At the end of July, the US Congress unveiled changes to its 2023 defence budget plan that envisage funding for an air defence network in MENA countries. Specifically, the potential recipients of US aid would be those subject to the threat from Iran, or from militias trained and armed by the Islamist regime.
According to the document submitted to Congress, the aid would be targeted at those Arab countries that have progressively formalised their relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords.
"The funds appropriated under this heading, including for assistance to Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, and any member country of the Gulf Cooperation that the Secretary of State deems appropriate, should be used in part to enhance multilateral defence cooperation with Israel, and to establish integrated air defence networks between those countries and Israel, including to counter missile and unmanned aircraft system attacks by Iran and its proxies,' reads the section of the National defence authorization act for fiscal year 2023.
Among the countries targeted by this aid package, which could reach a total of 6 billion dollars, is Morocco, the furthest away from the Levant and Iran, but under threat from the armed insurgent group Polisario Front. Morocco's inclusion in this report would be, according to Moroccan media reports, an assumption of the danger posed by the Polisario Front to state security, as well as a connection between the insurgent movement and the Iranian regime.
How can this US assistance materialise?
The US document explicitly speaks of "integrated air defence networks between these countries and Israel, including to counter Iranian missile and drone attacks". The first difficulty that arises is the distance between Morocco and the other countries subject to this possible assistance, which prevents the armed forces from working together to make the most of a weapons system to defend a shared area.
It must therefore be understood that Morocco would be slightly isolated from this possibility, but not from promoting its own air defence systems as it has been doing for the past decade and more recently with Israel's support. Assistance would be directly linked to the acquisition, maintenance and operationalisation of systems.
US funding could provide the final push for the Maghreb kingdom to gain an advantage over neighbouring Algeria. OSINT sources revealed through satellite imagery that the Moroccan armed forces are preparing a military base for air defence some 30 km east of the city of Kenitra, near the capital Rabat. The base could house Patriot missile systems that have been given the green light by Congress but which Morocco has not yet received.
From the Israeli point of view, an agreement was concluded in early 2022 to acquire Barak 8 systems, which have not yet been received, but which, together with the Patriot systems, would considerably strengthen Morocco's air defence. For the time being, the most advanced Moroccan assets to protect its airspace are the Chinese Norinco Sky Dragon 50 systems, together with the FD-2000B, also of Chinese manufacture.
Are they necessary?
The rearmament of Morocco's armed forces does not currently have the Polisario Front threat as its main motive. The opinion of various Spanish security and defence analysts is that Algeria is Morocco's main defence concern and that its investment in military equipment and force design is structured to confront the Algerian National People's Army.
According to sources consulted by this newspaper, the Polisario Front is totally outdated from a weapons point of view, and despite alleged connections with the Iranian regime would not have the capacity to strike or threaten the infrastructure of the Moroccan state in any serious way. According to the same sources, the Polisario has not received quality weaponry from its international partners since the cessation of hostilities with the Moroccan state in the early 1990s.
Morocco would maintain air superiority in the Sahara region, which would eliminate any possibility for the insurgent group to carry out any major mechanised warfare action. This situation would have led the Polisario Front to change its strategy, abandoning the armed struggle in favour of trying to win through attrition and propaganda, trying to take advantage of any sign of social crisis in Morocco.
More worrying are the effects it could have on the Algerian variant, the first priority of Moroccan external action in the region. Recent weeks have witnessed attempts by Morocco and Algeria to defuse the year-long tension, when in August 2021 Algeria cut its diplomatic bridges with the kingdom and later in October decided not to renew the agreement with Morocco for the transport of gas through the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline that crosses Morocco from east to north.
Behind the Algerian rebuffs is the normalisation of relations between Morocco and Israel, which the Tebboune-Chengriha government denounces. Strengthening relations between Arab countries and Israel is a necessary step towards stability in the MENA region, but strengthening these relations through defence and armaments could have a cost in terms of relations between the two North African neighbours. It remains to be seen whether the US State Department views this possibility in the same light, and whether the US Congress does not pull back on this potential funding.
Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra