NATO ‘missile game’ in Turkey

Some of the greatest resistance to NATO’s current missile proposal advanced by the United States is coming from military people in the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), albeit there is no uniform opinion on how to proceed.

Invoking the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis during which US-made missiles positioned in Turkey were used as bargaining chips against the Soviets, these people are expressing strong reservations about the dependency of the Turkish defense shield on Americans. The argument is not without merits as it recalls the secret deal made by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who told Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin through back channels that “within a short time after this crisis is over, those missiles will be gone.”

The withdrawal happened despite Turkish warnings at the time against the possible removal of these missiles as the government felt vulnerable without them. It was a moot point whether or not the Jupiter missiles were obsolete, and they were replaced by Polaris nuclear submarines that offered more effective deterrence. The fact of the matter is Turks were simply left out of the decision-making process altogether, and their fate was played out like a high stakes poker game between the Americans and the Russians.

Still there are strong arguments raised by others in the military who think favorably of the current missile proposal. They say the deterrence of Turkish air defenses will be increased with the deployment of a high technology missile shield on Turkish soil without much expense to the budget. They also point out that the current missile system is a Cold War-era relic — outdated defense systems and launching pads at the sites are not in great shape. This is an argument one might find it hard to dismiss if you are living in a tough neighborhood where there has been a race to acquire lethal nuclear and conventional missiles.

The decision ultimately rests with government people who have their own reservations from a general policy perspective over how such a deployment will be perceived by Turkey’s neighbors and how it would impact Turkish interests. When the plan was first unveiled in a NATO briefing specifying Iran, Russia and Syria as possible threats, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu reacted swiftly by saying, “This is the start of another cold war.” Explicitly naming the countries Ankara has deepened its neighborly relations with in the last decade as threats and the raison d’être of the missile system goes against everything Turkey is trying to accomplish with its “zero problems” policy in the region.

The decision will be made during the 28-member alliance’s upcoming Lisbon summit on Nov. 19-20. As NATO operates on the principle of consensus, Turkey needs to be convinced about the final shape of the deal to approve the plan. There are strong indications for a possible deal between Americans and Turks in advance of the summit that will in all likelihood include the removal of express citations of countries posing a threat while emphasizing the defensive nature of the missile shield, two important reservations Turkey has been harboring for some time. If no agreement is reached, Turkey would be the third country after the Czech Republic and Poland to drop missile shield plans.

The argument over a missile shield also extends to possible missile sites in Turkey. Sources who are familiar with the negotiations are telling us that there has been no objection to installing missiles in the capital city of Ankara in Central Anatolia, the eastern Anatolian province of Erzurum and in İstanbul to protect the two existing bridges straddling the Bosporus. The controversy erupts over possible sites either in the Black Sea region or along the southern border of Turkey.

Ankara insists the deployment of a missile shield in the Black Sea coastal province of Sinop would be tantamount to saying that Russia is the main target of the defensive network and objects strongly to any launching pads in southern provinces like Hatay or Batman, signaling the missile system would benefit Israel at the expense of Iran and Syria and putting Turkey’s warm relations with two neighbors at serious risk. The fear is that Turkey might be used as a proxy to boost Israeli defenses against a growing Iranian threat. In fact, that was one of the reasons Turkey has sought assurances that non-NATO countries would not have access to the intelligence that missile sensors in the shield would gather.

If everything goes as planned, Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) anti-ballistic missile systems would be the first ones to be positioned in Turkey with the possibility of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles following later. In the last step, the system might be linked to US Aegis Missile Defense Ships that can shoot down long-range missiles with SM-3 missiles. However, the problem with the Aegis is the 1936 Montreux Convention, which restricts the passage of non-Turkish military vessels through the straits. Therefore, no ship carrying missile defense system elements can pass through the straits to reach the Black Sea.

Crucial for all these systems of course is the existence of early tracking information known as X-Band radars on the ground in Turkey to sense missile raids early on so that sea and land-based interceptor missiles can be launched to remove the threat. There is no fixed place for these radars yet. But here, because of geographical proximity to threat areas, Turkey offers a position nobody, including Romania, where some of the launch pads will be installed, can fill.

Let’s see how Turkey performs a balancing act on this tightrope.

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