How Algeria Faces the Libyan Conflict
By Jalel Harchaoui
This Briefing Paper explores the underpinnings of Algeria’s foreign policy, and how it has evolved with respect to the ongoing crises in Libya, and offers insight into future prospects.
In March 2011, Algeria opposed the Arab League’s request for a Western military intervention against the Qaddafi regime in Libya.
The anarchy and arms proliferation that resulted from the ensuing war were a shock to Algeria’s own national security.
The Paper notes that Algerian foreign policy has engaged with a wide variety of Libyan actors from 2011 to the present, playing a key role in international efforts to form an effective government.
At the same time, Algeria has moved beyond its strict policy of ‘no boots on the ground’ to a more flexible stance on direct intervention.
At its core, however, Algeria remains committed to compromise and dialogue with all parties, a stance that sometimes puts it at odds with the West.
The ongoing Libyan crisis has affected Algeria adversely, both directly and indirectly. Partly in response, Algiers almost doubled its military expenditures, and remains committed to maintaining its defence budget at a high level.
Algerian diplomacy contributed to the formation and the installation of the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in 2015–16.
In recent years, Algiers has departed slightly from its commitment to never sending troops beyond its own borders. Small ad hoc operations in Libya are conceivable.
The Algerians are not opposed in principle to eastern faction leader Khalifa Haftar ruling all of Libya at some stage. But they are concerned about the uncompromising, polarizing, and inconclusive nature of his military approach, along with his frail coalition.
Algiers’ current Libya policy consists in working with, and exerting leverage on, various non-jihadi Libyan factions in order to help foster compromise. It favours a soft-landing transition into a unified Libya, preferring this to a scenario where one camp attempts to impose ‘stability’ by force and gives rise to the concomitant risk of unintended consequences.
Geostrategic imperatives and ideological idiosyncrasies are a continued source of friction between France and Algeria in the Maghreb–Sahel. The situation in Libya enhances the likelihood that this divergence will persist in the near future.
The Maghreb 1 is being recognized as a region that has enormous potential to disrupt Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States. It is also becoming a territory on which Middle East contests and global rivalries are being fought (Kadlec, 2017; Pusztai, 2017).
Amid these deteriorating circumstances, Algeria stands apart as a robust state, possessing a strong military-and-police apparatus along with expansive, proficient intelligence networks (Zoubir, 2016; Riedel, 2013).
The ongoing Libyan crisis is perhaps Algeria’s main external threat. But Algeria’s own logic and the risk criteria that it applies to its neighbour are not always understood.
This Briefing Paper seeks to provide insight into how Algiers assesses, and responds to, the evolving Libyan situation.
The first part of this Paper focuses on capturing the rationale behind Algeria’s general demeanour on the international stage.
The second part, after briefly reviewing the history of Libya–Algeria relations, traces Algeria’s evolving position vis-à-vis the Libyan conflict.
The conclusion offers prospects for the future. This Briefing Paper is based on extensive field research, incorporating interviews conducted during three separate trips to Algiers between January and July 2017.
It also draws upon a September 2016 trip to Tripoli, and several interviews carried out in London, Paris, Tunis, and Washington.
Algeria’s foreign policy: precepts and perceptions Algeria is a predominantly Muslim Sunni country with a population of 41.3 million (APS, 2017a).
It is variously described as an ‘important counter-terrorism partner’; an ‘ambiguous’ participant in the fight against terrorism; and a ‘problematic and paradoxical’ player that could become a key ally to Western powers if only Algiers had a different attitude (USDOS, 2016; Plagnol and Loncle, 2012, p. 65; Chivvis and Kadlec, 2015).
These contradictory descriptions reflect the opacity of the Algerian government. Owing to the difficulty of conducting meaningful fieldwork, numerous theories on Algeria’s national security behaviour are put forth based on no factual evidence—the proposition that the Algerian government has supported jihadi terrorism since 1992 being a case-in-point.
As German expert Isabelle Werenfels points out, this particular theory remains unproven (Steinberg and Weber, 2015, p. 54). The reality, as French historian Jean-Christophe Notinnotes, is that the Algerian government is no more Machiavellian than other states grappling with issues of jihadi terrorism and related instability (Notin, 2014, pp. 28–29).
Another frequent assumption about Algeria is that its foreign policy is static. Some of its mechanisms in fact do evolve in response to both internal and external threats, including increasing tensions in Libya and persistent security deterioration in Mali.
