The Moroccan Sahara Conflict: Signs of Tension amid a Possible Return to Negotiations
Several developments have occurred in the Moroccan Sahara conflict during the course of 2018, including both signs of escalation and tension that have suggested a descent into armed conflict, and promising moves toward a new round of negotiations after years of stagnation and impasse.
Signs of tension
The actions of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saqiet al-Hamra and Rio de Oro (the Polisario Front) in early 2018 served to bring the Guerguerat crisis back to the forefront of the conflict. On January 1, the Front established a monitoring center inside the buffer zone. In March it announced that it intended to move the headquarters of its defense ministry to Bir Lehlou and its presidential base to Tifariti, east of the so-called “wall of sand” or “security wall”. The Polisario Front also penetrated the buffer zone in late March and carried out a military exercise on May 20, 2018.
Morocco’s reaction to the Front’s actions included military drills and the deployment of forces to some Saharan cities. In early April 2018, Morocco officially informed the UN of the dangerous situation in the Sahara and warned of the possibility of military confrontation. To increase its preparedness for the potential military action, in August 2018 the Moroccan government approved a draft law reinstating compulsory military service.
However, escalating tensions have not been limited to the security situation in the Sahara and the two main parties to the conflict, but rather have enveloped other external parties. Whilst Algeria has been connected to this issue for some time, Iran and its ally, Hezbollah, have now also become involved. In May 2018, Morocco expelled the Iranian charge d’affaires in Rabat and closed its embassy in Tehran. Rabat also accused Lebanese Hezbollah of providing military support to the Polisario Front through Iran’s ambassador in Algeria.
Also during 2018, Morocco has been actively lobbying the United States Congress. On September 17, 2018, Iran’s disruptive role in the region topped the agenda in discussions between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita. Later that month, on September 28, 2018, three Congressmen introduced an unbinding resolution to condemn intimidating acts by the Polisario Front and its foreign supporters – namely Iran and Hezbollah.
There has also been a noteworthy development involving the two countries that are neighbors to the conflict – Algeria and Mauritania. On August 19, 2018, they opened the Tindouf–Cohoum crossing point – the first of its kind between the two countries. Although this move appears to have no direct connection to the dynamics of the conflict, it has raised questions about the future of the Guerguerat border post between Morocco and Mauritania, and over whether the Polisario Front intends to force the closure of the border point by using military escalation at Guerguerat. The Algerian–Mauritanian border crossing represents a gateway for Mauritania’s trade with Europe through the Algerian port of Oran.
One month after the opening of the Tindouf–Cohoum border crossing, the Moroccan government announced that it had plans to open a new border crossing with Mauritania.
Back to the negotiating table
Following a number of exploratory meetings and visits by the new UN Secretary General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, in the fall of 2017, in early 2018 Köhler initiated a series of consultations in Berlin. In January and February, he met separately with the Secretary General of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, the then Mauritanian Foreign Minister, Isselkou Ould Ahmed Izid Bih, and the Algerian Foreign Minister, Abdelkader Messahel. Morocco, however, refused to meet in Berlin and instead the meeting was held in Lisbon on March 6.
Rabat’s resolve in this regard may be understood in terms of its desire to emphasize that such meetings do not represent indirect UN-brokered negotiations. It also reflects Morocco’s refusal to engage in any negotiations that may consider the question of the Western Sahara’s secession. In this context, the Moroccan position may have been designed to bolster Rabat’s ability to impose its own conditions on any future discussions.
On September 27, 2018, the UN invited the Foreign Ministers of Morocco Algeria and Mauritania, and the Secretary-General of the Polisario Front to attend negotiations in Geneva on December 5–6, 2018. These discussions will be held in the form of a round-table according to the 2+2 formula (the two conflicting parties plus two neighboring states) – the purpose being to discuss rather than to negotiate the issue.
It is therefore fair to state that under the aegis of the new UN envoy negotiations have enjoyed an upward trend. This began immediately upon Horst Köhler assuming the position and undertaking exploratory visits to all parties concerned with the crisis. This was followed by bilateral meetings in which he spoke to the four direct parties to the conflict. These four parties will meet again in December in a preliminary step toward direct talks at a later date.
UN efforts to reinvigorate negotiations are not only linked to the appointment of the new UN envoy, but are also an outcome of the US position on the issue. UNSCR 2414 – proposed by the United States and approved on April 27, 2018 – expanded the mandate of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) and called on the parties to the conflict to resume talks.
However, the mandate was only extended for six months, rather than the usual twelve. To understand the motivation behind this, it is important to observe that the US National Security Advisor, John Bolton, appears convinced of the need to end the mandate of MINURSO as a means to pressure the conflicting parties to reach a settlement. He also apparently believes that the continuity of the mandate would simply support the status quo, which favors of Morocco.
Prospects for Peace
The most realistic scenario is that negotiations will continue and the status quo will be maintained, based as it is on the same underlying factors that have prolonged the conflict for decades and remain unchanged – particularly those related to complex Moroccan–Algerian relations. However, the return to negotiations may lead to new developments.
UNSCR 2414 calls on neighboring countries to contribute to the peace process and the accompanying talks, and the upcoming negotiations represent a cautiously positive response to Morocco’s consistent demands to engage Algeria as a main party to the conflict.
Nonetheless, according to leaked aspects of the proposal to be delivered by the UN envoy to the four parties next December in Geneva, it appears this will support the adoption of a structural formula similar to that of the British Commonwealth of Nations for ending the conflict. This would represent a compromise between the extreme demands of both parties regarding the status of the Western Sahara (as an integral part of Morocco or a separate nation).
In any case, signs of tension are inseparable from the current preparations for the next phase of talks, and speak to the inevitable attempts by the various parties to the conflict to pressure one another to benefit their own negotiating positions. As such, this atmosphere of rising tension amid preparations for a new round of negotiations that has prevailed for the last six months will likely persist in the foreseeable future.