Morocco-US naval exercises raise concerns in Spain

Spanish far-left Podemos party representative in Tenerife, David Carballo criticised the military exercises carried out by the two countries near the Canary Islands, without Spain’s prior knowledge.
Sunday 21/03/2021
The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group (IKE CSG) in Lightning Handshake exercise (US embassy in Morocco)
The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group (IKE CSG) in Lightning Handshake exercise (US embassy in Morocco)

RABAT--Spanish political circles voiced concerns and annoyance after Morocco and the United States conducted “Lightening Handshake” joint military exercises in the Atlantic Ocean, in the area between Agadir in central Morocco and Tan-Tan in the country’s south.

Spanish far-left Podemos party representative in Tenerife, David Carballo criticised the military exercises carried out by the two countries near the Canary Islands, without Spain’s prior knowledge, in statements that reveal his party’s increasing hostility to Rabat, especially after US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

The politician underlined the “unexpected actions coincide with one of the tensest moments in relations between Spain and Morocco in recent years due, among other things, to the migration crisis”.

Carballo also cited the Sahara issue, accusing Morocco of having “initiated” a military conflict “against the Polisario Front, with a desire for territorial expansion over Western Sahara”. In this sense, he criticised Morocco saying the country intends “to annex the Spanish waters located in the Canary Islands.”

Political analyst Hichem Moatadhed said that the Spanish criticism of the joint Morocco-US exercises reflects the extent of Madrid’s determination to exert diplomatic pressure, towards weakening bilateral agreements of great strategic importance for both Morocco’s military and international powers.

In a statement to The Arab Weekly, Moatadhed said, “The Spanish concern over of Morocco-US naval manoeuvres falls within the framework of Madrid’s keenness to control the balance of military power at the regional level, and its annoyance at the expansion of Morocco’s military capabilities, which confused the calculations of Madrid.”

He explained that “this Spanish approach is dictated by current regional dynamics and developments, especially those related to the new security balances in the Mediterranean region and North Africa.”

A file picture of the Truman Strke Force Group (AFRICOM).
A file picture of the Truman Strike Force Group (AFRICOM).

In recent days, a number of naval manoeuvres were conducted in the Atlantic Ocean in the area between Agadir and Tan-Tan. These included the “Atlas Handshake 1-21” in which the frigate “Allal bin Abdullah” participated with a Sigma class corvette of the Moroccan Royal Navy and the American destroyer USS Porter. The manoeuvres also included the “Atlas Handshake 2-21” exercise, which brought together the multi-mission “Mohammed VI” frigate of the Royal Navy and USS Porter destroyer.

These naval exercises come within the framework of a ten-year defense agreement between Washington and Rabat that was signed recently in Rabat. This agreement has triggered particular concerns in Spanish political and military circles.

“Many military reports praise the important progress made by Moroccan forces and the significant strategic position the country’s military gained at the regional level, especially that huge progress was recorded at the level of the security and military competitiveness index,” Moatadhed noted.

Echoing the concerns of the Spanish authorities, Carballo questioned the intentions behind the recent military manoeuvres, stressing that “Morocco is trying to pressure Spain in order to achieve the gains it desires.”

Carballo claimed that Morocco is flexing its muscles aiming for  geopolitical gains. He called for Madrid to review many of the cooperation agreements between the two countries.

Commenting on Carballo’s statements, Moatadhed said, “the Moroccan-American partnership, which is seeking to strengthen the Moroccan presence in the region, clearly bothers Spain on political and security levels. This explains why Madrid is using all the means at its disposal to hinder this multi-dimensional Moroccan-American cooperation, albeit at the expense of historical ties and collective memory between the two countries.”

Morocco’s strategic position in the region is key to US interests, as Rabat remains a reliable ally and one of Washington’s strongest partners in the fight against terrorism.

The US embassy in Rabat confirmed that “Morocco is a crucial partner of the United States when it comes to a range of security issues,” adding that “the exercises raise the ability of the US and Moroccan navies to work together, in order to meet security challenges and increase stability in the region.”

The statements of US officials raised the concerns of official Spanish institutions and think tanks.

“Spain’s efforts to dwarf Moroccan position regionally at political, military and economic levels remain very ineffective,” Moatadhed said.

“Spain is still making geopolitical and strategic calculations based on a traditional perception that overlooks the role and position of Rabat,” he added, noting that “Madrid finds it difficult to accept new regional dynamics and developments.”