By: Benaicha Mohamed EL Amine
Democratic Arab Center
While Mali is confronting a deep political crisis with a still serious risk of territorial split and Libya is descending into increasing instability, Algeria appears reluctant to assume the responsibilities of a hegemonic power. Algeria’s refusal to consider any joint strategy with its neighbors and other international actors towards the Malian crisis shows it has once again succumbed to the fear of encirclement that characterized its policies in the 1970s.
Long lasting traditional cross-border relations exist between Algerian and Malian local ethnic groups, most of them Tuaregs. The Tuareg territories are interconnected and the closeness of communities is rooted in the particular geopolitical context where the huge distance of the Adragh of Ifoghas region from urban centers and from economic and industrial activities plays a role of dangerously isolating a region that has been captured by foreign actors with their own agenda1 . Trans-border regions (in fact, no-borders) have always been torn between a Saharan identity encouraged by Libya, and alternative Arab and African identities often promoted by other foreign actors. At the periphery of national territories, crisis areas have long solidified struggles for influence between North African states to their respective Southern African states or to their neighbors, replicating the traditional asymmetry embedded in North-South relations..
The Mali Crisis
Algeria has long positioned itself as a traditional mediator of conflicts in the Sahel, at times in apparent competition with Gaddhafi. Algeria mediated peace processes that brought a precarious end to previous Tuareg uprisings in Mali in 1991–1995 and 2006. Indeed, the Algerian treatment of the Tuareg issue was always motivated by the fear of contagion among Algerian Tuaregs and by the desire to contain Libya or any other neighboring state’s influence.
Algeria knows what is expected on it in this crisis, given its status as the regional military power, its influence in the far northern part of Mali (Kidal), as intermediary in previous crises in northern Mali, and as the original home of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Algeria also attempted to utilize this influential role to convince Tuaregs to fight against the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) groups in the Sahel. Many former Malian Tuareg rebels offered their services and join the specialized unit settled after the 2006 “Tamanrasset Accords” (Accords de Tamanrasset) signed under the auspices of Algiers, which were supposed to maintain security in northern Mali. After condemning the military coup in Bamako in March 2012, Algeria opted for a low profile, and the government remained silent in the following months, issuing occasional statements of concern about Mali’s growing instability. This relative absence from the international policy response was first interpreted as a cautious position related to the 2012 April abduction of seven Algerian diplomats in the Malian city of Gao by the radical group Movement of Uniqueness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Algiers’ wait-and-see attitude can also be attributed to political internal preoccupation with domestic affairs and the internal competition within the elite over the upcoming 2014 presidential elections.6 It would seem that Algeria has been waiting to see how the regional situation plays out before making any decision and thus leaving the risks of resolving the crisis to others.
Algiers’ opposition to participation in a regional intervention force is formally expressed in a constitutional article which forbids its forces from taking part in military action outside its own territory. Algeria has been continually invoking this constitutional principle, thus justifying why its forces have not crossed into Mali to eradicate AQIM, even when invited to do so by its Sahelianneighbours, particularly by Niger. Yet the Algeria-led CEMOC (Joint Military Chief-of-staff Committee) was created in 2010 for precisely this purpose. However, on 20 December 2011, a few weeks before the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) proclaimed the independence of Azawad, Algerian army forces crossed into Mali. This move occurred exactly five days before IyadagGhaly announced the creation of a new jihadist group called Ansar al-Dine (defenders of the faith) in Northern Mali. The question then is why Algeria had some forces entered in Mali if Algeria is so keen not to intervene militarily on foreign soil? It is not clear what kind of forces were sent, but according to the official Algerian statements, Malian military elements were reported to be training with Algerian military counterparts in Kidal Region. Algeria withdrew its so-called military advisors from Mali and cut off military assistance at the end of 2011 when the conflict was clearly about to begin.
Algerian regional diplomacy emerging
Over the past two years, Algiers’s diplomatic discretion and inaction in the regional affairs has irritated the Malian government and been deeply questioned by its Sahelian partners. Since the Sahel is traditionally Algeria’s backyard, the country has participated in all negotiations on the Northern question in Mali since the 1990s. However, in recent years, Algeria’s influence has progressively deteriorated in the region, following a decade of dissension between the Algerian government and the former Mali president AmadouToumaniTouréAmadouToumaniTouré accused the Algerian president of failing to maintain control of his intelligence services, which Mali said were acting on their own in the Sahel and fuelling regional tensions.
Sahelian governments also suspected that Algeria is seeking to dominate its neighbours by asserting control over counterterrorism operations and lucrative smuggling routes  .In 2013, ECOWAS, France and the Sahelian countries questioned Algeria’s contributions to a negotiation process with the armed groups. In particular since the leader of Ansar al-Dine, Iyad Ag Ghali, is well known in Algeria and works closely with the Algerian intelligence services (DRS).
But in May 2014, the Malian and French governments were in favor of Algerian mediation of the inter-Malian dialogue. The French defence minister visited Algiers to discuss Algeria’s role in resolving the Northern Mali crisis with Algeria’s President AbdelazizBouteflika. France had spent a huge amount of money on the Serval operation and wanted to involve the regional partners. France also benefited from Algeria’s collaboration during its offensive against armed Islamist groups in the Adrar des Ifoghas in the Kidal region of Mali, and when nine terrorists hunted by the French troops were stopped and killed by Algerian security forces near Tinzaouatine (Tamanrasset) in May 2014.
Mali’s new stance on Algeria’s unavoidable role in its internal crisis was established during Mali President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita’s visit to Algiers in January 2014, and reasserted during the 2nd session of the Algerian-Malian bilateral strategic committee in April 2014 (which also includes Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad). Mali’s request is rooted in the fact that Kidal remains out of control of the central power, and has always been a zone of influence of Algeria, with the whole economy of the region still dependent on trade exchanges with Algeria. According to the Mali foreign minister AbdoulayeDiop, “Algeria represents an important partner for the development of Mali”. 
the present muddled situation, mixing conflicting and reversal exit strategies, appears to favor Algeria’s underground diplomacy:
– First its proves that the MNLA is unable to control the Azawad and to build a viable State; the recent failure of MNLA’s surprise attack in Menaka against MUJWA confirms the operational weakness of the separatist movement.
– Second, Algeria can benefit from a remote control on the situation in Northern Mali and on the moves of AQIM and MUJWA thanks to its proxy man.
– Third, it allows Algiers to keep its hands free, and to preserve it from any prospect of failure and/or turmoil that the military offensive might cause.
 Laurence AïdaAmmour, ALGERIA, THE SAHEL, AND THE CURRENT MALI CRISIS, notes internacionals CIDOB67, JANUARY 2013 …
aurenceAïdaAmmour, ‘Regional Security Cooperation in the Maghreb and Sahel: Algeria’s Pivotal Ambivalence’, Africa Security Brief, no. 18, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University, Washington, February 2012..
FatenHayed, ‘Mali : Alger entre deuxfeux’, El Watan (Algeria), 25 April 2014. In 2009, ATT declared ‘when I talk about Northern Mali it’s like talking about Algeria. Gao, Tessalit and Kidal are for me the last wilaya (province) of your country’, quoted by El Watan (Algeria), 25-26 April 2009.