Would NATO Support Turkey in Syria?

Turkey recently carried out a series of artillery bombardments in territories on the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syria border. This action was taken in line with the principles of “response-in-kind” and “self defense” by a sovereign state, for the protection of its territory and its people, ordered following the shelling of the Turkish border town of Akçakale last month. The bombardments did not require any parliamentary action and were exercised within the “Rules of Engagement” that were previously announced.

The Rules of Engagement represent a comprehensive set of very detailed and multi-stage military rules, regarding how the armed forces should respond to specific actions imposed on them by “other parties.”

Despite these Rules of Engagement, the government requested a special bill of approval from parliament to allow military operations outside the country following the Akçakale event. The request was granted under the requirements of Article 92 of the Constitution, with parliament thus authorizing the government to engage military personnel in foreign countries. As this bill of authorization did not specify any geographic territories or limitations on types of action to be considered, the government effectively secured a “blank check” for military actions anywhere in the world by this approval. It must be emphasized here that the “additional risks and threats against the country” that this special bill mentioned did not simply emerge on their own, but rather came about as natural and unavoidable results of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) short-sighted policies on both Syria and the wider region.

Viewed from a different perspective and recalling Clausewitz’s statement that “war is the continuation of politics through other means,” the government’s request to send troops abroad represented official admission of the collapse of its political-military campaign on Syria.

We see today that the AKP’s Syria policy has reached a dead-end in more than one area. The government’s open support for the (so called) Free Syrian Army (FSA) not only shed doubts on the motives and legitimacy of the parliamentary approval to engage troops abroad, but also greatly enhanced the positions of Bashar al-Assad and his supporters, Russia and China, in international public opinion. The AKP government’s decision to allow FSA bases in Turkish territory has opened Turkey up to accusations that it is a country that assists and harbors terrorist groups. Practically, this opens up possible discussion of Syria’s right to “self defense” as per articles 2.4 and 51 of the United Nations charter.

This point also possibly opens up discussion of the options and capacities available for Turkey at the NATO platform, especially regarding Article 5 of the NATO agreement that makes reference to “self defense” as defined in Article 51 of the U.N. charter. Thus, Turkey’s position vis a vis Syria jeopardizes its capacity to resort to Article 5 of the NATO agreement. Moreover, it makes its doubtful that a NATO decision could be taken in support of Turkey based on Article 5. Let alone the randomly falling artillery shells, even under the conditions of a direct and pointed attack on Turkish territory, it would not be a surprise if a NATO decision on Article 5 to support Turkey did not materialize.


We should clarify a number of points here regarding the decision-taking mechanisms of NATO. First of all, all binding decisions of the alliance are taken unanimously. Therefore, any official statements from the institution take effect only by formal consensus of all the members of the alliance. As such, any statement or comment that implies a message of support for Turkey ought to be taken cautiously and without any exaggeration, unless supported by a formal decision from all its members. Looking at the decisions and statements of the NATO Atlantic Council, we do not see the word “threat” used, indicating that NATO members’ assessment of Turkey’s position falls short of clearly stating that “Turkey is under threat,” which would serve as legal grounds for a decision under Article 5. Instead, the allies prefer to describe the situation in relation to Article 4 of the agreement, which includes the phrase: “…a clear and present danger to the security of one of its Allies.” NATO thus considers that its ally (Turkey) is simply “in danger.”

Following this declaration, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made a statement ahead of the meetings of the NATO Defense Ministers and announced that plans to support Turkey had already been finalized. However, this statement should not be exaggerated, as it merely serves as a sign of moral support. The NATO alliance rests on the strong foundations of collective defense and the backing of Trans-Atlantic (U.S.) support. In recent years, efforts to prepare for new contingencies and opportunities of the new security environment have gained weight in the strategic thinking of NATO.

Special emphasis on “collective defense through Article 5,” which is consistently stated after all NATO summits, is generally taken as a statement of assurance for smaller-sized members of the alliance, serving as the fundamental bonding agent amongst the allies. Thus, the Secretary-General’s statement after the last meeting should be viewed not as an explicit statement of support for a special situation concerning Turkey, but rather as a general signal to reassure Turkey of NATO’s principal of collective defense and a signal to other members to prepare for out-of-area operations.

