NATO said it is prepared to send troops to Turkey to defend its ally after violations of Turkish airspace by Russian jets bombing Syria and an escalation of military action by Moscow in the war-torn country.
Defense ministers from the 28-member alliance are meeting Thursday in Brussels at a summit likely to be dominated by Russia intervention in the four and a half year civil war in Syria.
On Wednesday, Russia stepped up its military action, firing missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea and providing backing for Syrian troops engaged in a ground offensive against rebel groups.
Moscow has said its action is targeting fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. But at least some of the raids have been against Western-backed armed groups in Syria, it is claimed, with the implication that Russia is attempting to shore up the position of its ally President Bashir al-Assad. Concern has also been raised over the additional threat to civilians by an escalation of Russian strike.
And over the weekend, Russian jets flew into Turkish airspace in an incident that angered Ankara and led to warnings from Turkey’s allies.
Speaking ahead of Thursday’s meeting, NATO's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said members were “ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey against any threats.”
“NATO has already responded by increasing our capacity, our ability, our preparedness to deploy forces including to the south, including in Turkey,” he said, noting that Russia's air and cruise missile strikes were “reasons for concern.”
As Russian and U.S. planes fly combat missions over the same country for the first time since World War Two, NATO is eager to avoid any international escalation of the Syrian conflict that has unexpectedly turned the alliance's attention away from Ukraine following Russia's annexation of Crimea last year.
The incursions of two Russian fighters in Turkish airspace on Saturday and Sunday has brought the Syria conflict right up to NATO's borders, testing the alliance's ability to deter a newly assertive Russia without seeking direct confrontation.
While the United States has ruled out military cooperation with Russia in Syria, NATO defense ministers will discuss how to encourage Russia to help resolve the crisis, betting that Moscow also wants to avoid being bogged down in a long conflict.
“There has to be a political solution, a transition,” Stoltenberg said.
“Russia is making a very serious situation in Syria much more dangerous,” Britain's defense minister, Michael Fallon said, calling on Moscow to use its influence on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop bombing civilians.
For 40 years, NATO's central task was deterring Russia in the east during the Cold War, but now, after a decade-long involvement in Afghanistan, the alliance is facing a reality check close to home, with multiple threats near its borders.
Divisions between eastern NATO members, who want to keep the focus on the Ukraine crisis, and others who fret about ISIL, risk hampering a unified response from the 28-nation North Atlantic alliance.
France and Britain, NATO's two main European powers, are understood to be willing to see the alliance use its new 5,000-strong rapid reaction force beyond NATO borders, potentially helping stabilize post-conflict governments in Libya or Syria.
“We need to agree a long-term approach to Russia. But NATO needs a strategy to its south,” Britain's envoy to NATO, Adam Thomson, said on the eve of the defense ministers meeting.
“The world is changing and NATO needs to develop the ability to react to many things at once,” he said.
Others nations, including Poland and the Baltics, want a permanent NATO presence on their territory to act as a credible deterrent to any further effort by Russian President Vladimir Putin to gain influence in former Soviet states.
Fallon underscored the balancing act, saying that Britain would send some troops to Poland and the Baltics for training, as NATO opens small new command posts in Eastern Europe.
“That is part of our policy of more persistent presence on the eastern side of NATO to respond to any further Russian provocation and aggression,” he said.
Al Jazeera and Reuters