BRUSSELS: NATO foreign ministers are expected to approve Tuesday Turkey's request for deployment of Patriot missiles to counter a threat from syria even as Russian President Vladamir Putin urged caution.
US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder said the meeting to Wednesday would likely clear the way for the Patriots, with the bloody conflict in syria the major talking point for the alliance's 28 members who share a vow of mutual defence.
Relations with Russia and prospective NATO member Georgia, with which Moscow fought a brief war in 2008, and the position in Afghanistan where the alliance plans to withdraw all combat troops by 2014, round out the agenda, he said.
President Putin warned Monday that any deployment of Patriot missiles would only add to tensions while US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Damascus bluntly over the possible use of chemical weapons against the rebels.
"Creating additional capabilities on the border does not defuse the situation but on the contrary exacerbates it," Putin told a press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after talks in Istanbul.
"This is a red line for the United States," Clinton said in Prague, referring to the possible use of chemical weapons in syria.
"I'm not going to telegraph ... what we would do in the event of credible evidence that (Damascus) ... has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people but suffice it to say that we're certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur," she said.
The New York Times reported earlier that the US and Europe have warned syria after detecting recent movement of chemical weapons by the military.
"The activity we are seeing suggests some potential chemical weapon preparation," one US official told the daily, which added that the weekend activity set off a flurry of emergency communications among the Western allies.
In Damascus, a foreign ministry spokesman said syria would never deploy chemical weapons against its own people.
Moscow is a staunch ally of Damascus, routinely blocking resolutions against President Bashar al-Assad's regime at the UN Security Council to the discomfort of Washington and the West which has wanted intervention to stem the bloodshed.
That stance and the latest exchanges may make a lunch meeting Tuesday of the NATO Russia Council attended by Clinton and her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavarov somewhat strained.
Both NATO and Turkey insist that the deployment of the US-made surface-to-air Patriot missiles is a purely defensive move and alliance diplomats pressed this point on Monday.
NATO "is a defence alliance and any deployment would be for defensive purposes," one diplomat said, stressing that it would in no way "support a no-fly zone" to protect the rebels from Damascus's still potent air power.
Military sources in Turkey have said NATO is considering the deployment of up to six Patriot batteries and some 300-400 foreign troops to operate them.
The Patriot, designed mainly to bring down missiles but effective also against aircraft, would likely be supplied by Germany, The Netherlands or the United States.
The NATO meeting is expected to be the last for Clinton, with Daalder giving her credit for having revitalised the US-Europe relationship over the past four years.
Clinton will leave behind "a very impressive legacy," he said, citing progress on Afghanistan, missile defence and a new harmony between the allies while NATO's global security role had been enhanced.
Daalder said relations with Russia were not always easy but the secretary of state had proceeded on the basis that nothing could be accomplished "if you can't sit at the same table."