International Relations NATO NATO and Canada NATO Operations The Middle East and North Africa

Interviewing Nicola de Santis, NATO’s Head of Middle East and North Africa Section

NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) was launched in December 1994 by NATO Foreign Ministers and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) was launched at the June 2004 Istanbul Summit by NATO’s Heads of State and Government. The MD is an avenue for partnership programs between the NATO Alliance and seven countries in North Africa and the Middle East. The partner countries include Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. The initiation of the Dialogue reflects the need to converge and address emerging security challenges as priorities on both side of the Mediterranean have become gradually connected. Moreover, the Mediterranean Dialogue has three main aims. This includes, “contribute to regional security and stability, achieve better mutual understanding, dispel any misconceptions about NATO among Dialogue countries”. The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) was launched in June 2004, following NATO consultations with the individual members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as a new transatlantic engagement between NATO and invited Gulf countries, “through practical activities where NATO can add value to develop the ability of countries’ forces to operate with those of the Alliance including by contributing to NATO-led operations, fight against terrorism, stem the flow of WMD materials and illegal trafficking in arms, and improve countries’ capabilities to address common challenges and threats with NATO”.

The Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative are complementary and yet distinct partnership frameworks. Both the MD and the ICI founded upon two pillars: political dialogue and practical cooperation. These two pillars manifest in a number of high-level political consultations, practical activities in the fields of modernisation of the armed forces, civil emergency planning, crisis management, border security, small arms & light weapons, public diplomacy, scientific and environmental cooperation, providing training, defence reform expertise and opportunities for military cooperation. This cooperation is structured through bilateral ‘Individual Partnership Cooperation Programs’ between NATO and each MD and ICI country. These programs aim to enhance bilateral political and practical cooperation. These tailored programs are one of the main instruments of cooperation between NATO and the MD and the ICI countries. As a result, through Individual Partnership Cooperation Programs the Alliance could provide assistance also in the areas of “security institutions building, defence transformation, modernisation and capacity development, civil-military relations, and defence-related aspects of the transformation and reform of the security sector”.


1) What are some of current initiatives taking place between NATO and the MD countries, as well as with the other NATO partners in the Middle East and North Africa?

“At their June 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels, NATO’s Heads of State and Government decided to develop a more strategic, focused and coherent approach toward the Middle East and North Africa, because the security of NATO countries and of our regional partners are inextricably linked. They approved a tailored ‘Package for the South’, which includes the enhancement of our engagement with our regional partners in the MENA. As you highlighted in your introduction, since 1994 NATO has developed political dialogue and practical cooperation with Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. But it also includes the effective cooperation developed by NATO for fourteen years with four partner countries in the Arab Gulf region: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, through the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. At the Summit it was decided to approve a set of more focused measures to assist our partners to become more resilient against the security threats they face and which are common to NATO countries. NATO and its regional partners share, indeed, common security challenges and threats: international terrorism, conflict spill over from failing and failed states, the trafficking of small arms and light weapons, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery means, maritime security, the protection of sea lanes of communication and energy supply routes, especially chock points; to name just a few. This is why NATO leaders at their Summit last June, decided to further enhance our cooperation with our Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative partner countries but also with another important NATO partner country in the Middle East: Iraq.

Examples of this commitment are: the work carried out to update all the Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programmes with all our 11 partners in the MD and ICI partnerships, the decision to launch a non-combat training and capacity building mission in Iraq, which is also a NATO partner country, at the request of the Government of Iraq, to be led by Major-General Dany Fortin of Canada, for additional support in its efforts to stabilise the country and fight terrorism, building on the training activities already developed for the Iraqi officers, for example in Jordan. This new NATO training mission in Iraq, will assist this country to develop its capacity to build more effective national security structures and professional military education institutions.  At the same time, we are offering additional support to countries that have asked for more help, in light of more urgent security needs. Furthermore, through the Defense Capacity Building Initiative we are assisting Jordan in areas such as cyber defence; counter-improvised explosive devices; and civil preparedness and crisis management; and Tunisia in the areas of cyber defence, counter-improvised explosive devices, and the promotion of transparency in resource management, through education and training activities and the exchange of expertise and best practices, in line with NATO standards.”


