North Africa is entering a new stage over Libya conflict

The unfolding game will have a major impact on Tunisia's sovereignty and national security.
Tuesday 02/06/2020
Militants fighting for the Turkish-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) during clashes with Libyan National Army (LNA) forces loyal to Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, June 1. (AFP)
Militants fighting for the Turkish-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) during clashes with Libyan National Army (LNA) forces loyal to Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, June 1. (AFP)

TUNIS - A quick examination of the rapid developments opens the gate for multiple interpretations that go beyond the equations of the traditional rules of engagement and announce the emergence of new equations that do not stop at the Libyan borders.

These developments have thrust the entire North Africa region, with its belt of Sahel and Sahara countries, into a dangerous international game of creating tensions and military muscle flexing within the framework of different agendas and contradictory goals and objectives.

The unfolding game will have a major impact on Tunisia's sovereignty and national security, which have been under siege since the beginning of the January 2011 uprising, as a result of the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and its suspect alignments, as shown by the stances of the early post-revolution troika government led by the Islamist Ennahda Movement.

The risk of imminent Russian expansion in the region have prompted Washington to consider deploying troops to Tunisia.

US Africa Command (AFRICOM) revealed that the United States is considering using one of its Security Force Assistance Brigades for security assistance in Tunisia amid concern over growing Russian interference in Libya. "As Russia continues to fan the flames of the Libyan conflict, regional security in North Africa is a heightened concern," AFRICOM said in a statement on Friday.

AFRICOM’s statement followed a phone conversation Thursday evening between AFRICOM Commander General Stephen Townsend and Tunisian Defence Minister Imed Hezgui. “We’re looking at new ways to address mutual security concerns with Tunisia, including the use of our Security Force Assistance Brigade,” the statement said.

This statement raised many questions and prompted outrage in Tunisia over the prospect that an entire American brigade (more than 3,000 troops and officers) could be stationed on Tunisian soil. That would mean the establishment of a US military base, people fear, which could be a precursor to violations of Tunisia's national sovereignty.

In response to the expressions of concern, AFRICOM issued another statement Saturday night clarifying that the brigade in question would be used for assistance and training purposes only and “will not have combat missions from Tunisia but rather will send a training unit.”

“The forces referred to relate to a small training unit within the military cooperation program with Tunisia,” the statement said.

However, this clarification did not dispel doubts about Washington's intentions, especially as top Tunisian authorities remained silent onthe matter. The Tunisian Ministry of Defence simply issued a statement following the telephone conversation noting that Hezgu discussed ways to enhance bilateral military cooperation with AFRICOM.

The ministry’s statement quoted AFRICOM’s commander as saying that the US military command in Africa “is always ready to support the operational capabilities of the Tunisian military,” then added that the Tunisian and US sides “agreed to reschedule the bilateral activities, including joint exercises, whose implementation was postponed due to the exceptional health situation.”

There is quite a difference between the Tunisian statement and AFRICOM’s first statement.

The US's military proposal should thus be viewed within the framework of a changing conflict of interests in the region.

It would therefore not be fortuitous for Tunisia, regardless of how the US explains its intentions.

Through its rhetoric and style, the US formulation reflects the current security reality in the region, which is quickly slipping into a hotzone under the general banner of “fighting terrorism” and related matters, which is the best pretext for foreign intervention.

The complex nature of the Libyan conflict is bringing about new alliances. And there are fears that these changing dynamics will not take into consideration Tunisia’s foreign policy choices which, until very recently have prevented any damage to the country’s external balances, especially when it comes to the case of neighbouring Libya.

Some of Tunisia's actors, seem to now be searching for new justifications in connection with the Turkish role and the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda.

Tunisia may not be able to reduce the areas of possible surprises that surround it from each side, which undoubtedly calls for a focus not only on finding safety valves, but also on understanding the regional and international strategic situation from the point of view of a strategic planning based on getting as far away from the Muslim Brotherhood’s project as possible, in order to mitigate the various risks and challenges facing Tunisia's future relations with neighbouring Libya, and take into consideration the Turkish role in the region, with all of its aspects of aggression, occupation and the simmering Brotherhood agenda.