North Africa: The Tripartite’s Big Barter In The “Eurasian Balkans”
State Of Play
Moscow has regained its strategic balance in the aftermath of the regionally disruptive events that characterized the “Arab Spring” theater-wide Color Revolutions, and in some cases, it’s actually made more progress than before. Egypt is a perfect example of Russia’s budding relations with the North African coast. Prior to Mubarak’s overthrow, Moscow had scarcely any influence in the country aside from the revenue that its tourists brought in, but with General Sisi coming to power after deposing of Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi, Russia now has an amazing opportunity for bettering bilateral relations and moving towards a pragmatic partnership. The backbone of Russia’s outreaches to Egypt is the sale of military weaponry, with the two sides having clinched deals for attack helicopters and a missile corvette. The sale of other advanced weaponry is also under discussion. In parallel with the progress being made on this front, Egypt is also allowing Russia to open up a $4.6 billion industrial zone at the entrance to the Suez Canal in Port Said, and both Moscow and Cairo are coordinating their efforts at resolving the War on Syria by hosting separate ‘opposition’ gatherings that liaise with one another through UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura.
Concerning Egypt’s war-torn neighbor, Libya, it’s clear that Russia has suffered major setbacks ever since the NATO-led war on the country, but even amidst these difficult conditions, Moscow is still trying to bounce back and regain whatever of its former strategic position is still salvageable. The strongest two steps in this direction were when Russia worked with the rest of its UNSC counterparts to partially lift the arms embargo against the internationally recognized Libyan government and then shortly thereafter starting circulating Russian-printed banknotes for the unrecognized Tobruk government in the east. Moreover, while working to send weapons to the formal Libyan authorities on the one hand, Moscow also hosted the country’s main on-the-ground powerbroker General Khalifa Haftar in late June, despite him generally being regarded as a former CIA asset and not formally involved in the peace process. The only explanation for this seemingly contradictory behavior is that Moscow is hedging its bets and is diversifying its conflict resolution efforts by engaging all responsible stakeholders, whether they’re ‘officially’ recognized or not. The fact that it can even do this in a country that was widely assumed to have surrendered to Western influence by this point is incontrovertible evidence that there is still space for a multipolar role in Libya and that the US is incapable of doing anything about it.
Taking a look at Tunisia, Russia’s relations with the country can surprisingly be said to have improved ever since the “Arab Spring”. Prior to the US-concocted regime change operation, the country was firmly in the grasp of the unipolar world and would never have seriously considered working with Russia, but now Tunis has expressed eagerness to cooperate with the Eurasian Union and even procure military supplies from Moscow. The reason that ties have so markedly improved during this brief period of time is that Tunisia is keen to diversify its strategic relationships in order to capitalize off of its position as the dual gateway to North Africa and Southern Europe. Traditionally very business-friendly but now also beleaguered by the ever-haunting threat of terrorism, the country wants to engage with new partners that are actually serious about eradicating this evil and correspondingly reward them with economic and strategic dividends, as it’s presently doing right now with Russia. It also helps that Tunisia was the top tourist destination for Russian holidaymakers in the first six months of 2016, which has done a lot to show the authorities just how big of a difference an influx of Russian spending could make in their local economy. Understandably, Tunis is now eager to expand its partnership with Moscow and take it to the next level.
Algeria and Morocco
In addressing Russia’s historic Algerian ally and its Moroccan rival, the state of affairs has both stayed the same and gradually changed. On the one hand, the strategic partnership with Algeria is stronger than it’s ever been, with Moscow reliably supplying military equipment for Algiers and cooperating with it out of their shared interest in resolving the War on Syria to Damascus’ favor. Algiers is credited with hosting secret negotiations between the Syrians and Turks, and more publicly, it even invited the Syrian Foreign Minister for a visit and dispatched its minister for the Arab League to Damascus to hold consultations with President Assad. Algeria has loyally stood by Syria throughout the entire time that the unipolar forces have been asymmetrically attacking it, which makes it one of the only Mideast states to have done so and giving it yet another element of strategic convergence with Russia. On the other hand, however, this hasn’t stopped Russia from reaching out to Morocco. The country’s king visited Moscow in March and both sides signed a raft of agreements and memoranda of understanding that strengthened their ties and signaled a reinvigorated commitment to boosting bilateral relations. Furthermore, Moscow appeared to side with Rabat when it came to the Western Sahara conflict and the latest UN scandal surrounding it, which in a sense would mark a turnaround from its Soviet-era policy of solely backing the Polisario Front. If the speculative talk is true and Russia indeed ends up signing a weapons deal with Morocco one of these days, then it would truly be in a role to balance between Rabat and Algiers and ideally work on getting them to agree to a sustainable solution to the Western Sahara dispute.
