Continuing its long tradition of foreign intervention, US authorities announced the possibility of sending military units to Tunisia. US AFRICOM command justified the idea by claiming it was a response to Russian activity in the region.
The statement came right after US Army Gen. Stephen Townsend spoke with Imed Hazgui, the Minister of Defense of the Republic of Tunisia on May 28.
Townsend said that Tunisia “is a prime example of how US support to our African partners aids long-term self-sufficiency, security, and development”. He added that the relationship between the US and Tunisia is “centered on enhancing our partnership to achieve mutual security goals.”
Townsend and Hazgui discussed the importance of improving security in North Africa.
“As Russia continues to fan the flames of the Libyan conflict, regional security in North Africa is a heightened concern,” said Townsend.
“We’re looking at new ways to address mutual security concerns with Tunisia, including the use of our Security Force Assistant Brigade. Tunisia recognizes the benefits of American values, professionalism, and commitment”, he added
NEWS: Commander reaffirms partnership with #Tunisia
“Many of our African partners are under siege from malign actors & terrorist networks. We remain committed to working together to deliver solutions to common challenges.” – Gen. Townsend pic.twitter.com/oGt9xwoauq
— US AFRICOM (@USAfricaCommand) May 29, 2020
What are the actual motivations for the decision and what are the Americans true interests? Also, how are these decisions related to the geopolitics of Tunisia and the North African region?
The geopolitical vector of Tunisia
It is important to take into account political developments in Tunisia itself since the Arab Spring in 2011 – including the first presidential elections since the revolutionary period. All of this is also mentioned in the AFRICOM report.
According to the statement, Tunisia has demonstrated a continued “commitment to democratic ideals” by prioritizing security.
In those elections, candidate Kais Saied, nicknamed “Robocop”, formerly known mainly in academia, won, beating media mogul Nabil Karui. A year ago, he was unknown to anyone. He entered the political arena quite unexpectedly as a conservative, supporter of decentralization in the country and pan-Arab unity abroad.
The country currently has a mixed parliamentary-presidential system with the President entrusted with foreign affairs and defence.
In general, despite his traditionalist views (in morality, religion), Saied has a clear pro-American line. He is seemingly a pragmatic president who relies on both Arab/Islamic countries (a nationalist course) and globalist structures (in terms of financial and power questions).
This also affects relations with the Americans: on the one hand, Saied is committed to Tunisian-American cooperation, and on the other hand, he periodically expresses his dissatisfaction with White House policies. The main point of contention with Trump is the new US plan to “achieve peace” with the so-called “deal of the century”) between Israel and the Palestinians. According to Saied, this deal is the “injustice of the century”.
“It is the injustice of the century … Palestine is not an orchard to be a subject of a deal,”
But Saied does not go too far, not wanting to break relations with Washington – for example, he fired UN envoy Moncef Baati, who was more firmly committed to the Israeli settlement plan and appears to be in conflict with the American side. It is also possible that this is due to staff rotation, and the complaint from the White House was just a convenient excuse for Said to get rid of the former politicians from power.
That is, it is obvious that Saied is trying to balance the national course with the pro-western vector, which is in turn affecting regional politics.
The rift in Tunisia
To understand Tunisian politics in the North African region, it is important to bear in mind that the country is increasingly divided between President Saied and Parliament Speaker Rashid Gannouchi who represents the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha.
The conflict between the politicians has long since grown, largely because Gannouchi has become too involved in foreign policy issues, which is a priority for the president.
Gannouchi’s opponents accuse him of taking too staunchly Islamist positions (in their view, radical), closer to Islamic countries (like Qatar and Turkey) and organizing parallel foreign diplomacy. Seven opposition parties have denounced Gannouchi’s interference in international conflicts and foreign affairs – some even call him a “Turkish agent” who bypasses the president trying to establish contact with Ankara: many journalists and politicians accused even Saied of treating Turkey too leniently after Tunisia opened up airspace for Turkish planes.
Gannouchi himself met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul earlier this year.
Recently he aroused the president’s anger by personally congratulating the head of GNA in Libya Fayez Al Sarraj on his military success in capturing Al-Watiya military airbase from the Libyan National Army in the battle for Tripoli.
In addition, the Tunisian journalists did not like the fact that in response to all the accusations, Gannouchi, instead of calling a press conference, preferred to give interviews to foreign newspapers – Qatar’s Al Jazeera and Turkish Anatolia. Journalists in Tunisia said that this indicates Gannouchi’s propensity for Islamist media (adding that the his party is close to the Muslim Brotherhood).
