Erik BrattbergDirector of the Europe Program and Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
At the NATO meeting near London in December 2019, leaders agreed that deterring Russia remains the alliance’s top priority. This certainly makes sense but does not exclude a stronger NATO role in the Middle East. In fact, both French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Donald Trump have called for NATO to do more to fight terrorism in the Middle East. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently cautiously endorsed this view.
However, NATO’s collective role in the region is likely to remain limited to mostly smaller-scale military assistance, training functions, and maritime security. There is little to no interest from Europeans to send more troops into harm’s way in unstable places like Iraq or Syria after U.S. forces pull out. The testing experience from the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan is also all too recent.
This does not exclude that individual countries like France, the UK, and Denmark step up and do more. A stronger security role would also give Europeans more diplomatic clout, something which it currently lacks—as the crises in Iran, Libya, and Syria all illustrate. But for Europe to be a credible player in the Middle East, it must invest far more in its military capabilities and decisionmaking structures. As Trump is quickly upending the United States’ traditional role in the Middle East, simply relying on Washington to always provide vital assistance functions is not a credible long-term strategy.
If European leaders really wanted to put meat on the bone of “European strategic autonomy,” managing crises in its southern neighborhood should be at the very top of the list.
John R. DeniResearch Professor At The Strategic Studies Institute Of The U.S. Army War College
NATO should probably keep away from the Middle East, at least in terms of doing more beyond what it’s already doing—namely train-and-equip missions, other cooperative security activities including through the Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), and using its AWACS and surveillance drone fleets to support member state military forces active in the theater.
Beyond these activities, the alliance organization per se lacks the resources, manpower, training, or equipment necessary to take over for the United States and conduct thousands of precision strike sorties and high-intensity, large-scale counterterrorism operations on the ground. Moreover, getting the alliance organization more deeply involved there will necessarily dilute its laser-like focus on deterring Russia.
Nonetheless, this does not mean that key NATO member states should keep away from the Middle East. Washington needs those allies—France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Turkey, UK—with the capacity, capability, and/or vital interest to shoulder more burdens there so U.S. attention can refocus on geostrategic competition with Russia and China, in Europe and elsewhere.
However, I’m skeptical those allies have the wherewithal to do more presently. More significant budget increases could help here, enabling Europe to do more in the coming years.
Ulrich KühnHead Of Arms Control And Emerging Technologies At The University Of Hamburg
First of all, one should differentiate between two potential missions for NATO in the Middle East: intervention and enlargement.
NATO’s success in terms of crisis intervention and stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq is already mixed at best—some would say it is a failure and a costly one at that. Speaking of enlargement, not a single state in the Middle East would fulfil NATO membership criteria in terms of good governance, rule of law, and the democratic control of armed forces. Politically, NATO enlargement would open a Pandora’s box, since Iran, Russia, a host of extremist groups, and most likely even China would view NATO’s foray as a hostile policy.
Having said that, would I wish for a multilateral, sustained effort to pacify and stabilize the Middle East? Absolutely! But that would only be possible if all major stakeholders were on board and if the military effort led by NATO were supported by a political-economic effort akin to the EU’s mission. Right now, that is a pie in the sky.
Unfortunately, the Middle East seems to enter an oriental version of the Thirty Years’ War instead.
Claudia MajorSenior Associate For International Security At The German Institute For International And Security Affairs
NATO should recognize its limits.
Any NATO commitment requires military capabilities as much as political agreement among allies, with particularly the latter being on short supply. Some countries focus on Russia as the main threat, others worry about terrorism and instability on Europe’s Southern flank.
But there is no agreed definition of what “the South” geographically entails, neither of what “terrorism” means, how to fight it, and whether NATO has a role. Even Southern allies don’t agree on NATO’s role there. Some states just want to raise awareness. Others call for NATO engagement but without specifying it. The result is an inconclusive commitment, reaching from capacity-building to supporting the anti–Islamic State coalition.
In fact, NATO is badly equipped to address the social, political, and economic dimensions of terrorism and fragile states. Yet, it would equally struggle if Trump’s request means taking over high-end military tasks from the United States, such as air strikes.
Finally, NATO is controversial in the region: few actors want it to become involved. An increased role might fuel conflicts. However, while NATO’s role is limited, allies should use NATO for strategic discussions. Besides, individual allies with the political interest and military capabilities could increase their own commitment.
Jamie SheaSenior Fellow at Friends of Europe and Professor of Strategy and Security at the University of Exeter
If you include Afghanistan in the broader definition of the Middle East, NATO has been involved in the region for some time already. It has done combat missions, training and capacity-building, and formed partnerships with many North African and Middle Eastern countries through its Mediterranean Dialogue and ICI. Since 2017, it has also been part of the global coalition to defeat the so-called Islamic State. Given this track record it is not surprising that Trump should look to NATO to be its natural security partner in the region and take more of the burden.
