Casablanca - Tension between Morocco and the Polisario has escalated since July 2016 and is now threatening the entire region with armed conflict.
Casablanca – Tension between Morocco and the Polisario has escalated since July 2016 and is now threatening the entire region with armed conflict.
A Civil Anti-Smuggling Operation
Rabat dispatched 10 elements of Morocco’s gendarmerie in July 2016 to the region of Guerguerat at the border with Mauritania. The mission aimed at fighting the thriving smuggling in the area.
This decision prompted the Polisario Front to send two letters to the United Nations accusing Morocco of violating the ceasefire agreement signed between Morocco and the Polisario after 16 years of armed conflict. After conducting its investigation, the UN Mission to Western Sahara concluded that Morocco had not breached the ceasefire. This did not stop the Front from deploying its militias in the region.
Morocco and the United Nations On the Same Page
Morocco debunked the story propagated by the Polisario after a government cabinet meeting on August 30. It stated that the intervention of the Moroccan gendarmerie attempted to deal with the “danger of insecurity” that the drug trafficking posed on the region, and that the operation was “in coordination with MUNIRSO.”
Soon after, Morocco undertook the construction of a road, which the UN tacitly approved. Morocco’s permanent representative to the UN, Omar Hilale pointed out that the operation was entirely “civil” in nature and limited in time. Again, the Polisario sent around 34 armed combatants to hinder the building of the road, and the forces of the parties were face-to-face. This caused the UN and the African Union to express concerns over the situation.
Morocco’s Commitment to Diplomatic Solution
During a press conference at the UN headquarters in New York last September, Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affair, Salaheddine Mezouar, announced that MINURSO was “fully functional.” Morocco had previously expelled MINURSO from its territory in reaction to the former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon’s mention of “occupation” when talking about the situation in the Moroccan Sahara, which many analysts deemed as a dangerous diplomatic gaffe with no basis in law.
By readmitting MINURSO, Morocco sought to affirm its commitment to diplomacy in solving the crisis. The Polisario, however, proved that it does not share this commitment especially when its president, Brahim Ghali, went to Lagouira in the southernmost part of Moroccan Sahara after admitted entry by the Mauritanian authorities.
This provocative tactic had the obvious aim of distracting Morocco from its endeavors to rejoin the African Union after 33 years of separation. The separation from the African organization in 1984 came as a response to the admission of this very entity, which Algeria had lobbied for.
Morocco’s Fast Paced South-South Cooperation
Morocco’s new-but-old South-South cooperation that resulted in the signing of groundbreaking economic and diplomatic agreements with countries in East and West Africa is quite insightful in understanding the tension in Guerguerat. Through this line of diplomacy, Morocco has quickly built strong connections with numerous African nations that not only diffused its influence and expand its strategic depth in Africa, but also scaled down Algeria’s influence in the continent. The outcome of this was that a number of countries withdrew their recognition of the so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (RASD).
Therefore, the Polisario’s maneuvers in Guerguerat can be seen as an attempt to divert Morocco’s attention from its external diplomacy in Africa to the tension on the southern border. Or even worse, to instigate an actual armed conflict, as keeping up with Morocco at the diplomatic level is out of Algeria’s reach, let alone the Polisario which would not have survived to this date had it not been for the support it has received from Algeria.
The Polisario’s Barefaced Provocations
Following a phone conversation between the new UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and the Moroccan Monarch, King Mohammed VI, Morocco announced on February 26 a unilateral and unconditional withdrawal from Guerguerat in response to the UN’s request.
This decision was hailed by France, Spain, the US, the UN, and the EU and completely confused the Front. The Front refused to comply with the UN’s numerous requests to pull back from the area, even after Antonio Guterres dispatched on March 2 the Head of MINURSO, Kim Bolduc, and the Commander of the MINURSO forces, Wang Xiaojun, to Tindouf discuss the front’s withdrawal. In fact, Mohammed Khaddad, the senior official of the Front, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on March 5 that the Polisario would not withdraw from Guerguerat.
Most recently, Moroccan truck drivers documented an illegal checkpoint imposed by Polisario-armed militants on the road to Algeria. At gunpoint, the drivers were forced to remove the Moroccan road tax disc and license plate from all vehicles, and told them to either “comply with the directives or die.” This demonstrates the Front’s –and Algeria’s- diplomatic bankruptcy and readiness to disregard the ceasefire and all international laws and regulations.