January 08, 2020
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attend the NATO summit at the Grove Hotel on Dec. 4, 2019 in Watford, England. Trump wants to see NATO allies to be more involved in the Middle East. DAN KITWOOD / GETTY IMAGES
By Alex Boutilier Ottawa Bureau | Toronto Star
OTTAWA – Donald Trump signalled Wednesday he’ll pressure NATO allies to increase their presence in the Middle East amid a tense standoff between the United States and Iran.
It wasn’t immediately clear what Trump planned to ask NATO allies — including Canada — to do. But at a press conference Monday, Trump suggested he wanted the western military alliance to take a larger role in Mideast conflicts and affairs.
“I am going to ask NATO to become much more involved in the Middle East process,” Trump said at a morning press conference.
The president did not elaborate on the point, instead pivoting to a boast that the U.S. no longer needs Middle Eastern oil.
But his comment gave political and military leaders in Ottawa one more thing to think about as they continue to process the events of the last 24 hours.
Iran struck two military bases in Iraq housing Iraqi, U.S. and coalition troops with 15 missiles Tuesday night; retaliation for the Trump administration’s killing of a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike on Jan. 3 in Iraq.
The U.S. accused Soleimani, who was head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, of planning imminent attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East — although some reports have questioned that assertion.
Gen. Jonathan Vance, Canada’s chief of defence staff, confirmed late Tuesday night that all 500 Canadian Forces personnel deployed in Iraq were “safe and accounted for” after the Iranian attacks.
The military personnel were stationed in Iraq as part of a Canadian-led NATO training region for that country’s security forces. The NATO training mission was suspended shortly after Soleimani’s assassination, with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan saying Canada would “continue to monitor the security environment.”
Iran launched missile strikes against Iraq’s Ain al-Asad base and an airfield in Erbil Tuesday night. Both facilities held American and Iraqi troops. Trump told reporters there were no fatalities in the attacks, but he promised additional “punishing” economic sanctions against Iran.
In a statement released late Tuesday night, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada was “deeply concerned” by the Iranian attacks.
“The Canadian Armed Forces has been able to confirm that all personnel deployed in Iraq are safe. The safety of the women and men who serve is our top priority, and we are taking all necessary precautions for the security of our civilian, military and diplomatic personnel,” Trudeau said.
“We continue to strongly urge de-escalation across the region.”
Trudeau will hold a press conference to discuss developments in the region, as well as the plane crash outside Tehran that killed 63 Canadians Tuesday.
Thomas Juneau, an international relations expert and professor at the University of Ottawa, said it’s not clear what Trump meant by an increased role for NATO in the Middle East. But Juneau said the U.S. has previously requested other countries beef up their naval presence in the Persian Gulf, a key thoroughfare for oil shipping where tensions between the Americans and Iranians have been high in recent months — although Juneau stressed that was just speculation.
“That would probably be at the top of the list,” Juneau said. “That is something that the Americans would like allies to do more of, and it is something that a lot of allies inside NATO have been reluctant to do, precisely for fear of what’s been going on in the last few days.”
Trump has been a consistent critic of the postwar military alliance between the U.S., Canada, and European allies since his 2016 presidential run. The U.S. president has repeatedly demanded that allied nations up defence spending, and suggested the Americans were picking up too much of the tab for the alliance’s shared defence.
According to a January 2019 report from the New York Times, Trump repeatedly suggested in 2018 that he wanted the U.S. to leave the alliance. At a NATO meeting to mark the alliance’s 70th anniversary in London last December, Trump again chided Trudeau for failing to meet the defence spending targets.
With files from Alex Ballingall and The Canadian Press.