NATO will take any request to help with the refugee crisis “very seriously,” chief Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday after Germany and Turkey agreed to seek its assistance in combating human smugglers.
Defense ministers from the 28-nation alliance will discuss the issue at a meeting in Brussels Wednesday and Thursday when they will review NATO’s response to a more assertive Russia and the security threat posed by the Syria crisis.
“I think we will take very seriously the request from Turkey and other allies to look into what NATO can do to help them cope and deal with the crisis and all the challenges they face, not least in Turkey,” Stoltenberg told a news conference.
Former Norwegian premier Stoltenberg said he had spoken with the Turkish and German defense ministers Tuesday to discuss the issue, adding that the migration crisis was “of great concern for all of us.”
“I expect the ministers to discuss the request from Turkey and then agree on how we can follow up,” he said, stressing that nothing as yet had been decided.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on a visit to Ankara on Monday that Turkey and Germany would ask NATO to help police the Turkish coast to prevent smugglers from packing migrants into overloaded boats for the perilous crossing to Greece.
Turkey is the main gateway for migrants and refugees crossing into Europe, which received over a million people last year, more than half of them fleeing the war in Syria.
Stoltenberg recalled that in December, NATO allies agreed a package of measures to reassure and support key member Turkey after Russia launched a massive air campaign against rebels in Syria fighting against long-time Moscow ally President Bashar al-Assad.
This package included deploying AWACS surveillance aircraft, air policing and an increased maritime presence, and was agreed after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in late November for violating its airspace.
As the crisis in Syria deepens, some member states are wary of getting sucked into a conflict that defies solution, especially as Assad’s forces now retake ground in a major Russian-backed offensive.
Diplomatic sources said the proposal had come as a surprise and NATO ministers were waiting for concrete details.
Greece, whose relations with its NATO partner Turkey are strained over a host of issues, contacted Berlin Tuesday to insist on safeguards if such a mission went ahead.
A government spokesman in Athens said Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had told German Chancellor Angela Merkel “that any involvement by the alliance must be confined solely to the Turkish coast and guarantee Greek sovereign rights.”
Stoltenberg reiterated that Russian involvement in Syria was “undermining” peace efforts and “making a desperate situation worse” as more refugees fled the fighting.
“Calm and easing tensions is more important than ever,” he added.
The EU meanwhile said it would welcome any extra assistance in dealing with a crisis that has put the 28-nation bloc under huge strain.
“Of course it is for NATO to take a decision on the opportunity and modalities of the eventual involvement,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a news briefing.
“We welcome all discussions on potential measures which could contribute to addressing the refugee crisis, save lives at sea and improve the management of migratory flows and borders.”