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How NATO is navigating Syria (and other issues for the evolving Alliance)

On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, the NATO secretary general discusses Syria and how 'smart defense' will contribute to cash-strapped Alliance members’ security future.

By Staff writer / September 26, 2013

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen addresses the media, during his monthly briefing at the Residence Palace in Brussels, Sept. 2. The NATO Secretary General said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria cries out for a strong international response since otherwise it would give the go-ahead to any dictator around the world to use such weapons with impunity.

Yves Logghe/AP

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United Nations, N.Y.

One of the advantages for NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in attending the United Nations General Assembly meeting this week is that it’s not his show.

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That means the former Danish prime minister at the helm of the 28-nation Atlantic Alliance has a little extra unprogrammed time – for a morning run or two in Central Park or to meet with reporters to extend to the US public his message of NATO’s transition from a cold-war footing to a 21st-century security alliance.

Mr. Rasmussen, whose five-year term ends next summer, sat down in New York with the Monitor to discuss Syria, Afghanistan, and why “smart defense” will be a growing feature of cash-strapped NATO members’ security future.

Syria: Steps to protect Turkey from civil war spillover, but no additional role

At Turkey’s request, NATO deployed batteries of Patriot missiles along the Alliance member’s border with Syria, and provocative incidents between the two unfriendly countries largely ceased. “We do believe [deploying the Patriots] has a deterrent effect, so that potential adversaries don’t even think about attacking Turkey,” Rasmussen says.

But don’t look for NATO involvement in implementation of the plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. The Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus “needs a firm response from the international community here and now,” he says, before adding: “I don’t foresee any further role for NATO.”

Russia has indicated it could be open to providing a military component to help with security for the chemical weapons inspectors and experts who would be implementing the plan in a war zone. But Russia, which regards NATO as having overstepped its bounds by intervening in Libya in 2011, would almost certainly be skeptical of Alliance participation in Syria.

But Rasmussen says “individual allies” (NATO members) “have capabilities that would be useful to the weapons-elimination program.” As a result, he envisions that “if requested, NATO could play a coordinating role in such [Allied] efforts.”

On Afghanistan: A post-2014 role for NATO, waiting for a ‘go’ from Karzai

Rasmussen is upbeat on Afghanistan, noting that Afghan security forces now lead “almost all security operations” and have impressed NATO commanders with how they are performing. “We have seen them deal with recent security incidents in quite a capable manner,” he says.

But the Afghan Army’s officer corps in particular will need additional training in “command and control” capabilities past the conclusion of NATO’s Afghanistan mission in December 2014, Rasmussen says. “We need to focus on the leadership level,” he adds.

And while he’s confident Alliance members are prepared to contribute to a post-2014 role, he also cautions that Afghanistan has to take certain steps to make a new NATO mission possible.

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