ANKARA, (Reuters) – Turkish President Abdullah Gul confirmed on Thursday that Ankara was in talks with NATO about deploying a defence system on its soil to counter a potential missile threat from Syria.
NATO-member Turkey has already bolstered its own military presence along the 910-km (560-mile) border and has been responding in kind to mortar shells hitting its territory as a result of fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels.
A senior Turkish foreign ministry official told Reuters on Wednesday Ankara would be imminently lodging an official request with NATO to station Patriot missiles along the shared border to guard against more violence spilling over.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Gul said Turkey had no intention of going to war with Syria but that it wanted to take steps against any possible threat from its southern neighbour.
“When these type of potential dangers are out there, all the necessary precautions are taken. One of these precautions is to take measures to counter ballistic missiles, medium and short-range missiles,” Gul told reporters.
“Therefore, for defensive purposes … these types of contingency plans, have for a long time been considered within NATO,” he said.
The alliance has deployed Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Turkey twice before, once in 1991 and later in 2003, during both Gulf Wars. The missiles were provided by the Netherlands.
NATO says it has not yet received a request from Turkey but that it would consider any demand at the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s most senior political governing body.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Wednesday that the issue of Patriot missiles had been discussed within NATO for “some time” and that a request from Turkey to deploy them would not be “surprising”.
“As you know, in the past we have reinforced Turkey with Patriots. So we will await a formal request and then NATO will deliberate. But we’re obviously looking at the full range of things to ensure that Turkey remains safe and secure,” she said.
Turkey is becoming increasingly concerned about security along its shared border with Syria and has already summoned its NATO allies twice this year over the issue, saying the alliance had a duty to protect its own frontier.
Turkey’s military has been firing at government military targets inside Syria in response to mortar rounds launched from its southern neighbour that have landed on its own soil since five civilians were killed in a Turkish border town last month.
In the latest cross-border incident, two Turkish civilians were wounded on Thursday by gunfire from Syria in the border town of Ceylanpinar in southern Hatay province, a Turkish official said.
The two civilians, a woman and a young man, were struck by stray bullets fired from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain just across the border where Syrian rebels are fighting government forces.
Turkey’s Chief-of-Staff has said his troops would respond “with greater force” if shells continued to land in Turkey, and parliament last month authorised the deployment of troops beyond Turkey.
But Ankara is reluctant to take any unilateral military action inside Syria and while Washington has vowed to stand by Ankara, it has found itself increasingly isolated and frustrated by a lack of international consensus on how to end the conflict.
Ankara has this year twice invoked Article 4 of the NATO charter which provides for consultations when a member state feels that its territorial integrity, political independence or security is under threat.
Turkey, which turned against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after the popular revolt against him began last year, has allowed Syrian rebels to organise on Turkish soil and is sheltering more than 110,000 Syrian refugees in camps.