Turkey’s welcoming of a Russian proposal for Syria to cede its chemical weapons stockpile — despite words of caution that this could be a tactical move by President Bashar al-Assad to buy more time for his beleaguered rule — reflects a deep worry in the minds of the Turkish leadership on possible chemical attacks targeting Turkish cities and towns.
“[Syria’s] willingness to surrender the chemical weapons stockpile is a good development,” said Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in a recent TV interview, revealing for the first time that Ankara had previously lobbied Damascus to give up its chemical weapons program and become party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons and their precursors.
The foreign minister said that Turkey encouraged the visit of Ahmet Üzümcü, a Turkish diplomat who was elected director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2009, to Syria to talk over the issue.
“Since we had very good relations with Syria back then, we had entertained the idea of persuading Syria to become party to the OPCW,” Davutoğlu said. Given that out of seven countries that have not ratified the CWC agreement yet, three (Israel, Syria and Egypt) reside in Turkey’s neighborhood, a chemical weapons threat has long been a source of concern for successive governments in Turkey. To the relief of Ankara, Iraq — another Turkish neighbor — signed and ratified the agreement in 2009. Syria, unlike Israel or Egypt, however, represents clear and present danger for Turkey because the regime has already used chemical weapons on its own citizens on more than one occasion without any hesitation. It may very well use them against foreign citizens when the regime feels cornered or hands them over to terrorist groups to do its bidding. Therefore, eliminating the chemical weapons threat in the Middle East region has always been a priority in Turkish foreign policy.
It is not surprising that Turkey welcomed the Russian proposal with a cautious tone, saying that Assad may simply be stalling an imminent strike and any deal must pave the way for a political solution to stop the bloodshed while holding the culprits accountable for war crimes. Interestingly, the chemical threat was one of the talking points that came up during Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s discussion with US President Barack Obama at the White House in May. The horrible specter of introducing chemical weapons by regime forces in Syria on an unprecedented scale became reality on Aug. 21. According to the US intelligence community report released to the media, this chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. In fact, when Obama made his case for the necessity of a punitive strike against Syria last month, he highlighted that US allies Israel, Turkey and Jordan would be threatened, as well as US national security interests, if Syria were allowed to use chemical weapons without retribution. Terrorists could get their hands on the weapons as well, he said.
Chemical weapons by themselves are no game changer in any conflict, but their main effect comes from terrorizing civilians on a large scale when weaponized for delivery by missiles. I talked to a senior official in the defense establishment this week to assess the level of threat Syrian missiles pose to Turkey. He said conventional missiles that the Syrian military possess do not really threaten Turkey as they are not precision-guided. But he said the main worry for Turkey is that missile heads can be outfitted with chemical warfare agents to inflict maximum causalities in residential places. “You do not need precision-guided missiles to spread chemical agents over a large area,” he said, stressing that the regime has an active chemical weapons program and short-range ballistic missile delivery systems.
Most missiles in the Syrian army depot are Scud-type missiles based on mainly old, Soviet-designed technology. They are more traditional and unguided missiles. The regime owns some Iranian and Chinese-origin ballistic missiles as well. As a deterrent, Turkey relies on its robust air force based on modern F-16 fighter jets and which can easily take out missile launchers, including mobile ones. Although Turkey lacks a missile defense system, the Turkish Air Forces (THK) are highly capable of offensive attacks and could drop multiple loads on Syrian targets on repeat runs. Neutralizing launch sites in Syria, despite Russian-made air defense systems there, would be a relatively easy task for the THK. Now, the defense officials want to outfit some 240 F-16s with cutting-edge early missile warning system technology to enhance the offensive capabilities of the fleet. The tender to that effect was already announced by the defense procurement agency.
Obviously that is not enough. Turkey is also interested in missile defense technologies to boost its deterrence capabilities and it is considering the fact that Iran is continuously developing both liquid and more precise solid-fueled ballistic missiles. A $4 billion tender for long-range missile defense systems is still pending and is expected to be finalized by the end of this year by the Defense Industry Executive Committee — the top body to decide the procurement needs of the Turkish military, which is led by Prime Minister Erdoğan — though it has been postponed two times already.
The US is lobbying for Patriot missiles manufactured by US partners Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, saying that the latest generation of Patriots would be easier to integrate with the NATO capabilities that use American military technology. Turkish defense officials whom I talked to say that is not a major concern because technical requirements of the tender require other contenders like Russia and China to guarantee an interoperability interface. The main competitors to the US offer are Russia’s Rosoboronexport with its S-400 system; China’s HQ9, exported as FD-2000; and Italian-French Eurosam with its SAMP/T Aster 30.
In the meantime, the NATO missile shield system’s advanced radar surveillance system was deployed for Turkish soil and has provided some relief in this regard. What is more, following Turkey’s demand for Patriots last year, NATO gave the go-ahead on Dec. 4 to station Patriot surface-to-air missiles in Turkey to protect the country from a potential spillover of the civil war in neighboring Syria. These measures have compensated Turkey’s shortcomings in its missile defense system. It is quite unlikely that a Syrian attack on Turkey will occur because it would trigger a collective NATO retaliation against Syria under Article 5 of the alliance’s charter, known as the collective defense clause.
Nevertheless, Turkey needs to rely on its own capabilities as well. As its military spending rose 1.2 percent in 2012 over 2011, reaching $18.2 billion, Turkey has been allocating more resources for its defense procurement in recent years. Developing home-grown offensive missile capabilities in addition to missiles it purchased or plans to purchase from abroad is part of that strategy. The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) is now developing a missile called a SOM with a range of 300 kilometers. Turkey has also been working on developing satellite launch capabilities to be able to send missiles outside the earth’s atmosphere. For that, Ankara is working with an Eastern European country that retains Soviet-era systems and experience in this field to develop a satellite launch vehicle. Turkey is in a tough neighborhood and it needs to spend precious resources very wisely to face challenges on many fronts. Maintaining a powerful air force is no longer enough. It needs to shore up its naval capabilities as well as conventional land forces to protect sea and territorial interests. For that, it needs a very agile, mobile and professional military force supported by advanced technological capabilities. Years of ignorance and bad procurement decisions amid corruption scandals have put Turkey in a tough spot at crunch time during pending crises like Syria. Although things have improved significantly in recent years, with many home-brewed design and production projects for the defense industry progressing nicely, Turkey still has lots of road to cover.