Syrian air and ground forces were pounding insurgents dug in outside Damascus in a ferocious offensive a day after a car bomb in the north of the city killed at least 11 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The arrival of the U.S. personnel specialized in the six Patriot systems to be deployed on the Turkey-Syria border under a NATO agreement has highlighted fears that Syria’s civil war could suck in other nations in the region.
Turkey formally asked NATO for the missiles in November to bolster security along its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria, which has been torn by a 21-month insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey repeatedly has scrambled fighter jets along the frontier and responded in kind when Syrian shells came down inside its borders, fanning fears that the civil war could spread to destabilize the region.
About 400 U.S. personnel and equipment from the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Air Defense Artillery, based at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, will arrive in Turkey over the next several days by U.S. military airlift, the U.S. European Command said on its website.
The U.S. troops, who began arriving at Incirlik air base in Turkey, will man two U.S. Patriot batteries out of a total of six batteries that have been promised by NATO allies.
Germany and the Netherlands are also providing two Patriot batteries and up to 400 troops each.
The German and Dutch missiles are expected to be loaded onto ships in European ports early next week but will take several weeks to get to Turkey.
A small advance team of German and Dutch soldiers will also fly to Turkey early next week to prepare the ground for the Patriots, with the bulk of the troops arriving later.
Syria’s chief ally Iran, however, has called the Patriot deployment “provocative,” seeing it as a blunting of its own offensive capabilities.
Ankara has responded by telling Tehran to use its clout with Assad to resolve the civil war in his country.
NATO foreign ministers approved Turkey's request for the Patriot deployment in early December. The alliance said the move was aimed at defending Turkey and it had no intention of intervening in the Syrian civil war, but Syria, Iran and Russia criticized the decision.
NATO officials say the Syrian military has fired Scud-type missiles in recent weeks and they have voiced concern about chemical weapons Syria is believed to hold.
The Patriot missiles will be stationed near three southeastern Turkish cities.