Tehran doesn’t have much of a presence in North Africa to speak of except for its flourishing relationship with Algiers that some have called an “unlikely partnership”. The reason that Iranian-Algerian ties might catch some casual observers off guard is because the North African state fought a vicious civil war against Islamists in the 1990s while Iran itself is an Islamic Republic. Despite the superficial contradiction that could be made between Tehran’s system of religious-inspired governance and Algiers’ constitutionally secular one, neither side is ideologically hostile to the other, and in fact, they’ve come even closer together in recent years because of their shared support for the democratically elected and legitimate Syrian government. In general, both countries can be described as members of the Resistance Bloc taking shape in Afro-Eurasia, with Algeria’s participation visibly seen not so much by its inclusion in multipolar institutions, but by its exclusion from the unipolar Saudi-led “anti-terrorist” alliance against Iran. Algiers took a neutral approach to the deterioration of Saudi-Iranian ties at the beginning of this year, which was interpreted by the Saudis and their unipolar patrons as an uncomfortably independent move, especially taking into consideration Algeria’s active public and behind-the-scenes diplomacy regarding the War on Syria.
Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt
Iran’s ties with Morocco and Tunisia are the next warmest out of the bunch, but by no means approach the level of strategic convergence that Tehran enjoys with Algiers. Iran’s relations with these two states are improving by incremental degrees compared to what they once were in the past, and they’re of the most basic nature and nothing special. Where Iranian diplomacy is at its worst, however, is in Egypt and Libya. Cairo hates Tehran for ideological reasons mostly stemming from the Iranians’ support for Mohammed Morsi and Sisi’s tutelage under the Saudis. That isn’t to say that there isn’t any hope for a respectful normalization anytime in the future or that the two sides absolutely don’t have any dialogue with one another, but that neither side can realistically be termed as a partner of the other and that pervasive distrust defines their present relationship.
Looking over at Libya, while many people might have forgotten about it by now, Tehran was an ardent encourager of what it termed the “Islamic Awakening” (the US’ “Arab Spring” theater-wide Color Revolution), seeing in it an irresistible chance to export the ideals and governing model of the Islamic Revolution. The Ayatollah even went as far as to announce during the 2011 Nowruz festivities that he “condemns the behavior of the Libyan government against its people, the killings and pressure on people, and the bombing of its cities” and Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs shockingly celebrated Gaddafi’s barbaric killing by US-backed mercenaries, even though it and the country’s top leader consistently condemned the conventional NATO War on Libya. The reasoning behind this puzzling policy is that Iran truly believed that the regime change movement in Libya was ‘genuine’ and ‘indigenous’, as there’s no way that Tehran would have backed it had it known at the time that the militants were part of a larger American-engineered plot. This episode stands out as one of Iran’s greatest post-1979 foreign policy follies alongside its support for the Bosnian Mujahedin, both of which were super risky gambits that totally failed to produce anything of value whatsoever for Tehran. On the flip side though, after realizing just how wrong they were in their assessment about the situation in Libya, it can be surmised that the Iranians vowed to never be played again and resolved to do whatever they could within their power to help their Syrian allies.
Ankara’s presence in North Africa is more widespread than Tehran’s, but not as positive or diversified as Moscow’s is. Ankara’s engagements with Tunis, Algiers, and Rabat have remained friendly, but can’t be said to constitute anything noteworthy, unlike its ties with the other two countries of the region although for absolutely different reasons. Turkey has very poor relations with Egypt owing to Ankara’s fervent support to deposed Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi, something which new leader Sisi has never let Erdogan forget.
Part of the reason for this can be traced back to Erdogan’s interlinked Muslim Brotherhood and Neo-Ottoman ideologies, through which he believed that a transnational clique of Muslim Brotherhood-friendly governments in the region would inevitably come under Turkey’s influence and propel him to the role of “Sultan” over all of their affairs. Just like Iran’s policy of the “Islamic Awakening” dramatically failed, so too did Turkey’s one of the “Neo-Ottoman Muslim Brotherhood”, although it took a bit more time to do so.
