U.S., Germany to pull Patriot missiles from Turkey

BERLIN/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The United States and Germany said they will pull Patriot missile batteries from southern Turkey after a reassessment of the threats stemming from the conflict in neighboring Syria.

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The U.S. Patriots, in Turkey as part of a broader NATO mission since 2013, will be redeployed to the United States for upgrades, according to a joint Turkish-U.S. statement on Sunday.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced at the weekend that Berlin would let its three-year Patriot mission lapse in January instead of seeking parliamentary approval to extend it.

Germany, the United States and the Netherlands all deployed Patriots in early 2013 after Turkey asked its fellow NATO partners for help in protecting its territory amid an escalating civil war in Syria. The Dutch ended their mission earlier this year and were replaced by the Spanish.

“The United States and NATO are committed to supporting Turkey’s security and regional stability,” the U.S.-Turkish statement said. “If needed, the United States is prepared to return Patriot assets and personnel to Turkey within one week.”

The decision comes less than a month after Turkey opened its air bases to U.S. fighter jets launching air strikes against Islamic State in Syria.

Von der Leyen said the nature of the threat to Turkey from Syria had changed from one stemming mainly from President Bashar al-Assad to that posed by jihadist rebels.

“The threat in this war-torn region has shifted in focus,” she said in a statement on the German defense ministry’s website. “It now stems from the terror organization Islamic State. Therefore, we will remain engaged in the region in a continued effort to stabilize it.”

The decision follows criticism from some German officials of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s military crackdown against Kurdish militants and his declaration last month that the peace process he initiated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 2012 was effectively at an end.

“The Erdogan government has invested a great deal in reconciliation with the Kurds,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in an interview with the Bild am Sonntag newspaper. “It can’t allow all the bridges that have been built up over the course of this process to be torn down.”

At the same time, Steinmeier warned against judging Turkey too quickly, noting that it was taking on more refugees from Syria and Iraq than any other country and coping with a major threat on its border from the civil war in Syria.

Writing by Noah Barkin and Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Digby Lidstone