Hold on, did Syria just invite a NATO attack?

Well it was only a matter of time until I wrote a blog about the Syria mess, so here it is.

Yesterday reports emerged stating that Syrian government forces had fired across the borders into Lebanon and Turkey. While Lebanon is probably used to its neighbours firing shots into its territory by now the situation with Turkey is potentially a game-changer, for a simple reason: Turkey is a member of NATO. If Turkey can claim that its territorial integrity is under threat (when another government starts shooting people inside your borders I’d say you’ve got a good case) then under the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty its NATO allies are obliged to join the fight. Furthermore, NATO has already established a precedent for just such an operation without a mandate from the UN Security Council, so those pesky vetoes from Russia and China could be rendered meaningless. A NATO operation in Syria would arguably be more legitimate than the Kosovo one because it would be the result of an attack on a NATO member.

As long as the violence in Syria remained contained within its own borders then arguments for intervention could always be countered by the principle of sovereignty, but the moment those shots crossed the border a new justification became available to those who want intervention. Of course a few gunshots over a border might not seem like much of a threat to Turkey’s territory and the Syrian government can deny that it was their troops who fired. Nonetheless, the spread of violence beyond Syria itself indicates a fundamental shift in the nature of the crisis and offers a potential way to approach it outside of the confines of the UN Security Council system.

Whether intervention would be a wise idea is not a question I am going to go into here. I just wanted to point out the implications of the attacks in Turkey as I see them. With the failure of Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan (gee, that was unexpected…) the idea of a diplomatic solution seems dead and buried, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of shift in Western powers’ approach to the crisis. It might be a good time to buy shares in the companies that make those fancy drones and smartbombs.

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12 responses to “Hold on, did Syria just invite a NATO attack?

  • Cam

    It’s kinda been a good decade to buy shares in smartbomb/drone manufacturers. Doesn’t look like the boom time is over on that front either (ba-dum-tish).

    As much as NATO now have a mandate (albeit a highly dubious one), are they keen to get involved?

    • fromthefourthcorner

      Well that’s the big question really. Turkey have made it clear they don’t want to get their military involved unilaterally but with NATO support I think that would change. The key to any intervention is US involvement because they are the ones who have the capacity to organise and implement military action. Pressure from the US public to do something seems to be mounting so Obama might act before the election – but only like in Libya with airstrikes and arming the rebels, as ground-based action carries too high a risk.
      The other factor is Russia, who are a Syrian ally. They might get mightily pissed off about it, but I doubt that would dissuade the US from acting. Serbia is a Russian ally too and the US bombed them on the orders of a democrat president. Furthermore, no one in the West wants an unstable Middle East and I’m sure at some point the instability caused by this uprising will be greater than that caused by a military intervention, which will also be a factor in any decision making process I’d guess. The longer the carnage continues and ceasefires get broken etc, the less options the US and its allies have.

  • briangottesman

    Many countries attack enemies of the state who are residing in other countries without authorization from the host country.

    • fromthefourthcorner

      That’s true but it doesn’t change the fact that Syria crisis is no longer confined to within its own borders. Technically every time that occurs without the other country’s consent its a violation of soveriegnty, but it normally doesn’t matter. In this case though it provides a justification for a potential change in tack on how to deal with the situation.

  • Cam

    Yeah, there’s no doubt a lot of factors in play. It seems that the Obama regime is more inclined to exercise soft power with their foreign policy where possible, and i think the American public are war weary. I agree with you – I don’t reckon he’d be mad keen to get more GI’s on the ground in another potential Middle Eastern Meltdown — even with a NATO mandate and support. Even so, NATO support for that action could be tough to achieve when you consider that most of the members of NATO would have to live with the implications of Russian anger moreso than the Americans would (read: natural gas supplies for winter yo).

    Although as you point out – it is an election year, and Obama has been keen to exercise his neo-con chops to ward off potential Republican attacks (see Feds racking up more arrests against Medicinal Marajuana dispensories in the last 2 years than in Bush’s terms combined), so he might come under duress to act if the Syria Shitstorm continues to rage, fueled by Republican attacks in the pressure-cooker environment of an election.

