The United States government is deeply entrenched in fuelling an arms race between Morocco and Algeria, as the “New Cold War” opens another front in Northern Africa, the feud threatens a devastating conflict. The war in Ukraine has only exacerbated the crisis.
Algeria has announced that its ties with Morocco have reached “the point of no return”, as their rival neighbor sets up a half billion dollar deal for American artillery missile systems. Pitted in the middle of a US-China race to secure control over key trade routes in Northern Africa, with Washington also working to combat Moscow’s influence in the Sahel and repel Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, the neighborly feud could pose a major threat to regional stability.
Back in August 2021, Algeria officially severed diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Morocco, citing a large number of concerns it had with its North African neighbor. This included accusations of meddling in Algerian affairs, helping to plot terrorist attacks and disrespecting unilateral agreements, in addition to concerns over Morocco’s ties with Israel.
That November, tensions again escalated as three Algerians were killed in alleged drone strikes against clearly marked trucks along Mauritania’s border with the disputed Western Sahara region. The attack was described as “barbaric” by Algerian State-media and came only one day after Algeria’s President, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, ended his nation’s gas supply contract with Rabat.
Tensions between Morocco and Algeria date back as far as 1963, to the brief conflict known as the Sand War; a battle that erupted over the Algerian Tindouf and Béchar provinces, which the Moroccan monarchy viewed as rightfully its own. The land border between both sides has also been closed since 1994. The ideological rivalry between the two States is also deep-seated, as Morocco sided with the West during the Cold War, while Algeria backed Global South liberation struggles and sided with the non-aligned movement.
Although the two North African nations are pitted against each other due to a number of domestic, ideological and regional disputes, the influence of foreign powers and their geo-strategic agendas are now bringing tensions towards paroxysm. As trade routes, natural resources and the so-called East-West struggle for regional dominance are all on the table, Washington’s policy decisions are at the root of the renewed tensions between Algiers and Rabat.
Speaking to MintPress, Zine Labidine Ghebouli, an analyst and researcher who specializes in the political and security dynamics of Algeria, stated that “there will be some provocations throughout this year.” He shared that the tensions could be both diplomatic and military in nature, while asserting that the situation hasn’t yet tipped over to the point of fully blown war erupting. Instead, Ghebouli believes that armed confrontations will likely take place in the Western Sahara:
The concern is increasing rapidly, especially with the developments in Western Sahara, with the diplomatic tensions and the lack of any envisageable solution for this conflict, I think it is becoming increasingly likely that we will see some show of force.”
Did Israel Revive The Morocco-Algeria Feud?
The Morocco-Israel normalization deal, inked in 2020, was a turning point for Morocco-Algeria relations. Algeria cited the hosting of Israel’s Yair Lapid, in addition to referencing “massive and systematic acts of espionage”, as chiefly encouraging the decision to break off diplomatic ties with Morocco. Accusations of spying have been denied profusely by officials in Rabat and Tel Aviv.
Although Rabat never signed an official normalization deal with Israel until 2020, friendly gestures were historically made by Morocco towards the Israelis, such as inviting Israel’s former President Shimon Peres to the country in 1986. Moves like these may have drawn the ire of Algiers, which has remained a staunch supporter of the Palestinians, yet did not carry the same baggage as the Israel-Morocco relations of today.
In order for Morocco to buy into normalization with Israel in 2020, this required some convincing, such as the US Trump administration’s pledge to break from the consensus of the international community on the issue of the disputed Western Sahara region, by recognising it as part of Morocco. Incidentally, on November 14 the Polisario Front – which represents the indigenous people of the Western Sahara, the Sahrawi people – declared that the 29-year ceasefire between it and the Moroccan army had officially ended. On December 10, the US government released a declaration of Morocco-Israel rapprochement, which entered into force 12 days later.
Israel signed a memorandum on military cooperation with Morocco last year, feeding into Algerian fears of a Zionist presence on their border. In addition to this, the Moroccan secret services were revealed to have used Israeli-developed Pegasus spyware to target Algerian numbers; in what an analysis from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab concluded was weaponized to advance Morocco’s geostrategic interests.
On October 13, 2021, Algeria’s national broadcaster, Ennahar, reported that the General Directorate of National Security (GDNS) had thwarted a Zionist conspiracy to use separatist groups in order to carry out terrorist attacks throughout the country. A number of testimonies were collected from the alleged suspects that were arrested, with Algerian State-media claiming that the plot was “hatched by the Zionist entity [Israel] and a country in North Africa”. The reference to a North African country was broadly interpreted to have meant Morocco. On the Western Sahara dispute, Tel Aviv was reported to have lobbied the US to recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over the area, which fits in line with a history of Israel having sent advisors to help fight the Polisario Front.
