Algeria’s Libya Conundrum: Maintaining Delicate Balance in North Africa

Written by | Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020

When the strongman of eastern Libya, Marshal Khalifa Haftar, launched an offensive in the southern Libyan province of Fezzan in January 2019, neither the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, nor the United Nations seemed very worried. Then strong backing from the UAE and Egypt ensured a level of armament which allowed Haftar’s forces to secure Sebha in the Fezzan province by the end of January 2019. By April 2019, Haftar-led Libyan National Army (LNA) controlled 80% of Libyan territory but countries like Italy and Algeria, and the UN, which support the GNA, were under the impression that Haftar’s intervention would help relaunch the agreement reached in Abu Dhabi on 28 February 2019. In December 2018-January 2019, Algerian leaders had assumed that if Haftar was reasonable in the Fezzan, he would be even more diplomatic in Tripoli – but that illusion was about to be dashed.

Algerian leaders were all taken by surprise when Haftar launched his attack on Tripoli, which reduced the GNA’s hold to 10% of Libyan territory, albeit containing 40% of the population. Since then, the conflict has stabilised along a 25 km front around Tripoli. Not coincidentally, Haftar’s offensive occurred during the moment when Algerians forced Abdelaziz Bouteflika to renounce standing for a fifth mandate as president. Furthermore, the chief of staff, and his successor, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, had strong links with the United Arab Emirates and deliberately chose not to oppose Haftar publicly. This was not necessarily in the best interests of Algeria but then neither of them paid much attention to the interest of the country they controlled. Personal whim and economic interests weighed more than well balanced strategic considerations. Neither sought the advice of Algerian diplomats who are respected at home and abroad.

Algeria is by far the best armed country in North Africa, with well-trained troops and officers and a reputation to match. But its leaders have, since 2011, played a rather clumsy game in Libya. Throughout 2011 Algerian diplomats warned Paris, London and Washington, in private, that the destruction of the Libyan regime would spell disaster for the region – they were dismissed out of hand by Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and Hillary Clinton who famously said “we came, we saw, we killed” when Muammar Gaddafi was murdered, aping the famous “veni, vidi, vici” of Roman times. Bouteflika gave arms-length support to the erstwhile Libyan dictator but, in the end, the opportunity of keeping the conflict in regional hands was lost, once and for all.

After 2013, Bouteflika no longer played any role and Algerian diplomats were reduced to clamouring their country’s neutrality. The country’s army was meanwhile redeployed from the Western to the Eastern boarder following the unprecedented attack against the Algerian gas field of Tiguentourine in January 2013. After the attack, billions of dollars were spent to securitise its 982 km frontier with Libya which runs through very rugged mountains indeed. Meanwhile, Algeria is not happy about the intervention of foreign forces in Libya but its inept policy has allowed Sudanese and Russian (Wagner Group) mercenaries to work with Haftar.

But following Turkey’s decision to send troops to back the GNA, the new Algerian leadership appear to want to shake Algerian diplomacy out of its torpor and, more broadly, to reaffirm Algeria’s voice in North African affairs. When President Erdogan tried to strong-arm the recently elected Tunisian president, Kais Saied, to grant Turkey a base in Matmata, close to North Africa’s smallest country’s border with Libya, the latter resisted. And when Algeria discovered Erdogan’s game, it invited him to Algiers and told him to keep his hands off Tunisia. Algeria thus confirmed its role as the key guarantor of Tunisian security since the fall of Ben Ali in 2011, a role which is not sufficiently appreciated internationally. Tunisia shares a 1010 km frontier with Algeria and a 454 km one with Libya. Stopping the flow of weapons from Libya is thus essential for the security of both, Tunisia and Algeria.

On 17 February, the European Union agreed to launch a new operation with naval ships, planes and satellites in order to enforce the UN arms embargo on Libya. Just a few hours earlier, the UN deputy special envoy for Libya, Stephanie Williams, had complained at the Munich security conference that the arms embargo had become “a joke” because there were violations “by land, sea and air”. Meanwhile, the new Algerian president told the head of the GNA in January that he considered Tripoli “a red line no one should cross” and after the Berlin conference the country’s foreign minister visited Benghazi to hold talks with Haftar. This strongly suggests that Algeria is attempting to seize the initiative post-Berlin, convinced as the country has always been that the Libyan conflict stands a better chance to be resolved regionally than internationally.

Turkey for its part has been sending weapons to Tripoli in violation of UN agreements, but then the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, not to mention France, have been arming Haftar. But while Turkish assertiveness might help to stabilise the front in Tripoli so far it does not upset the balance of forces regionally. Tunisia’s refusal to grant Turkey a base in its territory limits the risks of the conflict in Libya spreading. Three years ago, a World Bank report analysed in detail the extraordinary imbrication of the economies of Tunisia and Libya – nothing much has changed since then. The one dangerous element in this grey economy is weapons as the Tunisians will do everything to stop a bigger flow of arms into their country. Algeria for its part is too far from the combat zone in Libya to be directly threatened but it remains very alert to the security risks a major conflagration in Tripoli might pose in Tunisia, whose stability it considers as vital for its own.

The EU might have been expected to play a role in Libyan affairs but two of its leading countries, Italy and France, have been at loggerheads for years, the former supporting the GNA, the latter Marshall Haftar. Neither the UK nor the US have major oil interests in Libya and appear somewhat disengaged. New actors meanwhile have entered the fray, notably the UAE, Russia and Turkey. Whether Mr Erdogan’s increasing assertive policy in the Mediterranean comes unstuck or not is impossible to say but the hypocrisy of those in Europe and the Arab world who decry the Turkish president’s policies is ironic: France led the pack in Libya in 2011, with disastrous consequences there and in the Sahel belt of Africa. As for those Arabs who deplore Turkish neo-Ottomanism, the question is simply: what is a Gulf state doing so far from its home base?

The power games being played in Libya complicate any possible solution to the crisis. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, Libya was always more three regions that a state. Forty odd years of Gaddafi rule simply compounded an earlier problem. Algeria’s re-entry into the regional diplomatic and security fray is to be welcomed because the country’s leaders are surely right to point out that conflicts should, where at all possible, be resolved regionally. But with so many cooks, it is impossible to guess what the Libyan national dish will taste like once it is cooked.

‚How Libya Impacts North Africa‘ – Article by Francis Ghiles – Barcelona Centre for International Affairs / CIDOB.

The Article can be downloaded here

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