The Algerian enigma (first part)

(To Enrico Magnani)
13/01/23

After signing a strategic alliance on energy with the auspices of former Prime Minister Mario Draghi and President Abdelmajid Tebboune, Italy and Algeria have decided to broaden the scope of their relations and strengthen cooperation on security and defence, as in the military industry sector, according to what was indicated at the beginning of December in a statement released after the Thirteenth Meeting of the Bilateral Committee. According to the same release, the talks were chaired by General Luciano Portolano, Secretary General of Defense / National Director of Armaments and his Algerian counterpart, General Mohamed Salah Benbicha.

For his part, the Italian general highlighted the importance of Algeria as a strategic partner of the EU and NATO. The two sides agreed to increase cooperation in the field of materials and equipment, the development of each other's defense industrial sectors, in order to address the state of compliance with previous bilateral agreements. Italy has announced its willingness to include Algeria in the process of future acquisitions of national production systems. Particular attention is paid, among other things, to the Algerian purchase of seven AW-139 type aircraft, produced by the Leonardo group, a contract which must be completed in the first half of 2023 as part of a joint program (the armed forces and security forces already have a large fleet of Italian-made helicopters).

This agreement, albeit important, is part of the complex action and positioning that Algeria is carrying out, faithful to its principles of non-alignment and anti-colonial spirit, in a changing international context.

The growing influence of this North African country is increasing its attention in the eyes of the USA, NATO, the EU and other states, as well as being a reason for vigilance by consolidated partners, such as Russia (since 1962, the year of independence, USSR) and China. All this as the 2022 energy crisis gave this nation a boost of wealth and political clout in the region

This attention is not without pressure: in September, some members of the United States Congress invoked the CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) of 2017, to ask for the imposition of sanctions on Algeria for purchases of arms from Russia . This appeal followed that made by Republican Senator Marco Rubio in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Marco Rubio, is known for being very close to Morocco, historical adversary of Algiers, and supports Rabat's sovereignty claims over Western Sahara, whose independence cause is instead defended by Algeria).

While the Spanish MEP Susana Solís Pérez, from the group Renew Europe, in early February asked the European Commission if it still considered Algeria a reliable partner in terms of energy supply and asked the European institution if it was evaluating the possibility that Algeria "act at Russia's request to exacerbate the energy crisis" and warned against the use of gas by Algeria as a "political weapon" against the interests of Spain, Portugal and above all of Morocco considered as a "strategic partner" (in the light of recent developments, these declarations, especially by of European elected officials, should invite in-depth reflections).

Since the times of the Cold War, Algeria has remained out of the orbit of the West, next (but never enslaved, as some say, poor in knowledge but rich in bad faith) to Moscow, instead favoring national liberation movements and this pitted it against its western neighbour, which instead supported the dictatorial government of Mobutu in Kinshasa and the racist one in South Africa ( violating the UN arms embargo by buying IFV 6x6 'Ratel' [60]); however, it must be added that the vulgate of Morocco, described as always aligned with the West, has seen with showy oscillations, which began with Hassan II, the father of the current king, and with the most recent trips and winks to Moscow and Beijing , of his son Mohammed VI, given the 'lukewarm', in the eyes of Rabat, Western support for his expansionist aims on the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara (considered by the UN General Assembly as part of the non-self-governed territories, colonies in other words ).

The persistent tension with Morocco, which had attacked Algeria in 1963 (Algiers had just achieved independence after a terrible war of independence that began in 1954 and ended in 1962 against France), to attempt to annex western areas of the neighboring country, citing unjust borders inherited from the colonial era, led Algiers to acquire a massive military apparatus, financed by its enormous energy resources, purchasing in full and for many years, all its equipment from the Soviet Union and, since 1991, from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, China, with occasional and punctual presence of western weapon systems arriving to acquire substrategic weapons.

Between 2014 and 2017, Algeria activated 4 regiments of the surface-to-surface missile system Iskander-E. (each missile regiment consists of over fifty vehicles and 48 missiles: 12 launcher vehicles, 12 missile and loader carriers, 11 command control vehicles and other support and logistics vehicles). This panoply of assets has significantly strengthened Algeria's regional prominence in the volatile Middle East and North Africa region.

This situation has progressively changed in the last ten years, with an increased presence of Chinese, but also German, Italian (the already mentioned helicopters and a large amphibious assault unit and other systems in perspective) even if that of Muscovite production maintains a presence prevalent.

