Morocco and the Polisario Front have developed two greatly different approaches to the Western Sahara conflict, and one appears to have garnered more international momentum in recent years.
Rabat – Morocco’s “patience” amid the Polisario Front’s continuous provocations in the buffer zone with Mauritania, specifically Guerguerat, has played out in its favor, according to former Polisario member Mustafa Salma Ould Sidi Mouloud.
Guerguerat and military agreement no. 1
Guerguerat is a town in the buffer zone along the border between Morocco and Mauritania that serves as a gateway from North to Sub-Saharan Africa.
The town has long been the site of turbulence at the hands of the Polisario Front, the Algeria-backed militant group seeking to secure Western Sahara’s “independence” from Morocco.
As part of the buffer zone, Guerguerat is under strict and constant surveillance by the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, MINURSO. However, this has not deterred Polisario from disturbing the town for years.
The latest incident occurred in August, when Polisario elements disrupted civilian and commercial traffic in Guerguerat, prompting a response from the UN the following month.
The UN advised Polisario to show restraint and leave the area, pointing out that its presence in Guerguerat violates military agreement No. 1.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated this response in his latest report on the situation in Western Sahara last week. In his assessment of the recent developments in the disputed area, Guterres expressed concern with the recent decline in compliance with military agreement No. 1.
MINURSO established military agreement No. 1 in 1997 to regulate its monitoring activities of the ceasefire between Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces (FAR) and the Polisario Front.
The agreement divides Western Sahara into five areas: A buffer strip, two restricted areas, and two areas of limited restriction.
Over the past year, MINURSO has detected multiple violations of the military agreement by both Morocco and Polisario.
The separatist front, however, claims the vast majority. It has denied MINURSO patrols entry into requested sites, repeatedly entered the demilitarized buffer zone, and carried out military construction projects without authorization.
“The status of the buffer strip as a demilitarized zone remains a cornerstone of the ceasefire in Western Sahara,” the UN chief underlined in the report. “I am concerned about the recent incursions into this zone.”
Learning from history
For Mustapha Salma, Polisario is unwittingly advancing Morocco’s position by rejecting calls to stop its activities in Guerguerat and the rest of the buffer zone. Despite its routine denunciations and emphatic condemnations of Morocco’s “illegal occupation,” Polisario’s actions in the buffer area paint a different picture of developments in Western Sahara.
They have made it clear that while Morocco has been engaged on the diplomatic front to find a lasting solution, a politically frustrated Polisario is resorting to militarization. According to Mustafa Salma, such contradictions support Morocco’s position.
To illustrate his argument, the Polisario dissident dug up a historical lesson learned.
In 1979, Mauritania, which had a mutual defense agreement with Morocco, signed a peace agreement with the Polisario Front.
“Among its undeclared items was the delivery of the Dakhla-Oued Ed Dahab region, which Mauritania then administered control over, to the Polisario Front,” he wrote.
But Morocco only learned of the details a week after the signing of the peace agreement.
As a result, Rabat “took the initiative to annex the Dakhla-Oued Ed Dahab region by force before Mauritania withdrew from it.”
The current case of Polisario provocations in Guerguerat, he argued, has similarities to that which occurred in 1979.
The 1991 ceasefire agreement between Morocco and Polisario, which led to the creation of MINURSO, made Mauritania an observer of the coastal strip from Guerguerat to Nouadhibou.
Nouadhibou, with a port to export iron and fisheries products, is the economic capital of Mauritania. Mauritania is therefore keen to maintain security in the region, Mustafa Salma said.
“Mauritania is not served by the presence of a strong competitor, such as Morocco, in the city of Lagouira, which has the same geographical area as the city of Nouadhibou,” he wrote.
However, Polisario’s repeated violations of international law related to the Western Sahara conflict gave Morocco justification to extend its defensive wall five kilometers to reach the Mauritanian border and exercise its authority over the entire coastal strip, from Tangier to Lagouira.
If Morocco decided to annex the entire region of Guerguerat, it would spell war for the Polisario Front. But the Front’s financer, Algeria, “is not served by a fuse in its west given the war in Libya and the tension in Mali.”
“Morocco, on the other hand, is an ancient country and able to temporarily bear the international costs if it takes such a step to annex Guerguerat,” Mustafa Salma said. “It needs only the support of France, who is currently playing the role of arbiter between Morocco and Mauritania so the interests of the two countries — allies of France in North Africa and the Sahel region — do not conflict.”
Mauritania, on the other hand, is concerned with its own interests and therefore advises the Polisario leaders to reduce their provocations in the Guerguerat region. Mauritania has been trying to reach understandings with Polisario through a series of continuous security meetings.
Contrary to its annexation of Dakhla-Oued Ed Dahab in 1979, Morocco today exercises a quiet diplomacy in Western Sahara marked by patience and restraint. Polisario, on the other hand, continues to rely on war threats and militancy to legitimize its claims.
While Polisario attempts to poke the bear by staging sit-ins, disrupting traffic in Guerguerat, and hosting “anti-occupation” rallies, Morocco works on the Western Sahara question with international bodies and, for the most part, adheres to UN guidelines in the disputed territory.
As Morocco gains international momentum and recognition of its territorial integrity, “Polisario remains attached to liberation delusions that no longer correspond to the reality of 2020,” Mustafa Salma stated.