General Petr Pavel: Greater cooperation between different players needed to counter southern security threat

Photo: ČTK

The coordinated terrorist attacks this week in Brussels, which claimed more than 30 lives, made clear, once again, the daunting task faced by the EU and the security community. Czech General Petr Pavel, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, told Radio Prague that far greater cooperation between different players, including the EU, will be needed.

General Petr Pavel, photo: Kristýna Maková
In our interview, I began by asking General Pavel about the two most significant risks outlined by NATO since 2014.

“In its strategic documents NATO has identified two major threats: one of them is the Eastern threat, today represented by Russia and its aggressive or we can say assertive policy through the annexation of territory through direct support of separatist movements, through the support of Bashar Assad, who definitely is not considered a democratic leader, so that is one threat. The other threat is defined as the southern threat and it represents extremists and terrorist movements, today mostly by Islamic State.”

When it comes to Russia, is Russia to some degree easier to define as a threat, to pre-determine what its actions might be?

“We used to say that Russia was unpredictable in its behavior and the Russian leadership was opportunistic. I am not just of that opinion: I believe that Russian actions and Russian motivation is to some extent predictable. I do agree, however, that they do quite often act opportunistically – using any chance we give through lack of our own action, indecisiveness or concerns with our national caveats. So in that sense Russian policies are predictable.”

By contrast, the terrorist threat is very difficult to predict: we have seen a terrible attack in Brussels that ISIS has taken responsibility for. How do you stop a foe that relies on these kinds of means? Using terrorist to strike civilians, attacking soft targets, and on the territory it holds, uses asymmetric warfare… How do you stop such a foe?

“We need a much broader, more comprehensive approach to the issue of terrorism because military tools are only a very small part of the toolbox.”

“It is very difficult. And it is very difficult to identify motivation because terrorism presented mostly as ‘Islamic’ has very little to do with Islamic religion. Even though these people present themselves as jihadists or as fighters for freedom and religion, they are in fact, by their deeds, criminals. They do not distinguish between Christians, Muslims and any other religious group and they simply kill everyone, including women and children. In that sense, I think our concern is to de-legitimize their actions as being ‘religiously motivated’. We simply have to clearly state that this is a criminal activity.”

Is there a broader role for NATO to play in this? We have heard declarations that Europe is at war from politicians such as the French prime minister; so what is NATO’s role in blunting or helping to stop groups like ISIS?

“I would see that as a simplification of the problem. If we say that we are ‘at war’ then we implicitly say that this more or less a military business to deal with this kind of threat. We all know that the military has an important role to play but not the only one. We really need a much broader, more comprehensive approach to the issue of terrorism because military tools are only a very small part of the toolbox. We don’t only want to address the symptoms – we want to address the root causes. And the military can only act in defeating the military part of terrorism.

Terrorist attacks in Brussels, photo: CTK
“But what are the grass roots of terrorism? It’s mostly deprivation, the social situation, obviously religious strife (this time mostly between the Sunni and Shia branches in Islam) and a vast variety of other factors where the military has no tools to be effective. So I really believe that we need to address the issue of extremism and terrorism through addressing security, the social and economic situation in countries where terrorism has roots.”

At any given moment when you turn on a news channel now it appears – and I stress appears – the situation is rapidly deteriorating on many ‘fronts’. We have Europe in the midst of the migrant crisis, we have politicians who are trying to exploit the situation to try and spread anti-migrant sentiments… Has the situation gotten out of hand in terms of threats in connection with the migration crisis because we don’t know who is who, who is coming, who is going?

“I believe that there is a clear link between terrorism, extremism and migration. Not that terrorism would be the only source or reason for migration. But it is one of the sources, causing instability, causing fear and of course an influx of people to Europe. We have to be cautious when receiving migrants to distinguish between those who deserve the status of refugees who come from war-torn countries and those who are mostly economic migrants. And also we have to apply very strict screening, both security and medical, when we accept migrants to Europe so that we can be sure they are not a threat to our security interests.”

“We have to be cautious when receiving migrants to distinguish between those who deserve the status of refugees and those who are mostly economic migrants.”

Let me ask again, what do you foresee could be NATO’s role in that respect? Regarding the migration crisis NATO has seven ships in the Aegean, but is there a broader role which is under discussion?

“What we called the Aegean Initiative, consisting of seven ships, was the immediate reaction to the call of three nations, German, Greece and Turkey, which, through their ministers of defence in February in Brussels, asked for support for the EU operation in the Aegean Sea.

“I see the operation as very useful but still only a fraction of efforts which are necessary. Because it is not just the Aegean Sea and we also have to address a much broader area, not geographically, in terms of measures and tools. So we are now working, let’s say, on the basic principles for the foundation for the future strategy of NATO to the south, where NATO – using assets available, mostly military – will cooperate with other major players like the European Union, African Union, regional groupings and also non-aligned nations willing to cooperate, to address a much broader spectrum of issues, both military and socio-economic.”

From what you are saying it is clearly not enough just to focus only on Syria or parts of Iraq but as well northern Africa where ISIS and other terror groups have affiliates.

Photo: archive of VOA, Public Domain
“That is absolutely right because it is not possible to contain the problem within one country. And these people move quite freely from country to country. We have some warning and proven intelligence that fighters, once they are squeezed in Syria, they move, for example, to Libya. They have a lot of affiliations with movements like Al- Shabaab or Boko Haram, al Qaeda Maghreb and there are many, many groups which either directly cooperate or provide safe haven to each other. These kinds of affiliations can prove very dangerous not only to African interests but also to European ones in terms of long-term security.”

When discussing steps which can be taken, is there any scenario in which you could envisage boots on the ground in Syria?

“It is improbable at this stage, after political leaders reached an agreement, still a fragile agreement, on a political settlement in Syria, it would be very unwise to launch a military intervention into Syria at this point. I think and I believe that is necessary to give the peaceful process a chance and only if this process fails to deliver on expectations then we may start thinking about other alternatives, including some kind of a military operation. But at this point I don’t believe a military intervention into Syria would significantly improve the situation on the ground.”

“After political leaders reached a still fragile agreement on a political settlement in Syria, it would be very unwise to launch a military intervention in the country at this point.

And because we have also been talking about Russia, they are obviously part of the calculus as well; I can’t imagine that it would be easy to consider that kind of intervention without some kind of agreement with Russia.

“We obviously have to pay attention to strategic messaging. The strategic messaging from both Russia and the Bashar Assad regime is that ‘only Russia was invited’ – all the others are considered to be intruders. So, we do not want to be seen as intruders and we want to contribute to the resolution by rules and that is why we would support the maximum peaceful resolution. And only really if that fails we will be looking for other options, including consultations with Russia and other players in the region so that we would find a comprehensive resolution rather than just a unilateral one from NATO.”