2) As one of the pioneers of NATO work in the cooperation with Middle East and North Africa, what would you say was one of the most refreshing and impressive developments for the MD and the ICI over the past two decades?

“I think the most impressive achievement has been that, through political dialogue and practical cooperation through the Mediterranean Dialogue countries and with Arab Gulf states in the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, NATO has been able to build successfully a new culture of cooperation in the security field, with 11 regional partner countries having different security backgrounds. These partners are adopting NATO standards and promoting interoperability with the Alliance, while modernizing their defense and security sectors. And in spite of difficult regional circumstances and the major political changes they underwent following the Arab Awakening, none of our partners has walked out of the MD and ICI partnerships. On the contrary: all have and are currently enhancing political dialogue and practical cooperation with NATO. They all are asking for more cooperation with NATO and not less. These facts show clearly that they believe that cooperation with NATO adds value to the cooperation they have with other international actors and it is useful to these countries, to improve the security of their people. But our MD and ICI partners have not only been security users but over the years have taken a more active role, also becoming real security providers. The political and military contribution of MD and ICI partners, alongside NATO member countries, to the successful management of the UN mandated and NATO-led operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya, testifies also of the effectiveness of the Alliance’s operational engagement with these partners and, through it, of its contribution to a more secure, stable and peaceful international environment. Not to mention the contribution of our MD and ICI countries to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIL, alongside NATO and its individual member countries.”


3) Do you anticipate that countries such as Libya could one day join the Mediterranean Dialogue?

“I believe that this could certainly happen over the time, if Libya so wishes. It is important to recall the context of NATO’s engagement with the Libyan authorities, for many years, after the revolution. Following the end of Operation Unified Protector, the visit of NATO Secretary General Anders Fog Rasmussen to Tripoli on 31 October 2011 and the first ever free elections in Libya on 7 July 2012, the Prime Minister of Libya Ali Zeidan visited NATO Headquarters on 27 May 2013 and officially requested NATO’s assistance for the creation of a National Guard aimed at the reintegration of Libya’s revolutionary brigades. The North Atlantic Council decided on 3 June 2013 to send an expert-level fact-finding delegation to Libya, with members of the Political Affairs and Security Policy Division, and of the Defense Planning and Policy Division of NATO’s International Staff and with colleagues of the International Military Staff to clarify the specific requirements of the Libyan request, assess the situation and identify areas in which NATO could possibly add value. Following that initial request, on 22 July 2013, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan sent a second letter to the NATO Secretary General in which he confirmed that the National Guard concept (on which he had earlier asked for NATO support) had been put on hold. This was due to the fact that the Libyan General National Congress (GNC) could not find agreement on the law establishing the National Guard. In his new request, Prime Minister Zeidan asked, instead, NATO’s assistance in developing Libya’s security architecture and its security and defense institutions, into which eventually the National Guard concept might later fit. The North Atlantic Council discussed this issue on 24 July 2013, and agreed the proposal by the Secretary General, whereby the NATO Team of experts led by the International Staff, would continue exploratory work with the Libyan authorities and key stakeholders including the Defense Committee of the General National Congress and the main leaders of Libya’s revolutionary brigades from across the country. All this work was conducted by the NATO Team keeping a regular dialogue with UNSMIL and with the EU Mission in Libya, as well as with individual NATO member countries, to ensure complementarity of efforts and avoid unnecessary duplication of work. Unfortunately, violence exploded in Libya and because of the deteriorated security situation on the ground in Libya, we could not carry out that work. However, following the Libya Political Agreement and the establishment of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord, its President, Fayez Al Sarraj, visited the Brussels NATO Headquarters on 1 February 2017 and during a meeting with the Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg, he requested NATO’s assistance in the area of security and defense institution building. In a subsequent letter on 15 January 2017 President Al Sarraj clarified requesting NATO’s advice to develop Libya’s ministry of defense, the chief of defense staff and intelligence and security services under the civilian control of the government. In the same letter, President Al-Sarraj welcomed meetings between a NATO Team to meet experts identified by President Al-Sarraj. Several meetings have taken place between the NATO and Libyan Teams until the June 2018 Summit, in which NATO’s Heads of State and Government, recalling their Wales and Warsaw Summit decisions, declared that they remain committed to providing advice to Libya in the area of defence and security institution building, in response to the request by the Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord to assist the GNA to strengthen its security institutions.  NATO’s support will take account of political and security conditions.  Any assistance to Libya would be provided in full complementarity and in close coordination with other international efforts, including those of the UN and the EU, as appropriate.  They also affirmed that they stand ready to develop a long-term partnership, possibly leading to Libya’s membership in the Mediterranean Dialogue. I believe that this would be a natural partnership for Libya that would be welcome by the Mediterranean Dialogue countries, too.”


