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Spain urges NATO leaders to agree bigger role in North Africa, Sahel

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Thursday, June 30th, 2022
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Spain will urge fellow NATO allies to consider a bigger role for the alliance in North Africa and the Sahel at a summit in Madrid on Thursday, with Spain’s foreign minister saying an intervention in Mali should not be ruled out.

NATO has little appetite for such steps, diplomats say, but as it undertakes the largest scaling-up of its defences since the Cold War to the east, allies such as Spain and Italy worry threats on the southern border risk being ignored.

NATO’s 30 leaders held a final summit session, focused on the south, on Thursday morning, after almost two days of talks dominated by Russia’s war in Ukraine. r

As the group gathered for the early session, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the focus would be addressing challenges including the causes of instability and “stepping up” the fight against terrorism.

“The Middle East, North Africa and the Sahara regions face interconnected security, demographic economic and political challenges, aggravated by the impact of climate change and food insecurity caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine,” he said.

Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares said he did not rule out a NATO intervention in Mali if needed, after the summit statement cited terrorism among the “hybrid threats” that hostile powers could use to undermine its stability.

“If it were necessary and if it posed a threat to our security, we would do it,” he told local radio station RNE. “We don’t rule it out.”

Western powers are concerned about a spike in violence in Mali, where the country’s ruling military junta, backed by Russian private military contractor Wagner Group, is battling an Islamist insurgency that spills into neighboring countries in the African region known as the Sahel.

France, whose military policy has long been focused on NATO’s south, said in February that it would pull out 2,400 troops first deployed to Mali almost a decade ago, after relations with the junta turned sour.

In January 2020, then U.S. President Donald Trump tried to expand NATO to include Middle Eastern nations, arguing that European armies should do more to fight Islamist militants. The proposal did not gain support.

At Spain’s urging, with support from Italy, NATO’s new, 10-year master document, the “strategic concept” also cites terrorism and migration as elements to monitor, and points to the southern flank as a new source of risk to stability.

Polish president Andrzej Duda said the alliance was looking at “everything which could now be caused by the crisis that Russian aggression in Ukraine has led to.. the upcoming food crisis that may affect North Africa … the possibility of another migration wave to Europe, as well as terrorist threats”.


NATO was created in 1949 to defend against the Soviet Union and is enjoying a renewed sense of purpose following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, looking mainly eastwards.

The alliance branded Moscow the biggest “direct threat” to Western security on Wednesday at the summit and agreed plans to modernise Kyiv’s beleaguered armed forces.

It also invited Sweden and Finland to join and pledged a seven-fold increase from 2023 in combat forces on high alert along its eastern flank.

The U.S.-led alliance also faces a slew of fresh demands, from countering Russia and China to developing its defences in space and on computer networks.

In a sign of Spain’s determination to play a bigger role after decades of some of the lowest defence spending in NATO, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Madrid would eventually meet the alliance’s target, albeit five years later than NATO’s goal.

“The government is committed to raising our defence budget to close to 2% of GDP by 2029,” he told national TV station TVE. All NATO member countries committed in 2014 to move towards spending on defence the equivalent of 2% of GDP by 2024.

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