Saturday, 12 May 2012

Will Turkey Invoke Article V over Syria?

The ongoing crisis in Syria, seemingly coming ever closer to all-out civil war, will be one of the most significant issues forming the background to the NATO Summit in Chicago. There have been numerous calls for NATO to intervene in the crisis, but so far these have been resisted. One problem is that it would not be possible to get a UN Security Council mandate for action, since Russia and China are absolutely opposed to letting NATO act against President Assad. For Russia this is a matter of protecting an ally, but for both Russia and China it is also a reaction to NATO's over-reach in Libya, where the Atlantic Alliance took a mandate to protect civilians against violence and used it justify the overthrow of Colonel Gaddhafi.

However, it might also be open to NATO to intervene using the Atlantic Treaty's Article V on common defence. Turkey has a long border with Syria, and thousands of refugees have already fled to safety in Turkey. There have been several incidents of cross border fire, with Syria attacking refugees inside Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, amongst others, have raised the possibility of asking NATO to intervene since early April. This was criticised, naturally, by Syrian spokesmen. Some observers were surprised that Turkey did not raise the issue of an Article V intervention in Syria during the recent Ministerial meeting in Brussels which prepared the Chicago Summit. Turkish sources had been saying before the meeting that they would do so, but afterwards NATO officials said the matter never came up.

However, Turkish media have reported that on May 10, Turkish government spokesmen again raised the idea that Turkey could ask for Article V solidarity from NATO following yet another attack by Syrian forces on Syrians in Turkey. Today's Zaman reported that:
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Selcuk Unal said during a press briefing on Thursday that Turkey's expectation from Syria is that it halts the violence as soon as possible to prevent further instability. Unal said: "However, we have many options on the table if this instability deepens. We have to determine these options in accordance with the developments we face. As you know, Article 5 of NATO is related to self-defense. So, this issue was mentioned in the past due to some incidents that occurred [along the Turkish border]. This is, of course, a matter which will remain on the agenda and it will still be assessed."
A NATO intervention on this basis could not be an all out campaign to overthrow President Assad, nor even a series of attacks to prevent Syrian forces attacking their own civilians across the country. It would most likely be confined to security a 'safe zone' along the border to prevent Syria attacking refugees, or indeed making any other kind of attack, across the border with Turkey.

There is even a provision for this in the 1998 Adana Accord under which Syria ".. will not permit any activity that emanates from its territory aimed at jeopardizing the security and stability of Turkey." This was aimed at cooperative security measures against the PKK, and at preventing the PKK from operating inside Syria against Turkey. However, it might be open to turkey to recognise the Syrian National Council as the legitimate government of Syria and to then fight alongside the Free Syrian Army against President Assad. 

In an unstable region this would be truly dangerous territory. And there are other concerns too.

Unless Russia were absolutely convinced this was a very limited operation to protect Turkey it could have terrible consequences for NATO Russia relations. Russia would see this as a NATO aggression, and the effects on US-Russia arms control talks, BMD cooperation talks, as well as other aspects of relations with Russia would probably suffer in the short to medium term.

Since Turkish relations with Israel are also bad, and Syria sits between Israel and Iran, having NATO intervene there would have unforeseen consequences on NATO-Israel relations. it may put NATO right in the firing line of an Israeli attack on Iran, in the event that that were to happen.

It seems unlikely that NATO will intervene, if only to prevent a messy regional war and worsened relations with Russia, but as Joshua Foust has highlighted there are internal NATO reasons to stay out too:

Prime Minister Erdogan may very well gain support from some European states to increase security assets along the Turkish-Syrian border. But no matter the threat of spillover from Syria into Turkey, NATO’s ability to meaningfully affect the situation is, at best, very limited. And the bigger currents within European defense circles – contracting, scaling back, and reducing forces and so on – mean that even if NATO wanted to do something, in all likelihood it couldn’t. 
This has profound implications for Europe and the Middle East. NATO has been a bulwark of stability since its founding in 1949; after the Cold War, it transitioned from opposing the Soviet Union to assisting the political transition of the former Warsaw Pact countries (many of whom have since become NATO members). Now, however, NATO is drifting between the lofty ambitions of the new strategic concept announced in the 2010 Lisbon Treaty and the messy reality of drastically curtailed defense budgets and a limited appetite for adventurism. 
The end result is that when a member state, like Turkey, is facing a serious threat along its border, NATO will have a very limited capacity to actually assist in rallying to its defense. This doesn’t mean the alliance is done with, but it does mean that NATO requires some serious thinking and strategic planning to match its ambitions with its capabilities. 

President Obama isn't going to want another war on his hands in an election year, and in the end, that is going to count for more than Turkey's concerns about instability on its borders.

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