NATO Is in Denial About the Risk of War Between Turkey and Russia

World Politics Review, 06.03.2020
Candace Rondeaux, académica y profesora (Center on the Future of War-Arizona State University)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrive for a news conference at the Kremlin. (AP/Pavel Golovkin).

For most close observers, it has long seemed only a matter of time before the long, bloody proxy war between Turkey and Russia for regional predominance in the Middle East would break out into full-scale direct hostilities. That came closer to happening last week, when Russian-backed Syrian forces attacked a Turkish military outpost in Idlib province, leaving more than 30 Turkish soldiers dead. However, few observers would have predicted the utter impotence of Turkey’s ostensible military partners in NATO in the face of what is arguably the gravest threat to the future of the alliance since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

In retaliation for last week’s attack, which some initial reports claimed was the work of Russian bombers, Turkey has pounded Syrian forces with drone strikes and taken out the Syrian army’s Russian-made anti-aircraft batteries. Earlier this week, Russian warships in the Black Sea fleet steamed across the Bosporus strait to boost the Russian navy’s presence in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Moscow on Thursday for an emergency summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin to tamp down tensions. They announced yet another cease-fire in Idlib and joint patrols in a corridor along a strategic highway, but the deal is likely to be temporary and tenuous at best.

To increase his leverage prior to the trip, Erdogan sought support from NATO, including the imposition of a no-fly zone in northwestern Syria. Following an emergency meeting last Friday, the alliance expressed its “full solidarity” with Turkey, but announced no specific measures to assist it.

The question now is whether any of the 26 European members of the alliance realize how pivotal Turkey’s clash with Russia is for the future of NATO and security on the European continent.

As proxy wars go, the ongoing conflict between Turkey and Russia in the Middle East has in many ways hewed closely to script. For nearly a decade, the two have danced on the edge of the escalatory precipice, deploying irregular forces along the narrow corridor of Syria’s northern border. In December 2015, Turkey downed two Russian fighter jets it claimed had entered its airspace, raising fears of direct conflict. But Erdogan and Putin were able to deescalate the situation, and they subsequently arrived at an understanding for operating discretely—and often at cross-purposes—in Syria, while avoiding any more direct confrontations.

More recently, in January, Turkey and Russia’s battle for regional primacy took a sharper turn, as thousands of Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters began streaming into Libya to defend the internationally recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli against an ever more aggressive campaign mounted by the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar with the support of Russian mercenaries.

Almost from the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Erdogan began cultivating a mix of secular and Islamist armed factions fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. On the other side, Russia took incremental steps toward protecting Assad, first deploying Russian warplanes to provide air support, and then Russian private military contractors with the Wagner Group and other cutouts from Russian state enterprises to train up and fight alongside a hodgepodge of Syrian army forces and local militias.

The Wagner Group’s involvement in Syria burst into the spotlight after it suffered serious setbacks in skirmishes with U.S. forces in Deir Ezzor in 2018. By then, its fighters had been helping Haftar secure oil production facilities in eastern Libya for at least a year. Three years on, it now seems that the negative feedback loop between the two proxy wars in Libya and Syria has become so intense that years of relatively stable crisis management between Moscow and Ankara may finally be at an end.

The trouble is there are truly no obvious answers for solving the conundrum provoked by Putin’s and Erdogan’s adventurism, and that should scare every one of NATO’s members.

With the U.S. effectively sidelined by a combination of White House incompetence and election year jitters about wading deeper into the Middle East, there is little evidence the most powerful member of the North Atlantic alliance will be willing or able to influence Turkey to deescalate. The European members, meanwhile, 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.

Since becoming a full member of the North Atlantic alliance in 1952, Turkey has actively supported multiple NATO missions, most critically perhaps by investing millions of dollars in support of stabilization efforts in Afghanistan over the past 19 years. As a result, Turkey was until recently viewed as a rock-solid ally in Washington and Brussels. Its progressive descent into the schizophrenic politics of autocracy, however, has driven a wedge between Erdogan and his American and European allies. That has come back to haunt him now, leaving him with few real friends inside or outside the NATO alliance.

On Wednesday, it appeared that Erdogan was also losing sway domestically, as fist fights broke out in Turkey’s parliament over his handling of the military crisis in Syria. This latest political upheaval should give Turkey’s partners in NATO real pause. If Erdogan’s government is unsuccessful in tamping down political fractures over the crisis in Syria, how long before dissent turns into even greater internal instability in Turkey?

Under the circumstances, Turkey’s European partners are faced with a choice between the lesser of two evils. Delivering more humanitarian aid and financial support via the European Union for Syrian refugees already in Turkey might seem like a costly and less than optimal solution to the burgeoning crisis. But at the very least, it would be a show of support for Erdogan, at a time when there is a very real possibility that Turkey will purposely or inadvertently spark an open conflict with Russia. If that happens, NATO would be forced to seriously consider whether an Article 5 declaration of mutual defense would be an appropriate response.

It would be nice to think that NATO’s charter still meant something to its members, and 19 years of mutual defense in Afghanistan following 9/11 certainly suggest that it does. But the Turkish-Russian standoff points up an obvious design flaw in the alliance. When the big players at the table like the U.S. decide to sit out a bad hand, European alliance members who have more at stake but fewer military chits to lay down are unlikely to ante up. Turkey is by far one of the most politically isolated members of the NATO bloc. But if NATO’s assurances do not hold up, that is not a good look for a military alliance.

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