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Transatlantic Take

NATO Looks South

BRUSSELS—NATO’s decision to deploy a multinational naval force to the Aegean to help control the flow of refugees from Turkey is a harbinger of things to come as the Alliance looks south.

BRUSSELS—NATO’s decision to deploy a multinational naval force to the Aegean to help control the flow of refugees from Turkey is a harbinger of things to come as the Alliance looks south. The limited naval force will not resolve a crisis that has imposed tremendous human costs and threatens the cohesion and security of Europe. But the use of NATO assets is an important symbolic step at a time when the European Union seems unable to act decisively. More significantly, it points to growing concern about Mediterranean security within the Alliance. Even as NATO moves to counter Russia on Europe’s eastern borders, it will need to address a range of pressing security risks emanating from the south, including the Levant, North Africa, and Mediterranean.

The initial deployment will include ships from Germany, Canada, Greece, and Turkey. The composition of the force reflects political realities. Greece and Turkey share a strong stake in deterring the criminal trafficking in migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Turkey would be deeply uncomfortable with a force deployed under EU auspices, hence the attractiveness of the NATO option. The operation itself will not necessarily be clear sailing. The force will be operating in confined waters with persistent Greek-Turkish disputes over air and sea space, and with Russian naval and air forces operating nearby. The potential for legal entanglements and incidents at sea is very real. Beyond the operational questions, the decision to act in the Aegean underscores some larger policy questions.

First, as NATO looks toward its Warsaw summit in July 2016, it is increasingly clear that matters of deterrence and defense vis-à-vis Russia will not be the only items on the agenda. For many, (perhaps most) Alliance members, the mounting refugee crisis, the challenge posed by the self-proclaimed Islamic State group (ISIS), and the threat of terrorism on both sides of the Atlantic, are at the top of the security agenda. For Poland and the Baltic states, in particular, Russia does indeed head the list of security concerns. But problems of hybrid warfare aside, this is essentially an expensive conventional challenge. The problems across NATO’s 4,000 mile sea and land frontier in the south are more complex and diffuse. Strategists and planners are just beginning to come to terms with the contingencies and concepts associated with a chaotic Mediterranean security environment.

Second, the demands in the south go beyond crisis management per se. It is all too likely that the chaos and conflict affecting the Levant and North Africa will persist for years, if not decades to come. Durable instability of this sort will have profound consequences for European security, especially in combination with protracted NATO-Russia friction. Russia is already reinserting itself in Mediterranean geopolitics, most obviously in Syria, but also in Egypt and Algeria. The problems of strategic stability and operational risk associated with the Nordic-Baltic region and the Black Sea are increasingly evident in the south, and particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey is highly exposed. NATO has invested considerable effort in the development of rapid response forces for contingencies in Europe’s east. But these arrangements are much more likely to be employed for contingencies in the south. In the wake of the Aegean deployment, the next case before Alliance decision-makers is likely to be Libya. The expansion of the ISIS presence there, and the growing potential for ISIS attacks on shipping or terrorism across Libya’s borders or in the central Mediterranean, presents a clear risk to NATO territory and interests. Italy has been at the forefront in calling attention to this challenge. But Italy is not alone, and the issue is on the agenda in Washington, too. If NATO is willing and able to act in response to the human security crisis in the Aegean, it should certainly play a role in confronting the direct threats to European security in Libya.

Finally, if long-term security challenges in the south are becoming a more significant consideration for NATO, this will require a more deliberate southern strategy to parallel Alliance strategy in the east. NATO is already moving in this direction at the political and military levels. Minds on both sides of the Atlantic are concentrated on the need for closer cooperation between NATO and the EU. There is now a critical mass of political will for this, and rapid progress might be made if key diplomatic obstacles, including the Cyprus dispute, can be resolved. The diverse nature of challenges in the south, from territorial defense to issues of development, reform, and human security where the EU’s instruments are most relevant, means that closer cooperation between these two leading institutions will be felt first and foremost in the Mediterranean. A division of labor along these lines may well be emerging. If so, the NATO naval mission in the Aegean may be an early test case, with more to come. 

Photo by Ggia - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0