PHOTOS: Turkey presses Syrian assault as thousands flee the fighting

A Syrian girl who is newly displaced by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria, weeps as she sits in a bus upon her arrival at the Bardarash camp, north of Mosul, Iraq, Oct. 16, 2019. (Photo: Hussein Malla/AP)

Turkey's invasion of northern Syria — along with the criticism and threats of sanctions brandished by fellow NATO members at Ankara over the offensive — is close to sparking a crisis at the world's biggest military alliance.

But despite the high political-military tensions, Turkey is very unlikely to be ejected from the 29-member alliance, for NATO has seen tense times and survived them before.

From the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 to France leaving its military command structure in 1967 — which forced the alliance to move its headquarters to Brussels in Belgium — to the deep split among allies over the Iraq war in 2003, NATO bonds have been tested. But no country has left the alliance or been forced out.

Beyond that, Turkey is of great strategic importance to NATO. The large, mainly Muslim country straddles the Bosporus Strait, making it vital bridge between Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. It's also the only waterway in and out of the Black Sea, where Russia's naval fleet is based.

Turkey has NATO's second biggest army, after the United States, and keeping the country inside NATO helps keep a lid on Turkey's historic tensions with its neighbor Greece.

In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from targets in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, during bombardment by Turkish forces, Oct. 16, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

NATO allies also rely on the Incirlik air base in southeast Turkey as a staging point for access to the Middle East. The alliance runs aerial surveillance operations from Incirlik and the United States has nuclear weapons stationed there.

"I think it's better to have Turkey inside NATO than outside NATO, to be honest. I think it's important to have them in our family and discussion. I think it's easier to work with them that way, but we cannot behave as if this had not happened," Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said Tuesday.

Turkey has been testing fellow NATO members' patience for a while.

Its military offensive in Syria comes on top of tensions over Turkey's purchase of Russian-made S400 missiles, which threaten NATO security and the F-35 stealth jet. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also purged thousands of military officers following the failed coup in Turkey in 2016 and some have sought, and been granted, asylum in NATO countries.

"At the moment, this is the greatest political-military challenge the alliance faces," Ian O. Lesser, vice president at the German Marshall Fund think-tank, said Wednesday. "Obviously as an existential matter, it's not on a par with deterring Russia in places like the Baltics or around the Black Sea. But in terms of a political crisis within the alliance, and potentially a security crisis, it's very, very high on the agenda."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he addresses his ruling party legislators at the Parliament, in Ankara, Oct 16, 2019. Erdogan called Wednesday on Syrian Kurdish fighters to leave a designated border area in northeast Syria 'as of tonight' for Turkey to stop its military offensive, defying pressure on him to call a ceasefire and halt its incursion into Syria. (Photo: Burhan Ozbilici/AP)

So far, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has urged Turkey to show restraint and to be wary of provoking yet another humanitarian disaster, particularly as well over a million Syrians have already fled to Europe in recent years.

Stoltenberg has exhorted Ankara to focus on NATO's common enemy; the Islamic State group, some of whose fighters are reported to have escaped jail during the Turkish offensive. But he has not, at least not in public, called for a ceasefire.

Indeed, Stoltenberg has shied away from any public criticism of Turkey — or of any other NATO member — and recalled that the alliance plays no role in Syria, beyond helping with the surveillance of air traffic over the country from abroad.

NATO ambassadors debated the Turkish invasion again Wednesday, NATO headquarters said without elaborating.

One option open to Turkey's partners is to request consultations through Article 4 of NATO's founding treaty, which is possible when "in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened."

Turkey has done this in the past, in 2015 after a series of extremist attacks on its territory and in 2012 when a fighter jet was shot down over Syria. Poland did so in 2014, when tensions in Ukraine were at their height.

Children wave to a Turkish forces truck transporting armoured personnel carriers at the border with Syria in Karkamis, Gaziantep province, southeastern Turkey, Oct. 15, 2019. Turkey defied growing condemnation from its NATO allies to press ahead with its invasion of northern Syria on Tuesday, shelling suspected Kurdish positions near the border amid reports that Syrian Kurds had retaken a key town. (Photo: Emrah Gurel/AP)

So far, no country has officially requested such consultations, but some European allies have called for a ministerial-level meeting of the international coalition fighting IS. NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels next week and are certain to discuss the Turkish invasion.

Some countries will also seek clarification at that Oct.24-25 meeting from the United States about what exactly its plans are in Syria, after Turkey took the departure of U.S. troops from there as a green-light to launch its offensive.

But whatever happens, the chances of Turkey being evicted from NATO are slim. Lesser said, as far as he understands, "there is no mechanism to remove a member."

That doesn't mean relations can't break down.

