NATO ships are on their way to the Aegean Sea to help Turkey and Greece crack down on networks smuggling refugees into Europe, Gen. Philip Breedlove, the alliance's top commander, said on Thursday.
Hours after NATO defense ministers agreed to use their maritime force in the eastern Mediterranean to help combat traffickers, he said he was working quickly to design the mission.
"We are sailing the ships in the appropriate direction," he told a news conference, and the mission plan will be refined while they are en route. "That's about 24 hours," he said. He added that NATO will monitor the Turkey-Syria border for people smugglers.
The plan, which was raised only on Monday by German and Turkey, took NATO's 26 other members by surprise and is aimed at helping the continent tackle its worst migration crisis since World War II. More than a million asylum seekers arrived in Europe last year. NATO will likely use the ships to work with the Turkish and Greek coast guards and the European Union border agency, Frontex.
"There is now a criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people, and this is an organized smuggling operation," U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told reporters. "Targeting that is the way that the greatest effect can be had ... That is the principal intent of this."
The number of people fleeing war and failing states, mainly in the Middle East and North Africa, shows little sign of falling, despite winter weather that makes sea crossings even more perilous. A $3.4 billion deal between the EU and Turkey to stem the flow has yet to have a big impact.
Germany said it will take part in the NATO mission along with Greece and Turkey. The United States, the alliance's most powerful member, said it fully supports the plan.
Intelligence gathered about people smugglers will be handed to the Turkish coast guard to allow it to combat the traffickers more effectively, rather than have NATO act directly against the traffickers, diplomats said.
NATO and the EU are eager to avoid the impression that NATO, a military alliance, is now tasked with stopping the refugees or is treating them as a threat.