Brussels, February 17
The United States is pressing NATO to play a bigger role against Islamic State in Syria andIraq, putting Washington at odds with Germany and France which fear the strategy would risk confrontation with the alliance’s old Cold War foe Russia.
All 28 NATO allies are already part of a 66-nation anti-Islamic State coalition, so the United States is looking to NATO as an institution to bring its equipment, training and the expertise it gained leading a coalition in Afghanistan.
“It is worth exploring how NATO, as NATO, could make an appropriate contribution, leveraging for example its unique capabilities, such as force generation,” US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter said after meeting allies at NATO headquarters in Brussels last week and referring to NATO’s know-how in drumming-up troops, planes and ships from allies.
Seeking to recapture the Islamic State strongholds of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, Washington wants a bigger European response to the chaos and failing states near Europe’s borders.
Carter’s call for NATO’s help came as defence ministers from the anti-Islamic State coalition met last week at NATO headquarters in Brussels for the first time, albeit with NATO insignia removed from the walls.
Despite support from Britain, the US push has not been received well by France and Germany.
Given Russia’s concerns over NATO expansion in eastern Europe, Paris and Berlin are worried that deeper NATO involvement in Syria could be taken by Moscow as a provocation that the alliance is seeking to extend its influence.
As the Russian-backed Syrian government advance nears NATO’s southeastern border, growing hostility between Russia and Turkey only makes some members of the alliance more reluctant, diplomats say.
Notwithstanding an agreement between Russia and the United States to avoid accidental military air incidents, France and Germany worry Russia’s targeting of opposition groups other than Islamic State increases the risks.
“NATO and Russia would not be fighting a common enemy,” a NATO diplomat said.
Carter has sought to distinguish between Syria’s civil war and the fight against Islamic State, saying the campaign against the militant group will go on regardless, and has pushed allies to accelerate their efforts. In that vein, Washington tested waters by making a request for NATO to provide its surveillance AWACS aircraft to the anti-Islamic State coalition fighting militants in Syria.
Germany pushed back on the AWACS request. That has forced a compromise by which NATO will send the planes to allied countries so as to free-up allies to send more of their own equipment to fight Islamic State in Syria, diplomats said.
France also sought assurances that the AWACS request did not mean NATO as an institution was being involved more deeply in the anti-Islamic State coalition.
Still, NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove said planning for a bigger alliance role was “a natural shift.”