The Spanish government is going to try to take advantage of the NATO summit at the end of June in Madrid so that the allied countries include the so-called “southern flank” in their security strategy. According to knowledgeable sources, the intention is that the Strategic Concept of Madrid, the document that will come out of the agreement of the partners, incorporate plans for threats such as terrorism or the migratory mafias present in North Africa (Morocco or Algeria) and the Sahel (parts of Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad or Sudan, among others). And, all this, despite the fact that the bulk of the summit’s natural efforts are aimed at preparing the organization to face the threat posed by Russia to Europe.
These are Moncloa’s plans. However, experts in the military organization see any substantial change in strategy at this time as complicated. “I think it is totally out of context, because the conceptual essence of NATO is to protect Europe from Russia, now more than ever,” he says. Nick Whitney, senior researcher at ECFR London.
It points to the same idea Intissar Fakir, a researcher at the MEI Institute for North Africa and the Sahel in Washington. “I don’t think the proposal is going to be very successful, because the region is not part of the protected area in the North Atlantic agreement, an organization that was created primarily to protect Western Europe from the Russians,” she says. In a similar line is Felix Arteagaa researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute: “I don’t think anything concrete will come out” in that regard.
There is a crack through which Spain can try to sell its proposal. The presence of the Wagner paramilitary group, a bloody group of mercenaries that, with the support of Russia, fights for one of the parties to the conflict in countries such as Libya or Mali, in exchange for payments in cash or raw materials. “If NATO doesn’t have a presence there, the Russians will fill that void.”, explains Witney, a diplomat who directed the policy towards NATO in the security department of the British Ministry of Defense. He understands that for Spain or Greece, due to the migratory crisis, the involvement of the organization is necessary, but he does not believe that, in the current context, it will be easy to convince the rest of the Alliance countries.
The problems in the area are substantial: civil wars, jihadist terrorism, coups, forced migrations… The American analyst Fakir acknowledges that NATO should consider a global strategy for the region, but he doubts he has the resources to deal with it. Military action is needed, yes, but also political, economic and social action. And that is far from the Atlantic Alliance, a defense organization, missiles, intelligence, satellites, soldiers…
The Russian Wagner
The Wagner group is a paramilitary unit of soldiers of fortune coordinated with the Kremlin. It has acted in the 2014 Donbas war in Ukraine, but also, and in an extremely violent way, in the conflict in Sudan, in the second Central African civil war, in the Syrian civil war, in the Libyan civil war or in Maliwhere they support the coup government against the jihadists.
The key is that many countries have regulated these military security companies (PMC) and limit them in some way. Russia no. The extreme violence with which they have been used in battles demonstrates this. “It is a paramilitary group without any restrictions and control, under Russian command, which acts at the request of the parties. In Mali they are carrying out security tasks in the coup board, and they are paid for it in mineral extraction contracts,” explains Arteaga. “They live on the ground. They do not respect international law or human rights, nor do they have an interest in gaining the trust of the population.”
Europe tried it first in Mali. Launched Takuba’s quest, a military group placed under French command to advise, assist and accompany the Malian Armed Forces in their fight. It intended to secure the Liptako (hot region on the borders of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali).
Last February, France announced the departure of its troops and those of its European allies from the country. After two coups, the government was no longer an ally. The conditions do not exist to continue the operations against terrorism of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the Great Sahara, linked to Al Qaeda, and the Support Group for Islam and Muslims.
“The Wagners have evicted us. Having the confidence of the military junta, European countries have had to gradually close down operations. The EU seemed to be the remedy, but it has not turned out well”, says the expert from the Elcano Royal Institute. “And NATO is not going to get in. They will continue to intervene, for example by launching counter-terror drone strikes from Niger, France and the US.”
In Libya, the Wagners militarily support General Khalifa Haftar, which controls the east of the country, in which Moscow tries to increase its influence. They have good operational capacity for this type of operation, and they have everything that Russia can lend them.
