“I dare you to cross this line. I double dare you”: Turkey, Syria, and NATO

Syria is in no way resembling a nation on the mend. As the days go by, Assad’s determination to stay in power remains clear, as does the growing desire of his people to ensure that doesn’t happen. By any means necessary. This morning’s retaliatory strike against a Syrian armed forces convoy for an earlier incident involving the death of several protesters proves that point quite effectively.

Turkey, once Syria’s ally in the region, has turned its back on the Assad regime, protesting its wanton killing of civilians and placing sanctions on the state, alongside those imposed by the United States, European Union, and Arab League. Turkey also has constructed several refugee camps for the thousands of Syrians who have fled across the border. More likely than not, the Turkish government is also providing refuge for members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a collection of defected Syrian security forces, who are the probable launchers of this morning’s attack.

The stream of refugees into Turkey has the potential to be a destabilizing factor in the region, a threat to international peace and security that the Security Council has often invoked since the 1990s as the basis for acting under Chapters VI and/or VII of the Charter, exercising its power to restore the peace. In the Syrian case, however, Syria has the backing of the Russian Federation, despite growing pressure on Moscow to give up on Damascus, with Russia sure to veto any real action.

Syria has yet to take action against Turkey for hosting these refugees. But suppose Turkey keeps hosting these refugees and the FSA. What happens when an FSA member crosses back across the border into Turkey, with Syria in hot pursuit? What happens when, not if, Syria decides to attack a refugee camp in retaliation? Syria has already come close, coming within a quarter-mile of the border in June.

This could be the endgame that we see for Syria. The second, the absolute second, that Syrian security forces violate Turkish sovereignty, whether they actually engage with Turkish soldiers or not, it’s game over for Assad. Any hesitancy of the international community would be overturned, lest a greater crisis come about.

Turkey could invoke Article 51 of the UN Charter. And in turn would be able to invoke Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty.

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.

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

And from there all the pieces interventionists have wanted to be able to aid civilians in Syria before civil war spirals out of control would be in place. No need to invoke the Responsibility to Protect, though the principles would still be at play and understood. No circumvention of the UN Charter would be required, unlike NATO’s actions in Kosovo in 1999. Article VIII clearly provides for collective security and defense arrangements, such as NATO. And Article V of the North Atlantic Charter mirrors the language involved in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter as action must halt once the Security Council has moved forward on the issue.

So far, the only instance of Article V actually being called upon was in 2001, following the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Turkey has threatened in the past to use the Article to demand action, particularly against Iraq should Turkey have come under attack in the instances of the Gulf and Iraq Wars.

Refusal of a formal invoking on Article V, particularly after an incursion has taken place onto a members soil, would be the exact sort of crisis that opponents of Georgia’s ascension into NATO fear. But in this instance, Turkey has been a loyal member of NATO since 1949; despite official statements declaring that NATO has no intention on intervening in Syria, the body would have to act or risk facing a true existential crisis greater than the collapse of the Soviet Union. NATO’s collective power, without the mandate of SC/1970 to keep ground forces out of combat, would be effective in bringing about an end to Assad.

Turkish armed forces are no slouch themselves, either. Should Turkey actually enter conflict against Syria, the results wouldn’t be overly lopsided, but Turkey would most likely be able to overpower Syria. The campaign would take far longer without NATO support and capabilities, however, and the longer a military operation lasts the greater the likelihood of civilian deaths in the form of collateral damage. There’s also the potential of a “rally around the flag” effect coming into play, though the Libyan example makes me think this is less likely.

France has seemed the most eager out of the NATO heavyweights to take action against Syria, but has ruled out the possibility of unilateral action by any members. Give Sarkozy the opening of a multilateral framework and legal course of action, though, and he will surely move to take action; France has a certain soft spot for intervention in former territories and protectorates, and Syria is no exception. The US and UK would hesitate, but eventually move forward. The Obama Administration doesn’t want to be seen as leading from behind again in an election year, and the overturn of the Assad government fits within stated US goals. The UK would most likely lend support as possible, potentially spinning it as proof that it is less isolated from Europe than many have claimed following last week’s EU Summit.

Further, it is in my belief that an actual launch of military operations wouldn’t be necessary to have actual action take place on Syria finally. Should Turkey invoke Article V, Russia would surely raise the issue in the UN Security Council, with all its normal bluster and condemnation of NATO actions. It would be well within the means of the Western members of the P-5 to offer that Turkey stand down its actions, provided Russia go along with Security Council action on the matter, short of actual military force. This would allow Russia to save face on the region, rather than being faced with the humiliation of NATO carrying out action despite its less than subtle warnings over the past weeks and months, and ensure that the Security Council’s primacy on matters of peace and security be asserted over NATO, a goal Russia often quoted in protesting the Kosovo intervention.

I am aware that I come dangerously close to Friedman-ing in this post, here defined as imposing an overly neat and idealistic hypothetical solution to a complex real-world problem. However, this is a scenario that, while not likely, does fall within the realm of possibility. Further, I think it’s worth at least considering, as I’ve seen nobody else mention it, which is odd when you take into account the high likelihood of Syrian cross-border retaliation. The endgame described here probably isn’t the one we’re going to see play out in Syria. But it would certainly cut through a lot of the issues preventing intervention.

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