Shifting geopolitical tides and security priorities have strained the once-close ties between Algiers and Washington.
On December 17, a US official addressed the Western Sahara conflict and the recent normalisation of relations between several Arab states and Israel. “We’ve worked to strengthen the existing Abraham Accords, and we are working quietly but quite assiduously to expand the Abraham Accords. And so, these things take some time, but they’re very much a focus of ours.”
Such language from Washington can only further enrage the Algerians and contribute to mounting friction between Algeria and the US; Algiers views some of the Trump and Biden administrations’ policies to be harmful to Algeria’s vital interests and those of the greater Middle East and North Africa.
The conflict over Western Sahara, the Abraham Accords, Syria’s crisis, and Iran’s nuclear programme are some of the most sensitive regional issues where Algiers and Washington have serious disagreements. Nonetheless, a variety of factors leave both Algeria and the US unwilling to burn bridges with the other.
Algeria-US relations were moving in a positive direction not long ago. During George W Bush’s presidency, Algiers and Washington were both investing in efforts to strengthen ties. In mid-2001, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was Algeria’s first head of state to visit Washington in 15 years. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the US saw Algeria as a state that was highly experienced in combatting terrorism and thus useful to the US as a partner in the fight against Al Qaeda. Algiers provided Washington with valuable intelligence, becoming a critical counterterrorism partner for the Bush administration.
Throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, Washington had to contend with violent extremist groups in Libya such as Daesh. Elsewhere in the neighbourhood, such as Algeria, Mali, and Tunisia, there were deadly acts of terrorism by armed factions like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Given all this chaotic instability and violence in the region, the Obama administration had its reasons for wanting to keep Algeria close.
But, as Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, explained, with Daesh losing control of Sirte in late 2016 and the overall threat of terrorism somewhat decreasing in the Maghreb from Washington’s perspective, the US began viewing Algeria as less valuable.
Trump’s decision in December 2020 to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara in exchange for Rabat normalising relations with Israel was problematic for Algeria. Algiers was caught off guard when Trump delivered the Moroccans what they had dreamed of for decades. It was an irreversible diplomatic breakthrough for Morocco, explained Harchaoui: “Joe Biden, a Democrat, steps into the White House [in January 2021] and accepts the controversial [Western Sahara] decision of Donald Trump.”
Algeria, which has a very pro-Palestinian population, has been angry about the formalisation of Moroccan-Israeli relations. It has gone out of its way to make clear its opposition to the Abraham Accords — and its extension to other Muslim-majority countries.
To be sure, there are ideological dynamics in play. Yet there are also practical considerations related to Algeria’s national security.
“Israel's alliance with Morocco could mean that in the long-term Rabat becomes militarily superior to Algiers and dominant in the region,” Riccardo Fabiani, the North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, told this author. “The Algerians fear that they will become vulnerable to Morocco and Israel in the long run, if these two states continue to cooperate.”
Syria is a point of contention too. Algeria is determined to see Syria return to the Arab League. Having taken a pro-government position on the Syrian crisis years ago, Algeria firmly favours the reintegration of the Damascus regime into the Arab region’s diplomatic fold. The US government staunchly opposes any efforts to legitimise President Bashar al Assad and continues calling on Arab states to resist the current trend towards renormalising relations with Damascus.
War of narratives in the West
As Tel Aviv-Rabat ties deepen, there are Moroccans and Israelis — as well as neo-conservative voices in Washington — who accuse Algeria of allegedly aiding destabilising Iranian activities in the region. The narrative is that Algeria is becoming a conduit for nefarious Iranian conduct in the Sahel and other parts of Africa.
There’s a significant amount of propaganda, exaggeration, and fiction in these claims about Algiers sponsoring Iranian-backed non-state actors throughout Africa, but they serve specific purposes.
“Allegations accusing Algeria of cooperating with Iran and its network of proxies in the region have been frequent but mostly unsubstantiated and clearly instrumental, as they have progressively laid the groundwork for the regional realignment that we are witnessing today,” Dr Umberto Profazio, an Associate Fellow at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst at the NATO Defence College Foundation, told TRT World.
“Reports about Hezbollah arming the Polisario Front, for example, have anticipated Morocco's decision to sever ties with Iran in 2018, while Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has accused Algeria of getting closer to Iran while he was on a visit to Rabat this summer.”
Yet, it is unlikely that the Algeria would work with Tehran in such ways considering that the North African country is dominated by a powerful military wary of political Islam, particularly since the 'Black Decade' of the 1990s, which saw a brutal civil war between the government and various Islamist groups.
Having not invested in lobbying in the US, one could argue that Algeria is disadvantaged next to other countries in the region which have done so. If countries like Israel, Morocco, and/or the UAE want to target Algeria with a disinformation campaign about Algerian-Iranian relations, there is no real rebuttal in defence of Algiers against such allegations in Western capitals.
“You can basically say whatever you want. Many countries, power centres, and decision makers are going to believe whatever you manage to publish. There’s no counterattack,” said Harchaoui. “There’s no cost to [accusing Algeria of working with Iran]. In fact, there’s a reward. There’s going to be a bunch of policymakers who have a tendency to believe it, or at least act like it’s true.”
Algeria has reacted only mildly to US foreign policy decisions that enrage Algiers, partially due to problems in Algerian-French relations. “The main reason behind Algeria's self-restraint vis-a-vis Washington must be found in its desire to maintain ties with its Western partners,” said Dr Profazio. “At a time in which Algiers' relations with France are at an all-time low, alienating the US as well would prove costly in diplomatic terms, resulting in an increasing isolation on the regional and international landscape.”
At the same time, the US wants to avoid seeing Algeria move even closer to China and Russia—two powers that have built up strong commercial and military relations with Algiers. And even if the US places less value on Algeria as a counterterrorism partner now compared to the Bush era, common cause against certain violent armed groups in Africa will continue, giving Algiers and Washington reason to maintain defence cooperation.
Such factors suggest that while there have been setbacks to Algeria-US relations in recent months and years, this damage is not irreparable.
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