Deepening Algeria-Morocco rivalry and US role

There’s still time for US, int'l community to facilitate peaceful and meaningful talks between Polisario and Rabat


Azhar Azam October 23, 2021
The writer is a private professional and writes on geopolitical issues and regional conflicts

Algeria and Morocco have a long history of a jittery political relationship especially over Western Sahara, an area claimed by both Algiers-backed Polisario Front and Rabat. The dormant violence erupted in the region last year after Morocco launched attack into the UN-patrolled demilitarised zone, forcing the pro-independence group to end the 1991 truce and resume an armed struggle in the desert territory.

The US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty on Western Sahara in December 2020 and plan to forge ahead on a $1 billion of arms deal against Morocco, mending its ties with Israel under the Abraham Accords, deepened rifts and exasperated Algeria that viewed the move targeting stability of the country. The Polisario also strongly reacted to a “flagrant violation of the UN Charter” and said the political gambit won’t help find a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Even as the border between the Maghreb states was closed since 1994, diplomatic channels continued to operate since they were restored in 1988 over another dispute. With an unchanged US position and no signs from the Biden administration to roll back the decision of accepting Morocco’s jurisdiction on the former Spanish colony, tensions spiraled once Algiers in August accused Rabat of using Israel’s Pegasus spyware against Algerian officials and broke off diplomatic relations with Rabat.

Contending Kabylie separatist MAK group was getting support from “Morocco and the Zionist entity”, Algiers further tightened the screws on Rabat and restricted access of the Moroccan flights to its airspace, indicating not to extend the Maghreb-Europe Gas (MEG) pipeline. The stringent measure, if implemented, would deprive Morocco of 7% of the gas transported to the Spanish and Portuguese markets through the country.

Morocco is a key market for France with an added importance to serve as a linchpin to establish the French economic, political and cultural influence in the postcolonial African states. Unless Paris (and Washington) scale back their diplomatic protection for Rabat at the UN Security Council, peace in the region would hang by thread for many more years.

Spain’s economic interests in Morocco, alongside strong support for the Sahrawi independence movement in the Spanish public, has pressed it to stay neutral in the standoff. However, after Madrid allowed Polisario leader Brahim Ghali admit in a Spanish hospital in Ceuta over humanitarian reasons, Rabat labelling of the permission as a “reckless and totally unacceptable act” blew the whistle for the relationship. Morocco has territorial claims over Ceuta and another Spanish enclave, Melilla.

But Washington’s ambiguous stance is the major source threatening to escalate tensions as the conflict could spill over across the Sahara-Sahel region. Warning about destabilisation of the entire North Africa, the Polisario is sticking to its decision to call off the 1991 ceasefire and fight across the 2,700 km long Berm wall for the international community to deliver on its unfulfilled promise of self-determination for the Sahrawi people.

US President Joe Biden may judge it politically difficult to undo Donald Trump’s violation of international law and UN Security Council Resolutions but he cannot remain a silent specter. Washington’s belief “an independent Sahrawi State is not a realistic option” shouldn’t be an excuse for settling dispute since its recognition doesn’t affect position of the UN, the EU and dozens of other countries which recognise Polisario-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as an independent state although some have withdrawn their recognition and the Republic remains a full member of the African Union.

Last month, the Luxembourg-based EU top court determined the Polisario was “recognized internationally as a representative of the people of Western Sahara” and the territory wasn’t part of Morocco. The far-reaching verdict, establishing desert waters weren’t part of the EU-Morocco agreement and repealing bloc’s agricultural and fishing agreements with Rabat, gave a sense of great achievement for the Polisario internationally.

Coupled with the pandemic, the deteriorating situation has changed the operational environment of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, whose mandate was to oversee a referendum 30 years ago in 1992. On the other hand, Washington’s proposal for a “just and lasting solution” clearly fails to bring a peaceful resolution to the conflict and is pushing regional stability into further uncertainty.

Earlier in his speech at the UN General Assembly, Algeria’s Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra reiterated his country’s “permanent stance” to give the right of self-determination to the Sahrawi people and backed the African Peace and Security Council’s proposal that the warring should parties should hold direct negotiations — an idea that sounds good considering aggravation of the peace environment.

Upon winning the election, the Biden administration pledged to review a slew of Trump’s controversial foreign policy choices. But once in power, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, despite endorsing the political negotiations, reassured Morocco his country wouldn’t backtrack from the prior president’s dramatic shift of recognising Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.

The Biden administration has so far failed to come out with a coherent framework that can blow at least some steam off in Western Sub Sahara. Still there’s time for the US and the international community to facilitate peaceful and meaningful talks between the Polisario and Rabat, which will inevitably calm Algeria-Morocco tensions. Once France and the US pull back their diplomatic shield for Morocco at the UN Security Council, both the claimants will be compelled to sit at the negotiation table and resolve the dispute in a nonviolent way.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 23rd, 2021.

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