Due to the politics inherent to the Security Council, the chances that the UN will eventually broker a political solution that meets the demands of all parties in Western Sahara are very slim.
Washington D.C. – The Wall Street Journal’s report on the Trump administration’s stance on Western Sahara has brought the issue back to the front of international consciousness, three months after the Security Council adopted Resolution 2468. The resolution renewed the United Nations mission in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, for six months until October 31, 2019.
The last three months have been marked by a stalemate in the political process, especially after the resignation of Horst Kohler, the personal envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the Western Sahara.
The most important point in the Wall Street Journal report is the US government’s refusal to establish an independent state in southern Morocco. Although the report’s author did not explicitly mention which US entity stressed Washington’s opposition to the establishment of a new state in southern Morocco, what he said dispels the fears Morocco has had since the appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser to the US president.
Bolton can’t effectively oppose Morocco
Bolton’s positions on Western Sahara are well-known. He supports resolving the conflict through a referendum on its status, and he helped draft the 1991 settlement agreement leading to the ceasefire and the 2001 and 2003 proposals of the Secretary-General’s personal envoy, James Baker. Given this, observers in Morocco were concerned that the UN-sponsored political process would witness an unprecedented shift in favor of Algeria and Polisario.
However, almost 18 months after John Bolton‘s appointment as national security adviser, events proved that no matter how strong a US official’s personality and positions on any issue may be, they cannot go it alone or take positions contrary to US interests. Neither can they make decisions without the traditional interagency review, involving agencies like the State Department and the Department of Defense.
The US decision-making process on foreign policy is complex and subject to checks and balances. Any major foreign policy decisions should align with the general orientation of US foreign policy and the country’s strategic interests.
In an analysis published in September last year, I had stressed that Bolton’s appointment would not adversely affect Morocco’s interests and its consistent position on the Sahara issue. I argued that the White House is not the only player in the decision-making process, and that this process is subject to lengthy internal debates involving many stakeholders within the US government: the White House, the State Department, and the Department of Defense. And we cannot forget the influential role of Congress.
In the case of Morocco, given the country’s strong relations with the US and its role in maintaining the stability of North Africa and the Sahel and in combating terrorism and extremism, it is unlikely that the United States would make a decision that could undermine Morocco’s position on Western Sahara.
US fears instability in Western Sahara
The prevailing impression of many US observers is that the creation of a state in southern Morocco could destabilize the region, making it even more exposed to the threat of terrorism, possibly jeopardizing US interests in North Africa, the Sahel, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Behind the scene deliberations in the Security Council over the past 18 months have shown that Morocco has not only been able to prevent any development contradicting its consistent position, but has also been able to achieve new gains. The most important achievement has been the inclusion of Algeria in recent Security Council Resolutions 2440 and 2468 and the Security Council’s gradual shift to considering Algeria as a key party in the conflict.
Morocco has also maintained the support of the US House of Representatives despite it being under the Democratic party’s control following the November 2018 elections.
Given the position that successive US administrations have taken on Western Sahara, including those of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, the Wall Street Journal’s report should not be regarded as a new breakthrough, but as reflecting an established fact.
In an interview with Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan in April, former Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz pointed out that the United States and Europe do not support the idea of a state between Morocco and Mauritania. He said that behind the scenes, negotiations over the dispute are in Morocco’s favor.
How the US views the Autonomy Plan
A declassified US State Department document, prepared by the Moroccan ambassador and made public in recent months, asserts that the United States was behind the decision to shelve a self-determination referendum and had asked Morocco since 1999 to elaborate an autonomy proposal for Western Sahara under Moroccan sovereignty.
A diplomatic correspondence dated March 2, 2006, from the US embassy in Rabat shows how William Jordan, then director of the US State Department’s Office of Near Eastern Affairs, said during meetings with officials of the Moroccan ministries of foreign affairs and the interior in February 2006 that the United States was waiting, with great interest, for Morocco to unveil its autonomy plan and present it to the Security Council.
During the same meetings, the official explained that the US, like many other countries, believes that the establishment of a state in Western Sahara “was likely unviable and that a more realistic settlement was one that accorded the Sahrawis a significant measure of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.”
Jordan clarified that, after the resignation of UN envoy James Baker, the UN political process entered a new phase and that the US “looked forward with eagerness to Morocco’s autonomy plan so the focus could shift to negotiations.”
