NATO’s quick decision to create a new maritime operation in the Aegean Sea to counter migrant smugglers is Europe’s (particularly Germany’s) latest attempt at reducing refugee flows to its shores. While the initiative is unlikely to be very effective given its limited scope (mainly surveillance and information collection) and size (only three ships, at least to begin with), it is politically significant for a number of reasons. For one, it tests the limits of NATO’s operational mandate. It also externalises the refugee issue geographically, by formally involving the United States and Canada, as NATO members, in an essentially European problem. However, it also highlights serious divisions between NATO Member States and plays straight into Russia’s hands – which may even be consciously using refugees as leverage to pursue its own interests in Syria and Europe.

Germany’s calls for the NATO operation clearly resulted from a certain frustration with the EU’s mechanisms and internal divisions, thereby affirming a preference to work in an ad-hoc, inter-governmental way. Yet the decision to launch a maritime operation in the Aegean highlights far more serious disagreements between the two NATO Member States which are central to the operation’s success: Greece and Turkey. Indeed, despite being NATO countries for decades, both sides continue to squabble over maritime borders and their fighter jets repeatedly engage in aerial dogfights in disputed airspace. In fact, as part of the agreement on the counter-smuggling operation, Greek and Turkish armed forces will not operate in each other’s territorial waters or airspace.

Considering the circumstances, it can certainly be seen as a success that the NATO operation was even approved by both sides, but actual operations may create situations in which sovereignty disputes resurface. Of course, any such ‘distractions’ facing Turkey will not displease Russia, which has had its own airspace disputes with Turkey (going as far as Turkey’s recent downing of a Russian jet) and is more generally hostile to its efforts in Syria. In addition, while it may be a cynical interpretation of events, Russia’s bombing campaign in northern Syria has created a new exodus of refugees that strain Turkish and EU resources and exacerbate tensions in ways that Russia can and may actively seek to benefit from. Russian interests in Syria directly contradict those of Turkey, and Russia is certainly interested in breaking EU consensus on sanctions linked to the Ukraine conflict.

NATO engagement in the Aegean refugee crisis places the alliance in a delicate political situation that has already weakened the EU. Unexpected events – possibly provoked by Russian actions in Syria – could weaken cohesion among NATO Member States and isolate Turkey or Greece. The political risks attached to the operation seem to far outweigh the results it is likely to achieve, particularly in light of the solid determination with which desperate refugees have been able to overcome obstacles time and again in pursuit of a better life.

By Marco Funk

Please note: the views expressed in this article are strictly the author’s personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of his professional affiliation.

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