This situation of tensions with Morocco has been accompanied by a generalized worsening of the security situation for Algiers, starting with the Libyan crisis, the vulnerabilities in Tunisia, Mali and Niger, the Turkish, Qatari, Emirate, Saudi, Israeli and Iranian intrusions in the region, an increased activity of NATO (with which it also collaborates in the framework of the Mediterranean Dialogue).

With this in mind, on 22 November 2022, the National People's Congress (the lower house) adopted the finance bill for the year 2023 by a majority in the plenary session. The text of the PLF 2023 includes a series of provisions concerning , inter alia measures regarding investments, taxation, purchasing power, etc. But the flagship of these new measures is undoubtedly that which concerns the national defense budget, which provides for the allocation to defense of a total amount of 3.186 billion dinars, or more than 22 billion dollars. A military budget more than doubled compared to last year, which amounted to 1.300 billion dinars (9 billion dollars).

In numerical terms, the budget of the National People's Army (which includes the three armed forces, but also the national gendarmerie and the coast guard) for the year 2023 will increase by 1,886 billion dinars, or almost 13 billion dollars. This represents a del% increase 145. This unprecedented reassessment of the defense budget was made possible by the sharp increase in oil export revenues in 2022. “The increase in hydrocarbon prices is helping to strengthen the recovery of the Algerian economy after the shock of the pandemic. Windfall hydrocarbon revenues have eased pressure on public and external finances”, stated the latest IMF report.

To some extent, the reasons for this increase have been outlined above. But there are others, such as the need to update the weapon systems purchased during the great 2007 agreement with Russia, and the desire to acquire new ones, in particular fighter planes, submarines (with the expansion of the number of class submarines Kilo capable of launching cruise missiles Kalibr) and anti-aircraft defense systems (with additional S-400 Arc and the brand new S-500 Prometheus), with an eye to strengthening the Moroccan Air Force (which is expanding the fleet of F-16s in service and upgrading those already in service to the 70/72 standard). Much of the Algerian panoply would require a mid-life overhaul, but it remains to be seen whether Russian companies, deeply involved in the war in Ukraine, will be able to comply with any Algerian demands, both for modernization and for new systems.

But there are also other reasons for the increase in the defense budget, such as the revaluation of the pensions of retired military and paramilitary personnel.

In the context of the new constitution of 2020, which has opened the door to the possibility of operating with its armed forces abroad (reversing a basic concept of the Algerian political and constitutional discourse), there is the growing involvement of the Algerian armed forces in the Sahel through collaboration with neighboring armed forces, such as Niger and Mali and it is believed that Algeria is gradually moving towards creating a sort of permanent aid to the Nigerien army to deal with the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism, trying to reduce the 'French influence in its 'southern flank' and the revitalization of the CEMOC (Comité d'Etat-Major Opérationnel Conjoint, an Algerian-led multinational command based in Tamanrasset and which sees the presence of delegates from Mauritania, Niger, Mali of which the session of the last October it was even chaired by the Algerian president Abdelmajid Tebboune). Furthermore, security issues in the Mediterranean represent a major challenge for the Algerian authorities. Especially after the recent, further deterioration of relations with the Moroccan neighbor due to the profound disagreements on the issue of Western Sahara and the diplomatic and military rapprochement between Rabat and Israel, this in a context in which in August 2021, Algeria interrupted diplomatic relations with Morocco and the airspace closed to flights by Moroccan airlines and/or other airlines to/from Morocco.

Algeria, in its new dynamic of international relations, would be in talks with China to acquire the new short-range ballistic missile system (SRBM), SY-400. To do this, an Algerian delegation turned to NORINCO (North Industries Group Corporation) on the occasion of the Zhuhai Airshow 2022last November. The purchase of the SY-400 SRBM will integrate the ballistic missile system Iskander-E Russian-made and Chinese YJ-2B anti-ship cruise missiles (a 2014 Pentagon report calls the YJ-12 the "most lethal anti-ship missile China has ever made").

The Algerian Ministry of Defense initially planned to acquire a coastal battery of Russian anti-ship missiles (3K55 Bastion), but then chose the YJ-12B, which completed the deployment of another Chinese-made hypersonic cruise missile, the ASCM CX-1, which the Algerian Navy acquired in 2022, after more than 10 years of negotiations .

Algerian diversification is not just military. In fact, Algiers has signed a new five-year strategic agreement with China to deepen its bilateral relationship in all areas, strengthening economic ties, already strong, but expanding further, such as the opening and exploitation of a huge mine of iron in the Tindouf area (Der Djebilet).

