On November 27, 2023, Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), warned of the “danger of regional escalation” following drone and missile strikes on American sites in Syria and Iraq, as well as attacks on commercial ships. He called on Iran to restrain its proxies in the region to prevent the expansion of the regional conflict. This marked the second official statement from NATO officials since the events in Gaza began on October 7 of the current year. On the 12th of October, Stoltenberg stated that “NATO is not a party to that conflict,” issuing a warning to Iran and Hezbollah against intervening in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, following the decision of the United States to send an aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean.
NATO’s stance on regional security issues is not a new matter. The alliance has consistently affirmed that it will not intervene in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict unless three conditions are met: a request from the conflicting parties for intervention, the existence of a UN resolution as a basis for such intervention, and finally, intervention following the implementation of a two-state solution through forces capable of guaranteeing the execution of any future agreements.
The alliance faces a challenge due to the substantial alignment between its position and that of the United States, which contributes 22% of the alliance’s budget. This challenge is based on five reasons.
Firstly, the alliance has traditionally relied on a strategy of deterrence rather than direct military intervention, similar to the approach taken by the United States, the largest member of the alliance.
Secondly, the Atlantic deterrence strategy faces a test with increased attacks on Western interests in both Iraq and Syria. The Alliance has deployed over 4.000 personnel to train Iraqi security forces, indicating that the attack is not directly against US interests but against the Atlantic alliance. Secondly, this is not the first time commercial ships in the Gulf have been targeted. Such attacks have been ongoing since 2019, and not all of them may be publicly disclosed, raising concerns among NATO partners about its ability to counter these attacks and contribute to maritime security in the Gulf, especially considering that the key alliance members were part of the Reagan-led coalition to protect oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
Thirdly, these events unfold in the southern front of the alliance, coinciding with tension on the Western front – the “war in Ukraine.” The simultaneous tensions in both fronts pose a significant challenge, affecting both the NATO’s interests and its capabilities and readiness. General Rob Bauer, the chairman of the Alliance’s Military Committee, emphasized the need for preparedness in the face of unexpected events, citing specific lessons learned from the situations in Ukraine and Gaza.
Fourthly, the alliance has two important initiatives in the Middle East: the Mediterranean Dialogue launched in 1994 with seven Mediterranean countries and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative for the dialogue with Gulf countries in 2004. The alliance is keen on developing these partnerships, as demonstrated by the opening of the NATO-ICI Regional Centre in Kuwait in 2017, serving as a strategic link between the alliance and regional partners. Additionally, the NATO Strategic Direction-South HUB was founded in Naples became fully operational the next year; it has the mission “to increase NATO’s understanding of the regional dynamics of North Africa, the Middle East, the Sahel, Sub-Sahara and adjacent areas”.
Fifthly, the Strategic Concept, released in 2022 as a high-level security charter, updating a 12-years old previous document, clearly indicated that the priority in the next decade is countering terrorism in the African Sahel region. This sparked debates about the possibility of changing priorities in light of developments in the Middle East, which remain significant for NATO. The document acknowledges the shift in global security priorities, including food security, illegal migration, cyber threats and climate change, appointing an ambassador responsible for climate issues. Consequently, Mr David van Weel was NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for the reformed Division on Innovation, Hybrid, and Cyber (formerly ECD Emerging Challenges Division). Thus, the Alliance is adapting to the threat environment, reflecting on its regional partnerships through optional programs for education and training that each country deems suitable.
In my perspective, while the current regional developments pose challenges for NATO, they also present opportunities. These opportunities lie not in military intervention but in maintaining regional power balance through real deterrence to ensure maritime security, potentially avoiding military confrontations in the region. Furthermore, it can support its partners, enhance their capabilities in cybersecurity, maritime disasters, crisis management and leverage its diverse expertise in these areas. Despite the absence of a military presence in the region, NATO remains a tool for deterrence.
*This article is an edited version in of the one published in Arabic on the Bahraini newspaper Al Khaleej on 4th of December 2023.
Ashraf Mohammed Keshk
Dr Ashraf Mohammed Keshk is Director of the Strategic and International Studies Department at the Bahrain Center for Strategic, International and Energy Studies "Derasat".