It is a matter of historical record that NATO – in its 50-year history during the Cold War – did not once take any decision related to collective defense based on Article 5.

 We can make this inference from the new strategies agreed on at the recent NATO summit in Lisbon. Based on the new strategic concept, adapted in Lisbon, the fundamental task of the alliance has become one of preparedness for the new challenges and opportunities in the security environment that has emerged in the 21st century. As the U.S., NATO’s “big brother,” seems to receive the lion’s share of these opportunities, others – such as the U.K., Germany and France – seem content to get what remains. To emphasize, the statements that make reference to the collective defense principle of Article 5 do not amount to much more than “lip service” to keep smaller members in line and ensure the flow of economic benefits that result from their continued participation in the alliance.

This view does not reflect an ideological perception of the alliance, it is evident in the track record of the decisions taken by it. It is a matter of historical record that NATO – in its 50-year history during the Cold War – did not once take any decision related to collective defense based on Article 5. However, during this period the member states had to run high defense budgets against security threats from Warsaw Pact countries. This resulted in huge capital flows in arms purchases to the U.S. as confirmation of the trans-Atlantic ties and as gratitude for the resources committed to the revival of European economies under the Marshall Plan in the 1950s. When NATO finally invoked Article 5, it was only in response to the changing risk and threat perceptions that came with the attack on the World Trade Center. What was the outcome then? Defense spending by the Middle Eastern states hiked and, on top of that, the energy resources in these countries were put to the service of the U.S. as a “bonus.”

Going back to Rasmussen’s statements, it is indeed true that NATO prepares and keeps ready all contingency plans in support of collective defense of all its members against any threats and security risks. When Rasmussen makes reference to plans to support Turkey being ready, he is simply making reference to the routine support plans that are available under Article 5. If these plans were actually put into action it would be contingent on an open and direct attack on Turkey from Syria. This, in turn, would depend on a U.N. Security Council decision based on Article 51 that would, then, be followed by a NATO decision to take this attack into consideration within the scope of Article 5 of its treaty. It is only on this decision that the contingency support plans would be invoked which would still require unanimous decisions of the necessary bodies of the alliance at each stage of the implementation of these plans. These plans would essentially entail NATO actions in support of the Turkish Armed Forces resisting an attack on its own territory and defending its own territorial integrity. Stated more clearly, these plans would be limited to NATO actions on territories defined within the area of responsibilities of the Alliance as provisioned in Article 5.

In case the plans that Rasmussen makes reference to in his statements imply NATO’s involvement in Syria within the context of “peace building operations,” these plans would only relate to Turkey due to its geographical proximity to the area. Turkey’s policies to date vis a vis Syria and its support for the FSA would be considered as part of the conditions for possible out-of-area actions NATO may decide to conduct in Syria, based on its contingency plans for “peace support operations.”

The resulting picture here depicts nothing more than the role of a “sub-contractor” for Turkey in the event of any intervention in the Syrian conflict by NATO. Should NATO decide to conduct operations in Syria, this decision would come as a step to intervene in and arrest any threats and developments against the global security interests of its members, as in Libya. This would definitely not constitute a direct response to the needs and expectations of Turkey in its political stance in this conflict. It is clear that the tasks and responsibilities that Turkey would have to undertake in a Peace Support Operation by NATO would inflict great costs and burdens on the country. Considering that Turkey and Syria both have their longest land borders with each other, the magnitude of Turkey’s burden would be far deeper and longer lasting than any other member state.

In conclusion, we can envisage a very clear and realistic scenario regarding any NATO involvement in the Syrian crisis. At best, a Peace Support Operation would only be decided upon a new “opportunity” stemming from the “challenges” against any security interests and strategies of NATO/U.S. in the region. Regarding the plans to be implemented in this event, we envisage that these would be the contingency plans for out-of-area operations, recently defined as non-Article 5 operations in the alliance.

As such, the Turkish government would be well-served to consider only the relevant scenarios in their game-planning that do not take into account any actions by NATO under Article 5 of its treaty with regard to any prospective intervention in the Syrian conflict.

About Ali Er

Brigadier General (Rt)