NATO members Germany, France, and Belgium have until 10 February to voice their objections or agree to help fellow member Turkey reinforce its defenses against Iraq in preparation for a possible war. Secretary-General Lord George Robertson handed down the ultimatum yesterday following a meeting in which the United States -- together with 15 of the 19 alliance members -- brought to a head the issue of contingency planning for a possible war in Iraq.
Brussels, 7 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- NATO members appear to be headed for a showdown early next week. During a meeting in Brussels yesterday, alliance members again failed to agree on the timing of essential contingency plans for a possible war in Iraq. Many NATO officials are concerned time is running out for Turkey -- the only NATO country bordering Iraq -- which only has weeks to put in place vital defense measures.
Three NATO members -- Germany, France, and Belgium -- continue to stall on a decision. But with the backing of the United States and the 15 remaining members, the alliance's secretary-general, Lord George Robertson, yesterday told the three they have until 10 February to voice their objections or agree with the others to help Turkey reinforce its defenses against Iraq.
The list of measures proposed by Robertson would allow NATO to strengthen security at its European bases and ready itself to move troops from the Balkans to other more strategically important areas.
Speaking after yesterday's meeting of NATO's policy-making North Atlantic Council, Robertson said all 19 allies agree there is a need to defend Turkey. "The North Atlantic Council met this afternoon to consider proposals to task planning for prudent deterrent and defensive measures in relation to a possible threat to Turkey. As I've said previously, there is complete agreement among the NATO countries about their commitment to defend Turkey, and on the substance of the planning measures that were on the table. That remains the case. [NATO's founding] Washington Treaty imposes responsibilities on all NATO members and these responsibilities will be met," Robertson said.
But, Robertson admitted that what he said had been a "robust discussion" yesterday had not resolved the disagreement over timing. Germany, France, and Belgium continue to insist that NATO should await the outcome of the UN debate on Iraq before launching contingency plans. All three oppose war in varying degrees.
This is creating increasing frustration among the rest of the allies, especially the U.S. A senior NATO official noted after the meeting yesterday that the U.S., mindful of allied criticism during last year's war in Afghanistan over sidelining NATO, had this time come up with ideas "designed to cover all the varying political perspectives within NATO from the United States to Germany."
Yesterday, the U.S. went further, removing two of the contingency planning requests made in January by its Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, leaving only what the official called "defensive" measures.
The official said there was a very "strong feeling" among most of the allies that under the Washington Treaty, Turkey is entitled to alliance support in preparing for a potential threat to its territory and people. Although Germany, France, and Belgium do not question that obligation, the official says the U.S. and its supporters feel NATO and Turkey are running out of time.
NATO officials emphasize that the U.S. continues to argue that the deliberations at the United Nations and NATO should be kept separate. NATO, they say, is a defense organization with clearly specified obligations regarding the security of its member states. Robertson himself reiterated the point yesterday: "I want to emphasize that there is no linkage between the timing of NATO's decision and the debate about Iraq at the United Nations. We're not reacting to that debate. We're reacting to a request that we should begin planning to deal with a threat to Turkey's territory and people, and NATO's solidarity with Turkey is not in doubt."
To break the deadlock, the U.S. together with its 15 like-minded allies appear to have persuaded Robertson to turn up the heat on the three dissenters. Sources say Robertson used strong language at yesterday's NATO meeting, accusing Germany, France, and Belgium of jeopardizing the integrity of NATO.
To bring matters to a head, Robertson said he had evoked what is known as the "silence procedure," proposing that unless the three dissenters officially object, NATO would start planning for the modified defensive measures suggested by the United States on 10 February.
"I put out a letter to all of the countries today which includes a series of proposals that have been tabled. These proposals are immediately put into effect at the end of the silence procedure, if no country has broken the silence procedure. So that would lead to an automatic decision in the case where all countries agreed," he said.
Initially, Robertson is only looking for a decision authorizing military planning -- that is, which NATO assets could be used, how fast, where they are available, and how they would be transported. Another decision would be needed before the measures can be put into practice.
A senior NATO official told RFE/RL the package centers on Turkey's defense needs such as Patriot missiles, AWACS surveillance planes, and biological- and chemical-warfare defense units. The official said the Patriots -- needed against Iraq's SCUD missiles -- would probably be supplied by the Netherlands. He said it would take up to a month for the Patriots to arrive in Turkey.
In addition, the package envisages heightened "force protection" in NATO's European bases, and would make some troops in the Balkans available for use elsewhere.
The U.S. has for the time being put on hold "offensive" requests relating to a possible NATO role in a post-conflict peacekeeping mission in Iraq, and "force generating" by those allies who want to participate in a possible war using NATO assets. However, the official said the ideas would be "re-examined" once the initial decisions on defensive issues have been taken.
The official said no "apocalyptic conclusions" should be drawn, from the rift, noting that NATO has been split before, and that "silence procedures" have been broken on numerous occasions.
The official insisted that a positive decision is only "a matter of time." He said the United States with its allies "will get there sooner or later," and a failure to reach a decision on 10 February would simply mean pressure on Germany, France, and Belgium would have to be kept up until they "understand there is no other alternative."