A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Bad Neighborhood


Between civil wars, the rise of Islamic State, and a resurgent Russia, NATO has its hands full keeping the European neighborhood stable. Here are a few ideas it might want to consider when it holds its Warsaw summit in July.


© REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

Many have described 2015 as an annus horribilis, marking the return of a world driven by harsh realpolitik, and there is little hope that 2016 will be any better. In today’s world, both emerging and established powers pursue assertive and highly competitive agendas, suppress democratic freedoms, insist on non-interference in their internal affairs, and challenge Western interests, norms, and institutions. At the same time, a growing number of military non-state actors refuse to abide by international legal norms and existing territorial arrangements. Some of them – like so-called Islamic State (IS) – have explicitly declared war on our societies and democratic values.

At NATO, we assume that our immediate geographic vicinity will remain extremely volatile for many years. From the Arctic zone to Afghanistan, from Russia to North Africa, and from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe, we will be challenged by an arc of instability and violence. This arc poses not one single threat, but many, with many different causes, from insurgencies to collapsing states. They require tailored solutions, some even at the same time, and they all ask for strong political stamina, creativity, and resolve from our side – not to mention considerable resources, both for security and for reconstruction, resources that we need to use wisely to achieve real results.

Looking South

As we prepare for the Warsaw summit in July this year, NATO continues to work on a set of broad measures to respond effectively to the new security environment on our eastern and southern borders. Developments in the wider Middle East are particularly worrisome. It is clear that the multiple and profound crises and conflicts in the South affect NATO territory, the security of allied populations, and the allies’ strategic interests in many ways, and will likely continue to do for some time. In particular, the refugee crisis and the rise of jihadist terrorism have demonstrated that the situation in the wider Middle East has direct repercussions for Europe and North America.

So what do we need to prepare for when looking at future developments in the wider Middle East? I can see at least six strategic parameters that we should consider when shaping NATO’s response toward its southern borders:

First, we witness the collapse of the post-colonial Arab state model. The entire Middle East today is going through a period of powerful, tectonic change which will determine nothing less than the future of statehood and governance, the prospects for economic modernization, and the way different ethnic and religious groups will live with each other. While the region has rarely been tranquil, it has never been this bad. Full-blown civil wars rage in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Various forms of spillover from these civil wars threaten the stability of Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have risen to new heights, enhancing their rivalry for regional influence and hegemony. Israel and the Palestinians have experienced a resurgence of low-level violence, and a two-state solution seems further away than ever. Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have weathered the storm so far, but are concerned that terrorism and sectarian violence may come their way as well. Whatever the future will hold for the countries in the wider Middle East, it is highly unlikely that the post-colonial Arab state model will survive in most of the countries of the region.

Second, there is no end in sight. Given the enormity of the challenges for and in the wider Middle East, it is fair to say that the South of today will not be the South of tomorrow. Turmoil in the region is far from over, and new security crises are likely to emerge in the years to come. This puts the alliance in a difficult position: it must find effective responses to the various current crises and risks and craft strategic plans for the longer-term future, albeit without knowing how the Middle East will look a few years from now.

Third, Russia is back. While the regional balance of power has started to alter, so has the strategic balance of power. Most importantly, Russia has successfully managed to expand its political clout and military power projection capacities in the Middle East – and it is there to stay. Six months after it started its military campaign in support of the Assad regime, Moscow has made considerable progress in advancing some of its core strategic objectives, namely establishing Russia as an indispensable political and military actor in the Syrian crisis that seeks to act on an “equal footing” with the United States.

Fourth, Turkey and Russia are on a collision course. Since the outbreak of the Syrian war, Turkey has faced increasing security challenges at its borders; and with Russia’s military intervention in support of the Assad regime, they have become even more pressing. Ankara considers its vital interests threatened should a unified Kurdish territory emerge south of its borders with Syria. It views both the Russian/Kurdish alignment and the military advances of the Syrian army close to its borders as fundamental threats that it can counter only by pushing back the Syrian Kurds and Syrian/Russian operations. As long as Moscow supports Kurdish militias and sponsors the Assad regime militarily, Turkey and Russia will remain on a dangerous collision course, which NATO cannot leave unnoticed.

Fifth, IS will not vanish from the region soon. Almost two years after Islamic State fighters swept through much of Iraq, and 15 months after the US-led coalition started to conduct airstrikes against them, IS is still not defeated. It has lost some ground in Iraq as well as some of its key figures, capacities, and financial resources, but it continues to control parts of Syria and Iraq. Eventually, expanded airstrikes and special operations will be able to degrade more IS capacities, but it is hard to see that these jihadist terrorists can be fully defeated militarily. They will likely remain a deadly threat for Syria and Iraq, as well as for Libya, Jordan, Egypt, and other countries where they have built offshoots.

