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Senior NATO diplomats have again stressed that Turkey's intention to buy a Chinese air defence system must not put its interoperability links to the alliance in question, as allied defence ministers meet in Brussels on 23 October.
"They must understand exactly what they are deciding," a senior NATO diplomat told reporters at NATO headquarters on 22 October ahead of the meeting of allied defence ministers as part of the North Atlantic Council (NAC). "We have been very explicit with Ankara."
Turkey announced in late September that it would enter discussions with China's Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation for the purchase of the HQ-9 long-range air and missile defence system, worth nearly USD3.5 billion. A number of countries have been competing to supply the capability to Turkey, including the United States, Russia and European players.
The diplomat's comments were careful to stress the sovereignty of Turkey's decision, but wrapped veiled implications around them about the importance of maintaining Ankara's "solid interoperability links" to the alliance.
"While a national decision, we have been clear with Ankara that whichever system they select, it must be interoperable with NATO systems. We don't have the technical details on this Chinese system, but the concept of technical compatibility is a very important one," said the diplomat. "There are three countries [Germany, Netherlands, and the United States] providing Patriot missiles to Turkey that are interoperable and plugged into NATO's command and control system, from which Turkey is accruing security benefits; that is an ongoing case study that should make [those benefits] pretty clear to Turkey."
Although the China-Turkey missile issue does not figure formally on the agenda for the NATO defence ministers' meeting, NATO sources said it would be floating in the margins of the 22-23 October gathering and afterwards. "A lot of work gets done in the hallways," observed the senior diplomat.
Noting that "the whole alliance is in conversation with Turkey" over its Chinese air defence dossier, the senior diplomat said: "We are going to get quite explicit and specific about the technical definition of 'interoperable'. Turkey must understand that this is not just a fuzzy concept that we talk about within the NAC, but one that has a specific technical meaning - one that Turks must understand, so that when they make their final down-select they know exactly what they are doing."
The diplomat added that if the Chinese system cannot be made interoperable with NATO's air command and control system, "it's going to become very political very fast. If this system cannot be plugged into our system, which works with the other 27 allies, that will be an issue."
As for Syria, the diplomat said NATO is tracking the country's civil war "very closely" for its security implications for Turkey and the surrounding region, but warned that "NATO's not looking for a mission there. The international community hasn't asked anything of NATO, so we think we're doing the responsible thing by watching carefully and trying to stay well informed."
However, while NATO observes, the EU grows more nervous about the Syrian conflict. Meeting in Luxembourg on 21 October, EU foreign ministers underlined the deteriorating situation in Syria and called for a halt in arms flowing to the country's rebel opposition groups.
"The EU is seriously concerned with the growing involvement of extremist and foreign non-state actors in the fighting in Syria, which is further fuelling the conflict and posing a threat to regional stability," the ministers said in a statement after the meeting. "The EU calls on all relevant parties to halt the support to these groups."