"There are ways in which a membership can become dysfunctional, either because there's no political consensus around the member's concerns," he said, or if Turkey's frustration grew to a point where it would "consider options like withdrawing from the military command structure." (AP)

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Syrian displaced families, who fled violence after the Turkish offensive against Syria, sit in a bus on their way to camps on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq on Oct. 16, 2019. (Photo: Ari Jalal/Reuters)
TV journalists talk during a live broadcast on a hilltop in Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, as in the background smoke billows from targets in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, during bombardment by Turkish forces, Oct. 16, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
Syrian displaced children who fled violence after the Turkish offensive against Syria, arrived at the Domiz refugee camp on the outskirts of Dohuk, Iraq on Oct. 15, 2019. (Photo: Ari Jalal/Reuters)
In this Monday, Oct. 14, 2019 photo, Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters fire a heavy machine-gun towards Kurdish fighters, in Syria's northern region of Manbij. Syrian state media said Tuesday that government forces have entered the center of the once Kurdish-held northern town of Manbij and raised the national flag. (AP Photo)
Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighters give bread to civilians in the border town of Tal Abyad, Syria, Oct. 15, 2019. (Photo: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)
A man kisses a banner showing Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during show of support by about a dozen people for Turkey's operation in Syria, in the border town of Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, on Oct. 14, 2019. Erdogan has criticized NATO allies which are looking to broaden an arms embargo against Turkey over its push into northern Syria. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters cheer from a car as they drive around the border town of Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, on their way to Tal Abyad, Syria, Oct. 14, 2019. Syrian troops entered Monday several northern towns and villages getting close to the Turkish border as Turkey's army and opposition forces backed by Ankara marched south in the same direction raising concerns of a clash between the two sides as Turkey's invasion of northern Syria entered its sixth day. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
A Turkey-backed Syrian rebel fighter fires a weapon in the town of Tal Abyad, Syria Oct. 13, 2019. (Photo: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)
A local resident uses his mobile to take photos of the damages on a house, caused by a mortar fired from inside Syria, on the Turkish town of Akcakale, southeastern Turkey, Oct. 12, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
A police forensic officer collects evidence from a building damaged by a mortar fired from inside Syra, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, Oct. 13, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters celebrate in Tal Abyad, Syria, Oct. 13, 2019. (Photo: Cavit Ozgul/AP)
Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians arrive to Hassakeh city after fleeing following Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern towns along the Turkish border on Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman stands in front of an apartment building which was damaged by a rocket fired from Syria, in Nusaybin, Turkey, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo: Sertac Kayar/Reuters)
A photo taken from Turkey's Sanliurfa province, on Oct. 9, 2019 shows smoke rises at the site of Ras al-Ayn city of Syria as Turkish troops along with the Syrian National Army begin Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria against PKK/YPG, Daesh terrorists. (Photo: Kerem Kocalar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Turkish military aircraft is seen at the Incirlik 10th Tanker Base Command in Saricam district, in Adana as Turkish troops along with the Syrian National Army begin Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria against PKK/YPG, Daesh terrorists, across Akcapinar district of Sanliurfa, Turkey on Oct. 9, 2019. (Photo: Ibrahim Erikan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from targets inside Syria during bombardment by Turkish forces, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
A Turkish armored vehicle prepare to cross the border into Syria on Oct. 9, 2019 in Akcakale, Turkey. (Photo: Burak Kara/Getty Images)
People in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border with Syria, watch smoke billowing from targets inside Syria, during bombardment by Turkish forces, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP )
Smoke billows from a village on the Syrian side of the border on Oct. 9, 2019 in Akcakale, Turkey. (Photo: Burak Kara/Getty Images)
Turkish police officers secure the area of the cemetery where the grave of ten-month-old Mohammed Omar Saar, killed during incoming shelling from Syria Thursday, is following the funeral in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border with Syria, Oct. 11, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
A mourner cries during the funeral of ten-month-old Mohammed Omar Saar, killed during incoming shelling from Syria Thursday, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border with Syria, Oct. 11, 2019. (Photo: Emrah Gurel/AP)
People help a wounded boy as they take cover after mortars fired from Syria, in Akcakale, Turkey, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo: Ismail Coskun/HA via AP )
Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Tal Abyad after Turkish bombings, in a picture taken from the Turkish side of the border near Akcakale in the Sanliurfa province on Oct. 9, 2019. (Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)
Boys stand at a back of a truck as they flee Ras al Ain town, Syria Oct. 9, 2019. (Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters)
A woman walks as smoke billows following Turkish bombardment in Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakeh province along the Turkish border on Oct. 9, 2019. (Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)
Damage from a mortar fired from inside Syria is seen in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, Oct. 20, 2019. (Photo: Emrah Gurel/AP)
Members of Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (former FSA) flash the V-sign as they drive back to Turkey after they went in for some time on inspection according to the Turkish police entourage in the same area at the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, Oct. 9, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from a fire inside Syria during bombardment by Turkish forces, Oct. 9, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
People sit on belongings at a back of a truck as they flee Ras al Ain town, Syria Oct. 9, 2019. (Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters)
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, people watch as smoke billows from targets inside Syria during bombardment by Turkish forces, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from targets inside Syria during bombardment by Turkish forces, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
Smoke from a fire caused by an incoming mortar fired from the Syrian side, billows behind a mosque's minarets in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from targets inside Syria during bombardment by Turkish forces, Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from a fire inside Syria during bombardment by Turkish forces, Oct. 9, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
Shortly after the Turkish operation inside Syria had started, local residents cheer and applaud as a convoy of Turkish forces vehicles is driven through the town of Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border between Turkey and Syria, Oct. 9, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
In this photo taken from the Turkish side of the border between Turkey and Syria, in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, smoke billows from targets inside Syria during bombardment by Turkish forces, Oct. 9, 2019. (Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)
Turkish armed forces drive towards the border with Syria near Akcakale in Sanliurfa province on Oct. 8, 2019. (Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)

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