Building Partnerships in Challenging Times: The Defence Arrangements of Tunisia

10 May 2017 | Paper | English


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As the revolutionary waves of the Arab Spring were ignited with the tragic death of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, the North African country remains the best hope among the Arab nations that the promises of the Arab Spring will someday be delivered. Yet six years after those historic changes began, Tunisia is facing daunting challenges. With a population of over eleven million it is not only coping with political and economic challenges, but with immense security threats.

Since 2011 Islamist extremism has been on the rise in the country, posing a growing security threat with obvious negative implications for political and economic stability. As security deteriorated in recent years and the internal security forces were not sufficiently able to cope with the expanding tasks, the Tunisian armed forces began to play an increasing role in maintaining security. However, after decades of (deliberate) neglect by the previous political leadership the Tunisian armed forces are also struggling to meet the challenge. Therefore, Tunisia is actively seeking new international partnerships and assistance in order to modernise its defence forces and build security partnerships with the aim of tackling internal and external threats with greater efficiency.

The aim of this paper is to give an overview of the international defence arrangements that Tunisia has developed since the revolution. The paper argues that, despite the new defence relationships Tunisia has developed in recent years, traditional defence partnerships still play a crucial role in the modernisation of the sector. Furthermore, the main question related to the development of capabilities is how Tunisia will be able to effectively absorb the considerable assistance it receives. The paper will cover defence relations with all the major international security partners of Tunisia: the relations with international organisations such as NATO, the EU, the G7, the 5+5 Defence Initiative and the bilateral defence relationships with the United States and selected European states as well as with Russia, Tunisia’s neighbours and selected countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Security And Defence Arrangements: Basic Methodological Questions

Before the paper examines the defence arrangements of Tunisia, certain basic methodological questions must be addressed. First, as the security challenges became more hybrid in nature and tackling them requires a comprehensive approach, a clear line cannot be drawn between defence arrangements and other security-related arrangements. In this respect, this paper will focus on the presentation of Tunisia’s defence arrangements, such as arms transfers, military-to-military cooperation and institutionalised defence dialogues. Defence partnerships can be viewed as part of defence diplomacy, which seeks to influence nations and their militaries in order to achieve a strategic end (Willard, 2006). However, the paper will also mention those security arrangements that have a direct impact on defence-related matters.

In terms of evaluating Tunisia’s defence partnerships, the criteria of progress must also be examined. The intensity of arrangements between Tunisia and its partners is only an indicator of the quality of the relationship with the international partners. Such indicators include the intensity of high level meetings of defence officials, institutionalised dialogues and information exchanges on security and defence matters, arms sales agreements and donation of military equipment, military-to-military contacts such as support for training, joint exercises or operations and other related defence arrangements.

Another benchmark for the quality of a defence relationship is the effect it has on the quality of Tunisia’s security and defence capabilities and on Tunisia’s overall security. Although this paper will focus on the relationships themselves, it will also touch upon the issues related to the performance of the respective Tunisian security actors, especially the armed forces. However, an in-depth and comprehensive evaluation of Tunisia’s security and defence environment would exceed the scope of the paper.

Tunisia in Transition: A Security Perspective

Security Threats of Tunisia in the New Era

Since the revolution of 2011, Tunisia has been experiencing a deteriorating security environment. The reasons are manifold, from the negative effects of political transformation through economic and social challenges to the fallout of instability and violence in Tunisia’s neighbourhood. The most challenging threats the country is facing are terrorism,[1] the insecurity along the borders of Libya and Algeria[2] and the negative impact of the conflict in Libya. Radical Islamism is brewing many followers among young Tunisians and over the past five years about 7,000 Tunisians have joined ISIS in Syria (Taylor, 2016). Illegal migration also poses a significant security challenge

Securing the border in the southeast towards Libya poses a major challenge for the Tunisian government. In response to the worsening security situation, the Tunisian government recently constructed a 220 km long security barrier along the border.

Tunisia is taking many steps to improve security, fend off attacks and improve the capabilities, effectiveness and responsiveness of security forces, law enforcement agencies as well as the army. However, as the security situation remains uncertain, and the resources of the Tunisian government are limited, Tunisia is in great need of assistance from international partners.       

The Tunisian Defence Sector in Transition

Although the Tunisian armed forces have been weak and fairly small in relation to many other MENA region countries, it is highly respected among the Tunisian population. While in many other Arab countries the military played a key role in sustaining the authoritarian political system, this was not the case in Tunisia. Ben Ali and his predecessors relied primarily on the internal security services to preserve their rule, and viewed the military with suspicion (Hanlon, 2012, p. 4). Therefore, the military was underfunded and distanced from the centres of power.

As former President Ben Ali was losing control of the events in light of the massive protests against his regime in early 2011, the leadership of the military refused to intervene on behalf of the regime and turn against the popular revolt. This decision not only paved the way for the political transition but strengthened the popularity of the armed forces.

Since the revolution a gradual transformation has taken place in terms of the constitutional status and the responsibilities of the armed forces. The revolution ignited a change towards a system of shared responsibility (Grewal, 2016). According to the new constitution accepted in 2014, the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and chairs the National Security Council. However, the General Assembly also has a role in declaring war or peace and the president can only appoint individuals to senior military positions after consultation with the prime minister. Overall, the most important legal and institutional tools for the democratic control of the sector are in place, although further reforms are needed, especially in the field of transparency and accountability.[3]

Due to a number of factors the Tunisian military has gradually been gaining political influence in recent years (Grewal, 2016). Furthermore, the distribution of state resources among the state security services become more equal as the privileged position of the Ministry of the Interior ceased to exist. While in 2011 the defence budget with its $623 million USD stood at just 56% of the Ministry of the Interior’s (MOI) resources, the ratio has increased to 72% for 2016 with the MOD receiving $951 million USD (Marsad, 2016).  