It is possible that third-party countries are interested in the conflict between Saied and Gannouchi. According to Anadolu the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt have launched a systematic campaign against Rashid Gannouchi to drive a wedge between parliament and the president and provoke parallel battles in parliament between the Tunisian blocs to dismantle state institutions through joint strikes.
“Today, there is a political confrontation between the president of the republic and the president of parliament with the prime minister in the middle,” said Tunisian journalist Tarek Mami, the Paris-based head of the France Maghreb 2.
The conflict between the parties is all but overt. Observers noted Hannouchi’s absence at a meeting at the Carthage Palace on the Libyan issue on April 30.
“Everyone must recognise that there is only one Tunisia and one president both nationally and internationally,” said Saied, “those who prepare the ground for anarchy and light the fire will be the first to burn,” he added.
The Libyan vector
There is a serious struggle for influence in the North African region (both among local countries and third parties concerned). Тhe internal divisions of the Tunisian authorities are greatly affecting the Libyan negotiations. It is increasingly difficult for Tunisia to remain “neutral” and “on the sidelines” – after all, the situation in Libya directly affects the stability of the entire region.
On June 3, the Tunisian parliament in plenary rejected the declaration of the Free Destourian Party (PDL) declaring the Tunisian parliament to reject foreign intervention in Libya. The result was 94 votes in favour, 68 votes against and 7 abstentions. The bill was therefore not adopted, as 109 votes were required.
The draft motion favorably related to the announcement of parliament’s refusal of any foreign intervention in Libya and the rejection of the establishment of a logistical base on the national territory.
The parties that rejected the proposal justified their decision by referring to only two countries in its first version, namely, Turkey and Qatar, and called for the inclusion of the names of all countries involved in the Libyan conflict. Ennhdha deputy Imed Khemiri said that “his bloc rejects this list” and justified his position that the party that issued the list did not represent Tunisian diplomacy.
“The inclusion of some countries and not others in the text of the list is a violation of thousands of Tunisians and a violation of national security. The list affects Tunisia’s relations with some countries,” said Khemiri.
At the same time, Saied and Gannouchi are competing in an attempt to intercept the initiative to establish foreign diplomatic channels with Turkey and Libya.
Earlier, Saied met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the issue.
“The solution in Libya can only be achieved within the framework of international legitimacy. But above all, it must be peaceful,” Saied told Erdogan.
The Tunisian leader stated that Tunisia was one of the countries most affected by the current situation at all levels of the Libyan question.
“The latter (the Libyan issue) is one of Tunisians’ first concerns, because Tunisia and Libya are one people,” he said.
Tunisia officially supports “neutrality” on the Libyan issue, and Saied is broadcasting it on the international stage.
Gannouchi, unlike Saied, favours a clearer and more active position in Libya, given Tunisia’s proximity, believing that passive neutrality with regard to Libya is meaningless.
“Libya’s neighbors cannot live in carelessness. If there is a fire at your neighbor, you cannot be neutral; extinguishing the fire is a duty and necessity, so passive neutrality makes no sense”.
After Gannouchi directly congratulated Sarraj, he received a wave of criticism for exceeding his authority and intercepting the initiative from the president. Gannouchi himself said that his communication with the head of GNA “does not go beyond the rules of Tunisian diplomacy”.
Shortly afterwards, Tunisian President Saied had already contacted Sarraj by phone.
The United States is seizing the moment: military build-up in the region
The US is taking advantage of the fragile situation in Tunisia and is trying to use the chaotic moment to expand its influence in the country (and therefore in the region).
Since 2011, the United States has invested over $1 billion in the Tunisian armed forces. Cooperation concerns Tunisian borders, military intelligence and air ground operations.
The United States and Tunisia share a history of working together to conduct exercises and create opportunities for professional military education. A recent example is the month-long training course jointly organized last fall for female intelligence officers in North-West Africa. In addition, earlier this spring, a high-level American inter-agency delegation visited the first International Aerospace and Defence Exhibition in Tunisia.
The aforementioned Townsend addressed Congress, taking into account the priorities of the African Command, as reviewed by Defence Minister Mark Esper in January. Townsend then advocated strengthening the US military partnership with African governments as a means of countering foreign influence on the continent.
Americans do not want strengthening in the region of China (base in Djibouti) and Russia (especially Libya). AFRICOM Deputy Director for Intelligence Brigadier General Gregory Hadfield even compared Russia’s actions in Libya with Crimea, Ukraine and Syria during a press conference on May 29.
