Algeria has begun construction on the new military base on Algeria’s Western border, directly opposite the location of Morocco’s 23-hectare Jerada barracks.
Dorset – Algeria is flexing its military muscles by building a new army base on the Moroccan border. Construction on the new strategic base has already begun, according to Algerian news outlets.
The decision to launch construction works directly opposite the proposed site for Morocco’s new Jerada barracks is, according to Algerian newspaper Al-Shourouk, a question of reciprocity.
In late May, Morocco’s head of government announced plans to build “a small military base intended to accommodate troops.” The Moroccan military allocated a 23-hectare plot near Jerada in the Ben Ali forest for the troop depot.
An official statement from the Moroccan military on May 31 clarified that the Jerada barracks would be much smaller than an active military base and would not have the facilities to be used for operations. The site for the depot is near Oujda, 38 kilometers from the Algerian border.
Despite the small scale of the project and clarity from the Moroccan government that the Jerada barracks would be a troop depot rather than an active military base, Algeria perceived the move as hostile and responded in kind.
Observers have speculated that the Moroccan base is, in fact, intended to house soldiers who are deployed in the region as part of Morocco’s clampdown on drug trafficking and terror cells.
Undisclosed government sources told Al-Shourouk that Algeria sees the construction of the new base as a necessary move in the interests of national security. The source claimed that “the construction of a Moroccan military base [near the border] shows a clear hostile plan towards Algeria, and reveals the implementation of hostile international agendas against the stability of the region.”
Responding to aggression?
Though Algeria claims that construction of the new military base opposite the site of Morocco’s Jerada’s barracks is a response to Moroccan aggression, a deeper look at the facts tells a rather different story.
Ahead of the unveiling of Morocco’s plans to build a small barracks in Jerada, rumors surfaced that Algeria was already building its own military base in Bir Lahlou, expanding existing infrastructure in the buffer zone between Morocco and Algeria in Western Sahara.
In 2018, the Polisario Front claimed Bir Lahlou as the capital of the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The breakaway group established, with the help of Algeria, a small military barracks on the site. In recent months, support from Algiers has only increased.
On June 1, Arab Weekly cited security sources who explained that “Algeria was in the process of providing the Polisario Front with 16 tanks and advanced equipment to build a wall facing the Moroccan wall from the Algerian side.”
On May 7, 2020, Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune submitted Algeria’s amended constitution for review. The text included a particular amendment: “The President of the Algerian Republic can send military units abroad if two thirds of the house vote in favor during a parliamentary session.”
In practice, the amendment would mean Algeria could send troops to African Union member countries, including Morocco, or the self-proclaimed SADR with much more ease.
The ‘Hellfire Plan’
Commentators have speculated that the constitutional reform and the strengthening of military bases along the Morocco-Algeria border as well as in the buffer zone is part of a plan to action the “Hellfire Plan,” in response to Morocco’s legal move to officially define its maritime borders in the waters between Morocco’s Western Sahara and Spain’s Canary Islands.
Law 37-17 is an amendment to an existing law and defines Morocco’s territorial sea, extending over 12 nautical miles from Moroccan coasts. According to the law, and in accordance with international law, Morocco has complete sovereignty over its territorial sea and the airspace above it.
Meanwhile, Law 38-17 defines Morocco’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), extending over 200 nautical miles from Moroccan coasts, along with the limits of its continental shelf, 350 nautical miles away from its coasts.
Algeria’s military chief General Said Chengriha has a long and hostile relationship with Morocco. The 74-year-old has been open about his unrelenting support for the Polisario Front and at one time served as the officer in charge of supporting Polisario military training, before becoming Algeria’s top general.
Military experts believe that Chengriha and Tebboune are implementing the “Hellfire Plan” as part of a wider strategic project to gain access to the Atlantic, and the resources this would bring, via Western Sahara.
The alleged operation involves establishing and strengthening military airbases from coast to coast, along the eastern border with Morocco and into the buffer zone.
If speculation on Algeria’s plans to implement the hostile military vision is true, the Moroccan move to build a barracks at Jerada is likely part of a counter-program to mitigate the risks to increased hostility from Algeria and the implementation of the “Hellfire Plan” and the Polisario’s increased military strength in the buffer zone.
A half-century-long grudge
The tension between Morocco and Algeria is not new. Fifty-seven years ago, the 1963 Sand War between Morocco and Algeria saw the end, for the foreseeable future, of the brotherly relations that had previously existed between Morocco and Algeria.
The armed conflict between the neighboring countries was an echo of the damage inflicted by the arbitrary lines drawn to divide North Africa during the colonial era. An 1845 treaty drew straight lines across the map to divide Morocco from Algeria, leaving a strip of mineral-rich desert between the two states.
In 1952, France decided to give the land to Algeria in order to retain control of it but then offered it to Morocco as leverage, asking Morocco to abandon support for Algeria’s independence war in return. Morocco refused to abandon Algeria and negotiated instead with the Algerian government in exile, who agreed to give the land back to Morocco.
After Algeria won its independence, a new power emerged and President Ahmed Ben Bella had a different vision for Algeria’s future. He reneged on the deal. After a number of small skirmishes, war between Morocco and Algeria broke out in 1963.
The Sand War ended in stalemate but changed Morocco-Algeria relations forever. While Morocco continues to reach out the hand of friendship to Algeria, the current president has made it clear that no such rapprochement will happen on his watch.
With Algeria in the midst of a new wave of anti-establishment demonstrations and calls for a complete political overhaul, including the removal of the entrenched political and military elite that counts both Tebboune and Chengriha, the North African country is in no position to angle for a reawakening of active conflict with Morocco.
It is more likely, therefore, that the “Hellfire Plan” is an instrument of domestic psychological operations, designed to redirect the attention of the Algerian people onto Morocco through a flurry of tangible military movement.
Tebboune’s age-old psy-ops technique may or may not pay off this time. It is, however, unlikely, that the bellicose posturing and loud accusations thrown at Morocco will amount to anything more than the purchase of a few new fighter planes and shiny new barracks.