Will Tunisia host a U.S. base to fight ISIS in Libya?

The base would eventually operate as a substitute for the Naval Radio Transmitter Facility Niscemi (NRTF Niscemi)

Asma Ajroudi
Asma Ajroudi - Al Arabiya News
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Tunisia has once again had to deny allegations of agreeing to host a U.S. military base in the country, reviving speculations over the depth of U.S.-Tunisian relations.

Citing Italian media, a report on the London-based Arabic newspaper Al Arab on July 22 claimed that Tunisia had already begun to receive U.S. surveillance systems in preparation to establish a new U.S. military station in the northwestern coastal city of Haouaria.

The base would eventually operate as a substitute for the Naval Radio Transmitter Facility Niscemi (NRTF Niscemi), a U.S. navy telecommunications station based in Niscemi, Italy, according to the newspaper.

NRTF Niscemi’s operations have been repeatedly interrupted since 2012 after becoming the target of protests and a legal battle with local residents who resisted the installation of MUOS, a U.S. satellite system, in fear of environmental and health damages due to radio waves.

Developed by U.S. Department of Defense, MUOS provides real time communication with soldiers anywhere in the world and enables remote drone piloting – the kind of intelligence network the U.S. wants in its Mideast counterterrorism effort.

Italian media also reported that Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi discussed transferring the surveillance equipment to Haouaria during his visit to Washington in May.

Tunisia rejected all of those allegations.

In a statement, the spokesman of the Tunisian Presidency, Moez Sinaoui, told radio station MosaiqueFM that “Tunisia’s doctrine since independence has been to reject any establishment of a foreign military base in the country.”

Despite multiple attempts made by Al Arabiya News, the Tunisian authorities were not available to comment further.

The claims followed a recent Wall Street Journal report citing a senior Obama Administration official as saying that the U.S. is currently in talks with North African countries about establishing a drone base on their soil to contain the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in war-stricken Libya.

The report did not identify specific location and said it “would give permission to position drones there along with a limited number of U.S. military personnel.”

Dr. Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council for Foreign Relations, told Al Arabiya News: “Drones have a limited ability to defeat militant groups, but they can suppress them and reduce their virulence.”

“A U.S. drone campaign against ISIL in Libya might thus diminish ISIL's ability to plan attacks against U.S. or other allied countries, as well as weakening them as contestants for power in Libya itself - even if such a limited campaign cannot defeat ISIL outright,” said Biddle using another acronym for ISIS.

But Maj. James Brindle, a Pentagon spokesman, told Al Arabiya News a potential U.S. station in North Africa “would be for surveillance, not kinetic” and would be “a sovereign host government facility to which the U.S. is granted access.”

The spokesman refused to reveal specific ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) assets or locations.

“We work closely with our African partners to counter violent extremism, address security challenges and promote regional stability, and will continue to do so,” Brindle stated, while also pointing that “no final decisions have been made.”

“These discussions are nascent and exploratory,” he added.

Despite the secrecy around the potential ISR location, the news struck a nerve in Algeria prompting its press to immediately single out Tunisia as being the center of this base-location-search.

Algeria, which considers any U.S. presence in North Africa a provocation to its sovereignty, then went on to threaten to cut diplomatic ties with Tunisia if it agreed to host the U.S. base.

“Tunisia has to choose between a U.S. military base or relations with Algeria, especially that Algeria spent decades fighting terrorism and resisting foreign pressures to set up military bases on its soil or borders,” Foreign Minsiter Ramtane Lamamra was reported as saying in a letter addressed to Essebsi, according to Algerian newspaper Al Hiwar.

Tunisia’s position in the center of all these reports serve as proof for the country’s deep involvement with the U.S., a top security expert told Arabiya News.

“I don’t think the American press, the Italian press, the Algerian official news agency and diplomatic sources, as well as a number of Tunisian analysts can all be wrong. There is no smoke without fire,” said Dr. Mazen Cherif, a security expert and head of the Tunisian Center for Global Security Studies.

The expert revealed his center had obtained information confirming a second U.S. base - separate from the alleged surveillance site in Houaria - is in the works in the south of the country near the Tunisian-Libyan border.

While logistical support from the U.S. is important, hosting a military base would bear “catastrophic” results for Tunisia, said Cherif.

“Tunisia is the world’s top exporter of terrorists… Hosting the U.S. base would only invite more jihad in Tunisia,” said Cherif.

“The current situation in the region does not allow Tunisia to handle a U.S. base,” he said, in reference to neighboring war-torn Libya.

“The decision-makers are delusional about the impact of such a decision on Tunisia, thinking that the Tunisian army is incapable of curbing terrorism and that the only solution is for ’Mama America’ to set up a base and kill them [terrorists],” he said.

But Mondher Thabet, a political analyst, dismissed the allegations saying hosting a U.S. military base has been “off the table” since the days of deposed Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who considered it an infringement on Tunisian sovereignty.

“A U.S. military presence on Tunisian soil is a non-negotiable matter. But I do back logistical, intelligence, technological, and training cooperation with the U.S.,” said Thabet.

Tunisia was the center of debate in 2006, when the U.S. announced its intention to create the United States Africa Command, commonly known as AFRICOM, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in Africa.

Ben Ali reportedly rejected the U.S. request to host AFRICOM for several reasons, including concerns over attracting extremist militias which could compromise the country’s main source of income tourism.

“Tunisia never agreed and will never agree to host a foreign military base on its soil or waters,” said Ahmed Ounaies, a veteran diplomat, who served as foreign minister for a short period of time after the 2014 revolution.

When asked about the nature of relations between the U.S. and Tunisia, Ounaies said: “We have an alliance to fight the terrorism that is threatening the Tunisian territory.”

Earlier this month, the White House designated Tunisia a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA), a status that grants the North African country access to NATO training and military loans but also opens door to additional – though limited – cooperation with the U.S.

“This is not new. The U.S. and UK were the first countries to provide us with weapons to protect our sovereignty after our independence in 1965,” said Ounaies.

“But no country has the right to set conditions on the sovereignty of the Tunisian state,” he added.

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