In terms of tackling internal security challenges, border security and counter-terrorism, officially the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the armed forces have only supplementary roles. The MOI has primary responsibility in both areas through the National Police and the National Guard (Hanlon & Herbert, 2015, p. 39). However, due to the increasing security challenges, the armed forces became increasingly active in combating these threats.

With respect to the management of border security, in September 2013 the government created a military zone along the borders of the southernmost part of the country, where the MOD has responsibility for securing the border (Hanlon & Herbert, 2015). North to the military zone the MOI has primary responsibility but the armed forces serve as a supporting back up force. In terms of counter-terrorism operations, the MOI is primarily concentrating on urban areas while the MOD is focused on larger-scale operations in the countryside, in remote mountains and deserts. Overall, in light of the urgent need to enhance operational effectiveness, there has been a bottom-up approach of strengthening cooperation between the armed forces and the internal security forces. Hence coordination has improved more on the operational level than on the strategic planning and decision-making level, although progress has also been made on the latter, as will be discussed in the paper.[4]

The armed forces are composed of an army, a navy and an air force, with a combined manpower of 35,800, the majority of them conscripts (Military Balance, 2015). Much of the military equipment originates from the United States or Western European suppliers, but they are ageing and, in some cases, approaching obsolescence. As a result, the armed forces are primarily suited for constabulary roles such as border security, tracking down small militant groups and search and rescue operations but traditional high intensity military operations would pose a significant challenge (Military Balance, 2015, p. 354). Command and control capabilities at the joint level also need to be further improved. These features of the armed forces as well as the severe security challenges are the main drivers of Tunisia’s quest for broadening defence partnerships in the region and beyond.   

Tunisia’s Evolving Foreign Policy

After the first free elections in 2011 the moderate Islamist Ennahda, a party with close links to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, become the strongest political force in the country. Despite its victory, Ennahda decided to form a coalition government with two secular parties and formed the Troika government in order to demonstrate its commitment to democracy.

During the first two years of the Troika government, Tunisia forged close ties with Turkey and Qatar, while relations with traditional partners such as Saudi Arabia and Western powers were problematic (Arieff & Humud, 2015). After President Mohamed Morsi was forced out of office in Egypt through a coup supported by Saudi Arabia in the summer of 2013, Ennahda began to improve relations with Riyadh in order to avoid a similar scenario in Tunis (Santini & Koehler, 2016). However, political instability and infighting in Tunis led to a series of changes in the leadership of the Troika government until a new constitution was adopted in 2014 and new presidential and parliamentary elections were held later that year.

As a result of the elections, Béji Caïd Essebsi become president and the secular Nidaa Tounes formed a grand coalition with two other secular parties and Ennahda. The invitation of Ennahda was an important step towards integrating the moderate Islamist party into the new political system. Under President Essebsi, Tunisia has endorsed Tunisia’s traditional foreign policy: neutrality, zero enemies and pragmatic relations with great powers and with the key Arab nations. Therefore, Tunisia strengthened its relationship with Western powers and shifted its regional orientation more towards Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (Reidy, 2015). The current Tunisian leadership is also seeking closer ties with Algeria and Egypt.

Alongside the change in the political leadership of Tunisia the improving relations with Western powers was also a result of the migration crisis and growing threat from ISIS in the region. Although Tunisia in itself is not regarded as a vital national security concern for major Western powers, the United States and especially the European countries still have an important stake in the stability of Tunisia in light of the current security environment. The multilateral and bilateral security and defence arrangements built between Tunisia and the Western powers reveal the importance of the partnership.

Multilateral Defence Arrangements of Tunisia

Security Assistance from the “G7 + 5”

Back in May 2011, not long after the Arab Spring broke out, leaders of the then G8 nations were quick to pledge their support “for the aspirations of the Arab Spring” at their summit in France. The “Deauville Partnership” launched by the G7 was based on two pillars: support for governance reform in the democratic transition process and economic assistance (Federal Government, 2011). Tunisia’s then prime minister later reported that his country was promised $25 billion USD of assistance at the summit by the G7 nations (“G7 Circle for Tunisia”, 2015) but only a fraction, about $7 billion, has so far materialised (Muasher et al, 2016). Even though the G7 did not fully deliver on its pledge, it became one of the most important partners for Tunisia in recent years in terms of support for economic and structural reforms (Federal Government, 2012). Since 2011, the G7 nations and other partner countries have provided assistance to Tunisia in promoting transparency, accountability and good governance within the scope of governance reforms. Building on this existing partnership and in the wake of the Sousse terrorist attack in 2015, Tunisia launched a new security assistance coordination project with the G7 plus Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the European Union, known as the G7+5 format.

The programme has three strategic objectives: strengthening border security, protection of tourist infrastructure and countering violent extremism. Proper coordination of efforts is ensured by regular meetings of ambassadors and expert working groups with Tunisian leadership and participation, including the presidency and prime ministry. This format has succeeded in overcoming some bureaucratic and political obstacles within the Tunisian government for the benefit of better coordination and planning. One of the concrete significant results of the initiative was a unified document of the Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Defence on Tunisia’s security strategy and assistance priorities.

This can be considered a significant result as there are still legitimate concerns about the country’s capacity to be able to absorb international funds and put them into effective use (NATO, 2015d). The strategy enabled the G7+5 format to provide coordinated assistance for the various government stakeholders in the Tunisian security sector. Another forward looking development was a formation of a national comprehensive strategy on counter-terrorism in August 2015. The strategy aims to tackle the issue on the basis of deep analysis of the threat and through increasing coordination of all national institutions concerned. With respect to this objective, a national counter-terrorism commission was created in March 2016 representing various ministries and government agencies (“National Counterterrorism Commission Created in Tunis, 2016”).

