US/Africa: Secretary of state Blinken woos Algeria and Morocco for help with Russia

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Tuesday, 29 March 2022 21:52, updated on Wednesday, 30 March 2022 16:20

US secretary of state Antony Blinken arrives to meet with Morocco's prime minister Aziz Akhannouch at the Mishwar in Rabat, Morocco, 29 March 2022. Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via REUTERS

US Secretary of state Antony Blinken is overseeing a sensitive mediation in North Africa this week as President Joe Biden's administration looks to enrol bitter rivals Morocco and Algeria in its Russia policy.

The top US diplomat met Tuesday with Morocco’s foreign minister Nasser Bourita in an effort to reassure Rabat amid lingering questions over Washington’s commitment to Morocco’s control over the disputed territory of Western Sahara. He next heads to Algiers for meetings with President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra of Algeria, which backs the pro-independence Polisario Front in Western Sahara.

The Biden administration has not revoked former President Donald Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed territory but nor has it fully endorsed it. Instead, a State Department fact sheet released Monday deems Rabat’s 15-year-old proposed autonomy plan under Moroccan sovereignty to be “serious, credible, and realistic, and one potential approach to meet the aspirations of the people of Western Sahara”.

Blinken’s visit comes as the decades-old diplomatic stalemate between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which seeks independence for the Western Sahara’s native Sahrawi people, has picked up new urgency. Algeria severed diplomatic relations with Morocco last August. During a visit to Rabat Israel’s foreign minister Yair Lapid expressed his “worries” about Algeria’s regional role and Algiers “getting close to Iran”. Algeria has historically enjoyed closed ties with Russia, and Algiers buys most of military equipment from Russian firms.

Earlier this month, Spain reversed 42 years of policy when it joined the United States in recognising Rabat’s rule over the Western Sahara, infuriating Algeria. Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres appointed Staffan de Mistura as his personal envoy for Western Sahara in October after a three-decade-old ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front broke down in November 2020.

Morocco has rushed to lock in Trump’s policy, which paved the way for the country’s normalisation of relations with US ally Israel. Before heading to Morocco, Blinken met with Bourita and the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates at an unprecedented gathering in Israel’s Negev desert dedicated to deepening Israeli-Arab security and economic ties in the wake of Trump’s Abraham Accords.

But Washington does not want to ignore Algeria’s objections either. Africa’s largest country in terms of land mass holds considerable sway in the region, notably as an energy supplier to Europe, as the continent looks to reduce its dependence on Russia.

“You see a real effort to sort of rejuvenate US-Algerian ties and to try to come in with some sort of incentives,” says Intissar Fakir, the director of the new North Africa and Sahel programme at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington. The meeting with Algeria “has to at least touch on the question of Morocco and the rivalry between Morocco and Algeria in North Africa,” she says.

Eye on Ukraine

Blinken’s mediation is also tied to the Biden administration’s diplomatic effort to get Africa to denounce Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Washington hopes the rest of the world will join Western countries in sanctioning Moscow, but African governments have been particularly resistant. Only 28 of the 54 countries on the continent voted to denounce the invasion at the UN General Assembly earlier this month, with Morocco skipping the vote and Algeria abstaining.

“During the course of his trip, the secretary will emphasise to all of the foreign leaders he meets that the US stands in solidarity with the government and people of Ukraine in the face of the Kremlin’s aggression,” the State Department said in a preview of Blinken’s trip. “We will continue to work closely with our allies and partners to impose further costs on [Russia’s President Vladimir] Putin and his enablers if Putin does not change course.”

Part of the effort has been to blame Moscow for disruptions in food exports from Russia and Ukraine.

“Putin’s invasion is already causing food prices – especially wheat – to rise, just as our economies recover from the Covid pandemic,” state department acting assistant secretary Yael Lempert told reporters before the trip. “We know this pain is keenly felt in the Middle East and North Africa, where most countries import at least half of their wheat.”

Blinken is also expected to press Algeria to reopen the Maghreb–Europe Gas Pipeline, which runs from the Hassi R’Mel gas field in Algeria through Morocco to Spain. Algeria closed the pipeline last October, alleging “hostility” from Morocco as a reason not to extend the pipeline agreement. Moroccan media reported that Blinken’s deputy, Wendy Sherman, urged Algeria to reopen the pipeline during her trip to the region at the beginning of the month.

“That pipeline had been, I would say probably one of the few ways in which Morocco and Algeria had cooperated, even during times of pretty high tension,” says MEI’s Fakir. “I also think it helps that […] Algeria is not going to do much to jeopardise its […] reputation as a reliable supply of gas to Europe.”

Congressional complications

Further complicating the US diplomatic dance, some members of congress are pushing for the Biden government to reject Trump’s stance on the Western Sahara, saying it violates the very principles of international law that Washington wants to see upheld in Ukraine.

On 3 March, 11 Democrats in the house of representatives wrote a letter to Blinken opposing a proposed $1bn weapons sale to Morocco, including drones and precision-guided munitions, out of concern “they may be used in an offensive manner against the Sahrawi people or may otherwise facilitate Morocco’s illegal occupation of the territory”.

Lawmakers in the senate also sought to block funding for a US consulate in Moroccan-administered Dakhla, although the provision did not make it into law. The national defence authorisation act for the current fiscal year however conditions Moroccan participation in multilateral exercises administered by the department of defence to a certification that Morocco is “committed to seeking a mutually acceptable political solution in Western Sahara”.

In an indication that the Biden administration is not overly concerned about those restrictions, the state department’s fact sheet treats Morocco’s participation in the pan-continental African Lion anti-terrorism exercise as all but assured.

“US and Moroccan military officials have started planning already for this year’s African Lion, the largest military exercise in Africa and a critical component for the US-Morocco security partnership,” the state department said. “The 2021 exercise, which took place in June across the kingdom, was the largest since the annual training event started in 2004.”

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