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No longer say NATO operation in the Aegean Sea, say deployment! splash splash

Instructions should be given to NATO ships to stay away from migrant corridors (J. Stoltenberg at the Council of Defense Ministers, early February, credit: NATO)
Instructions should be given to NATO ships to stay away from migrant corridors (J. Stoltenberg at the Council of Defense Ministers, early February, credit: NATO)

(B2)" The operation » of NATO in the Aegean Sea has not really started. Despite all the declarations, each more vibrant than the last. We are still, as the organization's secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, told MEPs yesterday Tuesday (February 23), "at settle technical and operational details ". He didn't really want to say more in front of journalists (1). We understand it. In terms of details, everything is far from settled. And to obtain everyone's agreement, vagueness should be the force of law... Let's try to see clearly.

Is a decision made?

At the time this article is completed (19:30 p.m.) = No. The NATO Operations Committee was in meeting today, normally followed by the NAC Ambassadors meeting (which has not yet taken place). If Turkey seems to have given its approval, we are still waiting for that of its Greek counterpart (he is on the plane…). But it could be done in the next few hours, or by Friday. Unless a new problem arises… (Updated Thu 25.2) A decision was taken Thursday morning among NATO ambassadors. “We will be able to provide critical information to Greece, Turkey, and Frontex he said in a tweet.

Could this be a NATO operation?

No. This is not at all a NATO military 'operation' as has been presented or understood. There is, for the moment, no concept of operations (CONOPS), operation plan (OpPlan), or autonomous military command. Any prerequisite normally necessary for launching a military 'operation'. It is more of an additional mission given to NATO maritime groups (SNMGs). In concrete terms, it is the usual rotation of these deployed SNMGs which will ensure permanence in the area. With one advantage: no new means are really necessary. At NATO, we now prefer to highlight the word “ deployment ". NB: Which does not correspond to anything. It's like Canada Dry, it has an operational side. But that is not one of them.

What will be the role of these ships?

NATO ships will have a “ monitoring and surveillance work, as well as providing information to local authorities” according to Jens Stoltenberg. “We want to help the Turkish and Greek coastguards to do their job. We are not going to do their job. » In practice, the ships will effectively have the task of monitoring the area, spotting suspicious vessels (migrants or traffickers) and reporting them to the authorities of the neighboring countries concerned (Greece or Turkey depending on the trajectory of the boat). But that's all.

Where will NATO ships patrol?

The rule set by the Council of Ministers will be wisely respected. No Greek ships in NATO territorial waters. No Turkish ships in EU territorial waters. There will be no right to enter territorial waters for NATO ships. They will have to respect the usual rules (diplomatic reporting, etc.). In practice, NATO ships will be instructed to position themselves at a “ distance wise » migrant corridors to avoid coming across a refugee boat and being forced to collect them… (see further).

How will the monitoring be done then?

Surveillance can be carried out by means of surveillance of ships (radars, etc.) or even submarines, but above all by air: maritime patrol planes, on-board helicopters, etc. It is more the aerial aspect of the deployment that will be important.

How will the exchange of information between NATO, Greece and Türkiye and the EU take place?

Everything is not settled. The exchange of information, which normally remains classified, is not easy. But it can be done, as usual, in NATO exercises, deployments or operations. The information will pass through the NATO maritime command (Marcom) before being redispatched to the interested parties (EU, Frontex, Greece, Turkey). Practically and informally, it is not forbidden to think that liaison officers (Greek or Turkish) could be on board the flagship concerned (if it is not Turkish for the Greeks and vice versa 😉

What should happen when faced with refugee boats?

If a NATO ship comes across a ship in distress, it must (according to the law of the sea) come to its aid and bring the 'shipwrecked' to safety in the nearest port. Stoltenberg confirmed this. “ If a NATO ship comes close to refugee boats, as all ships have an obligation to come to the aid of these people, they will ensure the rescue of the refugees. »

If a NATO ship takes refugees on board, who will take care of them?

After the meeting of Defense Ministers, it was clear that it is Turkey which must take charge of the refugees recovered at sea (read: NATO launches an operation in the Aegean Sea). What J. Stoltenberg again confirmed yesterday before the European Parliament “ if these people are picked up by NATO forces, they would be sent back to Turkey ". With new precision: if these people are from Turkey » (we will therefore have to prove that they come from Türkiye). It seems that the reality is a little less simple. Turkey has so far not formally authorized this return of refugees (in a legally binding agreement, which is equivalent to a readmission agreement). This question of the right to asylum could also pose a delicate legal and ethical problem for the commanders of the ships concerned. If present in territorial waters, which law is applicable, that of territorial waters (Turkish or Greek), or that of the ship's flag (German, Canadian, Spanish, British)? In the event of presence in international waters, what about the rights of the person who requests asylum from the commander of the German, Canadian ship? Is there not a slight problem, political and legal, in sending him back if he is Kurdish (Syrian, or Turkish, etc.), if he belongs to a persecuted Syrian minority, if he is a child isolated, etc. ? At NATO we have decided to resolve the question, we will speak of 'according to international law'. In other words: we'll see later.

How powerful are NATO ships compared to possible suspects?

None normally. In territorial waters, NATO ships must scrupulously respect the law of the sea and the scope of authorization given by the authorities (Turkish or Greek). Clearly, they do not normally have police rights which belong only to the authorities of these States. In international waters, in the absence of a special UN resolution, NATO ships will be reduced to using the law of the sea, for example the rights to visit suspicious ships (without a flag) but no more. In judicial matters, military ships not having police powers, the arrest of a suspect could be canceled, before a judge, for procedural defects (incompetence of the officer, arbitrary confinement, etc. the lawyers of the suspects will be able to have fun). In fact, it will be like for refugees, NATO ships will manage not to come across suspects and just report them to the authorities concerned. It will be up to them to act.

A great operation of… political communication

Finally, " the operation » of NATO in the Aegean Sea appears today more like a (very) beautiful political communications operation, allowing everyone to prove to their opinion that they are taking action. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, the Turks and the Greeks can thus justify that they are all committed to securing the borders. The Turkish authorities can also boast of seeing this as an additional involvement of NATO in the region (in particular via the NATO Awacs engaged in surveillance). The Greeks can demonstrate to the European Union that they are doing their utmost to follow the EU's recommendations. And since NATO is there, if there is a problem, it will be its fault... And the Atlantic Alliance organization is happy to find there a permanent outlet in the east of the Mediterranean for its SNMGs and, incidentally, one day, the extension of his operation Active Endeavor (end of term). Everybody is happy. Close the ban!


(1) Questioned by B2 yesterday in the European Parliament, the NATO SG refused to answer our questions. Courage, let’s run away 😉


Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).