NATO′s Stoltenberg acknowledges ′different views′ on Syria | News | DW | 25.10.2019
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NATO's Stoltenberg acknowledges 'different views' on Syria

The military alliance has concluded a meeting focused in large part on the conflict in Syria and the security situation in Afghanistan after elections. Jens Stoltenberg also announced new security standards for 5G.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg briefed reporters on Friday after a difficult gathering of defense ministers amid Turkey's military operation in northern Syria. He tried to focus primarily on the subject of Friday morning's NATO session on Afghanistan, but with only limited success. 

On the conflict in northern Syria

Stoltenberg's comments on northern Syria were notably terse. "We had an in-depth discussion yesterday," he said, also acknowledging that "allies have different views." 

NATO member Spain, which had hinted at perhaps withdrawing air defense systems from Turkey, said after the summit that it would not do so. Defense Minister Margarita Robles said Madrid would agree to a six-month extension of the mandate if Ankara requested one. 

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the United States was considering sending American troops and armored vehicles back into northern Syria — having withdrawn and paved the way for the Turkish operation — to protect oil fields controlled by Syrian Kurds. 

Stoltenberg was also asked about troop movements in the area but ducked the question: "There has been no call for a NATO deployment of troops in northern Syria, and therefore I will refrain from commenting on individual allies," he said.

On Germany's suggestion for a buffer zone

Asked about German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer's suggestion for a "security zone" to be established by the international community around the border with Turkey, Stoltenberg said he welcomed suggestions for a political solution, given that "the situation on the ground in Syria is not sustainable." 

"I discussed this proposal with the German defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and she also discussed that with other allies during the meeting," Stoltenberg said. "I think we all welcome, and I welcome, proposals that can help us make progress on the ground in northern Syria. And we welcome that we have seen a decrease in violence, but we need more lasting and sustainable solutions." 

Stoltenberg also acknowledged, however, that there "still remains some work to be done on the many different details, and also to garner the necessary political support," before Kramp-Karrenbauer's proposal could come into force.

Read more:  Germany defends vision of international 'security zone' in Syria

On Afghanistan

The defense ministers discussed last month's elections, and Stoltenberg praised Afghan security forces for their role in keeping the peace during the vote. He called on all sides to "exercise calm and restraint" during the lengthy vote counting process. 

Asked about troop reductions and the possibility of leaving Afghanistan altogether, Stoltenberg said NATO did not want to stay forever, but also stressed that it continued the deployment in its own interests. 

"We don't want to stay in Afghanistan longer than necessary, but at the same time if we leave early the price can be very high," Stoltenberg said, firstly because Afghans would suffer at the hands of the Taliban, and secondly because of the risk of reopening the door for terror groups like the self-styled "Islamic State."

Stoltenberg was asked if he feared a sudden US withdrawal from Afghanistan akin to that in northern Syria, but said he didn't think it a fair comparison. 

"The situation in northern Syria and Afghanistan are very different, because there has never been a NATO mandate or mission in northern Syria. That's a totally different thing when it comes to Afghanistan. Because we're in Afghanistan as a direct result of 9/11. We agreed to invoke Article 5 as a result of the attack on the US," Stoltenberg said. "So I think to compare the NATO mission in Afghanistan to the behavior of some allies — but not many — in northern Syria is not fair as they're not the same thing." 

Read more:  NATO chief warns 'fight against IS is not over'

On military spending, cooperation

Stoltenberg also announced plans to secure priority handling from air traffic controllers within Europe so that NATO forces can respond more rapidly and be better protected. 

He welcomed gradual increases in European defense spending, as several members — perhaps most notably Germany — fall short of NATO's spending target of 2% of GDP. Ministers "also discussed progress the Alliance is making on burden sharing," Stoltenberg said. "We see a clear positive trend. It's the fifth consecutive year of increased defense spending across Europe and Canada."

On 'baseline requirements' for 5G — and Huawei

Ahead of his press conference, NATO's Stoltenberg said the defense ministers had "agreed baseline requirements for 5G networks" in future. He did not mention sector leader Huawei by name, but appeared to be directly referring to the company's ties to the Chinese state when listing some of the planned new standards.

"All Allies need reliable communications systems, [to] conduct thorough risk assessments and [to] consider the consequences of foreign ownership, control or direct investment," Stoltenberg said on Twitter. 

Officially, Huawei is owned by its employees via a trade union. However, it is bound by Chinese laws compelling companies to cooperate with the state where necessary, and as its shares are not publicly traded, some have voiced doubts over its official ownership structure, the US in particular. Several NATO members, notably Germany and the UK, are deliberating their 5G plans and are expected to at least consider some Huawei involvement.

Asked by DW's Juri Rescheto whether the guidelines explicitly named any companies or countries, Stoltenberg said they did not. 

"These guidelines are not about a specific country or specific company, but rather they establish requirements which all allies are expected to meet," Stoltenberg said, adding that the main thrust of the changes was to reflect evolving technology: "They're quite detailed and technical but the main message is that the old guidelines didn't address 5G at all." 

msh/stb (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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