Can anyone still make a good argument in favour of NATO? Even ardent interventionists, chomping at the bit to assert Western military dominance over the globe, must be beginning to doubt the worth of this perennially panicking mob of confused military powers.
At its members’ emergency meeting in Brussels last week, following the accidental shelling of a Turkish border town by one of the government-supporting factions in Syria, NATO was shown to be in complete stasis. It condemned the incident in the strongest terms and clumsily cited it as another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard ‘for international norms, peace and security, and human life’, despite there being no evidence that the rocket was fired by Syrian government troops.
Turkish-Syrian relations have been frosty since the outbreak of the uprising. Turkey has continued to harbour Syrian refugees and has developed good relations with the rebels, who have seized most of the territory close to the Turkish border. Some observers believe that the Turkish government is even providing the rebels with arms. Turkey has already convened NATO under article four in June this year, when Syrian government forces shot down a Turkish plane which had strayed into Syrian air space over the coastal province of Lataika. Following the emergency meeting in June, the Dutch foreign minister indicated that NATO considered military intervention in the Syrian conflict, to defend Turkey or otherwise, to be ‘out of the question’. Many analysts agree that there is little chance of NATO undertaking a full-scale military intervention in Syria, at least for the time being.
So why not? NATO claimed to have proven the effectiveness of its interventions following the fall of Gaddafi in Libya. Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine earlier this year, the US permanent representative on the council of NATO, Ivo Daalder, wrote of how Libya had been ‘rightly described as a “model intervention”’. With NATO apparently riding high on its ‘victory’ in Libya, many have been asking why it has prevaricated over supporting the rebels in Syria.
Part of the answer is that no national leader wants to take responsibility for what will unfold in Syria if Assad falls. Although NATO officials describe the intervention in Libya as a ‘victory’, that intervention has left Libya in a state bordering on civil war. The unresolved political tensions which permeated the rebellion in Libya, drawing in fighters from all classes, regions and religions, have manifested themselves violently since the fall of Gaddafi. In the run-up to the first national elections earlier this year, the National Transition Council, the unelected transition government installed by the West after Gaddafi’s killing, banned political parties based on tribal or regional allegiances, many of which were calling for the nation to disband.
Indeed, Libya is still beset by regional violence from separatist movements who feel that the process of transition has left them worse off than they were under Gaddafi. The fractious and chaotic state in which Libya now finds itself is attributable to the intervention of NATO in the conflict. NATO lent artificial cohesion to a rebellion movement which lacked any democratic mandate to lead, or any clear direction for how to lead, once the old regime had fallen.
The fate of post-Assad Syria would be even more chaotic. Firstly, the ethnic make-up of the conflict is more complex. Syrian Christians tend to be either neutral or support the regime. The rebels are largely composed of Sunni Muslims who see the regime mainly constituted of Alawites, as heretical. The uprising in Aleppo is distinctly Islamist, whereas the uprising in Homs is led by rebel groups that cut across ethnic and religious divides. Like Libya, the uprising lacks any central leadership to cohere these groups. While NATO was quick to claim Libya as a ‘victory’, the shadow of the ongoing sectarian violence is undoubtedly serving as a warning against intervention in the already fractious rebellion in Syria.
Analysts have further pointed out that the scale of any intervention in Syria would have to be far greater than in Libya in order to be effective. Even establishing a no-fly zone would require destroying 22 early-warning radar sites and command-and-control facilities, 150 surface-to-air missile batteries, 27 surface-to-surface missile batteries, 12 anti-ship missile batteries, 32 airfield targets, and more than 200 hardened aircraft shelters. This would dwarf the military effort required to defend the air space over Libya. Of course, there are also realpolitik concerns standing in the way of intervention, with an American election in November and economic crisis in Europe.
When NATO’s approach to interventions appears so arbitrary, it raises the question: what is NATO for? The organisation was formed in 1949 under the North Atlantic Treaty to unify the military powers of America and Europe following the Second World War, and to stave off the threat of a Soviet invasion of Europe. The first NATO secretary general, Lord Ismay, indicated the singular purpose of the organisation when he stated in 1949 that its goal was ‘to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’. To this end, article five of the treaty allows for an ‘armed attack against one or more of (member countries) in Europe or North America (to) be considered an attack against (all member countries)’.
Of course, that Russian invasion never came. Article five has only ever been invoked once – by the Americans following 9/11. NATO interventions have never relied on the provisions of the North Atlantic Treaty, but they have been dependent on UN resolutions. NATO is now effectively the armed wing of the UN. As the example of Syria suggests, the archaic North Atlantic Treaty seems ill-equipped to deal with the complex process of intervening in foreign civil wars.