While making an effort to keep speculation to a minimum, this section examines the reasoning used by the Algerian government in assessing the threat environment.
Geopolitics, territory, and security
Algiers’ point of view is seldom in harmony with European and Middle-Eastern capitals when it comes to Maghreb-Sahel security.
This divergence has more to do with geography and basic security facts than ideology.
In the words of a former senior White House national security staffer, the Maghreb is at ‘the margin, sort of’ and countries such as Algeria or Libya ‘aren’t the heart of the Arab world; the heart is either the Levant or the Gulf’.
From the perspective of the majority Sunni states interfering in Libya’s ongoing conflicts, the Maghreb is important but not as important as territories closer to home.
Similarly, former colonial powers such as France and Italy—which are both militarily involved in Libya—sometimes see the Maghreb as ‘Europe’s backyard’ (Santini and Varvelli, 2011). Italy’s Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti even called Libya ‘Europe’s southern border’ (Gabanelli, 2017). Needless to say, Algerians do not subscribe to this or similar representations.
Divergent perceptions: Algeria and Middle Eastern powers
In addressing the prospect of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) joining 2011’s NATO intervention, then Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen referred to the two Gulf countries as the North Atlantic alliance’s ‘partners in the region’ (Parrish, 2011).
From Algiers perspective, Qatar and the UAE are not part of the Maghreb region, and therefore should not be depicted as natural security partners for Libya or its vicinity.
Situated over 2,500 miles away from Tripoli, the Gulf states are not affected by the escalation of the jihadi threat, migrant flows, or weapons proliferation in Libya.
Algeria’s opposition to the Arab League’s request for a no-fly zone over Libya in March 2011 is in part attributable to this geographic proximity (Bronner and Sanger, 2011). Gulf countries have less of an incentive to curtail the use of force on remote Libyan soil than Algeria does.
In contrast, the Algerians feel they are one among a tiny number of actors genuinely concerned with actual stability and peace in the western half of Libya.
‘Because they’re right there,’ explains a Western official, alluding to the considerable cost Algeria incurs whenever the area is destabilized.
Divergent perceptions: Algeria and Morocco
Geography also explains a substantial part of the US’ fateful November 1975 decision to support Morocco’s incremental annexation of the Western Sahara.
Algeria’s large, resource-rich territory, relative to its neighbours, makes it a defacto candidate for regional hegemony.
Regardless of ideology, major outside powers will therefore always be tempted to contain Algeria by helping Rabat achieve eventual control over the Western Sahara (it currently controls two-thirds).
The alternative—instead backing the Sahrawi camp’s bid for sovereignty— would be seen as an existential threat to Morocco’s government.
The kingdom’s territory, in that scenario, would end up being isolated from Central Africa and too small in comparison to its neighbour to the east. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used this kind of elementary geographic reasoning when he told President Ford: ‘If [Hassan II] doesn’t get [the Western Sahara], he is finished’ (Zunes and Mundy, 2010, p. 64).
The structural competition between Morocco and Algeria affects the two countries’ calculus on Libya.
Each, invariably at the expense of the other, seeks to portray itself as a robust ‘go-to’ country for regional security that is capable of making a difference as an unbiased, respected mediator in protracted conflicts such as the ongoing one in Libya.
Morocco and Algeria cannot help but see the country as part of their broader geopolitical competition over the Sahara and the Sahel.
For instance, Morocco benefits strategically when an unstable Libya absorbs its rival’s resources and attention, since this detracts from Algeria’s western flank (Cristiani, 2016).
The distance separating Libya from Morocco enables the latter to be supportive of a wider range of policies in Libya. In comparison to its nemesis to the east, Morocco is indeed less exposed than Algeria to the ripple effects of potential deteriorations in Libyan security.
If a set of European or Gulf powers champion a Libya policy that may indirectly isolate Algeria in its own region, then Rabat will be more likely to support it (Stitou, 2015).
This dynamic was partly at play in 2011 and may again appear in the foreseeable future.
The preceding discussion demonstrates that geography has considerable explanatory importance in Algeria’s geopolitics. Against this backdrop of structural imperatives, Algeria has maintained a relatively distinctive profile in international affairs over the years, with the exception of the 1992–2002 lull (Mortimer, 2015).
To be continued
Jalel Harchaoui is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geopolitics of Université de Paris, France. His doctoral research focuses on the international dimension of the Libyan conflict. A frequent commentator on Libya, Harchaoui has published widely, including in Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, Middle East Eye, and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Sada.