Further recent achievements in the security and defence domain as referred to by Tunisian Defence Minister Farhat Horchani at a G7+5 ambassadorial meeting includes the adoption of a national security strategy, the creation of a military studies and research centre and the start of drafting a white paper on defence (Horchani, 2016). The drafting of the white paper was launched by the minister of defence in November 2016 at an official ceremony, where Mr. Horchani emphasised the inclusiveness of the process concerning inputs from other branches of government and civil society. Though these and similar efforts still fall short of engineering the much needed systematic structural reforms, they have made a positive impact on the performance and readiness of the internal security forces and the Tunisian military.

In terms of the three strategic objectives of the G7+5, the European Union is focusing its efforts on counter-terrorism and the prevention of violent extremism as described in the section on the European Union. The United Kingdom and Japan are taking the lead in assisting Tunisia on improving border security. During the G7 meeting in April 2016 the Japanese and the British foreign ministers reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to provide support for Tunisia in this effort. The assistance, worth about USD 900 million,[5] is provided through the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to Tunisia’s Ministry of the Interior’s Foreigners and Borders Directorate (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2016). The project aims to enhance capabilities on analysing risk information and threats at border locations, and to strengthen information sharing mechanisms by implementing multiple training sessions for risk information analysis officers, investigative agents and other law enforcement personnel involved in border security.

Security and Defence Arrangements with the European Union

The European Union is providing the most comprehensive package of assistance for Tunisia through the European Neighbourhood Policy among international organisations (European Commission, 2015b). Although much of the EU assistance dedicated to Tunisia is focused on economic and social development, altogether more the €2 billion of assistance since 2011 (European Commission, 2016),[6] some is directed towards the security and defence sector.[7] The EU-funded security-related programmes are mainly focused on reforming and modernising the security sector and capacity building with regards to counter-terrorism (European Commission, 2016).  EU foreign policy chief Mogherini recently stated that relevant EU regional and thematic projects (in areas such as the prevention of radicalisation, support for security institutions, border security, foreign terrorist fighters) will also have a specific focus on Tunisia. EU agencies (such as Europol, CEPOL, Eurojust and Frontex) have also proposed strengthening their ties with Tunisia (European Parliament, 2016a). As the Tunisian armed forces and the internal security services cooperate closely on tackling crucial security challenges, EU assistance is also indirectly benefiting the Tunisian defence sector.

In November 2015, the EU launched a security sector reform (SSR) programme worth EUR 23 million with a particular focus on restructuring security services, border controls and intelligence services in Tunisia (European Commission, 2015a). The programme is at the early stages of implementation but a national coordinator has already been appointed and a Programme Management Unit has been set up in Tunis (European Parliament, 2016a). Previous EU funded programmes targeting the security sector also included the establishment of an inter-ministerial crisis cell, improving technical and operational capacities of border security services and reform of evaluation, recruitment and training systems (European Parliament, 2016b).

Another priority for the EU is counter-terrorism and the prevention of violent extremism and radicalisation along the four pillars of the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy: prevention, protection, pursuit, response. The EU has put great emphasis on the prevention pillar in recent years, including through targeted youth programmes and facilitating a tripartite dialogue between the EU, relevant Tunisian government authorities and civil society. Within this context, strengthening societal resilience and alternative messaging might be areas of future cooperation. In terms of the protection pillar, securing soft targets and tackling arms trafficking are possible areas for further EU assistance. As for the pursuit pillar, the SSR programmes mentioned above also support these efforts, while considerable assistance has been provided for the judicial sector as well in dealing with foreign fighters.

Two enhanced political dialogues on security cooperation and the fight against terrorism have been held since 2015 to help facilitate cooperation in the security domain (European Parliament, 2016a; EEAS, 2017). The purpose of the dialogue is to bring together all the component services to share their respective analyses on the transnational threat of terrorism, take stock of existing cooperation in the security field and discuss the modalities of possible additional actions. The dialogue builds on the implementation of a Tunisian national counter-terrorism strategy, and also welcomes the adaptation of an upgraded similar strategy in November 2017. During these dialogues the Tunisian government has demonstrated competence with properly coordinated and prepared initiatives and responses across the spectrum and a firm will for further cooperation. However, Tunisia still has a long way to go in building more resilient and effective state structures, especially concerning coordinated strategic planning and proper implementation of decisions.[8] 

Nevertheless, the EU has also emphasised the importance of respect for the rule of law and human rights conventions by Tunisian authorities in its support for Tunisia. In this regard, the European Parliament has expressed its concern about several legislative measures, including the imposition of the death penalty as a possible sentence for a range of terror offences and several provisions of the counter-terrorism law adopted in July 2015.

Although so far the security and defence relations with Tunisia remained outside the scope of the Common Security and Defence policy, the latest Joint Communiqué of the EC and the Council on Tunisia stated that the EU is willing to consider all options to support Tunisia (European Commission, 2016). Amid the growing security challenges in 2015, some EU members considered the possibility of sending an EU military training mission to Tunisia. However, the Tunisian side was not open for a CSDP mission because of the negative political connotations that it might have. EU foreign ministers first discussed the issue officially at an EU Council meeting in July 2015 but no decision was taken (Barnes, 2015). Germany and Italy were likely supporters of such a mission and Ursula von der Leyden stated in February 2016 that Germany would consider sending troops to Tunisia as it would contribute to regional stability.

Any future Tunisian CSDP mission is also subject to the developments in Libya. The EU launched a small civilian border assistance mission there, the EUBAM Libya in 2013, which has operated in Tunisia since August 2014 due to the security situation in the neighbouring country. A military training mission in Tunisia could also provide support for training Libyan soldiers, as had been suggested by the German defence minister. However, the premier multilateral stakeholder in providing assistance for the Tunisian defence forces has been NATO and will likely remain so. 

Tunisia’s Relations with NATO

Tunisia has been a part of NATO’S Mediterranean Dialogue since its launch in 1994, and therefore Tunisia has nearly two decades of history of cooperation with the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO, 2015a). However, the depth and value of the cooperation was limited for a long time and focused on defence dialogue and low intensity practical military-to-military engagement. The main reasons for slow progress were the lack of a coherent strategic vision by NATO for the fundamental purpose of the MD (Moore, 2012, p. 57), the lack of clear security gains for the Tunisian regime and the different approaches towards security (Francois, 2012). Somewhat paradoxically, it was the growing insecurity in post-Arab Spring Tunisia and its vicinity that gave a new impetus to NATO-Tunisian defence relations.   

