Shifting Attention to Mediterranean, NATO Fights Internal Dissent


BRUSSELS — NATO is discussing how to step up its response to the European migrant crisis by expanding its presence in the Mediterranean region, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week. But the proposals, discussed during a meeting of the alliance’s defense ministers, are being questioned by Turkey, which says limited resources would be better used to protect member nations from more traditional threats like Russia. Turkey is also pressing for an end to the limited effort by the alliance to combat the smuggling of migrants in the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.

The confusion and division are emblematic of NATO’s inability so far to deal comprehensively with threats washing up on its southern tier: terrorism, radical Islam, anarchy in North Africa and uncontrolled migration.

After two decades in which its relevance has been questioned, the alliance has found new life in an old mission: deterring Russia. But debating what to do in the south has exposed some of the old schisms and anxieties about the extent to which an American-dominated alliance should openly engage in parts of the world that European nations once ruled and have traditionally managed.

When President Obama and other leaders of nations in the alliance meet in early July in Warsaw, terrorism and migration will be high on their list of concerns, but they appear unlikely to take substantive steps to deploy the organization’s military might to deal with the problems ringing the Mediterranean.

The alliance, which must act by consensus, is constrained by differences among its 28 members and by tensions with the European Union, which has had prime responsibility for the Mediterranean and North Africa.


Military personnel worked in the command information center aboard the German warship FGS Bonn near Izmir, Turkey, in May. The NATO vessel is patrolling the Aegean Sea to curb migrant activity from Turkey to Greece. Credit Markus Schreiber/Associated Press
France, Italy and Spain are reluctant to have NATO expand its influence and believe that too much alliance involvement would be unpopular with Muslims and North Africans. Those nations also fear that an expanded mission would make it harder to reach an agreement with Russia over Syria, or over the broader fight against the Islamic State and other Islamist terrorist groups.

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Russia is still angry about the alliance’s intervention in Libya in 2011, charging that the United States and its allies went beyond a United Nations Security Council resolution, which Russia accepted through abstention, in order to overthrow Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and his government. France and Italy do not want an alliance operation in Libya, and Germany does not want an alliance operation against Islamic State militants.

And everyone wants to make sure that Turkey, an alliance member, does not overreact to Russian combat jets over Syria — even though Russian incursions into Turkish airspace have dropped to nearly zero since Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 jet in November.

So the alliance remains without an agreed strategy for the south, even as its most important members play roles in confronting the biggest crises plaguing the region.

The United States is already leading a multinational coalition against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. That effort includes a number of alliance members, and Europe is working with its member nations to rescue migrants at sea and limit migration from Turkey and North Africa. Alliance ships are helping to deter the smuggling of migrants across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.

Yet in neither issue is NATO “the first responder,” said the American ambassador to NATO, Douglas E. Lute.


A young Syrian girl stood on the shoreline of Lesbos, Greece, after she arrived from Turkey in March. NATO has contributed ships to patrol the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, looking for smugglers taking migrants from Turkey and North Africa to Greece. Credit Alexander Koerner/Getty Images
Mr. Stoltenberg, the secretary general, said the struggle against the Islamic State militants “requires a long-term, comprehensive approach involving military means, policing, intelligence and ideological struggle.”

“NATO has a big role to play and does,” he said, beginning with the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the long process of helping local forces defend themselves.

But, in fact, the role is not very big at all, given the scale of the terrorist threat to alliance members.

The organization’s role is to “project stability” in the Middle East and North Africa, Mr. Stoltenberg said, helping Jordan and Iraq in particular with military training. NATO is now training Iraqi officers in Jordan but hopes to move that training back into Iraq soon, perhaps if Falluja and Mosul are retaken from the Islamic State.

Libya is considered the most dangerous of what Mr. Lute called the “eight branch offices of ISIS.” But until there is an established Libyan government that can ask for aid, the alliance is constrained instead to work with Tunisia, Libya’s neighbor. Many Islamic State adherents have come from Tunisia, but it will help the alliance with intelligence and training of special forces — what alliance officials like to call “defense capacity building in neighboring states.”

NATO is in regular contact with the American military’s Central Command, which runs operations in the Middle East, Mr. Lute said, but “it’s more asking, ‘What do you need?’ and ‘What can we offer?’” So far, given divisions in the alliance, the answer has been largely limited to gathering intelligence and training missions.

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While most countries know that “defense capacity building” will not change events in Libya, only some favor using force there eventually. And few want it under the alliance’s auspices.

“NATO must be ready in the future to deploy forces in Libya, as it did in Afghanistan and the Balkans,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “But more important is to train local forces to fight terrorism themselves, which is more sustainable.”

Training missions also avoid exacerbating tensions among alliance allies, some of which are supporting rival militias to fight the Islamic State in Libya, undermining support for a unified government, said Mattia Toaldo of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

On the migration issue, the alliance has six ships patrolling the seas between Turkey and Greece and providing information to the coast guards of both countries and to Europe about the movement of migrant boats.

In addition, given the traditional animosity between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus, a NATO ship offers what Mr. Lute calls “a round table” where officials from both countries and Europe can sit together in what can be considered a neutral space.

“We’re the convening authority,” Mr. Lute said, and the alliance is exploring whether it can be of similar use to Europe’s Operation Sophia, a naval operation intended to interrupt migrant smuggling routes in the Mediterranean Sea, especially from Libya and North Africa to Italy.

But new alliance roles also require more money, and European nations struggling to cut their budgets are not enthusiastic. France, which has been trying to reduce its deficit, regularly asks the alliance to work within “existing resources” and tells other member nations, “Don’t make a fetish of using NATO” for every problem.

The inevitable response, one alliance official said, is, “Don’t make a fetish of not using NATO.”