Erdogan pompously paraded through North Africa in September 2011 in a glitzy and glamourous media-driven stunt designed to herald in the first stage of expanded Turkish influence in the region, but it eventually floundered when Libya descended into the predictable throes of multisided civil warfare that it’s still suffering from and secular Sisi overthrew the Mori’s Muslim Brotherhood government. Although all traces of Turkish political influence were thenceforth expelled from Egypt, Ankara still retained a little bit of sway over some of the fighting groups in Libya, though this is far from the type of command that it had hoped to yield over the entirety of the country by this point.
Washington is directly responsible for the carnage that ripped through the region from 2011 onwards, but contrary to what it had initially hoped, the theater-wide Color Revolutions did not result in a transnational Muslim Brotherhood government that it could “Lead From Behind” through its Turkish proxy. Instead, it looks like the US experienced the same type of catastrophic policy failure as Turkey and Iran did in hoping to capitalize off of the chaos and steer it in the direction of its desired objectives. The principle difference, however, is that while the US and others didn’t succeed in turning the destructive events into a platform for their revamped, stable, and ‘constructive’ (as they see it) projections of regional influence, Washington was nimbly able to adapt to the changing circumstances and harness the processes that it unleashed in encouraging similar divide-and-rule disturbances in the southern direction against Mali and Nigeria. The black hole of disorder that the US engineered in Libya created a chain reaction of advantageous circumstances for aiding Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram, both of which later went on to seize vast tracts of territory in the two aforementioned countries and perpetuate the unipolar grand strategy towards resource-rich West Africa.
Egypt and Libya
Returning the focus back to North Africa, however, the US is still close with the Egyptian government, although not necessarily to the same extent that it was under Mubarak and Morsi. The strategic ‘safeguard’ in play is that close American ally Saudi Arabia and its (sometimes rivaling) equally US-aligned UAE sidekick hold considerable influence over Sisi because of the over $20 billion in combined investments that they’ve made in Egypt since he came to power. This helps to keep the country in check and stops Moscow from making too strong of a pitch in tempting Cairo to more confidently pivot towards the Multipolar Community. Libya, as is globally obvious by this point, is a fratricidal mess that has accordingly become an attractive destination for Daesh’s latest geopolitical power play, which in a cynical sense also reinforces the pressure on Egypt.
Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco
Tunisia is drifting away from the unipolar world but definitely isn’t cutting its ties with it, instead seeking to strategically spread out its partnerships as a means of improving its domestic situation and possibly bargaining for more benefits from its traditional patrons. Algeria, on the other hand, isn’t making any new inroads with the West, but still remains on friendly terms with France, the US, and others, even if a lot of tension is bubbling just below the surface as the unipolar world plots its response to the inevitable leadership transition that will eventually have to happen with elderly President Bouteflika (whether with him becoming fully incapacitated from another stroke or likely stepping down at the end of his term in 2019). Moreover, the conflicts in Libya and Mali put a lot of pressure on Algeria, as does its own existing domestic vulnerability to Islamic militarism despite the dark memory of the 1990s civil war. Additionally, the unresolved conflict in Western Sahara puts it at perennial odds with Morocco, thus raising the risk of another conflict vector on its periphery and adding strain on its “deep state” (permanent military-intelligence-diplomatic bureaucracies) representatives in simultaneously managing so many regional crises. It also doesn’t help any that Morocco is a traditional stalwart of US-French influence in North Africa and would logically be backed by them to a large extent in the event that violence re-erupts with Algeria.
North Africa is where Russia surprisingly has the most to indispensably offer its Tripartite partners, and it must accordingly take the multipolar lead in resolving the region’s military and political conflicts. A perfect case study emblematic of these efforts is in Libya, where Moscow should work in coordination with Ankara in gaining more on-the-ground influence among some of the militant actors there. Tehran might not end up having much of a role here, but imaginative uses of its capabilities might become more apparent after Russia and Turkey make further progress in the country. Libya is definitely the most grueling gauntlet that presents the greatest challenge to the Tripartite in North Africa, but other than that, it’ll also predictably be difficult for Egypt to reconcile its relations with Turkey and Iran and substantially normalize them to a mutually beneficial level.
