NATO all dressed up, nowhere to go in Syria

The NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg is obviously a successful European politician. But his grasp of history seems poor.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

An erudite mind who knows the ebb and flow of European civilization – and Turkey’s difficult history with Europe from the time the Ottomans knocked at the gates of Vienna – would not have made the statement that Stoltenberg made – namely, that NATO troops will be sent to defend Turkey, if necessary.

Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent must be turning in his grave. No Turkish leader will ever take up Stoltenberg’s offer – least of all ‘Sultan’ Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s current president.

Turkey prides itself as a provider of security, including for the Christian world to the west of the Bosphorous, not as a supplicant needing Europe’s protection.

Of course, it is possible Stoltenberg himself knew he was only making a bombastic statement with an eye on the media, as politicians are wont to. Otherwise, NATO has no real role to play in the tensions that have arisen between Turkey and Russia.

Neither Erdogan nor Russian President Vladimir Putin is spoiling for a fight. By the way, what actually happened over the weekend on the Turkish-Syrian border too is shrouded in mystery and increasingly it seems Ankara and Moscow are in some foreplay over new ground rules for the non-existent Turkish-Syrian border.

From Erdogan’s latest remarks, he seems to be tapping down tensions. He speaks of the tensions jeopardizing mutually beneficial economic ties.  Evidently, Erdogan prefers to handle this as a bilateral Turkish-Russian affair. The Kremlin also made it clear it wants good relations with Turkey.

Which is just as well, because Turkey’s historical experience is that the Western powers have their own agenda to pursue in the Muslim Middle East. The Syrian question, in its various dimensions, is far too sensitive for Turkey to be made a template of Ankara’s troubled relations with Brussels.

The European Union’s proposal to ‘assist’ Turkey in handling the refugee flow from Syria is a case in point. The EU offers to subsidize Turkey financially provided Ankara kept custody of the Syrian refugees. Ankara has an open mind – everything depends on how generous the EU funding will be. Clearly, $1.5 billion is ‘peanuts’.

Turkey does not want foreign troops to come and defend it. Its preference is that the US and Germany would change their mind and allowed the Patriot batteries to remain in Turkey. (Alas, they are not agreeable.) Turkey trusts own capability to defend the country’s territorial integrity.

Stoltenberg plainly overlooked three things. One, he downplayed the sad story that the NATO and Turkey are not exactly on the same page on the Syrian question. Turkey’s obdurate stand on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s exclusion from any transition has only few takers today.

Again, Turkey sees the Syrian Kurdish groups as ‘terrorists’ but the US and some of its major NATO allies are perceiving the Kurdish militia as allies in the fight against the Islamic State.

The high probability is that on this vexed issue, Turkey has no alternative but to talk things over with Russia sooner rather than later.

A broad Turkish-Russian understanding over Syria may even emerge out of it. Erdogan will most certainly expect Putin not to arm the Syrian Kurds. The short point is, NATO has no role to play here in the eventual Turkish-Russian rapprochement that becomes unavoidable, and Ankara also will not want to be seen traveling in the alliance’s bandwagon when it engages Moscow in a constructive spirit. Stoltenberg would not probably know that Turkey has a painful history with Russia, which goes back in time.

Evidently, Turkey’s scope for maneuvering vis-à-vis Russia is actually very limited and it has no option but to reach an understanding with Russia over Syria. Turkey has extensive business interests in the Russian market. Any rupture in the business ties will not only be damaging to the Turkish economy but will also upset influential interest groups within Turkey.

Finally, it may suit NATO to create the impression that Erdogan repents his trademark anti-Western platform and is willing to identify with the alliance’s conflict with Russia. But then, Erdogan thrives on that platform. And he may still have uses for it if his campaign to transform Turkey as a presidential system concentrating power in his able hands makes headway and the West condemns it as the death of democracy.

All in all, German Chancellor Angela Merkel neatly summed up the paradigm when she said Wednesday that much as Turkey’s help is needed to stem the flow of refugees to Europe, she sticks to her stance that Turkey should not be admitted into the European Union.

Merkel said, “We need to talk to Turkey about sharing the burden better. That will mean we give Turkey money… [But] I have always been against EU membership, President Erdogan knows this, and I still am”.

To be sure, the West always regarded Turkey as its gate-keeper, and is willing to hire Erdogan for the job. The leader of Turkey’s main opposition party (Republic People’s Party), Kemal Kilicdaroglu has openly warned Erdogan about the danger that foreign powers who engage Ankara could only be pursuing own agenda in the Syrian war.

Kilicdarolglu stopped short of flagging the West’s ambivalence vis-à-vis the Kurdish separatist issue that threatens Turkey’s vital interests. Surely, Erdogan himself cannot be unaware that a vector of the Syrian question that begs to be addressed in any eventual settlement involves the Kurdish problem, which makes it imperative that Turkey takes its due place at the high table instead of clinging to the apron strings of western powers.

At the end of the day, what is it that NATO can do to help Turkey tide over the complete breakdown of Erdogan’s Syria policies? The challenge that Turkey faces is not from Russian aggression, but its capacity and political will to undertake a quick course correction on Syria by purging itself of ‘neo-Ottomanism’.

The NATO should not add fuel to the fire in the Middle East. The alliance’s last intervention in a Muslim country (after the dismal failure in Afghanistan) proved to be a horrific mistake – Libya. Simply because NATO is in perpetual need of finding a raison d’etre to exist as the only military alliance in polycentric world order that eschews bloc mentality, it should not rush to beat war drums when the sound of gun shot is heard somewhere.

And, indeed, if and when a Muslim wolf finally arrives at Europe’s doorstep under the garb of a Syrian refugee, how relevant will be NATO’s famous Article V? Make no mistake, that is what is likely to happen – or is already happening – when the refugees from Syria carry back the eddies of western societies who gave muscle to the Islamic State up until recently and may now wreak havoc at ‘home’.

A good case can be made why Stoltenberg should knock on the doors of the Kremlin and ask what is it that he can do to strengthen Russia’s deployment in Syria.

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