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Enhanced Role: Algeria and Regional Crises after Constitutional Amendments

The amendments to the Algerian Constitution on November 2020 allow, in part, Algerian Army units to be sent abroad for participation in peacekeeping missions. The amendments raised questions about the nature of Algeria’s foreign security policy and its prospective paths. The amendments coincided with Algeria’s intensive security movements, either at the domestic level within the framework of the ongoing strategy to respond to terrorist threats, or at the external level, where Algeria’s movements have multiplied over the past several months towards neighboring states with a view to strengthening security and military cooperation.

These movements were closely tied to the perception of Algerian decision-makers of the regional context and the resulting threats. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune expressed this in a way on 4 January 2021, during the meeting of the High Security Council of Algeria, where the president insisted on “maintaining vigilance on all levels in order to address the unprecedented developments in the regional arena of Algeria.” Over the past several months, the Algerian military has also repeatedly made statements about the growing regional threats to Algerian security.

Intensive security moves

Recently, there have been intensive security movements by the Algerian regime that indicate, in one way or another, some shifts in Algeria’s regional security policy. For decades, Algeria has had a foreign policy vision of avoiding a direct military engagement in the regional conflicts; focusing more on mediating between the warring parties in the neighboring states to contain threats. In other words, the Algerian security policy or the security doctrine, for decades, refused to deploy its forces abroad and assumed that the military interventions in the affairs of other states result in major damages that can extend inside Algeria.

Despite the stabilization of these trends for decades, the region’s crises over the past years raised doubts about the possible continuation of the Algerian security policy with its traditional dimensions. In this context, the latest security movements of Algeria are understandable as a new attempt to engage intensively with the region’s issues and the growing threats. On the one hand, the constitutional amendments, which were approved by a referendum, include an amendment that allows the Algerian Army to participate in operations outside the country. According to this amendment, “the President of the Republic decides, in his capacity as the supreme commander of the armed forces and the Minister of Defense, to send units of the army abroad for participating in peacekeeping missions after the approval of parliament by a two-thirds majority of members of each chamber, with due respect for the principles and objectives of the United Nations, the African Union and the Arab League”.

On the other hand, Algeria has recently sought to strengthen its security and military cooperation with neighboring states. Perhaps that is what the Mauritanian Army Chief of Staff Mohamed Bamba Meguett’s visit to Algeria during January 2021 revealed. That visit sent positive signals on strengthening the security and military cooperation between the two states. Algerian Army Chief of Staff Said Chengriha, while receiving his Mauritanian counterpart, emphasized that “the visit is particularly important to two brotherly countries, and will undoubtedly develop their relationships, especially in light of the development of the security situation prevailing in the region”. He added that “strengthening the military cooperation between two brotherly armies is more than a necessity to face security challenges imposed on the region. This can be achieved through the use of available security cooperation mechanisms, particularly the Joint Operational Army Staffs Committee (CEMOC)”.

These moves coincided with the growing trends to export Algeria’s military industries. Algerian Army Chief of Staff Said Chengriha revealed these movements in a meeting with the military industries directors on 21 November 2020, when he noted the need to expand the Algerian military industry to include “access to regional and even international markets, and seriously consider exporting Algerian military products”.

Fundamental incentives 

The latest Algerian moves are linked to a number of fundamental incentives regarding regional crises and decision-makers’ discretion and visions regarding these crises. The most important of these incentives are:

1) Persistence of terrorist threats: Although Algeria has not suffered from major terrorist attacks over the past years, the terrorist threat remained an important determinant of Algeria’s security policy. In this context, the regional crises and the impacts of COVID-19 on the capacities of the region’s states, especially in the Sahel, raised new fears that the activity of terrorist organizations will gain a further impetus. According to El-Djeich review, January 2021 edition, the Algerian army managed to neutralize 37 terrorists, arrest 108 support elements, recover 314 weapons and detect and destroy 251 shelters for terrorist groups, in addition to destroying 391 homemade bombs, during 2020.

The terrorist threats to Algeria also continued at the beginning of 2021. For instance, on 2 January, the Algerian minister of national defense announced that four terrorists were killed by army forces and two army personnel were martyred during a clash on the outskirts of Tipaza, west of Algiers. On 14 January, the minister of national defense announced that the army had “managed to kill a dangerous terrorist following an ambush in Oued Boudekhane, south-west of Guentis-Khenchela Province”. On the same day, five people died and three others were wounded after their vehicle was struck by a homemade bomb in Oued Khenig-Roum in Tebessa Province. The Algerian president posted a tweet about the incident, describing it as “a cowardly and barbaric act that killed five of our citizens”.  

2) Opposing French security policies: The last Algerian security movements can be explained in terms of the conflict between Algeria and France over its security policies in the Sahel region, particularly with regard to the issue of France paying ransoms to terrorist organizations for the release of hostages. The past months have witnessed tension between the two states due to the deal to release hostages in Mali on October 2020, where France paid €10 million to Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) to have four hostages released, including French hostage Sophie Petronin. The deal also included the release of some 200 terrorists imprisoned in Mali prisons.

