On October 21, groups of Polisario Front’s supporters blocked the highway at Guergarat, 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 — the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Río de Oro, the rebel movement fighting for the independence of the former Spanish territory of Western Sahara, now under Rabat’s control — effectively blocking transportation between Morocco, Mauritania and countries further south. Moroccan troops responded quickly and cleared the road so that more than 100 trucks could resume carrying goods. The Polisario claimed no knowledge of the action and labeled Morocco’s response as an “act of war.”
The Sahrawis: Obstacles to Self-Determination
What happens next could determine the fate of the 29-year-old ceasefire that marked the cessation of hostilities and the beginning of UN efforts to resolve the status of the territory that Morocco claims is part of its kingdom. While Rabat has offered broad autonomy to the region under its sovereignty, the Polisario Front and its backer, 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.
So far, 16 African countries, the UAE and Jordan have opened consulates in the region, providing Morocco with crucial international support for its territorial claims. As per Al Jazeera, “The strategy has been effective: Out of 84 countries that previously recognized the Polisario, 44 recently rescinded their support and recognition.”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 are lingering questions of why (and why now), of what the end game is, and of why Algeria and the Polisario are of one mind on this latest conflict?
The UN is now on alert despite the lack of a special envoy to monitor the crisis after 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. Among the Arab states, only Algeria condemned Morocco’s reaction to the blockade. The war of words continues.
For years, supporters on 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 and credible” by the US and many others. While in the Polisario camp, its youth are 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 than the present doldrums.
To some analysts, this is what lies at the core of the current tension — actions by a small group of unhappy camp-dwellers, fed up with the cronyism and corruption of the leadership. The Polisario Front and Algeria had no option but to follow behind this tiny minority 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, sees this as a way to help relieve some of the dissonance at home. However, this does not seem to be working as there have been no public expressions of support for the Polisario’s announced withdrawal from the ceasefire.
Similarly, the Polisario elite, who have refined their autocratic leadership and kleptomania for more than four decades, 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 formal negotiations to resolve the conflict.
The UN, the United States and France, the major international players at the scene, 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 the modus operandi here goes along the lines that if no crisis exists, there is no point in starting something that no one wants to intervene in. In his statement, UN Secretary-General António Guterres voiced “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.”
No Simple Way
There is no simple way forward or return to the status quo without Algeria facing up to its role in sponsoring the Polisario Front for over 40 years and enabling some kind of diplomatic movement. In the words of the Organization for World Peace, “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 Front returns to the ceasefire agreement. It should also 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 movement going on now for more than a year.
Finally, the incoming Biden administration in Washington — quite familiar with the Western Sahara as it is comprised of many members of the Obama administration, which was a strong supporter of delaying any proactive US push to resolve the conflict — should understand the larger potential disaster if regional destabilization accelerates, terrorist cells expand from ungoverned spaces, and other players agitate for their own interests in the area. This is not the best scenario for starting out the new US administration’s North Africa strategy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.