The folly of tapping NATO to halt the tide of Aegean refugees
By Giuseppe Cucchi
Using NATO to cope with the flood of refugees in the Aegean Sea that increasingly threatens to get out of control is, from a purely technical standpoint, like using a Ferrari for ordinary everyday tasks such as carrying children to school or shopping for groceries at the local market.
The alliance was not created nor is it structured for tasks such as those that it will need to perform during this mission. The assets of the Coast Guard and the Civil Protection, or even those of the Merchant Navy, would be better suited than warships to rescuing the swarm of small boats laden with desperate people that is making its way to the Greek islands.
As for the identification of the traffickers who have turned the desperation of others into a business, it will only be possible when Turkey, the country in whose territory this shady traffic takes place, faces the problem with a commitment that it has until now lacked. In the meantime the expensive AWACS aircraft of the alliance and its special forces and intelligence will strive to achieve results that only a local police force could actually hope to achieve, thanks to its intimate knowledge of the territory.
Things are completely different, however, if you look at them from a political point of view and consider the impact that the decision to send NATO assets to the Aegean area will have on public opinion in the countries of the alliance. Throughout the alliance, the refugee problem has undermined governments and is negatively influencing the positions of an electorate that day after day is becoming more xenophobic.
The proof lies in the fact that the mission has been requested jointly by three countries: Greece, Germany, and Turkey.
The first, Greece, is greatest European victim of the situation. On one hand, Athens is not in the position to stop the tide of refugees who land on its shores, while on the other, the frontiers that lead from Greece to the rest of the European Union are becoming increasingly difficult to cross, and the planned process for the redistribution of refugees across the EU has proven a purely theoretical construct that has nothing to do with the reality of the situation. If this trend is not immediately reversed, Greece is likely to be overcrowded with refugees, further aggravating the poor conditions in the country after the recent economic crisis.
In Germany, after opening to refugees with only partial political support, episodes like those on New Year’s Eve in Cologne have strongly shaken public opinion. Chancellor Merkel must now try to recover some of her lost credibility by showing that she is capable of managing the situation with a firm hand and at the same time proving suited to lead the entire Union, a role to which her country seemed destined until yesterday (at least in Central Europe and the Baltic area). Germany must also try to reassure those Eastern European former communist countries that are actually fortifying against immigration and those that appear to be undecided between a prospective German leadership, which for now means opening to refugees, and a Polish approach which is unequivocally aimed at closing.
The most complex and ambiguous game is the one played by Turkey, with President Erdogan possibly reviving a Sublime Porte that in political ambiguity and complexity rivals Byzantium. The refugees in Turkish territory continue to be a weapon aimed at the European Union, which has already paid three billion euro to hold at bay the nightmare of an exodus of two million human beings, an exodus that could perhaps be encouraged and directed towards its borders. In so doing, the EU has probably forgotten the old rule according to which if you pay the first time, demands will never stop, and each will be higher than the one before.
As part of its attempt to become the leader of the Sunni Muslim world and since the beginning of the Syrian-Iraqi instability (instability that Ankara has strongly contributed to and fed through its support for rebel groups and, at least for a certain period, for ISIS), Turkey has also tried to involve NATO in some way, if not in the dispute then at least in the area. There have been numerous occasions on which it has reported to the alliance headquarters in Brussels, complaining of episodes that in Turkey’s opinion could be construed as aggression or violations of its territorial sovereignty.
Considering the above, the decision to act taken yesterday represents an act of great political value. On this level, it is intended to considerably reassure, at least for the time being, the public opinion of all of the alliance member states. To use a gambling metaphor, we could say that from now on the government of any NATO country will be able to defend itself against their detractors by saying, “What more did you want me to do? I played the ace.”
As for how effective this trump card will really be, it remains to be seen. The details of the mission are yet to be defined, and it is the details that sometimes decide the success or failure of an operation of this kind.
Although the resources available are not the most suitable, as already mentioned, we should in any case consider the great experience that the Italian Navy has acquired over the years in disaster relief and assistance to refugees. This will certainly be quickly and efficiently transferred to the other navies participating.
In addition, a new type of mission is a breath of fresh air for an organization that has long lost its original raison d’être and that is constantly looking for new tasks that can supplement or replace the old. An extraordinary effort by all of NATO, from headquarters in Brussels to the last sailor on duty in the Aegean Sea, is therefore to be expected if not taken for granted.
We must, in any case, still pay particular attention to two points. On a political level, giving too many green lights to Turkey would run the risk of being dragged step by bloody step and against our will into the Middle Eastern crucible by the semi-automatic solidarity mechanisms of the alliance. On an operational level, we will need to limit ourselves solely to the rescue of refugees, without succumbing to the temptation to obstruct flow of refugees on the sea, as previous painful experience advises against it.
Is everything alright, then? Yes, although for us Italians, there is still the regret of seeing the Libyan situation—which not only is of our direct concern but is also becoming more and more severe—still regarded as subordinate to the other elements of what should probably be considered a single crisis involving the whole Islamic Mediterranean area.
Giuseppe Cucchi is a retired lieutenant general and former advisor to Italian Prime Ministers Romano Prodi and Massimo D’Alema. He is also a former Italian Military Representative in WEU, EU and NATO and former National Coordinator of the Italian Intelligence.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.