Amid rising tensions following the air strikes launched by Ankara against Kurdish fighters as well as the Islamic State (IS), and warnings of a civil war breaking out in Turkey, an emergency NATO’s Council meeting took place on July 28 in Brussels under Article 4 of the alliance’s founding treaty to gauge the threat the Islamic State extremist group poses to Turkey, and the actions Turkish authorities are taking in response.
The clause allows members to request a summit if their territorial integrity or security is threatened. The session is only the fifth Article 4 meeting since the alliance was formed in 1949. The first three sessions were all called for by Turkey; once in 2003 over the invasion of Iraq, and twice in 2012 because of incidents on the 900 km long Syrian border.
The Alliance gave Turkey full support in fighting militants beyond its borders in Syria and Iraq and stepping up its role in the US-led fight against the Islamic State. The final North Atlantic Council’s statement says «The security of the Alliance is indivisible, and we stand in strong solidarity with Turkey. We will continue to follow the developments on the South-Eastern border of NATO very closely».
«We all stand united in condemning terrorism, in solidarity with Turkey, «NATO Secretary General Yens Stoltenberg told a news conference.
There was no request for help from the country that has the second largest military in the alliance. Yens Stoltenberg defended NATO’s limited role in the fight against the Islamic State, arguing the alliance was already active in combating terrorism across the Mediterranean, in Afghanistan, in Jordan and Iraq as part of a US-led coalition.
Ankara: game-changing about face
For a long time Turkey had been reluctant to join the US-led coalition against the IS. It had been often accused of turning a blind eye to extremists, including foreign recruits, who crossed into Syria from Turkey to fight against Syrian government forces. Last week it made an about-face to grant NATO an access to its air facilities. In a series of cross-border strikes since July 24, Turkey has not only targeted the IS but also Kurdish fighters affiliated with forces battling the extremists in Syria and Iraq. With more than 1.8 million Syrian refugees on its soil, Turkey has long campaigned for a «no-fly zone» in northern Syria to keep Islamic State and Kurdish militants from its border and help stem the tide of displaced civilians trying get to the country. The plan is likely to involve the establishment of a de facto no-fly zone 88km (55 miles) wide and 40km (25 miles) deep in northern Syria.
Ankara and Washington agreed to drive Islamic State fighters from northern Syria. Discussions were ongoing about the size and scope of the planned zone. Attacks on Kurds have also become a headache for the US, which works with troops from the Kurdish People's Protection Unit fighting the IS on the ground. For almost a year, Kurdish rebels – the People's Protection Units (YPG) closely allied with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) – have represented Washington's best hope for confronting the IS on the ground in Syria.
Turkey and the US agreed on a plan to rout the IS from a strip of Syrian land close to the Turkish border. The rest of the frontier is controlled by Kurdish fighters or Syrian rebels. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said both Turkey and the US wanted to see Syria's what he called «moderate opposition» forces replace IS fighters near the Turkish border.
Under the plans, the militants would be removed from a 68-mile (109km) stretch west of the Euphrates River. Such a deal would significantly increase the scope of the US-led air war against the Islamists in northern Syria. Last week Turkey agreed to allow the US to use its air base in Incirlik to launch air strikes against the IS. The NATO air facility lies in Turkey's Adana province. Its proximity to Syria would put US fighter jets closer to IS positions and allow a wider range of aircraft to take part in combat missions.
Turkey's long-awaited involvement in the international coalition against the IS, flying combat missions and making its vital airbases available to US jets, has been described as a possible «game changer».
NATO – questioned unanimity
European allies, who need Turkey‘s help to combat jihadi fighters returning to Europe, said Turkey’s decision to hit PKK camps in Iraq at the weekend was justified. But they made it clear at the same time they do not want Turkish President Erdogan to abandon several years of a domestic peace process which they supported. German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Dovutoglu in a telephone call on July 26 to respect the principle of proportionality and not to give up on the Kurdish peace process.
While the NATO meeting was in session, Turkish President Erdogan told a news conference it was impossible to continue the peace process with Kurdish militants who claimed responsibility for the killing of two Turkish police officers after the students massacre.
NATO ambassadors were said not to have been aware of Mr. Erdogan’s remarks, and they did not feature in the discussion.
