BRUSSELS â€” Foreign ministers of the 26-member North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) here to hold their annual meeting on Thursday will begin with a special off-the-record session devoted to the Middle East, a senior NATO official said on Monday.
â€œWhat happens in the Middle East is pivotal. There is a lot at stake for NATO in the way the region develops,â€ said the organisation’s Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
He told reporters that NATO members would address the way the region is moving, look into where the alliance has been inactive and discuss ways to improve cooperation with Middle Eastern countries.
Scheffer, however, insisted that NATO has no ambitions in dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the Iran-US and European Union discussions over the country’s possession of nuclear weapons.
â€œWe are not here to duplicate efforts by others. NATO believes that the Quartet is well qualified to deal with the main actors [Palestinians and Israelis], and I do not think that NATO can play a major or direct role in the Arab-Israeli conflict,â€ he told a group of reporters from the Middle East attending a series of briefings ahead of the foreign ministers’ meetings.
Other NATO officials said neither of the parties had requested assistance from the alliance, which only acts upon request and whose decision-making process is based on consensus of its 26 members.
Scheffer noted that the alliance was outreaching for the region but stressed that it was not part of NATO’s intentions to â€œcome into the region and establish a heavy political footprint, let alone a military footprint.â€
â€œWe found a lot of practical forms of cooperation and we do it on the base of a menu and in the form of a dialogue,â€ Scheffer said, in clear reference to the alliance’s dialogue with the Mediterranean countries, including Jordan, and the recent steps taken to upgrade the dialogue into a full-fledged partnership.
He also cited the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) that was launched at NATO’s 2004 summit.
Foreign ministers of the alliance had decided to take the dialogue with the seven members of the NATO-Mediterranean dialogue a step further towards military cooperation.
Officials said NATO felt that with the present security issues, including international terrorism, dialogue should advance from political cooperation to hard-core partnership.
The dialogue, started 11 years ago, focused on exchange of information, civil emergency planning, humanitarian relief and scientific cooperation.
The new step for partnership entailed extending NATO training to the armed forces of the Mediterranean countries, participation in joint exercises, programmes for the development of interoperability, maritime safety and peace support operations.
Preventive measures against nuclear, biological and chemical attacks, as well as mechanisms against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are included.
Countries taking part in NATO’s Mediterranean dialogue, in addition to Jordan, are Egypt, Israel, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.
NATO decided to upgrade dialogue in May 2002, through consultations with the partners on security matters. The move was seen as part of the alliance’s bid to strengthen its anti-terrorist operation â€œActive Endeavourâ€ in the Mediterranean, by including partner countries.
A senior NATO official told reporters that the Palestinian Authority was not invited for the dialogue that started in 1994 because at the time â€œit was not recognised as a government.â€
The ICI is a separate but complementary programme to promote practical cooperation with countries in the broader Middle East, beginning with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. So far Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have joined the ICI. Saudi Arabia and Oman are still in discussions with NATO, an official said.
According to Nicola De Santis, head of the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) and ICI Countries in NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division, the enhanced MD and ICI now form the basis of allied partnership efforts towards the Mediterranean and broader Middle East, which entails a significant outreach programme in the Arab world. Priority areas for this initiative include promoting military-to-military cooperation, effective intelligence sharing, contribution to NATO’s work on weapons of mass destruction and promoting cooperation on border security issues.
Thursday’s meeting, the first of NATO foreign ministers following the alliance’s Istanbul summit in June 2004, provides an opportunity for ministers to review progress in implementing the decisions made by heads of state and government at the summit and to move ahead with expanding NATO’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan and to maintain its commitment to the Balkans.
NATO has also reiterated commitment to Afghanistan and agreed to provide additional support for the upcoming parliamentary elections. A provisional agreement was reportedly reached last month at NATO’s Brussels headquarters to send an additional 6,000 troops to join the alliance’s International Security Assistance Force’s current 11,000 soldiers from 37 countries stationed in Afghanistan.
NATO leaders had also agreed at the Istanbul summit to help Iraq train its troops, ending the alliance’s worst crisis in its 56-year history over involvement in the war-torn country. Around 1,000 senior level officers are trained inside Iraq at military schools and some 500 officers receive training outside Iraq annually, officials said. â€œNATO is playing a positive role in Iraq. We are participating in getting the country back on its feet,â€ said Scheffer, expecting greater cooperation with Iraq following the electoral process.
The major issue of NATO’s transformation will be discussed throughout the meetings that will be attended by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice â€” who is on a tour of several European countries to explain the US position over the terrorism prison scandal â€” officials said.
NATO officials said the alliance felt a need to transform or adapt with the variable security environment to remain effective and find a new balance between addressing its traditional missions centred on Europe and tackling new global threats.