x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Anti-Nato protest marches in fear of turning 'Turkey into a battlefield'

Several protest marches have been held against the missile deployment and more are planned this weekend.

ISTANBUL // The deployment of Nato troops and anti-missile systems that began in Turkey this week has heightened concerns from Turkish citizens that the Syrian civil war will spill across their border.

Nearly 40 German soldiers arrived in Kahramanmaras, a city about 120km from the Syrian border, to prepare the deployment of about 400 German troops, due to arrive in the coming weeks with two batteries of Patriot missiles.

"We are looking into issues like where the soldiers are going to sleep and how they will be fed," the commanding officer of the German team, Lieutenant Colonel Manfred Stange, said by telephone from the deployment site outside Kahramanmaras.

The United States and the Netherlands are expected to send similar numbers of soldiers and Patriot missiles to Turkey. Turkish news reports said this week the number could rise to nearly 2,000 foreign soldiers over the course of the next months. Several hundred Turkish troops will join the group.

While the foreign ministry welcomed the missile deployment as a sign of the alliance's "solidarity and unity" amid concerns that the Syrian government may resort to using chemical weapons, some in Turkey regard the move as a dangerous development.

Several protest marches have been held against the missile deployment and more are planned this weekend in Hatay, a Turkish province bordering Syria, and in Izmir in the west, Turkey's third biggest city.

"The occupation by murderous Nato has started," the Union of Turkish Youths (TGB), the youth arm of the nationalist Workers' Party, a small Turkish party, said.

Adil Gur, a prominent pollster, said the protests reflected a widespread concern among Turks that the arrival of the Nato weapons might herald a conflict with Syria.

"Turks have been adamant for a long time that there is to be no war with Syria, it's a fellow Muslim country after all," Mr Gur said. That was why the missiles caused concern. But, he added, he did not think that Turks were opposed to the foreign troops.

Most protest marches so far have only attracted a few hundred participants. But the issue has united nationalist groups such as the TGB and leftist organisations such as the Turkish Communist Party, which criticised the arrival of Nato troops as a preparation to turn "Turkey into a battlefield".

Although the protest movement is small in numbers and mostly confined to the political margins at the moment, there are signs that more mainstream groups could join in.

Some members of the Republican People's Party (CHP), Turkey's main opposition party, took part in protest marches in recent weeks. The Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), the country's biggest Kurdish party, has also criticised the Nato deployment.

Some critics suggest the deployment of Nato troops and weapons is not about a potential military threat from Syria, but a move designed to shield Israel, a US ally and a country widely reviled in Turkey, from possible attacks from Iran.

Tehran has sharply criticised the deployment of a Nato radar system in Kurecik near Malatya in Turkey's south-east as part of the alliance's missile defence shield last year.

According to Iran, the missile shield's primary function is to protect Israel against Iranian counter strikes in case of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations. A team of Turkish and Nato military experts toured Kurecik last month, but it was unclear whether any of the Nato Patriot missiles will be deployed there.

Tehran has also criticised the planned Patriot deployment. Last week, General Hassan Firouzabadi, Iran's army chief of staff, was quoted as saying that Nato was bringing missiles to Turkey in preparation for "world war".

The Turkish government dismissed the statement, but some anti-Nato protesters in Turkey agree with the Iranian assessment.

"The Patriots are not coming to defend us, but to defend Nato installations and Israel," Levent Tuzel, an independent Turkish member of parliament who has taken part in protests against the missile deployment, said this week. "We do not want German, Dutch, Nato soldiers. They want to use us like a warship against the Middle East."

Mr Tuzel said he was sure that a large majority of Turks was opposed to the deployment as well.

"Even AKP voters are against it," he said in reference to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister.


* With additional reporting by Reuters