The general political framework of the NATO-Tunisia partnership is defined by the Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme approved jointly by NATO and Tunisia. The programme originally included cooperation in the fields of civil emergency planning, defence reform and defence planning, military cooperation, cyber defence, public diplomacy and the science for peace and security programme (NATO, 2015c), but later was expanded into counter-terrorism, military education, training and other activities (NATO, 2015b). As a result, Tunisia’s participation in the activities offered by the Partnership Cooperation Menu has steadily increased in the past five years. Since February 2015, Tunisia has also been participating in NATO’s Planning and Review Process (PARP), which provides a qualitatively deeper and broader platform for defence-related practical cooperation. The objective of PARP is facilitating modernisation and transformation of the armed forces through defence capability development with a focus on crisis response. In this context, NATO has provided valuable expertise in defence-related institution building and organisational management. Tunisia’s participation in NATO’s Defence Educational Enhancement Programme and Building Integrity Programme were further tools in these efforts.

One of the priority areas of cooperation has been counter-terrorism. In early 2016, General Petr Pavel, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, reaffirmed that “NATO is willing to strengthen and diversify the areas of cooperation with the Tunisian army in terms of training to increase its operational capacity in the fight against terrorism.” At the NATO Summit in Warsaw, a decision was made to provide know-how and expertise on the further development of an intelligence fusion centre (NATO, 2016c) and training for Tunisian special forces (Baldor & Dahlburg, 2016). The prime focus of the Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Centre will be countering ISIS. In the process, NATO is training Tunisian military officers on the latest software and techniques in the collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence information. Intelligence sharing between Tunisia and NATO –as in the case of the EU – remains very limited, as it is mostly channelled bilaterally. NATO has also provided expertise on border security, although it has only had a complementary role in this field in relation to other international partners.     

Tunis also participates in the Interoperability Platform established within the Partnership Interoperability Initiative (PII), which provides deeper access to interoperability issues (NATO 2016b). Under these programmes, Tunisia has participated, among others, in observation of military exercises, such as the Operation Trident Juncture of 2015, the largest NATO exercise since the end of the cold war. The partnership has been further strengthened by regular high level bilateral meetings between NATO officials and representatives of the Tunisian government and armed forces. Such recent meetings included a visit by Tunisia’s Prime Minister Habib Essid to NATO Headquarters in Brussels in May 2015.

In summary, relations between NATO and Tunisia have significantly improved in recent years, and the fruits of the cooperation have become visible in the performance of the Tunisian defence forces. The unique expertise and organisational and information sharing structures NATO offers is met with a firm will on the Tunisian side to capitalise on these opportunities. As a result, the capabilities and the operational effectiveness of the Tunisian armed forces have significantly improved in recent years.[9] It is worth mentioning that coordination between EU and NATO in providing assistance for third countries, such as Tunisia, has greatly improved in light of the new NATO-EU declaration of the Warsaw Summit.[10] Acknowledging these results, there is space for further cooperation. As will be discussed later, Tunisia is receiving a substantial amount of equipment through bilateral arrangements but in order to maximise the potential of these new capabilities further improving the planning, coordination between the branches of the armed forces and the skills of the military personnel is necessary.

France, Italy and Spain continue to be leading advocates for NATO to play a greater role in the Mediterranean (Stefanini, 2016), although the position of France is more nuanced as it supports NATO only when it has a clear added value (Lightfoot, 2016). Although there is unanimous support among the Allies for engaging and working with Tunisia through NATO, gaining sufficient resources and political will for greater NATO involvement in Tunisia is a difficult challenge in light of the differing threat perceptions within the Alliance. On the other hand, at times the Tunisian government prefers bilateral cooperation, and seems reluctant to use Alliance support more openly (Kaim, 2017, p. 12). 

Tunisia in the 5+5 Defence Initiative

Tunisia is also a member of the 5+5 Defence Initiative, a framework with the participation of five Southern European nations (France, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Malta) and five North African nations (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania and Libya) located in the Western Mediterranean. The “5+5 Defence” cooperation scheme covers four areas: maritime surveillance, secure airspace, search/rescue operations and the contribution of armed forces to civil emergency situations (5+5 Defence, 2016). Consultations among high ranking defence and military officials from the participating countries are held regularly, in which Tunisia actively participates. Recent practical activities within this framework included a maritime exercise with the participation of Spain, Portugal, France, Morocco and Tunisia in Portuguese waters in October 2015 and an exercise in November 2015 on coordinating non-military aerial threats with the participation of the Tunisian, Algerian, Italian and French air forces.  

Bilateral Defence Arrangements of Tunisia

Defence Arrangements with the United States

In its efforts to expand defence relationships in recent years, Tunisia has assigned strategic significance in forging a close partnership with the world’s strongest military power, the United States. On the other side, the US considered the support of the only partially successful democratic transition of the Arab Spring in its strategic interest. As a result, the security and defence cooperation between the United States and Tunisia has significantly strengthened in recent years.

Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed the Obama administration’s “commitment to stand with Tunisia to help move down this road of democracy” during a visit to Tunis in February 2014 (US Department of State, 2014). From the perspective of the United States, counter-terrorism and border security have been the main priorities in terms of enhancing Tunisia’s security, reflecting the common interests in combating the threat posed by ISIS and other terrorist networks in the region. The threat of terrorism to American interests in Tunisia became apparent soon after the transition began when in September 2012 there was a terrorist attack on the US embassy and an American school in Tunis. The attack caused friction in relations as American officials criticised the protection of the embassy, the handling of the investigation and the prosecution of suspects (Arieff & Humud, 2015). In 2013, the FBI named Tunisia as one of the places where al-Qaeda and its affiliates pose a high threat to US interests, and the State Department only lifted a travel warning in March 2014 ahead of the Tunisian prime minister’s visit to Washington.

