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Despite differences regarding the political process and military involvement in Northern Syria, NATO Defence Ministers meeting in Brussels 24-25 October managed to agree on key security issues. Continuation of the Resolute Support mission was agreed to, for insyance, as were the need to further increase annual defence spending in pursuit of better burden sharing and updating the baseline requirements for civilian telecommunications, including 5G.

The German proposal to create an international security zone in Northern Syria sparked some controversy. German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer briefed the Ministers on her proposal, which she suggested in order to protect displaced civilians and to ensure that the fight against Islamic State (IS) can be continued. When asked in Germany why she had launched this proposal, she said that she could not bear to hear continuing accusations that the EU only talks about the violence in Syria and takes no concrete actions. Political observers therefore consider her idea as a deliberate political initiative by the German government which has been criticised for being too passive in the Middle East for many years.

Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer had not previously alerted the other Defence Ministers to her idea. As a consequence, the NATO partners took respectful note of the initiative, but exercised a degree of political restraint. When journalists asked the Secretary General for a comment, Mr Stoltenberg said that he welcomes ideas from the Allies to contribute to the fragile security situation in Syria and added that the German idea could be “one element in the difficult process” to find a sustainable solution. He also said “While Allies have different views, we agree that we must build on the significant reduction in violence to make progress in our efforts to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria.” He emphasised that “there has been no call for NATO” to deploy ground forces and that he believes the UN is the right agency for such an initiative, rather than NATO.

US Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper, who spoke at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels before the Ministerial, was completely surprised by the idea and said that he had not studied the proposal. Without having any details available, Mr Esper gave just a brief statement, saying that Washington would support stronger European engagement in the region but made it clear that the US would not send any ground forces.

Mr Stoltenberg confirmed that NATO remains committed to the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan and that the Alliance will continue to support Afghan security forces with training and funding. NATO’s clear message to the Taliban is that they cannot win on the battlefield, they need to sit down at the negotiation table to find a political solution and they must demonstrate their willingness to make real compromises.

He also stated that the Allies, the EU, Finland and Sweden discussed NATO’s response to hybrid threats and work to increase national resilience. He said that they agreed an update to baseline requirements for civilian telecommunications, including 5G. These requirements include the need for thorough risk and vulnerability assessments, as well as the identification of cyber threats. The baseline requirement for civilian telecommunications is for all Allies to have reliable telecommunications systems in peacetime, crisis and conflict. This comprises:

• robust capabilities to restore systems in case of disruption and outage;

• priority access for national authorities to communications networks in a crisis;

• thorough risk management plans and mitigation measures;

• timely information sharing within governments and with the private sector.

The Ministers also addressed NATO’s missions and operations, from the Western Balkans to the Middle East, and assessed progress in increasing the readiness of NATO forces. To keep its people safe, the Alliance needs to be able to move its armed forces quickly. The Secretary General highlighted that “NATO is now able to move planes across Europe with priority handling – something we call Rapid Air Mobility. Allied aircraft supporting NATO missions will be given a NATO call sign. And they will receive priority handling by Air Traffic Control in Europe.” This was made possible thanks to close cooperation with EUROCONTROL, which handles the flow of all air traffic over Europe.

The progress of the Alliance on burden sharing was another top issue on the agenda. Mr Stoltenberg summarised “We see a clear positive trend. This is the fifth consecutive year of increased defence spending across European Allies and Canada. By the end of next year, those Allies will have added a cumulative total of $100 billion.”

German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer lobbied for her proposal when she met the Defence Minister of Croatia, Damir Krsticevic, and the Defence Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Marina Pendes (from right to left). (Photo: NATO)

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