This was the context that paved the way for Morocco to submit its Autonomy Plan to the Security Council in April 2007. Since then, the United States has on many occasions expressed its support for the Moroccan Plan considering it “serious, credible and realistic.” The US position did not change even in the most difficult times of Morocco-US relations during President Obama’s second term.
However, while expressing this tacit support for Morocco over the past 10 years, the US has not translated it into an official policy.
Can the US effectively back Morocco?
The question one should ask is if the US was willing to provide unwavering support to Morocco, would it be able to make the Autonomy Plan the basic framework for the UN political process? Based on the past, this goal would be difficult to achieve as the US cannot impose its own views on the other permanent members of the Security Council.
The US’ failed attempts over a decade ago to turn the Moroccan Autonomy Plan into the basis of negotiations gives us a glimpse into what would happen if the Trump administration decided to unambiguously support to Morocco.
In 2007 and 2008, the Bush administration tried to make the Autonomy Plan the basis of the political process. However, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s efforts, prior to the adoption of Resolution 1754 in April 2007 and Resolution 1783 in October 2007, were opposed by Russia, the United Kingdom, as well as Spain in its capacity as a member of the Group of Friends of Western Sahara. Rice’s third attempt to impose Morocco’s proposal in April 2008 had the same outcome.
If the Trump administration tries to impose Morocco’s proposal, it would face the same hurdles.
Assuming that France will support any US decision in favor of Morocco, it is very unlikely that this position would receive Russian backingt, for two important factors: Russia’s friendship with Algeria and opposition to the US.
Russia and Algeria share strong relations, especially at the security, military, and energy levels. Despite all the efforts Morocco has made in recent years to strengthen its ties to Russia, including King Mohammed VI’s visit to Russia in March 2016, Russia is still closer to Algeria.
Relations between Moscow and Algiers grew stronger since President Valdimir Putin’s visit to Algeria in March 2006. During that visit, Russia agreed to write off Algeria’s $4.7 billion debt to Russia on the condition that Algeria spend the same amount on Russian military equipment and services. As a result, Algeria signed a $7.5 billion agreement to buy Russian military hardware. The agreement was regarded as the biggest military contract in Russia’s history since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Between 2006 and 2007, Algeria’s military purchases from Russia totaled $15 billion. In 2011, Algeria signed another defense contract worth $13 billion. According to the Stockholm International Center for Peace Research, Algeria is the biggest Russian arms importer in Africa, absorbing 50% of Russian exports, and was the third in the world between 2007 and 2016. According to Algerian news outlet Tout Sur l’Algérie, 80% of military imports come from Russia.
In addition to the defense sector, the two countries are also linked by an array of cooperation agreements in the fields of trade and investments, the fight against terrorism, nuclear energy, and gas. Algeria and Russia worked hand in hand to stabilize the price of crude oil following the collapse of its price in 2014.
The second factor that will prompt Russia to oppose any US endeavor in line with Morocco’s stance is Russia’s keenness to revive the US-Russia rivalry of the Cold War. In this sense, Russia will thwart any US plan to impose its agenda in areas where Russia seeks to play a key role.
Russia’s commitment was clear when it delayed the vote on Resolution 2414 in April 2018. The draft resolution favored Morocco and sought to hold Polisario responsible for fueling tensions in the region of Guerguerat and the buffer zone. By delaying the vote on the draft resolution, Russia tried to make Morocco share responsibility for the tension.
Russia also abstained from voting on the resolution which, for the first time, called on the parties of the conflict to “to achieve a realistic, practicable and enduring political solution to the question of Western Sahara based on compromise.” Russia adopted the same position on Resolution 2440 and Resolution 2468, which were the first times a Council resolution mentioned Algeria and called on it to play its role in the political process.
It’s up to Morocco and Algeria
Due to the politics inherent to the Security Council, the opposing interests of its five permanent members, and their eagerness to defend the interests of their allies, the chances that the United Nations will eventually broker a political solution that meets the aspirations and demands of all parties are very slim.
It is a foregone conclusion that the solution to this conflict is in the hands of Algeria and Morocco.
As long as Algerian leaders have no political will to turn the page and lay the building blocks for a strong Maghreb Union which offers opportunities for economic integration and sustainable development, there will be no realistic solution to this dispute.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis.