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The EU and NATO’s Southern Flanks: Five Years After the Arab Spring

By Mark D. Ducasse, Transatlantic Security Analyst


From piracy to ungoverned spaces, to illicit networks and Islamic extremists, the situation in the Mediterranean littoral requires a smarter investment of existing resources, a shared and coordinated multilateral response capability, and increased cooperative security engagement between regional security stakeholders: states that border the Mediterranean littoral and interested regional organizations. The events that comprised the 2011 Arab Spring, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) subsequent military operation over Libya – Operation Unified Protector – and the current torrent of refugees into the European Union (EU) highlight the need for deeper engagement between Mediterranean littoral nations and regional security stakeholders such as NATO and the EU.

While many had hoped the Arab Spring would bring in new governments that would deliver political reform and social justice, five years on the reality is more war and violence in the Maghreb and the Levant. NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept explains how “[c]rises and conflicts beyond NATO’s borders can pose a direct threat to the security of Alliance territory and populations,” adding “NATO will therefore engage, where possible and when necessary, to prevent crises, manage crises, stabilize post-conflict situations and support reconstruction.” The European Commission recently adopted a series of cross-border cooperation programs totaling €1 billion ($1.1 billion) to support social and economic development in regions on both sides of the EU’s external borders.

The continued transition in the Maghreb and Levant should not become a missed opportunity for establishing enduring partnerships, assisting with regional security and stability, and fomenting lasting change which, in turn, will increase the security of both NATO and EU members. Specifically, what follows focuses on the four Mediterranean littoral states most affected by the Arab Spring: Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria.

Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began in December 2010, has been the most successful of the Mediterranean littoral states in its transition to democracy and implementing security reforms. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted and his government was overthrown in January 2011. Though Tunisia’s transition has not been smooth, Tunisian civil society did not allow extremism and polarization to undermine the goal of reform and the establishment of democratic governance.

Egypt, on the other hand, remains repressive. President Hosni Mubarak was ousted and the government overthrown in February 2011 with a fanfare of change. However, a military coup led by many of Mubarak’s former cronies took place in July 2013, overthrowing Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s elected president, just a year after he took office. Today Egyptian security services routinely arrest journalists and critics of the government. Egyptian authorities have also taken advantage of a pro-Islamic State (IS) insurgency known as the Sinai Province (SP), which they have been battling since February 2011. Since July 2013, Egyptian authorities have been using the SP insurgency as a pretext for a violent crackdown on members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they now classify as a terrorist organization.

Of the four Mediterranean littoral states examined here, Libya and Syria have fared the worst. In Libya, over four decades of authoritarian rule by Muammar Qadhafi left little space for democratic institutions to flourish or for civil society groups to develop. Though elections did take place in July 2012, Libya now has two different factions claiming to be the legitimate government: in the east of Libya, a government in Beida, which is aligned with Qadhafi loyalists and military forces; and in the west, another government in Tripoli, which is backed by Islamists and independent militias from western coastal cities. It was recently reported that IS has at least 5,000 fighters now stationed in Libya, clearly taking advantage of the chaos that has ensued.

EU policy currently aims to assist Libya in its efforts to establish a democratic, stable and prosperous state. This involves promoting a democratic transition based on an inclusive constitution; the emergence of strong, transparent and accountable institutions; an alert civil society; and a vibrant private sector. The EU’s total program in Libya now stands at €108 million ($119 million). The Maghreb is strategically important to Europe in terms of energy security, territorial security, trade, resources and overseas investment. For example, 60 percent of exports from the Maghreb go to the EU, and 80 percent of total direct investment in the Maghreb comes from the EU.

In Syria, the failed uprising against President Bashar al-Assad evolved first into a civil war, but has now morphed into a proxy war with violence and chaos also fueling the rise of IS in the Levant region (viz., ISIL). In May 2011, the EU responded to the use of violence by Syrian military and security forces against peaceful protestors by suspending cooperation with the Syrian Government under the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), and gradually extended sanctions and other restrictive measures to pressure the Syrian government into ending the violence. The war in Syria is now in its fifth year with an estimated 4.1 million refugees who have fled the country, more than 7 million internally displaced persons, and 470,000 people dead. The EU and its member states are leading the international response. As the largest donor, they have mobilized over €5 billion ($5.5 billion) in humanitarian aid as well as stabilization and development assistance since the conflict began. That funding has gone to those affected by the conflict inside Syria and refugees and host communities in neighboring countries, especially Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

NATO and the EU’s southern borders are clearly more vulnerable now than at any other time in recent decades. From the Levant, the influx of refugees from Syria via Turkey (a NATO member) has significantly challenged NATO and the EU, with both organizations coming under criticism for lacking coherent and effective policies. “This is a two-headed issue that we will deal with,” Gen. Philip M. Breedlove – NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and Commander of the United States’ European Command (USEUCOM) – outlined late last year in an interview with Stars and Stripes: “The problem in the south is more about ungoverned spaces, unresponsive governments creating [a] massive flow of migrants and a large battlefield just south of one of our great allies, Turkey.” The rise of the IS along Turkey’s southern borders has also become a destabilizing factor and a grave security concern.

Since Syria’s civil war began four years ago, Turkey has maintained an official open door policy for the victims of the Syrian conflict, absorbing about 2.5 million refugees and spending nearly €9 billion ($9.9 billion) in the process. In November 2015, Turkey agreed to help fight smuggling networks with the EU and to curb irregular migration to the EU. In return, the EU pledged €3 billion ($3.3 billion) to help improve the condition of refugees in Turkey, and to grant political concessions to the Turkish government – including an easing of visa restrictions and fast-tracking its EU membership process.

From the Maghreb, spillover from the Libyan conflict is still causing mass migration to Southern Europe with Italy and Greece (both members of NATO and the EU) bearing the brunt of this influx. IS is also operating in Libya, posing a threat to the whole of Europe. During a recent BBC Radio 4 interview, Sir Peter Ricketts, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s former national security adviser, described Libya as a vast ungoverned space: “It is a threat to all of us in Europe because [IS] is moving in so there is a case to do everything we can to help them produce stability in Libya, but they have got to do it. The likelihood of British combat forces being deployed seems to me very remote, but supporting the Libyans to do a more effective job in governing their own space, I can certainly see a case for that.” The number of IS fighters in Libya is reported to number around 5,000. The group currently holds the port of Sirte, and is trying to move into Libyan oilfields.

European leaders have repeatedly declared their intention to place greater emphasis on human security, democratic reform, security sector reform, and economic development in Mediterranean littoral. NATO and EU partners should continue to focus on issues such as security sector reform and the establishment and maintenance of good governance across these territories. The EU and NATO, and their partners, can help shape the path of the Mediterranean littoral’s transitioning states through carefully designed engagement policies and programs using existing assets and political infrastructure. This would help stabilize the region by supporting institutions for good governance and security sector reform, and would create a cadre of better connected and capable Maghrebian and Levantian security partners for the future.

Consider creating a regional joint task force combing elements of the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the EU (FRONTEX), the EU’s External Action Service (EEAS), and NATO assets such as Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) and Alliance/national Search and Rescue (SAR) assistance as an extension of NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour. The objective of this joint task force would be to establish a balanced regional component comprising both hard and soft power elements sourced from regional security stakeholders. Sourcing assets from regional organizations like NATO and the EU, and directly from their border members and partners, would ensure the endurance of this joint task force while offering top cover from associated organizations.


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