Polisario is shooting itself in the foot by persisting in its provocations and declaring the end of the 1991 ceasefire agreement.
Washington D.C – Morocco’s decision to act to restore the movement of people and goods in the Guerguerat buffer zone was a foregone conclusion.
In the face of the incomprehensible silence of the United Nations, Morocco could not afford to let Polisario impose a fait accompli on this vital region for foreign trade and impose its laws.
Over the past four weeks, Morocco has shown a great deal of wisdom and restraint in line with its diplomatic vocation, including its commitment to the 1991 ceasefire agreement and Military Agreement No. 1, as well as its observance of the spirit of the UN-led political process initiated in 2007. Morocco is aware that any movement of its army in this area should be well-calculated and in accordance with its international commitments.
This is why it informed the UN mission in Western Sahara, known as MINURSO, of its decision to expel Polisario militiamen and install a security cordon around El Guerguerat buffer zone.
To avoid any ambiguity about the goal of its action, Morocco specified that it has no bellicose intentions and that it would only resort to force in case of legitimate defense. By doing so, Morocco has ensured Algeria cannot use this action to accuse it of violating the ceasefire agreement.
Morocco is aware of the endgame of Algeria and the Polisario Front. Against the backdrop of the diplomatic blows Morocco has caused them over the past three years, they have sought desperately to test its patience and push it to take forceful military actions that could amount to a violation of the ceasefire agreement.
To Algeria and Polisario’s dismay, none of this has happened. Morocco has outsmarted them and dealt with the situation with the utmost composure, strategy, and restraint. Morocco made sure that members of MINURSO accompanied the convoy of the Royal Armed Forces so that they could bear witness that Moroccan forces carried out the operation in full compliance with the country’s international commitments.
The operation was seamless, it took the Polisario Front by surprise, and enabled Morocco to expel the separatists from the area.
Algeria and Polisario’s attempts to drag Morocco into a war have failed. They hoped to blunt Morocco’s diplomatic momentum by creating outrage and a media moment to elicit the sympathy and solidarity of the international public opinion. But this has not happened, not least because international observers on the ground have pointed out that Rabat intervened in self-defense and without violence.
More to the point, compounding Polisario’s strategic failure is Rabat’s decision to build a 14-kilometer wall along the Guerguerat crossing to prevent the militant group from entering the area. With Rabat set to have full control of the region, the myth of the “liberated areas” that Polisario has sought to cement in recent years has suffered a serious blow.
The UN fails to rein in Polisario
Morocco has long called on the Security Council and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to assume their responsibility and urge Polisario to respect both the military agreement and Resolutions 2414 and 2440.
In Resolution 2414, the Security Council clearly expressed its concern about the presence of Polisario in the Guerguerat buffer zone, urging it to withdraw its armed militias. The resolution also called on Polisario to refrain from transferring its administrative facilities to the Bir Lahlou area.
Resolution 2440 called on the parties to the conflict to refrain from any action that could endanger the stability of the region, and explicitly urged Polisario to fully adhere to the commitments it had made to the SG’s personal envoy concerning Bir Lahlou, Tifariti, and Guerguerat buffer zone.
If the UN Secretariat and the Security Council have the slightest intention to save the shaky political process and maintain peace in the region, they should act with firmness in the face of Polisario’s provocations and put pressure on Algeria.
One could hardly imagine how the Polisario Front has persisted in its provocations against Morocco and its violations of the ceasefire agreement and the military agreement without the green light of Algeria. It is time for the Security Council to urge Algeria and Polisario to respect the provisions of Resolutions 2414 and 2440 and to stress clearly that Polisario has no legal rights over the territory east of the sand wall.
There are no “liberated areas” in the buffer zone and the restricted area, and the Security Council should swiftly and firmly denounce any further Polisario action to change the status quo.
The escalation that the region has witnessed in recent weeks is the result of the leniency of the Security Council and the Secretary-General towards the repeated provocations of the Polisario Front.
It is incumbent on the UN to ensure peace in the buffer zone and preserve the free and unhindered circulation of goods between Morocco and Mauritania. Yet again, the global body has failed in its duty to maintain international peace and security. Its silence in the face of Polisario’s repeated violations has sent the message that its actions do not carry any consequences.
