Morocco, the Polisario, and its patron Algeria are sounding war drums over the Sahara. Is this recent skirmish a threat to regional stability or more posturing?
On October 21, groups of Polisario supporters blocked the highway at Guerguerat, in the extreme southwest of the Western Sahara. This is in the buffer zone between territory controlled by Morocco and the land claimed by the Polisario, effectively blocking transportation between Morocco, Mauritania, and countries further south. Moroccan troops responded quickly and cleared the road so that the transportation of goods could resume, with more than 100 trucks waiting to get through. The Polisario claimed no knowledge of the action and labeled Morocco's response as an "act of war."
What happens next could determine the fate of the 29 year-old cease-fire that marked the cessation of hostilities and the beginning of UN efforts to resolve the status of the territory that Morocco claims as part of its kingdom. While Morocco has offered broad autonomy to the region under Moroccan sovereignty, the Polisario and its sponsor Algeria are demanding a referendum that the UN Security Council dropped from its agenda in 2007 after multiple failed attempts at compiling a mutually agreed voter list stymied any credibility for that option.
Sixteen African countries, the UAE, and Jordan have opened consulates in the territory, bolstering Morocco's sovereignty claim with international support. The strategy has been effective: out of 84 countries that previously recognized Polisario, 44 recently rescinded their support and recognition.
Morocco described the blocking of the road by Polisario supporters, allegedly backed by armed fighters, as a breach of the ceasefire. The Polisario said the Moroccan army's entry into the buffer zone had fatally undermined the ceasefire. And so the tension builds. Behind it all are lingering questions such as why now, what is the end game, and are Algeria and the Polisario of one mind on this latest conflict?
The UN is now on alert despite the lack of a special envoy to monitor the crisis. The previous representative resigned last year due to health issues. The African Union has also indicated its concern although it has not proposed a concrete intervention. Algeria is the only Arab state to condemn Morocco's reaction to the blockade, so the war of words continues.
For years, supporters of both sides have indicated displeasure at the lack of formal and realistic negotiations between the parties. Morocco has garnered broad international support for its autonomy proposal, which has been called serious, realistic, and credible by the US and many others. Meanwhile, the younger generation living in the Polisario camps is becoming increasingly restive at the lack of more aggressive action by the leadership to change the status quo and push for independence or something more acceptable that the present doldrums.
To some analysts, this is at the core of the current tension - actions by a small group of unhappy youths, stuck in camps, fed up with the cronyism and corruption of the leadership. The Polisario and Algeria had no option but to follow behind as neither has a better alternative, other than engaging in negotiations. The status quo has many benefits regionally and internationally. First of all, Algeria, which is in a serious domestic crisis with its own people and competing leadership cadres, see the Western Sahara issue as a distraction that can help relieve some of the dissonance with its people. However, it appears to be a less effective rallying point this time as there have been no widespread public expressions of support for the Polisario's announced withdrawal from the cease-fire.
Similarly, the Polisario elite, who have refined their autocratic leadership and kleptomania for more than 40 years, cannot allow the dissidents to draw them into a war that they are neither prepared for nor capable of carrying out effectively. Morocco benefits from the perception that the Polisario, and by inference Algeria, are more interested in fomenting instability in a critical region where terrorism in the neighboring Sahel is of concern, rather than in engaging in a formal negotiations to resolve the conflict.
The UN, the US, and France, the major international players, would be happy with the former status quo as it relieved parties of using diplomatic leverage to move the combatants to proactively engage in peaceful steps for conflict resolution. It has become increasingly obvious that their position is, "if no crisis exists, let's not start one that we don't want to intervene in." In a statement, UN secretary general António Guterres voiced his "grave concerns" surrounding the most recent developments in Western Sahara warning against "violations of the ceasefire and the serious consequences of any changes to the status quo."
There is no simple way forward or a return to the previous status quo without Algeria facing up to its role in sponsoring the Polisario for over 40 years and enabling some kind of diplomatic movement. As the Organization for World Peace commented, "As the Polisario's main backer, Algeria has a responsibility to prevent this situation from escalating or being manipulated by other organizations. Working with Morocco, both sides should encourage a peaceful de-escalation of the current violent rhetoric in order to prevent the conflict from reigniting."
Similarly, Morocco should take no action beyond its setting up a military outpost in the buffer zone until the Polisario returns to the cease-fire agreement; and it should work with the UN to restart formal and comprehensive negotiations on its autonomy proposal. Algeria cannot, for its own domestic reasons, escalate military threats that destabilize the area. It should work to calm the situation so that it can more effectively mediate its own Hirak popular protest movement going on now for more than a year.
Finally, the incoming Biden Administration, quite familiar with the Western Sahara under the Obama Administration as it was a strong supporter of delaying any proactive US push to resolve the conflict, should understand the larger disaster that is possible if regional destabilization accelerates, terrorist cells expand from ungoverned spaces, and other players agitate for their own interests in the area. Not the best scenario for starting out its North Africa strategy.
By Jean R. Abinader