NATO members have different points of view on the matter. The US supports Turkey against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, while Germany stands for talks saying Kurds are not the Islamic State and it would be wrong to lump them all together.
NATO allies have many times told Turkey to strengthen the Syria border, but it had other priorities – toppling the Syrian regime and countering the alleged threat coming from Syrian Kurds. The armed conflict with Kurds has been lasting for 30 years with the death toll of 40 thousand. There have been increasing claims from Ankara that the Kurdish ambitions to create an independent homeland, part of it from Turkish territory, are being rekindled.
The European Commission on July 28 also repeated its concern to keep the peace process alive. Turkey is a candidate negotiating for EU membership.
On July 24, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and HDP head Selahattin Demirtas, stressing the «fundamental importance» of keeping the peace process with the Kurdish people «alive and on track». This is a signal that the EU has a very strong commitment to the peace process.
There are further concerns over security. Both the US and Turkey have stated that they would not put troops on the ground in the «safety zone». The Western-backed Free Syrian Army remains relatively powerless and a Pentagon scheme to train fighters has yielded only around 50 so far. Another American plan to create a «Sunni awakening» using tribal fighters modelled on a force in Iraq during US occupation is more of a pipe dream.
The fears are strong, and rightfully so, that a security vacuum could be filled by radical groups.
Turkey: alleged motives behind stated security concerns
Turkey's bombing campaign has sparked nightly protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities. A peace process, although very fragile, was reached with them during the last two years. The full-size attack on the PKK may look disproportionate putting the peace process into question.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) headed by President Erdogan is looking for a partner for a new coalition government as it lost the parliamentary majority in last month's election for the first time since 2002.
It’s natural to surmise that the rising tensions serve the interests of the ruling party. With the election lost it has to form a coalition in a limited period of time. If it fails, a new election will be scheduled. Focusing public attention on outside threats is the way to win votes. It’s also obvious that now Turkey has to face at least four enemies: Islamists, Syrian Kurds, Kurds living in Turkey and the Syrian government forces. True, an escalation may be dangerous but it may frustrate the talks on forming a coalition to provide the ruling party with wide public support before a snap election.
In a comment on Erdogan’s words about Kurds who «threaten our national unity and brotherhood», the leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party - the People's Democratic Party (HDP) - dismissed the claim. HDP chairman Selahattin Demirtas insisted his party's only crime was winning 13% of the vote in June elections.
Implications of having buffer zone in place
With political support from NATO Turkey can launch the process of creating a buffer zone inside Syria that it has long sought while the U.S. is able to clamp down on a section of the border that serves as the Islamic State’s main lifeline to the outside world.
The both sides hope that Syrian rebels being trained and equipped in Turkey and Jordan by the United States and its allies would be able to play a key role linking up with other militants already fighting Islamic State. If the plans go through, the Syrian «moderate» forces will get US air support - a factor that allowed Kurdish forces gradually seize parts of northern Syria along the border.
The US has secured a kind of tacit agreement with the Syria government of Bashar Assad not to challenge coalition planes carrying out daily airstrikes in his country. Turkey joining the air campaign may complicate that arrangement. Turkey and Syria have a history of shooting down each other’s aircraft with aggressive rules of engagement put in place.
With the focus of the campaign on Islamic State, America and Turkey are expecting this new phase of the campaign to put pressure on the Syrian President Assad.
There is something the NATO meeting omitted. Turkey and the U.S. are basing their action on Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, a collective or unilateral self-defense clause, and two Security Council resolutions that also form the basis of the 60-member international coalition against the Islamic State.
But the buffer zone in question is to be established on the territory of another state and only the UN Security Council can take the decision to establish it. Declaring buffer and «no-fly» zones NATO would be in violation of international law. Once established, the zone would sooner or later certainly involve the deployment of foreign forces on Syrian soil. It’s the first step to putting boots on the ground – something nobody wants. But this development of events is very much likely as history shows. There is another important aspect to mention here - a no-fly zone could set a precedent of similar zones hampering the use of air power by Syrian military, which relies heavily on it combatting rebels including the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. And it’s a tall order to distinguish Muslim radicals from what is called «moderate» opposition. NATO has just approved a very dangerous step to escalation in the volatile region.