The New Republic: The Syrian Civil War May Be About to Go Fully Regional

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The Syrian Civil War May Be About to Go Fully Regional

March 31, 2014

On Thursday, a video was posted on YouTube containing an alleged recording of high-ranking Turkish officials discussing a potential military intervention into Syria in defense of a tiny Turkish exclave 25 miles south of the Turkey-Syria border. In its most damning moment, Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan offers to orchestrate of Gulf of Tonkin-esque false flag attack on the exclave in order to justify a response. The full English transcript can be found here.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, one of four alleged participants in the discussion, confirmed that a meeting had taken place but claimed that the tape had been doctored.

The implications for domestic politics in Turkey, where intervention in Syria is deeply unpopular and key municipal elections took place on Sunday, are so massive that the government blocked all of YouTube and forbid journalists from reporting on the video. The ban follows a similar prohibition on Twitter enacted early last week but overturned on Wednesday.

However, the geopolitical implications are potentially even greater. If Turkey chooses or is drawn into engagement with the Syrian Army, it could fundamentally alter the course of the war. And even if it elects merely to establish an armed stronghold in Syria’s north, other nations may be emboldened to respond in kind.

Home to almost 650,000 Syrian refugees, Turkey has been providing light arms and training to Syrian rebel groups since at least May 2012. Its northern border with Syria has become the primary conduit through which weapons flow from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to opposition forces on the ground.

Turkey has gradually become more and more overt in its support for the Syrian opposition. Just last week, when Syrian rebels launched an operation to seize the last government-controlled border crossing between Turkey and Syria, Turkey provided them with a de facto no-fly zone, shooting down a Syrian fighter jet sent to defend the border towns. Turkey claims the plane had violated its airspace, but it crashed in Syrian territory.

Neither has Turkey been shy about its willingness to defend its tiny exclave in Syria, which inscribes the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather to Ottoman Empire founder Osman I. (For a full rundown of the exclave’s bizarre history, I defer to the inimitable Frank Jacobs.) According to Hurriyet Daily News, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an Islamist rebel group, threatened to attack the exclave this past week. On Tuesday, Turkey’s Ottomaniacial Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promised publically to do “whatever is necessary” to defend the integrity of the tomb.

In fact, the most interesting part of the leaked Turkish talks isn’t the revelation of military plans—which could have been guessed from Turkey’s prior moves—but the duplicity and dysfunction with which those plans appear to be moving forward. The Turkish officials discuss how to avoid running afoul of international law. They bemoan the resistance of opposition parties in Turkey to military action, which they say has turned national security into a “common, cheap domestic policy outfit.” At one point, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu states, “We’re going to portray this is [sic] Al-Qaeda, there’s no distress there if it’s a matter regarding Al-Qaeda.” At no point do they discuss an exit strategy or seriously consider the potentially serious ramifications of an invasion.

The Turkish officials even harken back to their recent intervention in Iraq, which never received legislative authorization. In 2008, Turkey sent hundreds of troops into Northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish separatist fighters. “How do you think we’ve managed to rally our tanks into Iraq?” asks Sinirlioğlu. “Let me be clear, there was no government decision on that, we have managed that just with a single order.”

What happens now is anyone’s guess. Is the publication of a secret military meeting embarrassing enough to alter plans that have been brewing for years? And if not, will the United States stand by its ally and longtime NATO member as the Syrian conflict festers and regionalizes? In the leak itself, Sinirlioğlu claims that the U.S. distributed plans for a no-fly zone at a recent coordination meeting. The Syrian Civil War is already a quagmire, but if the leak is to be believed, it might soon get a lot worse.

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The New Republic: NATO Is In No Position to Protect Eastern Europe From Russia

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NATO Is In No Position to Protect Eastern Europe From Russia

March 11, 2014

Last week, Russia launched a surprise military exercise involving “deepwater bombing and mine planting” on the Baltic Sea coast of its Kaliningrad exclave, which is nestled in between Lithuania and Poland. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said the exercise shows that “Russia is trying to threaten all Europe and becoming unpredictable.” She’s not alone in worrying. All across the former Soviet borderlands, leaders are looking at Russia’s naked play for Crimea and finding uncomfortable similarities. Ethnic Russians amount to roughly a quarter of the population in both Latvia and Estonia, and a majority in major cities like Narva and Daugavpils. If Simferopol can come back into the Russian fold, the Baltic leaders wonder, why not Narva?

