By Aaron Lim
Turkey’s call for consultation under Article 4 of NATO after a Turkish F-4 Phantom jet was shot down by Syria is indicative of the limited diplomatic and military options available for addressing Syria’s civil war.
Article 4 of the NATO treaty can be invoked when a member perceives its "territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened."
Despite pulling NATO officially into the Syrian conflict for the first time, a military response in the interim is unlikely.
A precursor to a NATO military intervention would require the invocation of NATO’s Article 5, obliging a concerted response from members of the treaty because an attack on one member is considered an attack on all NATO countries.
Turkey’s involvement of NATO does however add an extra layer of complexity to an already intricate situation.
The "Arab Spring" has certainly brought a bitter frost to US/Russian relations, with Russia lending support to Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the United States backing the rebels.
Prior to Turkey’s call for consultation with NATO, efforts to reign in the escalating violence in Syria had been focussed on United Nations diplomacy and former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan’s failed peace plan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that Moscow will veto any UN Security Council Chapter 7 resolution authorising the use of force to intervene in Syria. China is likely to follow Moscow’s lead in the UN Security Council.
In the face of unprecedented protests against Putin’s regime and growing dissent in China, both countries will want to reinforce the principle that nation-states have the right to suppress internal revolts without external interference.
Ankara’s involvement of NATO does however provide a pretext for intervention should it be deemed necessary without United Nations Security Council authorisation.
But unless atrocities on the scale of Srebrenica or Auschwitz surface, compelling NATO to intervene, regime change is unlikely.
Washington clearly doesn’t have the appetite for another war in the Middle East, especially with upcoming elections.
Neither does Europe as it continues to struggles with the future of the Eurozone.
While the US military and NATO is certainly capable of destroying Assad’s armed forces in battle, the decade long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has sapped the Pentagon’s ability to sustain the long-term troop deployments necessary for the post-war nation building phase.
There is no “military lite” option for an intervention along the lines of the NATO mission in Libya.
Syria’s military capabilities, its air defence systems in particular are significantly more potent than Libya’s.
An attack on Damascus will require a significant number of US Marine Corp and NATO “boots on the ground”, and those boots are likely to still be in Syria years later, like a dinosaur stuck in a tar-pit.
Toppling Assad’s regime could result in a post-war Iraq scenario of chaos and sectarian violence worse than the current situation.
Syria is run by the Alawite community which makes up only small percentage of its population, much in the same way Saddam’s minority Sunni Ba'ath party ruled over its Shi'ite and Kurdish population.
Removing Saddam’s Sunni elite created a power vacuum which left the country in chaos. A similar situation is likely to occur by decapitating Assad’s Alawite regime.
The real danger to regional and global security comes from Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah’s support of Assad against its primarily Sunni Syrian opposition spiralling into a greater ethnic conflict between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East.
Syria’s relationship with Iran adds an extra layer of complexity in assessing options for dealing with the civil war.
Toppling the Syrian regime would certainly remove one of Iran’s key allies and weaken its influence.
It could also however have the opposite effect of encouraging Iran to accelerate its nuclear weapons programme, which is already viewed by Israel with great trepidation.
An accelerated Iranian nuclear weapons programme could well force Israel’s hand in launching a pre-emptive strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities, which would be the first salvo of a bloody protracted regional war that will inevitably draw the United States into the conflict.
The ultimate arbiter of the Syrian civil war will be the Syrians themselves, either by acquiescing to Assad’s regime, or a military coup in conjunction with the rebels and logistical support from the Western world.
Aaron Lim completed his Master’s thesis on military strategy at Otago University in New Zealand. He has worked as an analyst for the New Zealand Army and New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, the country's foreign trade and investments promotion body. He was also the Business Development Manager for Newsroom New Zealand after it was sold to the New Zealand Stock Exchange.