NATO chief 'optimistic' that allies will support France in Sahel region
France's NATO allies would "very seriously" consider any official request by President Emmanuel Macron to become more involved in the war against Islamist groups in the Sahel region of Africa, NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told FRANCE 24 on Friday. Stoltenberg said he expects NATO allies to give a "positive response".
Stoltenberg's comments came just a day after Macron said France was reviewing "all its options" following the death of 13 French soldiers after two helicopters collided during a combat mission in Mali, one of five African countries - including Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger - where the French "Barkhane" military operation against Islamist militants is now in its sixth year.
It was the heaviest single loss of troops in a French military operation in nearly four decades.
While France is a NATO member, it has been taking on the brunt of the fight in the Sahel, with other alliance members such as the US, UK, Spain, Denmark and Estonia offering limited support, mostly in the form of intelligence or logistical help.
Stoltenberg said that he expected France to get a positive response if it made a formal request for greater NATO involvement in the region.
"If France comes to NATO and actually asks for support, then I really expect that NATO allies will consider that very seriously because NATO allies understand the challenges we all face in the Sahel and NATO has the structures, we have the command structures, we’ve done it many times before."
Stoltenberg added that while any decision on NATO help would require consultation with the 28 other alliance members, he was "quite optimistic" and "absolutely confident" that a request from France would get a "positive response".
Stoltenberg noted several precedents for NATO forces conducting large-scale combat missions in regions ranging from the Balkans in the 1990s, to Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
"So NATO has the capacity to do a wide range of issues in support of France in Sahel," he said.
>> France's quagmire? Sahel region targeted by increasing jihadist attacks
On another issue, Stoltenberg defended himself against criticism that he had been too soft in his response to Turkey, a NATO member, following the launch of its military operation into northeast Syria in October without first consulting with European allies.
Stoltenberg said he had expressed his "deep concerns" about the operation to Turkey's leaders in the days after its launch. But he stressed Turkey's strategic importance to NATO, and suggested that the best way to deal with the situation was through dialogue and frank discussion.
"Turkey is an important ally. Just look at the map. They are the only ally bordering Iraq and Syria. They have been extremely important, their bases, their infrastructure in the fight against ISIS (another name for the Islamic State group), liberating territory that ISIS controlled a few months ago. And no other ally has suffered more terrorist attacks than Turkey. And no other ally hosts more refugees than Turkey: 3.6 million refugees from Syria.
"So we just have to recognise that, while we also express our concern about the situation in northeast Syria."
Stoltenberg made his remarks just days before NATO leaders are due to gather at a 70th birthday summit in London that has been marred by internal squabbling in its run-up, with longtime allies at loggerheads over the alliance's future purpose and course.
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