NATO Chief Backs Assessment That Iran Missile Downed Ukrainian Plane

 

 

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Friday he had no reason to doubt reports from Western capitals suggesting an Iranian missile brought down a Ukrainian airliner, killing 176 people.

“I will not go into details about our intelligence but what I can say is we have no reason to not believe the reports we have seen from different NATO-allied capitals,” Stoltenberg said.

Canada and Britain have both said Iran shot down the plane outside Tehran, possibly mistakenly.

NATO Ambassadors To Meet On Iran Crisis

(File photo) The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, receives condolences following the death of his mother in Tehran.  AFP

 

NATO ambassadors will hold an extraordinary meeting at their Brussels headquarters on Monday as Middle East tensions mounted after US forces killed a top Iranian general. 

“The North Atlantic Council will address the situation in the region,” a NATO official said.

“The secretary general decided to convene the meeting of NATO ambassadors following consultations with allies.”

Last week’s killing of Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike at Baghdad airport surprised many of Washington’s allies and triggered calls for de-escalation.

But Tehran has vowed to avenge the commander, and US President Donald Trump has threatened “major retaliation” if any American targets are hit.

The situation has also deteriorated in Iraq, where lawmakers have called for the 5,200 US soldiers deployed there to leave.

NATO maintains a training mission in Iraq, preparing local forces to take on Islamic State group extremists, but this would be in doubt if coalition forces pull out.

On Saturday, a NATO spokesman said the mission, which involves several hundred allied personnel, was continuing “but training activities are currently suspended.”

He also confirmed that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had spoken by telephone with US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper since Friday’s strike.

AFP

NATO Suspends Training Missions In Iraq After Soleimani Killing

FILES) A file handout picture released by the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on October 1, 2019, shows Qasem Soleimani, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Major General and commander of the Quds Force, speaking during an interview with members of the Iranian leader’s bureau in Tehran. A US strike killed top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and the deputy head of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi military force at Baghdad’s airport early on January 3, 2020, the Hashed announced.
Handout / KHAMENEI.IR / AFP

 

NATO has suspended its training missions in Iraq, a spokesman for the alliance said Saturday, following the US killing of Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani.

The NATO mission in Iraq, which consists of several hundred personnel, trains the country’s security forces at the request of the Baghdad government to prevent the return of the Islamic State jihadist group.

“NATO’s mission is continuing, but training activities are currently suspended,” said the spokesman, Dylan White.

He also confirmed that NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg had spoken by telephone with US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper “following recent developments.”

A US defence official told AFP earlier Saturday that US-led forces helping Iraqi troops fight jihadists have scaled back operations.

Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force foreign operations arm, was killed in a US drone attack in Baghdad on Friday.

The strike also killed the deputy head of Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi, a network of mostly Shiite factions close to Iran and incorporated into the Baghdad government’s security forces.

The attack shocked the Islamic republic and sparked fears of a new war in the Middle East.

UK PM Avoids Trump Row In Pre-Election Visit

Nato heads of government watch a marching band perform as they pose for the family photo at the NATO summit at the Grove hotel in Watford, northeast of London on December 4, 2019.
Adrian DENNIS / AFP

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was braced for trouble from Donald Trump’s visit just days before Britain’s election, but the US president headed home Wednesday having largely kept his promise to stay out of the campaign.

Johnson was forced to deny he was dodging Trump during his visit for a NATO summit, after failing to publicly greet him at Downing Street and holding their face-to-face meeting away from the cameras.

He also sidestepped a question about whether Trump was good for Britain, instead emphasising the strength of transatlantic ties — while avoiding using Trump’s name.

In the end, the unpredictable US leader — who is deeply unpopular in Britain — reserved his outspoken remarks for NATO allies France and Canada.

NHS row 

Johnson’s governing Conservatives are leading opinion polls for the December 12 election, but were wary of an intervention by Trump that might upset the campaign.

During two previous visits to Britain, Trump was forthright in his views about the country’s tortuous exit from the European Union, humiliating the then-premier Theresa May.

The main opposition Labour party sought to whip up public opinion against Trump this time around, focused on Johnson’s plans for a US trade deal after Brexit.

