NATO defence ministers were set Thursday to consider whether to step up protection of the military alliance's southern flank, amid new tensions in Syria following recent intervention by Russia.

"Our military commanders have confirmed that we already have the capabilities and infrastructure that we need to deploy the NATO response force to the south, and to sustain it there. But we will also consider what more we might need to do," NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said ahead of the ministers' talks in Brussels.

The response force has, since 2002, allowed troops from NATO members to be deployed quickly in a crisis. It was enhanced last year after Russia's actions in Ukraine.

The four-year conflict in Syria entered a new phase last week when Russia started airstrikes in the Middle Eastern country - ostensibly to fight the Islamic State extremist group, but in practice targeting other opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the West says.

Tensions mounted further after Russian warplanes operating in Syria twice violated the airspace of Turkey, a NATO member. NATO officials have said that the violations do not appear to have been accidental.

"Russia is making a very serious situation in Syria much more dangerous," British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told journalists in Brussels.

"We have seen a troubling escalation of Russian military activities," Stoltenberg added. "We will assess the latest developments and their implications for the security of the alliance."

NATO has an increased capacity to deploy forces both to the east and the south, "including in Turkey if needed," Stoltenberg noted.

"NATO is able and ready to defend all allies, including Turkey, against any threats," he said.

The 28-country alliance already has five Patriot missile batteries stationed in southern Turkey, deployed in 2013 to thwart attacks from Syria. But the United States and Germany have announced that they are pulling out the two batteries they have each provided.

The US cited a global defence posture review, while Germany said that it had assessed the threat of missile attacks as having dropped.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen defended her country's decision on Thursday.

"The question is which threat can be averted in what way, and in this context the decision is right," she said in Brussels.

by Alexandra Mayer-Hohdahl, dpa news



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