Brussels, Belgium – Five days after the United States assassinated a top Iranian military commander – a move that pushed Washington and Tehran to the brink of war – US President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he would ask NATO “to become much more involved in the Middle East process”.
Trump, who had ordered the January 3 killing of Qassem Soleimani prompting retaliatory Iranian attacks against US targets in Iraq, later called on the 29-member alliance to send more troops to the Middle East and increase its role in “preventing conflict” in the region. The demand caught many by surprise, given Trump’s long-standing criticism of NATO, including questions over its value to the US and calls on allies to pay more for the alliance’s defence.
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Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, initially appeared to heed Trump’s request, saying the Atlantic alliance could do more in the Middle East. But he has since signalled NATO would not deploy combat troops to the region, saying the “best way is to enable local forces to fight terrorism themselves”.
The alliance currently has 400 personnel in Iraq, as part of a mission to train the country’s army to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS). But shortly after Soleimani’s killing, NATO temporarily suspended the non-combat mission’s training activities.
And despite Trump’s call on NATO to expand its presence in the Middle East, analysts say deep divisions between the US and some NATO allies over Washington’s strategy on Iran – from the US’s unilateral decision in 2018 to abandon a landmark deal that curbed Tehran’s nuclear programme to Soleimani’s assassination – was likely to limit the alliance’s role in the region.
“No NATO ally supported the US decision to take out Soleimani. Turkey may have said it openly, but all allies think it was a strategically disastrous decision. It’s also why NATO will not expand its involvement in the region to any great extent,” said Ivo Daalder, who served as Washington’s ambassador to NATO between 2009 and 2013.
Neither NATO nor the United Kingdom, Washington’s closest ally, were reportedly informed of the US’s operation to kill the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. In the wake of Soleimani’s death, the UK, France and Germany, called for “de-escalation”, while Turkey expressed its opposition to “foreign interventions, assassinations and sectarian conflicts in the region”.
“The current crisis has deepened the divisions across the Atlantic and increased the likelihood of European allies distancing themselves from an increasingly unpredictable United States,” said Daalder, who is now the president of the Chicago Council.
Trump’s demand that NATO boost its presence in the Middle East is something that would mark a significant shift in the mission of alliance, which was founded in 1949 as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.
Daalder said the demand was based on Trump’s belief that Europe’s interests were more tied to the region than that of the US, including a greater European reliance on Middle Eastern oil and exposure to threats posed by returning ISIL fighters. Indeed, Trump, in calling for more NATO involvement, said the US was independent and does “not need” Middle East oil.
Rasa Jukneviciene, a Lithuanian legislator and the former head of the European Parliament’s delegation to NATO, characterized those comments as a veiled message to European NATO allies about their future role in the security arena.
“It is a message addressed first of all for Europeans, and Europe must realise that talking about strategic autonomy will not suffice any more,” said Jukneviciene, calling on European countries to increasing their defence spending.
Currently, of NATO members, the US’s share of total defence costs stands at approximately 70 percent. According to alliance figures, the US spent around 3.4 percent of its GDP on defence in 2019.
The US, therefore, largely leads NATO’s security agenda. Speaking at a NATO summit in the UK last month, Trump once again called on members to commit to increasing their defence spending to 4 percent of GDP, while targets have currently been set for 2 percent by 2024.
“Europe will have to take a decision, one or another. In my opinion, and in the opinion of the majority of politicians in my country, NATO is the best tool to deal with such complex problems,” said Jukneviciene.
Jamie Shea, senior fellow at the Brussels think-tank Friends of Europe, said NATO member states should view Trump’s demands to contribute more resources to Middle East operations as an opening “to make NATO more relevant to the Mediterranean and Turkey, and even to Trump”.
In return, Europe could ask “for assurances from Trump that there will be no more threats to leave NATO or ambiguity over Article 5”, he said, referring to the provision in the alliance’s charter that obligates allies to defend each other if they come under attack.
“Every crisis is an opportunity,” he added.
Amid the discord and questions over the alliance’s value, some experts say NATO’s next steps in the Middle East could be crucial to its future.
Fawaz A Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, said he expected the alliance to move into a “transitional period” while members decide on where future resources are placed.
“The American century is coming to an end,” he said, referring to Washington’s diminishing influence on NATO partners. “There has been a rupture in global relations between historical allies, and NATO is at the centre.”