Nato’s chief has warned the military alliance is unlikely to deploy extra combat troops to the Middle East, setting up a potential clash with the US over demands that it do more in the region.
Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, welcomed Washington’s push for greater action against international terrorism but said the best way to do this was by training local forces rather than deploying alliance troops to fight.
His remarks came after Donald Trump this week demanded the 29 member-alliance expand its role in Middle East conflict zones, creating a possible new US flashpoint with European partners that are reluctant to make such a move.
“I strongly believe that the best way we can fight international terrorism is not always by deploying Nato troops . . . in combat operations,” the secretary-general told reporters in Brussels on Thursday. “Sometimes we have to do that, but the best way is to enable local forces to fight terrorism themselves.”
Mr Stoltenberg sought to respond positively to many of Mr Trump’s concerns saying he agreed with the US president that Nato could contribute more to regional stability and the fight against international terrorism.
He suggested the transatlantic alliance could build on work it was already doing on training, advising and assisting countries to fight terrorist groups in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
“For me it’s no surprise that the United States is calling for Nato to do more, because that has actually been the message from the United States for a long time,” Mr Stoltenberg said, adding that consultations with allies and Middle East partner countries on Mr Trump’s demand would take “some time”. “We are looking into what more we can do.”
Mr Trump is yet to give further details of what he meant when he said he would soon ask Nato “to become much more involved in the Middle East process”. In a phone call with Mr Stoltenberg on Wednesday, the president “emphasised the value of Nato increasing its role in preventing conflict and preserving peace in the Middle East”, according to a White House summary of the conversation.
Nato members may discuss Mr Trump’s demand as early as next week. Possible options include expanding the 430-strong training mission for Iraqi forces, which is temporarily suspended because of the Iran crisis. Another potential move would be a “rebadging” to bring some training activities of the international coalition against Isis under Nato command.
Asking European allies to send troops to fight in Iraq — where Nato has never had a combat mission — would be much more contentious. Other options, including replacing some of the US airlift and force protection capabilities for the Nato Iraq training mission, could also be a stretch for European allies, many of whom face other commitments such as the French antiterrorism operation in Africa’s Sahel region.
Mr Trump’s call for Nato to expand its role in the Middle East is the latest in a series of demands he has made of the military alliance, such as a request for European members to spend more and for the alliance to focus more on terrorism and China.
Analysts and diplomats say Nato has tended to respond in ways that show some regard for Mr Trump’s complaints, while not making huge changes to the way it operates.
Claudia Major, a defence analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said she expected to see Nato come up with a “diplomatic formula that leaves everybody happy”. Most allies have little appetite for greater involvement in the Middle East and see practical obstacles to any significant expansion their role, she added.
“Nato, with its tools as a defence alliance, is not well equipped to deal with the challenges in the Middle East and north Africa region, which are often of a social, political and economic nature,” Ms Major said. “There is no agreement among allies on what is happening there, or what to do as an answer — or even whether Nato should be there at all.”