Israel has also voiced its concerns about Algerian efforts to revive its global diplomatic presence. In July 2021, a Moroccan Hercules cargo aircraft with special forces commandos landed at Israel’s Hazor Air Force Base as part of a US-led exercise on “fighting terror”. In addition to this, Morocco’s armed forces have acquired Harop suicide-drones and Heron UAV’s from Israel Aerospace Industries. The relations between both sides continue to develop in the military sphere.
The US Takes Over In Morocco
In November 2022, the US took over from France as the largest foreign investor in Morocco. Recently, back in April, the State Department also approved a potential $524.2 million sale of HIMAR artillery rocket systems to Rabat.
Furthermore, a worrying order was given by US President Joe Biden, late last year, for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to prepare an emergency plan for the establishment of an American military industrial base in Morocco. The instruction was allegedly given after the American President received a report from CIA director Bill Burns, which focused on Moscow’s expansionist endeavors in the region. The report said that Russia is in discussions for the establishment of a logistical base inside Algeria, which could “threaten the interests of Washington and its allies there.”
Stephan Blank, a senior fellow at the US-based think tank, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), has argued that Algeria “should be held accountable for its policies by both Europe and the U.S.” for siding with Russia against the West. It is not just a talking point at American think tanks that Algiers be punished for its refusal to fall in line with Western interests, US policy makers have also followed through, proposing sanctions on Algeria. In the US Senate, Marco Rubio has called for sanctions over a 2021 arms deal between Russia and Algeria, while in the House, Rep. Linda McClain led several of her colleagues in a push for the Biden administration to impose sanctions for the same reason.
Algeria serves as Russia’s third largest arms importer, yet has for some time been able to remain neutral between NATO and Russia when it comes to Ukraine, abstaining from a UN vote last year to condemn Moscow’s invasion. According to Zine Labidine Ghebouli “it has been quite obvious that Algeria has maintained a certain kind of neutrality, or at least a non-alignment strategy when it comes to the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia,” mentioning that “the Algerian embassy was recently re-opened in Kyiv as a sign that they don’t really want to take sides”. “At the same time I think it is becoming increasingly challenging for Algeria to retain that posture, especially with the Western pressures, especially with the legal developments regarding the International Criminal Courts arrest warrant for Putin,” he continued.
Noticeably, in a move which received some attention in Washington, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune opted out of attending the annual US-Africa Leaders Summit last year. At this current time, Algiers and Washington remain on good footing, yet it has become clear that Algeria will not behave as its puppet.
Although neutrality may be a challenge, Algiers has been one of the States to have actually benefited financially from the Ukraine conflict, or rather because of Western sanctions on Russian oil and gas. Algeria has become Italy’s biggest gas supplier and ended up generating over 50 billion dollars in oil and gas revenues in 2022. Commenting on this, Ghebouli says that “this war has given Algiers a bit of time to rebalance its economy, to prepare itself, and to attempt to revive its outdated oil and gas sector and other sectors,” agreeing that the circumstances surrounding the Ukraine war has given it a definite boost.
Another important element that fuels US interests in Algeria and Morocco, is Chinese investment and the fact that Algiers is playing a role in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While the US is the largest foreign investor in Morocco, Beijing has not put all of its eggs in one basket and is investing in projects like the Tangier Tech City, giving it a foothold there. On the other hand, China is set to invest at least 3.3 billion dollars in the construction of El-Hamdania deep water port in Algeria, a project which will aid in strengthening the Italian trade route through Algeria and into the Sahel region.
The United States is not taking China-Algeria cooperation lightly, as it is itself attempting to ensure that the Europe-to-Africa trade route from Spain, through Morocco, is under Western control. The Biden administration’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) that was set forth by the White House last June, is designed to help the US combat China’s BRI, using a strategy opted for through the World Economy Forum (WEF), namely relying on non-government investments to help. In this competition for control over vital trade routes and infrastructure, no decisive winner has been declared yet and the power balance could significantly change in the future.
