NATO endorses US disengagement from the Middle East

U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper, right, and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison wait for the start of a meeting of the Resolute Support Mission at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. NATO ministers, in a second day of meetings, will discuss building stability in the Middle East, the Alliance's support for Afghanistan and challenges posed by Russia's missile systems. (AP Photo / Virginia Mayo)
U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper, right, and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison wait for the start of a meeting of the Resolute Support Mission at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. NATO ministers, in a second day of meetings, will discuss building stability in the Middle East, the Alliance's support for Afghanistan and challenges posed by Russia's missile systems. (AP Photo / Virginia Mayo) Virginia Mayo / AP

It is, in the minds of many, a first step towards the Nato Middle East – or NATO-ME – project, a vague initiative mentioned by US President Donald Trump in mid-January. At a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday 12 and Thursday 13 February, NATO defense ministers ratified the principle of the transfer of part of the missions carried out in Iraq by the international coalition fighting against ISIS (EI) to the Atlantic Alliance. It will take over the training and advisory tasks of the Iraqi army.

The agreement was subject to the approval of the Baghdad authorities, while the Iraqi parliament had, in a vote dominated by the Shiite parliamentary majority and boycotted by the Kurdish and Sunni formations, demanded the departure of foreign troops following the assassination by an American drone, on January 3, of the Iranian general Ghassem Soleimani. On the night of Wednesday to Thursday, the Baghdad government agreed to an increased role for NATO. This opens the door to a resumption of operations, frozen for several weeks.

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"The resolution of the Baghdad parliament was not binding, and the idea of ​​a NATO-labeled mission is, for Iraqi leaders, easier to sell internally than an American mission, when they refuse by elsewhere to be at the heart of a war between the United States and Iran ", analyzes a European diplomat.

Three new bases

Both Alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper have been less than vocal about the details of the agreement. The modalities were to be discussed Friday, at the International Security Conference in Munich, between members of the anti-IS coalition. This will include fixing the number of soldiers transferred from one mission to the other and considering the creation of three new bases in central Iraq.

France has so far been reluctant to sign up under the NATO banner. The Chief of the Defense Staff, General François Lecointre, spoke of his reservations. With its 160 on-site instructors – whose presence also ensures access to intelligence – the French mission has trained a total of 27,000 Iraqi soldiers since 2015, including anti-terrorist forces. The other main contributors are the United Kingdom (400 soldiers, Australia (300) and Canada (250). The latter country currently assumes command of the mission, which should be taken over by Denmark (with 200 men) in 2021.