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An Agenda for NATO in the Middle East

The current chaos in the rapidly transforming Middle East will not be over soon. Tectonic ruptures could be seen everywhere in the region. The painful birth of a yet-to-be-determined new regional order has its promises and risks. While no one can claim the ability to see through the current storm or predict its outcome, the possibility of influencing its general direction is on the table of the people of the region, their governments, and the global community in general.

Barring pressures to reduce violence, prevent foreign intervention, and confront extra-territorial spillage from domestic conflicts, the global community should leave the internal process of change in the Middle East to take its natural course in the hands of its actual and indigenous forces. The ride is rough, it is a roller coaster at times, but the world should be patient unless global terrorist threats are detected.

But preventing foreign intervention during this difficult delivery process is indeed a challenge. We have detailed in previous issues the requisites for a US-NATO retaliatory structure to stop any attempt to abuse the vulnerabilities of a region in transformation. Here are some steps that may be included in the current debate related to the future agenda of NATO in the Middle East:

* The NATO Response Force (NRF) must be beefed up with both deployable capabilities and a sub-command structure focused solely on the Middle East. Its roles in training and formulating logistical structures on the ground in the Middle East should be substantially expanded.

* A series of agreements with regional countries should be negotiated to establish on-the-ground-facilities able to host the Middle East NRF (MENRF) proposed above.

* Hands-on training should be run for both MENRF and indigenous armed forces to integrate any rapid response operational steps taken in urgent situations.

* Expand the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) and update this useful platform for GCC-NATO cooperation.

* Energize the Mediterranean Dialogue platform and inject it with collective tools of exchanging terrorism-related information.

* Encourage the establishment of an Arab Joint Forces (AJF). The AJF can provide a properly receptive platform for the MENRF when the need for MENRF action arises.

The current recent refugee crisis and terrorism threats point to the need for better cooperation. It is high time to put an end to endless European debates and deep-rooted hesitation at every step of the road. Events in the Middle East have a very rapid tempo and require a state of mind prepared in advance for unexpected turns and twists. It is also time to allocate additional resources to the national defense forces in the each of the EU countries. Recent events have shown beyond any doubt that a security crisis in the Middle East, once it expands beyond the region, harms the Europeans before anyone else.

However, there are many issues that should be dealt with prior to taking steps in any direction for NATO’s involvement in the Middle East.

Within NATO itself, we are following a vivid debate about the “identity” of the alliance. A recent open letter to President Obama signed by a group of former senior US officials raised concerns about the identity and functions of NATO. While the open letter was focused on supporting the proposed membership of Montenegro, it placed this support within the context of preserving the stability of that country and the surrounding region.

This seems to have drawn criticism from those who wish to see the alliance acting strictly within its traditional boundaries – the common defense of Western democracies. Expanding the mission of the Alliance to “standing strong in the face of Russian intimidation” is opposed by those critics.

This criticism should not be dismissed offhand. There is some merit in defending the nature and structure of the Alliance. Yet, the mission of confronting intimidation, Russian or anyone else’s, is linked almost organically to any pact to defend Western democracies.

In other words, we see two main issues on NATO’s table at this juncture:

1: The Alliance has been struggling, since the end of the Cold War, to reinvent itself. In the context of a rapidly changing global landscape, the nature of the threats it faces has morphed into completely different strategic spheres.

2: NATO is faced with the basic question: How is it possible to adequately face those evolving threats, while at the same time preserving its foundational identity?

The challenge is met by developing a perspective that does not see NATO as a closed fortress, isolated behind its wall. This perspective redefines NATO as a rock-solid “nucleus” surrounded by a creative network of security alliances, in which NATO plays an organizing and leadership role. Those alliances do not fall within the category of NATO membership, but they vary in their relationship with the center – which is NATO itself. This fits with the essence of NATO’s foundational identity. Defending Western democracies should not be seen in a vacuum, or in terms of formal legalistic definitions. This very task is not always already shaped, it is shaped responsively and contingently, by the nature of threats that face those democracies in any given moment.

This concept of looking at NATO as a “security center” is the right path to the future of the organization. It is flexible enough to allow a larger margin of movement for NATO without diluting its foundational identity or mission. It is not a “formal” bypass of the new challenges. It has a deep relevance to the essence of the mission in the post-Cold War world.

The Brexit vote in Britain may give those who criticize reshaping the mission of NATO some momentum. But only common sense can overcome potential difficulties. If there are common interests between the US and European nations in preserving stability in the Middle East – and there are indeed sufficient common interests between the two sides in meeting this challenge – it is possible to establish the proper mechanism to enhance this stability.

To avoid a repeat of the crisis of 2003, NATO has to formulate its mission in the Middle East in clearer terms, which must be accepted by all members. The formula of establishing a regional security pact assisted and structured by NATO, part of its network of security alliances, can help avoid future friction within the Alliance.

The ICI, launched in 2004 in Istanbul and including all GCC countries, should consider seriously the Saudi proposal to establish a Regional Rapid Deployment Force, or the AJF mentioned above. The way to push the ICI one step further is precisely what the Saudis have proposed. It is understandable that political differences between participants may arise here and there. Yet, those differences are not unsolvable. The establishment of the AJF should start without its members entertaining any illusions that it can begin in a perfect form. It will develop in time as a self-correcting and self-adapting process, but also with the active labor of the member states.

Even the integration of the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) group and the ICI may not be necessary in the beginning. Integration will rise organically from the evolution process of the new security structure in the region.

We believe that AJF is the right approach to frame NATO security assistance to the Middle East in an operable approach. The idea should be revived and discussed further with regional powers.       

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