The answer always given, of course, is that Poland and the Baltic States are members of both the European Union and, more importantly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Any incursion into their territory would obligate a response from NATO’s 28 members, including the United States. “Thanks be to God, we are NATO members,” Grybauskaite told reporters.

It’s hard to know if NATO’s eastern flank should be thanking God or praying to Him. Russia’s return to military adventurism in Europe comes at perhaps the weakest point in NATO’s 65-year history. The coalition’s disturbing lack of cohesion and preparedness for even small engagements, along with shifting American priorities, cast serious doubt on the guarantee of protection that made Eastern Europe so eager for NATO’s embrace.

Of course, NATO’s leadership has duly made gestures of support for its Eastern European caucus in the aftermath of Crimea. After Poland and Lithuania invoked an emergency meeting under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty for only the fourth time since 1949, NATO cancelled a joint military mission with Russia and announced plans to increase military cooperation with Ukraine. The U.S. also sent six additional fighter jets to a routine air policing mission in the Baltic states. But these are symbolic moves, nothing more.

NATO relies heavily on the United States to project power and deter external threats. The U.S. provides 22 percent of NATO’s common-funded budget and is the organization’s largest member—its military spending represents nearly three quarters of all NATO members’ military spending combined. As a result, notes Stratfor Chairman George Friedman in his prescient book The Next 100 Years, NATO’s collective defense guarantee is “effective only if the United States is prepared to use force.”

Concerned Poles and Balts seeking hard evidence behind America’s rhetorical support for NATO are bound to be disappointed. Obama’s “pivot to Asia” is only the latest stage in a multi-decade drawdown of U.S. forces in Europe. Only 64,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed there, compared to 450,000 at the height of the Cold War. And U.S. military forces have never been deployed east of the Oder River, which forms the boundary between Germany and Poland. Even planned U.S. missile defense shields for Poland and the Czech Republic were cancelled as part of Obama’s attempted reset with Russia in 2009.

Russia’s intervention in Crimea also came just days after the Department of Defense proposed a 2015 budget that would reduce the U.S. army to its smallest size since before World War II. The budget is a recognition that the U.S. has been spending too much on its military for decades and will no longer be at war for the first time since 2001. It is also a much larger recognition that a debt-ridden, sequestered America cannot be expected to militarily enforce the interests of every ally in every corner of the globe.

Despite this, the rest of NATO continues to operate as if the full force of the U.S. military is behind it. In the interest of rectifying the massive imbalance within NATO, its members agreed in 2006 to each spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense (the U.S. typically spends around 4 percent). As of last year, only seven members met that mark. In fact, since 2010, most European countries’ defense expenditures have actually fallen between 8 percent and 30 percent.

That imbalance was apparent during the 2011 intervention in Libya. After the U.S. moved into a “supporting role,” the NATO countries maintaining the no-fly zone quickly began to run out of precision bombs, and the U.S. was forced to provide 80 percent of aerial refueling. In a preview of his post-retirement candor, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned at the time of “a dim, if not dismal future” of “collective military irrelevance” for NATO if trends continued.

Ultimately, of course, military spending trends will not tell us what happens if a NATO member is attacked. But Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which requires the response of every member if one member is attacked, is virtually untested. The only time it has ever been invoked, after the September 11th attacks, was at the behest of the United States. And as Syria has shown, the ghost of Iraq still stalks America’s foreign policy, poisoning the debate over any intervention no matter how righteous.

When it comes to Ukraine, “The United States is not about to risk a conventional war over Russia’s neighbors because our interests there are limited and the dispute might escalate to the nuclear level,” Joseph Parent, a University of Miami professor specializing in U.S. foreign policy, told me in an email. “Crimea isn’t worth Charleston.” Indeed, President Barack Obama, who came out in favor of Ukraine joining NATO while running for president, is probably thanking his lucky stars today that America’s only commitment to Ukraine is an unenforceable 20-year-old memorandum. And he has made clear that a military response is not on the table in Ukraine. How much does that calculation change if Estonia or Latvia is in the crosshairs?