Spelling out Zbig's legacy on Turkish Riviera: NATO's Antalya summit

Can Erimtan
Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul, with a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans and the Greater Middle East. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the book “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In the period 2010-11, he wrote op-eds for Today’s Zaman and in the further course of 2011 he also published a number of pieces in Hürriyet Daily News. In 2013, he was the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. He is on Twitter at @theerimtanangle
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin during the NATO Foreign Minister's Meeting in Antalya, Turkey May 13, 2015. (Reuters / Joshua Roberts)
The two-day NATO foreign ministers' meeting in the Turkish city of Antalya has reaffirmed the West's commitment to the continuation of the New Cold War as well as its dedication of armed opposition to Islamic militancy.

While Turkey is in the middle of an election campaign and the ruling Justice and Development Party (or AKP) seems set to gain yet another victory at the ballot box, NATO foreign ministers held their meeting in the southern coastal city of Antalya (13 and 14 May).

In June 1994 Turkey also hosted a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting, but back then the world was a very different place in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. NATO was then still in the process of re-defining its identity and role in the world, a process that was but completed in April 1995 when then-Secretary General Willy Claes singled out "Islamic militancy" as the West's new bogeyman. Twenty years later, NATO sees itself as "one of the world’s major international institutions . . . a political and military Alliance of 28 member countries from Europe and North America,” united in their mutual opposition to militant Islam (currently embodied by the terror group formerly known as ISIS or ISIL) and allegiance to the White House.

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The New Cold War and rattling sabers

In his opening remarks, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg set the tone for the meeting: "Over the next two days, foreign ministers of NATO will address the main challenges that NATO is facing, both to the East and to the South. To the East, we face a more assertive Russia, responsible for aggressive actions in Ukraine. And to the South, we see turmoil, violence spreading across the Middle East and North Africa".

Stoltenberg's words sound eerily familiar, in fact they sound as if the Cold War had never ended and the new bogeyman merely joined NATO's traditional foe in its current post-Communist guise. In an apparent effort to clarify the Secretary General's statement, US Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute already told reporters at a briefing late last week that there is now an "arc of instability" around the east and south of the alliance, spelling out his contention that there are "pretty fundamental security challenges for NATO . . . to the east, to the southeast and to the south", specifically naming the "maybe failed state of Libya" but clearly also hinting at the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria and the crisis in the Ukraine.

The US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Sochi on the Black Sea, where he had talks with Russia's Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov in an effort to finally defuse the crisis in Ukraine (12 May), before attending the Antalya summit. In Turkey, Kerry told the press that “there was strong agreement among all of the NATO members that this is a critical moment for action by Russia and by the separatists to live up to the Minsk agreement.”

The summit organizers released a fact sheet entitled "Russia’s top five myths about NATO" which all but seems to confirm major points of dissension: from the fact that "NATO is trying to encircle Russia" over the fact that the "NATO missile defense targets Russia" and that "NATO exercises are a provocation which threatens Russia.”

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At the same time, however, NATO’s Readiness Action Plan remains in place (effective since May 2014) and now also includes an "immediate increased military presence and activity for assurance and deterrence in the eastern part of the Alliance.” In addition to presenting so-called Adaptation Measures meant to set up structures able to "react swiftly and decisively to sudden crises, whether these arise to the east or the south" - structures such as the NATO Response Force (NRF), that will comprise roughly 25,000 troops, and a "new quick-reaction 'Spearhead Force' (Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, or VJTF) of around 5,000 ground troops supported by air, maritime and special forces.

Conflicts in familiar places

Apart from these saber rattling exercises apparently aimed at Russia, as hinted at earlier, the Alliance is also concerned about its new Claes-defined bogeyman wreaking havoc in locations earlier visited by NATO and its members: Afghanistan and Libya, to be precise. Even though the US and its NATO allies (International Security Assistance Force or ISAF) have been retreating from the Hindu Kush mountains, Stoltenberg assured his audience that the Alliance's "future presence" in Afghanistan, poetically named Enduring Partnership, "will be led by civilians . . . [but will nevertheless] have a military component" as well.

The summit released the following official statement: "NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan from 2015 consists of three inter-related components: a NATO-led Resolute Support mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces; a contribution to the broad effort of financial sustainment of Afghan security forces; and a strengthened NATO-Afghanistan Enduring Partnership.” This means that the US-led occupation of Afghanistan, initially conceived in reaction to 9/11 and the terror threat of Al-Qaeda, will arguably continue for the foreseeable future. The Taliban transformed their initial easy defeat into a tenacious war of resistance that now seems on the brink of once again plunging the country into an all-out civil war.

Currently, under the terms of two security pacts that the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani concluded with Washington and NATO in September last year, there are still about 17,000 foreign troops present in Afghanistan. In Antalya, the Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani expressed his gratitude for the West's continued armed commitment: "the next phase of the NATO presence in Afghanistan . . . is going to be more strategic, more long-term, and it’s also going to be focused more on the specific security and developing needs of Afghanistan.”

As a result, it seems that peace in the Hindu Kush is a faraway prospect, given that the Taliban demand the departure of all foreign troops as a precondition for commencing peace talks. And, as if to underline their commitment, on the first day of the NATO summit in Turkey, the Taliban staged a spectacular armed attack in the Afghan capital - their "most audacious assault" to date - killing 14 civilians, including nine foreigners, in the restaurant of Kabul's Park Palace Hotel.