The gray area

Some changes have recently taken place which require reflections on Algeria's future international and regional position.

Algeria, despite the pressure and numerous high-level visits by Muscovite delegations, which intensified after the aggression against Ukraine, seems to be progressively distancing itself from Russia. In fact, the Algerian defense ministry suddenly canceled the joint military maneuvers that were supposed to take place in November in Hammaguir, in the province of Béchar, about 50 kilometers from the border with Morocco. The anti-terrorism exercise (sic) of the two countries' special forces, in which about 80 Russian soldiers were supposed to participate, was called "Desert Shield". The exercise was announced last April 5 by the command of the southern military region of the Russian army after a first joint preparatory meeting held between officers of the two countries in Vladikavkaz (North Ossetia, the same area where between September and October 2021, an Algerian unit took part in an exercise with Russian troops). The Algerian Ministry of Defense has not confirmed, but has not denied, this announcement, taken up by the Algerian and foreign press. We had to wait for a sober statement read on ENTV public television, without explaining the reason.

The cancellation of the maneuver left the Moroccan press and its neighbors stunned (such as the once prestigious "Jeune Afrique", which is allegedly part of a holding company owned by the Moroccan royal family) who had fanned the flames by trying to sell the idea that Rabat, due to its proximity to the West and for having just hosted the much larger "African Lion" exercise in the summer of 2022 (a US-led maneuver that has been taking place since 2004) in southern Morocco, was threatened by Russia and Algeria and that, for this commitment, the whole West would have to recognize Morocco's annexation of Western Sahara, ban Algiers once and for all and force it to stop supporting the movement local independence activist, the POLISARIO, and accept its condition of inferiority compared to Rabat.

Another indication of the possible distancing between Algiers and Moscow could be the renunciation of Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune to make an official visit to Moscow which would deepen the "strategic relationship" between the two countries. Originally scheduled for July this year, the trip was reportedly postponed. The Russian ambassador in Algeria, Valerian Shuvaev (recently transferred from Rabat) told the Russian news agency 'Sputnik' that Tebboune would visit Moscow by the end of the year; according to unofficial Algerian sources, this visit would have been postponed without providing new dates. The ineffectiveness of the Russian army and its weapon systems, the evident weakening of the Kremlin as a political ally and the EU's insistence on strengthening energy ties with Algeria would be among the reasons that would push President Tebboune to a new dynamic, even if there are large gray areas (and difficult choices) in Algerian security policy (foreign and defense, but not only).

On 7 November, Leila Zerrouki, Algerian High Representative in charge of partnership with international organizations (former magistrate and Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for MONUSCO - mission of peacekeeping in the Democratic Republic of Congo) announced that Algiers had requested its membership of the BRICS, a mainly commercial association formed by China, India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa. Within this club, which also has aspirations of becoming a full-fledged international organization, Russia is, for now, the one that has the most ties to Algiers (but there is also China, which is growing rapidly). Perhaps for this reason it was the deputy foreign minister of Moscow, Mikhail Bogdanov, a highly experienced and capable diplomat, a specialist in the Arab world, who publicly welcomed the aspiring Algerian.

A gray area remains, confirming both Algeria's opacity and its prudence

Interviewed by the prestigious newspaper Le Figaro, Tebboune (in addition to announcing a state visit to France in 2023, requested to express an opinion on the presence of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner in the Sahel, he said: “The money this presence costs would be better placed and more useful if it went to the development of the Sahel” and about his relationship with Vladimir Putin he said: “I can only say that I will soon go to Russia. I neither approve nor condemn the Russian operation in Ukraine. Algeria is a non-aligned country and I want to respect this philosophy. No one will ever be able to turn Algeria into its satellite. Our country was born to be free. Furthermore, it would be good for the UN to not only condemn the annexations that are taking place in Europe. What about Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights or Morocco's annexation of Western Sahara?”

As mentioned above, the initiative of the pro-Moroccan US deputy Marco Rubio (and of 26 others elected with him), is supervised by Algiers, although aware that the CAATSA is a highly political instrument, which Washington waves, according to the cases, to put pressure , but which he sometimes does not find convenient to use. For example, it had been mentioned with regard to India, but New Dehli, which Washington would like to involve more closely in its strategy of containment of Beijing and Moscow in the Indo-Pacific, did not accept it and the USA also due to Indian uncertainties on the effectiveness of the S-400s and the serious Russian delays in the delivery of the promised systems (India had signed a huge contract with Russia at the end of 2021), he turned off the spotlight.

