Tensions in Western Sahara usually escalate around March and April, the period when conflicting parties look forward to the UN’s annual report on the conflict. But this year feels different.
Rabat – As diplomats and international observers put all their Western Sahara hopes in the basket of the Horst Kohler-led settlement process, recent reports indicate defiant military maneuverings from Polisario militias.
Coupling PR returns with military provocations
Algeria’s official news agency APS reported late last week that the Polisario Front, under the supervision of “President” Ibrahim Ghali, deployed military convoys in Mehriz, east of the Moroccan defense wall. With no reference to Algiers-Polisario ties, APS simply cited pro-Polisario media reports, explaining that the deployment was a military exercise.
While the move is set to sound alarm bells in Rabat, it may come across in the wider international community more as a surprise than an ill-timed provocation.
Just a month ago, the four parties concerned with the Sahara dispute—Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and the Polisario Front—met at a round table of peace talks held in Geneva.
And although fears of escalation never fully vanished, partly due to the perception that the Geneva meeting was not conclusive, there were high hopes that the regained diplomatic momentum under Horst Kohler would prevent another decades-long standoff and lead to substantive diplomatic overtures.
For Moroccan outlet Al Ahdath, however, the front is setting out to blatantly challenge the UN-imposed status-quo, and there is more to its recent moves than mere surprise. The separatist group’s actions are “well-prepared” provocations meant to exert more influence on the coming agendas in the ongoing settlement discussions, the paper elaborated.
As the news comes just a few months away from both the second Geneva meeting and the UN-Security Council’s meeting on the Sahara affair, the provocations are meant to drag Rabat into a military, hawkish confrontation.
In doing so, the front will prove its most important selling point to the international community: Rabat is not interested in brokering a lasting and mutually acceptable settlement.
Having made Rabat relatively uneasy with Algeria-sponsored assertive PR campaigns and an arguably Morocco-defying US foreign policy establishment, the front is seizing its chances to make Rabat lose its composure, Al Ahdath suggested. Should Rabat join the front in beating the war drums, it may undermine its recent diplomatic gains.
Waiting for Morocco
But until when will Rabat play along?
Moroccan surveillance and security services intercepted images of the front’s “provocative military actions” in the buffer zones.
Images from Morocco’s surveillance satellite, coupled with “reinforced personnel” in the southern provinces facilitated the interception of Polisario’s moves, Al Massae noted.
Like Al Ahdath, Al Massae suggested that the strategic depth of the front’s move is to reinforce the perception that Morocco, with a stronger military, is poised to respond to minor provocations with a heavy-handed display of its military might.
That perception, the report maintained, would play in favor of the separatist front’s occupier-victims narrative which wipes Algeria out of the picture and only presents Morocco as confronting a weaker foe.
The paper reported, however, that Morocco has been deploying a number of military materials, including armored vehicles, jet fighters, and tanks in the vicinity of the airport in Dakhla, where Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces are preparing for “important military exercises” scheduled for the coming weeks.