It’s here where Russia can also attempt to play a constructive role by leveraging its newfound influence with Egypt, though understanding of course that it can only guide its partner so far without Cairo’s Saudi patrons getting involved and stopping them. This means that the resumption of Egypt’s full relations with Turkey and Iran is totally dependent on Saudi Arabia’s relations with these two countries, meaning the Turkish trajectory could be undermined in the event of a “Sunni Civil/Cold War” between Ankara and Riyadh, while any inroads with Iran could only happen in the event that Turkey and/or Russia balance between these two forces and help them agree on a ‘cold peace’. The latter scenario doesn’t seem too likely anytime soon, but it’s much more possible for post-coup Turkey to reset its relations with Egypt and try to start anew from a blank slate. If it moves in this direction, most of the envisioned diplomatic activity would be between Ankara and Cairo and Ankara and Riyadh, but if need be, Russia could play a facilitating role in the first pair of talks if requested by one or the other side.
Finally, the last of the three strategic planes on which Russia can exert its positive influence is between Algeria and Morocco, being the only player of the Tripartite that’s suitable for this task. There’s still a long way to go before Moscow is fully trusted enough by Rabat to fulfill this role, but from Algiers’ perspective, it would be to its best interest if Russia were to mediate between it and its rival and counterbalance the effect that joint American-French unipolar pressure has had on the Western Sahara conflict. It’ll be extraordinarily difficult to devise a solution to this decades-long problem that would be acceptable to all three parties (Rabat, the Polisario Front, and Algiers), but just like with the equally complicated situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, a novel and creative approach is necessary in order to yield any progress. The bone of contention is that the UNSC has mandated for 25 years already that a referendum be held on the territory’s future, but this hasn’t happened owing to drawn-out controversies over who is eligible to take part in the vote and other technical details that have served to delay it up until now. If Russian diplomats can somehow brainstorm a compromise solution that incorporates parts of Morocco’s autonomy plan and the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’s de-facto independence along the thin eastern borderland region, then it could displace the US and France as the most strategically influential power in the Maghreb.
There are three scenarios that could develop to totally offset Russia’s regionally stabilizing initiatives, with two of them being closely interlinked with one another and the third being situationally independent of the others. The least dramatic one is that Egypt refuses to normalize its ties with Turkey and Iran owing to inordinate pressure from Saudi Arabia, which in turn even tries to pressure Cairo to lessen its ties with Moscow. It’s very unlikely that Egypt would ever move away from Russia at this point, so any steps that Riyadh tries to force its North African surrogate to take in this direction would probably amount to nothing at all. In fact, it might actually be counterproductive for the Saudis to even try to raise this issue in the first place, knowing in advance that it might seriously backfire against them as much as it possibly could within the constraints of the GCC’s strategic stranglehold over Egypt, so it’s much more foreseeable that the Saudis will limit any pressure on their counterpart to just impeding a normalization of ties with Turkey and Iran as opposed to disrupting Egypt’s present ones with Russia.
As for the remaining two interlinked scenarios, they deal with an overspill of chaos from Libya and the collapse of the Algerian state, both of which could easily trigger one or the other. It seems for the moment that there’s a desire on behalf of all interested stakeholders in containing the carnage in Libya and preventing it from directly spreading out to Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria, but that can only be said in the conventional sense of non-state actors seizing and holding territory. It’s infinitely tougher to enforce a containment of the asymmetrical threats emanating from Libya such as the transnational movement of terrorists and weapons, which could have a reasonably higher degree of success infiltrating into the surrounding countries of North Africa. Depending upon their nature and whether they’re utilized in any forthcoming attacks or other related destabilizations, they could prove to be the ‘silver bullet’ for taking down the state and sparking a wider regional breakdown.
For example, if Libyan-originating or –trained terrorists enter Algeria in the midst of an uncertain leadership transition or connected unrest and carry out an attack, it might quickly lead to a chain reaction of events that end with heavy-handed martial law and/or the ‘reactive’ formation of a local anti-government terrorist movement. Likewise, if Algeria collapses, not only could this lead to a tidal wave of immigrants escaping to Europe, but it could also trigger the resumption of full-scale civil warfare in Libya which might then finally gain the momentum needed to spill over into Egypt, with Tunisia either being swallowed in the subsequent chaos or holding out as the last island of stability. It’s therefore very difficult to decouple these two potential crisis scenarios, and they must accordingly be treated as part of the same continuum by decision makers dedicated to preempting them from happening. Even though Russia already plays a very prominent role in aiding Algeria’s military and is endeavors to do something similar with Libya’s one day, it’s still not sufficient in and of itself to guarantee that these spoken-about scenarios don’t ever materialize.