Johnson is campaigning for re-election on a promise to leave the EU next month, more than three years after the 2016 Brexit referendum.

He has touted a US trade deal as a prize of Brexit but Labour claims this will open up Britain’s much-loved National Health Service (NHS) to US firms.

Johnson has repeatedly denied this and Trump — who said on a previous visit that “everything is on the table” — insisted on Tuesday that he had no interest in the NHS.

“We have absolutely nothing to do with it and we wouldn’t want to if you handed it to us on a silver platter,” he told reporters in an impromptu news  conference on Tuesday.

 Shoulder to shoulder 

Trump praised Johnson as “very capable” but declined to repeat his previous criticism of Labour’s left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, who he once said would be bad for Britain.

Instead, he attacked French President Emmanuel Macron as “nasty” for criticising NATO as brain dead.

And after footage emerged of Canada’s Justin Trudeau apparently laughing at Trump with other NATO leaders at Buckingham Palace, he called the prime minister “two-faced”.

Johnson, who was filmed as part of the group listening to Trudeau at a Buckingham Palace reception on Tuesday, described suggestions he was mocking Trump as “nonsense”.

Asked if the president was “good for Britain”, the premier praised Washington’s support for NATO.

He also hailed US solidarity after a nerve agent attack in Salisbury, southwest England, last year, which was blamed on Russia.

“They were shoulder to shoulder with us and could not have been more supportive,” Johnson, who was foreign minister at the time of the attack, told a NATO summit press conference.

Earlier, he insisted he was not dodging Trump, and posed with the president for an official welcome alongside NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.

US-UK ties are strained over many issues, from climate change to Iran, and Johnson repeated his support for a tax on multinational firms that has enraged Trump.

But he also gave the biggest hint yet that London would bow to US pressure to ban Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from developing Britain’s new 5G network.

AFP

Trump Cancels Final NATO News Conference

US President Donald Trump gestures during a working lunch at the NATO summit at the Grove hotel in Watford, northeast of London on December 4, 2019. Nicholas Kamm / AFP

 

US President Donald Trump cancelled on Wednesday a planned final news conference scheduled for after the NATO summit, following two days of sharp disputes with allies.

“When today’s meetings are over, I will be heading back to Washington,” Trump tweeted.

“We won’t be doing a press conference at the close of NATO because we did so many over the past two days. Safe travels to all!”

During his two days at the NATO summit near London, Trump has repeatedly engaged in lengthy question and answer sessions with reporters — taking up so much time that his fellow leaders were caught on video mocking him.

But as the event drew to a close, he expressed anger at Canada’s “two-faced” prime minister Justin Trudeau for the joking remarks and cancelled a previously arranged press briefing.

AFP

Trump Blasts Macron For Criticising NATO

France’s President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a meeting at Winfield House with US President Donald Trump in central London on December 3, 2019.  LUDOVIC MARIN / POOL / AFP

 

US President Donald Trump declared Tuesday that his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron’s criticism of NATO as “brain dead” was very insulting.

“NATO serves a great purpose,” Trump said, at a joint press appearance with alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg ahead of the allies’ summit.

“I think that’s very insulting,” he said of Macron’s comment, branding it a “very, very nasty statement essentially to 28 countries.”

Trump defended Stoltenberg, boasting that NATO members have massively increased their defence spending thanks to his pressure.

And he warned he could see France “breaking off” from the allies, after Macron in an interview criticised NATO’s leadership and strategy.

“Nobody needs NATO more than France,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous statement for them to make.”

AFP

Trump To Meet Boris Johnson During NATO Talks

US President Donald Trump and US First Lady Melania Trump (L) prepare to disembark from Air Force One after landing at Stansted Airport, northeast of London on December 2, 2019, ahead of the upcoming NATO alliance summit.  Adrian DENNIS / AFP

 

US President Donald Trump said Tuesday he would try to stay out of the British election campaign but nonetheless meet Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Trump is in London for the summit of the NATO alliance but was not expected to hold a one-to-one with Johnson, ten days before the vote.

But, asked by reporters, the US president said: “I will be meeting with him yes.”