This is not the first time Polisario has taken the path of provocation and escalation. It has done so repeatedly since 2016.
For instance, in January 2019, Polisario conducted military maneuvers in the Meherz region in the buffer zone. In addition, it held its 15th congress in the Tifariti region last December in the presence of MINURSO members. While both acts violated both the ceasefire agreement and the military agreement, as well as the political process, the UN chose to look the other way.
The annual report of the Secretary-General on the situation in Western Sahara mentioned the holding of the 15th Polisario congress in Taifariti and the construction of several buildings both in Tifariti and Bir Lahlou. Nevertheless, it refrained from clearly denouncing Polisario’s persistent attempt to impose a fait accompli in this area and calling on the Security Council to take swift action to deter it.
As a result of the absence of firm language in Guterres’ report calling out Polisario’s repetitive violations, Resolution 2548 did not contain any provision ordering the Polisario Front to put an end to its provocations and violations of the spirit of the UN-led political process.
What is even more deplorable is that the statement released by Guterres’ spokesperson on November 13 simply expressed his concern about the rising tension. It made no mention of the fact that this tension is the result of Polisario’s recklessness and its actions aimed at disrupting the flow of goods between Morocco and Mauritania.
In a paper I published last December I said that, by failing to deter Polisario’s actions and denounce the holding of its 15 congress in Tifariti, the UN was aiding and abetting the separatist movement, enabling it to take further unlawful actions that threaten the stability of the region and the viability of the political process.
Had Polisario respected Resolutions 2414 and 2440, and had the UN shown a minimum level of resolve with Polisario, this unprecedented escalation could have been avoided. Faced with the UN’s silence, it is quite normal to see Polisario more emboldened and more determined to persist in its maneuvers which ultimately aim to test Morocco’s patience and push it to take military action and thus violate the ceasefire agreement.
Algeria and Polisario increasingly isolated
As the days go by and more countries and regional and international organizations express their support for Morocco’s decisive action in El Guerguerat, Algeria and the Polisario Front find themselves increasingly isolated, realizing how their provocations have backfired.
No global or regional power has called Morocco’s action into question. Morocco is witnessing an outpouring of support from Arab and African countries, as well as from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents 57 member states. Countries that have for decades striven to maintain a semblance of neutrality have now shown where they stand on this conflict and expressed their clear support for Morocco.
Even the African Union, which until late 2016 Algeria leveraged to pressure Morocco, took a neutral stance and distanced itself from Polisario and Algeria. The AU expressed its concerns about the deterioration in Guerguerat buffer zone and the serious threat it poses to the ceasefire agreement.
The AU called on the UN Secretary-General to expedite the appointment of his personal envoy and expressed its support for UN efforts to bring about a “just political solution acceptable to all parties to this conflict.” The statement breaks with the biased stance the AU assumed for years before Morocco rejoined in 2017. The times when the AU sided with the Polisario Front and sought to meddle in the UN-led political process are long gone.
If Algeria and Polisario sought through this recent escalation to create a media moment, eliciting the support and solidarity of the international public opinion by playing the victim and underdog cards, they have failed.
By persisting in its provocations and declaring war and the end of the ceasefire agreement, Polisario is shooting itself in the foot and cornering itself. Meanwhile, by maintaining its silence in the face of Polisario’s repeated violations, the UN is sounding the death knell of the political process initiated in 2007.
Combined with the diplomatic momentum Morocco has achieved in recent years — the decision of 15 African countries and the UAE to open consulates in the territory and the inclusion of Algeria in the last five Security Council resolutions — these uncalculated and ill-advised actions have given Morocco every reason to refuse sitting at the negotiating table with Polisario in the future.
The Polisario Front has shown itself not to be a responsible and reliable partner with whom Morocco could engage in good faith to achieve a mutually acceptable political solution. Meanwhile, the UN has proven unable to deter Polisario and compel it to abide by the terms of Security Council resolutions and the terms of the ceasefire, Military Agreement no 1, and the political process.
Consequently, the odds that the UN will be able to bring the parties back to the negotiating table in the foreseeable future and save the political process are slimmer than ever before.