Driven by a fast-paced environment, great power competition continues to intensify in the Maghreb, where the US and their European allies are now facing frequent incursions by third parties deemed as a threat to the stability of the region. Coupled with Turkey’s new gravitational pull, diplomatic moves and military activities carried out by Russia are watched with concern in Washington. The approaching presidential elections in the US will determine the reaction, if any, to these significant developments in the Mediterranean Sea. However, recent signs suggest that the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is already engaging with specific partners to enhance military cooperation and counter Moscow’s recent advances in the region.
The interoperability training mission carried out in the southern Mediterranean Sea early this month was a case in point. The joint military exercise that took place on the 7-8th of September in North Africa involved two US Boeing B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers, four F-16C Bloc 52 (Viper) Fighting Falcon fighter of the Royal Moroccan Air Force and two Northrop F-5 fighters of the Tunisian Air Force, as well as USS Roosevelt (DDG-80) guided missile destroyer, Arleigh Burke Class. With the support of the US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), the military drill was intended to develop maritime interdiction capabilities, with the USS Roosevelt disguised as a hostile vessel.
Interestingly, the language of the statements issued (including the ‘commitment to prevent malign influence in Africa’), reminds of recent statements issued by AFRICOM about the presence of Russia and its private military company (PMC) Wagner Group in Libya.
The interoperability training mission with the Moroccan and Tunisian air forces confirms AFRICOM’s strategic interest in reinforcing its military cooperation with Rabat and Tunis, considered as the two main geopolitical bridgeheads from which countering malign actors and terrorist groups in the Maghreb [Umberto Profazio, The USA and the Rota dilemma, Maghreb Strategic Trend, NATO Defence College Foundation July 2020].
Tunisia in particular represent a crucial partner in preventing Russia from establishing permanent long-range anti-access area-denial capabilities on the southern flank of NATO, a risk highlighted not only by the transfer of at least 14 MiG-29 and several Su-24 aircraft to the Jufra airbase in May, but also by the rumoured but unconfirmed deployment of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Libya.
The 9th September visit of the commander of AFRICOM, Gen. Stephen Townsend, to Tunis underlined the strategic position of Tunisia from the Libyan angle. Alongside his meetings with President Kais Saied and the Defence Minister Ibrahim Bartagi, Gen. Townsend met with the US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland and had a videoconference with the newly appointed Defence Minister of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) Salah Eddine al-Namroush.
However, Turkey’s growing influence in western Libya (also highlighted by Namroush’s visit to Ankara, immediately after his appointment) and frequent frictions with its NATO allies can stonewall AFRICOM’s attempt to cement its strategy in Libya and the region. The unresolved nature of Turkey’s relations with the West is pushing Ankara to maintain a preferential channel with Moscow, in order to play a dominant role in Libya and implement its Blue Homeland strategy in the East Med. At the same time these developments are making Russia much more relevant in the Mediterranean Sea, to the detriment of AFRICOM’s Mediterranean plans, as well as NATO’s cohesiveness.
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Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region