BEIRUT (AP) — Syria sharply criticized NATO’s move to deploy Patriot missiles along its border with Turkey, calling the decision “provocative,” as the West took a major step toward a possible military role in the civil war.
After getting Cabinet approval, German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters that two German Patriot batteries with a total of 400 soldiers would be sent to the border area under NATO command for one year, although the deployment could be shortened.
The announcement also appeared to be a message to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime at a time when Washington and other governments fear Syria may be readying its chemical weapons stockpiles for possible use as fighting with the rebels in the capital, Damascus, and other areas intensifies.
Mr. Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Ireland on Thursday, and the two were scheduled to discuss a way forward in Syria later with the Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. envoy to Syria.
In Iraq, U.S. Under Secretary of Defense James Miller reiterated the Obama administration’s stance that the use of chemical weapons is a “red line.” The administration has said their use would bring a U.S. response.
In recent days, U.S. intelligence has detected signs the Syrian regime was moving chemical weapons components around within several sites, according to a senior U.S. defense official and two U.S. officials. This type of activity had not been detected before, and one of the U.S. officials said it bears further scrutiny.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad insisted the deployment of the missile defense system would not affect the determination of Mr. Assad's government to crush the “terrorists,” using the regime’s term for rebels fighting to topple the longtime leader.
Syria has been careful not to confirm it has chemical weapons while insisting it would never use such weapons against its own people
“I repeat for the hundredth time that even if such weapons exist in Syria, they will not be used against the Syrian people,” Mr. Mekdad said in an interview with Lebanon’s Al-Manar TV station. “We cannot possibly commit suicide; Syria is a responsible country.”
He said Syria‘s problem was with the Turkish government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which he said has funded and trained “terrorists” and opened its borders for al Qaeda fighters to come to Syria.
He said the Turkish government was “bankrupt” and was “begging for assistance from NATO countries.”
“The Turkish move and NATO’s support for it is a provocative move, part of psychological warfare against Syria,” Mr. Mekdad said, “but if they think this will affect our determination to fight the terrorists … they are wrong.”
He warned that any foreign military intervention against Syria will be “catastrophic,” with severe consequences.
Germany’s Cabinet approved sending German Patriot air defense missiles to Turkey on Thursday. The decision must be endorsed by the German parliament, but approval is all but assured. The Dutch Cabinet is expected to announce approval Friday, contingent on parliamentary approval.
Mr. de Maiziere said the overall mission also was expected to include two batteries each from the Netherlands and the United States.
German officials stressed that the missiles will be used only to defend Turkish territory and would not be a part of any “no-fly zone” over Syrian territory.
“Nobody knows what such a regime is capable of, and that is why we are acting protectively here,” Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.
Officials said the Patriots will be programmed so that they can intercept only Syrian weapons that cross into Turkish airspace. They aren’t allowed to penetrate Syrian territory pre-emptively. That means they would have no immediate effect on any Syrian government offensives — chemical or conventional — that remain strictly inside the country’s national borders.
Because of the complexity and size of the Patriot batteries — including their radars, command-and-control centers, communications and support facilities — they probably will have to travel by sea and won’t arrive in Turkey for another month, NATO officials said.
Violence in Syria, meanwhile, persisted. A booby-trapped car exploded outside the offices of the Red Crescent society in the al-Zahera neighborhood of Damascus, killing one person, according to state television.
A video posted online purporting to show the blast site showed rubble strewn about a residential street and walls and windows blown out of nearby three-story buildings.
The video appeared genuine and was in line with what state media reported. The Syrian government bars most journalists from working independently in the country.
It’s the latest in a series of bombings that have hit Damascus in recent weeks amid fierce fighting in the capital’s suburbs between Mr. Assad’s forces and rebels seeking to topple him.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the explosion was followed by a heavy deployment of security troops in the area on the southern edge of Damascus.
Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard in Beirut and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.
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