The Syrian civil war now threatens to spread to its neighbors. Last Thursday, a Syrian pilot flew his fighter to Jordon. On Friday, Syrian air defenses shot down a Turkish fighter on a training mission over the eastern Mediterranean. Regardless of whether or not the plane had strayed into Syrian airspace and where it was when the shoot down happened, this marks yet another step in the disintegration of the Assad regime. Reports from Western observers accompanying Syrian rebels indicate that the Syrian Army is increasingly ineffective in its efforts to suppress the uprising. According to published reports, like their erstwhile compatriots in former Libyan dictator Ghadaffi’s military, the Syrian Army appears content to use superior firepower to engage the rebels from a safe distance. Syrian helicopters and jet aircraft conduct missions from a safe altitude which also seriously degrades their effectiveness. Dozens of Syrian soldiers have defected to the rebels in recent days.
The downing of the Turkish jet will place further pressure on the West, in general, and NATO, in particular, to provide for the Syrian people what it gave to the citizens of Libya a year ago: protection against a homicidal regime. In this case, the interests of the Alliance are even more directly involved than they were prior to the Libyan air campaign. The Turkish government has invoked Article 4 of the NATO Treaty which directs that “The Parties will consult whenever, in the opinion of any of the them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.” While not yet a full-blown Article 5 situation in which the Alliance would come to Turkey’s defense, this latest incident suggests that NATO is poised on the knife’s edge with respect to the need to intervene in Syria.
The expanding tentacles of the Syrian civil war undermines the argument by those in the Alliance who argued that Libya was a one-off incident and that the Alliance did not have to prepare itself for more of such expeditionary operations. There are also challenges posed by political instability across North Africa, the growing belligerence of the regime in Teheran and Moscow’s threats to expand Russia’s military presence in the parts of Eastern Europe it still dominates. Any of these could be the source for insurgencies, civil wars or local conflicts.
The growing problem of Syria’s civil war is one more reason why NATO members cannot delay in their efforts to rationalize their respective defense postures and put some muscle behind the slogan of Smart Defense. Europe cannot seek refuge in the clam that its finances will not permit investments in the kinds of capabilities that proved critical in Libya and in which the Alliance had clear deficits. The Alliance is overinvested in capabilities designed for territorial defense and seriously deficient in many of those needed to project power even the relatively short distance across the Mediterranean. Reductions in ground forces, short range air defenses and air superiority aircraft could pay for increases in inventories or precision munitions, aerial refueling tankers, ISR platforms, ship-based missile defenses and expeditionary logistics.
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