyet, France also asked Ankara to receive logistic support from Turkey’s Tasucu port in Mersin province for its aircraft carrier, as well as access for its military jets to Incirlik Air Base.

Kerry met on Tuesday with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to continue the discussion US President Barack Obama had in Paris with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the sidelines of global climate change talks. According to a statement from the US Department of State, the two ministers discussed shared efforts to increase contributions to the coalition against ISIL and the next steps in the Vienna political process. The statement indicated that Cavusoglu briefed Kerry on Turkish outreach to Russia, which Kerry encouraged.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Tuesday said Washington would deploy a new force of special operations troops to Iraq to combat ISIL militants who have seized swathes of Iraq and neighboring Syria. The Iraqi government was fully briefed on US plans to deploy American special forces to Iraq and the two governments will consult closely on where they will go and what they will do, Kerry said on Wednesday.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office said it welcomed foreign assistance, but Iraq’s government would need to approve any deployment of special operations forces anywhere in Iraq. He also said foreign ground combat troops were not needed in Iraq, although it was unclear whether Baghdad viewed these US special operations forces in that role.

“The government of Iraq was of course briefed in advance of Secretary Carter’s announcement,” Kerry told reporters at NATO.

“We will continue to work very, very closely with our Iraqi partners on exactly who would be deployed, where they would be deployed, what kinds of missions people would undertake, how they would support Iraqi efforts to degrade and destroy ISIL.”

Kerry also said the US had asked other members of the 28-nation Western security alliance to provide special operations forces to provide such things as police training, ammunition and other items to Syria’s neighbors.

“There are various ways in which countries can contribute. They don’t necessarily have to be troops [engaged in] kinetic action,” Kerry said.