An officer looks in his binoculars aboard the Italian navy assault ship San Marco off the shores of Lampedusa island in 2013. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey will urge his NATO counterparts this week to step up security in the Mediterranean due to insurgent threats from North Africa. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — America’s top general plans to push his NATO counterparts to increase security contributions in southern Europe along the Mediterranean at a meeting of the alliance’s uniformed leaders this week.
Instability and insurgent network activity across Northern Africa in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Morocco and Tunisia — and the proliferation of that type of activity into and across Europe — has been increasingly worrying security officials in recent years.
“My personal advice to my fellow [chiefs of defense] in NATO is that the southern flank of NATO deserves far more attention than it currently receives from NATO,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said May 14 at the Atlantic Council think tank.
Dempsey will attend NATO chiefs of defense meetings in Brussels this week with top military leaders from across the alliance. The leaders also plan to discuss NATO force posture in Europe amid the security situation in Ukraine and Russia.
Security in southern Europe is primarily conducted by Mediterranean nations, including Portugal, Italy, France, Greece and Spain.
“Yet the issues that are emulating into the southern flank from the Middle East and North Africa could quite profoundly change life inside ... not only southern Europe, but well into Central and Northern Europe,” Dempsey said.
Many of Europe’s southern nations that are facing this increased threat from Northern Africa have been hit hard by the global financial crisis and have yet to rebound. As a result, defense spending has decreased.
The cross-Mediterranean security issue is of concern to the NATO alliance, said Eric Thompson, director of strategic studies with CNA, a think tank in Northern Virginia.
“It’s the instability in North Africa, it’s the transit threat into Europe and it’s the foreign fighter networks that can flow into places like Sinai, to Yemen to East Africa and to places like Syria,” he said.
In addition to the cross-Mediterranean security concerns is the issue of people already in European cities who could move weapons, money or knowledge into Syria, Thompson said.
Tracking and monitoring fighters not only flowing to Syria, but returning from Syria to their home countries in Northern Africa is also a major issue, said Haim Malka, deputy director and senior fellow for the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
“[T]hey’re coming back with new networks and connections, they’re coming back radicalized and they’re coming back with new military capabilities that they could potentially use against governments,” Malka said.
There are believed to be more than 4,000 North African nationals fighting in Syria, Malka said.
“The number of foreign fighters in Syria now is larger than the number of foreign fighters that were fighting in Afghanistan during the height of the jihad,” he said.
European countries have addressed the trans-Mediterranean threat in two ways, Thompson said. The first is through expanded partnerships, security force cooperation, intelligence sharing, capability development of North African security services, and helping these nations with issues such as border security.
The other is through aerial surveillance and patrols in the Mediterranean. But numerous organizations — including navies, coast guards, border patrol and even fishery protection agencies — are responsible for these patrols, raising coordination challenges.
“You get this layering of different kinds of maritime security forces operating according to national programs and missions, but also collaboratively,” Thompson said.
In addition to the North African security threat, there are also simmering territorial disputes surrounding recent energy finds in the eastern Mediterranean, said Barry Pavel, vice president and director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.
“We know that where there’s significant new economic activity, security activity follows quickly, especially where there are uncertainties,” he said. “I think the new energy node in the eastern [Mediterranean] is going to also raise some new security issues.
NATO military leadership addressing the cross-Mediterranean security issues is a “promising approach,” Thompson said.
“Through a format like NATO or other forms of long-standing cooperation, that’s more promising than trying to continually respond in an ad-hoc fashion,” he said.
The Ukraine Crisis
At this week’s NATO chiefs of defense meetings meetings, US leaders also plan to discuss the alliance’s force structure in eastern Europe, specifically in the wake of Russia’s military buildup along the Ukrainian border and invasion and annexation of Crimea.
“NATO is in a critical crossroads ... given the aggressiveness of Russia,” Dempsey said. “It’s eastern flank needs to be reconsidered.”
Under a worst-case scenario, Russia’s actions in Ukraine could lead to the return of a Cold War-era footing in Europe with a build-up of military forces on the eastern part of the continent to reassure NATO allies there, Dempsey said.
“We are one incident away from being in a different security era regarding the Ukraine crisis,” Pavel said. “If this explodes and we get large-scale instability in Ukraine, then we are potentially in a situation where we have new insecurities on the border of NATO members.”
Dempsey called Moscow’s invasion and annexation of Crimea “extraordinarily unsettling.” Moscow has said it acted in Crimea and elsewhere to protect ethnic Russians.
“There’s ethnic enclaves scattered throughout eastern Europe,” Dempsey said. “If one nation decides it will deal with these things on its own terms and including the use of military force, that is a serious step and probably a step that does take us back more toward the Cold War than away from it.”
Alliance leaders plan to push European countries to increase defense spending at the September NATO summit in Wales.
Moscow’s recent military actions have “proven that the US has no credible deterrent force that is permanently forward-stationed in Europe and our drawdown there has gone too far,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, an analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank.
“While we absolutely need to independently assess our own force posture in eastern Europe, we must also at the same time continue to push our allies, and push them more specifically, to invest in certain capabilities that will be force multipliers in the alliance to actually influence and shape actors and events on the ground,” she said. ■