In and of itself, NATO is a rudderless, incoherent institution whose ongoing existence serves to further destabilise and unsettle the countries in which it intervenes. The current stasis over Syria shows that NATO is (thankfully) blighted by a dearth of leadership and is lacking in any coherent idea of its own purpose. Whereas it was convened at a time when European governments saw themselves as facing a palpable military threat, it exists today solely as a medium for the West to cast itself as the arbitrator of global conflicts – a role which history suggests the West is ill-suited to play.
Even those who believe, in spite of its uniformly disastrous history, that NATO can bring good to the world through its military interventions must be scratching their heads after last week. What happened to the glorious saviours of Bosnia? Or the ‘victorious’ liberators of Libya? They were reduced to confused inaction by a stray rocket into Turkey. It is time to disband this archaic, flailing institution of Western intervention. After all, a confused babble of Western military powers, who act arbitrarily and without any democratic mandate, is likely to prove far more destabilising for the Middle East than a misfired rocket.
Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.
Weekend Edition October 5-7, 2012
by RON JACOBS
Turkey took a page from Washington’s play book on October 4, 2012. After an errant shell landed in Turkish territory and killed a family there, the Turkish legislature authorized the Turkish military to enter foreign lands. In other words, they manipulated an incident into an act of war much like the US used questionable incidents to attack northern Korea in 1950 and northern Vietnam in 1964. By passing legislation giving the Turkish military permission to enter foreign territory, Ankara declared an undeclared war on Syria. Claiming that there intention is not war, the Turkish military stepped up its alert status and prepared for war. Of course, Turkey’s status as a NATO member brought forth a barely concealed hope from Brussels that this might finally be the entry it has been looking for since the protests against the Assad regime started looking as if they might result in that regime’s fall.
I have a sister who has been a nurse working psychiatric wards for most of the past forty five years. Although she has misgivings about the use of psychotropic drugs in many instances, she has explained that they serve a useful purpose in that they create a predictable response for staff to deal with. In other words, once the drugs take effect, the medical staff can be pretty certain how the patient will behave. When nations go to war they operate under a similar thought process. In other words, once a nation is attacked, it will fight back or surrender. The root causes of the conflict will not be resolved, but the behavior of the attacked nation becomes more predictable. Of course, once the dogs of war are unleashed, anything can happen. However, like the fool who makes the same mistake over and over again, war making nation’s act as if the next war they enter will end as predicted.
The case of Syria is a tough one. The Assad regime is quite authoritarian and, at this point, the word murderous also applies. However, the opposition as it currently exists does not seem to be much better. Indeed, the increasing role of radical Islamists with an apparently reactionary agenda in the rebel forces creates a scenario where both sides in this civil war are difficult, if not impossible, to support. The element of the resistance that seemed to express popular hopes for a democratic secular government in Syria seems to have disappeared in the car bombs and aerial bombardments that tend to increasingly characterize this conflict. From where I sit, it appears the US and its alliance are arming forces very similar to those it armed in Afghanistan, while the nation of Syria is looking more and more like Iraq circa 2007, when sectarian conflict split that nation into many small and dangerous combat zones. Neither aspect of this scenario is a positive.
As for NATO and Israel, it is important to remember that Syria has been one of several nations in the Middle East that Tel Aviv and DC have wanted to control for decades. Always a proponent of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism, the Damascus government has been a constant threat to Israel’s dream of a Greater Israel and, simultaneously, to Washington’s plans to dominate the region. A co-founder of the United Arab Republic and now Tehran’s greatest ally in the Middle East, Damascus has long been on Washington’s the short list of nations needing a reformat into a friendlier state. Tel Aviv, of course, would rather just take over the whole place and make it their own as part of their dream of lebensraum for the Jewish people.
Since the protests turned bloody in Syria last winter, the western public has been shown numerous videos and images of mutilated bodies and destroyed dwellings. The historical context and the nature of the forces involved have been minimized while the human toll has been magnified. Much of this destruction was caused by the Syrian military and associated paramilitaries. As the conflict turned into civil war, much of it has also been caused by the rebel forces. The images of the former were usually provided by freelance sources that often have an agenda to push—that agenda involves the entry of foreign forces to support their side. This is where the west comes in. It is also where the recent threat of military intervention from Ankara comes in. If Turkey does enter the fray, NATO will not be far behind. As part of the alliance, Ankara knows this and counts on it. Its opposition to the Assad regime has been present since the beginning of the resistance and the resistance’s turn to military conflict has been supported and propped up every inch of the way by Ankara.
There is no easy answer to the conflict in Syria. However, turning it into a regional war is definitely not the right one.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.