The first of six NATO Patriot missile batteries intended to protect Turkey from a potential Syrian attack arrived by ship from Germany on Monday, drawing a small but noisy protest from nationalist and leftist demonstrators.
Dozens of camouflaged German military vehicles carrying the batteries disembarked at the Mediterranean port of Iskenderun. About 150 Turkish Communist Party supporters fired pink smoke grenades and burned an American flag at a port entrance.
Dutch soldiers head to Turkey
Meanwhile, a bulk of the Dutch military detachment to the NATO missile defense mission left the Netherlands for Turkey on Monday.
After a delay caused by the heavy snowfall, some 270 soldiers of the Dutch contingent were bid farewell by their families and left chilling Netherlands for the more moderate climate of the Middle East.
The Netherlands, Germany and the United States are each sending two Patriot missile batteries to Turkey after Ankara asked for NATO’s help to bolster security along its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria. An advance mission of 30 soldiers had already left on January 8.
Damascus has called the move “provocative,” in part because Turkey’s missile request could be seen as a first step toward implementing a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace.
The frontier has become a flashpoint in the 22-month insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad, with Syrian government shells frequently landing inside Turkish territory, drawing a response in kind from Ankara's military.
“This mission is purely defensive,” said Polish Army Lieutenant Colonel Dariusz Kacperczyk, NATO spokesman for the Patriot deployment. “It is to deter any possible threat coming from missiles to the Turkish population and territory.”
The batteries will be fully operational by the beginning of February and will protect more than 3.5 million people living in the region, he said.
Turkey has been one of Assad’s fiercest critics, leading calls for international intervention and providing shelter for more than 150,000 Syrian refugees. Despite wariness over a possibly more complex Turkish involvement in the conflict, there has only been small-scale opposition to the NATO deployment.
“Yankee go home!,” “Murderer America, get out of the Middle East!,” chanted a crowd of nationalists, some waving Turkish flags, at a later protest in the centre of Iskenderun.
“Iskenderun port will become NATO’s grave,” said a placard held by one in the hundreds-strong crowd. Riot police, backed by armored water cannon vehicles, looked on from a distance.
Syria opposition fails to form govt
Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition said on Monday it had postponed a decision on forming a government-in-exile at its meeting in Istanbul, saying it needs guarantees of support from dissident forces on the ground.
The Syrian National Council (SNC), a key component of the umbrella opposition Syrian National Coalition, said the meeting held on Sunday formed a five-member panel to consult with the rebel Free Syrian Army, and other concerned parties on the issue.
“After studying the proposals and after deliberation on the question of creating an interim government, we decided to set up a five-member committee tasked with consulting with the forces of the revolution, the Free Syrian Army and friendly countries,” the council said.
The council is an influential member of the Syrian National Coalition, which was set up in Doha in November in a bid to unify opposition forces fighting Assad’s regime.
On Monday, the chief of the coalition Moaz al-Khatib ended a brief visit to Doha aimed at gathering financial aid to the opposition, said Louay al-Safi, a member of the bloc.
Khatib, who arrived in the gas-rich country on Sunday, held “very fruitful meetings” with high-ranking officials in Doha, including Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, said Safi.
Khatib, who heads to Istanbul Monday “requested additional support” to rebels in the country, he said.
Khatib’s visit to Qatar “will influence the decision to create a transitional government because many parties within the coalition refuse forming it if it was not supported by international funding,” said Safi.
Earlier Monday the opposition said the five-member committee would also be tasked with exploring “the extent of (opposition and international) commitment in order for the work to be financially and politically feasible.”
Air strikes hit Homs and outskirts of Damascus
Syrian government forces launched strikes on the Syrian city of Homs and suburbs of the capital Damascus on Sunday and Monday according to videos uploaded to a social media website.
One video clip showed aircraft approaching what the speaker said was the Jobar district of Homs and a series of explosions immediately afterwards.
Other amateur video clips showed scenes of destruction and rubble-strewn streets in Hamouriyah, nine kilometers from the Syrian capital Damascus.
The video segments purport to show bodies of people being carried away from the scene and crying women and children amidst rubble and smoke filling the street.
More than 60,000 people have now been killed in the conflict, which began in March 2012 as peaceful pro-democracy protests but descended into civil war after a state crackdown.