The debate on whether or not NATO should intervene in what is quickly becoming the Syrian Civil War continues as the violence across the country escalates. In Washington and London, it appears as if legislative and public opposition has convinced executives to limit their support for President Assad’s opponents to statements of support and condemnations of government massacres of civilians. But the question as to whether or not NATO, as an alliance, will take action depends on one’s definition of NATO. Indeed, more so than in Libya or even Afghanistan, the course NATO decides to take in Syria may very well determine the future of the alliance.
In more ways than one, NATO has already intervened in Syria. From an early stage, Turkey has been giving refuge and aid to Syrian civilians fleeing the fighting and Ankara also hosts the opposition Syrian National Council. More recently, Turkey has deployed tanks and anti-aircraft weapons on the border after Syria shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom on patrol, representing a dangerous escalation between the two countries. While NATO central command has condemned the attack, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has stated that he does not expect the situation to escalate despite the incident qualifying as grounds for Turkey to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, which reads:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
While this type of incident was certainly not what the authors of the North Atlantic Treaty had in mind when NATO was established, neither were the attacks of September 11th, which provided the grounds on which the US invoked Article 5 to call its allies into action in Afghanistan despite their deep-seated reluctance. If Turkey follows suit and invokes Article 5, will the United States keep to its alliance commitment or will it leave Turkey hanging?
It may help to take a step back and consider what, exactly, NATO is as an organization. Consider the UN Security Council: its 5 permanent representatives are the victors of World War II: the US, the UK, France, Russia, and China. Other important world powers, notably Germany and Japan, have been left off of this list. But the Cold War necessitated a new collective security arrangement among the Western allies. NATO was the result, with the US, England, and France incorporating their clients, including notable non-North Atlantic states such as Greece and Turkey, in their fight against communism.
The Cold War may be over, but NATO remains. So what, then, is NATO? This is a question that has weighed on the alliance since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some might argue that it is an institution to cement US military dominance over Europe while others might claim that it is a way to allow European states disinterested in investing in their own defense to free-ride off of US military power. On one hand, however, intervention in Libya, spearheaded by European states including Italy and France, challenges the first notion. On the other hand, intervention in Afghanistan — where, according to numerous accounts, the US pressured European states to participate in combat operations much to the chagrin of their parliaments and publics — challenges the second. But they have something in common: both very much presuppose a Western-dominated club focused on the global interests of its principal members. While Turkey and Greece were key buffer states between the Mediterranean and the Soviet Union, and thus integral America’s Cold War strategy of containment, their place in the future of the alliance is unclear.
Moreover, it is likely that the abandonment of these allies would result in the rest to express serious concerns about their own membership and perhaps even lead to their departure from NATO. They would see such an act of abandonment as the US presupposing, and often demanding, a commitment to its own interests while failing to consider those of its allies. Will the US and Britain come to Turkey’s defense if open hostilities break out between Turkey and Syria, or even more provocatively, Turkey and Syria’s regional backer, Iran? This is certainly a pressing question, but it reflects an alliance cleavage that is quite familiar to us.
Israel’s involvement complicates matters further. While Jerusalem has kept quiet, Israeli media sources have called for aid and arms for Syrian rebels. But it remains unclear just how far Israeli support for Assad’s opponents runs. In January, a high ranking Syrian defector, General Hussam Awak, reported that Iran dispatched an armored brigade of Revolutionary Guardsmen to fight alongside pro-government Syrian forces. Other reports suggest Hizbullah fighters are doing the same. While both are implacable enemies of Israel, this alliance has not led to increased strategic cooperation between Israel and Turkey. Quite the opposite, relations between Israel and Turkey are at the lowest point in their diplomatic history, souring after an incident in which Israeli troops stormed a Turkish vessel attempting to break the Israeli blockage of Gaza. This incident resulted in the deaths of 9 Turkish citizens, with each side blaming the other for its aggression. With Turkish rhetoric against Israel at an all-time high, on must wonder whether Netanyahu’s hawkish government will decide to go to war, an outcome for which it has been calling for quite some time, on Turkey’s behalf. If the answer is no, then a Turkish invocation of Article 5 would be met by intense diplomatic efforts to prevent the US from going to Turkey’s assistance, an outcome that would almost certainly result in attacks against Israeli civilian targets. Arguments regarding the nature of the pro-Israel lobby aside, with presidential elections six months away, there would be intense pressure on the Obama administration to consider Israel’s security concerns over those of Turkey.
The problem is that Israel is not a member of NATO, merely a close ally. And if a non-NATO member can successfully lobby the US or any other European state to ignore its alliance commitments, what does this mean for the future of the alliance? This is an exceedingly difficult question to answer. Not only is it far too early to tell whether Syria and Turkey will be able to escape the classic “spiral model” of military escalation, Israel’s attitude towards escalation with Syria remains unknown. The US has often pressured Turkey to uphold its alliance commitments, especially regarding US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Will the United States find a pretext dismiss its own and what will that mean for the future of the alliance? While this discussion has raised many more questions than answers, it is clear that the Syria conflict is much more politically complicated than anything NATO has faced in the post-Cold War period.