But it's virtually inconceivable that the NAC would deem this to be a qualifying "attack." First, Article 5 couches the response in terms of "the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations." An overly aggressive defensive action by Syria—especially a one-off—would not seem to qualify. While the Turkish pilot would certainly have been within his rights to use deadly force to protect himself, a retaliatory strike at this juncture by Turkey—much less its NATO allies—would be in violation of the UN Charter. Second, borrowing language from Article 51, Article 5 specifies the rationale for the use of force as "to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area." Given that the incident is already contained—that is, not likely to be followed by any sort of follow-on action by Syria absent further provocation—said security already exists. Indeed, a NATO or Turkish response would make the area less, not more, secure.
A second misconception is that an attack under Article 5 will automatically be met by unified military action by all NATO states. Instead, a declaration by the NAC that Article 5 has been triggered is but a first step; decisions as to what response to take must follow. Not all attacks are equal. Even outside the politics of an alliance, states weigh incidents in terms of severity, the existing relationship with the attacking state, the international environment and the likely fallout effects of various response options.
Article 5 has been operative since the North Atlantic Treaty went into effect in 1949. It has been invoked and acted upon precisely once, following the Al Qaeda terrorist attack on the United States launched from Afghanistan. Even then, NATO’s response was cautious:
Article 5 has thus been invoked, but no determination has yet been made whether the attack against the United States was directed from abroad. If such a determination is made, each Ally will then consider what assistance it should provide. In practice, there will be consultations among the Allies. Any collective action by NATO will be decided by the North Atlantic Council. The United States can also carry out independent actions, consistent with its rights and obligations under the UN Charter.
Allies can provide any form of assistance they deem necessary to respond to the situation. This assistance is not necessarily military and depends on the material resources of each country. Each individual member determines how it will contribute and will consult with the other members, bearing in mind that the ultimate aim is to "to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area."
. . . . If the conditions are met for the application of Article 5, NATO Allies will decide how to assist the United States. . . . This is an individual obligation on each Ally and each Ally is responsible for determining what it deems necessary in these particular circumstances.
Ultimately, of course, NATO decided to join the United States in its fight against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. That some allies joined with more vigor and usefulness than others has been well documented. But that statement of September 12 outlines the nature of the Article 5 obligation nicely: the NAC may recommend action, but it's ultimately up to the individual allies to decide whether and how to respond.
Syria is No Libya
In the case of Syria, of course, the incident hardly comes out of the blue. Tensions have been escalating for well over a year, with a series of international condemnations and resolutions from the UN and many if not most NATO states. At the same time, the Security Council has, through the veto power of Russia and China, declined to act. And NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has repeatedly and vehemently declared from the outset that NATO has no intention of repeating its intervention in Libya with one in Syria.
Granting that I oppose Western intervention in Syria just as I did in Libya, it's difficult to see how Friday's incident changes anything. Surely the killing of some twenty thousand Syrians, most of them innocent civilians, must be a greater cause for action than the downing of a single fighter jet flying where it wasn't supposed to? And the facts on the ground haven't changed one iota: Bashar al-Assad still has a powerful, loyal military and the opposition is a fractured mess. So, NATO military action is no more appealing now than it was Friday morning.
Indeed, several NATO foreign ministers—including the UK's William Hague, Sweden's Carl Bildt and the Netherlands' Uri Rosenthal—have said as much.
Additionally, Assad has handled the aftermath of this incident deftly. He swiftly expressed remorse for the loss of life caused by the shooting down of Turkey's jet—almost surely the decision of a relatively low-level operator making a rapid decision under extreme stress rather than a considered policy judgment of the central government—and promptly not only gave Turkey permission to begin a recovery operation in Syrian space but joined in. While he's a vicious thug willing to do just about anything to stay in power, he's rather clearly not angling for war with NATO, much less Turkey.
It's inconceivable that NATO will decide to start yet another war under these circumstances.
James Joyner is Managing Editor of The Atlantic Council.