In this sense, NATO may not care too much about North Africa or the Sahel. But if Russia tries to gain influence there, then it does start to matter. What happens in eastern Europe has a reflection in southern Europe.
A historical claim
“The Atlantic Council recognized in June 2021 that the deterioration of security in the Sahel affected the security of NATO and it was proposed to strengthen its relations with regional actors”, explain Luis Simón and Félix Arteaga himself in an article in the Elcano Royal Institute. “But in addition to making progress in cooperative security, Spain is interested in NATO defining how it is going to contribute to regional stability, and also in addressing the role that Russia and China can play in the area.”
The origin of the Spanish insistence on involving NATO on the “southern flank” comes from the 2014 summit in Wales, in which the then Defense Minister, Pedro Morenés, and the president Mariano Rajoy requested that the challenges of the zone for the security of the member countries be taken into account. The Organization then made a “readiness action plan” as a first response.
Since then, subsequent ministers have maintained the pressure strategy. “It is a battle that we have fought alone, with Portugal coinciding and, periodically, with Italy. But never with France, which is the main obstacle to NATO have a relevant role in North Africa, because they don’t want it to enter ‘their’ space”, concludes Arteaga.
In other summits, such as the one in warsaw of 2019 or that of Brussels of 2018, framework programs and packages were approved to project stability in the south through partnerships with countries and the development of capacities. There is some collaboration with countries like Mauritania either Tunisia, occasional joint exercises and contingency plans in case one day they have to be activated. NATO has created an intelligence center in Naples to find out what is happening in the Sahel.
Immigration as a political weapon
In the war in Ukraine, NATO sees a clear risk. The tanks and the bombings are seen. But, in the Sahel, the problem is more subtle: it is terrorism, insurgency, but also immigration mafias, or the use of migration as a political weapon.
“You can threaten the security of a country by putting 15,000 soldiers on its borders, but also with 15,000 immigrants irregular, as we have seen with Belarus and Poland”, Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said on April 22. “NATO must be prepared for all of that.”
The problem is not only one of will, but of capacity. NATO has eminently military measures in its inventory and this greatly limits its ability to act.
But it is also not welcome in the area. Countries like Algeriaa regional power and ally of Russiadoes not forget how the West intervened in Libya, a country now torn in two after the overthrow and assassination of Muammar Gaddafi.
There are regional actors and organizations that fill the void, from the so-called Sahelian G5 (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) to the African Union, which has peacekeeping missions.
The wording of Strategic Concept It is underway at the moment, eight weeks before the Madrid summit, diplomatic sources report. It remains to be seen whether the contacts that are taking place will succeed in convincing NATO to get involved on Europe’s “southern flank”.
Ceuta, Melilla and NATO
Vox and the PP have asked Spain to demand that NATO include the territories of Ceuta and melilla as protected by the Alliance. Now they are not, because during the constitution of the Alliance they were left out. Not so the Canary Islands or the French overseas territories.
NATO Deputy Deputy Secretary for Public Diplomacy, Carmen Romero, has called for an end to the debate on the protection of Ceuta and Melilla by the Atlantic Alliance. She explains that collective defense always depends on a “political decision” of the allies, regardless of the geographical framework indicated in their Treaty.
In that same idea Felix Arteaga. Any security problem in the Spanish autonomous cities can be within or outside the protection of article 5 of the organization (which says that an attack on a NATO country is considered an attack on the rest) depending on the political decision of its members. Countries must decide whether they consider each specific case enough aggression to intervene.
The key is to determine if the incident in question puts the population of each country associated with NATO at risk. “In this case, Spain would have to explain why it would be a risk and why it is a threat to the population. It is not the same if they enter the border peacefully than if they enter shooting. It can go from being a bilateral problem, which touches you fix bilaterally with Morocco, to a collective one. It is not a legal issue, but a political one.”
That is why NATO acted in Afghanistaneven though that territory is not covered by the Alliance.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.