4) What do you envision for the future of the MD and ICI partnerships?

“Continuing our political engagement and practical cooperation with our Mediterranean and Middle Eastern partners, is a long-term investment in NATO’s contribution to regional security and stability. The Alliance’s partnerships with the countries of this region, through the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative have both preventive and operational functions. By promoting political dialogue and practical cooperation in the defence and security fields with its MD and ICI partners, based upon a two-way street and a tailored approach, NATO has achieved a better mutual understanding with a large number of countries of different cultures, realigning misperceptions, thereby preventing tensions and therefore contributing to preventing conflicts. That is why during the consultation meetings of the North Atlantic Council with Mediterranean Dialogue and with the Istanbul Cooperation partner countries, prior to the June Summit, they all stressed the importance to continue our joint public diplomacy efforts, in order to explain to the broader public opinion the content and the logic of our cooperation. Through the individualized and tailored approach developed by NATO with its MD and ICI partners, the Alliance should continue to engage in a long-term effort aimed at helping them modernize their defense establishments where they exist and assist other countries in building their defense institutions where they do not exist, like in Libya. This should be achieved by assisting our partners in promoting defence transformation, modernisation and capacity development; civil-military relations, including civilian oversight of the military and democratic control of the armed forces; facilitating transparency in national defence planning and defence budgeting in support of defence reform; defence-related aspects of the transformation of the whole security sector forces and organisations including security and intelligence agencies. For the success of our future cooperation, it will be crucial to continue to tailor our cooperation to the specific needs of our MENA partners. Bilateral Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programmes will continue to be the best tool to this end. For partners requiring urgent assistance the Defence Capacity Building Initiative can be also an important tool, to provide them with additional support. A very important role will be played in the future for our cooperation with Arab Gulf states, by the NATO-ICI Regional Center, which has been built and generously offered by the State of Kuwait one year ago. Through a NATO-Kuwait developed programme, during its first year of existence, this Center has trained 478 officials from ICI countries, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the Gulf Cooperation Council. While 149 experts and instructors from NATO countries travelled to Kuwait to deliver these training courses. The NATO-ICI Regional Center in Kuwait will certainly play a major role in NATO’s future cooperation with our ICI partners but it will also allow to reach out to Saudi Arabia, Oman and to the Secretariat of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Developing political dialogue aimed at identifying possible practical cooperation of mutual interest between the NATO Secretariat and the Secretariat of the Gulf Cooperation and with the Secretariat of League of Arab States, will also be priority areas for NATO’s future regional outreach and cooperation. Finally, the recently established Hub for the South, at the NATO Joint Force Command in Naples, will further contribute to the enhancement of our cooperation with our MD and ICI partners, by factoring in their contribution of ideas, experience and information, for a better situational awareness and understanding of regional challenges, threats, and opportunities, inspired by the principles of two-way dialogue and joint ownerships.”


 More information can be found about current activities and partnership programs on the NATO website.


Thank you very much to Mr. de Santis for taking the time to answer these questions.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of NATO or the NATO Association of Canada.

Sivan Ghasem
Sivan Ghasem is currently a Junior Research Fellow with the NATO Association of Canada. Ms. Ghasem has two Master's degrees in International Relations and Diplomacy from the American Graduate School in Paris and a second degree in International Law and Economics from Paris Saclay University. She recently completed an internship at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belguim in the Policial Affairs and Security Policy Section: Middle East and North Africa. She primarly focused on relations and cooperation activities between NATO and their partner countries in the MENA region. She is bilingual in French and English.