The most visible sign of closer security partnership between the two nations was the designation of Tunisia by the US government as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA), becoming the sixth Arab country to achieve this status on 10 June 2015 (US Department of State, 2015). The MNNA status reflects a long-term security commitment by the US without any binding treaty obligations towards Tunisia’s defence. It will also provide a qualification for Tunisia for certain privileges in terms of previously restricted security and defence provisions as well as enhancing mutual partnerships in multiple areas (Oruganti & Ruffner, 2015).

Under the agreement, Tunisia will be eligible to enter into cooperative research and development projects in the areas of counter-terrorism and improving conventional defence capabilities. The MNNA status will also have some financial advantages. Tunis will be able to buy military equipment at reduced costs, will be allowed to use US provided Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for commercial leasing of certain defence articles and will be eligible for loans of materials, supplies and equipment for cooperative R&D projects and testing and evaluation. Direct military-to-military cooperation is also enhanced within the framework. This could include stationing US-owned War Reserve Stockpiles on Tunisian territory outside of US military installations and cooperation in combat operations. 

The steady support towards Tunisia’s defence capabilities is also reflected in the increasing security aid from the US, most of it channelled through the FMF and Section 1206 programmes.[11] The vast majority of the security assistance funds are allocated to supporting the Tunisian armed forces and the rest is directed towards other branches of the Tunisian security sector (police and prison reform). From 2011 to 2014, the US government provided $121 million for Tunisia’s military for counter-terrorism and border security operations. The vast majority of this assistance, $106 million, was allocated to equipment acquisition, which included vehicles, boats, maritime security capabilities, radar and UAV components. Another significant portion, $14 million, was allocated to training Tunisian military officers in programmes such as the International Military Education and Training (IMET) and the Combatting Terrorism Fellowship Programme (CTFP). In fiscal year 2015 and 2016 the Obama administration allocated more than $142 million in security assistance for Tunisia, which is more than double the amount allocated for the previous two years. Furthermore, Tunisia received over $20 million from the Defence Department’s Counter-Terrorism Partnership Fund in Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 and FY 2016. 

A significant proportion of the increased military aid will be allocated to help Tunisia acquire 12 Black Hawk army helicopters armed with sophisticated Hellfire missiles. The complete price tag of the deal will reach $700 million. Furthermore, in May 2016 the US Department of Defence announced that it would sell 24 Kiowa Warrior attack helicopters with advanced weapons systems. Other major military transport and weapons system equipment transferred by the United States included 52 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV), transport aircraft and patrol boats delivered since 2013. The United States also delivered $20 million worth of other military hardware in 2016, including light aircraft, jeeps and communications systems. The respected military hardware is geared toward surveillance and reconnaissance operations, helping border security efforts along the Tunisian-Libyan border.

Along with the expanding arms transfers and defence assistance, the support for training and exercises has also increased (Bias, 2016). Recent military-to-military engagements include regular participation of Tunisian forces in the United States Africa Command (AFCOM) led “Flintock” annual regional exercises, conducted with African and Western counter-terrorism forces. In addition, US marines conducted a three week training of Tunisian special forces on vehicle maintenance and convoy operations in the spring of 2016 (Bias, 2016).

With the aforementioned arrangements, US-Tunisian defence ties have substantially deepened in recent years. Although the strategic significance of the defence cooperation is limited compared to major US allies in the Middle East, it has been one of the most dynamically expanding defence relationships in the region. This has strengthened US influence in Tunisia, especially regarding its security policy and its leverage within the leadership of the armed forces. The defence cooperation with the United States has been crucial at a time of grave challenges for the Tunisian defence sector as it helped manage the capability gaps the Tunisian forces have been facing in light of their increased operational demands.

In the summer of 2015, there were news reports that the United States might be seeking to expand its operations conducted by drones to combat ISIS in Libya, and Tunisia seemed a likely host for a US military base (Entous & Lubold, 2015). According to other sources, Tunisia already began to receive US surveillance systems to establish a new US military station in the north-western town of Hauoaria (Ajroudi, 2015). The US Department of Defence stressed that a potential US military base in North Africa would only serve for surveillance missions and not kinetic ones, and it would be a sovereign host government facility to which the US has access. However, Tunisia has denied any allegations that it will host a US military base. The issue is politically extremely delicate as hosting a US military base would generate significant security risks as well as political ones. The Algerian foreign minister even threatened the Tunisian government with cutting diplomatic relations if a US military base were to be established. Although security cooperation on fighting terrorism between the US and Algeria has remained steady since 2001, mistrust continues to overshadow the relationship, and the Algerian government wants to put a limit on US military engagement around Algeria (Boulter, 2015).

As the news concerning an incidental US military base demonstrates, with its relative stability and openness Tunisia is seen as a possible platform for further US defence engagement, but cooperation has its limits. Tunisia will likely seek to pursue a neutral security policy in regional affairs, and that might not always align completely with the policies of the United States. Furthermore, the United States has begun to reduce its engagement in the MENA region, which will likely continue in the following years under the Trump administration. Hence a greater role for European countries in enhancing Tunisian security and defence might be needed.

Bilateral Defence Arrangements with European Countries

As in the case of the EU and NATO, bilateral defence relations with European countries have begun to deepen especially since 2015. As a former colonial and a major Mediterranean power, France historically has the closest relationship with Tunisia among the European powers, and this endures today. France has established close military and security ties with Tunisia throughout the previous decades and has been one of the main arms supplier of the Tunisian armed forces. French support has traditionally focused on counter-terrorism and maritime security issues, which has remained so in light of the changing security environment of the post-Arab Spring era.  

