Betraying sense of isolation, Algeria gives military tone to row with Morocco

Security analysts close to the Algerian army said the drills were a “show of military force” and a “warning.”
Thursday 24/05/2018
Members of the Algerian Special Forces demonstrate their martial arts skills as they perform by the Army Museum at the Esplanade of Ryad el-Feth, last year.  (AFP)
Members of the Algerian Special Forces demonstrate their martial arts skills as they perform by the Army Museum at the Esplanade of Ryad el-Feth, last year. (AFP)

TUNIS - Algeria’s armed forces conducted high-profile live ammunition military exercises simulating attacks on the country by foreign “enemies,” bringing their strained ties with Morocco to a low. Rabat has accused Algiers of allowing Iran to interfere in the Western Sahara conflict.

Algeria’s top army officer, General Ahmed Gaid Salah, was shown May 6 on television and in social media videos by the usually secretive defence ministry leading 12,000 soldiers, dozens of warships and jets to ward off an “enemy incursion” from across the border with Morocco. The drill, named Toufane 2018 (Deluge 2018), involved air, naval and land forces and included teams specialised in repelling attacks by nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. They were the Algerian military’s largest military manoeuvres since the country’s independence in 1962.

That drill was followed by at least four other military exercises, including two drills simulating enemy invasions from Libya and Mali. The latest exercise took place May 14 at Algeria’s largest military base in the central town of Biskra.

“I attached great importance to (taking) part personally in this exercise because it is the first in its kind, scale and magnitude,” Gaid Salah told troops at the end of the drill at the main navy base in Mers el-Kebir in the western region of Oran.

The drill included the deployment of 12,000 soldiers backed by tanks over parts of the 1,900km border with Morocco, with 11 warships plying the Mediterranean near the maritime border to simulate firing of long-range missiles and dozens of fighter jets simulating an “off-limits sky” operation overhead, according to reports by state media and local military experts.

“Despite the problems and the crises in our immediate and distant environments, rest assured that our efforts focus on the defence of each inch of Algeria over its land and maritime borders,” Gaid Salah said. “Our main goal and objective (is) that Algeria will not be the cause or the source of risks of instability.”

The drills fired up the country’s nationalistic spirit, particularly with political parties and the media, and gave an unprecedented militaristic tone to the war of words between Morocco and Algeria.

Newspaper commentators and security analysts close to the Algerian army said the Toufane drills were a “show of  military force” and a “warning.” “This exercise like the other is a show of force by the Popular National Army,” said Ikram Ghioua, a security columnist in L’Expression daily, which is close to the presidency.

“Why do we have to be afraid of Morocco?” asked the influential daily El Watan in a headline.

“Morocco is a neighbour that is increasingly unpredictable and worrying,” wrote security analyst Walid Abdelbar in an analysis after Morocco severed diplomatic ties with Iran in early May over accusations that the Tehran-backed Shia Hezbollah party in Lebanon was arming and training the Algeria-backed Polisario Front. It seeks an independent Sahrawi state in the Western Sahara, which Morocco claims as an integral part of the kingdom.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita accused the Lebanese militant group of delivering a “shipment of weapons” to the Polisario Front via a member of the Iranian embassy in Algeria.

“Morocco has irrefutable proof, names and specific actions to corroborate the complicity between thePolisario and Hezbollah,” Bourita said.

Djamel Ould Abbes, secretary-general of Algeria’s ruling Nationalist Liberation Front (FLN), commented that “the drills at Mers el-Kebir are a warning.”

“We are 43 million inside Algeria and 7 million Algerians abroad. Anyone who touches a grain of sand of our territory will have all of us fighting him. No one will be allowed to harm the unity of our people and the integrity of our territory,” Abbes added.

Algeria has denied accusations from Rabat that it allowed Hezbollah to assist the Polisario.

Morocco and Algeria were the first Arab states to break ties with Iran over alleged meddling in their countries before later restoring ties.

Iran severed diplomatic ties with Rabat in 1981 over Morocco’s decision to provide exiled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi with asylum.

The spat between Rabat and Algiers laid bare Algeria’s increasing isolation in the Arab world. Its leadership is struggling to remain neutral in the escalating conflict between Iran and many Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Arab League has sided with Morocco in the diplomatic dispute over Hezbollah’s support for the Polisario, prompting Algerian politicians to call on the government to withdraw from the regional organisation.

The diplomatic stance amplified Algerian leaders’ wariness of perceived hostility of most neighbouring countries. They even shut land borders with five neighbours in the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa. Tunisia was the only country whose land border remained open with Algeria.

Algerian leaders called the shutdown “positive isolation” to prevent threats of jihadists and waves of illegal migrants.

“In the current configuration of the geopolitical map of the Maghreb and the Middle East, Algeria is finding itself in total isolation. Its diplomatic efforts to find a point of equilibrium to preserve a heartfelt entente with Saudi Arabia and  keep friendship with Iran had failed,” said Algerian analyst Mohamed Hammouche.