It’s time for NATO to get involved in Syria and Iraq, perhaps even putting limited Special Forces troops on the ground.
- By James StavridisJames Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
As ISIS consolidates its position across the Syrian and Iraqi divide, NATO must realize that it is only a matter of time before a wave of EU-passport-bearing jihadists will be headed back home to wreak havoc. Those AK-toting fundamentalists are a bit busy at the moment destroying two Shiite/Alawite regimes in Iraq and Syria, respectively, but the eye of Sunni extremism will inevitably turn its attention to the capitals of Europe. This means NATO must begin now to do all it can to undermine this potential future threat, and the key will be along the Turkish border.
While direct military intervention in either Syria or Iraq is politically fraught and will certainly present a pair of extremely difficult scenarios upon which to achieve consensus, there are prudent military options well worth exploring now.
First, as always, the alliance must know what is happening along its borders. This means leveraging the considerable capability inherent in NATO intelligence-gathering, including AWACS flights along the Turkish-Iraqi-Syrian border to capture both radar and signals intelligence. It should also include the use of remotely piloted vehicles, many of which are available through the 28 nations of the alliance. NATO aircraft routinely operate from Turkish air bases, and these locations could be key for such flights.
NATO also has recently committed to purchasing and deploying the highly effective Global Hawk remotely piloted vehicle. This deployment, scheduled for several years hence, should be accelerated — not just for the Syrian/Iraqi crises, but for the inevitable challenges that will arise along NATO’s southern border. Scheduled to be based out of Sigonella, Sicily, these aircraft could be forward deployed to either Greek or Turkish bases to operate along the Turkish border — creating targeting options for strikes at ISIS formations in Iraq, should the alliance choose to do so.
Lest we forget, the war now raging in Iraq is also a cyberbattle, full of dangerous activity — including jihadist propaganda, probes from ISIS and other radical Sunni groups, and social networks both for and against the Caliphate. NATO should be involved in understanding what is occurring on the cyberborders of the alliance just as much as it should focus on the physical boundaries. This means using individual national capability and fusing the information via the operations center at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, and potentially using the expertise resident in the NATO Center for Cyber Defense in Tallinn, Estonia. At the moment, this is not occurring at the level of NATO operations, and it should.
Slightly more controversial would be to consider offering a NATO training mission to Iraq. Little remembered is the NATO training mission that was constituted to train portions of the Iraqi Security Forces at the command and staff level, which operated in Baghdad from 2004 to 2011. While not large in size, it had positive impact, particularly on the training functions of the ISF. It ended at the same time as the U.S. forces withdrew, victim of the same failure to achieve a Status of Forces Agreement. There is still connective tissue that could be used to train, help regroup, and encourage the Iraqi Security Forces, while demonstrating a strong presence in the region.
To this end, the relatively new NATO Special Forces Command, headquartered in Mons, Belgium, could supplement the U.S. mission to Iraq. If 300 U.S. Special Forces are going to Iraq, why are there not at least another hundred or so special forces from around the alliance with them? Why is this uniquely a U.S. mission? The NATO Special Forces Command is fully capable of putting such a force package together under direction of the supreme allied commander for operations and moving them forward alongside Americans. Unfortunately, there appears to be little appetite for this among many of the member nations. Nonetheless, the case for European engagement alongside the United States is quite clear, given the distinct dangers to Europe posed by the rise of a jihadist state.
Another key area is, of course, command and control. NATO has a robust and significant headquarters located very close to the Turkish border: Land Force Command in Izmir, Turkey. This multinational HQ is commanded by an American three-star, U.S. Army Gen. Ben Hodges — a veteran of the Iraq campaign — and could be the centerpiece of a NATO effort to at least understand what is happening in Iraq, consolidate intelligence, and provide direction to a NATO mission. Nothing of this sort is being done now.
Finally, and certainly most controversially, NATO Special Forces could cross the Turkish border into both Syria and Iraq in order to understand what is happening on the ground, provide an unbiased conduit of information and intelligence, and prepare for possible NATO operations in either Syria or Iraq. There are U.S. and NATO air assets operating on the Turkish side of the border (mostly focused on helping Turkey with the Kurdish insurgency), that could potentially help support such a mission — at least with surveillance and intelligence. This would be a high threshold to cross, but the option should be under discussion by the alliance leadership.
Naturally, all of this must be done with the full support of the Turkish military. The good news is that the Turks are both very capable and highly aware of the clear and present danger they face along their southern and western borders. Washington should quietly ensure they are in fully support, then outline the right set of options in accordance with their views as the "host nation" for a NATO mission focusing on this threat. I believe Turkey would be supportive of an increased NATO presence, and would consider these kinds of efforts.
Simply "ruling out" NATO operations in both Syria and Iraq is not in the best interest of the alliance. This region of the world is spinning rapidly out of control, with dangerous implications for both Europe and the United States. The alliance has enormous capability, but does it have the political will to lean into this dangerous situation? Done in a measured and sensible way — with a focus on the Turkish border — would make sense. NATO needs a quick shot of strong Turkish coffee to get its energy level up and make some decisions about engagement — because what’s emerging now is a clear and present danger along the southern flank of the alliance.