In the control room at Incirlik Air Base, images from the previous night show two red dots, indicating ballistic missiles fired in Syria. The two missiles originated in the Homs region, but both landed well clear of the Turkish border. So far, "Fireball" — the term used to indicate a ballistic missile heading their way — has not been heard yet in any of the command centers.
The current mission, which employs six batteries of Patriot missiles—two each manned by German, U.S. and Dutch troops—is limited to intercepting ballistic missiles heading to main Turkish population centers in the south. Yet a debate is growing about whether the Patriot mission should be expanded from a solely defensive role to include the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Syria’s north. NATO members, however, have not tabled a formal request to expand the mission.
The cage rattling in the media isn’t new; ever since NATO announced it would grant Turkey’s request for Patriot missiles back in November there has been a constant debate about why they have been installed. The suggestion that the Patriots are be used to extend a no-fly zone into Syria has been offered on multiple occasions.
But last week saw an especially high volume. The most recent calls have come from U.S. politicians, Syrian opposition leaders and a former U.N. official. Last week Sen. Carl Levin, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain asked that the Patriot missiles be used to enforce such a zone. Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib also said he had previously extended such a request to Secretary of State John Kerry during a speech at the Arab League summit in Qatar on March 27. Norwegian Gen. Robert Mood, the head of last year’s U.N. monitoring mission in Syria, is the latest to join the fray. He called for a no-fly zone and to “consider whether the Patriots in Turkey could have a role also in taking on some responsibility for the northern part of Syria," on the BBC on March 28.
The announcements follow a briefing from NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, James Stavridis, at which he said the Patriots would be able to shoot down Syrian military aircraft in a radius of 32 km (19.88 miles) within Syrian territory.
“That’s not what we are here for,” counters the person who would be in charge of executing such an order, Colonel Marcel Buis. He is the head of the Dutch mission stationed at Incirlik. Buis concurs the Patriot missiles would be able to deploy in an anti-aircraft capacity but, as the political mandate is lacking, it is impossible for the missiles to be used in such a way.
The Turks had initially requested that 20 batteries be deployed, but NATO found six to be sufficient. The mission is so strictly defined that troops are not even allowed to attack missiles bound for Turkish soil beyond their assigned area — which, in their case, is Adana — say Dutch military personnel. “If they fall on Hatay, we won’t do anything,” said Major Frank Dijkmans, who works in the control room at Incirlik.
As for a no-fly zone, Dutch troops manning the Patriot missile batteries say they are more than able to shoot planes out of the sky; indeed, it is what they are trained for. “We can do much more than our current mission entails,” says Nick Hoetjes, who heads one of Patriot firing units. He completed a 40-week training course, and has been training for this moment for two years. “The big challenge with airplanes is to quickly determine whether they are friendly or not.”
Colonel Buis agrees that the system could be up to the job. “In terms of the capacity of the weapons system: yes, if required it can shoot down planes; it can shoot down missiles. So the technical capacity is there, but we are not using it because that’s not what we are here for.”
Furthermore, in their current positions, the Dutch are too far removed from the Syrian border to be employed in a no-fly zone capacity. “We are at a considerable distance from the border with Syria. That distance is too great. We wouldn’t be able to fire [at planes in Syria] from here,” says Buis. The German deployment would also only be able to reach a very small sliver of Syria. The only Patriots able to actively enforce a limited no-fly zone so would be the two U.S. batteries stationed at Gaziantep, which could provide the 32-kilometer radius Gen.l Stavridis mentioned.
Stavridis explicitly advocates the Patriots being used for such a mission. "My personal opinion is that it would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the Assad regime," Stavridis told the Armed Service Committee on March 19. As to the effectiveness of employing Patriot missiles to enforce a no-fly zone, he said. “I think whenever aircraft are shot down, that is a powerful disincentive.”
But such a suggestion overlooks several crucial factors. First of all, the German and Dutch parliament have provided an extremely narrow mandate for the use of their missiles, which explicitly rules out a no-fly zone. All NATO members would have to agree on the establishment of a new mission, and the Dutch and German parliaments would have to sign off on their troops being used for such a mission. Taking into account both parliaments' insistence on excluding that option in the initial deployment, this seems unlikely.
In addition to the political hurdles, the cost and ability of such missiles must also be taken into account. Patriot missiles cost between 3 and 4 million dollars apiece, in comparison to 1 or 2 million for conventional airborne missiles such as those used during NATO’s operations in Libya. PAC-2 missiles, which destroy their target using shrapnel, are most effective against aircraft, while the new PAC-3 missiles are specifically designed to combat ballistic missiles. Most of the Patriots are loaded with a combination of the two, though the Germans have only deployed PAC-3 missiles.
The limited batteries currently deployed can only hold between 24 and 96 interceptor missiles, argue Shashonk Joshi and Aaron Stein in a recent article in the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute. “Even if one accepts that Turkey may be sent additional spare interceptors, expending this limited stockpile on Syrian aircraft might leave Turkey vulnerable to ballistic missile salvos, something that would defeat the primary purpose of the Patriot deployment,” they wrote.
Furthermore, the Patriots are not the most effective way to stop the slaughter, argues Aaron Stein, a researcher at the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul. The greatest threat so far has been posed by artillery, which routinely crosses the Turkish border too. “You’re not going to stop the shelling without giving close air support to the rebels,” says Stein. This is also what causes a great deal of the carnage on the ground. "Scuds are awful, but even if you were to have a no-fly zone over the Syrian side that is not augmented by close air support with aircraft, Assad’s tanks, Assad’s artillery pieces, would still be able to rain down on these pockets the rebels have carved out,” he told Al-Monitor.
As to why the no-fly zone keeps popping up in policy debates and the press, Colonel Buis says it’s down to a lack of knowledge. “If you don’t have enough knowledge of the weapons system and what it’s capable of, and if you don’t know what the politicians have decided, then these kind of things keep rearing their head,” he said. Many politicians are not exactly up to speed on the technical specifications of the missiles, adds Stein. Mood and Stavridis, however, should know better.
Meanwhile, the White House and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen have reiterated their stance that the Patriot missiles have been deployed for defensive purposes, ruling out military intervention. An official request by a NATO member, such as Turkey, to discuss the issue has also failed to materialize. “This no-fly zone is just not going to happen,” says Stein.
Fernande van Tets is a journalist based in Beirut. She has written for the Economist, the Interdependent and Executive Magazine, as well as being regularly featured in Dutch national newspapers such as Trouw and het Parool. Follow her on Twitter @fernandevtets.