Algeria has criticized the French deal and said it strengthens terrorist organizations and threatens the security of the states in the region. El-Djeich review, November 2020 edition, issued by the Algerian National Army, published an article titled ‘Paying Ransom is Another Form of Financing Terrorism,’ where it criticized the French policies. According to the article, “there are states breaching the United Nations resolutions that criminalize and condemn kidnapping and hostage-taking by terrorist groups, and calling upon Member States to develop various mechanisms for drying up the sources of funding for terrorism, including the payment of ransoms”. 

“Not only does France, unlike many states such as the United States and the United Kingdom, never delay in paying ransoms when it comes to its citizens, but it is also willing to release hundreds of terrorists who are held in prisons and convicted for crimes and even heinous massacres”. It cannot be overlooked that tensions between France and Algeria increased following the arrests of the terrorist Mostafa Darar on 27 October 2020 in Tlemcen province, and the terrorist “Hussein weld Omar” on 16 November 2020 in Timiaouine. According to data issued by the Algerian Ministry of Defence, the two terrorists returned to carry out their terrorist activities after the deal made by France with Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin to release hostages in exchange for a ransom and the release of more than 200 terrorists.

3) Reducing the French military presence in the Sahel: Over the past months, France has indicated its readiness to reduce its military presence in the Sahel, and the French Defense Minister Florence Parly indicated this in her interview with French newspaper Le Parisien on January 2021. She stated that France plans to reduce the number of its troops in the Barkhane forces in the Sahel region. However, she affirmed that “the decision in that regard will be made in the upcoming France-G5 Sahel Summit next February in N’Djamena, Chad”.

So, it seems that Algeria is preparing, through its latest security moves, for the possible reduction of the French military presence in the region, because this could prompt terrorist organizations to expand their activity in the region to fill the gap left by France. Algeria is likely to accelerate the strengthening of its security and military cooperation with the region’s states in order to affirm its central role in the security system of the region.

4) Crisis situations in Libya and Mali: The recent constitutional amendments possibly aim to formulate a new role for Algeria in Libya and Mali. According to the United Nations Declaration on November 2020, the political parties in Libya have reached an agreement to hold the national elections in on December 2021. Therefore, Algeria may play a role in the future course of the Libyan conflict by sending peacekeeping troops to secure the ceasefire and political process in Libya and act as a stabilizing force in the country.

Such a trend may also exist in the case of Mali. Over the years, Algeria has been present in the Malian conflict by playing mediating roles among different parties. Accordingly, Algeria maybe seek to strengthen this presence by sending troops, at the very least, to the north of Mali in order to observe developments there and stop terrorist organizations from expanding their influence, especially if France takes the decision to reduce its forces in the Sahel. Furthermore, the participation of Algerian forces in peacekeeping operations in the region can give Algeria a greater say in international debates on the Sahel and its future.

5) US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over Sahara: It cannot be overlooked that Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, following the agreement to establish relations between Morocco and Israel on December 2020, is a motive for Algeria to reassess its security options in the region. This US decision provoked the ire of Algeria, which, according to a statement by the Algerian Foreign Affairs Ministry on January 2021, asked Washington to be “impartial when dealing with regional and international crises”. Therefore, Algeria is likely to resort to expanding its security presence in the region to persuade the new US Administration of the need to hear Algeria’s viewpoint and reaffirm the central role of Algeria, which Washington may need to serve its interests.

Potential complications 

Despite the motivations behind Algerian security movements and the probability of a shift in Algeria’s position on sending forces to neighboring states, this path has potential complications. First, the traditional security policy still has weight in Algeria, which is mainly based on avoiding direct military engagement in regional issues. Second, the COVID-19 crisis and its economic repercussions and the declining oil prices may have a significant impact on any move towards an intensive military and security engagement in the region.

Third, the terrorist file is likely to have an adverse impact in this regard, due to the fact that the military participation in the region’s conflicts and sending forces to some states such as Mali may lead to an increase in terrorist threats facing Algeria, whether through targeting these forces or the growing activity of terrorist organizations inside Algeria to compel the regime to back out of sending forces to the region’s states. Lastly, the issue of Moroccan-Israeli relations will remain a problematic issue for Algeria, especially since Algerian officials consider the agreement between Morocco and Israel a security threat. It cannot be overlooked that this agreement puts a strain on the Algerian regime that might, at some point, push it to make concessions to please Washington.

References

  1. El-Djeich review, November, 2020, accessible at, https://bit.ly/3ii9Hrs
  2. El-Djeich review, January, 2021, accessible at, https://bit.ly/38MOYJ8
  3. Statement of Algerian Ministry of National Defence, “Fight against terrorism.. Elimination of a dangerous terrorist in Khenchela”, January 14, 2021, accessible at, https://bit.ly/3oTuSlV
  4. France is likely to reduce its troops in the Sahel region, January 14, 2021, accessible at, https://bit.ly/2LEgU9k
  5. Jacob Lees Weiss, “Algerian Constitutional Amendments Create Conditions for Military Intervention in Libya”, December 3, 2020, accessible at, https://bit.ly/2M1SmHi

Gijs WeijenbergMéryl Demuynck, “Algeria in Mali: A Departure from the Military Non-Intervention Paradigm?”, 17 Dec 2020, accessible at, https://bit.ly/3bQ0a9J

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