NATO PA urges greater engagement in the Middle East and North Africa

10 October 2021

LISBON – Ten years after the Arab Spring, NATO nations need to build a united approach on outreach to the Middle East and North Africa, with the aim of boosting security and backing efforts to consolidate democracy, lawmakers from around the Alliance said this weekend. 

“Challenges emanating from the South are just as formidable as those from the East, however, the Allies have yet to demonstrate the same level of strategic focus on their southern periphery,” said a report drafted by French deputy Sonia Krimi for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

The Assembly’s Annual Session, held in Lisbon, debated two reports looking at the legacy of the Arab Spring events of 2011 and the security agenda in the Mediterranean region. 

Krimi’s report, approved by the Assembly’s Political Committee (PC) on Sunday, made several proposals which should be reflected in an enhanced NATO strategy to help stabilise the security situation in the region. 

They included strengthening the Alliance’s collective defence and crisis management capabilities in the region; securing adequate funding for projects with Mediterranean partners; bolstering the political dimension of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue; expanding contacts with regional organisations; and deeper coordination with the European Union on regional issues.

Other players are taking advantage of the lack of engagement in the region by NATO nations, Krimi cautioned. 

“Russia has resolutely seized opportunities to fill the void left by Western nations, particularly in Libya and Syria, seeking to expand its influence, strengthen its prestige and test its power projection capabilities,” she told the PC. “China's involvement is mainly economic, but it also carries out political and security actions.”  

In a report approved by the Committee on Democracy and Security (CDS) on Saturday, another French legislator, Anissa Khedher, insisted NATO’s relations with the region must be rooted in democratic principles. 

“It is crucial that NATO member states ensure that the respect of democratic values, human rights, gender equality, freedom of expression and freedom of the press remain at the very core of their relations with the region’s national authorities,” it says. “The civil societies in the region are in need of concrete support.”

Stability in the region is key for the security of Allied nations, Khedher said. 

“This stability depends strongly on authorities in the region meeting the socio-economic and democratic expectations of their people,” she told the CDS. “Allied countries […] must support countries to move ahead with democratic transition, if they so wish, and encourage others to follow their example.”

The NATO PA received a warning on the dangers of inaction from Stéphane Lacroix, Associate Professor at the Center of International Studies (CERI) at France’s Sciences Po university.

“Democratization of the Arab world is no longer a priority for the Western powers,” he noted. “If we no longer have democratic forces and civil society, the only people who can benefit from chaos are the jihadists […] We could end up in a situation where the chaos is far worse than the chaos we had in the past.”

Another expert speaker, Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, Director of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program at the United States Institute of Peace, outlined the latest developments in the conflict. She warned of a hardening of attitudes on both sides, particularly among young Israelis and Palestinians. 

“There is no such thing as stasis or the so-called status quo in this conflict, and what we see is both societies becoming more hardline in their views towards the conflict and towards each other,” she told the PC. 

Leaving the conflict “to fester” will heighten threats to regional security, said Kurtzer-Ellenbogen. She called for greater international engagement to build bridges between civil society players on both sides, even when efforts to forge political solutions are stalled. 

“The goal should, minimally, be preventing a constant cycle of firefighting. It may be that the Israelis and Palestinians light their own fires and ultimately have to secure their own future, but they won’t be able to do that without help from outside actors,” she concluded.