There are many good reasons to support some form of international intervention in Syria. Among them are that Bashar al-Assad is indiscriminately killing and torturing his own people, there is an enormous refugee crisis that is only growing, and the chaos in Syria might very well ignite a larger regional war. These are all credible arguments that have been made by people I respect, and they lead to a healthy and informed debate about the right course of action. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor yesterday, however, Jorge Benitez made an argument for intervention in Syria that stretches the bounds of credulity.
Benitez claims that NATO is obligated to intervene in the conflict because Turkey has been attacked on two separate occasions – the shooting down of a Turkish reconnaissance plane in June and the shelling of Akçakale a couple of weeks ago – saying, “If NATO persists in offering only paper promises to Turkey, the perception that the alliance lacks the political will to back up allies even if they are attacked will be a major blow to NATO’s credibility.” The problem here is that the definition of “attack” is not as cut and dry as Benitez suggests. The details surrounding the downing of the Turkish F-4 in June are still hazy since it is not yet clear where or even how the jet was brought down, and in any event Turkey has admitted that the jet was at some point flying in Syrian airspace. The Akçakale shelling was certainly reprehensible and Turkey has every right to respond as it sees fit given that five Turkish civilians were killed by Syrian artillery fire, but it is also a fact that Syrian forces were not intentionally shelling Turkey but were aiming at rebel forces on the Syrian side of the border. None of this is meant to excuse Syria’s actions in any way; Turkey’s retaliatory shelling of Syrian positions has been absolutely legitimate and justified in my view. Has Turkey suffered an attack? Yup. But has Turkey suffered an intentional and purposeful attack from Syria to the level that should automatically trigger NATO intervention? That one, which is what Benitez is arguing, seems to me to be more of a stretch. I understand why Ankara wants firmer support from NATO than ineffective statements expressing strong condemnation of Syrian actions, but it is one thing to argue that NATO should be doing something and quite another to argue that NATO is obligated to be doing something. I don’t think that the situation supports this latter argument just yet.
Benitez does not advocate a full-scale NATO invasion of Syria, but rather suggests that NATO should deploy AWACS early warning aircraft and/or a rapid reaction force to the Syrian-Turkish border, and argues that doing so would deescalate any confrontation between Turkey and Syria. The logic here appears suspect to me as well. Again, we can have a serious debate over whether NATO should be doing more to help one of its members, and whether the absence of any serious action on Turkey’s behalf puts the future of the alliance in danger. But let’s also not kid ourselves – getting NATO aircraft and soldiers involved is not going to deescalate anything. In fact, it will almost certainly have the exact opposite effect, which is why Turkey is trying its hardest to get a NATO commitment, since the Turkish government does not want to deescalate things but wants to set a series of events in motion that will lead to Assad’s ouster. A NATO presence along the border will not lead Syria to cease attacking rebel positions, but will act as a tripwire for greater NATO involvement and eventually active intervention in Syria. I am open to a wide variety of arguments about why NATO, the UN, or the U.S. should be intervening alongside Turkey in Syria, but they should at least be credibly honest arguments rather than attempts at Jedi mind tricks.