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Turkey and NATO’s (Non) Conundrum of Article 5

Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria has been met with criticism amongst European leaders. Some of which have openly floated the idea that Erdogan could seek the support of NATO if the conflict widened. It which would make a large proportion of European states accessories of Erdogan’s move under NATO’s Article 5 – only in theory, however.

Not unexpectedly, EU foreign ministers were unable to agree on a collective arms embargo against Turkey due to the invasion of Syria at their meeting in Luxembourg. The necessary unanimity was not achieved, several countries, especially Hungary, opposed the motion.

Instead, the EU states solely committed to “strong national positions with regard to their arms exports to Turkey”. Based on EU criteria that the stability of the region should not be endangered. What it amounts to is yet another display of a European Union divided on a message and utterly powerless on the actual matter.

Whether or not an arms embargo could have had an actual impact or had been political posturing in the first place, can certainly be debated. What cannot be debated any longer is that Turkey continues to advance its troops in Syria. Furthermore, while the ceasefire announced today has only delayed the issue, it is hard to believe that Erdogan will suddenly concede his grand strategy quest for a neo-Ottoman Empire.

As for the Europeans, Turkey’s actions so far carry more than just humanitarian connotation. A potential attack on Turkey by the Syrian army of allied actors in the conflict could lead to Turkey invoking NATO’s Article 5 – collective self-defence. Under Article 5, an attack against a NATO member is considered an attack against all, and so far, has only been utilised once in the Treaty’s history.

Nevertheless, invoking Article 5 does not automatically warrant unconditional support from the member states. Turkey would have to invoke Article 4 first. Under Article 4, any member state can convene a meeting with the other members to “consult”. Here, Turkey would have to make a case for why it feels that either its independence or security is in jeopardy.

Even in this scenario, however, chances of Erdogan’s proceeding to the next level (i.e. Article 5) seem inconceivable, and there are valid reasons for it.

First, the vast majority of NATO countries have already called on Ankara to retreat immediately after the invasion began. Besides, several NATO states timely pointed out the possible dangers of destabilisation of the entire region. Germany, the Netherlands and France have temporarily stopped selling arms to Turkey in protest, with Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron condemning the Turkish invasion as an attack. Also, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated last week he expects Turkey to act with restraint.

Second, for Article 5 to be invoked, attack and defence action need to be distinguished cleanly. All NATO states must, therefore, regard the military actions of Turkey in Syria as lawful under international law – which is reasonably unlikely also, particularly after the remarks that have been made and the rules laid out for self-defence under the Charta of the United Nations, Chapter VII, Article 51.

Considering these factors, the necessary unanimity for collective self-defence appears to be highly unlikely in almost any scenario. In fact, due to the international community’s resentment towards Turkey, a freeze of Turkey’s NATO membership seems more conceivable than other NATO members taking Turkey’s side on the battlefield.

Whether or not Article 5 continues to trouble politicians such as Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Asselborn, who first expressed his concerns, will likely be tied to the developments over the upcoming days.

With the Kurds having already rejected the ceasefire, there might be intense hours ahead. However, while Europe should rightfully be concerned with the humanitarian catastrophe as well as the potential security risk escaping ISIS fighters pose, politicians may be served well by restraining themselves from suggesting war-scenarios under NATO’s flag, given the actual circumstances.