The two countries have raised their cooperation to a new level in recent years in light of the growing threat posed by terrorism. In 2014 France sold six EC725 Caracal military transport helicopters to Tunis worth €300 million (Lahmidi, 2014). During a visit of the Tunisian defence minister to Paris in October 2015 the two countries finalised a new counter-terrorism cooperation programme. The military assistance package was worth €20 million and lists the following priorities: joint exercises, planning and execution of operations of special forces, French assistance in the formation of new Tunisian special forces, assistance in training and equipment and military intelligence sharing. France has also trained hundreds of Tunisian military officers in recent years and helped establish a military training centre in Gafsa (Burwell et al, 2016). Overall, Paris continues to play a key role next to the United States in Tunisia’s defence partnerships.

The United Kingdom is also assisting the Tunisian armed forces in multiple areas. Britain is especially interested in helping Tunisia combat terrorism as 30 of the casualties of the terrorist attack in Sousse were British citizens. In recent years UK military personnel have provided training in mobile patrolling and surveillance, focused on enhancing Tunisia’s border protection capabilities. In 2015, the UK also sent 50 special forces as trainers to help improve the counter-terrorism efforts of the Tunisian armed forces (Giannangelli, 2015).The UK-Tunisian joint military commission is set to identify other areas for potential new cooperation in the following years alongside the existing border security and intelligence sharing programmes. 

Germany has also increased defence assistance to Tunisia in recent years though there is still room for improving the cooperation and for a greater German contribution to Tunisia’s security. Seeking to demonstrate a long-term commitment towards Tunisia, Germany established a security partnership with Tunis in 2012. The German government has recently provided Tunisia with military equipment, including electronic equipment and armoured personnel carriers worth €10 million (Tagba, 2016). The sum is provided by a special fund worth €100 million, which the German government set aside to assist partner countries in Africa and the Middle East on security issues (Hoffmann, 2015).

It is worth noting that apart from supporting Tunisian defence forces Germany is also contributing with financial and technical resources to assist Tunisian internal security forces in their effort to increase border security. In this regard, Germany has provided €1.7 million of security equipment, including bomb suits, bomb disposal robots, trace explosives detection equipment and nearly 30 off-road vehicles. In light of the aforementioned programmes and assistance Germany is indeed increasing its involvement in Tunisia’s security. However, as in many other international security and defence issues, it still does not live up to its full potential.

As a country significantly affected by the instability in North Africa, Italy is also providing defence support for Tunisia. However, due to Italy’s internal economic challenges and the heavy burden the migrant crisis is putting on the country, its opportunities for providing considerable defence assistance are limited. As early as 2011, Italy pledged to build and supply the Tunisian National Guard and Navy with patrol boats to help strengthen border controls. Under the deal, Italy delivered 12 patrol boats capable of carrying out counter-piracy, anti-smuggling and trafficking patrols along Tunisia’s coastline. With regard to military training and education, Italy is also willing to make the experience of its military training centres available to Tunisia, as a high level Italian defence official announced in early 2016.

Another European country also significantly exposed to Jihadist terrorism, Belgium, has recently also strengthened its security relationship with Tunisia. In 2015, defence officials of both countries and the joint military committee identified two main areas of defence cooperation, training programmes between the military academies and the exchange of intelligence and technical cooperation between special forces. The latter mission, identified as Operation Griffin, involves a 15-strong Belgian special forces unit deployed to Tunisia supplying a broad spectrum of training ranging from the handling of improvised explosive devices to the protection of airfields (Gain, 2016).

Other European countries also have defence ties with Tunisia, although they are less significant. In terms of arms trade, the Czech Republic, Austria and Spain are three countries worthy of mention, as they are among the top suppliers of military equipment to Tunisia. The value of licences issued for arms export from the Czech Republic in 2014 (European External Action Service, 2015) and from Austria in 2015 exceeded all other similar European arrangements (European Commission, 2016). Other European nations are contributing to the political and institutional reforms and capacity building in Tunisia. Switzerland has assisted Tunisia in providing training for Tunisian experts in the SSR context, with a special focus on creating greater parliamentary scrutiny of the armed forces (Watanabe, 2015), while the Netherlands was active in providing training for experts and diplomats (Government of the Netherlands, 2013).

However, it is not only Western countries that are engaging Tunisia. Following Russia’s military entry into the Syrian conflict in 2014, the security and defence ties of Moscow with the Maghreb have also intensified. Political dialogue on security issues such as terrorism and security in the Middle East began to intensify after Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki visited Moscow in March 2014. However, possible cooperation on defence matters came up only recently. The first news of Russian interest in providing military helicopters to Tunisia and cooperation in military training emerged in October 2015 (Chaabne, 2015), and after a visit by the Tunisian minister of foreign affairs in Moscow in 2016, it was reported that Russia pledged to provide helicopters, night vision googles and bullet proof vests to Tunisian security and defence forces, (Nkala, 2016). Tunisia’s rapprochement towards Moscow has several reasons. Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East has been noticed in Tunis as well, and the Tunisian government wants to have better relations with one of the key stakeholders in the region. Concerning the possible arms transfers, the Russian option can also be interpreted as a bargaining chip towards Western partners to show that in certain cases Tunisia has alternatives.

Defence Arrangements with Neighbouring Algeria and Libya

As Tunisia’s largest neighbour with one of the most capable militaries in the region and a shared border of 965 kilometres, defence cooperation with Algeria is crucial for Tunisia. Algeria has faced a significant threat from Islamist extremism since the early 1990s, but the terrorist attack against a gas facility near the Algerian town of Amenas by al-Qaeda linked terrorists from Libya in 2013 was a strong signal of the severity of the threat.[12] Therefore, Jihadist terrorism is a vital common concern for the two countries. Border security in connection with the movement of terrorist networks and militants, especially in Tunisia’s Kasserine region and the Jebel Chambi Mountain, is also a focal point of security cooperation (Racelma, 2013).

