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What if two NATO states start shooting at each other? It could happen

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Image: Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons

NATO's Military Committee is scheduled to hold its 178th Chiefs of Defence session today and tomorrow in Brussels and, for once lately, its senior military bureaucrats actually have something on the agenda that's important, pressing and worth talking about.

Obviously, I'm not referring to the alliance's top military officers figuring out new ways to get up the Kremlin's nose right on Russia's front stoop, Ukraine and the Baltic Republics, risky mischief supported as wholeheartedly by Justin Trudeau's Liberal Canadian government as it was by Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

No, I'm talking about the fact that, as of last weekend, NATO's two largest members, if you go by the number of soldiers they have under arms, are acting increasingly belligerently toward one another.

So a useful topic of conversation for the NATO military chiefs, which should definitely be of interest to Canadians who are required to expend enormous treasure on NATO projects, would be what happens to an alliance when two of its most powerful members actually start exchanging potshots in anger.

On Sunday, according to real news (Western) and fake news (Russian) sources alike, the U.S.-run coalition in the Middle East officially announced the creation of a 30,000-member Kurdish "Border Security Force" operating inside Syria. Naturally, there is considerable speculation about what borders the U.S. plans to ensure are secure, since the forces they are supporting are largely located within a sovereign state.

U.S. President Donald Trump appears to have had nothing to say about this development -- although back in November 2017, according to Newsweek and the Independent, the American Commander in Chief did assure Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that he'd ordered no weapons be provided to Kurdish militias in Syria. Mind you, back in May of the same year, he mocked the absurd cost of NATO's billion-dollar-plus glass walled headquarters building in Brussels and nothing much came of that either.

President Erdoğan was said to be reassured at the time of Trump's soothing promise, Turkey being historically extremely concerned about the idea of a Kurdish state anywhere in the region, in large part because of the separatist yearnings of its own large Kurdish population.

But yesterday? Not so much.

Yesterday, in fact, in a speech in Ankara Erdoğan threatened to "strangle" the nascent Kurdish force, and warned the United States bluntly not to get in his army's way.

"A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders," the Turkish president said according to Reuters. "What can that terror army target but Turkey? Our mission is to strangle it before it's even born."

"This is what we have to say to all our allies," he went on. "Don't get in between us and terrorist organizations, or we will not be responsible for the unwanted consequences."

"Don't force us to bury in the ground those who are with terrorists." (Emphasis added, though probably not necessarily.) In case you missed it, he was referring to U.S. Special Forces and military trainers supporting the Kurds.

"Our operations will continue until not a single terrorist remains along our borders, let alone 30,000," said President Erdoğan, whose government last year decided to spend $2.5 billion US to buy modern anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems from Russia. Perhaps he sensed something like this coming down the road from Aleppo.

According to ABC News, Erdoğan also said preparations for the threatened military assault are complete and it can start at any moment. Turkish artillery is already reported to be firing across the border.

President Trump has not yet responded, possibly because yesterday was the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday in the United States, but there is always the potential we are only moments away from an equally belligerent response on Twitter.

One question for Canadian NATO enthusiasts, as noted, would be this: Whose side are we on if two big NATO allies start shooting at one another? Whichever one first invokes Article 5 of the Washington Treaty -- an attack against one is an attack against all? Well, I suppose we all know the correct answer to that question.

Another fair question for any Canadian to ask would be if any of our Special Forces soldiers are in the region helping the Kurds, as they have in the past. If so, it might be a sound idea to get them the heck out of there.

There are those who argue President Erdoğan is a loose cannon, possibly loose enough to start a shooting war with the United States. In his defence, Turkey has legitimate national security concerns about this development, especially considering the United States' recent history in the region. Moreover, he's not without justification in wondering if elements of the U.S. government were involved in the attempted coup in which he was nearly knocked off in 2016.

As for whether President Trump is bonkers, the jury on that question has returned and there is a verdict.

Notwithstanding North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un's eccentric sartorial and tonsorial affectations, which seem to be the principal reasons we dismiss him as a crazy person, a shooting war seems more likely on the Turkish-Syrian border just now than on the Korean Peninsula, where, after all, the two-Koreas status quo is pretty satisfactory to the United States and all other major powers in the region.

Getting back to NATO's Military Committee, how do we know situation in the environs of Syria is on today's agenda? Because NATO put out a press release, of course.

It's buried there in the murky language of military bureaucrats, mind you, but it's clear just the same. "The Chiefs of Defence will discuss the challenging security environment on NATO's southern flank and the Alliance's contribution to its stabilisation. … This session will pave the way for further discussions on Projecting Stability Initiatives, Fight against Terrorism, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the ongoing NATO Training and Capacity Building in Iraq." (To provide a sense of verisimilitude, I have left the British spelling and the mid-20th-Century capitalization intact.)

Tomorrow, NATO's top officers will get back to their preferred theme, how to ratchet up tension on the Russian border to justify their spectacularly expensive budgets. Some tame journalist is bound to file a dispatch Friday morning referring to the skies over the sovereign countries of Europe as "NATO airspace."

NATO stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. NATO was created in Washington in April 1949 to counter the threat of the Warsaw Pact. Turkey, which is quite far from the North Atlantic, has been a member since 1952.

The Warsaw Pact, the other bulwark of the Old Cold War, was signed by the Soviet Union and seven allied states in May 1955. Readers are encouraged not to bother comparing the dates.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons

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