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Opinion

Opinion - NATO: The unwanted war against IS

The conflict between Turkey and Russia should not stand in the way of a common alliance against IS, says DW’s Christoph Hasselbach.

What is this really about? Who is the enemy? These simple questions have to be asked when it comes to international attempts to fight "Islamic State." NATO now wants to do more to protect Turkey, mainly by strengthening its air defense systems. But IS doesn't even have an air force.

On the other hand, Turkey showed us last week that it is both capable of and willing to shoot down a Russian jet, which, according to Turkey, violated Turkish air space and failed to respond to several warnings.

NATO's most powerful member, the United States, is backing Turkey. It says the Turkish version of events is correct; and besides, Turkey has the right to defend itself. Then there's the fact that Russia has regularly provoked northern NATO members in the Baltics, as well as neutral countries Sweden and Finland with air space violations. It's not as if the Turkish incident is without precedence.

Hasselbach Christoph Kommentarbild App

DW's Christoph Hasselbach

But since the downing of the Russian jet, tensions have been ratcheted up. Russia has now imposed economic sanctions on Turkey and accused Ankara of shooting down the jet in order to protect IS oil exports. Moscow has since stationed an air defense system on its Syrian base near Latakia. For its part, Turkey has accused Russia of not even bombing IS in Syria, but rather Turkmen rebels who are allied with Turkey.

The clash of interests is striking. Russia is backing Syrian President Assad against IS, but also against other groups, some of whom are supported by the US. Turkey, for its part, is fighting Assad and, in the past at least, has often looked the other way when IS has attacked Assad or the Kurds.

Is this what an international coalition against "Islamic State" should look like? In Brussels on Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was quick to stress that strengthening Turkey's defenses had nothing to do with the Russian jet incident. But the tensions remain between Russia and Turkey, both of which are key players when it comes to Syria's future.

But that is exactly what NATO doesn't need at the moment. Relations with Russia are already strained due to the Ukraine conflict and the annexation of Crimea. There is a danger that Turkey will try to manipulate NATO for its own purposes. In 2013, NATO set up "Patriot" missile defense systems in southern Turkey to protect against IS - Germany was also involved in that program. Many NATO members had doubts about the program even then; now, most of the missiles have been withdrawn.

It's still not clear how exactly NATO plans to strengthen Turkey's defenses this time. But no matter how, the conflict with Russia is distracting from the actual goal, which is to defeat IS. After the Paris attacks, it looked for a short time as if a very broad coalition would come together and cooperate on military action against IS. Now, it looks far less certain. No matter what happens now, NATO must resist being drawn into a conflict between member state Turkey and Russia.

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