Commentary

Dragging America into Turkey’s War with Syria?

What is NATO for? It was created to protect Europe from the Red Army. However, the Soviet Union has disappeared. The Warsaw Pact has dissolved. The Europeans have ten times the GDP and three times the population of Russia.

Why are Americans still defending their prosperous and populous allies?

If NATO was merely a social club, it wouldn’t be so bad — though the dues remain a bit high. But the organization has become a transmission belt of needless war. Washington dragged reluctant Europeans into a decade-long nation-building crusade in Afghanistan. Paris and London dragged reluctant Americans into a foolish attempt at regime change on the cheap in Libya. In both cases everyone would have been better off had everyone remained at peace.

Now Turkey may drag Americans and Europeans alike into another unnecessary but potentially much more costly conflict involving Syria.

Syria’s burgeoning civil war has spilled over into Turkey. Indeed, Ankara is ostentatiously meddling in the conflict. Despite Turkey’s denials, the Erdogan government is channeling weapons and other equipment to rebels, hosting the “Free Syrian Army,” and sheltering Syrian opposition activists. Lately Ankara appears to be attempting to create “safe zones” within Syria for military operations against the Syrian government.

Thus, tensions between the two governments were rising even before the Syrian military destroyed a Turkish RF-4E reconnaissance plane. Turkey claimed the plane was merely testing Turkish radar capabilities, but some observers suspect the crew was conducting surveillance. Damascus insisted the aircraft was in Syrian airspace; Ankara said the jet had strayed over Syrian territory but was above international waters when downed.

After the shoot-down, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that “Every military element approaching Turkey from the Syrian border and representing a security risk and danger will be assessed as a military threat and will be treated as a military target.” His government deployed anti-aircraft guns and missiles as well as tanks and other armored vehicles along its border. While Ankara should win any clash between the two, taking on Syria would be no cakewalk. The latter’s military was about 60 percent as large as Turkey’s before Damascus began deploying units to suppress domestic protests. Since then defections and desertions have undermined the latter force, but Turkey’s military has been stretched for years by anti-insurgency operations.

The Erdogan government understandably wants NATO at Ankara’s side. After the airplane incident Turkey reportedly requested that the alliance draft plans for a no-fly zone to “protect” its territory. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc insisted that the alliance should consider the incident an attack on all members through Article 5, which governs defensive use of military force. Ankara then drew back from confrontation. Although NATO condemned Syria, alliance chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that Article 5 was not discussed when the organization met. He added: “It is my clear expectation that the situation won’t continue to escalate.”

Others also sought to downplay the prospect of conflict. Wyn Rees of the University of Nottingham argued that “The NATO members are not looking for a pretext on which to intervene and therefore they do not want one of their members to drag them into such an action.” Dutch Foreign Minister Uris Rosenthal declared: “Military intervention in Syria is out of the question.”

Wars have a way of happening unexpectedly, however. And Ankara might be tempted to provoke war in order to force regime change. Imagine if Turkey attacked Syrian military units in their own territory, sparking retaliation by Damascus followed by a call from Ankara to NATO for support. The U.S. could not easily remain aloof. Bomb Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya which threaten no American allies yet ignore combat between Syria and long-time NATO member Turkey? That would be the end of the official Washington-Ankara friendship, beautiful or otherwise.

The fact that the “North American” Treaty Organization could land America in yet another unnecessary war in the Middle East should trigger a serious U.S. rethink of the alliance. Not the usual reaffirmation of NATO as “more important than ever.” But a challenge to the raison d’être of an organization which decades ago fulfilled its original purpose.

Alliances make sense when directed against a common outside threat. The Soviet Union constituted one. Then there’s reason to back one’s partners essentially unconditionally — even when the parties’ interests are not always aligned. This is especially true when smaller states are dependent on a large, more distant power. If you want to be protected, pay the price.

However, the trans-Atlantic alliance can’t be justified on these grounds today. Neither America nor Europe faces a hegemonic threat, or any other danger beyond its capability to respond. Russia doesn’t qualify. Nor did Serbia, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Syria certainly doesn’t do so.

That doesn’t mean there’s no cause for diplomatic and even military cooperation involving other issues when interests coincide. But there’s no reason to believe that interests automatically will coincide on every issue. There’s certainly no justification for automatically backing other governments, especially when they choose to go to war for their own purposes. As Turkey might against Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a nasty character and good people should wish him ill. However, joining Syria’s expanding civil war would be bad for Western peoples and possibly for the Syrian people. If Ankara decides to intervene militarily, it should bear the full cost of doing so.

This isn’t a problem limited to Turkey. Proposals to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO are short-sighted for many reasons. The most important is that the U.S. has no cause to make their disputes, especially with Russia, America’s own. There’s certainly nothing at stake which warrants promising to go to war for them against a nuclear armed Russia. Indeed, Tbilisi shot first in its short 2008 conflict with Russia, yet apparently still expected U.S. backing even while outside the alliance.

Instead of expanding or even maintaining NATO, Washington should be leaving NATO. The security argument for Washington’s defense of Europe disappeared years ago. The U.S. is essentially bankrupt while the Europeans have a larger GDP than do Americans. Other issues warrant cooperation with rather than defense by Washington.

The worsening confrontation between Turkey and Syria offers a sharp reminder that NATO is not only expensive for but dangerous to America. This is no time to preserve an outmoded alliance for the sake of nostalgia. The U.S. cannot afford to be drawn into additional disastrous wars in Syria or elsewhere.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).