The West must tread lightly

The nations of the western world – in this case meaning both the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, or NATO – find themselves in a difficult situation. The stable, established order that has existed since the end of the cold war seems to be falling apart. Iraq, Syria and Ukraine are engulfed in conflict and unrest with no clear resolution in sight. With the very public executions of the journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by Islamic State fighters, and a recent increase in the level of violence in eastern Ukraine, questions have been asked about how exactly the west is going respond to these crises.

With world leaders meeting in Wales for a two day NATO summit this past week, attention has been drawn to what role the military alliance could play in defusing both of these ongoing situations. Past interventions in Yugoslavia, and more recently, Afghanistan and Libya, have shown that NATO does serve a purpose in projecting Western military power beyond the North Atlantic.

The expansion of NATO into the former communist states of Eastern Europe has been a source of anger for the Russian Federation. Some have even suggested it is a direct cause for the current conflict in Ukraine. However, any kind of military involvement from NATO in Ukraine is very unlikely. Direct confrontation with Russia is something the leaders of the military alliance want to avoid at all costs. The expansion of NATO may have angered the Russians, but it does create a situation in which conflict will likely stay contained in Ukraine, which is not yet a member of NATO. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined NATO in 2004, and despite having significant populations of ethnic Russians living within their borders, Putin is unlikely to risk any military involvement there due to the security pact that binds the members states of NATO. This pact ensures that if any one member of NATO is attacked, all other members are obliged to come to its defence. Putin may have made some brash moves in the past year, but he isn’t foolish enough to invoke that clause.

In Iraq and Syria, a military intervention from the West, whether it be airstrikes or soldiers on the ground, is a more much likely option. There are a number of reasons for this, the main one being that both the west and Russia agree that the current situation in these two nations is unacceptable. In particular, the existence and growth of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) is something that cannot continue. One thing that does draw the nations of the West and Russia together is a fear of Islamic terrorism. Both have experiences of religious extremism and both see the risk of future terror attacks as one of their biggest internal security risks.

Another reason that military intervention may be more likely in Iraq and Syria is that there may be a feeling of responsibility for the current situation in the Middle East. It has been proposed by some that the Islamic State would not exist without the intervention in Iraq. Because of this, leaders in the West may feel that simply leaving Iraq and Syria alone is simply not an option.

Additionally, the forces of the Islamic State are very weak in comparison to the West and its allies. In a conventional war, it would be a very one-sided affair, but it is not the aim of the Islamic State to directly engage the West militarily. With the release of the footage showing the execution of two western journalists, the Islamic State is attempting to goad the West into some kind of intervention. The problem is that the West has shown that they cannot ‘win’ a guerrilla war. Recent examples such as Afghanistan and Iraq, to more distant examples such as Vietnam, show how difficult it is for a modern army to fight in such an environment. The moment Western troops engage Islamic State fighters, not only do they become prime targets for attacks, the entire situation becomes a fantastic recruitment opportunity for the Islamic State, who are already managing to attract fighters from all over the world.

It is clear that NATO must tread lightly in both Ukraine and the Middle East. The prospect of NATO expanding further into the former Soviet states in something that cannot be done if the West wishes to have any kind of normal relationship with Russia in the future. Whether or not Russia is right in being so paranoid about the presence of NATO on its borders is irrelevant – they see it as an existential threat and therefore extreme caution must be exercised.

This same caution should also be exercised in the Middle East. Whilst it must be tempting to try and take on the Islamic State as soon as possible, especially considering the public outcry caused by the executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the leadership in the West must show restraint. It’s not that the Islamic State should be ignored –  the opposite is true. But fighting another long term guerilla war would be a disastrous outcome when considering the events of the past fifteen years. The Islamic State, whilst being a well organised and brutal enemy, is also operating in an extremely unstable region, and its long term survival is far from guaranteed. What must be realised by the West is that this battle in Iraq and Syria is far from over, and every decision made must be done with careful consideration of the long term effects it will have.