New strategy required for NATO’s southern flank

The NATO Summit in Warsaw next month is critical in terms of defining the way forward for the alliance.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine in 2014 effectively united the alliance and reactivated its traditional mission of deterring Russia.

However, NATO’s relevance regarding the threats emanating from the south is being questioned.

Historically, NATO has been an institution that has expanded its sphere of influence exclusively toward the east. Today, however, NATO’s southern flank poses a complex threat that requires multi-dimensional strategies for territorial defense, cooperative security and crisis management.

As repeated missile attacks in the southeastern Turkish province of Kilis have shown, the collective defense mechanism operating under the alliance’s fifth article – which stipulates that an attack on one member is an attack on all – no longer functions properly.

This is partly because NATO members are pursuing different priorities and hold contrasting threat perceptions when it comes to either confronting Russia or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria.
It is also true that NATO’s Cold War strategies, which were designed to confront conventional threats, fall short of deterring challenges posed by both state and non-state actors that employ hybrid warfare techniques.

In this respect, Sinan Ülgen and Can Kasapoğlu of Edam penned the recent report, “A threat based strategy for NATO’s southern flank,” in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The report, which will be presented at the Warsaw Summit next month, addresses the key threats facing NATO on the southern flank and offers policy responses.

In the analysis, the authors highlight hybrid warfare, Russia’s actions, Iran’s ballistic missile proliferation, state failure, violent extremism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction among non-state actors (including risks of biological and chemical attacks) as key threats facing NATO on its southern flank.

“There can be no all-encompassing deterrence framework that the alliance can use to develop the correct policy response. Instead, any policy approach needs to reflect the heterogeneity of the threat landscape,” said the pair.

Using a quadrant matrix, Ülgen and Kasapoğlu present a logical map of the threat topography of NATO’s southern flank. They divide threats into two categories: State actors and non-state actors. Likewise, they identify NATO’s security objectives policies under two headings – preemption and prevention – and suggest alternative policy initiatives.

Accordingly, shortening the deployment gap between the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and the NATO Response Force (NRF), improving naval capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean and establishing a NATO Force Integration Unit in Turkey are among the policy suggestions.

As for an effective counterterrorism strategy, the report strongly advises NATO to boost intelligence sharing not only with member states but also with non-member states by strengthening partnership programs.
Although it is often an understated issue, improving situational awareness on a global scale regarding chemical and biological threats is also necessary, the report added.

The report aims to create consciousness about the complex and diverse threats facing NATO on its southern flank, bring the issue to the attention of decision-makers in NATOand convince them to take action in this respect.

There are many obstacles facing the alliance with regard to the southern flank strategy. Most pertinent is the question of how to convince 28 members to boost security in the south at the expense of deploying fewer resources to the east.

Second, is it possible to balance the eastern and southern flank strategies without provoking Russia any further?

Russia, which poses a threat in the east, has become a threat in the south as well since it militarily intervened in Syria last year. However, the same Russia has a stake in combating terrorism and is therefore considered a partner in combating ISIL in the region.

The debates at the Warsaw Summit in early July are expected to not only update and upgrade the alliance’s defense strategies, but also reform decision-making structures and increase burden-sharing among members.
If the members succeed in overcoming their differences and agree on a common, forward-looking strategy, it will be a litmus test for NATO in terms of exporting security outside its borders. And given the rise of populist politics in Europe, NATO’s standing may even help reverse the trend toward introversion.