BRUSSELS (AP) — In a dramatic response to Europe's gravest refugee crisis since World War II, NATO ordered three warships to sail immediately Thursday to the Aegean Sea to help end the deadly smuggling of asylum-seekers across the waters from Turkey to Greece.
"This is about helping Greece, Turkey and the European Union with stemming the flow of migrants and refugees and coping with a very demanding situation ... a human tragedy," said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Yet even after the ships were told to get underway, NATO officials acknowledged uncertainties about the precise actions they would be performing — including whether they would take part in operations to rescue drowning migrants.
The arrival of more than a million people in Europe in 2015 — mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans — has plunged the 28-nation European Union into what some see as the most serious crisis in its history.
Despite winter weather, the onslaught of refugees crossing the Aegean has not let up. The International Organization for Migration said this week that 76,000 people — nearly 2,000 per day — have reached Europe by sea this year and 409 of them have died trying, most drowning in the cold, rough waters.
The number of arrivals in the first six weeks of 2016 is nearly 10 times as many as the same period last year. Most come from Turkey to Greece and then try to head north through the Balkans to the EU's more prosperous countries such as Germany and Sweden.
The decision Thursday by NATO defense ministers in Brussels came in response to a joint request by three members — Turkey, Germany and Greece — for alliance participation in an international effort targeting the smugglers.
"This is not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats," Stoltenberg stressed at a news conference. "NATO will contribute critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks."
In a related effort, the military alliance will also step up its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities on the Turkish-Syrian border, Stoltenberg said.
The vessels of NATO Standing Maritime Group 2 "will start to move now" on orders from U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's top commander in Europe, Stoltenberg said.
Breedlove said the ships should be at their Aegean destinations by Friday. NATO's website says the flotilla is composed of a German navy flagship, the Bonn, and two other ships, the Barbaros from Turkey and the Fredericton from Canada.
"(Until now) NATO has been mainly focused on how we can address the root causes, to try to stabilize the countries where many of the refugees are coming from," Stoltenberg said, mentioning Afghanistan, Iraq, Tunisia and Jordan. "The new thing now is ... providing different kinds of military capabilities ... to provide direct help, direct support, to Turkish authorities, to Greek authorities, and to the European Union."
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, in Brussels for two days of discussions with his Canadian and European colleagues, said NATO military authorities will draw up plans for how the alliance might further throttle human smuggling operations across the Aegean.
"There is now a criminal syndicate, which is exploiting these poor people," Carter told a news conference. "Targeting that is the greatest way an effect could be had."
Stoltenberg said once the NATO brass makes its recommendations, the alliance will talk to the EU and decide how to proceed.
Breedlove said the mission specifics were still being written.
"This mission has literally come together in about the last 20 hours," Breedlove told journalists. "I have been tasked now to go back and define the mission, define the rules of engagement, define all of what we call special operation instructions — all of the things that will lay out what we are going to do."
He said it was too early to say whether the NATO crews will be rescuing migrants in sinking or non-seaworthy boats — something the Greek and Turkish coast guards have been doing nightly for months.
"I really can't talk to you about what is a core task and what is not ... we had some really rapid decision-making and now we've got to go out and do some military work," Breedlove said.
The NATO commander hailed the fast reaction to the joint request as an example of the streamlined decision-making the alliance has put into place since 2014.
Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, whose country has a fraught relationship with neighbor and NATO ally Turkey, said the agreement "will finally solve the issue of migration."
"Greece, until now, has paid too high a price — during a financial crisis — on migration, a price that is disproportionate relative to the other countries of Europe and NATO," Kammenos said. "It is perfectly clear from the joint declaration that the purpose of this force is to stop the criminal activities of those who traffic in human beings."
Kammenos said the presence of NATO forces along the Turkish coastline will "ensure that any migrants who are arrested will be sent straight back to Turkey." In a later stage, the Greek minister said, the EU's border agency, Frontex, could broaden its operations from Greek islands of the Aegean to the Turkish coast.
There was no immediate comment from Turkish officials.
An official with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization Doctors Without Borders, however, said the NATO and EU actions "miss the point."
"More than 300 men, women and children have drowned in the Aegean in their desperate attempts to reach Europe this year alone," said Aurelie Ponthieu, the group's humanitarian adviser. "In this context, NATO's involvement in the "surveillance of illegal crossings" is dangerously shortsighted. People will continue to risk their lives in search of safety and protection, no matter the obstacles that the EU - and now the leaders of the NATO alliance - put in their way."
"How many deaths will it take before Europe, Turkey and others focus their energy on providing humanitarian solutions rather than deterrence measures that clearly miss the point?" she asked.
A former British Navy officer gave a measured assessment of the NATO flotilla's impact.
Peter Roberts, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said "the ships will show where the people are moving to and from, but will provide no information about the criminal networks."
"That type of information requires presence on shore and investigative powers of police forces, not military ones," Roberts said.
Derek Gatopoulos in Athens and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed.