Washington D.C. - Since the meeting of the interior and foreign affairs ministers with the joint committee of the parliament in charge of foreign policy on Sunday, April 1, we have witnessed a proliferation of statements by Moroccan officials on Morocco’s determination to repel any Polisario attempt to change the status of the buffer zone in the Western Sahara.
Washington D.C. – Since the meeting of the interior and foreign affairs ministers with the joint committee of the parliament in charge of foreign policy on Sunday, April 1, we have witnessed a proliferation of statements by Moroccan officials on Morocco’s determination to repel any Polisario attempt to change the status of the buffer zone in the Western Sahara.
This new official rhetoric is characterized by Morocco’s willingness to respond in force, should the Polisario follow through on its recent threats to impose fait accompli in the region, specifically relocating part of the front’s “Ministry of Defense” to the Bir Lahlou area.
Morocco’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Omar Hilale, could not be more clear in the letter he sent Sunday evening to the president of the Security Council for the month of April. The Moroccan diplomat declared that any attempt by the Polisario to change the status quo in the region would constitute a cause for war.
This remark has raised several questions across the country: Does Morocco really intend to engage in an armed confrontation against the Polisario? If this is the case, why choose to do so less than four weeks before the UN Security Council renews the MINURSO mandate, and what would be the consequences for both parties in the event of an armed confrontation?
Urging the Security Council to put more pressure on the Polisario
Apart from the patriotic revival that events of such magnitude could cause among Moroccans, if we pause a moment to analyze the context in which Morocco decided to threaten the Polisario with armed conflict, we will realize that the region is still far from the brink of a new war over the Sahara.
The context in which Morocco has decided to beef up its rhetoric and demonstrate its readiness to resort to war is telling as to its intended outcome. Rabat resolved to go on the offensive three days after the publication of the advanced copy of the annual report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
In the report, which could be described as rather favorable to Morocco, the Secretary-General expresses his concern about the ongoing presence of the Polisario in the buffer zone of Guerguerate and urges the front to evacuate the zone as in April 2017. At the same time, the Secretary-General welcomed the measured response of Morocco to Polisario’s actions in the buffer zone.
Antonio Guterres’s new report creates a positive momentum for Morocco a few weeks before the Security Council adopts a new resolution on the conflict. Wanting to take advantage of this new momentum, Morocco has decided to escalate its rhetoric to push the Council to harden its stance with the Polisario compared to the previous year. This time around, Morocco not only wants to stop the Polisario’s incursions in the Guerguerate, but also to prevent it from changing the status quo in the whole area located east and south of Morocco’s defense wall.
On the eve of the adoption of the annual Security Council resolution last year, the Polisario announced in extremis its decision to withdraw from the Guerguerate. The draft resolution that the Security Council was about to adopt on April 27, 2017, welcomed Morocco’s withdrawal from the buffer zone, and expressed its deep concern over the Polisario’s ongoing presence. In addition, the draft resolution strongly urged the Polisario to evacuate the region within 30 days and asked the Secretary-General to brief it on the subject and recommend next steps.
But just as the security council was preparing to vote on the resolution, the Polisario sent a letter to its members, informing them of its decision to redeploy its armed elements outside Guerguerate. Thanks to this decision, the separatist movement managed to avoid the adoption of a resolution that would have exposed it to sanctions in case non-compliance with the provisions of the ceasefire agreement.
Since the adoption of resolution 2351, the Polisario has repeatedly made incursions in the Guerguerat area and elsewhere in the buffer zone, due to the absence of strong and binding language of the resolution.
Moroccan diplomats identified the Polisario’s last-minute decision as a stratagem that would mean repeat incursions into the buffer zone.
On the same day that the Polisario informed the security council of its decision to redeploy its armed elements, Morocco expressed dissatisfaction and insisted that “a simple redeployment does not constitute a withdrawal of the Polisario from the zone.” In the letter that Morocco’s Permanent Representative of Morocco to the UN sent to the UN Security Council, he expressed the hope that “neither MINURSO nor the Department of Peacekeeping Operations will fall for [this] masquerade.”
Morocco’s announcement that all options are open, including war, is, therefore, part of a strategy to push the Council to take a strong stance on the Polisario and adopt a resolution containing a binding language. This would serve as a deterrent and permit an appropriate response in case the Polisario tries, once again, to change the status quo of the region or violate the ceasefire and the military agreement 1.
A context favorable to Morocco
Morocco also seeks to take advantage of two important factors:
1) The Security Council is chaired by Peru, a country that has shown positive intentions towards Morocco in recent times. Peru expelled the so-called ambassador of Polisario last September. It is very likely that the President of the Council will convene one or two meetings to discuss the latest developments on the ground.
2) Unlike in previous years and last year, the composition of the security council is favorable to Morocco. Besides the five permanent members, among the ten non-permanent members of the Council, Bolivia and Ethiopia are the only countries that recognize the self-proclaimed SADR. This is a policy boon compared to last year, when the security council had four countries recognizing the Polisario state: Namibia, Ethiopia, Bolivia, and Uruguay. The latter two fiercely opposed the firm language of the first draft resolution proposed by the United States, and pressured the Council to adopt a more balanced resolution in response.
There is no doubt that the dynamics of the negotiations in the security council will be favorable to Morocco this year. Though it is expected that Bolivia will remain resolutely opposed to Morocco, it is likely that Ethiopia will adopt a nuanced position, given the revival of diplomatic relations between Rabat and Addis Ababa. During the negotiations that preceded the adoption of resolution 2351, Ethiopia was careful not to take positions hostile to Morocco and it is likely that it will adopt the same position this year.
No war on the horizon
In light of the above information, what we are witnessing is the adoption of well thought-out strategy of Moroccan diplomacy whose ultimate goal is to force the Polisario to put an end to its provocations in the region. At the same time, Morocco seeks also to reorient the debate within Security Council and negotiations surrounding the conflict ahead of the adoption of the new resolution, in order to challenge the legitimacy of the Polisario and its readiness to reach a mutually-acceptable political solution.
That being said, one thing is clear: Morocco has no interest in engaging in an armed conflict with the Polisario. Such a scenario would open a diplomatic Pandora’s box that would serve the Polisario’s long-term goal of mobilizing international public opinion in its favor. Morocco has less interest in engaging in an armed conflict with the Polisario now that John Bolton has been appointed as National Security Advisor in President Donald Trump’s cabinet; the hawkish designate will likely blur the US position on the conflict, as Bolton is known for sympathizing with the Polisario.Morocco has every interest in avoiding steps that could disrupt the balance of power in the region.
The strategy that Morocco has successfully maintained since the signing of the ceasefire in 1991 has served to preserve and control the status quo of the conflict, with largely successful results and few setbacks. Diplomatic efforts would do well to continue this approach, as any outbreak of armed conflict would completely change the situation and put Morocco under pressure.