A top United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commander said Tuesday that Russia and Syria are using migration as a tool to destabilize their European neighbors, and warned of “resurgent and aggressive” Russian behavior in the region.
US Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, Commander of the US European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe for NATO, said that the migrant crisis facing Europe is allowing terror elements into the continent undetected, with actions by the Islamic State (IS), Moscow, and Damascus pushing people out of Syria and Iraq and into the European system.
“Europe faces the dawning challenge of mass migration spurred by state instability and state collapse, a migration that masks the movement of criminals, terrorists, and foreign fighters,” Breedlove said at a Pentagon press briefing. “Within this mix, [IS] is spreading like a cancer, taking advantage of paths of least resistance, threatening European nations and our own with terrorist attacks.”
Breedlove also said that his information suggests that radical foreign fighters have left from Europe to join groups like IS and subsequently reentered unchecked.
“As many as 9,000 fighters have gone, and as much as 1,500 fighters have returned back to Europe,” he said, adding that they bring with them the potential for future terror attacks.
Breedlove also had strong words for Russia, saying that its recent actions have placed it in opposition to US and NATO goals in the region, and that the Syrian government and its ally are “deliberately weaponizing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.”
“Europe faces a resurgent and aggressive Russia,” Breedlove said. “Russia has chosen to be an adversary and poses a long-term existential threat to the US and to our European allies and partners,” adding that “Russia seeks to fracture our unity and challenge our resolve.”
He went on to say that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with Russian military support, has been using weapons such as unguided aerial “barrel bombs” to indiscriminately terrorize Syrians and drive them out toward Europe, bringing with them dangerous elements hiding within the growing refugee population.
“It is a weapon of terror, and it is a weapon to get people out of a location, on the road moving, somewhere else, and make them someone else's problems,” Breedlove said of Syrian and Russian reliance on haphazard IEDs. “[T]his sort of indiscriminate use of unguided, imprecise weaponry has no other value that I know of other than to terrorize and get people on the road.”
Breedlove suggested that the US should increase its troop levels in Europe to counter a Russian territorial push and to prepare for potential terror events, following a steady decline in the American presence there over the past decades.
Around 130,000 migrants have flooded Europe this year, far outpacing numbers from 2015. And while $760 million in aid is planned to be distributed throughout European nations to confront the influx of migrants, many countries maintain tight border controls or are already flooded with foreigners seeking refuge.
Greece is in the midst of a migrant crowding that has created a bottleneck at its border, while nearby countries are closed to migration or are only allowing small numbers of people through each day, while thousands more remain stuck in border camps or on the streets.
“With governments not working together despite having already reached agreements in a number of areas, and country after country imposing new border restrictions, inconsistent practices are causing unnecessary suffering and risk being at variance with EU and international law standards,” a United Nations refugee agency spokesperson warned Tuesday.