National News

NATO challenged to meet ISIL crisis

By Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press

NEWPORT, United Kingdom - A meeting of NATO leaders convened in Britain on Thursday facing no shortage of crises and a challenge from two of its dominant partners to confront a virulent new form of Islamic extremism in the Middle East.

Both U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron called on the 28-member military alliance to deal with the emerging threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaida splinter group.

They also promised to protect the tiny Baltic states from possible Russian aggression.

"We meet here at a solemn moment for our alliance and the security of our nations," Cameron said at the opening of the summit, being held on a rolling golf resort in this sea-side Welsh community.

"We meet at a crucial time in the history of our alliance. The world faces many dangerous and evolving threats and it is absolutely clear that NATO is as vital to our future as it has been in our past."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper huddled with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko late in the day and pledged $4-million for two initiatives in eastern Europe designed to help both that embattled country and the Baltic states.

The cash will be used to help improve the command and control and logistics computers of the Ukrainian army, and to bolster cyber and energy security in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

"We are obviously watching developments in your country with great worry and sadness, but you have — and can be sure that you have — solidarity, always," Harper told Poroshenko during a photo-op.

There are ceasefire talks underway and Russia warned on Thursday they could be scuttled if Ukraine strengthened its ties with NATO. The east European country is a partner, but wants to be a full-fledged member — something Canada has supported in the past.

Poroshenko wouldn't say Thursday when Ukraine will apply for NATO membership, saying key economic reforms must be made first.

The British are reportedly set to announce the creation of a 10,000-strong expeditionary force outside of NATO.

Those troops would serve as reinforcements in a crisis for the alliance's existing 13,000 rapid response force, which leaders are proposing to bolster with an additional 4,500 high-readiness soldiers that can deploy within 48 hours of an emergency.

It's unclear which one of those forces Canada is prepared to commit to — if any.

The Harper government was eager on Thursday to promote a laundry list of military exercises meant to reassure jittery allies, including the temporary repositioning of a Canadian frigate into the Black Sea this month as part of a NATO task force.

Military historian Sean Maloney says the alliance seems to have forgotten how it managed containment of the former Soviet Union — on both the military and diplomatic front.

"We are now half a year into this situation and only now are we seeing a half-hearted and unco-ordinated response on the diplomatic front," said Maloney, who wrote a book about Canada's Cold War NATO brigade in Europe.

Militarily, he said, NATO had rapid-response forces that regularly deployed to countries whenever Russia made threatening signals.

"In the Cold War this state of affairs would not have been possible," he said. "We would have matched them move-for-move and the possibility of them escalating to this point would have been remote ... The handfuls of troops deployed by the U.S. and Canada (for training) are not a credible demonstration of either solidarity or signalling."

Yet, even the brush fire war in eastern Ukraine and a resurgent Russia seemed to be eclipsed by the growing concern over ISIL, whose ranks of hardened fighters have been bolstered by hundreds of westerners from Britain, Canada and the United States.

The urgency is propelled by horrific Internet images of beheaded journalists and reports of atrocities in Syria and northern Iraq, as well as the fear that foreign fighters could return home to continue their war in the West.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry convened a meeting of possible coalition partners, who could participate in an expanded bombing campaign and humanitarian relief operation.

NATO General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who is stepping down after five years in the post, said the alliance had not received a formal request, but was preparing for a myriad of threats.

Notably absent from the meeting was Canada's foreign affairs minister, John Baird, who was in Iraq meeting members of the new government and Kurdish leaders who've shouldered the bulk of the ground fighting along with elements of the Iraqi Army.

Cameron left little doubt that Britain and the U.S. are counting on NATO to step up.

"NATO is the anchor of our security and over the next two days, we must reinvigorate and refocus this alliance to tackle new threats and to ensure it continues to foster stability around the world," he said.

The Canadian air force is currently using two cargo planes to fly arms and ammunition into Iraq, and earlier this week committed $10 million for non-lethal military equipment, including helmets, body armour and logistics support vehicles. There was an additional $5 million pledge to support efforts to limit the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria.

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