US says NATO closing gaps in alliance unity
NATO has reached an understanding on defence ties with the European Union (EU) while top allies Washington and Ankara are finding ‘common ground’ in a row over Syria, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on 15 February.
A new EU defence pact and Turkey's offensive against US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria have put strains on a transatlantic alliance facing a more assertive Russia and threats from the Middle East.
NATO defence ministers met on 14 February with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to discuss their concerns over duplication after Brussels agreed in December 2017 to a new defence pact.
Mattis said: ‘There is a clear understanding to include in written EU documents that the common defence is a NATO mission and a NATO mission alone.’
Mattis said discussions were ‘very candid’ between the 29-nation NATO, which includes EU members, and Mogherini.
Mattis added: ‘We have sufficient rigour in the political sharing, the political discussions, to keep the EU effort, for example on military mobility.’
He said the EU can ‘enhance NATO common defence capabilities and does not draw from them.’
The EU's so-called permanent structured cooperation on defence agreement, known as PESCO, has projects in view already to develop new military equipment and improve cooperation and decision-making.
But on 11 February a senior official working with Mattis said Washington had concerns that some of the proposed initiatives risked ‘pulling resources or capabilities away from NATO’.
In the runup to the meeting, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg warned there was ‘no way’ the EU could replace the transatlantic alliance in guaranteeing European security.
Stoltenberg said: ‘It will be absolutely without any meaning if NATO and the EU start to compete.’
A row that is potentially more serious is the one festering between the US and Turkey over Ankara's ‘Operation Olive Branch’, launched in January 2018 against the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).
While Turkey views the YPG as a ‘terrorist’ group, the US has been working closely with the militia against the Islamic State group in Syria and giving it weapons, infuriating Ankara.
After meeting his Turkish counterpart Nurettin Canikli on the sidelines of the NATO meeting a day earlier, Mattis said: ‘We maintain an absolutely honest and open dialogue. I think we are finding common ground.’
Mattis called ‘for a renewed focus on the campaign to defeat ISIS, and to preventing any vestige of the terrorist organisation from reconstituting in Syria,’ the US Department of Defense said in a statement on 15 February, referring to the Islamic State group.
The statement said: ‘But he acknowledged the legitimate threats posed to Turkey's national security by terrorist organisations.’
Mattis said NATO allies had made progress toward a goal they set in 2014 of raising defence spending to two percent of GDP over a decade but added much still needs to be done.
Since he took office more than a year ago, US President Donald Trump has warned NATO allies to meet the goal and NATO officials said they will be under close watch in the runup to an alliance summit in June 2018.
Mattis and Stoltenberg said eight NATO members are set to meet the two percent target this year, adding a total 15 are expected to do so by 2024 while others fall short.
The ministers agreed on 14 February to modernise the NATO command structure with plans to set up an Atlantic command to protect maritime routes between Europe and North America.
They also decided to establish a new support command to improve the movement of troops in Europe and boost troop rapid response while creating a new operations centre to defend against cyber attacks in Mons, Belgium.
Trump's administration has also asked the other 28 NATO member states, mainly European but also Canada, to increase their military capabilities and contribute more to war games.
The ministers agreed on 15 February to start planning for a sustained NATO mission to train Iraqi forces, including setting up officer academies, as part of efforts to keep extremist groups at bay.