By THO Team Member, Jacqueline Schluger
As a valued NATO partner, Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War has had significant implications for the West, specifically in regards to managing the overflow of refugees and thwarting continued violence in the country. The mass migration of millions of displaced people from Syria into Europe presents a political crisis for NATO members on the continent. Turkey has aimed to leverage fears of economic and social unrest due to immigration in order to secure EU benefits and sway negotiations in their favor. Deciding how to approach issues such as these, however, has presented NATO with a balancing act; they can engage directly with Damascus, which would involve military operations, or they can head initiatives that center around diplomacy efforts. Both the U.S. and NATO have opted for the latter and have primarily, almost exclusively, offered words of support with little material assistance. The absence of strong military action by the international community has driven Ankara to turn to adversarial powers such as Russia for help, leaving opportunities for rivals to advance their goals. As the Syrian conflict enters its tenth year, NATO and Western partners must implement effective support to Turkey lest they risk already powerful opponents gaining strength in the region.
According to the UN, the conflict in Syria has produced the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Over half of Syria’s population has been displaced by the war and about 3.6 million refugees have fled to Turkey for safety. While this mass migration has placed a significant burden on Turkey financially and politically, it has also given Ankara newfound leverage over the EU when it comes to managing refugee flows from Syria. Many EU leaders are currently experiencing a wave of populism and nationalism in their countries and are consequently eager to appease anti-immigration sentiment and slow down the streamlining of refugees into Europe. The economic and political pressures that would result from even more migration were the driving forces behind the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan which most notably included 6 billion euros in grants for Turkey’s support of the refugees. Additionally, Turkey’s EU accession process was to be revamped and a visa liberalization program for Turkish nationals would be pushed. Although NATO has deployed maritime forces in the Aegean sea to bolster information sharing, Ankara has repeatedly lamented over the international community’s inadequate support while Turkey bears the burden of harboring millions of refugees. Erdoğan has used these refugees as a tool of political pressure, communicating to European leaders that it would be wise for the West to throw their weight behind Turkey in Syria. If not, the result of Turkey’s unshared responsibility in the region would lead to a new wave of displaced people in Europe. EU and NATO leaders have echoed this stance and repeated that migration management and involvement in Syria is crucial to Europe’s international activity. The veiled threat of millions more refugees flooding into European countries gives Ankara leverage over the EU and its member states. Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, specifically in regards to mass migration, has secured a seat for them at the negotiating table with NATO, the EU, and major powers like Russia and the U.S.
Aside from Turkey’s domestic interests in Syria, the conflict presents new alliance complications for the U.S. and NATO members. Specifically, military and political activities in Syria have developed Turkey and Russia’s relationship. As Ankara has solidified its priorities in the region, Russia is primed to help Turkey refocus its aims and maintain the Syrian government’s power. The benefits of this newfound partnership have gone both ways; with Moscow’s help, Turkey has been able to act on counterterrorism goals on its border and Russia has been able to create a divide between NATO allies. Where the West has been hesitant to provide formidable military support for Turkey, Russia has filled that security gap by installing their missiles in the alliance’s security framework. Prolonged inaction on the part of NATO members will only drive Erdoğan to turn to Putin for more military needs, effectively undermining Western goals in Syria and allowing Russia to disrupt the status quo of the alliance’s security relationships. Previously, the U.S. and the U.K. provided support to opposition groups and civil society to counter instability but have since lost their influence in the region. At the height of the West’s support for Syrian opposition, their partners included Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, Qatar, and others. Now, fringe actors in NATO such as Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Italy have shown interest in aligning themselves with adversaries, thus normalizing relations with the Assad regime. This shift in power has also made way for rivals to take the lead in important negotiations. For example, Russia, Iran, and Turkey brokered a deal in which de-escalation zones resulted in ineffective cease-fires that allowed Assad to recapture Syrian territory. Additionally, where once the U.S. and both European and Arab allies worked together to defeat ISIS, the drawback of military presence has led to a resurgence in the group’s activities. MEI notes that by August 2020, 126 attacks by ISIS across Syria had been reported compared to 144 in all of 2019. Iran specifically has made a significant effort to replace the West’s presence in South Syria where they have worked with Syrian Hezbollah to expand their arms smuggling network and recruit fighters for their local militias. Beyond NATO’s interests in combating ISIS, the U.S. and other allies deem it crucial to curb Russian and Iranian expansion in the region. The presence of U.S. troops helps prevent the Russian-aligned Syrian government from gaining access to agricultural resources in northeastern Syria, and staves off Iranian efforts to establish a geographic tie with Lebanon and the Mediterranean. By strategically joining forces with Russia, Turkey has successfully taken advantage of its role as a middle power between the West and the East, despite its distancing from traditional security partners such as the U.S. and NATO.
Overall, NATO has remained largely indecisive when it comes to engagement in Syria. The international community has discussed efforts such as increased information sharing, logistical aid, and other forms of non‐combat support but these ideas have largely failed to come to fruition. If hostility continues to increase, Turkey has expressed interest in calling on NATO to invoke its Collective Defence Article 5, which states that an attack against one ally is an attack against all allies. Thus far, however, NATO assistance has mainly come in the form of public support, void of any substantial action. Where the West has remained passive, rivals such as Russia and Iran have seized influence and revitalized Assad’s government while furthering their interests in the region. Inaction in the wake of the regime’s violence against the Syrian people has only emboldened Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons and wage other attacks without consequence. Despite President Biden’s efforts to end America’s “Forever Wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no end in sight for U.S. military presence in Syria. In a departure from the previous administration, Biden has made no indication that he plans to draw down the roughly 900 U.S. troops in Syria that support opposition groups and fight the Islamic State. While Former President Trump aimed to replace Assad and hinder malign actors from developing control in the region, Biden is focused on stability and conflict management. It would be a mistake, however, for Biden and other NATO leaders to strive for balanced action in Syria while allowing their own security interests to take a back seat as rival powers seek to garner influence and aggressively expand across the Middle East. The security of NATO’s goals and the safety of its partners is dependent on decisive collective action. The alliance is greater than the sum of its parts and in order to effectively address the Syrian crisis, they must work resolutely and in unison to advance their interests.