The previous idea was that during the two-day ministerial meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at Brussels (February 10-11), the Syrian crisis would be discussed by the defense ministers over dinner Wednesday.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu

The main topic of the ministerial meeting was expected to be the alliance’s forward presence on Russia’s western borders with a view to “send a powerful signal to deter any aggression or intimidation” by Moscow.

However, Syria can’t wait until dinner is served. It became necessary due to the German-Turkish move, following the hurried trip by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Ankara on Monday, to seek the alliance’s involvement in the Syrian issue.

Sure enough, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg since spoke to the German and Turkish defense ministers. He said,

  • We will take very seriously the request from Turkey and other allies to look into what NATO can do to help them cope and deal with the crisis and all the challenges they face, not least in Turkey… I expect the ministers to discuss the request from Turkey and then agree on how we can follow up.

At a ‘pre-ministerial’ press conference, Stoltenberg dropped some hints at what to expect:

  • NATO is “actively considering” a US request for NATO’s AWACS planes to be deployed to Turkey;
  • The refugee and migrant crisis as such is of “great concern” to the alliance and, therefore, “we will take very seriously a request from Turkey and other allies to look into what NATO can do to help them cope with and deal with the crisis and all the challenges they face at least, or not least, in Turkey”.
  • NATO has decided on a tailored package of measures to support Turkey which includes air surveillance or AWACS, “air policing, maritime, increased maritime, military maritime presence in the eastern Mediterranean and other military capabilities”.
  • The NATO does not intend to deploy troops in Syria, but instead hopes to “build local capacity” and train “local forces and troops”.
  • The NATO believes that in the long run, it is a better solution than deployment of combat troops “from outside the region”.

Stolenberg was highly critical of the Russian operations in Syria, which he said, are “undermining the efforts to find a political solution”, “driving tens of thousands of people to Turkey’s border”, making “a desperate humanitarian crisis even more desperate and even worse”; and, “leading to violations of NATO airspace”. He then went on to allege,

  • Overall, the substantial Russian military build-up in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean is shifting the strategic balance and raising tensions in the region.

The salience points toward NATO involvement in the Syrian problem with a long-term perspective. The NATO will be ostensibly supporting the member countries in their fight against the Islamic State and helping Turkey to cope with the refugee flow. But it is bound to rub against the Russian deployments in Syria. One major asset Russians possess today is the capability to jam Turkish aircraft and radar systems. But can Russia deploy this capability to jam the NATO systems?

Stoltenberg’s pointed accusation that Russian deployments upset the “strategic balance” and regional stability constitutes a first-time reference. NATO is projecting itself as a relevant party. Also, Stoltenberg maintained that Russian aircraft violated “NATO airspace” while making incursions into Turkey. This is also a deliberate coinage.

Nonetheless, NATO has kept strategic ambiguity regarding its intentions in Syria. There are three possibilities. First, a conspiracy theory comes handy that the NATO (read Washington) could be inserting itself to prevent a Russo-Turkish conflict. Indeed, US-Turkey relations are not at their best moment and the Obama administration’s capacity to restrain President Recep Erdogan is limited.

On the other hand, given the aggressive way Moscow has been pushing the envelope in northern Syria near Turkish border, the US and its regional allies are staring at a strategic defeat in Aleppo, which of course, will have profound consequences not only for the Syrian war and the geopolitics of the Middle East but also the West’s perceptions of Russia’s assertiveness.

Meanwhile, a third possibility could be that the US concedes a temporary victory to Russia and would make a tactical retreat by bringing the NATO alliance to the forefront and leading it from behind, while at the same time quietly passing on the baton to America’s regional allies – Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia principally – to begin mobilizing for the long haul against the Russian presence in the Muslim Middle East.

This third possibility gained considerable credence on Tuesday when Turkish Prime Minister threatened Russia explicitly with another dose nineties’ Afghan-style ‘jihad’.  In Ahmet Dautoglu’s words,

  • Do not worry at all, the tyrants who turned Syria, my precious Aleppo and Bayırbucak into a lake of blood will one day definitely pay the price for what they have done. Nobody should forget how the Soviet forces, which were a mighty, super force during the Cold War and entered into Afghanistan, left Afghanistan in a servile situation. Those who have entered Syria today will also leave Syria in a servile way.

Davutoglu spoke on the eve of the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels. In such a scenario, Ankara could be looking for NATO protection to the extent available, while switching tack to fight an asymmetric war in Syria by setting a bear trap.

Of course, the searing memories of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) and the Treaty of Sevres (1920) will not permit Turkey to place its destiny for anyone’s safekeeping, especially its western allies’.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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