Middle East experts and politicians claim the Norwegian government has embarked on a risky project by deciding to send Norwegian soldiers to Jordan to train “various Syrian groups” in the fight against brutal terrorist group ISIL. They warn that the biggest challenge lies in identifying who the Norwegian troops should train, while others cite the lack of a long-term strategy for all the humanitarian aid Norway already is sending to Syria and its surrounding region.
“It’s very difficult to know who you’re working with (in Syria),” Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the peace research institute PRIO told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday. That’s the primary concern of several other researchers and politicians after Prime Minister Erna Solberg unveiled the plan Monday evening to boost her government’s contribution to the international coalition’s battle against ISIL (also known as IS).
Flanked by her Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide and Foreign Minister Børge Brende, Solberg said her government would send 60 Norwegian soldiers, including special forces, to train, offer advice and provide operational support to “local Syrian groups that fight against ISIL” themselves.
Also a risk ‘if we don’t do anything’
Solberg noted that ISIL continues “to affect our security” because it poses a threat far beyond its battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria. “ISIL’s brutal views and actions have taken the lives of many civilians and sent even more fleeing,” Solberg said. “They have attacked Europe with violence and terror, radicalized young people and recruited them as foreign fighters.” She claimed ISIL therefore must “be fought by a unified world, in a variety of ways.”
Søreide said the international coalition made up of 65 countries that’s fighting ISIL has sought the type of training and assistance that Norway can offer. The actual battles against ISIL “will be fought by others,” Søreide said, with Solberg noting that Norwegian troops will not enter Syria themselves, “but we can contribute by making them better able to fight.”
Both Solberg and Søreide conceded that strengthening Norway’s own efforts to fight ISIL can increase the terror threat against Norway. “At the same time, it’s a risk if we don’t do anything,” Eriksen said, adding that fighting ISIL should rather “reduce the danger of terrorist attacks on Norwegian and European soil.”
Concerns over a lack of clarity
While both the opposition Labour Party and the Christian Democrats support the government’s effort, giving the anti-ISIL project a majority in Parliament, others were not convinced. “We can’t back this, and we don’t feel comfortable that this is a good use of Norwegian forces, even though we support the government’s desire to fight ISIL,” Audun Lysbakken, head of the Socialist Left party (SV), told newspaper Dagsavisen.
Lysbakken, like Harpviken of PRIO, was mostly concerned about the lack of clarity over exactly which “Syrian groups” will by trained by the Norwegians. “There’s too much that’s unclear,” Lysbakken said. “We know that many of the Syrian groups also have been accused of violating human rights by carrying out a type of warfare that Norway shouldn’t support.”
On Tuesday came reports as well that ISIL has allegedly cooperated with the Syrian government regime led by Bashar al-Assad, even while Assad was allegedly cooperating with Russian forces fighting ISIL. Britain’s Sky News revealed documents leaked from ISIL that show, for example, cooperation between the Syrian government and ISIL when Assad’s forces took over the historically important city of Palmyra, and that the training of foreign warriors has gone on in Syria much longer than previously estimated, raising fears of terrorist cells already in place in Europe and just waiting for orders to attack.
Søreide and Solberg responded that the groups to be trained by Norwegian troops would be carefully screened by coalition partners and others who allegedly can be trusted. The goal, Brende said, is to fight ISIL in both Syria and Iraq, where Norwegian troops already have been training Iraqi forces. Brende was flying to the Middle East on Tuesday, for meetings with King Abdullah of Jordan and other leaders in the troubled region including Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Abdel Al-Jubeir, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Norwegian government also plans to send even more financial aid to the region, contributing around NOK 200 million this year to held fund “stabilization measures” in Iraq and Syria. “It’s important to help the civilian population in areas where ISIL has been forced out, and to prevent other extremist groups from establishing themselves,” Brende said.
That effort also caught criticism on Tuesday, mostly because of the foreign ministry’s track record of failing to have a concrete strategy for use of the foreign aid it sends abroad. A new evaluation by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) of the NOK 3.5 billion (around USD 440 million) Norway has provided since 2011, points out a lack of coordination or overall plan for earmarking the funding.
NORAD’s evaluation director Per Øyvind Bastøe notes that Norway is known for being a “flexible” provider of foreign aid and able to make quick decisions that are motivated by a desire “to do something good,” but that its foreign aid strategy is too “diffuse” and also lacks systems for learning. “A lack of explicit directions (for the funding) means that funding goals can be interpreted in various ways, both externally and internally,” Bastøe said on Tuesday. “At the same time, individual or political interest can influence decisions, which is something you should guarantee against in a humanitarian crisis.”
NORAD stressed that Norway had played an important role in mobilizing international support for Syria, such as during the donor conference it recently organized in London. What started as an acute humanitarian crisis in Syria in 2011 has developed into a long-term humanitarian challenge that demands international response over many years.
“Now it’s time to organize this as a long-term process,” Bastøe said. He also urged Brende’s ministry to have “more hands” to handle, monitor and follow up on the use of its humanitarian aid both at the ministry in Oslo and at Norway’s embassies in Syria’s neighbouring countries. There’s basically been a lot of money donated with few hands to handle it, NORAD’s evaluation pointed out. “Despite the increased levels of payments and numbers of project, the increase in capacity to administer it has not been increased accordingly,” NORAD wrote in its report.
The Norwegian system for its humanitarian assistance is thus overburdened, Bastøe said, also contributing to “a high degree of risk” tied to the Norwegian contribution.