This week, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) will meet at Turkey's request to discuss what NATO should do in response to Syria shooting down a Turkish F-4 last week. The short answer will almost certainly be: not much.
The emergency session was called under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which provides that "the Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened." It is a mandatory precursor for action under Article 5, the cornerstone provision of the alliance, which declares that "an armed attack against one" ally "shall be considered an attack against them all."
Some rabid speculation in the Turkish media and elsewhere has raised the specter that the incident will indeed lead not only to this provision being invoked but also to a NATO military response in Syria. That is incredibly unlikely.
Article 5, while relatively short, is packed with caveats:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.
Some commentators have argued that Article 5 is not triggered because the incident didn't take place in Europe or North America and was aimed at an aircraft, not the territory of a NATO member. But Article 6 dispels both of those issues:
For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:
—on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America, on the Algerian Departments of France (2), on the territory of or on the Islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer;
—on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.
So, aircraft are specifically included as a potential trigger. And the area surrounding Turkey is included as well; it was added to the original treaty by a 1951 protocol on the accession of Greece and Turkey. Indeed, there would have been little benefit to Turkey in joining NATO if it weren't included under the Article 5 umbrella, the most fundamental alliance commitment.
Instead, the operative phrase that almost certainly disqualifies this incident from an Article 5 response is "armed attack." This is a term of art in international law. One short definition is: "A use of force intentionally directed at a state which, by virtue of its scale and effects, is of such gravity as to justify a responsive use of force by that state in self-defence; contrast with mere frontier incident."
Turkey was engaged in aggressive action along its border with Syria during a particularly tense situation, and depending on whose account you believe, either flew into Syrian airspace or remained in international airspace just outside of it. While shooting down the plane was almost certainly an overreaction—the Assad government has said as much—it's hardly an "attack."
Ultimately, like the "high crimes and misdemeanor" threshold for impeachment set forth by the U.S. Constitution, it's a judgment call. In the former case, the House of Representatives makes the call; in the latter, it's the North Atlantic Council.
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.