Ankara: NATO migrant mission no longer needed
BRUSSELSTurkey has called for an end to NATO’s counter-migration mission in the Aegean Sea, telling the U.S.-led alliance that the sharp drop in refugees trying to get to Greece means there is no longer a need for warships to patrol its coast.
But hours after Turkey’s call, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance had decided to continue with the NATO mission in the Aegean.
“We, as Turkey, say now, ‘This operation has reached its goal. There is no need to continue with this for a long time,’” said Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık on Oct. 27 in Brussels, where he was to attend a defense ministers’ meeting of the alliance.
“We have officially informed NATO over our perspective for the termination of this NATO activity until the end of this year,” said Işık.
The sharp decline in the number of migrants’ crossings in the Aegean Sea after a European Union-Turkey deal in March is due to the Turkish Coast Guard’s success and not that of NATO forces, Işık said.
“For us there is no need for NATO to keep forces in the Aegean anymore,” Işık said.
Speaking to members of press, Stoltenberg highlighted the benefits of closer NATO-EU cooperation and noted that NATO’s deployment supported Greece, Turkey and the EU’s border agency Frontex in breaking the lines of human trafficking.
“That is why last night we decided to continue our Aegean deployment,” said Stoltenberg.
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, whose country currently leads the maritime mission, said the Aegean mission was secure until Dec. 31. Asked what could happen in 2017, she said: “We will have to see then.”
An EU deal with Turkey remains in place and is providing Ankara with billions of euros so long as Turkey keeps refugees on its territory and stops people smugglers moving them across the Aegean to Greece. There, thousands of refugees are already in camps, waiting to be granted asylum or returned home.
According to a European Commission report in September, only 85 people are arriving on the Greek coast every day, compared with over 10,000 arriving in a single day in October last year.
An end to the NATO mission, agreed in February, would alarm the EU, which is facing its worst refugee crisis since the end of World War II, driven by the 5.5-year war in Syria that has displaced around 11 million people.
Unlike the EU’s mission off the Italian coast, which brings rescued migrants to Europe’s shores, migrants are returned to Turkey even if they are picked up in Greek waters.
Turkey’s ability to block the mission next year comes down to a technicality. Under NATO rules about standing maritime forces, Turkey is due to take over its leadership of the so-called Standing Maritime Group Two – used in the Aegean – from January.
But under the terms of the Aegean mission agreement, neither Greece nor Turkey can lead it.
Turkey could block an extension of the mission from January on that basis, as NATO needs consensus, although diplomats say other nations could come forward to lead the mission.
NATO to send planes, ships to EU migrant op in Med Sea
Meanwhile, Stoltenberg said that they had agreed to back the EU’s anti-migrant smuggling operation in the Mediterranean Sea by sending ships and aircraft to the region within two weeks, The Associated Press reported.
Greece and Turkey will provide ships to help back up the EU’s Operation Sophia. Greece, Italy, Spain and Turkey are to provide aircraft and Stoltenberg said that other non-NATO countries are considering a role.