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NATO’s 70th Birthday Overshadowed By Top-Level Feuding

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gives a press conference on the eve of a NATO summit in London at the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) headquarters in Brussels on November 29, 2019
JOHN THYS / AFP

 

NATO marks its 70th birthday at a summit next week but the celebration could well turn into an arena of political combat between the alliance’s feuding leaders.

Heads of state and government will descend on London Tuesday bracing for a scrap overspending and how to deal with Russia, in a huge test of unity within NATO — billed by its own officials as the “most successful alliance in history”.

US President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused European countries of failing to pay their way and will be looking for evidence they are stepping up defence spending.

France’s Emmanuel Macron has despaired of the club’s strategic direction, saying it is suffering “brain death” — riling other leaders and drawing a rare public rebuke from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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And, on Friday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, furious at Western criticism of his operation in northern Syria against the Kurds, hit back with a personal attack on Macron.

“First of all, have your own brain death checked. These statements are suitable only to people like you who are in a state of brain death,” Erdogan declared Friday.

In a televised speech, Erdogan said he would “say this at NATO”.

French officials summoned the Turkish envoy in Paris to complain while a US administration official said that many members would tackle Turkey over its purchase of a Russian S-400 air defence system.

This combustible line-up is dropping into a Britain gripped by a frenetic national election campaign, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s friendship with Trump under attack from opposition parties.

Personal duels aside, the NATO summit agenda is pretty thin. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is hoping simply to get the leaders to sign off on decisions already taken.

Last year’s NATO summit in Brussels went off the rails when Trump launched a tirade at Merkel during a televised breakfast meeting.

The week before this summit has seen a stage-managed series of spending announcements, all designed to send what one diplomat called a “political signal” to appease Trump.

‘Trump Is Right’

Stoltenberg was at pains to point out on Friday that non-US defence spending has grown for four straight years and is on course to hit $130 billion next year.

A Trump administration official expected 18 of the 29 members to meet the alliance’s two per cent target by 2024.

Stoltenberg said Trump was right about Europe and Canada needs to spend more, but not “to please President Trump”.

“They should invest in defence because we are facing new challenges, our security environment has become more dangerous,” he told reporters.

Stoltenberg is attempting to mollify Trump ahead of the summit by talking up a billion-dollar contract with US planemaker Boeing to upgrade the organisation’s reconnaissance planes.

NATO members have also agreed to lower the cap on US contributions to the alliance’s relatively small $2.5 billion operating budget, meaning Germany and other European countries — but not France — will pay more.

But such measures are a drop in the ocean compared to the tens of billions of dollars Europeans would have to spend to meet their promise to spend two percent of their national GDPs on defence.

In 2014, the allies promised to meet this goal within a decade. But this week Merkel admitted that economic powerhouse Germany would not hit this sum before “the early 2030s”.

Stoltenberg insists Trump’s tone towards NATO has been more positive of late, and a senior US administration official said Friday Trump’s spending campaign had been “spectacularly successful.”

‘Still Working Out What He Wants’

But Macron’s broadside to an Economist interview earlier this month took many by surprise.

The French leader stood by his remarks after talks with Stoltenberg, saying NATO was failing to address relations with Russia and what do to about Turkey.

Macron’s forthright comments have drawn sharp public criticism, both from Germany and from eastern European NATO countries that feel threatened by Russia.

An official from Macron’s office told reporters that NATO lacks political direction and relies too much on the US.

“We can’t sweep debates under the carpet because we’re afraid the Americans will disengage further” he added.

A Trump administration official on Friday dismissed the “brain death” comments, saying “President Macron is still kind of working out what he wants out of the group”.

The official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, said Trump will tell the NATO summit that China and Russia remain major challenges.

“China above all,” the official added.

Tomas Valasek, a former Slovak ambassador to NATO, said even if there was merit in opening debate, Macron had overstepped the mark.

“NATO leaders have a responsibility that thinks tankers don’t,” said Valasek, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Europe thinktank.

“If you run one of the nuclear powers and in some ways the most powerful military in Europe you don’t want to feed the perception of NATO disunity and I’m afraid that’s what he’s done.”

