By Blake Goodman, Transatlantic Security Analyst
As the Syrian civil war drags on, NATO could find itself at a crossroads in the Middle East. Turkey has become embroiled in the crisis in Syria and, as a result, the alliance is looking at its southern border with much trepidation. With armed opposition forces openly fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s repressive Ba’ath Party government, Syria has arguably become the most violent of the revolutions in the Middle East. Syrian rebels have taken positions near the Turkish-Syrian border, and Syrian government forces have begun shelling rebel strongholds in an effort to restore control over those areas. This has created an enormous refugee problem for Turkey, with uncommitted and rebelling Syrians alike crossing the border to try to escape the fighting. The Turkish Disaster Management Agency has confirmed that there are 100,363 Syrians at 14 camps along the border in Turkey.
However, the Syrian government recently took its anti-rebellion efforts one step further earlier this month when a Syrian mortar hit the Turkish border town of Akçakale, killing 5 Turkish citizens and injuring 13 others. While the Syrian government claimed that this was an errant bomb not meant to hit inside of Turkey and apologized for the incident, the Turkish government retaliated for six consecutive days, with radar-assisted guns firing on Syrian artillery units and tanks inside Syria, killing 14 Syrian soldiers and injuring 23. This latest exchange of fire isn’t the first – in June, Syrian government forces shot down a Turkish RF-4E reconnaissance jet that was on a training mission to test Turkey’s radar capabilities, saying that it had deliberately come into Syrian airspace; the Turkish government said that it was shot down over international waters. Now, Turkey seems to be taking preemptive measures to protect itself from any future Syrian attacks, scrambling F-16s to its border in response to Syrian military helicopters patrolling the Syrian side of the border, as well as grounding and searching a Syrian passenger jet flying from Moscow to Damascus that was suspected of carrying arms to the Syrian government.
With all of this in mind, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey passed a bill 320 to 129 that authorized the Turkish military to launch cross-border operations against Syria for a period of one year. Despite this, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a member of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has publicly stated that Turkey “want[s] peace and security and nothing else. We could never be interested in something like starting a war.” But, Mr. Erdo?an did reiterate: “The Turkish Republic is a state capable of defending its citizens and borders. Nobody should try and test our determination on this subject.” He has also asserted that the shelling of Akçakale was not an isolated incident, and that Syrian government forces have shelled several other Turkish targets.
As a member of NATO, Turkey is entitled to activate two clauses of the North Atlantic Treaty if threatened. Under Article IV, it is entitled to consultation. Turkey has invoked this clause thrice, the latest time after the attacks on Akçakale. However, it is Article V – which stipulates that an armed attack against one member is considered an attack against all – that could trigger NATO intervention. Should Turkey decide to consider the attacks from Syria deliberate and invoke Article V, NATO members would have little choice but to respond to the Turkish call. In fact, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said that NATO has “all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary.” But NATO has already denied the Turkish government’s request to put in place a no-fly zone over Syria, which could stop further attacks on Turkey and alleviate a growing refugee problem.
In order to galvanize NATO, Turkey may look to the UN for support in defending itself from future Syrian government attacks. After the shelling of Akçakale, the Security Council “underscored that this incident highlighted the grave impact the crisis in Syria has on the security of its neighbors and on regional peace and security.” Gert Rosenthal, the ambassador from Guatemala and current Council president, said: “The members of the council demanded that such violations of international law stop immediately and are not repeated.” The United States also has a vested interest in potential conflicts between Syria and its neighbors, with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta dispatching troops to Jordan – a nation that is facing a similar refugee problem to that of Turkey – in order to bolster Jordan’s military capabilities in the event that Syria takes military action against refugees in Jordan. The U.S., Turkey, and Jordan have all expressed worry over the possibility that the Syrian government will use chemical weapons to end the conflict, given that Syria is one of only a handful of nations that is a non-signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.
Unfortunately for Turkey, Russian support for Syria may be a significant stumbling block to NATO intervention. Russia is a preeminent ally of al-Assad’s government and has criticized the West for supporting rebels in Syria. Turkey has accused Russia of supplying Syria with munitions, which prompted the aforementioned grounding of the Syrian passenger flight from Moscow. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov has been quoted as saying that NATO should “not seek pretexts for carrying out a military scenario or to introduce initiatives such as humanitarian corridors or buffer zones.” Russia has also said that both sides should exercise restraint, believing that radicals among the rebels in Syria could intentionally provoke a conflict in order to overturn the Syrian government.
NATO only intervened in Libya after the Security Council approved UNSCR 1973, when both Russia and China abstained from the vote. Without a similar resolution allowing for intervention in Syria, it seems unlikely that NATO will intervene. Given Russia and China’s support of the Syrian regime, it is expected that they would veto any vote on NATO intervention in Syria, just as they have been doing with draft resolutions related to sanctions on the country. Syria, moreover, is a nation with a much higher population density than Libya, meaning that any intervention beyond defensive actions could lead to alliance-splitting casualty levels. Realizing this fact, it appears that Turkey will simply have to defend its borders as long as it can. However, should the situation escalate and become too much for Turkey, NATO may take the step of intervening without UN support. This would be an incredible, though not unprecedented, step for NATO and leads one to wonder: Would all NATO members heed Turkey’s call, and would Russia and others simply sit idly by?