US envoy visits Algeria to bolster eroded relations

The visit took place amid signs of fraying relations between Washington and Algiers after the Trump administration announced last month its recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. There have also been indications that the North African country is nudging closer to Russia and China.
Friday 08/01/2021
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker speaks during a press briefing in Algiers, January 7, 2021. (AFP)
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker speaks during a press briefing in Algiers, January 7, 2021. (AFP)

ALGIERS--A US envoy visited Algeria on Thursday as part of a regional tour to discuss issues including the Libyan conflict and the disputed Western Sahara, officials said.

David Schenker, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, was accompanied by US Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett and General Jeffrey Harrigian, the US Air Force commander in Europe and Africa, the US Embassy said.

The visit took place amid signs of eroded relations between Washington and Algiers after the Trump administration announced last month its recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

There have also been indications that the North African country might be shifting its strategic partnerships towards reinforcing its ties with Russia, Turkey and China.

“The meeting was a chance to hold a complete and frank assessment of bilateral ties between the two countries and exchange views on the role expected by the United States to confront current challenges on the international and regional levels,” Algerian Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum wrote on Twitter.

Schenker said in a statement: “Our two countries have many shared interests, particularly in promoting regional stability.”

Algeria’s foreign ministry said the visit would help reinforce talks between the two countries on “bilateral, regional and international issues of common interest,” including Libya and the Western Sahara.

Algeria shares borders with conflict-riddled Libya and is the key foreign backer of the Polisario Front, which has fought for control of the Western Sahara since the 1970s.

Morocco, another Algerian neighbour, normalised ties with Israel in December in a deal brokered by the US, which recognised Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara.

The Morocco-Israel deal was criticised by Algeria, with Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad slamming “foreign manoeuvres which aim to destabilise” his country.

A fragile ceasefire has been in place since October in Libya, where rival administrations agreed to ink a truce and pave the way for political talks leading to elections later this year.

Barrett said Algeria had “much hard-earned expertise in security and countering violent extremism, and we have nothing but respect for its capabilities.”

Schenker said the US was looking for opportunities to deepen trade ties with Algeria as the country seeks to diversify its oil-reliant economy.

The diplomat, who arrived from Jordan and is set to travel to Morocco, held talks Thursday with Boukadoum.

Political analysts and experts do not rule out that the US delegation’s tour aims to lure new countries into joining the Arab-Israeli normalisation path.

Algeria, however, is one of the Arab countries that remains staunchly opposed to normalisation with Tel Aviv. It recently passed a bill penalising “apology of normalisation.”

In recent months, Algeria has expressed frustration with US moves in the region, hinting at the possibility of deepening its strategic, military and security partnership with countries that share its positions, in reference to China, Russia and even Turkey — which are all competing with Washington for further influence in Africa.

Former Algerian minister and diplomat Abdelaziz Rahabi and head of the National Institute of Global Strategy Studies, retired General Abdelaziz Medjahed, agreed on “the need for Algeria to boost relations with Russia and China, in order to create a strategic balance in the region.”

While there was no further information about the American officials’ visit to Algeria, some factors indicate an American desire to engage in comprehensive military cooperation with the North African country.

While the US previously focused on air, land, and intelligence fields directed to the depth of the African Sahara, Washington now seems more interested in security in the Mediterranean basin.

The US also appears interested in the recently adopted constitutional reform freeing the Algerian army from a ban on engaging in missions outside the country’s borders, as Washington hopes to boost military cooperation in the region, especially in light of the fragile situation that armies of Saharan Sahel countries are dealing with.

The US has long cooperated with Algeria on anti-terrorism policies in Africa, especially in the Sahel and Sahara region.

Schenker’s visit came three months after a regional tour by US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who was later dismissed by Trump.

Esper’s tour aimed to strengthen military cooperation with regional countries to combat jihadism and preserve security in North Africa and the Sahel.