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NATO leaders stop short of invoking collective defense for France

Staff members and others gather for a minute of silence at NATO Headquarters in Brussels on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, in memory of the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

COURTESY OF NATO

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 16, 2015

NATO’s top official stopped short Monday of unveiling new military steps against the Islamic State in the wake of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris as alliance leaders held a moment of silence in the city where the assaults appear to have been planned.

“We stand in strong solidarity with the government and the people of France in their unwavering determination to deal with the terrorist threat,” said NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, surrounded by a crowd of officials at alliance headquarters. “We are all more than ever determined to counter and defeat the threat of terrorism and extremism.”

In the wake of the attacks in Paris on Friday, which killed more than 130 people in a lethal reminder of the Islamic State group’s ambition and reach, questions are mounting about the potential role for the 28-nation NATO alliance in the battle against jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

For now, however, NATO does not appear poised for such action.

“There has been no such request at this stage for a meeting of the North Atlantic Council,” a NATO official said Monday. “We support the French authorities in their determination to deal with the terrorist threat. Allies continue to exchange information and assessments.”

Analysts have speculated that France, which described the Paris attacks as an “act of war,” may call an emergency meeting of NATO’s highest decision-making body — a move that could serve as a precursor for a formal NATO role in the fight. This would mean invoking Article 5 of the military alliance’s treaty ­— the provision that an attack on one demands a collective response from all — as was done after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

So far, France has not sought formal NATO support, and the alliance has not indicated a desire to leap into a leadership role in U.S.-led campaign known as Operation Inherent Resolve.

For NATO members, the reminders of the alliance’s intervention in Libya, which toppled a dictator but created a vacuum for new militants to fill, continue to give pause about getting entangled conflicts as complex as the one in Syria, experts say.

“NATO would have to have a clear strategic goal in mind,” said Judy Dempsey, an expert on European security with the Brussels-based think tank Carnegie Europe. “And it would have to consider the day after. NATO is very bad in dealing with these two fundamental issues.”

Despite the potential for more such strikes in Europe, many of the Continent’s capitals remains leery of a military escalation.

“If Libya was damaging enough for NATO — and remember so few allies joined that mission — just think of how many allies would oppose signing up to Article 5,” Dempsey said. “The Europeans do not want to fight, even though their own security is now at stake.”

More than a year after the U.S. began conducting airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq, the campaign has gradually intensified as operations have expanded into Syria, where about 50 U.S. special operations forces have been inserted. All NATO members are a part of the coalition, with some nations providing combat support though airstrikes, while others take part in small training missions.

Russia started bombing moderate rebel forces in Syria in September, an action criticized by U.S. and NATO leaders.

“All NATO allies are focused on the fight against terrorism. All are involved in the global coalition to counter ISIL,” a NATO official said on Monday, using an alternative name for the Islamic State. “NATO is playing its part in fighting terrorism, together with our international partners,” said the official, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity.

Still, the international effort, one in which the U.S. military does most of the heavy lifting, has failed to push the Islamic State out of its major strongholds in both Syria and Iraq.

For the Obama administration, the airstrikes are seen as a way to lend support to friendly rebels on the ground. But the Iraqi military has struggled to assert itself, and the effort to build a strong rebel army in Syria has been described as a failure. The only bright spot is a Kurdish force that has made gains against militants when backed up by American air power.

However, the attacks in Paris, as well as the destruction of a Russian commercial airline earlier this month — an attack widely blamed on the Islamic State — has underscored the risks the group poses beyond the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.

Over the weekend, calls for a larger NATO role have grown. On Sunday news talk shows, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, both contenders for the Republican presidential nominations, said the alliance should invoke the collective defense clause.

Former NATO supreme allied commander, retired Adm. James Stavridis, also said the time has come for an aggressive military response from NATO.

“There is a time for soft power and playing the long game in the Middle East, but there is also a time for the ruthless application of hard power. It is NATO’s responsibility to recognize our current moment qualifies as the latter,” Stavridis wrote in Foreign Policy on Saturday.

Even with an Article 5 declaration, there is no guarantee allies would alter how their militaries are operating in Iraq and Syria. While France has stepped up its airstrikes after the attack in Paris, other countries have shown no willingness to conduct combat operations. Germany, for example, is focused on a small training mission in Iraq.

And even regional allies like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states sharply reduced their participation in the air campaign after becoming embroiled militarily in the civil war in Yemen.

After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, NATO itself is increasingly focused on issues closer to home — mainly reassuring its eastern European members that it will act in their defense in case of threats by a resurgent Russia.

Eventually, the mission in Iraq and Syria could be transferred to a NATO-commanded effort. The 2011 air campaign in Libya began under the leadership of U.S. Africa Command before NATO took the lead.

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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