US Pentagon chief’s Maghreb tour to focus on counterterrorism, Libya

Questions about reasons for sudden US interest in Maghreb region.

Wednesday 30/09/2020
Tunisian Defence Minister Brahim Bartagi, right, talks with U.S Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in Tunis, September 30. (AP)
Tunisian Defence Minister Brahim Bartagi, right, talks with U.S Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in Tunis, September 30. (AP)

TUNIS – The timing of US Defence Secretary Mark Esper’s tour of Maghreb countries raises many questions about its security agenda, its relationship to developments in the Libyan file and the Eastern Mediterranean and recent Arab agreements with Israel.

Esper is scheduled to arrive Wednesday in Tunis, his first stop in a tour that includes Algeria and Morocco, during which he is expected to confirm the US administration’s commitment to the security of the region, in addition to discussing common issues and ways to enhance cooperation against armed terrorist organisations.

During his visit to Tunisia, Esper will meet with Tunisian President Kais Saied and Tunisian Defence Minister Ibrahim Bartagi. An American military official said the aim of Esper’s visit to Tunisia is “to strengthen relations with this ally,” which he described as “a major one in the region” and “to discuss terrorist threats facing Tunisia.” Esper is expected to stay one day in Tunis.

From Tunis, the US official will fly to Algiers, where he is expected on Thursday for talks with Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune. The last stop on Esper’s North African tour will be Rabat, where he is expected to arrive on Friday to discuss ways to strengthen his country’s military and security relations with Morocco.

The US administration sought to emphasise that “combating terrorism” will be the main theme of Esper’s Maghreb tour, but this was not convincing enough to observers who believe that there are likely to be other goals and objectives driving the tour in conjunction with US agendas regarding a number of hot issues in the region.

One of the likely topics of discussion will be the situation in Libya, with its complex ramifications that have prompted Maghreb countries to move in different directions rather than follow a single and common line of action. The US side will seek to influence the region’s priorities in relation to controlling the situation in Libya.

Tunisian military expert, retired Brigadier General Mokhtar Ben Nasr, believes that Esper’s tour comes amid rapid developments in Libya, which are reflected in the resumption of talks in Morocco and the upcoming resignation of the head of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj, while foreign meddling continues, reflected in Turkish, Russian and Egyptian presence in the country.

Ben Nasr told The Arab Weekly that the tour also comes at a time when fighting and terrorist activities have intensified in the south of the Sahara, in the wake of a military coup in Mali, amid a crisis in Sudan and after some Arab countries normalised their relations with Israel, all of which are topics that will be high on the tour’s agenda.

Ben Nasr believes Esper’s objectives are “to affirm the continuation of cooperation in the areas of defence, security and combating terrorism, while at the same time testing the pulse on the extent and manner of the three countries’ handling of the issue of normalisation with Israel, which is a sensitive issue in the Maghreb.”

On the other hand, he said that “despite the reassuring character of the tour, it will nevertheless raise many concerns and apprehensions, especially as it will be read as pressuring the Maghreb countries to reconsider their stand on the issue of normalising relations with Israel and inviting them to support the path started by other Arab countries.”

This reading of the tour is echoed by Mohsen Nabti, official spokesman for Tunisia’s People’s Movement, who told The Arab Weekly that Esper’s tour “is different in its form and timing, and it is certainly different in its content.”

He pointed out that this tour “comes after major changes that took place in the region, the most important of which are the direct Turkish military presence in Libya and the tension caused by it in the Mediterranean basin. It also comes after a spike in normalisation operations,” in which “the Americans had played a major role.”

He expected that the situation in Libya will be among the priorities of this tour, in which “Esper may also discuss the issue of military bases in Libya and the presence of AFRICOM forces in North Africa. This is an opportunity for Tunisia to express its rejection of such a project that will have dire consequences for the country’s interests and the stability of the region.”

Nabti believes that the importance of this tour “appears through the pre-emptive visit that Sabri Boukadoum, Algeria’s Foreign Minister, made to Tunis on Monday, which is certainly directly tied to the US Secretary of Defence’s tour, as Algeria seems concerned about this visit and wants to ascertain Tunisia’s position since it has no influence over the rest of the Maghrebi countries.”

Between its announced and hidden objectives, Esper’s tour of the Maghreb remains subject to different interpretations, since the sudden US interest in the countries of the region at this particular time cannot have come out of thin air, but may signal the advent of a new phase that has begun to loom in the region’s horizon.