Mark Esper in Tunisia (La Presse)

US Looks to Draw North Africa Away From Russian Orbit

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper made his first African tour this week for talks with officials in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. The main aim of the tour was to discuss how to limit the growing Russian influence in North Africa and the Mediterranean.

Tunisia-USA Defense Agreement

In Tunisia, the Pentagon chief signed a 10-year security cooperation pact with Tunisian Defense Minister Ibrahim Bartagi. The agreement envisages cooperation in fields such as freedom of navigation, sharing intelligence and disaster response operations, according to the Pentagon.

The American concerns over the increasing role of Russia, and also China, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region were evident in Esper’s statements during his visit to Tunisia.

“Today, our strategic competitors China and Russia continue to intimidate and coerce their neighbors while expanding their authoritarian influence worldwide, including on this continent,” he said during a ceremony in Carthage.

“And, together, we continue to counter the malign, coercive, and predatory behavior of Beijing and Moscow, meant to undermine African institutions, erode national sovereignty, create instability, and exploit resources throughout the region,” he added.

The defense secretary also signed a similar 10-year security agreement with Morocco that charts military cooperation between the two countries through 2030.

Russia’s Reach Grows in North Africa

Esper’s tour came amid Russian moves to bolster its foothold in neighboring Libya, where Moscow backs the Libyan National Army (LNA) of eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar. Mercenaries from the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group are also fighting alongside Haftar’s forces against the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).

The Russian involvement in Libya is part of a regional strategy by President Vladimir Putin after the 2011 Arab Spring revolution to return to regions where Moscow used to be a key player.

Russia perceived the Arab Spring revolutions as part of a US-sponsored plan to carry out regime changes in the Middle East and North Africa, causing Moscow to lose its influence in the region.

As part of the new Russian strategy in the region, Moscow provided support to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria against Turkey-backed opposition groups. The Russian military support has helped tip the tide of the war in Assad’s favor and gained Moscow a foothold in the pivotal Arab country.

Washington’s Fear of Russia’s Future on the Libyan Coast

Russia now has access to a naval base in Tartus on the Mediterranean coast in Syria. This base can accommodate 11 warships and perform operational capabilities throughout the Mediterranean. Moscow also operates the Khmeimim airbase in the Syrian city of Latakia.

Russia has also involved itself in Libya following a NATO-backed uprising led to the ouster and subsequent death of ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Washington fears that if Russia managed to earn military bases on Libya’s coast, it would be able to threaten southern Europe and reduce US ability to maneuver militarily.

Russia has also managed to forge a strong relationship with the new regime in Egypt, where it signed a $25-billion agreement to build the country’s first nuclear power plant. Moscow has also maintained a strong close relations with Algeria, which has relied on the Russian arms sales for decades.

Washington’s allies Tunisia and Morocco have also edged closer to Russia in recent years. This increasing Russian influence was quite visible in Tunisia’s tourism industry, which is vital to the North African country’s economy.

Scrambled to halt the Russian advances, the Trump administration moved to dispatch Esper to North Africa in an attempt to convince officials in the region to join the US efforts to limit the Russian influence in MENA region.

Tunisia and Morocco: Major Non-NATO Allies

Washington sees both Tunisia and Morocco as major non-NATO allies, who can play a role in preventing Russian penetration into Africa, given their strategic location.

The Pentagon chief’s visit to Algeria was also an attempt by Washington to convince the country’s new leadership to play a more active role in combating militant groups in neighboring Libya and consequently helping diminish the Russian role in the country.

His visit came weeks before Algerian voters will cast ballot in a constitutional referendum that, if approved, would allow the country to send troops outside its border for peacekeeping missions.

In any case, Russia appears to be determined to regain its status as a key players in the MENA region, making use of the American retreat that began under the Barack Obama administration and continues under the Trump administration.