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Russia and Turkey's shadow looms over the Sahel

Recent alliances between Algeria and Russia worry Morocco about its potential loss of influence in the region
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France announced the withdrawal of its troops in the Sahel to coincide with the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and Iraq. In doing so, French President Emmanuel Macron brought to an end almost a decade of counter-terrorism missions in which the objectives have not been fully achieved.

The news came just weeks after a second coup attempt in Mali. It is in this country that France deployed Operation Serval, an exercise approved in 2013 that sought to eradicate the terrorist threat and the advance of Islamist rebels linked to Al-Qaeda. Only a year later, Operation Serval was replaced by Operation Barkhane, a mission led by French forces that managed to expand throughout the Sahel.

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Seven years after its approval, terrorism in the region is still rife and continues to plague the countries that make up the region. As with the US withdrawal from Middle Eastern countries, France has announced the end of Barkhane, raising the question of whether terrorist attacks will increase after its end.

Macron has already declared that it is not the end of the operation as such, but rather "a transformation" that would have to be Europeanised and lead the fight against terrorism through special forces.

Power vacuums are soon to be reoccupied, and the departure of the former colonising power is favouring the entry of major powers such as Russia and China, which have already shown their interest after making pacts with regional countries. In the case of Russia, Vladimir Putin has established active diplomacy with countries such as Algeria, which is increasing its contacts with the Malian authorities. 

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In addition, the private Russian paramilitary company Wagner reportedly increased its contacts with Mali after taking over its headquarters in Bamako last October. The Bamako government also declared its intention to have Russian paramilitaries train the country's armed forces to curb Islamic radicalism.

The close ties between Moscow and Algiers were evident in North Ossetia after the first joint military exercises. According to the authorities, these exercises were aimed at increasing their effectiveness in the fight against terrorism. 

However, Russia has not been the only country seeking to extend its influence in the region. Turkey and Erdogan's recent tour of Africa to countries such as Nigeria, Angola and Togo had as one of its main objectives to establish military agreements that would put an end to the West's military presence.

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This diplomatic network has come at a time when North Africa's stability is faltering. The unilateral severance of diplomatic relations between Algeria and Morocco is a rivalry for control of North Africa and opens a scenario of confrontation in which it is feared that Algeria will launch offensives against Morocco. 

Various experts point out that this rupture is part of a strategy to recover its influence in North Africa and try to isolate Morocco in an area of great strategic value for the United States and the European Union.

Diplomats quoted by EFE indicate that the timing of the announcement of the rupture seems to have been "carefully chosen at a time of Morocco's diplomatic weakness".  In addition, a military analyst told the same agency that 'Algeria was observing with concern Morocco's strategy in the Sahara and in particular the offensive designed by (Moroccan Foreign Minister) Nasser Burita'.

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For the analyst, Burita's foreign strategy will shift from focusing solely on stabilising the internal situation of the Hirak, the popular protest movement that took place in the Rif, to regaining its traditional influence in the region in countries such as Libya and the Sahel countries. Indeed, it is here that Morocco shares an important border with Algeria that is not free of tensions as it borders Western Sahara.

Within the conflict over the Western Sahara issue, Algeria has been gradually backing away from its positions and has maintained a prevailing silence regarding its position on the Polisario Front. So much so that the Algerian envoy for the Sahara dossier at the UN, Ammar Bellani, announced his withdrawal from the negotiating round table.

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From Rabat, the presence of Russia and its alliance with Algeria is viewed with concern. They fear that this alliance could strengthen the Polisario's power in the Sahara and thus increase tension in the region and lead to an escalation of violence, something Morocco wants to distance itself from.