While NATO remains focused on dealing with a resolutely disruptive Russia, a greater threat to the NATO homelands may be developing in an area normally considered beyond the organization’s purview.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, has given every indication that its ambitions extend far beyond its current Iraq battleground. In language similar to Osama Bin Laden’s 1998 declaration of war against the United States, ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has talked about “direct confrontation” with America. Perhaps foreshadowing the inclusion of Western Europe in this threat, in May of this year a veteran of ISIL combat in Syria killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. On July 8, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder termed the return to home countries of radicalized fighters “a global crisis.”
NATO was created in 1949 to defend Western Europe against the Soviet Union. The alliance has always sought to avoid so-called mission creep, although it has made exceptions, participating in the Afghanistan war and attacking Libya in 2011. Protecting Europe has mostly meant staying close to home.
But events in Syria and Iraq are almost certain to have ripple effects in Europe and the U.S. Consider the recent English-language recruiting videos posted on YouTube in which ISIL fighters from the United Kingdom and elsewhere urge young men to join their quest for martyrdom. Evidence exists of numerous Europeans and North Americans in the ISIL ranks. At some point, ISIL survivors of the current conflict will drift homeward. They will be well-trained, murderous and difficult to trace.
Facing this imminent threat, NATO should act now, while ISIL forces can be targeted as they fight for control of large parts of Iraq and Syria. This may seem to be just the kind of mission creep that NATO has long resisted, but the reality creep of expanding threats to the West necessitates a broadened zone of responsibility. Stretching the rationale for NATO action has precedent: the Libya intervention was primarily justified by a “responsibility to protect,” rather than any threat to NATO members’ own security.
The central Iraqi government is clearly unable to handle the ISIL surge on its own – Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey last week said Iraq alone cannot win back the territory it has lost — but because the Baghdad regime is such a mess, intervening to save it has little appeal to NATO. If impetus were provided from within NATO, the response might be different.
This is where Turkey becomes important. Since 2011, Turkey has watched the region to its south dissolve into chaos. Its longest border is with Syria, now a failed state. If ISIL is successful in carving out its caliphate across the Iraq and Syria border, it will only be a matter of time before it begins to nibble at the borders of Turkey, which as a secular Muslim state is despised by the jihadists.
If the Turkish government determines that ISIL is a significant threat to its own security, it might be able to push its NATO brethren toward at least limited involvement, such as air strikes against ISIL forces. Such action might not defeat ISIL, but it could reduce its numbers and bravado.
In response to a request to NATO from Turkey, the U.S. would be the next key player. With little interest in further entangling itself in the region, and yet recognizing that Iraq, Syria, and their neighbors cannot simply be abandoned, the U.S. needs a proxy power on the scene – one that has enough muscle to help reduce the chaos and that can also counterbalance Iran’s growing influence. Turkey is the logical candidate, and the long-term as well as immediate stakes are so high that U.S. policymakers should pressure their NATO counterparts to back up Turkey with swift action against ISIL.
Beyond this, the U.S. would need to swallow its pride and admit that despite the huge investment of American lives and money, Iraq cannot defend itself. And if NATO does intervene, the U.S. would have to provide, as usual, everything from intelligence-gathering to ammunition.
If this intervention is to happen, it should begin soon. The current policy of inaction plus a few token gestures can have no good outcome. In dealing with terrorism, being merely reactive is inadequate, particularly when the terrorist training ground is as large as that which ISIL controls and when the combat experience of its fighters is rapidly growing, as is now the case. If ISIL is left unchecked, the western Iraq and eastern Syria area may become an even worse terrorist haven than Afghanistan was in the late 1990s — and nowhere in the world will be safe from those who emerge from this bloody, hate-filled territory.
Like much else in the world, combat is becoming globalized. Defending the West cannot be geographically limited to the West, and NATO’s mission cannot be defined by boundaries that are increasingly meaningless. The citizens of NATO countries are under threat from a force that is, for now, outside their borders, but NATO would be negligent if it waited until the danger moved nearer.
A few years ago, the menace of al-Qaeda was not addressed when it should have been. That lesson is worth keeping in mind. Fighting ISIL now might make less likely the need to fight it and its offspring later.
Philip Seib is a professor of journalism and international relations at the University of Southern California. His most recent book is Real-Time Diplomacy: Politics and Power in the Social Media Era.