INCIRLIK AIR BASE, TURKEY -- The United States authorized on Friday the deployment of 400 troops for two Patriot missile-defense batteries along Turkey's border with Syria, a move that could put American forces 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 U.S. 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.
Panetta said "it is a matter of time" before the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is toppled. The United States, he said, is providing nonlethal aid to certain factions of the opposition, hoping to bolster responsible new leaders.
Germany and the Netherlands have each offered to deploy two Patriot batteries to Turkey. The six batteries on offer fall short of the number Turkey had sought.
Syria fired ballistic missiles this week into rebel-held areas, a move that gave Turkey's request a sense of urgency. Military analysts, however, say that Damascus is unlikely to take on Turkey, a militarily superior nation that has been harboring and supporting the Syrian opposition forces battling government troops.
Deploying the missile-defense system is thus expected to be more of a symbolic than tactical move, unless the international community decides to enforce a no-fly zone.
"The batteries will be in place within a few weeks, probably sometime next month," Little said.
Rebels have been making steady gains against Assad's military, raising speculation that the collapse of the regime could be near. Western officials fear that a cornered Assad could resort to desperate moves, such as using his country's stockpile of chemical weapons.
Panetta said the Defense Department has drawn up plans for the White House, laying out an array of possible responses to the use of chemical weapons by Syria. He did not provide details.