Arab unrest boosts Turkey’s NATO role

A Rafale jet fighter from the French Navy is about to land on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. AFP photo

The pending transformation of the NATO air base in İzmir into a key land base for the alliance reflects concerns about security amid the ongoing Arab Spring, security experts have said.

The Aegean base was chosen for its new mission because of its strategic location, Nihat Ali Özcan of the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, or TEPAV, told the Hürriyet Daily News on Thursday.

“NATO’s command restructuring has a lot to do with the Arab Spring,” Özcan said. “The West places the utmost priority on the developments in the Middle East and North Africa. And it appears this process will take a long time, resulting in a serious security vacuum.”

The important role for İzmir in NATO comes as the 28-member alliance is shrinking the number of its major bases from 11 to seven to reduce costs and duplication. The agreement to transform the İzmir base, which was reached at a meeting of NATO defense ministers Wednesday night, will also include the closure of the joint force command in Lisbon – one of three such installations.

In addition to İzmir, Turkey’s air base in the Central Anatolian province of Konya, which has been used since 2009 for air refueling for AWACS aircraft joining the Afghanistan operation, will see a new institutional restructuring as part of the reform strategy.

In announcing the agreement, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said it would make the alliance “leaner, more flexible” and “more affordable.” A NATO statement said the reforms would mean a reduction in headquarters posts from 13,000 to 8,800.

“NATO’s transformation is under consideration. The goal is to establish a cost-effective and active system as well as to reform the command structure,” Mehmet Yegin from the International Strategic Research Organization, or USAK, another Ankara-based think tank, told the Daily News.

He said the new reform was linked to the economic crisis in some of the European Union member states.

“European countries are mostly cutting from defense expenditures due to the financial slump. This is also prompting these countries to take less responsibility within NATO. But this is not the case for Turkey,” Yegin said.

Under the reform, land bases at Heidelberg in Germany and Madrid will close, as will a naval base at Naples in Italy. As compensation to Portugal for the loss of the Lisbon base, it will be the location for a deployable naval headquarters, NATO officials said.

Joint command headquarters will remain at Brunssum in the Netherlands and at Naples, while the main maritime headquarters will be at Northwood in Britain and the main air command at Ramstein in Germany.

The reforms will also see a reduction in the number of NATO agencies responsible for specific areas such as ground surveillance and strategic airlift from 14 to four, three of which will be located in Belgium and one in Luxembourg.