- NATO has resolved to form the coalition to fight against IS. The foremost consideration of the alliance should be what political objectives are to be achieved by this war. This consideration influences the resources required for its fulfilment as well as concepts by which the resources will be linked to the objectives.
- NATO’s potential adversary is composed of three different elements. First, it is territorial caliphate defended by local militia. Second, it is a web of global terror cells partially dependent on the territory. Third, it serves as inspiration for individual terrorist attacks, which do not have direct relation to the caliphate.
- Any potential policy should be carefully crafted considering the character of the enemy. Additionally, successful policy must score well across the criteria of suitability, feasibility and acceptability.
- Better policies may be found on the softer side of the spectrum of policy options – those not utilizing military tools. Destruction of IS should not be NATO’s goal. Enhancing its security by strengthening the cohesion of its members is more appropriate objective. The Alliance should not purse offensive military operations of any kind, because it has not clear end state to work with in Iraq and Syria. Rather, it should use diplomatic and economic measures, and materiel sharing among its members and allies to manage the challenges posed by current situation.
What is it all about?
Fighting in the Middle East has continued for several years now and the war is far from over. Many different actors are participating in the conflict, some trying to terminate it, while others try to profit from its continuation. While the conflict continues, new actors are considering involvement.
During the NATO Brussels Summit on May 25, all members agreed to form a wide coalition to fight terrorism. How serious are they about it? Not very much, it seems. Secretary General of the alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, said that “Being in the coalition does not mean that NATO will engage in combat…” He added that “This will send a strong political message of NATO’s commitment to the fight against terrorism…” And as The Independent reports “Mr Stoltenberg was keen to stress that NATO’s role would not involve combat, instead expanding its use of surveillance planes, stepping up Iraqi training programmes, and creating a new body in Brussels to co-ordinate anti-terror intelligence and planning.”
So, NATO is forming a coalition to fight against terrorism. When we ignore the fact that terrorism is a tactic and as such cannot be attacked, let alone destroyed, it is clear that there must be some real entity which NATO plans to challenge. When we consider that the coalition was formed to send a signal of NATO’s commitment, the only one interested in such a signal are the U.S. And the most dangerous entity for the U.S., which uses tactics of terrorism, is the IS. Therefore, is NATO willing to enter the conflict in the Middle East? And if so, what kind of policies should it follow?
NATO may pursue a whole spectrum of policies , ranging from the limited effort policy mentioned by Stoltenberg all the way to conventional war. Policies from the opposite sides of the spectrum will be analysed.After brief description, they will be assessed according to their:
- Suitability – can they achieve the desired objective?
- Feasibility – can the action be accomplished by available means?
- Acceptability – are the consequences justified by the importance of the desired effect?
Before proceeding further, it is necessary to take a closer look at the enemy which should be the target of the policies. IS is not a monolithic organization dependent on a piece of land to survive. At least three different components can be identified under the label of IS. When deciding on an adoption of particular foreign policy, it is necessary to consider its impact on all of these components.
- Territorial caliphate with regional militia. This one has the biggest potential for recruitment but it also suffered series of military defeats in last months. This component is dependent on the territory it controls. Mostly for revenues but also for attractiveness of recruitment.
- Web of global terror cells. Some of these cells are dependent on the territorial caliphate, but many of them only partially, mostly for recruitment.
- Inspiration for groups of individuals worldwide. These are usually independent from the territory and they do not have any functional connections.
Hard offensive policy
Objectives: Policies in this spectrum are aimed toward physical destruction of the caliphate. The assumption is that its success would stop the stream of refugees and bring stability to the region.
Courses of actions: There are many ways in which NATO can use military forces to destroy the caliphate. These can be anything from putting ground forces and conducting combined arms operations to selective use of special forces and airstrikes. Somewhere in between falls the utilization of armed forces for defence of reclaimed territory to eliminate potential IS expansion.
Any military action would need to be followed by some kind of post-war reconstruction in order to avoid creating dangerous political vacuum in the area.
Resources: Depending on specific courses of actions, required resources would vary from substantial military forces for combined arms ground operations (several tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands) to few thousands in case of using only special operations and airstrikes. Apart from direct military costs, vast amounts of finances would have to be invested in keeping up logistical chains to sustain the operations. Regardless of the resources for military destruction of caliphate, securing post-war reconstruction would require many troops to stay there for many years to come.
