PARIS — Could the trap of the Syrian crisis break up NATO? This question, which carries potentially grave implications for the security of the West, might sound overblown. After all, NATO's unfailing cohesion eventually brought down one of the most formidable war machines of all time, the Soviet Union.
Still, the spreading corrosive capacities of the Syrian crisis should not be underestimated. The war has produced hordes of terrorists capable of striking successfully in central Paris. And it fuels a flow of refugees that destabilizes European countries and threatens the very existence of the free-movement Schengen area. (Observers remain quite skeptical about a new ceasefire announced Monday, slated to begin this weekend, which does not include ISIS and other warring factions.)
It is true that the Syrian war isn't happening on NATO territory, and yet it threatens the security of its member states. Yet the alliance remains strangely ineffective, so much so that Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier of the Brookings Institution recently denounced "the moral bankruptcy of American and Western policy in Syria." Washington has evidently given up on influencing the western part of the country, preempted since the Russian intervention in October.
It focuses on nothing beyond the destruction of ISIS, in eastern Syria or in Iraq. The West's reluctance to get involved in such a quagmire is understandable, given that any exterior protagonist is forced to ally with criminals: Indeed, all belligerents have long ceased to be "moderate."
For all that, and for his resolve "not to repeat Bush's mistakes" and to pivot towards Asia, Barack Obama seems to be ignoring two dangers. The first is that the Damascus-Tehran-Moscow axis might eliminate the non-jihadist rebels supported by Saudi Arabia and the West. The Kremlin, with 80% of its raids targeting only these rebels, ultimately wants to leave the West with no other choice than Damascus or ISIS — even if this means risking throwing the defeated Sunni Muslim rebels into the arms of ISIS.
What's more, Russia's scorched earth policy (including bombed hospitals) swells the flow of refugees going to Europe, which should further boost the popularity of an anti-Atlanticist far right. Obama merely lobs verbal condemnations and repeats calls to use diplomacy. "Historians will one day look back at our archives and wonder what we thought we'd accomplish with such statements," Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said recently.
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Assad with Putin in Moscow last October — Photo: The Kremlin
The second danger is that despite Obama's reproaches, the Turkish regime is bombing the U.S.-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which are fighting ISIS in Syria. And it risks being forced to intervene on the ground to prevent the fall of the Syrian city of Azaz, near its border. Such a move could in turn provoke a conflict between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member.
The enemy of my enemy...
NATO's entire credibility rests on its "one for all, all for one" doctrine. Article 5 on collective defense states that an attack against one of its 28 members is considered an attack against all. It's enough to turn your blood to ice and to evoke, as Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev did, the old third-world-war refrain.
But this fear-mongering scenario is very unlikely to materialize. It's in Russia's interest as much as in the West's to avoid a conflict, even a limited one, with another nuclear superpower. And Moscow knows that Turkey, with NATO's second-biggest infantry (420,000 troops, 5,000 tanks), would be an opponent of a different caliber than Ukraine. The Erdogan regime is "aware of the danger," says Sinan Ulgen, analyst at the Istanbul Ekonomi institute. "His priority is to counter the Kurds in Syria, by preventing at all costs that the city of Azaz falls, without starting a conflict with Moscow."
But history is full of conflicts caused by blunders or miscalculations. And Vladimir Putin, a very aggressive poker player, might just have spotted an opportunity to smash NATO to pieces: Use any excuse, such as the November destruction of a Russian warplane by Turkey, to trigger a wide-ranging response on Turkish territory. This would create an unbearable dilemma for NATO: Follow Article 5 and enter a war with an exasperating Turkish ally or renounce and ruin the alliance's credibility.
For Bruno Tertrais of French think tank Foundation for Strategic Research, we're talking about extreme risk-taking that marks "a major break in the strategy Putin has been following up until now." But maybe the Russian president is sure of his victory, convinced that Western leaders don't have the guts. He would then take revenge on this reviled NATO, responsible for the collapse of the USSR, which he sees as the "greatest geostrategic catastrophe" of the 20th century.
Except that NATO can very well save its credibility without entering a war against Russia. Article 5 indeed doesn't force NATO armies to go and fight, just that the alliance must take "such action as it deems necessary" — for example, by providing ammunition and intelligence.
NATO's response could be very much calibrated. "U.S. pressures to stand with Turkey would be very strong, because NATO's superior interest would be at stake," Tertrais says.
Still, it would be an extreme test better avoided because the Europeans don't have an alternative to NATO. Their common defense policy has been in limbo for a half-century. The French and the British are the only big players, and their European allies almost never follow them in their fights. And we struggle to see how Europeans who are incapable of dividing up the flow of refugees could be ready to die for one another.