In the summer of 2013 a security agreement was concluded between the two countries, which paved the way for military coordination on the fight against terrorism and militant networks. As a result, shortly after the deal was concluded, 12,000 Algerian military troops (Khalid, 2015) tracked down insurgents on border areas and prevented the infiltration of armed elements into Algeria helping Tunisian security forces in their operations in the region (Shabbi, 2014). During these operations, exchange of intelligence was also systematic. Since then the two countries have had several high level meetings to strengthen their cooperation. In the summer of 2015, the two countries agreed to further broaden their security cooperation, including on defence issues. These included plans for coordinated military operations and Algerian assistance in counter-terrorism tactics. Tunisia also briefed Algeria on its new security agreement with the United States, assuring Algiers that Tunisia will not host any US bases or troops permanently on its territory. However, the relations between the two governments have not been without tensions. Tunisian officials have publicly suggested on several occasions in recent years that the terrorist attacks were carried out by groups with connections to Algerian militants. The Algerian government perceived these statements as false allegations and strongly condemned them.  

Tunisia has also been interested in working with Libya on security matters. However, the instability and political uncertainty in the neighbouring country significantly reduces the effectiveness of any cooperation. Libya and Tunisia are both signatories of the Rabat declaration on border security, signed in 2013 by countries in the Maghreb and the Sahel. Although most of the provisions under the agreement cover issues delegated to the Ministry of the Interior, the references on specialised training in border security and use of advanced technologies also affect the armed forces involved in such missions. Enhancing border security was also the main focus of a summit in Ghadames in January 2013 between the Algerian, Tunisian and Libyan prime ministers, where the leaders agreed on a coordinated security strategy to enhance the security of their common borders (Bakrania, 2014).

Defence Arrangements with Countries in the Middle East

Since the revolution, Tunisia has been seeking to forge new defence arrangements in the wider region, especially with powerful and wealthy states in the Middle East. While Tunisia is primarily seeking financial and technical assistance to improve its defence capabilities, countries in the Persian Gulf and Turkey are interested in gaining influence in the Maghreb and fighting those Islamist extremist groups that pose a threat to their own security as well. As a result of Tunisia’s engagement towards the region, Tunisia ratified security cooperation agreements with the United Arab Emirates in October 2011, Turkey in October 2013 and Qatar in June 2014 and signed a security agreement with Saudi Arabia in December 2015. As previously noted, Tunisia’s current leadership is orienting primarily towards Saudi Arabia and the UAE in terms of regional geopolitics. Although Tunisia does not present a vital security concern for regional Arab powers such as the Gulf States and Egypt, it is viewed as an important stakeholder in Libya and a source of political support for wider geopolitical objectives, such as confronting Islamist political movements and Shiite forces in the region.   

Relations between Tunisia and Saudi Arabia had initially been tense after the fall of Ben Ali. The Ennahda-led Troika government in Tunis was seen as too close to Turkey and Qatar, and also supported Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, all of which contradicted Saudi interests (Santini, 2016). The rapprochement between the two nations began after the coup against President Morsi in the summer of 2013. As a result, Ennahda gradually shifted its strategy to a more moderate and pragmatic approach towards regional powers, while Saudi Arabia also opened up towards Sunni political forces in the region in light of its deteriorating relations with Iran (Santini, 2016). The victory of Nidaa Tounes in the elections of October 2014 and the election of President Essebsi gave a further boost to intensified cooperation. The aforementioned political developments fostered security and defence relations.

As a sign of growing shared security interests, Tunisia was among the 35 nations that joined the Saudi-led Islamic coalition against terrorism established in December 2015. However, Tunis excluded the possibility of participating with military forces in the coalition. Riyadh established the coalition among Sunni majority Islamic states in order to better coordinate responses to terrorism and regional instability, although the move was viewed by many as an informal alliance against Iran and its allies in the region (Aziz, 2016).

Tunisia is also broadening its bilateral security arrangements with Saudi Arabia. During Tunisian President Essebsi’s visit to Riyadh in December 2015 the two countries signed an agreement on civil protection and civil defence, among others. In order to find ways for increased defence cooperation, a delegation of high level Tunisian military officers accompanied the president and had a meeting with senior Saudi defence officials. During the visit the two countries also signed an agreement on military and security cooperation. In this regard, a joint military commission was established, which will meet every two years. Furthermore, the two countries will also cooperate in military training as Tunisia will host Saudi officers for one year training programmes. Additionally, Saudi Arabia also offered 48 F5 military planes to Tunisia. One of the results of the defence agreements was Tunisian participation in a joint military training organised by Riyadh in February 2016 involving 150,000 troops from 20 Arab countries.

However, the geopolitical relevance of Tunisia remains limited for Saudi Arabia. The Persian Gulf remains the strategic priority for the Saudi Kingdom, alongside the conflicts in Yemen and Syria. The security cooperation with Tunisia is only likely to grow significantly if the security situation in Tunisia or Libya further deteriorates and the Saudi Kingdom has the resources to allocate more assistance to the Maghreb, which is questionable in light of the economic and security challenges Riyadh faces (Sons & Wiese, 2015).  

The United Arab Emirates has similar interests in Tunisia to Saudi Arabia, and it has been engaging the country actively with political and security issues in recent years. Defence cooperation, which included material as well as financial support, between the two nations has been even more robust than with the Saudi Kingdom. In 2015, the UAE offered Black Hawk helicopters for temporary use to Tunisia until the American Back Hawks arrive and are ready to be deployed. In addition, the UAE is said to have financed the purchase of French military equipment for the Tunisian armed forces (Malbruno, 2015). Furthermore, personal links between Tunisian and UAE military officials are said to be strong. With its robust support, the UAE not only wishes to strengthen Tunisian defence capacities for regional security reasons but it is seeking to gain influence on Tunisia’s policies towards Libya where the UAE is an important stakeholder (Sons & Wiese, 2015).