And finally, stabilizing the region from the outside would require substantially more resources, energy, attention, and political capital from the West than it has demonstrated in the past few years. Since the civil wars in Syria and Iraq turned hot, Washington and its European allies have made clear that they do not want to be dragged into these conflicts, let alone militarily. Thus far, the Obama administration places its hope in Syria and Iraq on supporting and training Sunni moderate forces in their fight against the Assad regime and on airstrikes and special force operations against IS. Most of the European countries have joined operations against the IS, and a few provide training and military equipment to local and Iraqi forces. Taken together, however, the impact of these measures has remained limited: these efforts have neither ended the civil wars in Syria and Iraq nor changed the dynamics on the battlefield, nor have they managed to wipe out the IS caliphate.

Responding to Turmoil

So how should the alliance respond to the turmoil in the wider Middle East, and what role could we play there in the future?

It goes without saying that NATO alone cannot solve the many acute conflicts in the region. They require the energy and efforts of the entire international community, from the countries directly affected, to international organizations like the European Union and the United Nations, to regional organizations such as the League of Arab States and the Gulf Cooperation Council. All of these actors, the alliance included, should aspire to pursue the same vision for the Middle East: a region striving toward democracy, the rule of law, peaceful conflict resolution, and economic prosperity.

It is not NATO’s mandate to support the countries of this region in much-needed political and economic reforms, but the alliance certainly has a role to play. And we do not need to start from scratch. For more than two decades NATO has built and cultivated partnerships with a number of countries in the MENA region. This has allowed NATO to develop a broad network of contacts with the countries of the region. Supporting our partners in enhancing their national defense and security capacities is very much at the heart of our partnership activities. To name a few examples: we are working with the Egyptian military to introduce new mine detection and clearing technologies; supporting Morocco in enhancing the capabilities of its armed forces; helping Tunisia modernize its armed forces and defense institutions, including their special operations forces; and, in the future, we will help train Iraqi armed forces in Jordan.

Moreover, every NATO ally is supporting the US-led operation against IS, whether as part of the air operations against IS targets or through training and equipping Iraqi security forces. In addition, NATO stands ready, in principle, to support the international coalition fighting IS with NATO AWACS aircraft.

More recently, in late February 2016, NATO launched a maritime operation to help stem illegal trafficking and migration in the Aegean Sea by deploying NATO Standing Maritime Group 2.

And regarding NATO’s core task of collective defense, the alliance has gradually stepped up its defense and assurance measures in support of Turkey since 2012, including the stationing of Patriot batteries, in order to help secure Ankara’s southern borders. Furthermore, in response to the new security environment, NATO’s military adaptation plans also foresee the deployability of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and NATO response force (NRF) as part of an enhanced defense and deterrence posture in the South.

However, at the core of the allies’ current discussion is the question of how to reinforce and expand our partnership cooperation menu for southern partners and place even more emphasis on defense capacity building (DCB) efforts in functional areas, such as military border security, counter terrorism and explosives, small arms and light weapons, counter-IED, and other related capacity-building and training domains.

One potential way to do so is through identifying “anchor states” that can project stability in their neighborhood. Such “anchor states” could be partners or other regional countries that NATO decides to engage specifically for this purpose. With a view to the most urgent security crises in the wider Middle East, namely the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, suitable anchor states could be Jordan and Tunisia. In order to enhance their military capacities and resilience, NATO could offer tailored DCB packages for each of these countries, provided they wish to receive NATO support.

And we could even do more: we could enhance regional and local ownership by strengthening our relations with the League of Arab States, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the African Union, providing dedicated support to their confidence-building and conflict resolution capacities. In particular, the Gulf Cooperation Council may be worth addressing, as it is the only body with a military component. Here, NATO could provide training in the field of force generation, operational planning, exercises, and related areas. We could also make the Allied Joint Force Command (JFC) Naples a hub for regional situational awareness, DCB efforts, and military cooperation in the South by inviting interested partners to establish liaison offices at JFC-Naples and establishing a dedicated program of activities with selected southern partners. It goes without saying that for all our capacity-building efforts we need to closely join ranks with the European Union and the United Nations, which also run training and security sector projects in the region.

These are just some ideas that the allies may wish to discuss as we move toward the Warsaw summit, and I am certain others will emerge in the months to come. Overall, however, the prime question for NATO to answer is what future level of ambition it wants to pursue toward its southern periphery: increasing collective defense efforts and revamping partnership programs are, no doubt, important steps. Whether the allies will also generate the political stamina and the necessary resources to use NATO’s crisis management tools to help end some of the most pressing crises in the wider Middle East remains to be seen.

Read more in the Berlin Policy Journal App – May/June 2016 issue.