NATO is ready to deploy to Turkey if needed, the chief of the military alliance said on Thursday, amid new tensions with Russia over its recent intervention in Syria.
“Turkey is a very strong and capable ally, but NATO of course is always ready to augment and to support,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. “We are in constant dialogue with Turkey, looking … if there is any need to do more.”
“[We have increased] our ability to support and help all allies, but of course also including those who are really close to the violence, close to the turmoil we see to the south – in this case, Turkey. So if needed, we deploy,” he added.
Stoltenberg was speaking after NATO defence ministers discussed the four-year conflict in Syria, which entered a new phase last week with the start of airstrikes by Russia.
The strikes are ostensibly meant to help fight the Islamic State extremist group, but are in practice targeting other opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the West says.
Tensions rose further after Russian warplanes operating in Syria twice violated the airspace of neighbouring Turkey last weekend. NATO said the violations do not appear to have been accidental.
The relationship between the military alliance and Moscow is already severely strained over the crisis in Ukraine.
US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter condemned Russia’s behaviour in Syria as “erratic and self-defeating,” saying that Moscow is wrapping itself in a global “shroud of isolation.”
“We have not and will not agree to cooperate with Russia so long as they continue to pursue this misguided strategy,” Carter said in Brussels, speaking of “increasingly unprofessional behaviour” by Russian forces.
“This will have consequences for Russia itself, which is rightfully fearful of attack upon Russia. And I also expect that in coming days the Russians will begin to suffer casualties in Syria,” he added.
British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon also criticized Moscow for “making a very serious situation in Syria much more dangerous,” while Dutch Defence Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert accused Russia of being “not constructive, not reliable and not cooperative.”
Turkish Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul asked during the ministers’ meeting for a stronger NATO presence and air defence capabilities in his country, but did not request an intervention by the alliance’s crisis response force, sources said on condition of anonymity.
NATO has ramped up the force to 40,000 troops because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, but has said that it could also theoretically be deployed to southern trouble spots. Stoltenberg said NATO would consider “further needs along our southern borders” in coming months.
“NATO is ready to defend and protect all allies against any threat, and that of course also is valid for Turkey,” he said.
The alliance already has five Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, deployed in 2013 to thwart attacks from Syria. But the US and Germany are pulling out the two batteries they have each provided.
The US cited a global defence posture review, while Germany said that it had assessed the threat of missile attacks as having dropped. German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday defended Berlin’s decision.
“The question is which threat can be averted in what way, and in this context the decision is right,” she said in Brussels.
“What we now see is other kinds of challenges,” Stoltenberg added. “We are discussing with different allies, with Turkey how and in what forms we can continue to support them.”
Spain intends to maintain its Patriot missile battery in Turkey, Carter said.
Also on Thursday, the ministers discussed NATO’s future involvement in Afghanistan, after Taliban fighters managed last month to overrun the city of Kunduz. Afghan forces have since retaken the city, but the incident raised questions about whether NATO can draw down its presence in the country as planned.
“Many ministers expressed the need to be flexible and to take into account the security situation on the ground when we take our decisions,” Stoltenberg said. “So I sense that many allies are willing to stay longer if needed.”
Carter spoke of NATO forces being in the country “for years to come.” The alliance currently has 13,000 troops deployed there.
NATO had initially planned to have a smaller, civilian-led presence take over from its Resolute Support training and advisory mission. The alliance is awaiting military advice before deciding by the end of the year what the 2016 presence should be, Stoltenberg said.