BEIRUT - Syria on Friday condemned Turkey's request for NATO to deploy Patriot defense missiles near their common border, calling it "provocative," after a spate of fighting there that has raised fears of the Syrian civil war embroiling the wider region.
In the first Syrian response to Ankara's request earlier this week, a ministry source told Syrian state television that Damascus would hold Turkey's prime minister responsible for increasing tensions along the frontier.
The 20-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad has grown increasingly bloody and heavy clashes often erupt right along Syria's northern border with Turkey. Ankara has repeatedly scrambled fighter jets and responded in kind to stray shells flying into its territory.
Turkey's missile request may have riled Damascus and its allies because it could be seen as a first step toward implementing a no-fly zone. Syrian rebels have been requesting one to help them hold territory against a government with overwhelming firepower from the air, but which most foreign governments are loath to impose for fear of getting sucked into the conflict.
The Patriot system is designed to intercept aircraft or missiles. Turkey asked for its deployment after weeks of talks with its NATO allies about how to shore up its 900-km border, where it fears security may deteriorate as the Syrian army steps up fighting against rebel advances.
"Syria stresses its condemnation of the Turkish government's latest provocative step," the ministry source told Syria TV.
The source said that Syria would respect Turkish sovereignty but also said that it "holds (Tayyip) Erdogan responsible for the militarization of the situation on the Syrian-Turkish border and increased tensions".
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Thursday that the possible deployment of Patriot missiles was "purely defensive" and would "serve as a deterrent to possible enemies even thinking of attacks."
The US-led Western alliance has had some talks on the Turkish request but no decision is expected before next week.
Turkey rejects Syrian criticism
Asked about Syria's remarks, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Damascus was at fault for heightened tensions by having attacked its own people with tanks and warplanes "without any regard for any rules of war".
"There exists such a situation now right next to Turkey, that (Turkey) has to take its own measures...aimed at defense.
"If this measure is not needed then it will not be used, but if there is any kind of risk to Turkey's security, all kinds of steps will be taken, both within Turkey's national capacity and within the framework of Turkey's membership of NATO. Nobody should have a need to question this," Davutoglu added.
Russia, an ally of Assad and Syria's main arms supplier, has opposed the deployment of surface-to-air missiles. It is not a NATO member and cannot block alliance decisions, but planned talks with NATO on Friday about a move it argues "would not foster stability in the region."
Analysts Michael Stephens of the RUSI think-tank in Doha said Turkey's request was a symbolic gesture. He said the Patriot system would do little to stop incoming mortars.
"It could be a first step to a no-fly zone, but what does that take? NATO would need a mandate, which means a United Nations Security Council resolution, and Russia will obviously say no to that," said Stephens.
"This eases the pressure on Erdogan, who may be reluctant to further disrupt the (regional) balance of power. If the missiles are there, it takes the decision out of his hands and puts it on NATO."