The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

August 29, 2013

Zachary Hubbard | Syria fighting could determine NATO’s future

Zachary Hubbard

— Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, pundits began questioning the necessity of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Following World War II, the United States, Canada and several western European nations formed the alliance to counter the Russian-led Soviet Union’s rise to global superpower status. With the Soviets gone, even some member nations questioned whether the large, expensive alliance remained viable.

NATO has since spent more than 20 years trying to redefine itself, meanwhile growing from 16 to 28 members.

Growth was fueled by the addition of several former Soviet satellite states plus the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which the Soviets occupied in 1940.

Fearful of a resurgent Russia, these former Soviet serfs flocked toward the perceived security of NATO.

NATO’s Cold War mission was to defend western Europe from invasion by Soviet ground forces, while maintaining control of the air and sea lanes connecting continental Europe with the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. Its ground defenses centered on fixed positions along the alliance’s eastern borders. These stretched from northern Norway to the Mediterranean Sea. The defenses’ southern anchor was Turkey.

Turkey’s position in the alliance was unique on several counts. It was the alliance’s only Muslim nation. Its geographic position on NATO’s southern flank dominated the eastern third of the Mediterranean Sea and controlled the Bosporus, the narrow entrance to the Black Sea, which was vital to the Soviet Navy.

Lastly, its borders shared with Iran, Iraq and Syria made Turkey NATO’s gateway to the Middle East.   

After the Cold War, NATO’s military command structure and mission changed significantly. During the early 1990s, the alliance began shifting its military strategy from heavy ground forces fighting from fixed defensive positions in central Europe to lighter, more mobile forces capable of quickly deploying to regional areas along and even outside of NATO’s defined political borders in so-called “out of area” operations.

The shift was driven by NATO’s need to maintain energy security and regional stability. The alliance began to court former Soviet republics in the oil- and gas-rich Caspian Sea basin, much to the chagrin of the Russians, who seek hegemony in the area.

NATO began conducting out-of-area operations in 1995, starting with a 10-year peace enforcement operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a former republic in the Yugo-slavia Federation. Inter-ethnic fighting there among Croats, Serbs and Bosniacs (Bosnian Muslims) was part of a larger civil war across most of Yugoslavia.

The Bosnia-Herzegovina situation threatened to destabilize all of Europe and had already inundated western Europe with thousands of mostly Muslim refugees.

NATO engaged in a brief war with Serbia in 1999 to help secure the independence of Kosovo. An independent Muslim nation today, Kosovo was formerly a semi-autonomous region of southern Serbia. Kosovo’s population consists of mainly ethnic Albanian Muslims.

In October 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan. In October 2003, NATO assumed control of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. While many NATO countries have participated in ISAF operations, the United States has provided the bulk of NATO forces, with the U.K., Germany, Italy, Canada, France and Turkey also playing key roles. 

With a decade spent in Bosnia-Herzegovina and another in Afghanistan, some NATO members have lost the national will to engage in continued, costly out-of-area operations. Unfortunately, the situation in Syria has raised the specter of yet another one.

Turkey remains vital to security on NATO’s southern flank. Unfortunately, it shares a 300-mile border with Syria, where factional fighting has already begun to spill over.

There have been terrorist bombings and other violence in Lebanon and Turkey that are directly attributable to the fighting in Syria. Turkey is awash with Syrian refugees.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Ankara recently indicated the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey could surpass a million by the end of this year.

For several years, the regime of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has struggled to maintain a balance between moderate, secular political forces and rising radical Islamist factions. Over the years, the NATO-backed Turkish military has insured stability in the country, but its hold is growing weaker as radical Islamist pressure from within the ranks rises. An internal shift to an Islamist-dominated regime would turn Turkey and NATO upside down.  

Recent allegations concerning the Syrian ruling regime’s use of chemical weapons against resistance forces has elevated concerns in NATO. France and Turkey are calling for action, although they have not specifically indicated what they would have the alliance do. 

Events in Turkey could send shockwaves throughout the alliance. The NATO charter states that an attack against one alliance member is considered an attack against all. If Syrian aggression spreads into Turkey on a scale larger than what has occurred thus far, NATO might be compelled to act or risk fracturing the alliance.

Were Turkey to become engulfed in a war, the fighting could spread across the region, including into the neighboring NATO nations of Bulgaria and Greece.

If NATO became engaged in a war on its southern flank, there is no predicting the reactions of Russia or of Iran and other Middle Eastern nations, but no good could possibly come of it.   

Former Johnstown resident Zachary Hubbard is a retired U.S. Army officer. He served as a senior NATO intelligence officer in Germany, Italy and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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