But the United States must be realistic and ask for things that Europeans will accept to do. This means stepped-up training and counterterrorism support rather than more costly combat operations. Moreover, Europeans will not want to engage more in a region that the United States is leaving. It has to be “in together and out together.”
The United States will need to consult the allies more on its plans if they want more European buy-in. And allies, particularly in Eastern Europe, will not want to hear any more talk of the United States abandoning NATO and collective defense commitments vis-a-vis Russia if they are to be persuaded to send more of their precious military assets to the Middle East.
Finally, for NATO to become a leading security actor in the region it will need to devote more time and effort to build trust and dialogue with the local political leaderships as well as have its own ally, Turkey, fully on board.
Tommy SteinerSenior Research Fellow At The Institute For Policy And Strategy At The Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya
Last month, NATO marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of its rather modest engagement in the Middle East. But, as an alliance, NATO could do much more in the region than training and public diplomacy. Similarly, setting up a think tank and calling it a “hub” is not the most expedient use of alliance resources.
Arguably, NATO’s integrated military command could have been a real asset in the global coalition against the Islamic State. Rather than staging two separate naval operations in the Arab Gulf (one led by the United States and the other by France), NATO’s naval command could have effectively addressed the challenges to maritime and energy security.
From the outset, however, NATO appeared timid in the Middle East. One of several recurring factors is European reluctance to support what they consider as misguided U.S. policy. Once it was because of the war in Iraq, today it’s about U.S. “maximum pressure” on Iran and the threat it poses to the European-cherished nuclear deal.
Unless the allies share a common strategic perspective, NATO will be unable to defend allies’ interests in the Middle East. Meanwhile, allies will resort to what they are very good at: papering over differences and making token contributions. After all, that is how NATO training missions in the Middle East were rebranded as “defense capacity building.”
Paul TaylorContributing Editor At Politico Europe
President Trump’s call for NATO to take over more of the U.S. security role in the Middle East is a nonstarter that has elicited polite evasions from the NATO leadership and private scorn from European allies.
Beyond existing modest training and “capacity-building” missions with willing Mediterranean and Gulf partners, NATO military operations would require a consensus of member nations and a legal basis, usually involving a UN Security Council resolution. Neither will be forthcoming for interventions in Iraq, Libya, Syria, or the Gulf, let alone in confronting Iran.
Trump’s unilateral actions—abandoning the EU-negotiated Iran nuclear deal, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, yanking U.S. special forces out of northeastern Syria and assassinating Tehran’s foreign military mastermind —have wrecked any prospect of allied consensus and made the Middle East a minefield for NATO, endangering those very training missions.
Even if former colonial powers were willing to police Gulf shipping lanes, as Britain and France might, they won’t risk their soldiers’ lives to assist a U.S. Middle East policy with which they profoundly disagree. NATO might have had a peacekeeper role in any Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, but Trump’s policies make any such prospect remote.
Nathalie TocciDirector of the Istituto Affari Internazionali
After the escalation in the Middle East, which peaked with the U.S. assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s retaliation against U.S. military bases in Iraq, President Trump hinted at greater NATO involvement in the region.
Why NATO was brought into the picture was unclear, amidst the general haze that characterized Trump’s press conference. One can only suspect this fits into Trump’s political instinct to withdraw from the Middle East, but his inability to do so was highlighted by the bizarre sending and retracting of a letter announcing the imminent withdrawal from Iraq.
The United States may indeed be unable and ultimately unwilling to step back from the Middle East today. But, strategically, that die has been cast. The U.S. retreat from the Middle East is a question of when, not whether.
Should Europeans become more involved? And if so, under which institutional framework? Whereas I strongly believe in an enhanced European role in the region, including in support of the security forces of those countries that request it, I doubt whether NATO is the appropriate institution for the endeavor.
Given NATO’s political baggage in the Middle East and its DNA, which is heavily focused on European security—which is needed more than ever—it may be wiser to consider a greater European involvement in the Middle East under EU auspices.
Anna WieslanderDirector for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council and Secretary General of the Swedish Defence Association
The good news with NATO-ME, the concept President Trump introduced to capture that NATO should do more in the Middle East, is that he finally showed some positive interest in the alliance. The bad news is that there is not much more for NATO to do in the Middle East.
Taking on new members from the region is out of the question. Adding more tasks is possible, as Stoltenberg dutifully indicated in his response to the idea, but the appetite is low and the risk for overstretch is apparent. The Russian threat to Europe has not decreased, hence pivoting resources to the Middle East from Europe would be risky and should be avoided.
While the United States calls for greater burden-sharing also in the Middle East, Europe once again has to face reality: there are no European military capabilities to replace the U.S. forces in Syria or Iraq. Hence, any efforts in this direction will be marginal.
The Middle East is next to Europe and regional turmoil will prevail, therefore NATO cannot choose to keep completely away. In short, the alliance is caught between a rock and a hard place.