It’s All About the Base

Turkey’s deal to allow the United States to fly missions out of Incirlik should be the beginning of greater engagement and support from NATO.


Over the past few days, the porous Turkish border with Syria has exploded with gunfire, artillery shelling, and airstrikes launched against the Islamic State by the Turkish armed forces. This follows a heinous bombing in the Turkish city of Suruc last week, which killed more than 30 young people and wounded hundreds of others. The confluence of terrorist strikes inside the country — launched by both the Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — and the rise of the Islamic State have caused Turkey to request an emergency meeting of NATO nations to examine the security situation on the alliance’s border.

As NATO nations hold only the fifth so-called Article 4 consultation in the alliance’s 66-year history, there is much to consider. These meetings take their name from the fourth article of NATO’s founding treaty, which says that any nation having security concerns can convene all 28 nations of the alliance. The idea is to collectively review the situation facing the requesting member and then develop a strategy and a plan for the assembled states to follow — ideally in a way that would alleviate the pressure on the requesting country. There are no guarantees for action, but generally speaking there is an expectation of some level of alliance participation. The initial output from the meeting was a strong signal of support for Turkey from the entire alliance; now the real work of planning and execution begins.

In simplest terms, how should NATO plan to support Turkey?

While the situation with the Islamic State is particularly complex because of its cross-national character and the overlay of Sunni-Shiite conflict, there is a series of concrete steps that the alliance should consider immediately in responding to Turkey’s needs. This long border — nearly 700 miles across both Syria and Iraq — is not Turkey’s alone: It is NATO’s border as well.

First, there is the often overlooked burden Turkey is carrying in terms of supporting a massive refugee population within its borders. Nearly 2 million Syrians are crowded into huge camps, largely run and paid for by Turkey. While there is some United Nations and international support, it is clear that over the long haul, Turkey could use financial help. This certainly falls within the dimensions of security concerns; pledges of support from fellow NATO members would be very welcome. This could also be a mission assigned to one of the alliance’s standing headquarters, probably Joint Force Command in Naples — headed up by an American four-star admiral. Much as NATO did in Pakistan after the devastating earthquake in 2005, the alliance could help with humanitarian aid, medical operations, security of the refugee camps, and logistical assistance.

Second, the NATO Patriot batteries that are deployed to Gaziantep in southern Turkey (provided by the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands) should be enlarged and extended. They are there to provide some anti-air defense to Turkey’s southern cities in the case of cross-border attacks by either Syrian national aircraft or surface-to-surface missiles launched by the Islamic State. Reaffirming support through the Patriot batteries should be part of the NATO plan, a course of action Turkey is actively pushing.

A third initiative that would make sense would be alliance support for cyber-operations. As the Islamic State intensifies its ability to use cyber effectively against Turkish command and control, NATO should provide advice, assistance, and defensive measures to the Turks in this little-understood but highly vulnerable sector.

Fourth, the alliance should offer additional intelligence-gathering support, including more missions flown by remotely piloted aircraft. NATO’s new fleet of remotely piloted aircraft (essentially U.S.-built Global Hawks) is scheduled to operate initially out of Sicily. Basing some of them in Turkey, probably at Incirlik airfield, would make sense. NATO airborne early-warning aircraft (AWACS) could also be able to provide better situational awareness about patterns of operations. Other alliance assets (such as U.S. JSTARS aircraft) are a possibility and could be very helpful at monitoring border crossings, vehicle movements, refugee flows, and other “patterns of life” over the region.

Fifth, over time a key component will be special operations forces — these elite units will provide the ability to precisely target airstrikes, will help win “hearts and minds,” and can go after the network that the Islamic State has built. The NATO Special Operations Headquarters in Mons, Belgium, should be tasked to develop a plan for support and eventual deployment of alliance assets across the Syrian border. Commanded by a U.S. three-star general, this is a very capable organization that could be focused on the Syrian challenges.

Sixth, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, the alliance’s military arm, commanded by the supreme allied commander, should review and update all contingency plans from the perspective of air, land, and seaborne operations in support of the Turkish border. Rough outlines of such plans exist now, but they currently have a “Cold War” overlay. Now is the time to update them to focus on truly defending the southern border of the alliance.

Seventh, a NATO air contingent should be based in Incirlik to continue the strike campaign from the north. Given that Turkey has offered access to the United States and has operated NATO aircraft from its bases many times (AWACS to Afghanistan, for example), it is very likely that the Turks would welcome NATO aircraft in addition to the U.S. contingent. This is a big, capable, joint, and international base from which the United States has helped its Turkish allies conduct operations for over a decade. This could be expanded to support a significant NATO contingent. Let’s use Libya as a model for creating a Joint Task Force Syria under NATO auspices to begin by conducting a much larger air-focused campaign against the Islamic State to supplement the current U.S.-led effort, while we consider how best to bring land forces to bear.

In terms of the Turkish attacks on the Kurds, the best role NATO could play is to encourage Turkish allies to focus on the Islamic State as job one and to move back to negotiating with the PKK — as Turkey has done for several years. Just a few months ago, it appeared a general agreement, building on the two-year cease-fire, was potentially close at hand.

Alliances work best by pooling and sharing their resources. NATO has a large, capable, well-trained, and ready-to-go command-and-control structure in place. Assets would flow quickly to support this campaign. Turkey does not have to defend its borders alone, and the sooner the NATO plans are turned into action the better.

Image credit: TARIK TINAZAY/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, July 30, 2015: The bombing in the Turkish city of Suruc happened last week on July 20. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said it happened two weeks ago.

 Twitter: @stavridisj

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