Crisis Response in the Mediterranean: Bringing Tunisia on Board

by Paul Pryce. Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.

NATO (in blue, countries with a Membership Action Plan in light blue), the Partnership for Peace countries (in orange), the Mediterranean dialogue countries (in red), the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (in purple), with an Individual Partnership Action Plan (yellow) and Global Partners (green; image: Patrickneil, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

NATO (in blue, countries with a Membership Action Plan in light blue), the Partnership for Peace countries (in orange), the Mediterranean dialogue countries (in red), the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (in purple), with an Individual Partnership Action Plan (yellow) and Global Partners (green; image: Patrickneil, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported).

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has long employed various mechanisms to expand its international outreach. The Mediterranean Dialogue, for example, was first launched in 1994 as a forum through which to promote regional security and stability among the countries of the Mediterranean region. Initially, Egypt, Israel, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia joined in this dialogue with NATO, later being joined by Jordan and Algeria. Libya was extended an invitation to join in 2012 but has yet to formally respond. Although it has not seen quite as much attention recently from NATO member states, the ongoing refugee crisis underscores the need for a renewed commitment to the Mediterranean Dialogue.

Changes in Macedonia’s asylum policy have placed new pressure on the immigration systems of European countries, making the Greek island of Kos the frontline of a humanitarian crisis. But hundreds still continue to make the perilous voyage from the Libyan coast to the Italian island of Lampedusa, obliging greater coordination on search and rescue operations among Mediterranean countries. Fortunately, the Tunisian National Navy has demonstrated both the willingness and capacity to contribute toward the rescue of refugees and migrants attempting to unsafely traverse the Mediterranean. For example, as recently as June 2015, Tunisian patrol boats saved some 650 refugees and migrants bound for Lampedusa from the Libyan coast on unsafe rafts.

This increased role in Mediterranean security comes in part from the very real threat Libya’s instability poses to Tunisia. Earlier in June 2015, just two weeks following the rescue operation mounted by the Tunisian National Navy, Libya-based terrorists launched an attack on a Tunisian beach resort and killed 38 people. Given this, it is unsurprising that Tunisia has been rapidly expanding its military capabilities. In August 2015, the Tunisian National Navy commissioned its first locally built patrol boat, Al Istiklal (Independence), making Tunisia the first country in the Arab world to develop a shipbuilding industry of its own and only the second in Africa, following South Africa’s lead. Reportedly, Al Istiklal is an 80-ton patrol boat that measures 26.5 meters in length and is 5.8 meters wide, enjoys a top speed of 25 knots and a range of 600 nautical miles, all while equipped with a 20mm cannon, two machine guns, and a thermal imaging camera. It will be joined by four patrol boats of unidentified classification from the United States Navy (USN) in 2015, with a further three boats expected for delivery by the end of 2016. Beyond this, the Tunisian military has acquired additional ground vehicles and is upgrading its fleet of Northrop F-5E/F Tiger II fighters.

The first European multipurpose frigate: the French Aquitaine (D650).

The first European multipurpose frigate: the French Aquitaine (D650).

With common interests – namely combating terrorism and addressing the Mediterranean humanitarian crisis – there is a clear need for a closer partnership between NATO and Tunisia than that offered by membership in the Mediterranean Dialogue. A deeper partnership, encompassing intelligence sharing and coordinated patrols of the Mediterranean Sea, would not be without precedent. In 2009, NATO signed a Tactical Memorandum of Understanding (T-MOU) with the Kingdom of Morocco to secure Moroccan participation in Operation Active Endeavour, a NATO-led effort to increase surveillance on freight traffic in the Mediterranean and prevent sea-based terrorism. In 2013, the NATO-Morocco cooperation framework was renewed and, in March 2015, it was raised to the level of a “strategic partnership”.

A T-MOU to secure Tunisian participation in Active Endeavour would not necessarily establish an early warning system for NATO members, but it would certainly offer a more complete picture of the security situation in the Mediterranean. Under such an arrangement, Tunisian patrol boats could detect and attempt to intercept unsafe rafts passing through or near their territorial waters. However, if intercepting the rafts would prove unsafe under specific conditions, nearby vessels from relevant partners could be notified. Currently, without a formal mechanism for cooperation with Tunisia, NATO could potentially be missing out on valuable information.

That NATO has a T-MOU with Morocco but not Tunisia underscores how outdated the Alliance’s approach is to Mediterranean engagement. The Royal Moroccan Navy is an impressive force in its own right, boasting a complement of six frigates, a corvette, four missile boats, 18 patrol boats, and numerous support vessels of various classes, while the Tunisian National Navy consists of 40 gunboats or patrol boats. The flagship of Morocco’s maritime forces, Mohammed VI, is a French-built FREMM (European Multipurpose Frigate) with a displacement of 6,000 tonnes and designed for anti-submarine warfare. Tunisia cannot realistically hope to match the conventional maritime warfare capabilities of Morocco. After all, the largest vessel operated by the Tunisian National Navy, President Bourgiba, was a decommissioned Edsall-class destroyer escort, USS Thomas J. Gary, which was transferred to Tunisia in 1973 and rendered no longer operational by a severe fire in 1992, having served at sea for almost 50 years in total. Since then, the largest vessels operated by Tunisia are its six Albatross-class fast attack craft manufactured in Germany by Lürssen, with a displacement of almost 400 tons each. In short, Tunisia’s maritime forces are non-expeditionary and have been focused entirely on coastal defense for more than two decades.

Mohammed VI

Mohammed VI

As such, the T-MOU with Morocco should be interpreted as a political document first and foremost, rather than a practical agreement. Morocco has previously clashed with Spain, a NATO member state, and gestures like the declaration of a “strategic partnership” go some way toward keeping tensions minimal. In 2002, Spanish and Moroccan troops confronted each other over possession of the small and uninhabited Perejil Island. Although no gunfire was exchanged, the standoff resulted in a six-month suspension of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Continued disputes over the Western Sahara and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla have also generated friction as recently as 2007.

Nonetheless, this is not the optimum use of a T-MOU. The Mediterranean enjoys other confidence- and security-building mechanisms (CSBMs), such as the “5+5 Initiative“. Under this framework, five North African countries (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia) and five European Union (EU) member states (France, Italy, Malta, Portugal, and Spain) engage in defence cooperation, including the annual Seaborder military exercises. It is within the auspices of Seaborder and the 5+5 Initiative that Spanish-Moroccan tensions can best be addressed, not a NATO agreement.

Simply approaching Tunisian officials at this time regarding a T-MOU would be an important gesture of respect. It would reinforce positive behaviours exhibited by the Tunisian authorities, such as the rescue of refugees and migrants at sea, while also at the very least reinforcing informal contacts between institutions. If successful, the process and content of the T-MOU with Tunisia could serve as a model for future such agreements with other Mediterranean Dialogue members, if a situation arises in which formal cooperation is necessary.

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada's Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
This entry was posted in English, International, Paul Pryce, Sea Powers.

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