Closer military ties between Russia and the Maghreb
Washington - Of all the international interventionist forces participating in the Syrian war, the success of Russia’s military assistance to the beleaguered regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has triggered interest in other Arab countries facing security threats.
Throughout the Maghreb and the Sahel, governments are struggling to manage a security environment fundamentally transformed by the “Arab spring” upheaval and Jihadist activities in the region. Russia’s intervention in Syria has been duly noted, leading some countries in the Middle East and North Africa to seek increased cooperation with Russia.
This interest is apparent in the Maghreb, where Morocco’s King Mohammed VI made a state visit to Russia, last March. Algeria is also seeking to increase its armament shipments from Russia and Tunisia is reportedly considering increasing military cooperation with Moscow.
Tunisian interest in collaboration with Russia intensified in the wake of the March 7th Islamic State (ISIS) attacks on Ben Guerdane, where dozens of jihadis stormed the Tunisian town near the Libyan border, attacking army and police posts in a raid that killed at least 50 people, including civilians.
The Algerian Air Force in December 2015 bought a dozen Sukhoi Su-32 fighter-bombers, an export version of the Su-34 that has proved effective in Syria, at an estimated cost of $500 million-$600 million from Russia. Regional unrest has led it to increase its order for Russian-made Mi-28NE “Night Hunter” attack helicopters from the eight reported in January to 42, a contract worth $600 million-$700 million.
The Air Force is not neglecting its airlift capabilities, a critical consideration in a country as vast as Algeria. Negotiations are under way with Russia’s state weapons exporter Rosoboronexport to purchase two Ilyushin Il-76MD-90A military transport aircraft.
As the world’s second-largest arms exporter, Russia has several advantages over its European and US competitors in the Middle East beyond its weaponry’s proven battlefield prowess.
Russia has a significant Muslim minority, about 10% of its population, and in the Caucasus it has been battling jihadists since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Unlike US and European arms exports, Russian shipments are not accompanied by hectoring human rights lectures or demands on democratisation of the country’s political structure; Moscow instead is concerned about preserving government authority, believing that when “strong” governments are toppled, chaos ensues.
Above and beyond arms shipments, Russia is said to be supplying Maghreb governments with invaluable intelligence data. According to media reports, Russia recently supplied Algeria with satellite imagery of its borders with Tunisia, Libya, Mali and Niger, which helped the Algerian Army thwart infiltration attempts by militants, including ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb jihadists and weapons smugglers. as part of broader regional cooperation, the Algerian government has reportedly shared the imagery with Tunisian authorities.
The combination of battle-proven Russian weaponry with intelligence assistance will likely become an irresistible offer to North African governments battling insurgencies, as what Moscow is offering is far broader and deeper than that offered by Western governments, which are more reluctant to share intelligence, particularly data gleaned from reconnaissance satellites.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in the past decade armaments imports by African nations increased 19%, with Algeria and Morocco, the two largest regional arms importers, having a combined total of 56% of African weaponry imports.
Rosoboronexport head Anatoly Isaikin said that in 2015 the Middle East and North Africa accounted for 36% of his firm’s $15 billion annual global sales. As jihadists continue their rampage through the Islamic world, one of the few certainties is that governments will take every measure to defend themselves — with a concomitant growth in arms imports.
As over the past six months Russian armaments have proven themselves on the battlefield, it seems likely that Maghreb governments under threat will increasingly turn towards Moscow to fulfil both their weaponry needs and intelligence shortfalls.