The U.S. announced Sunday that Patriot anti-air and missile batteries and 400 troops deployed to Turkey will be withdrawn following a similar move by NATO ally Germany seen as a protest against Turkish airstrikes on the Kurds.
The Pentagon put out a joint statement by Washington and NATO ally Turkey saying that the Patriot batteries, which were sent to Turkey in 2013 to protect against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, would return to the U.S. by October.
Turkey asked for the deployment of the Patriots following the shoot down in 2012 of a Turkish fighter by Syrian air defenses.
“They will be re-deployed to the United States for critical modernization upgrades that will ensure the U.S. missile defense force remains capable of countering evolving global threats and protecting Allies and partners, including Turkey,” the joint statement said of the Raytheon Co.-made system.
The joint statement made no mention of the recent Turkish airstrikes in northwestern Iraq against the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), which Turkey began after agreeing to allow the U.S. to use the huge Incirlik airbase in Turkey for strikes against ISIS in Syria.
The Turkish airstrikes have come under increasing criticism in Europe, where the agreement on use of Incirlik is seen by some as a move by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to gain cover for the airstrikes and bolster his support in maneuvering for new elections to regain a parliamentary majority.
Turkey has said that the airstrikes against the PKK were in response to terror attacks in Turkey that have killed civilians, police and troops.
On Saturday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmmeier told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that "The Erdogan government has invested a great deal in reconciliation with the Kurds. It can't allow all the bridges that have been built up over the course of this process to be torn down."
Also on Saturday, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced that Germany will pull two of its own Patriot missile batteries and 250 troops from southern Turkey by January following a new assessment of the Syrian threat.
"The threat in this war-torn region has shifted in focus," von der Leyen said in a statement reported by Reuters. "It now stems from the terror organization Islamic State. Therefore, we will remain engaged in the region in a continued effort to stabilize it."
The U.S., Germany and the Netherlands all deployed Patriots in early 2013 after Turkey asked its NATO partners for help as the Syrian civil war escalated. The Netherlands withdrew its Patriot battery earlier this year and was replaced by Spain.
Despite the withdrawal of the Patriots, “The U.S. and NATO commitments to the defense of Allies - including Turkey - are steadfast,” the joint Washington-Ankara statement said. “If needed, the U.S is prepared to return Patriot assets and personnel to Turkey within one week.”
In addition, the U.S. will maintain “a persistent presence” of Navy Aegis anti-missile ships in the eastern Mediterranean, the statement said. “These ships offer a range of capabilities to support the defense of Turkey and NATO missions, including support for NATO air and missile defense.”
The use of Incirlik, about 70 miles from the Syrian border, was initially seen as a possible “game changer” in the campaign against ISIS by some in the Obama administration.
Earlier this month, the U.S. conducted the first drone strike in Syria from Incirlik and on Aug. 9 six F-16s from the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano airbase in Italy arrived at Incirlik. Last week, the Pentagon announced that the first manned airstrike against ISIS in Syria had been carried out from Incirlik.
In allowing the use of Incirlik, Turkey also signaled that it also would conduct airstrikes on ISIS in Syria, but Air Force Col. Pat Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said Friday that coordination with the U.S. coalition on Turkish airstrikes in Syria had yet to be worked out.
The Turks “have definitely highlighted that they are committed to participating,” Ryder said in an audio briefing to the Pentagon, but it has yet to be determined “how they will be part of the coalition air campaign.”
However, the agreement on the use of Incirlik has been complicated by the airstrikes against the PKK, considered a terrorist group by the U.S., and the Turkish calls for the creation of a “safe zone” along the Syria-Turkish border.
The U.S. is concerned that Turkey also might move against the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), the military wing of the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party), which is allied with the PKK.
YPG fighters have proven to be among the most effective of local forces in the fight against ISIS. The YPG earlier this year successfully defended the Syrian border town of Kobane against ISIS with the help of U.S. airstrikes. The YPG later took the border towns of Tal Abyad and Hasakah to the east while advancing to within 50 miles of Raqaa, considered the ISIS capital in Syria.
In a visit last month to Irbil, capital of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter praised the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the fight against ISIS in Iraq, and said that local forces were the “secret sauce” in efforts to defeat ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com