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.
Some analysts argue that Algeria’s adherence to non-interventionism has been to its own detriment in recent years (Boukhars, 2013). But it should be acknowledged that the Algerians’ reading of the conflicts plaguing their neighbourhood have often tended to be the most accurate.
From there, they devise policies that, with a few exceptions, appear to have been successful in fostering peace. Yet, Algeria seldom ensures that its own preferred solutions are implemented with sufficient vigour. Partly for this reason, other capitals are often dismissive of what Algiers has to say about the Maghreb-Sahel.
There is a widespread misconception, which some Algerian officials actively perpetuate, that Algeria’s constitution prohibits external intervention. Article 26 of Algeria’s Constitution does not preclude sending troops abroad in all cases.
It rules it out only if the purpose of the military effort is ‘to undermine the legitimate sovereignty, or the freedom, of other peoples’ (Algérie, 1996). Algeria’s armed forces may cross the borders if the mandate establishes that assistance will be given to an internationally recognized government.
A classic precedent is provided by President Boumediene’s decision to send his country’s military to Egypt in 1967 and 1973, to help Cairo fight Israel (Belkaid, 2017; Rabinovitch, 2007, p. 23).
The main constraint to external military intervention is not legal but is instead a doctrine. This, unlike the constitution, can be abrogated at any moment without warning or legislation. A few developments in recent years suggest a change may be occurring.
In the spring of 2012, the northern Malian jihadi Salafi group MUJAO carried out two attacks on Algerian targets. In both instances, Algiers refrained from responding, in compliance with its ‘no incursion abroad’ rule.
In early spring 2014, however, Algeria responded differently. After learning a jihadi group had threatened its embassy in Tripoli, Algerian special forces took action on Libyan soil (Benyoub, 2014).
Several small groups of Algerian operatives, dressed in civilian clothing, then flew into Tripoli’s international airport, in the south of the city. They had not prearranged anything with the Zintani armed group then in charge of the airport’s security, but simply arrived.
An alternative plan, which called for the diplomats to move to Zintan if the flight to Algiers proved too difficult, was agreed between Algiers and Zintan-based armed groups.
That alternative was ready to be implemented but was not, as the Algerian group (including the diplomats) was able to travel the eight kilometres from the country’s embassy to Mitiga Airport. From there, the group flew back to Algiers.
Going through Mitiga Airport, in the east of Tripoli, was possible because the Algerians benefited from the help of Abdelraouf Kara and Abdelhakim Belhaj there. The latter exerted substantial influence over Mitiga in that period. Weeks before the civil war began, the exfiltration carried out by the Algerians benefited from the help of Belhaj’s and the Zintani militias, who were at that time in direct competition.
At around the same time, the London-based think tank Henry Jackson Society and other sources asserted—without producing evidence—that Algerian special forces, along with French and US troops, had conducted a 300-mile incursion into the Fezzan to confront AQIM there (Haynes, Evans, and Morajea, 2014).
In May 2014, Algeria signed a cooperation accord with Tunisia that granted it ‘rights of hot pursuit’ or the ability to engage in cross-border military actions on Tunisian soil (Zine, 2014).
The above elements depart from Algiers’ customary insistence that it is ‘not allowed’ to send armed personnel beyond its borders. As its immediate vicinity features an increasing amount of threats to its national interests, Algeria has inched closer to a more flexible attitude as far as intervening militarily on foreign soil.
This is particularly true of instances in which it is possible to intervene on a low-profile, clandestine basis. The aforementioned incidents also clearly illustrate the broad-ranging character of the networks Algiers maintains inside Libya.
More important than the constitutional or doctrinal debates is the question of whether Algeria has the physical capacity to send armed forces abroad for purposes beyond small ad hoc incursions.
The following considerations are particularly relevant:
A visible military action by Algeria in its near abroad will likely have domestic ramifications, given that political factions, ethnic communities, and jihadi organizations straddle borders.
For instance, various religious currents on both sides of Libya’s main fault line have counterpart elements within Algeria that may see a potential operation as an opportunity to escalate their narrative of grievance, while mounting an assault upon the Algerian government.
Put differently, Algiers, by intervening outside, may end up increasing the chances of an insurgency or providing additional impetus to an existing pocket of instability on its own territory.
‘We can’t be seen with one part of a neighbouring country’s population and against another part of its population,’ is a recurring sentence in interviews with Algerians.
b) Image of pacifism.
Algeria’s image, and therefore diplomatic credibility, has over the years relied on its track record as a non-interventionist power. A senior Western official based in Algiers noted:
They are keen to project this image of a modern, reassuring pole of stability. [But] when you step outside, you run the chance of experiencing a defeat on the international stage, and at this juncture Algiers can’t afford to take chances with its image.
The same applies at the domestic level, where the country’s civilian leadership has derived political dividends from its commitment to never send troops into strange lands (Porter, 2015b, p. 46).
Algeria’s military capabilities are already absorbed by its vast national territory. If the situation in Libya worsens markedly, the Algerian army might extend beyond an already high mobilization.
As an expert on Maghrebian border regions observed:
The army may surge in some additional capacity for very discrete amounts of time. But they would find it extremely difficult to do that in any sort of sustained sense without either stripping out forces dedicated to interior counter-terrorism, security around the Tunisian border, or the large forces they have on the Moroccan border.
Despite these and a number of other constraining factors, outside observers can no longer be entirely certain that Algeria will refrain from intervening militarily in Libya, whose western half is both closer to Algeria and more heavily populated.
What makes western Libya different
The Libyan civil war has been, to date, largely conducted at a low level of intensity in the western half of the country, with only sporadic clashes between armed formations (ICG, 2016b).
Direct military involvement from outside powers such as the UAE and Egypt in support of Haftar or other anti-Islamist leaders may embolden such armed actors into making forceful advances in western Libya (Saleh, 2017; Gearan, 2014).
This heightened level of violence may, in turn, engender shock waves that would destabilize Tunisia or Algeria itself. Algeria is prepared to go considerable lengths to prevent a collapse in Tunisia, which borders the country’s populated north-east provinces, thus providing an incentive for Algerians to support stability in their neighbour.
Any significant security degradation inside Tunisia has a direct bearing on not solely Tebessa but also Annaba, Constantine, and Guelma. The Algerians are ‘hugely wary about Tunisia’s frailty,’ said a Western military officer. ‘For them, Tunisia is the weak link.’
This helps to explain why Algeria has articulated a ‘Libya roadmap’ grounded within three premises:
1) the conflict’s solution cannot be military, only political;
2) the indivisible nature of Libya as a nation-state; and
3) the need for wide, genuine political inclusion (LDA, 2017).
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.