The reaction of Western countries to Turkey’s fight against terrorists groups in north-eastern Syria requires the international community to have a serious rethink about Article 5 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty which founded NATO and set out its responsibilities.
Turkey’s NATO journey started 67 years ago when it acceded to the organisation on 18 February 1952. Despite being an important member of NATO, Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” which started last week has tested the West’s relationship with Ankara. Article 5 of the founding treaty provides for “individual or collective self-defence” as recognised by the NATO alliance charter.
If we look at Turkey’s relationship with other NATO-member states in three stages, we can see that the first is to establish a period of collective defence; the second is to emphasise the need for collective security; and the third is to develop a strategic partnership in the Middle East-North Africa region. These three important aspects require Turkey and NATO to have a more coordinated and trustful relationship.
In the MENA region, Turkey has faced huge threats from groups such as Daesh and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The latter is not only designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, but also the EU and US, and the government in Ankara has been fighting against the PKK terrorists since the 1980s. Daesh is also an enemy of Turkey and Ankara has committed its resources to the defeat of the terror group in the region. Turkey has thus been facing threats to its security on many levels. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week in London; “No other ally [has] suffered more terrorist attacks… no other ally is more exposed to instability, turmoil and violence from the Middle East.”
For much of the past 30 years, NATO has focused on crisis management within the parameters of Article 5. According to John Deni, author of NATO and Article 5, collective defence is “one of the alliance’s three core missions, along with crisis management and cooperative security.” As stated in Article 5, the most important part of NATO’s founding pact, “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.”
“Turkey is under pressure from the [PKK and its affiliates in Syria, the PYD-YPG] terror organisation,” explained Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last week. “According to Article 5 of NATO, which side should these [NATO member states] support?”
Given the nature of Article 5, that is a very pertinent question. Nevertheless, the decision by European countries to suspend arms exports to Turkey shows that they have serious doubts about applying the terms of the article to Turkey’s current predicament. Such a schism between NATO member states calls into doubt the unity of the alliance.
While Stoltenberg was affirming his trust in Turkey by saying that the country “is important for NATO. It has proven important in many ways, not least in the fight against Daesh. We have used, as NATO allies, the global coalition, all of us have used infrastructure in Turkey, bases in Turkey in our operations to defeat Daesh”, European countries agreed on Monday to limit arms exports to Turkey over its operation in northern Syria. Beyond this disagreement, schisms between NATO and European members run deep. European member states complain about US protectionist reflexes, for example, especially after Donald Trump criticised Europe’s share of the NATO budget.
In February, a former German ambassador to the US and chairman of the Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger, said that, “The EU, for decades, has profited from the protection that the US has provided. Today, this protection is not a certainty any more.” Some European diplomats and military experts who have considered the necessity and possibility of a European defence entity — a European army — insist that the EU’s capabilities are hugely underestimated, by many Europeans as much as anyone else.
Moreover, Italy’s concerns about NATO’s national budget spending rules has also shaken the organisation’s unity. Italy’s Defence Ministry asked that money spent on developing cybersecurity defences should be counted the same as spending money to buy tanks.
Another source of tension between the member states is the anti-missile defence system that the US wants to deploy in the Czech Republic and Poland. The location of the system would essentially create two levels of security within Europe, as it would offer greater protection to some countries on the continent and the United States.
With such internal disagreement between NATO member states, not only regarding Turkey but also other issues, the alliance’s integrity and credibility is undoubtedly being challenged. If NATO cannot comply with its own Article 5 regarding collective self-defence when the country under attack or threat is Turkey, then what future does the organisation have? It is not too early to begin discussions about what a post-NATO world might look like.
Note: A correction was made on 24 January 2020 at 10.30am (GMT) the previous version claimed Article 5 is part of the United Nations Charter instead of the NATO alliance charter.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.