ANKARA (Today’s Zaman)–US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has disclosed that Turkey may play a possible role in a NATO-wide missile defense system and that the issue was on the agenda of his talks with Turkish officials.
Gates flew to Ankara on Friday after participating in an informal meeting of NATO defense ministers on Istanbul. In Ankara, Gates had talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
US and Turkish officials discussed what role Turkey might play in the missile defense network, which would include an overhauled plan US President Barack Obama unveiled in September, Gates said at a roundtable meeting with traveling US and Turkish press held on Saturday following his talks with Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul and Chief of General Staff Gen. Ilker Basbug.
“The dialogue on what Turkey could do within NATO to counter the proliferation of ballistic missiles via a missile defense system continues. We have discussed the possibility of erecting two radar systems in Turkey,” Gates was quoted as saying on Saturday.
While in Istanbul, Gates had already said that the system is intended primarily to counter any potential Iranian attack, and that NATO member countries should make it a priority of the alliance, alongside winning the war in Afghanistan.
The US sees Turkey as playing a vital role in the effort because of its close geographical location and cultural ties to the region. Yet, Turkey has so far seemed reluctant to install NATO radar devices in its territory as part of a missile defense system.
Back in December, in response to a reported US request to install radars in Turkey, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu avoided making any firm statement on the report, noting, however, that NATO should first define the threat. “This is not an issue for NATO now. First, a definition of the threat against NATO members must be made. Then we can consider the issue in this light,” he said at the time, while also rejecting fears that Iran posed any threat to Turkey, saying that Ankara enjoys trust and good relations with all its neighbors.
In Ankara, Gates declined to say whether he’s looking to place naval vessels carrying Aegis radar devices in the Black Sea, a prospect that has prompted concern from Russian officials.
Gates, nonetheless, said he has sought to underscore the threat Iran poses to Turkey and other allies in his discussions with them.
“Iran is the only country in the region that has publicly declared its intent to destroy another country in the region,” he said. If Iran proceeds with this program “unrestrained,” there is a “real danger of proliferation” that would destabilize region, he added.
Turkey has taken steps in the past years to improve its ties with neighboring Iran, stuck in an escalating standoff with the West over its nuclear program. Ankara says it is opposed to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons but also dismisses Western calls for sanctions or military measures against the Islamic regime.
When reminded of criticism that Turkey is shifting its axis from the Western camp, Gates said Turkey was in a unique position geographically and that its efforts in all fields must be received positively.
The ongoing cooperation between Turkey and the US against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has bases in northern Iraq, was on the agenda of his talks in Ankara as well, Gates said, adding that the US is looking at what other capabilities it could provide to Turkey to aid its fight against the PKK.
A couple of years ago, the US began providing Turkey with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
“We have continued that,” and will “see if there are more capabilities we can share with Turkey in terms of taking on this threat,” Gates said, noting that Gen. Ray Odierno, the top US officer in Iraq, discussed an “action plan” on possible further assistance with Turkish officials when he visited Ankara earlier last week.