On June 24, following Syria's downing of a Turkish Air Force reconnaissance jet, the Turkish government called for a NATO treaty Article 4 consultation.
Article 4 says NATO allies will "consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence, or security" of any NATO ally is threatened.
An Article 4 consultation sends several grim diplomatic signals. In Turkey's case, it demonstrates that Ankara believes the complex security threat it faces requires alliance action. Syrian military attacks are only one facet of the threat. Terrorist attacks are another. So is a war with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's firmest ally, Iran. Syrian disintegration into warring neighborhoods, following a collapse of the Assad regime, is another serious security threat, one that would require a long-term NATO commitment to nation rebuilding.
So it is fair to ask if Turkey is genuinely preparing to retaliate. And does Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, really mean it this time when he invokes NATO's commitment to mutual defense?
Syria's dirty war has certainly spawned chest-thumping theatrics. For a year and a half, Erdogan and other NATO leaders have berated the Assad regime. In August 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama explicitly called on Assad to relinquish power. "For the sake of the Syrian people," Obama said, "the time has come for President Assad to step aside." Assad, however, remains in power, murdering the forsaken Syrian people, despite Obama's "calculated diplomacy" and a U.N.-backed peace-less peace plan.
Turkey has examined its legal options for military intervention in Syria. The Assad regime has arguably violated the 1998 Adana Agreement, which stipulated that Syria "will not permit" activity emanating from its territory that jeopardizes "the security and stability of Turkey." In April, Erdogan mentioned NATO's Article 5 after Syrian security forces fired across the Turkey-Syria border and wounded four people in a Turkish refugee camp. Erdogan said, "NATO has responsibilities to do with Turkey's borders, according to Article 5."
Article 5 enshrines NATO's mutual defense commitment. It was designed to deter an attack by the Soviet Union on West Germany by guaranteeing Moscow it faced war with every NATO nation if its tanks crossed the intra-German border. And it worked.
Though Assad has the backing of Vladimir Putin's 21st century Mafiya Moscow, his dirty war doesn't involve the Cold War's stakes. His military does not threaten Turkey's political independence like Soviet forces threatened West Germany, Denmark, Italy, Turkey, et cetera. That's why Erdogan's Article 5 reference struck many as bluster. The 9-11 attack's 3,000 dead justified invoking Article 5. Four wounded in the April border incident simply didn't.
Shooting down a Turkish military aircraft, however, is of a decidedly different character and magnitude. Assad's military forces have directly engaged Turkish military forces; two Turkish airmen are missing and likely dead. The plane was attacked under opaque circumstances. Turkey and Syria have two competing stories and two competing radar tracks. The Turkish newspaper Radikal (www.radikal.com.tr) published both on June 26.
Turkey says Syria attacked the plane in international airspace. Syria says the jet was in Syrian airspace. A highly suspicious Syrian video has cropped up on YouTube that supposedly shows a Syrian anti-aircraft gun site on the sea coast shooting at a jet.
Turkey reported that it has no radar track of a missile, but Turkey's Vice Prime Minister Bulent Arinc indicated that Turkey believes Syria used a missile. Arinc also accused Syria of firing on a search-and-rescue aircraft. Turkey knows where the plane crashed in the Mediterranean Sea, and it will recover the plane. StrategyPage.com editor James F. Dunnigan said that examining the wreckage will resolve the dispute, for "each anti-aircraft missile, or gun, leaves distinctive damage on its target."
In the mean time, the Turkish government stated the Article 4 consultations will include discussions of Article 5's applicability to Syria. Arinc said armed "retaliation many-fold" remains an option for Turkey. If Turkey goes that route, it wants the complete commitment and unbending support of its NATO allies.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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