The U.S. and Europe: What is their Role in NATO’s Fight against IS?

In the past month, the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for no fewer than five terrorist attacks in the Middle East and Europe, killing 69 people and injuring more than 200. America has also suffered casualties in this prolonged fight against IS, including the murder of 49 individuals in the June 12th attack last year at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, two Americans in the attack in Nice last summer, and the deaths of two Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan this April. It is clear that the growing threat of IS in the Middle East, Europe, and even the U.S. requires a coordinated global response with the United States and Europe at the helm.

Even though we share a common enemy, President Trump refuses to show solidarity with European leaders, surprising even his top national security officials by removing language showing support of Article 5 from his NATO speech. Yet, President Trump must recognize our role in leading with, not against, our European allies in fights against global threats. The U.S. government has already committed troops and other resources to remain involved in mitigating the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. We have a great opportunity to provide our partners in Europe with additional support to defeat IS, including improved diplomatic relations with Syria’s Middle Eastern neighbors, support for the development of a viable economy, and establishment of democratic institutions in Syria and Iraq.

When capable of leading others to a safer, more prosperous future, our nation must do as it has always done: stand strong against fear and hate, and lead. It would be a grave mistake for the U.S. to instead retreat into isolationism when faced with attacks on innocent civilians in Europe and the U.S. and with further destabilization in the Middle East due to fleeing militants and fighting amongst Arab tribes.

This means, however, that America cannot embrace the current changes in the power dynamic between American and European leadership.

From 1987–1990, when I was a child, I lived on an American military base in Stuttgart, West Germany: Patch Barracks, HQ-EUCOM. My father was a Signal Corps officer in the U.S. Army with a career dedicated to evaluating communications between the U.S., our allies, and our enemies. This was a different world in many ways: The global order was divided with the West, led by the U.S. and our free democratic institutions, versus the Eastern Communist regime led by Russia and China. However, by 1990, the world had changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent restoration of diplomatic relations between West and East. By 1997, a majority of the former Soviet states were ready to join the free world — and it was American leadership that spearheaded this movement by helping these nations adopt democratic institutions, develop free-market economies, and strengthen their national security defense systems.

Unfortunately, under the Trump presidency, the U.S. government is officially retreating from this traditional position as the global leader of the free world. The reduction of American financial and military leadership in NATO combined with the recent announcement by President Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord demonstrate how the U.S. is moving closer to isolation and away from the very countries with whom we are meant to lead. These actions and choices will indisputably impact our role in the Middle East and other conflicts around the world by projecting a devastating image of an America who runs from tough challenges rather than fearlessly faces them alongside strong allies.

Yet, despite President Trump’s official position of isolation, he has repeatedly called for the defeat of IS— a fight in which all 28 nations of NATO are already part of the U.S.-led coalition. And now, U.S. officials for NATO want NATO to take a “bigger role in the fight against IS in Syria and Iraq” and to “do more to combat terrorism.” In public, all NATO leaders — including President Trump — agree that IS must be defeated, but it is not as easy for Europe as an entire bloc to agree to playing a bigger role. There are some countries, like Spain, Italy, and Portugal, who are concerned that NATO lacks a concrete, effective strategy to deal with the ramifications of increased action in the Middle East, such as a greater refugee crisis. Other countries, such as France and Germany, are concerned that they will end up bearing most of the financial burden for countries who require their humanitarian and military aid, but cannot necessarily fund it — as what happened to the West when they engaged in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks.

On top of those internal conflicts, NATO risks upsetting already tense relationships with Arab nations that neighbor Syria and Iraq if they ramp up the action against IS. They also face Russia, with Putin at the helm, who is actively concerned about NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. Any pressure or additional military action NATO might try to apply in the Middle East could be seen by Russia as an encroachment on their perceived leadership in that region. After all, Russia is Syria’s main military ally; Putin’s relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been the source of great controversy, as demonstrated by the international reaction to chemical attacks earlier this year.

2002 NATO Summit in Prague

So, what kind of leadership is needed to resolve the conflict in Syria and the Middle East? According to Hans Binnendijk and David Gompert from RAND Corporation, the region needs a security organization with the “skills and breadth” to contain the conflict and stabilize the region. But should NATO with U.S. leadership be this security organization? Quite simply, yes, because the U.S. has long stood as a country that rallies and leads allies to fight against and conquer great challenges and threats. President Trump must recognize this historical role in leading with, not against, our European allies — the very safety and security of our nation and our world require this kind of collaborative leadership, and not just in troop sizes and combat commitment. We must work together towards a stabilized Syria and Iraq, supporting democratic institutions and the redevelopment of a viable economy as well as using diplomacy on the ground with tribal leaders and regional allies. The discord between Trump and our European allies only strengthens the Islamic State’s position regionally and around the world.

Barbi Appelquist is an attorney in Los Angeles and former Eesti Fellow with the Parliament of Estonia’s Office of European Integration. She serves as the Communications Director of the Truman National Security Project, Los Angeles Chapter. The views expressed herein are her own. You can follower her on Twitter at @appelgardner.