September 8, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: NATO Summit Targets the "Islamic State"

• A strategy for defeating the so-called Islamic State (IS) began to emerge from the September 4-5, 2014 NATO summit in Wales, centering on a coalition of US and nine partner countries that will assist government and Kurdish forces in Iraq and moderate rebels in Syria

• Some NATO partners, including Britain, France, and Australia, might join US direct military action against IS forces, but no country, including the US, indicates it will deploy combat troops to Iraq or Syria

• Most of the “core” members of the anti-IS coalition will supply military aid and training to the Iraqi government and Kurdish peshmerga, help choke off IS finances, give humanitarian aid to communities most affected, and share intelligence on the organization

• The summit announced the widely predicted decisions to endorse a post-2014 training and counter-terrorism mission for Afghanistan, and to establish a rapid reaction NATO force as a sign of support for Ukraine and vulnerable eastern European NATO members.


The NATO summit convened during September 4-5 to act on a broad range of crises—the threat to Ukraine posed by pro-Russian separatists, the need to continue to support a fragile Afghanistan, deficiencies in defense spending by some NATO countries, and the threat from the so-called Islamic State (IS) organization. Of these major issues, IS was not a formal agenda item, yet the issue ended up dominating the summit and producing perhaps its most significant outcomes.

For the Obama Administration, the summit proved particularly productive in that a comprehensive strategy to defeat IS began to emerge. The emerging strategy involves using a combination of military action, support for partner forces in Iraq and Syria, diplomacy, intelligence sharing, and financial actions to try to progressively shrink the geographic and political space, manpower, and financial resources available to IS. President Obama is to further lay out the strategy in a speech on Wednesday, September 10. At the NATO summit, President Obama asserted that a similar strategy has worked against core al-Qaeda, al-Shabab in Somalia, and other terrorist organizations. The summit conclusion coincided with a major counter-terrorism success—confirmation that al-Shabab leader Ahmad Abdi Godane was killed by a US airstrike a few days earlier.

The strategy depends on the participation of a broad coalition of countries, each providing its advantages to the effort. The ten-country “core coalition” announced during the summit consists of the US, UK, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland, and Denmark. Senior US officials are also engaging Middle Eastern leaders, such as those of Sunni-led states Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, in order to bring them into the coalition. The strategy depends heavily on cooperation from these countries to delegitimize IS’s ideological appeal, cut off its finances, and provide intelligence on its recruitment patterns and leaders.

A major component of the announced strategy is for the “core group” to collectively strengthen the Iraq Security Forces (ISF), the Kurdish peshmerga, and moderate Syrian rebel groups in Iraq and Syria. The primary mission of the US, possibly assisted by forces from Britain and Australia, will be to strike IS positions and directly advise the ISF and peshmerga. The US and other members of the core group will provide military equipment and training to the ISF and peshmerga, and expand the training and equipping of moderate Syrian rebels fighting not only against IS but also against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some members of the core coalition will provide indirect military support such as airlifts, as well as humanitarian aid to vulnerable communities displaced by IS offensives.

It was viewed as significant that Turkey joined the core group, particularly as Turkey’s help is vital to preventing IS fighters from entering Europe and filtering out abroad to commit potential terrorist attacks. Iran has been generally cooperating with US policy in Iraq, although not in Syria, and the US has ruled out formally bringing Iran into any US-led anti-IS coalition.


Decisions on Afghanistan and Ukraine

NATO countries announced they would undertake a post-2014 security mission in Afghanistan to consist of training the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) and conducting counterterrorism missions there. Because the Afghan presidential election remains unresolved, and no “bilateral security agreements” to allow a post-2014 international presence have been signed, NATO countries did not announce specific numbers of troops for the “Resolute Support” mission. NATO did announce pledges of about $5 billion for 2015 for the ANSF, meeting the 350,000-person force’s funding requirements for the coming year.

Summit decisions on Ukraine were affected somewhat by negotiations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko over a ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and Russia-supported rebels. To show support for Ukraine and potentially vulnerable eastern European NATO members, the summit announced formation of a several thousand-person “rapid reaction force” that would be capable of intervening on behalf of NATO members on short notice. However, the NATO leaders did not soften their opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine, which the NATO allies believe would inflame Russian fears of NATO encirclement. Nor did the summit announce direct lethal military aid for Ukraine’s armed forces. Commitments by European NATO members to increase defense spending were reiterated, but most experts believe that meeting the spending targets remains unlikely.



The NATO summit in Wales was pivotal to galvanizing collective action against the threat posed by IS. Actions announced at the summit are likely to be undertaken and, coupled with formation of a new government in Iraq, further rob the IS of momentum there. Success against IS inside Syria is likely to be less immediate because of the relative weakness of the moderate rebels and US reticence to undertake any direct military action there. The summit left Afghanistan roughly where it was before the meeting—rife with uncertainty as the US and allies withdraw from combat. The summit did not give Ukraine’s president Poroshenko much, if any, increased leverage with Putin because the reluctance of the NATO leaders to confront Putin militarily was clear. The NATO powers appear willing to accept substantial autonomy for pro-Russian areas of eastern Ukraine.



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