By Lisa Ferdinando
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
ROME, Jan. 18, 2015 – The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is in Italy to discuss threats to Italy's southern flank and get the Italian perspective on the country's security issues, ahead of a two-day NATO meeting in Brussels.
The Italians are great military partners who have "stepped up in any number of missions," Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said in an interview here today.
Dempsey, who arrived in Rome earlier in the day, is to meet Monday with his Italian counterpart, Chief of Defense Adm. Luigi Binelli Mantelli, as well as Minister of Defense Roberta Pinotti.
The talks with this "key ally" come at an important time, Dempsey said.
"There have been approximately 160,000 immigrants from North Africa into Italy, (that) puts a huge burden on them, so they have some real concerns about their southern flank," he said.
Dempsey and European defense officials have expressed concern about the possible flow of foreign fighters, via the southern flank.
Dempsey lauded the Italians for their contributions to global military efforts, including in the United Nations mission in Lebanon, and against terrorists with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
Italy's leadership in NATO is critical to global security, particularly in the Mediterranean, according to the chairman, who also underscored the U.S. commitment to strong relations with Italy.
Italy and the U.S. are the top two contributors of on-the-ground trainers and advisors who are enabling the Kurds and Iraqis in the fight against extremists, defense officials noted.
There are more than 4,000 Italian service members serving overseas in Kosovo, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa on a number of missions, including peacekeeping, training, and counter-piracy missions, they said.
Allies gather in Brussels Wednesday, Thursday
"In my three and a half years (as chairman) this is probably going to be the most important meeting of NATO's military leaders during that period," Dempsey said.
It is of such high importance, he said, because the representatives are "going to talk about the hard work that's been done at the staff level to meet those commitments" that were made in September at the Wales summit.
The NATO Military Committee conference in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday is expected to include discussion on NATO's southern flank, Afghanistan, and efforts against ISIL.
Dempsey said he is looking forward to also hearing from the Italians about Italy's view on Eastern Europe and "aggressiveness" from Russia.
"The way they see it will determine how they balance their priorities and their resources," he said.
"Our relationship vis-a-vis Russia has changed. I don't think it's irreversibly changed," he said. "I think that in the next year, you'll find NATO in particular working toward determining how to react to that changed relationship."
Dempsey highlighted the importance of U.S.-NATO collaboration and maintaining strong ties with European allies.
"It's all about building relationships so that when things don't turn out the way you hope they will, you have a foundation to build on," he said.
Holy See Meetings
On Sunday, Dempsey met with the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Kenneth Hackett, and several Vatican officials.
The goal was to "gain insight" and discuss the fight against Ebola and extremist threats, according to Dempsey's spokesman, Air Force Col. Ed Thomas.