The other familiar place that has now become another Afghanistan in Africa is Libya, which has "descended into lawlessness since rebels overthrew strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 with the help of a NATO bombing campaign,” as expressed by the Reuters news agency. The NATO-constructed chaos in Libya now functions as a hub for smugglers to ship migrants across the Mediterranean into the promised land of Fortress Europe (aka the EU). But far from taking responsibility for the situation in Libya, NATO seems content to sit on the sidelines, with its Secretary General Stoltenberg cautiously saying that the alliance had not been asked to play a military role in the mission to capture and destroy smugglers’ boats setting off from Libya. Stoltenberg does not appear at all concerned about what is happening in the North African country. Just the other day a Turkish-owned ship was fired upon from positions on the Libyan coast.

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The Secretary General instead focused on the migrant crisis and its financial costs for the EU: "the tragedy . . . the human tragedy, which is taking place in the Mediterranean, is about migration. It's about border control. And the European Union has taken the initiative to be able to provide a more comprehensive response to what we see in the Mediterranean. And I fully support the efforts by the European Union. I also support the dialogue and the consultations which take place between the European Union and the UN to try to establish a mandate for the planned EU operations [to deal with the smugglers’ boats]. And I also strongly support the efforts by the UN to try to reach a peaceful negotiated solution to the turmoil to the conflict in Libya, to try to establish a ceasefire and to establish a unity government.” He added that "there has been no request for a NATO military role in this planned operation by the European Union.” And, in a rather cynical fashion, the Alliance has apparently indicated that the security situation in Libya must improve before it could help train Libyan security forces.

The Islamic State

With regard to the clear and present danger posed by ISIS, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the press before the summit that "Turkey is the only country which neighbors areas under Islamic State control in Syria and Iraq . . . This is not sustainable, and a big threat to Turkey.

These Turkish concerns were echoed by Stoltenberg, saying at the outset that "one of the important issues at this meeting, in different formats, will be how NATO can do even more in fighting terrorism and in fighting ISIL." NATO members are taking part in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State, but the Alliance itself has so far not taken any active interest or role. Still, NATO now seems to be considering a request from Iraq for help train its army. This request arguably comes in an attempt to downplay Iran's influence in Iraq and the country's war against the IS. Speaking on the summit's sidelines on Wednesday, John Kerry also appeared interested in deepening a Sunni consensus against the Caliph and his henchmen, declaring that "defining a clearer defense arrangement among the GCC and other friendly countries and the United States is going to be critical to helping to push back against the terrorism, as well as some of the other activities that take place in that region that are unsettling.”

In this way, the Secretary of State appears at pains to include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates in the coalition of the willing. But the GCC as well as Turkey still remain vehemently opposed to the Assad regime in Damascus. Turkey's PM Ahmed Davutoglu, even though equally opposed to Assad, said that "the Daesh [the Arabic acronym for the IS] threat grows, we see an increasing violence of terrorism at our doorstep,” adding that "this terrorist organization is a direct threat to our national security,” in a clear attempt to placate Kerry and the Americans. As such, since last March so-called moderate Syrian rebels are being trained by a US team in the Turkish town of Kırsehir.

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Zbig's Legacy

As such, the Antalya summit appears to present a highly irregular yet interesting picture. On the one hand, NATO is reviving the anti-Russian rhetoric of the Cold War, presenting Putin as the one and only culprit in the Ukraine conflict and not shying away from issuing quasi-threatening statements: "NATO Foreign Ministers have reconfirmed their full support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and have called on Russia to cease its destabilization of eastern Ukraine.”

At the same time, the Alliance appears preoccupied with fighting its Claes-defined bogeyman in the shape of the Caliph and his Islamic State, currently affecting Syria and Iraq. But now, it turns out, the Islamic State brand has apparently also popped up in the familiar places of Libya and Afghanistan. And, combining both zones of conflict in one handy phrase, the US Ambassador to NATO late last week spoke of an "arc of instability,” as already mentioned. Ambassador Lute's phrase seems highly convenient and deeply meaningful, as it is not coincidentally highly reminiscent of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s "arc of crisis" transformed into an "arc of Islam" devised to contain the Soviet threat of Russia during the Cold War.

Back then, Zbig's great idea was to support the radical fringe of Islam as a weapon against the Soviet Union. But now that the Soviets have disappeared and been replaced by Russia, the very same Islamic fringe has re-directed its warlike efforts against the West. Consequently, the West, as represented by the US and NATO, now has to face its own creation as well as a reinvigorated Russia - "a more assertive Russia" no longer willing to abide by the unipolar world imposed by Washington.

Hence, now an "arc of instability" has appeared on the scene focusing political and military aggression in one convenient zone. The great irony of history now appears to be the fact that Zbig's legacy is apparently still shaping US foreign policy in the 21st-century world, a world where godless Communists have long since been replaced by Muslim extremists as the West's bogeymen and where opposition to Russia has become an act of faith based on a no-longer existing opposition between the Free World and a Marxist ideal long since abandoned. In this way, the New Cold War and the War on Terror have become two sides of the same coin, and I would argue, the NATO foreign ministers' meeting on the Turkish Riviera has all but spelled out this quirky reality on the ground.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.