At the London summit, leaders will consider separate French and German proposals for expert committees to mull how NATO can improve its strategic thinking.

Stoltenberg last week welcomed the German plan to create a group of experts — chaired by Stoltenberg himself — but was cool on the French plan.

No formal statement by all 29 leaders will be issued. Instead, there will be a “short declaration on the ‘success story of NATO'”, a diplomat said.

AFP

Macron Defends ‘Wake-Up Call’ For NATO After Talks With Chief

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg shake hands after giving a press conference and holding a meeting at the Elysee palace in Paris on November 28, 2019.
Bertrand GUAY / AFP

 

French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday stood by his claim that NATO is suffering “brain death” with no strategic cooperation among members, after talks with alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg ahead of a high-stakes meeting outside London next week.

“I totally stand by raising these ambiguities because I believe it was irresponsible of us to keep talking about financial and technical matters given the stakes we currently face,” Macron said at a joint news conference after the talks.

“A wake-up call was necessary,” he said, regarding NATO’s failure to address pressing challenges such as relations with Russia, the subject of Turkey, or even “who is the enemy?”

It is no longer Russia or China, Macron said: “Our common enemy… is the terrorism which has struck us all.”

Macron’s “brain death” comment, published in an interview with the Economist magazine this month, drew sharp criticism from allies, not least Stoltenberg, who warned against undermining the transatlantic alliance.

Stoltenberg said Thursday that “in uncertain times, we need strong multilateral institutions like NATO,” and that he had “good and open discussions” with Macron.

He praised, in particular, France’s role in fighting the spread of Islamic terrorism in the Sahel region of Western Africa, where 13 French soldiers were killed this week when two of their helicopters collided in Mali.

Call For Help In Sahel

Macron said that at next week’s NATO meeting in Watford, northwest of London, he would urge allies to get more involved in the Sahel fight.

While Britain has provided helicopters and security personnel to help France’s 4,500-member Barkhane force in West Africa, and the US provides intelligence support, Paris has so far failed to persuade other allies to make a significant contribution.

Underscoring that France’s forces were acting “on behalf of everyone”, Macron said: “A bigger engagement by the allies is obviously something that would be quite positive.”

Speaking later to Europe 1 radio Stoltenberg said that if Macron requested NATO’s help the alliance would consider the appeal “very seriously”.

Macron on Thursday also defended his push for a rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, rebuffing charges of naivety.

“Has the absence of dialogue with Russia made the European continent safer?… I don’t think so,” he argued.

In a controversial move, he suggested talks with Moscow over its call for a moratorium on deploying mid-range nuclear missiles in Europe.

The proposal came after the US walked away from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia earlier this year.

NATO diplomats have voiced concern about even considering Russia’s request to freeze the status quo, pointing out that it would give Moscow, which has already deployed the missiles, a military advantage over NATO, which has not.

Macron said he merely considered Moscow’s request as a “basis for discussions”.

The French president, who wants to wean Europe off its military dependence on the US, also insisted that European countries be involved in any efforts to forge a new missiles pact.

Turkey Reprimanded

A combative Macron also again took aim at Turkey over its unilateral decision to attack the Western-backed Kurdish militia that had been leading the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.

“I respect the security interests of our Turkish ally, which has suffered numerous attacks on its soil,” Macron said.

“But you cannot, on the one hand, say we are allies and demand solidarity in that regard and on the other hand present your allies with the fait accompli of a military operation that endangers the actions of the anti-IS coalition of which NATO is a member.”

The comments set the stage for a possibly fractious NATO summit in London on December 3-4, which will be attended by US and Turkish presidents Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Last year’s gathering got off to a stormy start, with Trump calling Germany a “captive” of Russia and demanding that NATO members double their defence spending.

Fresh tensions appeared within the alliance this year, after Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw US troops from northeast Syria, a move that cleared the way for Turkey to attack the Kurdish forces.

Trump, in turn, has repeatedly accused European NATO members of freeloading on the US by falling short of their commitment to spend at least two percent of GDP on defence.

