Algeria, Tunisia and the war in Libya

Summary:  Both Algeria and Tunisia have cause for concern as the war in Libya, fuelled and supported by outside players, continues with no end in sight.

We are grateful to Francis Ghilès, Associate Senior Researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB), and Akram Kharief, an Independent Analyst on Algeria, for the article below, which was originally published on the CIDOB website and has been slightly edited for circulation on Arab Digest.

Algeria was taken by surprise when the strongman of eastern Libya, Marshal Khalifa Haftar, backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, launched his attack on Tripoli in April 2019, taking the capital’s out of commission international airport but not the operational one, Mitiga. That reduced the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) hold to just 10% of Libyan territory, albeit containing 40% of the population. Since then, the war – if that is the right word – has stabilised along a 25 km front (with a depth of no more than 5 km) around Tripoli.

Libyan militiaman (credit: Xinhua)

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 in the first two capitals. Barack Obama listened more carefully but his war-like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prevailed: she famously said “we came, we saw, we killed” when Muammar Gaddafi was murdered.

Algeria is not happy about the intervention of foreign forces in Libya but its inept policy since the fall of Gaddafi has allowed Sudanese and Russian (Wagner Group) mercenaries to work with Haftar. The GNA meanwhile has recruited mercenaries, notably pilots from South America and even the US. Following Turkey’s decision to send troops to back the GNA, the new president of Algeria, Abdelmadjid Tebboune and the new chief of staff, General Said Chengriha appear to want to shake Algerian diplomacy out of its torpor and, more broadly, to reaffirm Algeria’s voice in North African affairs.

During a surprise visit to Tunis on 25 December, President Erdogan tried to strong-arm the recently elected Tunisian president, Kais Saied, to grant Turkey a base in Matmata, close to the border with Libya. Kais Saied resisted however and when Algeria discovered Erdogan’s game, it invited him to Algiers. The Turkish president was told in no uncertain terms 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.

Before Erdogan’s visit to Algiers on 26 January, Tebboune had already swung into action. On 7 January he told Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the GNA, who was visiting Algiers that he considered Tripoli “a red line no one should cross”. On 22 January Algeria hosted foreign affairs ministers from six north and sub-Saharan African countries to discuss the conflict in Libya. The GNA was not best pleased as representatives from eastern Libya were invited. And hard on the heels of the Berlin conference, the new Algerian foreign minister visited Benghazi to hold talks with Haftar but more surprisingly with the unrecognised eastern based government. 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. The troops Erdogan is sending to Tripoli however are Syrian Turkmen and not Turkish soldiers, at least to date. Such Turkish assertiveness may help to stabilise the front in Tripoli without, thus far, upsetting the balance of forces regionally.

Tunisia’s refusal, backed by the Algerians, to grant Turkey a base in its territory limits the risks of the conflict in Libya spreading. However, the economic consequences of the situation are difficult to read. While the GNA is running out of money following the curtailing of exports of Libyan oil and gas since late last autumn, the living of an estimated 3 million Tunisians depends on Libya, either from remittances or in black market operations in the frontier zone. 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. Tunisia has been more of less free of serious terrorist attacks recently despite the persistence of jihadi guerrillas in the central mountain range of Jebel Chambi near the Algerian boarder. The 9 million tourists who visited the country in 2019 are vital to its economy and preventing terrorist attacks, such as those that occurred in 2015 is therefore essential.

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 security and army leaders of both countries maintain close lines of communications and have operated together within the frontiers of Tunisia when necessary ever since 2011.)

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 than a state. Forty odd years of Gaddafi rule simply compounded an earlier problem.  Still, 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.

Algeria’s leaders, indeed  all Algerians, whatever their political hue, are fiercely opposed to Gulf states and Turkey stepping into their neighbourhood; they are suspicious too of French motives for backing Haftar. While Algeria does not openly oppose the support Ankara is giving Tripoli it is attempting to act as a referee by thwarting Turkey’s ambition to wage full scale war in Libya. Algerian leaders hope that this policy can help consolidate a ceasefire, stop the transfer of weapons from abroad and revive the Abu Dhabi agenda which envisaged elections in Libya. But a month after the summit in Berlin elicited promises from the UAE, Turkey and Russia to end their supply of arms and the flows of mercenaries to Libya, the war has become more intractable – the key reason being neither European nor American leaders in attendance agreed to any sanctions to compel respect for a UN arms embargo.

The next challenge, as Algeria sees it, is to build an international force which can keep Libya’s enemy brothers apart. Algeria’s re-entry into the Libya fray would appear welcome in western Libya and Tripoli; it certainly is in Tunisia. Its leaders do not have to worry about any opposition to their policy at home, a key factor at a time when the new president and the recently formed government are finding their feet. But so long as Libya’s fate remains under the control of at least six powers which seek to mould the country’s future to their own geopolitical ends, so long as the violators of the arms embargo are not shamed for their role in the conflict, the future of Libya looks bleak indeed.

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