Turkish military reinforcements are seen before leaving for observation posts in Syria's Idlib, on February 12, 2020 in Hatay, Turkey. Photo: Anadolu Agency

Turkey urgently requested consultations with NATO under Article 4 of the NATO treaty. 

Article 4 provides: “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”

It is hard to see how Article 4 applies in any way to Turkey’s invasion of Syria or its backing of anti-Kurd “rebels” on Syrian territory, or its supply of weapons including anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels. But NATO easily agreed to a consultation because it offered an opportunity for the bloc to accuse Russia of attacking the Turks, but with no immediate consequence.

Article 5 of the NATO treaty is its collective security provision.  It says in part: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

Article 5 simply does not apply to the Turkish operation in Syria as there is no attack against Turkish territory that could possibly justify invoking Article 5.  Furthermore, Article 5 requires unanimity among all the NATO members, and Greece would never agree to the use of Article 5 on behalf of Turkey.  In fact, Greece and Turkey are in a major struggle over the eastern Mediterranean and Turkish fighter planes as recently as this past week violated Greek airspace 30 times in a single day (February 25).  Last year there were 4,627 incidents of Turkish violations of Greek airspace. 

Oil exploration

Turkey is also trying to block oil exploration off the coast of Cyprus and has entered into a deal with a very shaky Libyan government, claiming that the entire area’s seabed belongs to both these countries, not to Cyprus or Greece. Turkey’s aggressive effort to make sea bed claims that are not accepted internationally goes with Turkey’s policy to block any oil and gas pipeline that would stretch from Israel and Cyprus to Greece and Italy.

With Article 5 a complete non-starter, Turkey is also putting heavy pressure on the EU, using refugees as the bait.  Hundreds of Syrian refugees are being cut loose from Turkey, where they are sheltered, and are heading toward Greece and Bulgaria. The Turkish government has ordered its coastguard and border security officials to stand aside and permit the refugees to leave Turkish territory.  The Bulgarians have already moved 1,000 soldiers to its border to block refugee transit.

The Turks think that by threatening Europe with another wave of Syrian refugees, the Europeans will turn around and back Turkey’s struggle in Syria, which is primarily focused on the Kurds.  That “struggle” has metastasized into a struggle against the Syrian army and Russia, although Russia is proclaiming its innocence, saying its air force did not attack Turkish troops or command posts in Syrian territory. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan have spoken but not resolved the matter. Russia insists that Turkey violated deconfliction agreements in place between the two countries and is responsible for what happened to its troops. Russia also says that the attack on Turkish troops was by Syrian artillery, not Russian aircraft.

Delicate position

The United States is in a delicate position.  While the US would not mind seeing Russia and Turkey at loggerheads, Washington has zero interest in being drawn into a conflict that could become a clash between the Russian air force and navy against the US and Turkey.  That would quickly become a general war, and while the US may have some hope of checkmating the Russians, the price would be very high and the conflict with Russia could easily get out of hand and spread to Eastern Europe. 

These days the US and NATO are in a very weak military position  vis-à-vis the Russians, and any such conflict could shatter the NATO alliance. Europe depends on Russia for energy and probably would walk away rather than get caught up in a conflict on its eastern flank. For the same reason the Europeans don’t want a conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the Russians have moved two advanced guided missile warships, the Admiral Grigorovich and the Admiral Makarov into the eastern Mediterranean, having transited the Bosporus. 

Turkey, which controls the straits under the Montreaux Convention, did not attempt to block the Russian warship transit. The Makarov and Grigorovich are equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles, a distinct threat to Turkish forces. The Russian Kalibr may have a range of 4,500 km and has an accuracy of around 3 meters, making it a potentially formidable weapon against Turkish ground forces, but also a threat against US and allied warships and US and NATO bases in Turkey.

The Russians say that while the Turks asked for direct contact between Erdogan and Putin, which took place by telephone, the two leaders might meet soon.  Increasingly, Russian interests are diverging from Turkey, although Putin has tried to play the Turkish card, selling the S-400 air defense system to Turkey over strenuous US and NATO objections, and reportedly is discussing with the Turks sales of its advanced warplane technology, probably Su-57 coproduction in Turkey. 

Undermining NATO

Because the Turkish relationship is important to Russia economically and as a way of undermining NATO, Putin will no doubt try and find some grounds for reconciliation with Erdogan. 

But Russia won’t agree that Syria forego its effort to retake its own territory, so the two sides will have to find a creative solution, something the Turkish style of intervention and diplomacy is unaccustomed to doing. That’s one of the prime reasons the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus has continued since Turkey’s invasion in 1974. Probably the best that can be achieved in Syria is a temporary standstill.

What is certainly true is that NATO and the US have almost no leverage over the Turks or Russia, meaning the game mostly falls on the shoulders of Erdogan and Putin either to resolve the matter or to continue clashing in an evolving and dangerous environment.