NATO Secretary General calls for 'firm' response to Syrian chemical attacks…. but not by NATO

 ….while former SACEUR suggests NATO should do more to assist Obama

By Nigel Chamberlain and Ian Davis, NATO Watch

NATO Secretary General's Monthly Press Conference (2nd September) - introductory statement

Anders Fogh Rasmussen began his statement with comments about the situation in Syria. He said the chemical weapon attacks that took place on 21 August around Damascus “were appalling and inexcusable” and “cannot be ignored”. He added that NATO continues to “stand in strong solidarity with our Ally Turkey. And we remain determined to protect the Alliance’s south-eastern border”.

He then announced that later in the week he would take part in a meeting of EU Defence Ministers in Lithuania to address the issue of EU-NATO defence cooperation. As has become his norm, he also stressed the need for Europe to intensify its efforts in capability development and to invest more in security. Accepting that Europeans have made progress in the development of new capabilities, particularly with regard to heavy airlift, he drew attention to areas of ‘critical shortfalls’, such as drones for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Forcing home his point, he concluded:

Europe needs effective and modern defence industries. Where competition drives innovation. Where national borders are no barrier to international cooperation. And where effective equipment is developed in a cost-effective way.


Summary of Q & A Session

Q1. Teri Schultz – NPR: Does being more convinced that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons make it more urgent or more difficult for NATO's planning in the event of the conflict spreading? And do the revelations by Secretary Kerry over the weekend that he does have some proof of a sarin gas attack by the regime again add pressure to NATO to act?

A1. Secretary General: I can assure you that we have all plans in place already to ensure effective defence and protection of Turkey. So at this stage I don't see a need for further contingency planning.

Q2.Turkish News Agency: Does the US share intelligence information about the use of chemical weapons with NATO, or does NATO have its own intelligences about the situation? What is your personal view? Do you favour a military action on Syria?

If Syria retaliates against an operation, and includes retaliation against Turkey, which might provide bases and logistics, technically would that fall into Article 5? Because in that case Syria will not be the first aggressor but it will be retaliating, but it will be retaliating to a country which didn't join the operation.

A2. Secretary General: As a matter of principle, we never comment on intelligence information received. But in general, I can tell you that NATO relies on intelligence provided by individual Allies. And such intelligence reports have been shared with NATO. It is my firm position that the international community should react to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. We would consider any attack on Turkey as an attack on all. Allies would gather and consult with each other on how to respond appropriately.

Q3. Kuwaiti News Agency: When you say ‘react’. Does this mean that you are in support of a military strike to deter the use of chemical weapons in Syria?

A3. Secretary General: Question avoided.

Q4. Marco Tutrilla - La Stampa: There are some reports that rebel forces admit to using chemical weapons. I wonder whether you're aware of this and if you consider this a possible game changer?

A4. Secretary General: I'm not aware of such information. The way these chemical attacks were conducted point to regime responsibility. Let me also point to the fact that the Arab League has issued a statement that clearly places responsibility at the Syrian regime.

Q5. Noureddine Fridhi from al-Arabiya: On the 28 August you stated in your communiqué that the regime is responsible for the use of chemical attacks of the 21 August. Did you have evidence which could allow the international community to act even without waiting for the assessment of the United Nation experts and without the UN Security Council? If the United States and its allies start a military action, is it believable that NATO cannot be involved in one way or another, possibly though the use of NATO bases for an attack on Syria?

A5. Secretary General: After a long-winded avoidance of answering the first question, he went on to stress that it was for individual Allies to decide how they will respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria and which military facilities they might decide to use if they were to decide on such a military response.

Q6. Radio France International (In French without interpretation).

A6. Secretary General: It's not for me, in my capacity as NATO Secretary General, to interfere with the decision-making processes in the EU. But obviously I would expect EU ministers to condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Q7. Cadena Ser (In French without interpretation).

A7.Secretary General: I don't foresee any further NATO role. It's for individual Allies to decide how they will respond and which military facilities they might use if they were to respond militarily to what has happened in Syria.

