INCIRLIK, Turkey — U.S. Patriot missile batteries deployed as part of the NATO mission to protect Turkey from a possible missile strike from Syria remain inactive in connection with a bureaucratic logjam, according to U.S. officials.
“We’ve been pushing,” said Rep. Rob Wittman, R.-Va.,in an interview Wednesday during a congressional delegation visit at Incirlik Air Base.
There is no dispute over the NATO mission itself, but the delay is due to Turkish bureaucratic red tape, Wittman said. He along with others in his delegation met with Turkish President Abdullah Gül and other government officials in an effort to prod action.
“We talked with the Turkish government yesterday to make sure that they get the approval process [finished] and making sure the American batteries can be deployed, can be laid down,” said Wittman, whose visit included a breakfast with troops and briefings with military commanders. “There’s a little frustration in making sure that gets done. We emphasized to them the importance of the timeliness of that, especially for our forces, to have this lay down happen. In a friendly way, we pushed the Turkish government to make that happen.”
A Turkish defense spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
U.S. Army Capt. Royal Reff, a spokesman for the U.S. Patriot mission, said soldiers are ready to go, but remain in a holding pattern as discussions between senior U.S. and Turkish officials continue.
Meanwhile, Patriot batteries belonging to Germany and the Netherlands have already become operational.
Polish Lt. Col. Dariusz Kacperczyk, a NATO spokesman, said those countries have reached bilateral agreements with Turkey, enabling the Netherlands and Germany to activate their batteries in recent days. While troop-contributing nations are responsible for the costs of deploying their troops, it is the host nation that is responsible for the costs of hosting those troops, such as force protection services, Kacperczyk said.
A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Turkey declined to comment on Wednesday about the lack of a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Turkey or say what potential areas of disagreement could be holding up a deal.
On Incirlik Air Base, the Germans have vacated their temporary housing and moved into a new operation site near the Syrian border. For U.S. troops, it is just a waiting game until they can do the same.
“This Air Force base is lovely, but it is not what we came out here for,” said Capt. Samuel Hoolihan, a battery commander with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Air Defense Artillery based out of Fort Sill, Okla.
About 400 troops from the battalion are waiting at Incirlik for the green light to move out to Gaziantep, where they are slated to spend a year manning their anti-missile Patriots.
On Wednesday, soldiers were busy packing up the last of their gear on Incirlik, including multi-million dollar Patriots, for eventual transport. A final shipment of Patriots also was slated to arrive by ship Wednesday evening.
For U.S. soldiers, NATO’s decision in early December to support a Turkish request for air defense support meant cutting short holiday travel plans for some troops.
“I had to be the Grinch and cancel Christmas,” said Lt. Col. Charles Branson, commander of the 3rd Battalion. “But this is an exciting mission and the guys are in super spirits. We’re ready to execute.”
Sgt. Jordan Willette, a launcher section chief, was busy Wednesday helping his team secure boxes of Patriots for eventual movement to Gaziantep. After a month at Incirlik, he says he’s “ready to get into a battle rhythm.”
The deployment to Turkey was unexpected, but “that’s why you join,” Willette said. “You just hope you’re the one to get that call.”
On Dec. 4, NATO defense ministers officially authorized the deployment of Patriots in response to Turkish concerns over cross-border shelling in October that killed several Turkish citizens. By early January, U.S. forces assigned to the Patriot mission were on the ground in Turkey. NATO has about 1,200 troops in Turkey for the mission, unofficially dubbed Active Fence, which aims to shield the border region from potential strikes from Syria.
The deployment of the Patriot batteries is part of a standing NATO defense plan and is familiar ground for the alliance. NATO provided similar support to Turkey in 1991 and 2003 when Dutch forces deployed troops and Patriots to the country. Once fully operational, all six Patriot batteries will be connected to NATO’s Allied Air Command at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the command-and-control hub for the operation.
NATO’s decision to send anti-missile Patriots to Turkey comes amid alarm over the regime of President Bashar al-Assad’s access to chemical weapons. NATO officials, who have asserted that their mission is defensive only, have expressed concern that such weapons could be mounted on missiles.
Wittman, whose tour with Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, included stops in Israel and Germany, said he was focused on talking with allies about contingency plans in a post-Asad Syria.
“Bashar Assad at some point will go,” Wittman said. “The question will be who will fill the power vacuum afterwards. How will critical elements of their munitions be contained, specifically their chemical weapons?”
While Syrian weapons sites appear secure at the moment, that can change suddenly, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a regime change, Wittman said.
“Then what happens to the chemical weapons stores?” Wittman said. “And if they fall into the wrong hands that can happen fairly quickly.”
“If there is a problem, what is our effort and what is our response?” Wittman said. “And all of our partners have to understand what that is — who is going to act and when we are going to act? Those are the conversations we are having.”