Nato launched Thursday an unprecedented naval mission in the Aegean Sea to tackle people smugglers taking refugees and migrants from Turkey to Greece, secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said.
The alliance will deploy at least three warships after alliance members Germany, Greece and Turkey called for help earlier this week to cope with Europe’s biggest migrant crisis since World War II. “This is not about stopping and pushing back (refugee boats)... But about critical surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks,” Mr Stoltenberg said after Nato defence ministers approved the mission.
He said Nato is “now directing the standing maritime group to move into the Aegean without delay and start maritime surveillance activities”. The group comprises three ships under German command but there will be more as the situation is reviewed. EU efforts to tackle the problem have only exposed deep divisions while a November agreement with Turkey has got bogged down in mutual recrimination over who is to blame.
The Nato chief said the migrant crisis, driven by conflict and turmoil in Syria across the Middle East and North Africa, posed a major security threat to the 28-nation alliance at the same time as it faces new challenges in Europe driven by the Ukraine crisis. It is a major departure for Nato, an alliance formed in the depths of the Cold War and which normally focuses on strictly military matters.
Mr Stoltenberg noted too that AWACS surveillance planes and other surveillance resources deployed to bolster Turkey in December as the Syrian crisis deepened would now also be used to step up monitoring along its border with Syria. German defence minister Ursula Von der Leyen said that “several Nato members had pledged ships” for the mission. Sources said the force would eventually comprise five to seven ships, with the key provision that if they do rescue refugees, as they must do under international law, those migrants will be returned to Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday threatened to send the millions of refugees in Turkey to European Union member states.
Mr Erdogan stepped up his denunciations of Western policy in the refugee crisis, confirming he had threatened EU leaders at a summit meeting in November that Turkey could say “goodbye” to the refugees. “We do not have the word ‘idiot’ written on our foreheads. We will be patient but we will do what we have to. Don’t think that the planes and the buses are there for nothing,” Mr Erdogan said.
Meanwhile, defence ministers from the US-led coalition striking the Islamic State group met Thursday in a bid to engineer a decisive new phase in what has become a difficult fight with no end in sight.
Pentagon chief Ashton Carter convened the Brussels summit to persuade partner nations to contribute more to the campaign against the extremists, who despite 18 months of air strikes remain firmly in control of large parts of Iraq and Syria and have a growing foothold in Libya. Further complicating the situation is Russia’s own air campaign in Syria, which Moscow insists is also targeting ISIS, but which the West says is in fact aimed at rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad. “The fight to defeat ISIS should matter to all of us, and each contribution matters to this fight,” Mr Carter said. “ISIS’s activities are an affront to our common human dignity and to the common set of values that brings this diverse coalition of nations together.” The summit came at the conclusion of a meeting of Nato defence ministers. Nato has until now had no official role in the anti-ISIS fight, although all of its 28 members play some part, and officials indicated the alliance could be increasingly called upon to help.