SIM REPORT: North Africa, Issue 5

ALGERIA & MOROCCO: HEIGHTENED TENSIONS AT RISK OF LONG-TERM ESCALATION AMID PROSPECTIVE RUSSIAN AERIAL WEAPON PROCUREMENT BY ALGIERS 


In November 2020 regional news outlets reported that the Algerian government under President Abdelmadjid Tebboune had signed a USD2 billion contract with Russia for the purchase of 14 Su-57 fighter jets – the first overseas sales of the jets by Moscow. The aerial weapons, produced by Russian manufacturer Sukhoi, signal a notable technological advancement in Algeria’s defence industry and will be in direct competition with elite equipment produced by militaries in countries such as the US and China. The jets, which entered into Russian military service on 25 December 2020 after nearly 20 years of development, will join three other fifth generation stealth jet fleets in operation across the globe. Namely, China’s Chengdu J-20 and the US’ F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.

While the export of Su-57 jets is unlikely to occur until around 2025, Algeria’s purchase of these weapons marks an opportunity for the country to strengthen its position as a dominant regional aerial power in a development that will likely be carefully monitored over the medium-long term outlook by neighbouring rival, Morocco. The sale reflects Russia’s expanding interest across North Africa and is likely to be followed up with further high value arms deals over the years ahead as Moscow works to cement itself as a strategic partner with states such as Algeria and gain greater access to the region’s maritime and energy markets.

The weapons procurement notably also comes around one year after the US state department ratified two major arms deals with Rabat: the sale of 25 F-16C/D Block 72 fighters and upgrades to Morocco’s 23 F‑16s with F‑16V Block 52 configurations. In August 2020, the US government confirmed that the Senate had passed these deals and that final steps towards the sales were being processed.

The respective advancements of military capabilities by Algeria and Morocco over the past year come amid worsening relations between the two countries. In recent months, tensions over the disputed Western Sahara region have flared up following the deployment  of Moroccan forces on 13 November 2020 into the Guerguerat border area to disperse dozens of Sahrawi independence protesters blocking a key trade route connecting Morocco and Mauritania.

The Western Sahara dispute has been a long-standing source of conflict between Rabat and Algiers, culminating in the closure of the 1427km land border in 1994. Algeria has demonstrated unconditional support for the Polsario Front (PF), a Sahrawi rebel national liberation movement aiming to end Moroccan presence, throughout the 45-year conflict. The PF has vowed to continue fighting for independence and in a sign of the elevated conflict risk, the group’s leader, Brahim Ghali, said on 14 November that a 29-year old UN-brokered ceasefire would no longer be recognised. Algeria is set to reinforce its military, financial and training support to the PF if tensions continue to ramp up, which will effectively work to aggravate deteriorating relations with Morocco and further push the two countries into a state of direct conflict.

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