I coauthored this post with my good friend, colleague, and former intern, Michael Koplow. He writes his own terrific blog: ottomansandzionists.com.
Wednesday saw a strange confluence of events surrounding Turkey and its oft-stated determination to intervene in Syria with the help of its Western allies. It began with an unnamed Turkish Foreign Ministry official – presumably Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu – revealing that there have been talks between Turkey and the United States about deploying Patriot missile batteries on the Syrian border. According to this report, the purpose of the Patriots would be to create a safe zone inside of Syria as a way of supporting a limited no-fly zone. This report would have been unusual by itself given that Patriot missiles are an odd vehicle to use for creating a no-fly zone, but it was particularly puzzling given Prime Minister Erdoğan’s statement the day before explicitly disavowing any Turkish intentions to buy Patriot missiles. More drama ensued after Davutoğlu was identified as the official claiming that a NATO deployment of Patriots was imminent, with the Foreign Ministry subsequently denying that Davutoğlu had ever made such a claim.
There are a couple of things here that don’t quite seem right. First, Patriot missiles are not what one would typically use to enforce or support a no-fly zone. Patriots are defensive weapons, designed to shoot down incoming missiles and not fix-winged aircraft or helicopters. Their deployment would only make sense if Ankara were concerned about a barrage of Syria’s Scud missiles tipped with chemical weapons—a largely theoretical threat. Second, despite the calls for intervention in Syria from some quarters of Washington, the Obama administration has been reluctant to get involved in Syria beyond technical support that may or may not include small arms. Anonymous reports coming out of Turkey the day after the election claiming that the U.S. and NATO are now about to prepare for staging a no-fly zone seem a little more than idle chatter. Neither the White House nor the State Department nor the Pentagon have demonstrated any appetite for getting involved in Syria, with its layers of political, sectarian, and regional complexities that could suck Washington into yet another long-term military and diplomatic commitment in the Muslim world. Against this backdrop, the recent meeting that the United States orchestrated in Doha to broaden the Syrian opposition was an effort to preclude a greater American involvement in Syria’s civil war.
The deployment of the Patriots is likely a precursor to no new initiative, but rather has more to do with U.S. and NATO relations with Turkey. Ankara, incapable of managing the Syrian crisis on its own, has continually sought to involve Western powers in a greater way. For much of the past year, Prime Minister Erdoğan has been attempting to drum up support for outside intervention by threatening to unilaterally create a buffer zone inside Syria, making noise about invoking NATO Article 5, calling out the U.S. for dragging its feet while Assad butchers his own people, and implying that NATO is in danger of losing its credibility as the Syrian civil war drags on. Despite a combination of public and private cajoling, Erdoğan has made little headway, and Wednesday’s barrage of leaks and half-truths fits into the pattern of doing anything possible to pull the U.S. into Syria one way or another. By making it seem as if a no-fly zone is a fait accompli, Ankara is hoping to create enough momentum to spur some real action. Yet rather than respond to the Turkish government’s posturing and efforts to shame the United States and NATO into taking Turkey’s preferred course, Ankara’s allies have sought to placate it with a symbolic dispatch of largely useless weapons.
Overall, the announcement that Patriots will be deployed to Turkey fits a pattern that has developed in Turkey’s relations with its traditional partners, who have sought to keep Ankara minimally satisfied without actually having to commit much of anything to Syria. If scattering Patriot missile batteries along the Turkish-Syrian border is the price of keeping Turkey temporarily happy, it’s a pretty small price to pay, and certainly nothing compared to the cost of actually intervening in Syria.