Monday, June 25, 2012

Is the NATO Alliance Good or Bad for Turkey?

I don't usually wander into NATO issues or questions about alliance politics - my friend & colleague Steve Saideman has probably forgotten more about NATO and its workings than I will ever know. Nevertheless, recent events regarding Turkey and Syria raise some interesting questions.

Turkey, of course, sits right next to Syria and its now year-long civil war. Along with Israel, Turkey is far and away the most powerful military force in the immediate vicinity; outside of the US, Turkey has the largest army in NATO. Turkey has a strong and significant interest in how the Syrian civil war turns out, for a host of reasons (not least among them the potential for some outcomes to cause further problems for Turkey's Kurdish minority - making this another "glass houses" problem. See Steve's first book, Ties That Divide, for more on that subject).

Now we see that a Turkish air force plane has been shot down off the Syrian coast by Syrian air defenses, and that Syrian military officials are defecting to Turkey. These are obvious mechanisms to pull Turkey into the conflict, providing an immediate set of excuses on top of Turkey's broader interests.

But what complicates all of this is that Turkey is a member of NATO. As such, Turkey has obligations to the organization, but can also make demands on it. At the far end of the latter is Article V, the collective defense clause - if Syria were to launch a serious attack on Turkey the rest of NATO (including the US, which is woven throughout NATO's capabilities) is obliged to come to Turkey's defense.

On the other hand, as a NATO member Turkey can't fashion a unilateral response to the Syrian crisis and its immediate problems - the military defections and the downing of its plane. Anything that Turkey does could end up dragging the rest of NATO into an escalating fight. Turkey is obviously wise to ask for a NATO meeting, but it really has no choice - its hands are tied.

All of this raises a very interesting question: is NATO a good or a bad thing for Turkey? On the one hand, Article V provides an enormous guarantee for core Turkish security - nobody in the region (Iran, Syria, Iraq, even Russia) can credibly threaten to attack Turkey proper for fear of an overwhelming response from the preeminent military force on the planet. On the other hand, Turkey's ability to adapt its policy to regional issues - even really serious ones like a civil war on its own border - is severely hampered by its membership in the organization. Turkey has, in essence, traded flexibility for security. In the current circumstances, I wonder if the Turkish government isn't asking how good a bargain that is.

1 comment:

  1. There is obligation and there is obligation. Even if Article V were to be invoked, each country responds as it deems necessary, including doing nothing. Some countries opted out of the NATO airborne warning planes that were sent to the US to fly over cities during major events after 9/11.
    Second, to invoke A.5 requires a vote. Not clear that a consensus would support Turkey in this scenario or in many scenarios.

    I don't think NATO constrains Turkey that might except that Turkish leaders have to keep in mind that if they get too aggressive, they may find themselves out on an island.

    I think the US and a few others are most interested in making sure this never comes to a vote since the vote would be most problematic for the alliance.