Other resources include finding and maintaining political consensus in the alliance, robust support at domestic fronts in all member states and ensuring acceptable level of interoperability in military operations. Lastly, depending on particular courses of action, they would require various amounts of time to be accomplished, with post-war reconstruction taking years, maybe decades.
Suitability: The military destruction of IS does not inevitably bring stability to the region. On the contrary, it may create political vacuum much more disadvantageous to NATO than now. As unappealing as is it may be, IS counter-balances Iran, Hezbollah and Russia in the region. These three actors are much greater threat to NATO, both in terms of their capabilities as well as in terms of their intentions. So the destruction of IS might produce more instability in the region.  Suitability of the strategy is questionable in the short term and negative in the long-term.
Feasibility: Given the Trinitarian character of IS, it cannot be completely destroyed militarily. Only the first component can be physically destroyed and the territory reclaimed. Ground operations would probably ensure destruction of the caliphate, airstrikes alone may never destroy it. Feasibility of the strategy depends on the particular ways of using the military forces.
Acceptability: As illustrated, the costs for policies at this end of the spectrum are high while long term benefits are questionable. For these reasons, the strategy should be regarded unacceptable.
Major risks and opportunities: Involvement of NATO forces creates incentives for all the components of IS to conduct terrorist attacks against citizens of NATO states. These may have various effects, either strengthening the political will to pursue aggressive policy or weakening it. Building cohesion of the alliance and increasing the level of interoperability in operations.
Policy using non-military tools
Objectives: The primary objective of this policy is to ensure cohesion and security of the alliance through collective action and decreasing incentives for the components of IS to attack members of NATO. Defeat of IS is not a priority in this case.
Courses of actions: Diplomatic and economic means and materiel support for the allies fighting IS. Developing and increasing cooperation among members to protect population from terrorist attacks. Increasing cooperation among members to manage the waves of refugees.
Resources: finances, weapons, weapon systems, political support.
Suitability: Cohesion of the alliance will be strengthened by a united approach to solve challenges against IS, even if the alliance will not use military tools. Security of the alliance will be enhanced, because there will be minimal incentives for IS to target NATO members. By not eliminating IS, the coalition gains a balancer of power in Middle East as well as threat to rally against. This in the end strengthens the cohesion and security of the alliance. This strategy is suitable for gaining the desired objectives.
Feasibility All the courses of action are feasible with the available resources.
Acceptability: All the goals are achievable with very minimal investment of resources.
Major risks and opportunities: Destabilization of European politics by continuous migration from the Middle East. Also, Turkey might be unsatisfied. Popular support for limited measures may be higher.
Better policies may be found on the softer spectrum of policy options, the ones which do not utilize the military tools. Destruction of IS should not be NATO’s goal, it should rather seek to enhance it security by strengthening the cohesion of its members. NATO should not purse offensive military operations of any kind, because it has not a clear end state to work with in Iraq and Syria. Rather, it should use diplomatic and economic means, and materiel sharing among the members and allies to manage the challenges posed by the current situation. NATO currently does not have political will or military resources to conduct operations in the Middle East, but it is capable of mobilizing other means to enhance its security.
This is not to claim that the softer policies are flawless. Continuous stream of refugees will pose challenges for European NATO members. Furthermore, these policies may not be perceived as aggressive enough by some segments of the population which may lead to political turbulences in member states. Additionally, some members of the alliance might not be satisfied with the soft approach, which may potentially lead to crises. But these policies are clearly much more feasible, suitable and acceptable than policies at the opposite side of the spectrum.
Softer policies are a better choice because they are based on the assumption that it is preferred to maintain continual advantage over the adversary. Efficiency of the resources and ways directed towards this purpose is the primary criteria for these policies.
In contrast, more aggressive alternatives are based on the assumption that it is possible to bring stability to the region by defeating one entity in the area. But in politics everything is temporary. Since politics is where wars ultimately come from, results of war are seldom final. For this reason, it is preferable to pursue careful policies maintaining continual advantage rather than to use many resources for questionable results in an uncertain future