    • fromthefourthcorner

      I wouldn’t entirely agree with the statement that Obama favours soft power – I’d say his (possibly illegal under American law) Libyan excursion showed that he can favour military options. Plus he has greatly increased the use of drone strikes in Afghanistan – so I’d say he favours low risk military options, so definitely no ground operations in Syria.

      Whether European NATO members would back it is an interesting consideration. Its coming into the summer there now so the gas prices thing is not an immediate concern. If they could be convinced that the operation would be over by winter then they might risk it.

      Christ what a mess.

  • Theo

    It seems that Syrian troops were responding to a raid on a border guard post by militants that came from the Turkish side on of the border and were in the process of fleeing back into Turkish territory. If Turkey is failing to stop armed raids into neighboring counties that originate in Turkish territory, how can it be classified as Syria attacking Turkey? An honest assessment would have this formulation reversed. Turkey, by failing to stop the militants crossing the Syrian border, is either explicitly or implicitly supporting it. It seems the Syrian forces are acting in defense in this situation.

    This is not to say that the skirmish will not be spun as you describe it. But I doubt Turkey or its NATO allies want to engage in military intervention in Syria; the outcome is simply too unpredictable.

    The experience in Libya, much ballyhooed by humanitarian interventionist, has only destabilized the country, effectively destroying the state and replacing it with various armed militias. The experience in Iraq, which is a better comparison than Libya in any case, is not something the US wants to repeat.

    Syria has a much larger population and population density than Libya, a larger and better equipped armed forces, and is not completely isolated. Syria can count Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq, not to mention Russia and to a lesser extent China as supporters in the international arena. A invasion with ground troops is completely off the table. A ‘Libya option’ of massive air sorties is also unlikely, both due to the cost (monetarily and in human lives) and the further destabilization of the region.

    At this point the West with its GCC allies will continue to push for arming and funding of the opposition in the hope of toppling the Bath regime, perhaps even settling for the dismissal of Assad and his replacement with another regime figure. In my view, this is a pipe dream at this point. The ability of the regime to withstand the popular pressures point to the fact that they still enjoy a wide range of support throughout Syrian society. Clearly they cannot go back to the status quo ante though after the brutality of their response to the legitimate demands of the Syrian people. The only solution to the ongoing conflict will have to be a political one. The longer this is ignored by the West and GCC, the longer the bloodshed will continue.

    • fromthefourthcorner

      You’re right that Syria was essentially defending itself from external attack, but it still gives a chance for Turkey and NATO to argue they have been attacked.

      I doubt there will be any ground invasion either, and the air-strikes-and-arm-the-rebels approach is unlikely to work because as you point out, Syria’s population is much denser than Libya and much of the fighting is urban so targetting and co-ordinating strikes will be a lot harder. Any operation will not be the sort of quick and surgical strike people like to see. However I think with the media coverage and the recent Libya operations in their memory the general public are wondering why nothing is being done militarily, and pressure will mount on leaders to do something. I can’t see a political solution working so that really reduces the options. (As an aside I have a problem with humanitarian intervention for just these reasons – it creates a sense of expectation to act in other more intractable situations, and it can have unintended consequences. Also it creates an excuse to pursue strategic aims under the guise of philanthropy.)

      I think Russia will continue to veto Security Council resolutions but I doubt Iran would do anything as they are trying to manage their own awkward situation at the moment. Lebanon and Iraq are wild cards to some extent but lack clout.

      The West definitely does not want an unstable Middle East but if the fighting is spreading out of Syria and into its neighbours then there will come a point where the instability caused by an attack will be less than that caused by inaction. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next weeks and months. Of course, there is always the possibility that either side might actually win the civil war but the impression coming out of Syia is that this fight is going to be long and bloody.

  • fromthefourthcorner

    Turkey not ruling out military option, US saying this is a NATO issue now: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTVkw53DeII (Of course this is RT so they have their own spin on it but so does every other media outlet on the planet)

  • TW

    You bring up some interesting points. I actually didn’t hear much about this in the news earlier. It’s kind of funny how the US media doesn’t really broadcast these issues as much as they should 😉

    You have a great site going so far. I look forward to reading more.

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