Can anyone still make a good argument in favour of NATO? Even ardent interventionists, chomping at the bit to assert Western military dominance over the globe, must be beginning to doubt the worth of this perennially panicking mob of confused military powers.
At its members’ emergency meeting in Brussels last week, following the accidental shelling of a Turkish border town by one of the government-supporting factions in Syria, NATO was shown to be in complete stasis. It condemned the incident in the strongest terms and clumsily cited it as another example of the Syrian authorities’ disregard ‘for international norms, peace and security, and human life’, despite there being no evidence that the rocket was fired by Syrian government troops.
Turkish-Syrian relations have been frosty since the outbreak of the uprising. Turkey has continued to harbour Syrian refugees and has developed good relations with the rebels, who have seized most of the territory close to the Turkish border. Some observers believe that the Turkish government is even providing the rebels with arms. Turkey has already convened NATO under article four in June this year, when Syrian government forces shot down a Turkish plane which had strayed into Syrian air space over the coastal province of Lataika. Following the emergency meeting in June, the Dutch foreign minister indicated that NATO considered military intervention in the Syrian conflict, to defend Turkey or otherwise, to be ‘out of the question’. Many analysts agree that there is little chance of NATO undertaking a full-scale military intervention in Syria, at least for the time being.
So why not? NATO claimed to have proven the effectiveness of its interventions following the fall of Gaddafi in Libya. Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine earlier this year, the US permanent representative on the council of NATO, Ivo Daalder, wrote of how Libya had been ‘rightly described as a “model intervention”’. With NATO apparently riding high on its ‘victory’ in Libya, many have been asking why it has prevaricated over supporting the rebels in Syria.
Part of the answer is that no national leader wants to take responsibility for what will unfold in Syria if Assad falls. Although NATO officials describe the intervention in Libya as a ‘victory’, that intervention has left Libya in a state bordering on civil war. The unresolved political tensions which permeated the rebellion in Libya, drawing in fighters from all classes, regions and religions, have manifested themselves violently since the fall of Gaddafi. In the run-up to the first national elections earlier this year, the National Transition Council, the unelected transition government installed by the West after Gaddafi’s killing, banned political parties based on tribal or regional allegiances, many of which were calling for the nation to disband.
Indeed, Libya is still beset by regional violence from separatist movements who feel that the process of transition has left them worse off than they were under Gaddafi. The fractious and chaotic state in which Libya now finds itself is attributable to the intervention of NATO in the conflict. NATO lent artificial cohesion to a rebellion movement which lacked any democratic mandate to lead, or any clear direction for how to lead, once the old regime had fallen.
The fate of post-Assad Syria would be even more chaotic. Firstly, the ethnic make-up of the conflict is more complex. Syrian Christians tend to be either neutral or support the regime. The rebels are largely composed of Sunni Muslims who see the regime mainly constituted of Alawites, as heretical. The uprising in Aleppo is distinctly Islamist, whereas the uprising in Homs is led by rebel groups that cut across ethnic and religious divides. Like Libya, the uprising lacks any central leadership to cohere these groups. While NATO was quick to claim Libya as a ‘victory’, the shadow of the ongoing sectarian violence is undoubtedly serving as a warning against intervention in the already fractious rebellion in Syria.
Analysts have further pointed out that the scale of any intervention in Syria would have to be far greater than in Libya in order to be effective. Even establishing a no-fly zone would require destroying 22 early-warning radar sites and command-and-control facilities, 150 surface-to-air missile batteries, 27 surface-to-surface missile batteries, 12 anti-ship missile batteries, 32 airfield targets, and more than 200 hardened aircraft shelters. This would dwarf the military effort required to defend the air space over Libya. Of course, there are also realpolitik concerns standing in the way of intervention, with an American election in November and economic crisis in Europe.
When NATO’s approach to interventions appears so arbitrary, it raises the question: what is NATO for? The organisation was formed in 1949 under the North Atlantic Treaty to unify the military powers of America and Europe following the Second World War, and to stave off the threat of a Soviet invasion of Europe. The first NATO secretary general, Lord Ismay, indicated the singular purpose of the organisation when he stated in 1949 that its goal was ‘to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down’. To this end, article five of the treaty allows for an ‘armed attack against one or more of (member countries) in Europe or North America (to) be considered an attack against (all member countries)’.
Of course, that Russian invasion never came. Article five has only ever been invoked once – by the Americans following 9/11. NATO interventions have never relied on the provisions of the North Atlantic Treaty, but they have been dependent on UN resolutions. NATO is now effectively the armed wing of the UN. As the example of Syria suggests, the archaic North Atlantic Treaty seems ill-equipped to deal with the complex process of intervening in foreign civil wars.
In and of itself, NATO is a rudderless, incoherent institution whose ongoing existence serves to further destabilise and unsettle the countries in which it intervenes. The current stasis over Syria shows that NATO is (thankfully) blighted by a dearth of leadership and is lacking in any coherent idea of its own purpose. Whereas it was convened at a time when European governments saw themselves as facing a palpable military threat, it exists today solely as a medium for the West to cast itself as the arbitrator of global conflicts – a role which history suggests the West is ill-suited to play.
Even those who believe, in spite of its uniformly disastrous history, that NATO can bring good to the world through its military interventions must be scratching their heads after last week. What happened to the glorious saviours of Bosnia? Or the ‘victorious’ liberators of Libya? They were reduced to confused inaction by a stray rocket into Turkey. It is time to disband this archaic, flailing institution of Western intervention. After all, a confused babble of Western military powers, who act arbitrarily and without any democratic mandate, is likely to prove far more destabilising for the Middle East than a misfired rocket.
Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.