Will NATO increase its footprint in the Middle East?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation — NATO — was formed in 1949 as a bulwark against Soviet expansion. Sixty-eight years later, nearly 26 years after the implosion of the Soviet Union, the 28-member alliance finds US President Donald Trump questioning NATO’s relevance and Washington’s underwriting 75% of its budget.
The European Union has been rattled by Trump’s virulent criticism as well as his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom it sees as undermining Western unity.
As Trump considers combating radical Islamic terrorism a high priority, significant of assets of NATO, of which Turkey is the only Muslim-majority member, are likely to be redeployed to support this initiative. This will come no matter how unwilling individual members might be to placate Trump’s agenda. His administration has already tried to bar nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.
Given US pre-eminence in NATO, such policies will affect those of the alliance, which has three dolorous examples of deployment in the Muslim world: Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. None of these can be adjudged a success, one of the factors causing Trump during his campaign to label the alliance “obsolete”.
In 2001, after the September 11th attacks, the United States invoked NATO’s Article 5, requiring alliance members to assist its campaign in Afghanistan. Sixteen years later, NATO troops are still mired there, according to the most recent quarterly report of the US government’s special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. As of November 2016, the Afghan government had uncontested control over 57% of the country, down from 72% the year before.
In 2003, a number of NATO countries participated in operations in Iraq.
In March 2011, a NATO-led coalition began intervention in Libya to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1973, with the United States in overall command. Six years later Libya is split between two rival political entities, one based in Tripoli, the other in Benghazi.
Despite this track record, recent signs point to an increased NATO presence in the world’s most volatile region.
Last September, Israel opened a mission at NATO headquarters in Brussels. On January 24th, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he was “proud” to inaugurate the organisation’s regional centre in Kuwait, calling the centre’s potential “enormous”.
Besides the turmoil enveloping the Middle East, the alliance has been beset by internal political upheavals beyond the recent US election, from Britain’s Brexit vote to the unsuccessful July 15th coup in Turkey.
The failed uprising exacerbated relations between European NATO members and Ankara. It has demanded the return of all Turkish military liaison officers formerly assigned to NATO, among them about 40 mostly high-ranking Turkish officers who worked at NATO facilities in Germany who have requested asylum, along with eight seeking asylum in Greece, a NATO member.
US Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, on the sidelines of a NATO meeting in December, said that after the coup there had been about a 50% reduction in the number of Turkish officers seconded to NATO. Frustration with NATO and the United States supporting Syrian Kurdish forces led Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to renew and deepen his ties with Russia, unsettling alliance members unnerved by Russian policy towards Ukraine.
The final wild card complicating future Middle Eastern NATO activities is Trump’s increasingly hard-line stance towards Iran, which on January 29th tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile, leading Michael Flynn, then Trump’s national security adviser, to put Iran “on notice” and threaten renewed sanctions.
Stoltenberg sought a middle ground, remarking: “NATO continues to develop its ballistic missile defence system because we see that several nations, including Iran, are developing different kinds of ballistic missiles and are testing and strengthening their systems.”
Rival Middle Eastern factions are tossing out carrots in return for support; on February 1st, Libya’s UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj said after talks in Brussels with Stoltenberg that NATO warships could be permitted to operate in Libyan waters alongside the national navy if it helped it modernise.
It remains to be seen how relevant NATO might be in untying one of the Middle East’s many Gordian knots. Any NATO effort to prove its relevance to Washington by deepening its presence in the Middle East, epicentre of radical Islamic terrorism is most likely only to produce results similar to its earlier interventions, however much NATO wishes to prove its worth in the 21st century.