NATO deaths a blow to Iran, Syria logjam

PARIS, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- The latest deaths of French troops in Afghanistan will narrow choices in international efforts to bring potentially nuclear Iran to the conference table and halt Syrian President Bashar Assad's violent crackdown on pro-democracy movement in that country.

Despite the high price paid in American lives in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Europeans react quickly when European lives are put at risk in the military campaigns fought under the NATO command in Afghanistan.


The French have been targeted frequently and lost 26 personnel last year, in a tally of 560 from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force killed in 2011.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy reacted swiftly to the latest deaths -- four French soldiers killed and 16 wounded allegedly by an Afghan army officer -- and suspended joint training with Afghan armed forces.


He also called the killings "unacceptable," reflecting popular sentiment in France, and warned of an early pullout of all 4,000 of French personnel in the country.

France is one of about 50 countries contributing to a 130,000-strong NATO-led force in Afghanistan that is expected to stay through 2014.

"If the security conditions are not clearly established then the question of an early return of French forces from Afghanistan will arise," said Sarkozy.

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"It's unacceptable that our soldiers are killed by our allies."

But increasing attacks, especially incidents involving Afghan government troops, have raised questions about continued commitment of constituent countries to keep their forces there through 2014. NATO says the attacks are by "rogue" soldiers but still calls it an "insider threat" that has claimed dozens of lives of ISAF troops.

NATO no longer reports numbers of personnel killed by the "insider threat." Neither do NATO and the United Nations agree on the current state of violence in Afghanistan. While NATO says violence is declining, the United Nations says it is escalating and targeting increasing numbers of Afghan civilians.

European coalition deaths also get wider media play in Europe than U.S. deaths.

As the reports of the four French deaths hit the headlines in France, six U.S. Marines died when a NATO helicopter crashed in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban said they downed the helicopter but ISAF said there was no enemy fire reported in the area at the time.


Analysts said a French withdrawal could trigger copycat reaction among coalition partners who have smaller contingents in ISAF. Sarkozy faces election April 22 and has slipped behind socialist contender Francois Hollande, who announced he will recall all French troops from Afghanistan if elected.

That scenario leaves little prospect of the French becoming involved with any new NATO effort to mount a Libya-style regime change in Syria or to respond with troops on ground in the case of a major flare-up with Iran on the Strait of Hormuz oil waterway. Their German partners in the eurozone crisis are even less likely to go beyond toughening sanctions on Iran.

France emerged bruised from the ongoing eurozone troubles, downgraded by ratings agencies and in deeper debt, another sore point with the French electorate.

Both France and Germany are having trouble mounting comprehensive sanctions against Iran because their EU partners fear that could deepen the European recession.

Despite the reported shift from more NATO-led military operations in the Middle East, analysts and officials remain circumspect about what eventually may happen.

German politician Philipp Missfelder told Die Welt newspaper war over Iran couldn't be ruled out.

"I say very clearly that even those who want to put the focus on diplomatic efforts cannot entirely rule out a military option," said Missfelder, spokesman for the center-right parliamentary faction in Bundestag comprising the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria.


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