Despite this weekend’s unanimous U.N. Security Council vote, which authorized a team of observers to Syria to monitor the tentative ceasefire there, there remain many questions about what can actually be done to stop the fighting. Conventional wisdom, prior to Saturday, seemed to resign the international community to doing very little about the bloodshed, thanks to previous Russian and Chinese vetoes over directly intervening in Syria. Some countries, like Saudi Arabia, decided to act unilaterally by sending weapons to the Syrian rebels.
This past week, however, firefights near Syria’s border with Turkey have raised the prospect of another way to intervene: NATO. The Syrian military has fired repeatedly at Syrian refugee camps and other emplacements inside the Turkish border. While no one died this time, several Syrians and Turks were injured.
In response, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has suggested he might invoke NATO’s Article V in response to the Syrian barrage – attempting to mandate NATO involvement in the conflict. Article V of the Washington Treaty, which governs NATO conduct, states that alliance members will treat an attack against one member as an attack against all members, and respond accordingly – up to and including the use of armed force.
Article V has only been invoked once in NATO’s history – in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Previous violent security crises involving NATO members, including the 1974 war between Greece and Turkey in Cyprus, did not rise to the level of Article V. If Erdogan invokes the treaty provision over some artillery exchanges – and the rest of NATO agrees – it would be an unprecedented use of the treaty to intervene in a civil war.
The language Erdogan uses is fascinating. Last Thursday, he said that it was NATO’s responsibility to protect Turkey’s borders, which in a way denies Turkey any sort of agency in its own defense. While his anger is understandable, it remains to be seen if the rest of NATO get on board with his assessment that the security situation on the border merits direct intervention.
NATO would do well to exercise caution. A recently leaked classified assessment of its campaign in Libya pointed out numerous problems with how the air campaign was executed. Even with American help, the alliance struggled to field enough aircraft to intercept radio communications between members of the Gaddafi regime, and allies lacked the appropriate intelligence sharing systems as well as the planners and analysts that would have made the campaign more effective.
Let me be clear: Libya was a far easier conflict to meddle in than Syria will be. But that doesn’t seem to affect Erdogan’s desire to find some sort of international support for his growing opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s rule. But there are even bigger reasons to be skeptical of any NATO attempt to get involved in Syria.
At its most basic level, NATO is increasingly becoming more of a paper tiger. During the Cold War, the U.S. accounted for about 50 percent of NATO’s defense spending; now, it is well over 75 percent. The use of so-called “National Caveats,” a standard practice in NATO deployments that limited what certain NATO members would allow their soldiers to do (a curious stipulation for a war, but required by domestic European politics), hobbled the war in Afghanistan for years until the U.S. surged tens of thousands of troops to try to break the strategic impasse there. And in Libya, NATO’s refusal to get involved in the regime it brought to power through the destruction of Gaddafi’s government has led to many arguments that the intervention itself was a mistake.
Every country in Europe is cutting its defense budget – and even the U.S. defense budget’s growth is no longer a given. It would be madness to enter a period of decreased budgets, decreased capability, and decreased resources with the ambition to intervene in many small wars around the Mediterranean – but that is precisely what Erdogan seems to want.
The sad reality is NATO talks a big game when it comes to global security, but its ability to affect war and peace outside of Europe is limited. Its two big projects of the last decade – Afghanistan and Libya – are not the successes their boosters desperately want them to be, and its last major project, Kosovo, remains insecure and unsettled after 13 years of continuous occupation.
So what does this mean for Turkey? Prime Minister Erdogan may very well gain support from some European states to increase security assets along the Turkish-Syrian border. But no matter the threat of spillover from Syria into Turkey, NATO’s ability to meaningfully affect the situation is, at best, very limited. And the bigger currents within European defense circles – contracting, scaling back, and reducing forces and so on – mean that even if NATO wanted to do something, in all likelihood it couldn’t.
This has profound implications for Europe and the Middle East. NATO has been a bulwark of stability since its founding in 1949; after the Cold War, it transitioned from opposing the Soviet Union to assisting the political transition of the former Warsaw Pact countries (many of whom have since become NATO members). Now, however, NATO is drifting between the lofty ambitions of the new strategic concept announced in the 2010 Lisbon Treaty and the messy reality of drastically curtailed defense budgets and a limited appetite for adventurism.
The end result is that when a member state, like Turkey, is facing a serious threat along its border, NATO will have a very limited capacity to actually assist in rallying to its defense. This doesn’t mean the alliance is done with, but it does mean that NATO requires some serious thinking and strategic planning to match its ambitions with its capabilities. As it stands now, the two are just too mismatched for it to be of much help to anyone.
Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and a columnist for The Atlantic. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group.