Why has NATO Failed to Exploit Turk-Russia “Tensions” in Syria?

P 17.03.2020 U Salman Rafi Sheikh

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In any other sort of circumstances, the NATO countries from Europe and North America would have rushed to help Turkey fight the “Russian invaders” in Syria and accomplish their avowed mission. This, however, did not happen when Turkey and Russia came “eye ball to eye ball” in Syria over the question of the liberation and control of Syria’s Idlib province and the adjoining strategically important areas, including the M-4 highway. Tensions are already disappearing with a Turkey-Russia “deal”, paving the way for an eventual settlement of interests. The question, however, that begs attention here is: why could the NATO countries not change Turkey’s position in a way that would have re-established it as a NATO ally in Syria, pitched against the Russians, Syrians and the Iranians?

While the US did “offer” its support to Tukey, words could not be translated into action, even though a number of Western political pundits have been writing and speaking about the “fragility” of Turkey-Russian alliance and the need for the West to win Turkey back. A number of reasons explain why this has not happened.

First of all, there is little doubt in that Turkey is an important regional player even for Russia. This explains why the Russians have, despite crisis after crisis, continued to manage their relations with Turkey through intensive diplomatic engagements, leaving no room for big and unbridgeable gaps to occur. The latest deal and the deals before the crisis reflect the strength of their diplomatic channels working at the highest possible levels.

However, notwithstanding the resilience of their bi-latera ties, NATO’s lethargy is due largely to the crisis that NATO is itself facing from within.

On the one hand, the US and European members of the alliance are increasingly pushing for changes in different and opposing directions, and on the other hand, even Turkey itself is reluctant to project its policies in Syria as a NATO member. At the same time, the European members of the alliance are up in arms over Erdogan’s bold and cynical effort to pressure NATO to come to its aid by opening its border with Greece to Syrian refugees, thereby threatening a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis. NATO, therefore, has no interest in coming to Turkey’s aid and help start a war that would ultimately come to bite them hard.

NATO countries, therefore, continue to think that delivering more humanitarian aid and financial support via the European Union for Syrian refugees already in Turkey is a better option that militarily committing to a war between Turkey and Syria/Russia, which will inevitably involve a massive inflow of refugees, causing both political and economic problems for them to handle. This, for them, is unnecessary and needs to be avoided.

It was perhaps for this very reason in the first place that led NATO to discourage Turkey from starting its military operations in Syria in 2019. In fact, NATO countries cannot militarily help Turkey inside Syria even if Turkey really wanted them to.

The Article 5 of the NATO charter cannot be applied to the Syrian scenario. Whereas any NATO country can invoke Article 5, the actual application of this article is limited by the Article 6 which defines the ‘territorial scope’ of the Article 5. Among other areas, Article 6 defines Article 5’s ambit as including the territory of Turkey and the forces, vessels and aircraft of NATO members located in the Mediterranean Sea. But it crucially doesn’t cover attacks on Turkish forces on Syrian territory.

NATO countries would be morally obliged to help Turkey if only Turkey’s territory comes under attack from an offensive originating from within Syria. For this support to come, however, relations between NATO and Turkey need to be perfect, which has not been the case since the 2016 failed coup attempt.

At the same time, there is a strong realisation in NATO that Turkey has increasingly been acting as an ‘independent player’ in the region since at least 2016. It explains why Turkey chose to buy Russia’s S-400 system despite the opposition from the NATO alliance.

This brings us to another aspect of why NATO has not ‘intervened’ in Syria on behalf of Turkey. Whereas the Article 5, as mentioned earlier, does not apply to this situation, NATO has not always acted in strict accordance with its charter. For instance, it intervened in Libya even though it had no mandate for such an intervention, and no attack or direct threat was originating from Libya against any NATO countries. However, NATO still decided to intervene in Libya to topple the Col. Muammar Gaddafi regime. Why has NATO not done a similar thing in Syria even though the increasing Turkey-Russia “tensions” provided just the context for such an intervention.

The Russian military presence is certainly a factor, but an equally important factor is the “tension” that exists between Turkey and the rest of the NATO allies specifically, and within the alliance more generally, giving the US and European members of the alliance no material reasons to exploit the Russo-Turk “tensions” to their advantage.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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