Invoking Alliances?

Just because Syria attacks Turkey doesn't mean NATO needs to intervene says Steve Saideman.
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October 5, 2012
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NATO seems to hit the news just as I board planes, so I belatedly saw some confused reactions to Turkey going to NATO over Syrian shelling. Let me clarify the rules and the realities of NATO, and Turkey’s place in it.

To be clear, an attack upon a NATO member does not automatically invoke Article V, which says an attack upon one is equal to an attack upon all. For NATO’s obligations to kick in, the members have to gain consensus – they have to agree not only that an attack has taken place, but also that NATO will act on behalf of the attacked. This is entirely political – there is no automaticity. And, as I will discuss in a moment, Turkey is not beloved by all NATO members, so it is not necessarily the case that a consensus would form. 

The second key proviso is that the language of Article V does not require any or all countries to respond in a specific way. Each member is to react as it “deems necessary.” So, NATO could agree to invoke Article V, but then it might be the case that few, if any, countries contribute anything to Turkey’s defence. This has been a lesson learned and re-learned with every NATO operation. Greece, for instance, only sent 15 or so troops to Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, the one time Article V has been invoked. 

So, NATO’s guarantees are not that binding. And, when it comes to Turkey, they may be even less binding. Across the alliance, countries vary in how much they put on the table and how much they take off. Lately, for instance, Canada has contributed much but demanded little.  Other countries take much off and contribute little. Greece, for instance, helps to bog down NATO in various efforts, such as building relationships with the European Union, because of Greece’s problems with Turkey. Plus, Greece has been blocking Macedonia’s entry due to its objections of Macedonia’s name. And what has Greece given to NATO lately besides the aforementioned token deployment to Afghanistan? Basing for the Libyan operation, which is not insignificant, but is less than participation.

When it comes to Turkey, the tale of the tape is more mixed. The fact that Turkey is the only Muslim majority country in NATO has made its contributions particularly important in Afghanistan and Libya, as its participation adds legitimacy to the NATO efforts. At the same time, in neither effort did Turkey do any of the “heavy-lifting” with restrictive rules of engagement that limited one of the larger contingents in Afghanistan from engaging in offensive operations. Turkey, with its issues over Cyprus and Greece, helps to block progress on NATO-EU relations. Still, Turkey has a particularly strategic location and influence in the Mideast, so it is important to NATO. 

There are larger political games that also leave Turkey without many friends in the alliance. The refusal to admit Turkey to the European Union, the rise of Islamophobia and xenophobic parties, and a series of slights have frayed Turkey’s relationship with some major European countries.  Can Turkey count on the U.S.? Sure. But the alliance as a whole? Perhaps not. 

Of course, some shelling, while serious to Turkey and tragic to those in harm’s way, is not exactly the casus belli that Article V was intended to address. Moreover, exhaustion from multiple wars, fiscal crises, and the growing realization that intervention is a messy business (as recent events in Libya and the ongoing green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan illustrate) mean that few have any enthusiasm for a mission to take down Syria. Turkey will find it frustrating that there is not much support in Brussels, but its leaders should not be that surprised, either. 

The only surprising element of this current situation is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been ramping up violence against Turkey, given that this is the most likely way (even if it is not very likely) that NATO will be driven to jump in in a big way. Perhaps Assad knows NATO better than the people tweeting about Article V? Probably not.

Photo courtesy of Reuters