Stoltenberg confirmed that Washington would cut its funding to the alliance’s operating budget to 16 percent of the total from 22 percent, with Germany and other nations taking up the slack.

Macron was dismissive of the budget debate.

“If some people want to see an example of what they term ‘cost-sharing’, they can come Monday to the ceremony France is organising” for the 13 soldiers killed in a midair helicopter collision while fighting insurgents in Mali, he said.

“There they will see the cost.”

Turkey’s Erdogan Calls Macron’s NATO Comments ‘Unacceptable’

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Wednesday slammed as “unacceptable” recent remarks on NATO by French leader Emmanuel Macron, who claimed the alliance was experiencing “brain death” and deplored Turkey’s actions in Syria.

Hosting his counterpart in the Oval Office, US President Donald Trump said Erdogan was “very disappointed in the statement made by France” regarding NATO.

“I think that bothered the president very much,” Trump said. “I think a lot of other people feel that way too.”

“Unacceptable,” added the Turkish leader, speaking through an interpreter.

In an interview earlier this month, the French president decried what he called a lack of coordination between Europe and the United States and lamented recent unilateral action in Syria by Turkey, a NATO member.

“You have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies. None,” Macron told The Economist.

“You have an uncoordinated aggressive action by another NATO ally, Turkey, in an area where our interests are at stake,” he added.

Turkey’s latest military operation against Kurdish forces in northern Syria was staunchly opposed by fellow NATO members like France, but made possible by a withdrawal of US forces ordered by Trump.

In the interview, Macron asked what NATO’s mutual self-defense pact, enshrined in Article 5 of its founding treaty, might mean in the future, and pondered whether it could be invoked if President Bashar al-Assad’s forces retaliate against Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria.

Macron also said that while “it’s not in our interest” to expel Turkey from the alliance — as has been urged by some politicians — members states should “reconsider what NATO is.”

NATO ‘Concerned’ By Turkey Receiving Russian Missiles

 

NATO said Friday it was “concerned” by Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system after Ankara took delivery of its first batch.

The alliance has repeatedly warned Turkey that the Russian system is incompatible with other NATO weapons systems, not least the F-35 fighter jet.

“We are concerned about the potential consequences of Turkey’s decision to acquire the S-400 system,” a NATO official told AFP.

“Interoperability of our armed forces is fundamental to NATO for the conduct of our operations and missions.”

The US fears that if NATO member Turkey integrates the S-400 into its defences, there is a risk that sensitive data about the F-35, a new generation multi-role stealth fighter, could leak back to the Russians.

President Donald Trump’s pick for Pentagon chief, Mark Esper, confronted the Turkish defence minister about the deal on the sidelines of a NATO meeting last month.

Washington has threatened to expel Turkey from its F-35 programme, giving Ankara until July 31 to cancel the S-400 purchase or have its pilots kicked off the training course and expelled from the US.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has refused to back down and said he is confident Turkey will not face US sanctions.

NATO ‘Deeply Concerned’ By Libya Violence

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. MANDEL NGAN / AFP

 

NATO is “deeply concerned” by the escalating violence in Libya, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday, calling on all sides to stop fighting as a deadly power struggle rages.

As the battle between armed groups for control of Tripoli intensified, Stoltenberg urged the rivals to support UN efforts to broker a truce.

“We are deeply concerned by the situation in Libya. We call on all parties to end the fighting, as called for by the United Nations,” Stoltenberg said in a statement.

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“The current military operation and advance on Tripoli are increasing the suffering of the Libyan people and putting civilian lives at risk.”

Libya has been riven by divisions since the NATO-backed overthrow of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011, with various armed groups and two parallel governments vying for territory and oil wealth.

Heavy arms fire was heard during much of the night on the southeastern outskirts of Tripoli as strongman Khalifa Haftar’s forces pressed an assault aimed at taking the capital from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), which controls swathes of the country’s east, appears to be advancing on two fronts, from the south and southeast of Tripoli, while coastal roads to the east and west of the city are defended by fighters loyal to the GNA.

Stoltenberg insisted “there is no military solution to the situation in Libya” and called on all parties to pursue the political path instead.

AFP