Beyond the NATO summit

NATO’s summit in Warsaw last week was critical in terms of establishing guidelines for the alliance to adapt itself to the rapidly changing security environment. With its 28 members, each with different priorities and interests, it was not an easy task for NATOleaders to agree on a well-balanced defense strategy between its eastern and southern flanks. The lengthy concluding communiqué, which in many ways provided less than what Turkey expected in the fight against terrorism, at least marked the beginning of NATO’s adaptation process.

Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent instabilities in Ukraine put an end to NATO’s existential crisis and reaffirmed its traditional role of deterring Russia. However, the allies have different perspectives on how to cope with Russia’s aggression. While Eastern European states have called for an increased NATO presence in the region, countries such as Germany or the United States have been in favor of containing Russian expansion without provoking it any further.

Compared to the eastern flank, the threats emanating from the south have been too complex for NATO to deal with using its traditional toolbox. Whether or not NATO will be able to successfully address these multi-dimensional and multilateral threats, such as failed states, civil wars, jihadist terrorism and the refugee problem, is an important matter in itself. But the summit’s emphasis on the “indivisibility of security” is nevertheless a political gain. The alliance seems to have finally acknowledged that “the continuing crises and instability across the Middle East and North Africa region” have presented direct implications for its security.
Indeed, Russia appears as the most imminent threat in the communiqué released at the summit. But the flood of refugees to Europe along with mounting terrorist attacks, have diverted NATO’s attention toward Syria and Iraq and inevitably to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Unfortunately, the consciousness created among the allies over the necessity to strengthen the southern flank did not translate into concrete assurance measures such as the Very High Joint Readiness Task Force we observed on the eastern flank at the Wales Summit in 2014. What NATO is offering today instead is more preliminary steps to bolster its monitoring and intelligence-sharing capacity and develop partnerships with the countries in the region for stabilization.

The frustration of Turkish leaders is understandable since Turkey, as a country which has been fighting against terrorism on dual fronts and struggling with the refugee problem, demanded stronger NATO engagement in the region, particularly support for a no-fly zone in Syria, but it so far has had to settle for the mere deployment of Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS).

Moreover, Turkey expected NATO to embrace a broader definition of terrorism and of groups in the region so as to include the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but the communiqué emphasized only ISIL, al-Nusra and other related groups, simply because the Democratic Union Party (PYD) remains the most effective partner on the ground for the coalition combating ISIL.

ISIL missile attacks which have targeted Kilis in southeastern Turkey in recent months demonstrated that NATO’s collective defense mechanism is not working. And avoiding an outright clash with Russia somewhat explains why NATO is not willing to put “boots on the ground” in Syria.

Instead, with the dispatch of AWACS to Turkey, which will fly over Syria and Iraq to support the coalition, NATO is hoping to increase its presence over Turkey’s borders against the terrorist threat and break the area access denial (A2/AD) created by Russiain Syria at the same time.

Surveillance units will also monitor possible border violations, work to prevent another incident between Russia and Turkey and thus reduce the possibilities of invoking Article 5, which binds members to defend other members facing attack.

Currently, in addition to Spanish missile batteries in Adana, Italian SAMP_T surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries have been deployed to Kahramanmaraş to strengthen the Syrian border against ISIL attacks, replacing the German Patriot SAMs that were withdrawn last year.

The high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) rocket launchers to be deployed by the U.S. this month will certainly contribute to the consolidation of border defense by upgrading Turkey’s offensive capabilities.

The set of decisions taken at the Warsaw Summit with regard to the southern flank may have fallen short of satisfying Turkey’s security concerns, but they might evolve into more substantial commitments over time as the seeds planted at the summit start to grow. In the meantime, maintaining political cohesion within the alliance is critical for progress.