Western Sahara and Algerian Separatists
Although warfare between Morocco and Algeria would be a lose-lose for both sides, the likelihood of armed confrontation is now causing worry for both Algerians and Moroccans. The ongoing arms race should therefore be a cause for concern for investors like the United States, as the top priority for any investment market is stability and security. However, the recent large-scale deal for the potential sale of offensive artillery systems gives the opposite impression.
A security source, based in Morocco, who chose to remain anonymous, said that “the winner in any future conflict will likely be whoever is on the defense, the terrain favors the defender and not the attacker, especially in the Western Sahara area where conflict is the most likely to break out first”.
The Western Sahara could become a battle ground at any moment, as the Algerian backed Polisario Front is officially at a state of war with Morocco over the disputed territory. The United States government takes the position that the land is Moroccan, so will likely support measures taken by Rabat to combat the Polisario Front. US based think tank, ‘The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’ claims that “there is evidence that Iran is both arming and training the Polisario Front in Algeria in an attempt to destabilize Morocco”, providing a convenient argument that could help conjure up a convincing pro-Western narrative in the event that conflict erupts.
The claim that there is evidence of an Iran-Polisario alliance is misleading at best, with the allegations all leading back to Israeli media outlets and a former Israeli public official. One example of the alleged evidence for such a connection is an i24News probe, which had claimed to have heard conversations between an individual affiliated with the Polisario Front and an alleged Hezbollah-linked figure from Lebanon. The Israeli media outlet claimed that they had listened to conversations between the Hezbollah and Polisario affiliated individuals in Spain. The evidence cited by a number of Washington based think tanks, are statements made by former Israeli diplomat Dore Gold, who said that “I am told by reliable sources that the IRGC has now spread its tentacles in the Western Sahara”. Despite such allegations, not a single shred of evidence has been produced to support this conclusion.
Last year I spoke to Dr Sidi Omar, the representative of the Polisario Front for the United Nations, who told me the following in response to a question about Moroccan provocations:
Since its violation of the 1991 ceasefire on 13 November 2020, which has led to the resumption of war in Western Sahara, the occupying state of Morocco has been engaged in a parallel, retaliatory war against Sahrawi civilians in the Sahrawi Occupied Territories. Human rights activists in particular are daily subjected to all sorts of violence and unspeakable atrocities without the world knowing about their plight. This is because of the media blackout imposed on Occupied Western Sahara that remains encircled by the 2700 km long Moroccan wall of shame, which is the second longest wall and the greatest military barrier in the world.”
The Moroccan occupying authorities have also been engaged in a large-scale scorched policy in Occupied Western Sahara. The policy, which is organized and implemented by the occupying security forces, includes destruction of houses and livelihoods, vandalism of properties, and the killing of livestock with the declared objective of uprooting Sahrawis from their homes and lands, which are given to Moroccan settlers.”
Interestingly, Dr Omar also made the claim that “Israeli-made unmanned aerial vehicles have been frequently used by Moroccan forces to kill not only Sahrawi civilians but also civilians and nationals of neighboring countries.”
On the other hand, Morocco has been vocal over the past year about the rights of Kabylie separatists to break away from Algeria and form their own independent state, provoking outrage in Algiers. There have been allegations from Algiers about Rabat backing groups there, even claiming in 2021 that separatist groups linked to Morocco and Israel had set deadly wildfires.
Zine Labidine Ghebouli, says that the claims about the threats of separatists in the areas are likely overblown, sharing that “during my last visit there wasn’t much of a presence of the pro-separatist sentiment in the way it is often described”. He added that “even if Morocco wanted to weaponize this sentiment, they wouldn’t be able to, this is because the Algerian people are very nationalistic and if they see that Rabat is weaponizing some groups in northern Algeria, regardless of the legitimate demands that the groups could have on some level, the Algerian public will mobilize to protect against this.”
Conflict in Northern Africa, between a Western armed Morocco and Russian-Chinese armed Algeria, is most likely to break out in the Western Sahara, which may start with exchanges between the Polisario Front and the Moroccan armed forces, but could quickly drag Algeria into the exchange. This is why threats of US sanctions, the construction of a military industrial base to combat Russia and the biased approach to the issue of Western Sahara, all encourage conflict, something that could actually jeopardize their investments in the region.
Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News
Robert Inlakesh is a political analyst, journalist and documentary filmmaker currently based in London, UK. He has reported from and lived in the occupied Palestinian territories and hosts the show ‘Palestine Files’. Director of ‘Steal of the Century: Trump’s Palestine-Israel Catastrophe’. Follow him on Twitter @falasteen47