Escalation Regarding Guerguerat Crossing Point in Southern Morocco and Potential Scenarios

Shereen Mohammed | 22 Nov 2020

Tensions have recently escalated at the Guerguerat (also Karkarat) border crossing between Morocco and Mauritania, which is located in a buffer zone guarded by United Nations (UN) forces within the Western Sahara region,[1] after armed elements of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro (Polisario), on 21 October 2020, infiltrated into this region and disrupted the movement of civilians and commercial goods through this crossing, and sought to obstruct the work of military observers working with the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), who are tasked with monitoring respect for the ceasefire between the Moroccan and Polisario sides. This prompted the Moroccan army to intervene, announcing on 14 November 2020 its success in fully securing the buffer zone.[2]

Nevertheless, the possibility of escalation persists in light of the announcement by the Polisario Front of the end of the commitment to the 1991 ceasefire agreement with Morocco, which could pave the way for an overall military confrontation between the two sides.

Causes of tension

The recent tension between the Polisario Front and Morocco over the Guerguerat crossing could be attributed to a set of factors, the most important of which are the following:

1. The economic importance of the Guerguerat crossing: it is the only land crossing used to transport cars and trucks between the southern Western Sahara and Mauritania.[3] The crossing is a very small part of a larger buffer zone identified by the UN as one of the conditions for the ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario, bearing in mind that the latter considers the buffer zone as a whole (accounting for nearly 20 percent of the Western Sahara) as liberated areas, although the Polisario avoids maintaining a continuous presence of its operatives in Guerguerat to avoid collision with the Moroccan army.[4]

Given this importance, the Polisario Front tends from time to time to use this crossing as a pressure card on the Moroccan government, by preventing Moroccan truck drivers from transiting the crossing which they use to transport goods, and sometimes stealing those goods.[5] A group of armed men affiliated with the Front appeared carrying the internationally unrecognised "flags of the Sahrawi Republic" and declaring their control over the crossing before the Moroccan army intervened, even as hit-and-run operations continued between the two sides.[6]

2. The conflict over illicit trade: Moroccan official rhetoric indicates that the army and police forces intervened in the Guerguerat crossing after operatives supported by the Polisario Front committed acts of smuggling and illicit trade. Some have called Guerguerat "the Kandahar of the Desert", in reference to the Afghan city which is famous for various types of smuggling in southern Afghanistan.[7] The Guerguerat area has been the scene of multiple smuggling operations to West Africa, especially stolen cars, which is what prompts security services and customs agents to follow smugglers in that area.

3. Restriction on the work of the MINURSO forces: the Moroccan government justifies its intervention in the face of the Polisario Front militants on the grounds that the latter have obstructed the work of the military observers of the MINURSO forces of the UN, who are tasked with monitoring the observance of the ceasefire between the two sides (Morocco and the Polisario). It appears that the Polisario Front aims to put pressure on the UN to respond to its demands for a popular referendum on self-determination. This escalation coincided with the approaching date of issuing the UN resolution on the extension of the MINURSO mission, whose duties ended on 31 October 2020, despite the warnings issued by the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UNSG) António Guterres regarding the danger of any action or move by the Polisario Front that would bring about a change in the status quo in the buffer zone in the Sahara region.[8]

4. The diplomatic victories achieved by Morocco in the face of the Polisario: some observers claim that the Polisario Front seeks to fuel its conflict with the Moroccan government after two main developments have taken place: the first is that many African countries withdrew their recognition of the so-called Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR); and the second is the opening of five consulates for Zambia, the Kingdom of Eswatini (in the city of Laâyoune), Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau (in the city of Dakhla), bringing the total number of consulates to 15 consulates of African countries.[9] In addition, the UAE has recently opened a consulate in Laâyoune, to be the first Arab country to open a consulate in the Moroccan Saharan regions, reflecting the message of affirming Morocco's right to exercise its sovereignty over its territories.[10]

Regional and international positions

1. Regional positions: the main trend taken by most of the Arab countries was, first, to support the measures taken by the Kingdom of Morocco at the Guerguerat crossing to ensure the flow of goods and individuals[11] and, second, to denounce any practices that threaten traffic at this vital crossing. The most prominent of those positions was evident in what was announced by the UAE,[12] Saudi Arabia,[13] Bahrain,[14] Kuwait,[15] Qatar,[16] and Jordan.[17] The Algerian position was different from the positions of the above Arab countries. In its statement issued on 13 November 2020, the Algerian Foreign Ministry held both Morocco and the Polisario Front responsible for "the serious violations of the ceasefire . . . in the Guerguerat region" and called on them to show responsibility, restraint and full respect for the military agreement No. 1 signed between them and the UN.[18]

In the same context, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC) Moussa Faki, in a statement issued on 14 November 2020, expressed his concern about the deterioration of the situation in Western Sahara, especially in the buffer zone of Guerguerat, indicating that there are serious threats of breaching the ceasefire in force since 1991. Faki commended the efforts of the UNSG and the countries of the region to urge the conflicting parties to refrain from introducing any changes to the status quo, and to return to the dialogue table as soon as possible.[19]

2. International positions: the most prominent of which were those of Spain and France.[20] Spain called on the parties to resume the negotiation process over the Sahara and move towards a just, lasting and acceptable political solution for both of them. The French Foreign Ministry called for doing "everything possible to avoid escalation and return to a political solution as soon as possible," stressing that "those events demonstrate the importance of the rapid re-launch of the political process, especially by appointing a new personal envoy to the Secretary-General of the United Nations as soon as possible”.

