U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on NATO to plan for the possibility that Syrian violence might affect an alliance member and decide how to respond if Syria uses its stock of chemical weapons.
“We need to continue to consider NATO’s role as it relates to the Syrian crisis,” Kerry told the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s council today in Brussels.
Describing “planning regarding Syria” as “an appropriate undertaking for the alliance,” Kerry said member countries “should also carefully and collectively consider how NATO is prepared to respond to protect its members from a Syrian threat, including any potential chemical-weapons threat.”
The prospect of any NATO intervention or involvement could create tension with Russia, which is opposed to a repeat of NATO’s creation of a no-fly zone in Libya, a step that led to the fall of Muammar Qaddafi. In addition to its opposition to externally imposed regime change, Russia’s last Middle East naval outpost is in the Syrian port of Tartus. It has defended Syria against United Nations censure and continues to arm the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The issue of NATO’s role is sensitive enough that, soon after Kerry told NATO partners that “planning” is “appropriate,” a State Department official sought to narrow the scope of Kerry’s remarks.
The official avoided all mention of planning, telling reporters that Kerry doesn’t think there is a role for NATO in Syria at this time. Kerry was referring to the importance of taking firm and unanimous action to ensure defense of allies such as Turkey, said the official, who asked not to be named discussing the issue.
Kerry, when asked to clarify the comment, said, “It’s sort of an extrapolation to suggest that I’m suggesting planning.”
Kerry said he “didn’t ask for additional planning. I think it might have been secretary general or somebody who commented that we may need to do some additional planning. But there’s no specific request.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the 28-member organization isn’t discussing any active role in the conflict, which began in March 2011. He emphasized the way that the Syrian conflict could affect members’ security. NATO member Turkey shares a border with Syria and the alliance has deployed Patriot missiles near the Syrian border to protect it from possible air strikes.
“There is no call for NATO to play a role,” Rasmussen said at a press conference. “But if these challenges remain unaddressed they could directly affect our own security so we will continue to remain extremely vigilant.”
“We can all see that the situation in Syria is getting worse,” Rasmussen said. “We cannot ignore the risks of a regional spill-over, with possible implications for allied security.”
The uprising against Assad, which began in March 2011, has killed “well over” 70,000 people and displaced millions, according to a UN estimate last month.
Kerry and the 27 other NATO foreign ministers also discussed the alliance’s post-combat mission in Afghanistan, talks with Russia on missile defense, and the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, beyond Syria’s borders.
Kerry urged members to consider ways to foster stability and democratic development in the region.
“The greatest threats we face today may not be right at our borders or even in the neighborhood,” Kerry said. “Violence and instability in any region may have negative implications for our collective security. Nowhere is that clearer than in the Middle East and North Africa.”
North Korea was also on the agenda because of the threat it poses to the U.S., according to a State Department official who wasn’t authorized to comment by name. The ministers condemned North Korea’s development of ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, saying they “seriously undermine regional stability” and “threaten international peace and security.”
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization said today that a Japanese monitoring station made a “significant detection” of gases emitted by North Korea’s Feb. 12 nuclear test. “Two radioactive isotopes of the noble gas xenon were identified, xenon-131m and xenon-133, which provide reliable information on the nuclear nature of the source,” the organization said on its website.
The foreign ministers had a separate meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss joint projects, including the training of Afghan helicopter maintenance crews. At the start of that meeting, Lavrov pulled Kerry aside briefly and handed him an envelope of photos from their last meeting, earlier this month in London.
Russia and the U.S. pledged to intensify their engagement on a range of issues when National Security Adviser Tom Donilon visited Moscow last week, according to the State Department official.
The two countries have missile defense and non-proliferation issues to resolve. They work together on the challenges posed by Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. And the U.S. sees Russia as key to a political solution to the civil war that has raged in Syria for more than two years.
The full slate of issues is driving Kerry and Lavrov to develop a closer working relationship. They have met twice this month. They conferred in Berlin in February and plan to see each other again in June, before a Group of Eight meeting in the U.K.
Kerry held a 20-minute bilateral meeting with Lavrov, before the two dismissed their staff and spoke privately for another 20 minutes. During the group meeting, they discussed economic cooperation, coordination on nuclear proliferation and on the Arctic.
During their meeting, the two foreign ministers focused on Syria and finding a political solution to the violence based on the Geneva framework, a structure for Syrian political transition that both their countries back, according to a State Department official.
Kerry thanked Lavrov for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expression of support for the families of the victims of the Boston attack. That bombing, Lavrov later said in public remarks, was evidence that it was too early to say terrorism had been beaten.
Kerry also signed a joint action plan on combating illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials and related technologies with the Lithuanian foreign minister. The agreement expresses the intent to work together to enhance to prevent, detect and respond to nuclear smuggling.
“This will keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists, out of bad actors, it’s a very important step,” Kerry said.