On the Way to War? NATO May Follow Turkey into War with Syria

"It's always a ship somewhere," a friend and former US diplomat once told me, referring to the point when the US enters wars. It's staggering how often this has been the case. This list covers all the incidents I can think of, but there may very well be more (I encourage comments to help make the list more comprehensive):
  • The Spanish-American War of 1898 began when the USS Maine exploded in the harbor of Havana, Cuba (then a colony fighting for independence from Spain). It later turned out that the ship had almost certainly blown up of its own accord, but that was of little interest to propagandists in the yellow press at the time.
  • The US entered WWI after the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania by a German U-boat (though this was not the main reason and did not occur immediately).
  • In an example that doesn't fit the bill 100%, the US entered WWII when the Japanese sank a large number of US naval ships in Pearl Harbor.
  • The "Gulf of Tonkin" incident, which included an attack that was probably just radar "ghosts," provided the impetus for the US Congress to authorize President Johnson to use conventional military forces in Southeast Asia, essentially beginning the Vietnam War (Wikipedia referenced for all of these).
Why always ships? My diplomat friend suggested, obliquely, that the reason was that ships are isolated and so it is hard to deny the official story of what happened. Pretty cynical, but pretty believable, too. In any case, that description fits aircraft, too, especially aircraft flying over the ocean.

You may have heard that Syria shot down a Turkish fighter jet allegedly flying in international airspace. The jet "had strayed over Syria very briefly and had been shot down after leaving Syrian territory." When it was shot down, it was located "13 nautical miles out of Syria, when Syrian territorial space is 12 miles," according to Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.1 So far, this has not led to Turkey invoking NATO's article 5, which would require all NATO members to join in to protect Turkey (the last invocation of this clause came after 9/11, when the US used it to start the NATO war in Afghanistan). But it's not over yet. Syria has apparently since opened fire on a second Turkish aircraft, this time a "reconnaissance plane searching for wreckage of the fighter jet downed last week." Although Syria claims it has "no intention of going to war over the matter," that is not entirely up to Syria. Turkey is apparently asserting that it could invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty, dragging much of Europe, Canada, and the US into a war with Syria.2 This is ominous.

This all could be a way for Turkey to act tough in the face of a Syrian attack (and it most likely is). Few in NATO look forward to getting involved in yet another Middle Eastern quagmire. Syria is a heavily divided country without a clear opposition that could be supported. Al Qaeda fighters have also moved in. Intervention there would not quickly bring peace. Although it might be possible to knock out the Assad regime, it is not clear what, if anything would take its place. It might simply lead to a long and bloody civil war (much as seems to be happening now, anyway). As the German newspaper Die Zeit put it, bloodshed will happen whether we intervene or not, and intervention might make it worse.

On the other hand, this could be the beginning of a more hawkish stance against Syria that could lead to a relatively slow escalation eventually ending in war. There is also always the possibility of the "tail wagging the dog," that is: that Turkey might drag the rest of the countries in NATO in without them really wanting to get involved. After all, tensions have been rising between Turkey and its southern neighbor for a while, with Turkey making "many veiled threats to move against Syria."3 Maybe it's always a ship--or a plane--somewhere?

  1. Arsu, Sebnem, and Rod Nordland. “Turkey to Consult NATO Allies on Jet.” International Herald Tribune. Damascus, June 25, 2012, Kindle edition, sec. World News.
  2. Nordland, Rod. “Turkey Says Syria Opened Fire on a 2nd Aircraft.” International Herald Tribune. Ankara, June 26, 2012, Kindle edition, sec. Front Page.
  3. “Turkey’s foreign policy: Growing less mild.” The Economist. Ankara, April 14, 2012, Online edition, sec. Europe. http://www.economist.com/node/21552602.


  1. Well, things have quieted down between Syria and Turkey for the moment, as I had guessed. Let's see...


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