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Potential Sino-U.S. Cooperation Following Assad's Anticipated Fall

Richard Weitz

In accordance with a NATO decision made in early December, Dutch, German, and U.S. troops are now arriving in Turkey along with their Patriot air and missile defense systems. Altogether, one thousand NATO troops will deploy, along with six Patriot missile defense batteries (each with 16 interceptors), near Turkey’s border with Syria, the site of a vicious and escalating civil war for more than a year now.

Turkish officials insist that the deployment is for defensive purposes only, as a “precautionary measure” to counter any threat emanating from Syria. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen encouraged the request, arguing that the Patriots would help defend Turkey’s population and territory, “contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis along NATO’s south-eastern border,” and serve as “a concrete demonstration of Alliance solidarity and resolve.”

While the earlier 1990 and 2003 Turkish requests for Patriots provoked major intra-alliance divisions, on this occasion the NATO decision-making process went much smoother. Turkish diplomats engaged in lengthy and comprehensive consultations with the other NATO governments even though only Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States had available Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) Missile Interceptor Batteries. The NATO governments strongly backed the proposed deployments by citing a clear threat to Turkey as well as the principle of allied solidarity. Public opposition to the deployments in NATO countries has been minimal.

NATO’s decision to deploy Patriot missiles in Turkey has aroused concern in China. Last month, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that the move would threaten “peace, security and stability” in the region. In a piece that appeared last month in China Daily, Wang Hui elaborated that, “Since there is no guarantee that NATO’s allegedly defensive measure will not be used against others, the move will complicate the already tricky situation in the region and prevent the Syrian crisis from being resolved diplomatically.”

In a way, the debate over the Patriot missile deployments resembles that between Washington and Beijing on other U.S. missile defense initiatives. NATO and Turkey call the Patriots defensive weapons and deploying them a “precautionary” measure to prevent an escalation of the conflict. They see the missiles as directly enhancing Turkey’s defenses against possible Syrian air and missile attacks. They also believe that this augmented defense capability will help deter such attacks and even reduce the risk of accidents since the Syrian military will prove more cautious about its operations near the Turkish border.

But Chinese opponents of the Patriot deployments have legitimate concerns. They see the Patriots as having tactical capabilities that, while defensive, create potential offensive opportunities. For example, the Patriots will reduce fears among an anxious Turkish public about Ankara’s aggressive role in organizing the insurgency against Assad. They might also further raise the guerrillas’ morale as well as serve further demoralize Syrian officers and soldiers, who will increasing exercise the option to defect to the insurgency if it they look to will win.

Furthermore, by erecting an effective air and missile shield that could easily extend deep into Syrian territory, the Patriots could help enforce a no-fly zone over Syria that extends from Idlib to Shogor Bridge, to Al-Zaweya Mountain, and finally to Aleppo from Turkey. In June 2012, Turkey had requested that NATO develop contingency plans for such a no-fly zone to protect Turkish territory from Syrian aggression. With this air shield, the insurgents would find it easier to establish secure logistics and communications corridors to provide munitions and other supplies to their fighters in Syria. They could more ambitiously try to establish a base of operations inside Syria and, as the insurgents used Benghazi in Libya, launch offensives against the Syrian military more effectively from their new forward operating bases.

The deployment would also serve to engage NATO more directly in the Syrian War, something Ankara has long sought but NATO has resisted. Unlike in the case of Libya, thus far NATO has largely remained aloof from the Syrian crisis. But with the Patriot systems will come hundreds of NATO troops to operate, maintain, and protect the Patriot interceptors, their radars, and their other support elements. In effect, the NATO personnel would become a “trip wire” that would make NATO military intervention more likely during the inevitable future Syrian-Turkish border clashes. NATO’s Supreme Commander, not the Turkish government, would operate the systems and decide whether and how to use them.

The issue of Syria’s chemical weapons further complicates matters. Although NATO leaders insisted that the Patriot deployments would not contribute to any of the offensive actions described above, international alarm about Syria’s chemical weapons potential—also cited as a threat by Turkish officials—has continued to increase, and could serve as a legitimate pretext for a more assertive policy by NATO—and Turkey—in the region.

Nonetheless, Chinese analysts misinterpret the mood in NATO capitals. The governments of Europe, the United States, and especially Turkey have no desire to intervene militarily in Syria. They have had numerous opportunities to do so—from the shooting own of a Turkish jet over Syria to the shelling of Turkish civilians by Syrian soldiers to the Syrian government’s liberal use of missiles and non-lethal chemicals against peaceful civilians—but have always declined to take the plunge.

NATO governments anticipate that the Assad regime will eventually fall under the weight of its contradictions. Then China, the United States, and other counties will have the opportunity to cooperate and build a new Syria—one that is better for the Syrian people and the rest of the world.

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