INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey — The United States authorized on Friday the deployment of 400 troops to man two Patriot missile-defense batteries along Turkey’s border with Syria, a move that could put American troops near the front lines of the Arab country’s escalating civil war.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta signed the order authorizing the deployment of the batteries Friday morning while flying from Kabul to this military base in southern Turkey.
Speaking to American airmen inside a hangar, Panetta said the crisis in Syria has made this base, roughly 60 miles from Syria, and others in the region exceptionally important.
“This is a challenging time, a critical time,” Panetta said. “You are in a critical place doing a critical task.”
Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters the U.S. troops operating the Patriots will be tasked with a defensive mission only. The surface-to-air missiles could technically be used to enforce a no-fly zone over northern Syria, but NATO officials have stressed that they are not gearing up for such a move, which would mark a sharp escalation in the West’s involvement in Syria’s conflict.