As NATO bolsters its southern flank

As NATO bolsters its southern flank

In the wake of Montenegro’s admission to NATO and the activation of NATO’s first land-based ballistic missile defense system in Romania, attention has been focused on the escalating tensions between the West and Russia in the Black Sea, in what is being dubbed the new Cold War. The rapid developments last week suggest that NATO is willing to enhance not only its eastern but also its southern flanks, and therefore play a larger role in the Mediterranean.

Faced with mounting rocket attacks from Syria, which have caused dozens of casualties in Kilis since January, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently warned that Ankara might take unilateral action against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria if partners in the multinational coalition fail to deliver support.

The following day, U.S. President Barack Obama and Erdoğan reportedly discussed joint efforts to defeat ISIL militants in Syria, with an emphasis on the importance of international cooperation and the U.S. commitment to Turkey’s security as a NATO member. 

Not coincidentally, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg subsequently said in Brussels that the situation in Kilis was high on their agenda, underlining NATO’s solidarity with Turkey. 

In this respect, a tailored package of assistance measures, which includes the dispatch of additional NATO ships and aircraft to the region will occur before a summit in Warsaw on July 8-9. 

Italy is reportedly planning to send SAMP-T missiles – the latest generation of surface-to-air defense missile systems – in addition to NATO’s pledge to dispatch new Airborne Warning and Control systems (AWACS) by July.

Owing to the escalation of the ISIL missile attacks against Turkey, the U.S. decided to deploy high mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) rocket launchers along Turkey’s border in May. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that NATO allies hoped to assist moderate Syrian opposition groups on the ground with this system.

For quite a while, there has been an ongoing debate between Washington and Ankara about the ground forces to be engaged in the operations to seal of the Manbij area, which lies at the southern end of the 98-kilometer border Turkey shares with Syria that is controlled by ISIL.

Turkey adamantly opposes the U.S. cooperation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which constitutes the backbone of the Democratic Syrian Forces. Instead, Ankara has been promoting a new plan, which relies on Syrian Arab tribes instead of Syrian Kurds in taking over the area from ISIL.

Seeking to draw NATO into the Syrian equation, Turkey expects the moderate opposition – defined on its own terms – to advance on the ground, and therefore pave the way for the de facto establishment of a safe zone, which Ankara has been demanding for years.

In this context, a crucial question is whether there could be some quid pro quo with NATO getting further engaged in the Syrian conflict in return for a move permitting a permanent NATO naval presence in the Black Sea in contravention of the Montreux Agreement of 1936.

Professor Nurşin Güney, vice president and security and nuclear energy fellow at the Wise Men Center For Strategic Studies (Bilgesam), argues that NATO’s security strategies from the Cold War no longer function in terms of deterring either conventional (rocket attacks) or unconventional threats such as global terrorism. In this respect, as a NATO member, Ankara’s protection under the collective defense mechanism as stated in Article 5 of the alliance’s treaty –unless additional deterrence measures are taken-continues to be at stake. 

So far, NATO has refrained from clashing directly with Russia and thus even framed the crisis in November 2015 as a conflict between two countries.

Güney asserts that NATO’s plans to bolster its southern flank with increasing naval presence in the Mediterranean and deployment of defense systems not only aims at deterring Russia, but is in fact part of a broader strategy to stabilize the region and control the migrant flow. As such, NATO’s involvement in the Syrian conflict at some point has to involve reconciliation with Russia, thus she excludes the option of direct military engagement.

As for the Montreux Convention, Güney claims that it is Turkey’s strongest bargaining chip not only against the West but also against Russia.

It is true that since the downing of the Russian jet, Turkey has rediscovered the value of its Western alliance ties. However, maintaining a healthy balance between the West and the rest is crucial for a middle power like Turkey, especially when sitting in such a precarious geopolitical location.