GEORGE BELL— “The parties to this Treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments.” So reads the preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty, which established the largest military peacetime alliance in world history. A central tenant of the North Atlantic Treaty is found in Article 5, which declares that “an armed attack” against one of the parties “shall be considered an attack against them all.”
On October 6th, President Trump ordered the withdrawal of roughly 1,000 U.S. troops stationed in Northeastern Syria. Three days later, Turkey launched the disingenuously named “Operation Peace Spring” across the Syrian border against the Syrian Democratic Forces (“SDF”), prior allies of the United States left unprotected by Trump’s withdrawal order. Turkey’s stated goal is to create a “safe zone” 30 kilometers deep on the Syrian side of the border where they can resettle Syrian refugees currently residing inside Turkey.
Two days into the offensive, on October 11th, a Pentagon spokesperson confirmed that U.S. troops in the area of Kobani had come under fire from Turkish artillery. The shelling was so heavy that the U.S. forces considered firing back in self-defense, though eventually they opted to fall back once the barrage had ceased. No troops were injured. Turkey, for its part, denies any intention of firing on U.S. troops. This, however, seems unlikely. Turkey was well aware of U.S. troop movements “down to explicit grid coordinated detail.” Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former U.S. Army Europe commander, tweeted that Turkish soldiers were either “incompetent” or the attack was a “purposeful act to send a message to the US.”
Has Turkey violated its NATO obligations by firing on U.S. forces? Article 6 explains that an “attack on one of the Parties” for the purposes of Article 5 includes an armed attack on “forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties” operating “on the territory of Turkey.” It’s beyond dispute that American troops constitute “forces” of a NATO signatory. It’s also beyond dispute that artillery fire constitutes an “armed attack.” It being Turkey’s stated goal to acquire the territory in which its troops are operating, one could argue that the attack did occur on Turkish-controlled soil.
If so, what are the remedies? A Party may decide to remove itself from the treaty, per Article 13, but there exists no prescription for expelling a member country from NATO. Article 5’s principle requirement is that an armed attack be reported to the NATO Security Counsel. Never before has a member of NATO launched projectiles at another. Therefore, absent an amendment to the treaty, it appears the only remedy would be to activate Article 5 against a NATO ally until they either agree to leave the organization or are destroyed.
When Article 5 is invoked, the charter lacks specific direction on what must be done. It is essentially up to each individual member country on what assistance, military or otherwise, ought to be contributed. When the North Atlantic charter was drafted, European nations sought language assuring the United States would come to their aid should one of them fall under attack. The United States sought more ambiguous language de-emphasizing any particular responsibilities that might attach with the invocation of Article 5. Ironically, the United States remains the only member nation to have invoked Article 5 in the history of the treaty.
It’s unclear how activating Article 5 in the wake of aggression by one of Parties against another would culminate. The language of the North Atlantic Charter is ambiguous and there is virtually zero guiding precedent. Furthermore, present circumstances make invocation of Article 5 unlikely. Congress has already prepared a broad array of sanctions, including the suspension of military aid, in an effort to force Turkey to halt it’s military campaign. The EU has already declared an arms embargo. There remain highly sensitive U.S. interests inside Turkey, namely several dozen B61 nuclear gravity bombs at an airbase 100 miles from the Syrian border, with apparently no plan on how to secure them. At the extreme end would be a protracted war with Turkey, doubtless resulting in grave loss of human life and seemingly disproportionate to the Kobani incident.
Might Turley have violated NATO responsibilities other than the collective defense agreement? Their malfeasance is palpable. Erdogan has aggressively responded to Western punitive measures. In a speech he declared that the operation would not stop “no matter what anyone says.” Despite a hastily brokered ceasefire agreement, there is little indication that either side is abiding by the terms. According to a senior administration official, Erdogan has already broken the promises he made to Trump regarding the size of the operation. The humanitarian crisis is rapidly deteriorating and Turkish operations have enabled the escape of some 750 ISIS prisoners.
Unfortunately, despite the first sentence of the North Atlantic Charter, the creation of a humanitarian crisis is insufficient for action by the NATO general body. The United States invasion of Iraq displaced 1.2 million people, one million of whom still live as refugees in foreign countries, spawning a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. NATO was silent then, so it’s hard to imagine the body taking action based on Turkey’s aggression now.
The United States is in an untenable position – redeploy troops and risk further engagement with Turkish forces, or acquiesce and cede regional control to Turkey, Syria, and Russia. Either way, NATO finds itself in uncharted waters.