US Ambassador to Algiers Elisabeth Moore Aubin revealed, however, that she has asked Algerian authorities to reduce their imports of Russian arms, adding at the same time, Algeria is a strategic partner for Washington and that she has "advised partners who buy weapons from Moscow to diversify their suppliers with non-Russian suppliers”, and to have had assurances to this effect. The US diplomat's conciliatory language can be explained (in part) because now that the French military has withdrawn from Mali, the United States needs a solid militarily partner like Algeria in the fight against jihadist groups destabilizing the Sahel .

Even if Algeria seems to be cooling its ties with Russia, its armed forces, the second-largest in Africa after those of Egypt, possess such quantities of weapons manufactured in that country that it will have to extend the maintenance and training contracts signed with its military industry.

Furthermore, the growing difficulties of the Russian defense industry represent a further threat to the military capacity of Algiers, which runs the risk of soon finding itself with an enormous mass of unusable materials.

All these options represent serious unknowns for Algiers, impacting its security policy choices, more for operational, training and logistical reasons than merely financial (at the end of 2022, Algeria had over $60 billion in financial reserves and it has no external debt).

Against the backdrop of tensions with its Western-aligned North African neighbor, Algiers has emerged in 2022 as a renewed regional player whose importance extends beyond the region. As the global energy crisis continues amid the West's standoff with Russia in Ukraine, Algeria in the first five months of this year alone, has seen its energy revenue grow by more than 70%, to a total of 21,5 billion dollars.

This comes after a long period in which Algiers closed in on itself due to the institutional blockade that hit the country when in 2013 a brain attack seriously damaged the health of President Abdelaziz Boutefllika, who took office in 1999 (he forcibly resigned in April 2019 and deceased in September 2021). Since then the ruling class has worked to maintain power and leaving plenty of room for Morocco which has objectively strengthened its regional and international position with respect to the Western Sahara question, called the 'national cause' and, much less prosaically, the prism through which Rabat sees and interprets all its policies, including cultural and sporting ones, both at home and abroad.

The long and painful parenthesis of Bouteflika's long illness, which formally ended with the election, even taken for granted, of Abdelmajiid Tebboune, to the highest Algerian judiciary in the summer of 2019, were signs that the armed forces, the pillar of policy-making the situation and the new president, a personality of great experience and ability (he has served as prime minister and as minister in various departments since 2000).

Today, tensions are simmering again between the North African leaderships due to the emergence of new dynamics, especially since Morocco has decided to normalize (only officially, as the confidential ones had been very solid since the 60s) ties with Israel to due to pressure from the administration of then outgoing US President Donald Trump. This normalization is perceived by Algiers as a threat to its national security (while for Morocco it is a kind of insurance) and is intertwined with an arms race, which has existed for some time, but which has developed further since 2015.

Along with ongoing attempts to make the most of new economic advantages at the national level, Algiers also seems determined to have its own impact on regional affairs. As the nation has severed ties with neighboring Morocco, in part due to ties to Israeli intelligence and military influence, as well as support, according to press sources not just verbal, Moroccan support for the Berberophone separatist groups of Kabylia and radical Islamist movements such as Rachad.

Algeria, the third largest gas supplier in Europe, has attracted considerable interest this year, now becoming the first supplier for Italy, as military ties also appear to be intensifying.

While it has to keep a careful balance, both regionally and internationally, Algeria has emerged this year as a key player in Africa, the Middle East and beyond. It forced President Emmanuel Macron to change the French rhetoric on Algiers and turn the page on the unresolved post-colonial and memorial issue and paved the way for the abandonment of French in the national education system and the choice to adopt the English language instead, further eroding the French influence.

Another major issue Algiers is very involved in is Palestinian reconciliation, hosting a series of meetings between rival factions Hamas and Fatah in order to bridge their gap and develop a platform from which to support the joint Palestinian political initiative . This was also a central theme at the Arab League summit last November, when Algeria attempted to strengthen its regional position by hosting the meeting, in this subtracting space from Morocco, who through his role as chairman of the Al-Qods Committee (Jerusalem) set up by the Organization of the Islamic Conference had sought to increase his influence. However, official normalization (the concrete, but clandestine, has existed for decades in relations with Israel), has deeply irritated Moroccan public opinion which, although not anti-Semitic and strongly pro-Palestinian, has created embarrassment, beyond the self-congratulations typical of the official narrative, to the institutions of Rabat.

(Continued)

Photo: Segredifesa

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