Q8: Brookes Tigner – Jane’s Defence: Just for the record, Mr. Rasmussen, a yes or no question. Have you and the other Allied leaders been shown incontrovertible evidence about the chemical attacks that establishes the chain of custody leading back to the Syrian regime and which leaves no doubt about that chain of custody?

A8. Secretary General: I can tell you that I have been presented with concrete information. I can tell you that I'm convinced not only that a chemical attack has taken place but I'm also convinced that the Syrian regime is responsible.

Q9.Yashni Gupli from Europolitique: If there is to be a military response in Syria, what would it be? What would be the aim of this response? A deterrent against the further use of chemical weapons? Or would it be a response to put the Syrian regime out of the country or put them down?

A9. Secretary General: I don't foresee a further role for NATO other than defending a Member State, Turkey, if necessary. The aim of any response should be to prevent such chemical attacks in the future. That's why the international community has adopted international conventions that ban the use of chemical weapons, and that's why the international community also has a responsibility to protect and to enforce those international conventions.

Q10. Stuttgarter Zeitung: Do you find it at all worrying that an organization like NATO is on the sidelines of this major world conflict at the moment, and why? And if it's a no, I'd like to know why.

A10. Secretary General: NATO is not sidelined because NATO has not been seeking a role in Syria.


Former SACEUR calls on NATO to back up Obama

With President Obama’s seeking Congressional support for military action in Syria, recently retired NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), Adm. James Stavridis, has called for NATO to support US efforts to deliver a punitive message to the Assad regime.

“The North Atlantic Treaty Organization must be part of an international effort to respond to the crisis in Syria, beginning immediately with punitive strikes following the highly probable use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime,” Stavridis wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times on 2 September. “The president, the secretaries of defence and state, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should all approach their counterparts to secure NATO action”, he said.

To date, as clearly stated by the Secretary General, NATO has shown no sign that it intends to get involved in Syria beyond its current deployment of US, German and Dutch Patriot missile batteries along Turkey’s border with Syria. Those batteries are responsible for protecting Turkish air space from potential missile strikes from Syria.

However, Stavridis argues that NATO has a responsibility to protect in Syria even without UN Security Council approval, much like it did in Kosovo in 1999. The apparent use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime "tip the balance — a close one, to be sure — toward a need for punitive strikes as an initial form of intervention”, he wrote. “These should be designed not only to send a strong signal that chemical weapons are unacceptable, but also to damage key parts of the Assad regime’s infrastructure. Attacks on aircraft, aviation centres, command and control sites and missile facilities would clearly reduce the danger to Turkey and Greece”.


NATO Watch comment

The NATO Secretary General's introductory statement at his monthly press conference was very 'thin'. It lacked depth of content and any indication of NATO’s on-going operation in Afghanistan and planning for Resolute Support post-2014, the recent exercise ‘Brilliant Arrow’ conducted in Norway, the progress made on missile defence talks with Russia or, indeed, what the Secretary General meant by stating that chemical weapons attacks in Syria “cannot be ignored”.

So it was perhaps not surprising that none of the questions from journalists addressed what NATO has actually been doing recently. And it is somewhat ironic that all of the questions addressed what NATO isn’t doing and is unlikely to do – military intervention in Syria – as repeated over and over by the Secretary General in recent months. While we can sympathise with his frustration at having to respond to speculative questions about something his organisation is not collectively involved in, he was still evasive in many of his responses. He eventually admitted to having seen convincing evidence of the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons and was, eventually, clearer on what he actually meant by stating their use “cannot be ignored”. However, due to the deadlock at the UN Security Council, his call for the international community to protect and to enforce agreed international conventions against the use of chemical weapons shows no sign of coming to fruition.

As for the intervention by former SACEUR James Stavridis, his reasoning that there were no legal obstacles to a NATO-led attack on Syria is equally thin. The self-defence argument on behalf of Turkey is not credible and his claim that NATO's rules don't require Security Council approval even less so. In fact, Article 7 of the North Atlantic Treaty says:

This Treaty does not affect, and shall not be interpreted as affecting in any way the rights and obligations under the Charter of the Parties which are members of the United Nations, or the primary responsibility of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security.


[Note: NATO Watch is working on a detailed briefing paper on Syria, which will be published next week]