The advance of militant Islamic State fighters in Syria to within a few kilometers of the Turkish border is raising concerns the group might attack inside Turkey, a NATO member, possibly requiring a response by the alliance.
As a NATO member, Turkey is entitled to help from the 27 other allies if it is invaded, and it already has received an anti-missile system and other assistance to shore up its defenses.
In his first week on the job, NATO’s new secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, confirmed the commitment.
“Turkey should know that NATO will be there if there is any spillover, any attacks on Turkey, as a consequence of the violence we see in Syria,” said Stoltenberg.
Extent of engagement
But analysts, including Josef Janning of the European Council on Foreign Relations, say NATO will be reluctant to do anything more than absolutely necessary to defend Turkey’s borders.
Janning spoke to VOA via SkypeI, saying, “Most likely NATO would be very keen to make sure alliance solidarity is kept up, but not to give Turkey a carte blanche on military operations into Syria, or into Iraq, for that matter. I do not think that many NATO countries would be comfortable to be, kind of, forced into this conflict through the back door.”
Janning said the problem is that the situation in Syria is complex, and NATO nations are concerned, as they have been for years, that any attack on rebel groups like Islamic State will only strengthen Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In addition, he said that after the long, difficult and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, NATO nations do not want to be dragged into another insurgent war.
“Before NATO could engage in a Syria operation, NATO would have to have an idea of what the outcome would be, what sort of ‘end of conflict’ situation they would want for Syria. And that is where the problem starts,” Janning said.
So, Janning and others expect NATO to tread carefully, even as it lives up to its security guarantee for Turkey.
At Carnegie Europe, Senior Associate Judy Dempsey said any operation to defend Turkey would have to officially be a NATO operation, under what is called Article Five of the NATO treaty. She said it might not end up involving all members, however, or a major commitment of land forces.
“NATO as ‘NATO’ could invoke Article Five, but what we could get is ‘coalitions of the willing,’ which is effectively what we are seeing now in the coalition that the U.S. has assembled for this bombing campaign,” she said.
Even so, Dempsey said NATO also may find it difficult to limit its involvement.
“Without boots on the ground, or without coming to some kind of political negotiations, ISIS has a free hand. We have got ill-prepared armies in Iraq. You have Syria in total destruction," said Dempsey. "And just wait until northern Israel gets unstable. This is so combustible, so combustible and dangerous.”
And that is not likely to change. Islamic State has not retreated in the face of the U.S.-led bombing campaign. And Josef Janning said the threat of NATO involvement likely will not deter the group either.
“If NATO gets involved I do not think that would deter ISIS terrorists much. They may see it as an additional confirmation of their importance and relevance in the region,” she said.
The mutual defense commitment is the core of the NATO alliance, and experts say it applies whether a member is under threat from an army or a militant group. They expect a NATO response if Islamic State attacks Turkey, but they can not say just what that would be or exactly what impact it would have.