NATO must offer Turkey military support in Syria crisis

Turkey has twice turned to NATO for support in the face of attacks from Syria. But the transatlantic alliance has responded with words rather than deeds. To preserve its credibility in Turkey and the region, NATO should offer radar aircraft and/or rapid reaction forces.

Osman Orsal/Reuters
Turkish soldiers patrol the Turkish-Syrian border near the village of Reyhanli in Hatay province, southern Turkey, Oct. 12. Earlier this month, Syrian shelling on the border left five Turkish civilians dead. Op-ed contributor Jorge Benitez urges NATO to do as it did during the Iraq war in 2003, when it sent military equipment and forces to Turkey. "These actions had a direct and positive impact on Turkey," he writes.

For the second time in five months, Turkey has turned to NATO for support in the face of Syrian attacks that have killed Turkish citizens. Unfortunately, the transatlantic alliance has responded both times with words rather than deeds.

When Syria shot down a jet plane of the Turkish Air Force in June, Turkey requested a meeting of NATO members. According to diplomatic sources, it asked the alliance to prepare contingency plans to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria. The alliance voted against this request and responded instead with a statement condemning the Syrian attack “in the strongest terms.”

After numerous mortar attacks from Syria into Turkey’s territory, Syrian shelling Oct. 3 killed five Turkish civilians. Turkey again asked NATO to meet to discuss the situation. NATO ambassadors hastily convened and issued a new statement in which the allies “strongly condemned” that attack.

NATO needs to offer Turkey more than repeated promises to follow the crisis “closely and with great concern.” As my colleague and former US Ambassador to Turkey Ross Wilson suggests, “NATO needs to pick up its game.”

The alliance’s response to Turkey during this escalating crisis is being closely scrutinized in Turkey and the region, and will have powerful repercussions. If NATO persists in offering only paper promises to Turkey, the perception that the alliance lacks the political will to back up allies even if they are attacked will be a major blow to NATO’s credibility. 

It is also not in NATO’s interests to disappoint the country with the second largest army within the alliance. Perceived failure to live up to its alliance obligations will further weaken public support for NATO within Turkey. Europe and the United States can’t afford a rift with what some describe as the only functioning Muslim democracy in the greater Middle East – a country with unmatched geostrategic, economic, and cultural value in the region.

What can NATO do for Turkey?

Too much attention has been focused on the question of invoking Article 5, the alliance’s mutual defense clause. Even during the many crises of the cold war, Article 5 was never invoked.

In fact, the only time it has been exercised was after the 9/11 attacks against the United States. As tangible evidence of alliance solidarity, NATO sent seven radar aircraft (Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS) with crews from 13 NATO countries to help patrol American skies.

Apart from this isolated case, the transatlantic alliance has successfully overcome crises without invoking Article 5. This is because NATO members have many options to support and reinforce one another without having to turn to the mutual defense clause. These options should be considered now.

For example, before the US-led coalition invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, Turkey requested a meeting with its allies, under Article 4 of the NATO treaty, to discuss how the alliance could help Turkey deter an attack from Iraq. Article 4 allows any member to request consultation when, in the opinion of any of them, their territorial integrity, political independence, or security is threatened. After what NATO politely described as an “intense debate,” the alliance approved Operation Display Deterrence which deployed “precautionary defensive measures to ensure Turkey’s security.”

These measures included sending four AWACS radar aircraft and five Patriot air defense batteries, as well as equipment for chemical and biological defense. Over all, NATO members deployed more than 1,000 “technically advanced and highly capable forces” to support Turkey during the Iraq conflict.

NATO made the right call at that time by responding to Turkey’s plea for help by sending tangible aid instead of only diplomatic statements. These actions had a direct and positive impact on Turkey.

Ankara’s then-ambassador to NATO, Ahmet Üzümcü, thanked the alliance for its solidarity: “We are convinced that, through such an active and collective display of deterrence, NATO has not only extended a much-appreciated helping hand to one of its members in her hour of need, but also proven, once again, its credibility and relevance as the cornerstone of collective security in the Euro-Atlantic area.”

Turkey has suffered multiple attacks and loss of life from Syria. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has responded to this crisis with great patience and moderation, but diplomatic sources have made it clear that Turkey is tired of bearing so much of this burden all alone.

It is time for NATO to send proportional support to Turkey during its hour of need. Reinforcing this embattled ally with a small number of AWACS radar aircraft and/or units from the NATO rapid reaction force will strengthen Ankara militarily and politically.

It will also send a powerful message to the Assad regime in Syria and its allies to prevent any further attacks against Turkey. By acting now, NATO can help de-escalate the confrontation along the Turkish-Syrian border and decrease the possibility of Turkey intervening unilaterally in Syria.

Any member of NATO deserves such minimal support from its allies after its military and people have been attacked. The time is now for NATO to offer Turkey more than words of support.

Jorge Benitez is director of the blog NATOSource and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

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