A Task Force White Eagle service member participates in a live-fire range June 5, 2015 at Tactical Base Gamberi in eastern Afghanistan. (Capt. Charles Emmons / Resolute Support Headquarters)

BEIRUT — Though NATO member states spent many years and lost many lives fighting in the Middle East and Southwest Asia over the last two decades, those regions are unlikely to be a priority for the alliance as its leaders descend upon Washington, DC, this week, meeting in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Even amid Israel’s headline-dominating war in Gaza, six analysts told Breaking Defense ahead of the NATO summit that the alliance has for the most part attempted to move on to what it sees as more pressing global military problems.

“NATO’s strategic priorities currently emphasize deterring threats from state actors like Russia and managing the rise of China’s influence, rather than expanding direct military engagements in new regions,” said Kristian Alexander, a senior fellow at the United Arab Emirate-based Rabdan Security & Defence Institute. “NATO’s collective role in the Middle East is likely to remain limited to mostly smaller-scale military assistance, training functions, and capacity-building rather than direct combat operations.”

Jean Loup Samaan, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute, agreed.

“I frankly doubt that, apart from vague statements on the need for peace and for preventing nuclear proliferation in the MENA [Middle East, North Africa] region, the biggest item on the agenda will be support to Ukraine, that’s clearly the priority given the upcoming elections in the US and possibly a new troubling government in France,” he said. (Samaan spoke to Breaking Defense when it appeared a far-right would come to dominate French politics, before a surprise victory by the left over the weekend.)

Less than 24 hours after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the US famously invoked NATO’s Article V clause on mutual self-defense for the first and, so far, only time, calling on alliance members to join the warfighting coalition against al Qaeda, then sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan. (NATO as an organization was not party to the US-led war in Iraq in 2003 — as the alliance said “opinions among members were divided” — but many members were among the more than three dozen nations involved in that military effort.)

In the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO’s global emphasis has notably, if predictably, shifted.

“NATO is being challenged by the Ukraine war and does not need another theater of operations,” David Des Roches, associate professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies, told Breaking Defense. “After the ending of the Afghanistan mission (which it is important to note was announced unilaterally by President Biden without any NATO member consultation at all), there seems to be a desire to get core missions right and not expand NATO operations beyond that.”

Des Roches suggested that NATO’s newest members, Sweden and Finland, as well as members who were former Soviet states would especially “oppose anything not related to defending against Russian imperial aggression.”

The alliance, for example, is unlikely to seek a role in diffusing the Gaza conflict, Samaan said, even if local parties asked for it. That also is unlikely to happen, according to CSIS’s Will Todman, who said NATO’s image in the Middle East has been tarnished by members’ support for Israel despite other international condemnation of its aggressive, deadly tactics.

“Many people in the Middle East oppose the support that the United States and some European members of NATO have provided to Israel. They criticize the double standards NATO members have shown in the application of the ‘rules-based international order,’” he said. “I do not believe that NATO has the ability to play a bigger role when it comes to Israel and Gaza.”

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Ryan Bohl, a senior MENA analyst at the RANE Network, said the only way he saw NATO turning back to the Middle East was if Russia and China launched a “direct … campaign to subordinate the region or if another major jihadist threat emerged, similar to ISIS 10 years ago.”

“NATO as an alliance is primarily looking at Russia and Ukraine as its center of strategic concern and, secondarily, to Taiwan, and therefore hoes to draw down from the Middle East over time by developing alternative structures to replace NATO members’ steady retrenchment of from the region,” he said.

That’s not to say that NATO members are leaving the Middle East altogether. Though neither is a NATO operation, some alliance members are involved in two parallel operations in the Red Sea to protect commercial shipping from the Houthi threat in Yemen, for example. There are also plenty of training and support relationships between NATO members and friendly Middle Eastern and North African nations.

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But as a singular organization, Rabdan’s Alexander said greater NATO involvement in the Middle East could actually be self-defeating, as different members have different perception of the threats and strategic priorities.

“This makes it challenging for the alliance to reach a consensus on the scope and nature of its involvement,” he said. “Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa view NATO as a Western, US-dominated alliance. Direct military intervention by NATO could be seen as unwanted foreign interference, undermining regional cooperation.”

Alexander concluded that NATO is already “stretched thin with its commitments in Eastern Europe following the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Expanding its military footprint in the Middle East could further strain the alliance’s resources and capabilities.”

It’s a change of focus likely to be reflected in the American capital this week. The forum’s public schedule lists several panels focused on European security and the Russian threat, one on the Indo-Pacific and even one on the Balkans, but beyond arguably one talk about terrorism, nothing directly about MENA or Southwest Asia.