Tunisia has strengthened its security ties with other Middle Eastern countries as well. Recent agreements on defence cooperation were signed with Bahrein, Jordan, Kuwait (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tunisia, 2015), while security agreements were established with Qatar and Morocco. The defence arrangement with Kuwait covers areas such as military training and the cooperation between the armed forces, logistics services, exchange of experts in various military fields, military intelligence and information technology cooperation, among others. These arrangements have foremost political value due to the respective countries’ small size and/or limited resources, though sharing of information on intelligence and related matters does have important practical benefits.  

Turkish-Tunisian relations quickly started to expand after the revolution in 2011. For many Tunisians and especially for members of the Ennahda movement Turkey was seen as a model for an economically prospering, democratic, Muslim majority country. On the other hand, Turkey was seeking to capitalise on the Arab Spring and strengthen its influence in North Africa. High level visits between the two countries intensified, including a much publicised visit by the then Prime Minister Erdogan to Tunisia in October 2011 (Yaşar, 2014). During the summer of 2012, the two countries signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation and later that year established a High Level Strategic Cooperation Council, which laid down the basis for cooperation on a wide range of areas, including security and defence (Yaşar, 2014). However, political relations began to weaken throughout 2013-2014 after Nidaa Tounes ascended to power in Tunis and sought to re-establish strong ties with traditional Arab partners while decreasing ties with Turkey and Qatar. Turkey’s political clout also began to fade in Tunisia in light of the AKP’s authoritarian tendencies and its increasing conflicts with its neighbours. Despite these developments, the political relations remain consistent and the economic relationship continues to be strong. In 2015, Tunisia remained the biggest recipient of Turkish foreign aid at $44 million (Yalman, 2016), while trade volume stood at nearly $1 billion with a slight backdrop from the previous year (Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2016).

The defence cooperation between Turkey and Tunisia is based on the security cooperation agreement signed in October 2013. As Turkey’s armed forces have been occupied with internal security roles and border protection, the focus of defence cooperation is on arms transfers. Through its robust defence industry Turkey is active in selling military equipment to the Tunisian armed forces and in the modernisation of the Tunisian military industry. Major arms transfers in recent years included armoured vehicles, thermal weapon sights and surveillance systems (Gürson, 2014). Industrial cooperation related to the defence sector involving Turkish companies included production of steel vests, steel helmets, bulletproof shields, marine radar and damage control simulator and personal equipment for special forces (Gürson, 2014). In light of these developments, Turkey will likely continue to be an important security and defence partner for Tunisia but it will play only a secondary role compared to Tunisia’s traditional Western and Arab partners.


As Tunisia has been going through a major transition in recent years and faces increasing security challenges, it has intensified its efforts to establish new defence arrangements. The relative stability of Tunisia, the common international interest in making the transition a success story, the security challenges and renewed power competition in the MENA region have made major powers interested in engaging Tunisia on defence matters.

From a Tunisian perspective, the primary objectives of building these partnerships is to improve the operational capabilities of its armed forces in light of the daunting security challenges the country is facing, especially terrorism and border security. The acquisition of new military equipment and the wide-ranging capacity building measures has had a considerable positive impact on the capabilities and operational readiness of the Tunisian armed forces. 

Traditional Western partners such as the United States and France still play a dominant role concerning Tunisian defence matters, reflected in the depth of the bilateral defence relationships and in the value and volume of arms transfers to Tunisia. However, there have been steps taken towards diversifying defence relationships, especially with regards to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Although these defence partnerships have the potential to further expand in the coming years, they will likely not replace the defence ties with traditional Western partners. In general, bilateral defence relationships, especially with Western nations, are crucial in direct financial, material and operational support for the Tunisian defence forces. However, when it comes to institutional capacity building, improving organisational management, and raising the quality of the skills of the Tunisian military personnel, multilateral formats such as NATO, the EU and the G7+5 provide crucial support.

Looking forward, the United States and its European allies will have a continued interest in combating terrorism and in managing the migration crisis in North Africa. Furthermore, their still considerable political and military power provides the means for a continued security and military engagement in the region. Although Russian interest towards the Maghreb is growing, its influence and interests are not as strong as in the Levant.      

In terms of Tunisia’s defence relations with major Arab powers in the Gulf, they are expanding but have their limits, as Tunisia does not want to get involved too much in the power politics of the Middle East. Tunisian participation in the Islamic Coalition led by Saudi Arabia but its refusal to participate in any military operation with the coalition clearly reflects this approach. Turkey will remain an important partner in terms of defence acquisition and industrial cooperation, but Ankara will likely not be able to gain such influence in Tunisia, which it envisioned at the early stages of the Arab Spring. In the current political context, Tunisia’s security and defence policy will probably continue to develop along the lines of neutrality and pragmatism, and therefore it will seek to build balanced relationships with major powers as well as with key stakeholders in the region.


[1] The most notable terrorist incidents of recent years include the attack on the Bardo Museum in June 2015, the attack on Sousse at a tourist resort in June the same year, and the attack on Ben Gardane in March 2016.

[2] The stronghold of the Ansar al-Sharia as well as of other radical Islamist groups is the country’s mountainous region on the border with Algeria, known as the Kasserine region and the Jebel Chambi Mountain (Hanlon & Herbert, 2015).

[3] Based on interviews with NATO and EU officials.

[4] Based on interviews with NATO and EU officials.

[5] £500 GBP million provided by the UK and $300 USD million provided by Japan. 

[6] €1.2 billion in grants and €800 million in macro-financial assistance (European Commission, 2016).

[7] Support for the modernisation of the Tunisian defence sector by the EU for 2014-2015 was €23 million (European Commission, 2015a).

[8] Based on interviews with EU officials.

[9] Based on interviews with NATO officials.

[10] Based on interviews with EU and NATO officials.

[11] Section 1206 gives the Secretary of Defence the authority to train and equip foreign military forces for counter-terrorism purposes or for assisting US forces in military and stability operations (Serafino, 2013).

[12] A 32 member al-Qaeda linked armed group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar seized the gas facility near Amenas and killed 39 hostages (Chirafis et al, 2013).


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