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A Politico-Military Success in the Balkans

By Admiral T. Joseph Lopez, U.S. Navy
Special to the Western Policy Center1

Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, December 16, 1998

Far too few politico-military successes emanate from the Balkans, which is why the formation of the Southeast European Brigade (SEEBRIG) is exceptionally noteworthy.

This brigade, composed of about 5,000 troops from seven NATO and non-NATO countries, will be part of a strategy to foster regional security and stability within the framework of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP), the Southeastern Europe Defense Ministerial (SEDM), and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC).

Once it is trained, the brigade can be made available for conflict prevention and other regional peace support efforts mandated by the U.N. or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), including peacekeeping, peacemaking, peacebuilding, and humanitarian operations. There are no self-imposed geographic limitations on its use; it can be deployed in the Balkans or as an expeditionary force. Looking east, for example, the Caspian Sea area looms as a volatile mix of oil, natural gas, and political instability, where such a force might be requested one day.

Although the brigade is primarily designed to carry out short-term peace support missions, it will also promote better relations among the member nations in the Balkans. It establishes several channels of communication among the countries, encourages military staffs to train together and address interoperability problems, teaches non-NATO members fundamental concepts concerning the Alliance, serves as a point of Greek-Turkish teamwork, and can help make the Balkans an area of cooperation, not confrontation.

The agreement to establish SEEBRIG was signed in Skopje on September 26 by the defense ministers of the member states. Full members are NATO allies Greece, Italy, and Turkey, plus Albania, Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (F.Y.R.O.M.), and Romania. The U.S. and Slovenia are observer members. SEEBRIG’s headquarters will be in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, for the first four years. Rotation of the headquarters among the participating nations is planned after that.

Turkey was instrumental in moving SEEBRIG from a concept to a reality, while Greece’s strong support for the brigade helped overcome some potentially troublesome problems concerning its establishment. Italy, Hungary, and Slovenia have recently formed a unit with similar capabilities and missions. This is probably why Hungary and Slovenia are not providing troops for SEEBRIG. However, both countries are inextricably linked to southern Europe since they form the nexus between it and central Europe.

The international community looks to NATO as the mechanism for providing stability in the Balkans. Therefore, some type of NATO affiliation for the brigade is important to all participating nations. In fact, the agreement of establishment states that the brigade will be attached to a conflict prevention effort or other peace support operation led by NATO or the Western European Union (WEU).

While SEEBRIG will not be a NATO force per se, cooperation in establishing it has already proven to be an excellent way to introduce the non-NATO members to the Alliance’s terminology, decision-making procedures, and process of achieving consensus. The commander’s nationality, the training area sites, and the amount of infrastructure provided by each country are all being worked out because the nations can see beyond short-term individual interests to a more collective imperative to promote regional stability. For example, Greece and Turkey are cooperating to make the brigade a success and not another item of confrontation.

The brigade will be an “on-call” land force of battalion-size units, with combined training in reconnaissance, command post exercises, field maneuvers, and crisis management. Communications among the nations’ militaries will be improved, and senior officers will have increased opportunities to share views on security and defense issues. Military planners, especially those from Greece, Italy, and Turkey, can draw upon NATO’s experience in fielding a multinational force in Bosnia and use it as a prototype.

As in the early stage of any multinational force, logistics will be a major problem. What classified information will be exchanged, and how will it be protected? How can a multinational system be designed to support soldiers from seven countries in one unit? How much interoperability can be achieved? NATO procedures and practices will be used as much as possible in answering these questions. For instance, the SEEBRIG nations have already agreed that the Status of Forces Agreement between NATO and PfP countries will be applicable to the brigade.

The effective functioning of the brigade requires the upgrading of political and military consultation mechanisms among the SEEBRIG countries. Meetings of foreign affairs and defense ministers, as well as chiefs of defense, will occur at least annually. In addition, a Politico-Military Steering Committee (PMSC) is being established to provide oversight and policy guidance for deployment of the force.

The steering committee will be the primary forum for the drafting of policies governing the use of SEEBRIG. It should promote a common understanding of Balkan and regional problems and assist in conceiving agreed-upon courses of action. Potentially, the steering committee holds promise for becoming the centerpiece of a multinational structure for regional policy formulation.

For Bulgaria and Romania, which are strongly pursuing NATO membership, SEEBRIG comes at a particularly opportune time. However, they need broader Alliance support to make this goal a reality. Working with Greece, Italy, and Turkey will help in this regard.

NATO is closely following the formation of SEEBRIG, will be monitoring its deployment, and will be judging the potential for Bulgaria and Romania to join the Alliance. The involvement of Bulgaria and Romania in SEEBRIG is an occasion to demonstrate their geostrategic importance, political sophistication, and military capabilities to some important NATO members.

For countries with bilateral issues to resolve, such as Albania and F.Y.R.O.M., F.Y.R.O.M. and Greece, or Greece and Turkey, the SEEBRIG initiative gives defense and foreign affairs officials a common objective on which to focus their energies. SEEBRIG will not be a remedy for existing bilateral disputes, but it can help dispel the negative perceptions some countries have of others by broadening the dialogue among the member countries.

Sharing the vision that dialogue, cooperation, and good relations are necessary for peace and stability in the region, seven nations have agreed to focus their efforts on a collective military force. The force is important, but it is the recognition of underlying common interests by the member nations that makes the effort truly exciting. It is also heartening to see Greece and Turkey working together harmoniously.

Lasting peace and stability in the Balkans will ultimately require economic integration as well as political and military cooperation. SEEBRIG is a positive step in this direction and deserves the support of all interested parties.

1 The Western Policy Center is a public policy corporation promoting U.S. geostrategic interests and Western institutions in southeastern Europe by strengthening the debate on American foreign policy toward NATO allies Greece and Turkey, and toward Cyprus. The Center analyzes current U.S. foreign policy toward southeastern Europe and develops policy recommendations for the region. It cooperates with other nongovernmental organizations, leading educational and foreign policy institutions, and the media in providing forums for the analysis of issues concerning the region. For more information, please call (202) 530-1425.