“Russia is executing the same playbook as it successfully employed in Crimea, Ukraine and to a lesser extent in Syria,” AFRICOM’s deputy director for intelligence Brig. Gen. Gregory Hadfield.
The United States has expanded its relationship with the Tunisian armed forces in recent years, investing over a billion dollars since the 2011 revolution, AFRICOM said.
The US Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) deployed to Senegal in March at Esper’s direction, after he previously said he was considering bringing home some of the roughly 6,000 US troops then in Africa.
The army established its first SFAB in 2017 in order to free up brigade combat teams from training foreign military forces.
In recent years, Tunisia has expanded the acquisition of United States military material in order to maintain its stockpiles and enhance its capacity to combat terrorism.
The State Department has licensed the sale of Wolverine light attack aircraft with bombs and other supporting equipment, along with Black Hawk helicopters, and additional planned grant-based equipment transfers through the Excess Defense Articles (EDA) program including Kiowa helicopters and C-130 aircraft. Tunisia’s Major Non-NATO Ally status, granted by President Obama in 2015, provides priority access to EDA. US advisors have reportedly aided some Tunisian counterterrorism operations. The US Embassy in Tunis also hosts the US Libya External Office, through which US diplomats engage with Libyans and monitor US programs in Libya. See CRS Report RL33142, Libya: Transition and US Policy, by Christopher M. Blanchard.
Although military cooperation is strengthening along neocon lines, and a financial boost is in question – the Trump administration insists on reducing financial injections, but Congress opposes. The White House has proposed cuts in annual bilateral aid allocations.
The Administration’s FY2021 aid budget proposal included $83.9 million in bilateral economic and security assistance for Tunisia, less than half of what Congress appropriated for Tunisia under the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2020 ( “not less than” $191.4 million).
In addition, as part of the measure envisaged for the financial year 2020, Congress ordered the allocation of “at least” $50 million to Tunisia. Congress also allocated funds for assistance to Tunisia (under the State Department Relief and Recovery Fund (RRF) and the Department of Defense (DOD) Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund).
Congrеss also authorized DOD to aid Tunisia’s military in securing the border with Libya on a reimbursement basis. Tunisia has also been a top cumulative recipient within Africa of DOD “global train and equip” counterterrorism assistance.
Changes as a result of Covid-19
An additional factor in Tunisia’s financial dependence on the West was the crisis of the Coronavirus pandemic. Although Tunisia is among the countries with the lowest number of cases in the Arab region, the pandemic has severely affected employment and the economy.
The International Monetary Fund forecasts that Tunisia’s economy will shrink by 4.3% this year, the sharpest fall in more than 60 years. The country’s important exports and tourism sector have already plummeted and the country lost over 400,000 jobs during the blockade.
In recent weeks, Tunisia has received over $1.5 billion from donors, including the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. However, that amount only partially covers the more than $5 billion in external funding that Prime Minister Fahfah has estimated the country needs this year.
Perhaps that is why Said is so afraid to step into the disgrace of Washington and lose part of the US allocation during a difficult period.
The US Government’s USAID/Fiscal Reform for a Strong Tunisia (FIRST) program has directed $800,000 towards supporting the Ministry of Finance’s e-filing and e-payment system, to respond to new demands caused by COVID-19.
What is the US interested in Tunisia?
The US, obviously aware of Tunisia’s vulnerability, hopes to take advantage of the situation and pressure Said to engage in Libyan adventures. The main thing they do not want to do is to pass on the initiative in resolving the Libyan conflict to other actors, including Turkey.
So what exactly do Americans want from Tunisia as a geopolitical and economic platform? In short, they want to seize oil, take control of the GNA, and get instruments to put pressure on Turkey.
First and foremost, the presence of military forces in Tunisia makes it possible to send “military advisers” to Tripoli if necessary. That is, it is not always obvious military control of two countries at once (plus, reinforced by allied Niger with the operating American air base in Agadez).
Secondly, it is an opportunity to further advance in Libya to the southern oil and gas-rich fields. As we wrote earlier, the Americans are interested in the Sharara field. It may be through the port of Zawiya, located near the Tunisian borders and controlled by GNA. The importance of the field and its implications for the global oil market are detailed in the USIP report “Understanding Libya’s South Eight Years After Qaddafi”.
Therefore, in case of a successful combination, Americans can take the port of Zawiya “under protection” – and thus, receive its oil.
Third, Washington wants political control over the GNA. This will not only untie their hands in the oil issue, but will also put pressure on Turkey, which seeks to implement the Blue Homeland doctrine in its own strategic interests