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Updated: Tue, 02 Sep 2014 22:53:07 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

NATO leaders' focus could be split between ISIS and Russia



NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen addresses the media ahead of the NATO summit in Wales, at the Residence Palace in Brussels, Monday Sept. 1, 2014. Russia and Ukraine will be the top story this week when NATO heads of state attend the NATO summit in Wales, starting Wednesday. Yves Logghe/Associated Press

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen addresses the media ahead of the NATO summit in Wales, at the Residence Palace in Brussels, Monday Sept. 1, 2014. Russia and Ukraine will be the top story this week when NATO heads of state attend the NATO summit in Wales, starting Wednesday. Yves Logghe/Associated Press

NATO's leaders are set to talk about the Ukraine crisis this week in Wales, but the growing threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria could take up much of the oxygen at the 60-country summit.

The agenda for the two-day NATO leaders meeting includes "current security risks in the east and to the south," but the stars of the show were supposed to be Afghanistan, where NATO is ending its combat mission, and Ukraine-NATO co-operation.

Ukraine is not a full member of NATO, but has asked to join the alliance in the midst of a major armed conflict with Russia. Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko has been invited to attend this week's summit.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has already said he wants to discuss whether military measures are needed against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose brutal attacks on civilians and journalists have seized attention from around the world.

Former Canadian ambassador Derek Burney, who's now a senior strategic adviser at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, said NATO likely has more on its hands than it wants to handle. Burney said ISIS is likely to take up more time than planned, in part because journalists will be asking about it.

"The problem with meetings of leaders of any kind is that what happened today is more important than what happened yesterday," he said.

"The leaders will be obliged to focus on whatever the major [news] story of the day is. And... the actions of ISIS in the Middle East could very well distract the leaders from the real focus."

Few NATO tools to deal with ISIS

At the same time, NATO "doesn't really have a lot of tools in its toolbox for trying to build militaries on the fly in Iraq," Carleton University's Stephen Saideman said.

"I think in the long run, ISIS will overplay its hand and the question is whether the Iraqi government will be sufficiently compromising as to be a lesser threat to the Sunni population," said Saideman, the Paterson chair in international affairs at Carleton.

"That's something the countries can abet through advising, through encouragement, but it's ultimately an Iraqi domestic political problem, which NATO's proven through Afghanistan it's not so good at."

NATO and its member countries have to make choices about where to direct their energy and capability, Saideman said. He predicts most countries that lend a hand will agree individually to assist in the battle against ISIS.

"That's one of the problems that Canada certainly faces, is it doesn't have unlimited capability. But even the United States can't be everywhere at once and has pretty much decided that it won't be going to war if it can avoid it," he said.

Location, location, location

When it comes to deciding where to put its efforts, NATO will likely consider proximity: Russia is the immediate threat to NATO and its member countries, Burney said.

"The situation in the Middle East is very troubling in many ways, but it's not one that NATO directly has a responsibility for. They have been involved in places like Afghanistan and Libya, and they haven't had a great track record there," he said.

"The dispute between Ukraine and Russia, that is right in NATO's bailiwick. And so the first test is going to be, what are they going to do about that?"

Saideman said he doesn't expect NATO to send troops into Ukraine, but does expect the alliance to "ramp up its activity in the region to make sure that those countries that are in NATO feel a little bit better about their protection."

About 100 Canadian Armed Forces personnel are participating this week in a 1,000-soldier NATO exercise in Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. A news release from the Department of National Defence says the goal is "to develop and enhance inter-operability, readiness, joint operations capabilities and multinational responses to potential crises."

"NATO was built to contain the Soviet Union. Russia isn't the Soviet Union, but it's pretty similar in some ways, and right now the threat facing Eastern Europe is coming from Russia," Saideman said.

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