Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel is slated to meet with his American counterpart, Martin Dempsey, in Washington on Wednesday, a meeting which comes as continued fighting in Syria undermines hope that a UN cease-fire plan can succeed.
The two are widely expected to discuss a possible NATO role in the conflict, an idea which both states have floated amid escalating violence at Turkey's southern border. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is rumored to have discussed the Syrian issue with Özel during a special three-hour meeting this weekend, told an Italian newspaper on Monday that he is “prepared to ask NATO for a military intervention.”
Erdoğan criticized the way the newspaper put the headline of the interview and said he doesn’t endorse the misleading headline. He added that the text of the interview says no such thing.
US envoy to NATO Ivo Daalder told reporters on Tuesday that Turkey has not demanded a military assistance due to the situation in Syria so far but said the NATO’s only Muslim member was informing NATO member states about what is happening along its Syria border.
Erdoğan told a joint news conference with his Italian counterpart, Mario Monti, that NATO could invoke Art. 5 of the alliance in case Turkey is under attack but he said this is not the case at the moment. Art. 5 stipulates common NATO defense in case one of the members of the alliance was attacked.
Daalder added that if any attack is staged on Turkey or any other member countries, all NATO member states, including the US, will be ready to respond, he said.
Erdoğan told reporters upon his return from Italy on Tuesday night that “there is nothing more natural” than the army chief's US visit ahead of NATO's Chicago summit. He added that the trip was at the invitation of Özel's American counterpart.
“The Assad regime is finished. We've been patient thus far. But if the Syrian government continues to make the same mistakes at the border, this will grow into the situation described in the fifth article of the NATO charter,” he said, referring to the NATO provision which defines an attack on one member state as an attack on all others and requires a collective response.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meanwhile suggested in recent weeks that the US would be open to supporting a Turkish appeal based on the NATO charter's less dire fourth provision, which calls for consultations between member countries if a NATO member's security is threatened.
But while Clinton told members of the Friends of Syria in April that discussing a potential NATO plan would “keep Assad off balance by leaving options on the table,” so far there has been little enthusiasm among the “Friends” group or NATO members for a military mission for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But as the precarious hold of a UN-brokered peace plan continues to loosen, pressure to act has grown, with Ankara's patience in particular tested by Syrian military operations only kilometers from the border, a growing number of Syrian refugees -- 24,000 are presently sheltered in Turkey -- and cross-border shooting by the Syrian military.
Last month, two refugees at a Turkish aid camp in the southeastern province of Kilis were killed by Syrian soldiers firing on rebels who were escaping across the border after ambushing a military checkpoint.
Ankara's fears about instability along the border have also been fueled by the growing profile of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Syria. In late April, four PKK terrorists were captured when they entered the Akçakale district of the southeastern Turkish province of Şanlıurfa from across the border. The group, which has not had a significant presence in Syria for 13 years, has re-emerged in the country's restive north amid a worsening security situation.
NATO mission remains difficult choice for allies
As Özel and Dempsey were set to discuss Syria on Wednesday, analysts predicted that though the US and other NATO members would be eager to make the symbolic gesture of offering political support for a Turkish intervention in Syria, direct military support would be more difficult to secure.
Cenap Çakmak, a professor of international affairs at Gazi University, told Today's Zaman on Tuesday that Turkey must “feature NATO in any plans in order not to give the image of Turkey thinking about going it alone.” Çakmak said it would be Turkey's job to convince NATO that it would have to play a forward role in any possible intervention scenario.
Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) Syria analyst Oytun Orhan meanwhile said that while “there's no question that the US and others would like to see something done, and they'll absolutely support a more forceful Turkish stance,” Turkey would be hard pressed to find its NATO allies volunteering military forces for a potentially costly engagement in the near future.
“First, it's been more than a year, and most countries are still not indicating that they would take concrete steps in Syria. It's also an election year in the US, which means that the most critical partner is going to be extremely reluctant to act,” Orhan said.
The analyst said that given such reluctance, “only a rapid increase in the intensity of the border situation or a new provocation which demonstrates a real danger to Turkey's border security” would pave the way for NATO to become a key player in the Syrian crisis.
Nevertheless, said Orhan, “maybe the meeting and the possibility of NATO action will add a new layer of pressure on the Damascus government. I guess everything has to be tried to get them to stop the violence.”