The United States gave the go-ahead Friday to deploy Patriot anti-ballistic missiles to Turkey along with enough troops to operate them as the heavily embattled government in neighboring Syria again vehemently denied firing ballistic missiles at rebels.
The United States has accused Damascus of launching Scud-type artillery from the capital at rebels in the country's north. One Washington official said missiles came close to the border of Turkey, a NATO member and staunch U.S. ally.
Syria's government called the accusations "untrue rumors" Friday, according to state news agency SANA. Damascus accused Turkey and its partners of instigating rumors to make the government look bad internationally.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed the order while en route to Turkey to send two Patriot missile batteries and 400 U.S. troops to operate them. The surface-to-air interceptors will help in "dealing with threats that come out of Syria," Panetta said after landing at Incirlik Air Base, a U.S. Air Force installation about 80 miles from Syria's border.
Panetta was unconcerned about possible reactions from Damascus to the Patriot deployment. "We can't spend a lot of time worrying about whether that pisses off Syria," he said, adamant that helping Turkey was the priority.
Panetta did say he was worried what Bashar al-Assad's government may do if it feels it is near collapse.
Descriptions provided to CNN by U.S. officials familiar with the latest intelligence suggest the Syrian leader's problems have accelerated internally as the opposition continues to capture more territory.
"It's at its lowest point yet," said one senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of the latest assessments. "The trend is moving more rapidly than it has in the past."
The officials agreed to talk on the condition their names not be used because they were not authorized to discuss the information with the media.
When asked what the response might be if Syria deployed chemical weapons, Panetta said that the U.S. military had "drawn up plans" but that "it's not easy" to defend against them.
Germany and the Netherlands have shown willingness to add two Patriot batteries each from their countries, NATO said Friday, to defend Turkey and "de-escalate the crisis on NATO's southeastern border."
NATO has also said it detected what appeared to be ballistic missile launches within Syria and condemned their possible use as "utter disregard for the lives of the Syrian people."
Turkey and NATO insist the Patriot system would be used only for defense.
Patriots are constructed to take out threats from warplanes and tactical ballistic missiles to unmanned aircraft by impacting with them in midair, according to Raytheon Co., which builds them. The U.S. military used to take out Scud missiles during the Iraq war.