The Security Council is clearly presenting Algeria as a main party to the conflict and Morocco’s gains in Africa may soon see the AU suspend the self-styled Sahrawi Republic’s membership.
Washington D.C – The flare-up of tensions over the past three weeks in the Guerguerat buffer zone, southern Morocco, translates Polisario and Algeria’s frustration and anger over the successive diplomatic setbacks Morocco has inflicted on them in recent years. To understand the causes of this anger, one has to place them in a broader international and regional political and diplomatic context.
At the international level, Morocco has succeeded in enshrining negotiations as the only path likely to allow the parties to reach a mutually acceptable political solution.
While the Security Council essentially abandoned the option of a self-determination referendum since adopting resolution 1754 in 2007, its resolutions since April 2018 have further confirmed the parameters of the political process as Morocco has defended them for 13 years.
More still, since the adoption of resolution 2440, the Security Council has placed greater emphasis than ever on the need to reach a realistic, just, mutually acceptable, and compromise-based solution.
Paragraph 77 of the secretary-general’s annual report this September confirmed this approach. Guterres insisted on the need for the parties to show their willingness to reach a political solution based on compromise in accordance with resolutions 2440 (2018), 2468 (2019), and 2494 (2019).
Moreover, in paragraph 78, he deplored that the parties’ “lack of good faith” prevents them from reaching a political solution “through negotiation.” The use of the term “negotiation” clearly shows that the referendum is no longer on the UN agenda.
The diplomatic setback, confirmed in resolution 2548, comes on the heels of another major development since the adoption of resolution 2440: The gradual inclusion of Algeria in Security Council resolutions regarding Western Sahara. This development is the result of Morocco stressing for four decades that Algeria is a party to the conflict and that there will be no solution without its full involvement in the political process.
The fact that the Security Council has included Algeria in its resolutions is a clear sign that it no longer regards it as a neighboring or observer country, but rather as a party that has played a leading role both in the genesis and prolongation of the conflict.
It is an open secret that Algeria houses Polisario and supports it diplomatically, financially, and militarily. Without Algeria’s generous help, Polisario would no longer exist.
By including Algeria in its resolutions and by enshrining the approach of the Geneva round tables — with Algeria’s participation on an equal footing with Morocco — the Security Council recognizes Algeria’s responsibility in the conflict
A bleak context for Polisario
The context in which the Security Council adopted Resolution 2548 could not be bleaker for Polisario and its main backers, Algeria and South Africa. It followed the United Arab Emirates’ decision to recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara by opening a diplomatic representation in Laayoune.
The UAE’s decision was a remarkable diplomatic breakthrough and carries a special political significance. The UAE became the first Arab country to take such a momentous step. This decision has already created a ripple effect in the Arab region, pushing both Jordan and Bahrain to follow suit.
It will not be surprising to see Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman rush to open diplomatic representations in Morocco’s southern provinces. Morocco has enjoyed privileged and strong ties with its Gulf allies. These allies have been at the forefront of countries systematically voicing support for Morocco’s position at the United Nations and other international fora.
Playing on Algeria’s turf
The success of Morocco’s African policy has further angered Algeria and Polisario. Since returning to the African Union in 2017, Morocco has made a number of diplomatic gains. As I argue in my upcoming book about the conflict, through its win-win and project-driven African policy, Morocco has secured the positive neutrality of Nigeria and Ethiopia, which until 2016 were among Polisario’s staunchest supporters.
Morocco also managed to thwart Algeria and South Africa’s attempt to have the AU play a role in the UN-led political process. The AU definitively put this possibility to rest at the end of its summit in Nouakchott in July 2018, saying that the conflict is of the exclusive purview of the UN and pledging to support this process to bring about a political solution.
Not only did Morocco succeed in neutralizing the AU and obtaining positive neutrality or support from countries that previously held diplomatic relations with the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Republic. It also succeeded in convincing some of them to open diplomatic representations in Western Sahara and, thus, recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over its southern provinces.
The number of African countries that opened a consulate in Laayoune or Dakhla in a 17-month period shows that Morocco not only succeeded in keeping Algeria and South Africa at bay and in building on the momentum it gained from Resolution 2440, but also that Morocco has started playing on Polisario’s turf.
Algeria and Polisario are aware that the opening of these consulates in the Sahara is only the prelude to an even more strategic objective: To suspend Polisario from the AU. The more African countries open consulates in Laayoune and Dakhla, the more Polisario’s membership in the organization will appear to be an anomaly.
By recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, 15 African countries implicitly stated that its presence within the AU is an anachronistic aberration. From this perspective, and given the facts that 28 African countries in July 2016 presented a motion to suspend Polisario’s membership and that 39 countries voted for Morocco’s return to the AU, Morocco seems on track to secure the support of two-thirds of AU members to oust Polisario.
Gone are the times when Algeria dealt major diplomatic blows to Morocco by securing the support of more regional states for Polisario or by leveraging the AU to pressure Morocco onto the defensive.
The rules of the game have changed. To Algeria and South Africa’s dismay, not only has Polisario seen the number of countries that recognize its self-styled republic plummet, but it has seen how many members of the AU have recognized Morocco’s Western Sahara sovereignty.
An unquestionable blow to South Africa’s opposition support
More still, Morocco has secured more support for its sovereignty over Western Sahara from the very countries that were once part of the Algeria-South Africa axis.
That countries such as Zambia, Eswatini, and Malawi — which have long toed the line of South Africa on the conflict and maintained diplomatic ties with the self-styled SADR — decided to open consulates in Laayoune and Dakhla is a testament to the unprecedented setbacks Polisario and its main backers have suffered in recent years.
The extent of their setbacks was on display in early November when Zambia, Malawi, Eswatini, Comoros, and the Democratic Republic of Congo opposed a pro-Polisario declaration that the Southern African Development Community intended to deliver before the UN Special Political and Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee). Because the five countries opposed a paragraph that questioned Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara, SADC was forced to cancel its address.
South Africa has used this regional grouping for decades to mobilize support for Polisario. That Morocco thwarted South Africa’s attempt to undermine Morocco’s position shows to what extent Morocco has succeeded in lessening South Africa’s influence over this regional forum and in making sizable inroads onto its turf.
It is in this unfavorable international and regional context that Polisario has decided to step up its provocations. Polisario and Algeria know full well that the Western Sahara conflict is one of low-intensity and hardly draws the attention of the great powers. As long as the status quo continues and there is minimal threat to their strategic interests and stability in the region, these powers settle for managing it and keeping it under control.
However, the status quo does not serve the interests of Polisario, which has sought to return the conflict to the forefront of the world media landscape in order to obtain the solidarity of the international public opinion.
Yet Polisario and Algeria have once again left empty-handed and witnessed the extent to which Morocco has succeeded in isolating them, garnering more international support to its approach and cementing its sovereignty over the territory. To Algeria and Polisario’s dismay, the situation on the ground and the regional and international context no longer play in their favor.
The latest development in the Guerguerat buffer zone confirmed a trend of the past 15 years: The growing consensus that the establishment of an independent state in southern Morocco is a mirage and the only viable way out of the conflict is the negotiation of a mutually acceptable political solution. Consequently, Morocco will continue its assertive journey towards having more countries, especially in Africa, recognize its sovereignty over the territory, with the ultimate goal being for the AU to freeze the self-styled SADR’s membership and eventually expel it.
Samir Bennis is the co-founder of Morocco World News. You can follow him on Twitter @SamirBennis.