For its part, the Russian Foreign Ministry called on the two parties to the settlement in the Western Sahara to "exercise utmost restraint, refrain from any steps that would lead to an escalation of the situation, and adhere strictly to the ceasefire", expressing Moscow's support for the resumption of the negotiation process between Morocco and the Polisario as quickly as possible and the activation of the settlement efforts, including the appointment of a new envoy of the UNSG for the Sahara, with the aim of ensuring the security and effectiveness of MINURSO’s work.[21]

2. The UN position: in view of its known role as an international mediator, the UN has taken a neutral position towards the escalation in Guerguerat, taking into account that the international organisation classifies the Western Sahara region within the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. It is worth noting that since the resignation of the UNSG Personal Envoy for Western Sahara Horst Köhler in May 2019 for health reasons, no successor has been appointed.

Likely scenarios

1. Military confrontation scenario: this scenario assumes the continued escalation between the Moroccan authorities and the Polisario Front at the Guerguerat crossing, in a manner that would pave the way for a military confrontation between the two sides.[22] This approach was expressed by the leader of the Polisario Front Ibrahim (also Brahim) Ghali who issued a decree ending the commitment to the ceasefire signed in 1991.[23] On 13 November 2020, the Polisario Ministry of Defence announced that its forces had carried out intense attacks on Moroccan army sites in several regions (Al Mahbes, Hawza (also Haouza), Aousserd, and Farsia (also (Al) Farciya)), and claimed success in inflicting some losses in equipment and lives in the ranks of the Moroccan army. However, the Moroccan government denied those events and described them as false rumours. Despite the conflicting accounts of the Moroccan authorities and the Polisario, the recent developments indicate the Polisario's readiness to get involved in military confrontations with Morocco and raise the level of security tension in the Guerguerat region if the opportunity arises for it to do so.[24]

2. The de-escalation scenario: this scenario assumes that the two parties to the conflict would respond to the regional and international calls for de-escalation, and declare their commitment to the option of a peaceful settlement and to refrainment from proceeding along the path of comprehensive military escalation between them. This scenario is supported by the commitment of the Moroccan authorities to self-restraint and the re-establishment of freedom of civil and commercial movement. Furthermore, while the Polisario Front announced that it would revert to the use of armed force against Morocco, this does not mean that it would practically pursue this approach, but rather that this constitutes a gateway to pressuring the UN to find a solution that is acceptable to the Front with respect to the Sahara issue. Apparently the Polisario is currently not in a position that would enable it to rely on Algeria in the face of Morocco, especially that there are pressing issues facing Algeria (the Front’s main supporter), mainly the exacerbating economic crisis as a result of the repercussions of the Covid-19 epidemic, and the growing security threats on its direct borders with both Libya and Mali. The chances of this scenario are enhanced by the awareness of both the regional and international communities that the continuous escalation of this tension between the Moroccan authorities and the Polisario Front may benefit terrorist organisations in the Sahel region that may exploit these circumstances to transfer their activities to the borders of the Sahara.[25]

3. The "controlled" escalation scenario: this scenario stems from the fact that the security tension at the Guerguerat crossing resembles a volcanic eruption; it intensifies at times and fades at other times, especially given the precedents of some limited operations carried out by Polisario militants in the region, based on the hit-and-run tactic, such as re-closing the crossing and harassing its employees to prove the Front's capability to show resilience and survive, and continuing to pressure Rabat and seeking to strengthen the Front’s position in the face of Moroccan moves on the ground, with the aim of obtaining the condemnation of those moves and measures at the international level. In parallel, the Moroccan armed forces, in their turn, would continue their efforts to consolidate their sovereignty in this region.[26] The chances of this scenario are enhanced in view of the absence of any interest on the part of any of the three parties that share borders with Guerguerat, namely Morocco, Mauritania and the Polisario, in the existence of an "uncontrolled" and long-term military escalation there.

Conclusion

Upon balancing the proposed scenarios, it seems that the scenario of limited or "controlled" escalation between Morocco and the Polisario would remain the most plausible at the current stage, especially in light of the failure to resolve the dispute between the two sides, the insistence by each side on its position, and the failure of the UN efforts to reach a final solution to the dispute. Perhaps the renewed fighting between the two sides in several locations reflects the possibility of the continuation of this conflict for a longer period, with the unlikely engagement in a new round of negotiations after years of interruption, especially in light of the failure to appoint a UN envoy for Sahara affairs until the end of 2020.[27]

References

[1] See: Michael Rubin, “Why the Western Sahara matters”, American Enterprise Institute, July 27, 2015. Available at: https://www.aei.org/research-products/journal-publication/why-the-western-sahara-matters/

[2] Hatem Betioui, “Rabat: the Guerguerat crossing has become completely secure”, Asharq al-Awsat, 15 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/36NCqPt

[3] “Guerguerat: the only land crossing between southern Western Sahara and Mauritania”, Lebanese-based Annahar newspaper, 13 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2HefzDT

[4] “New tension between Morocco and the Polisario: the cause of the crisis and the importance of ‘Guerguerat’”,  al-ain news, 13 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3f8Pxyw

[5] For further details, see: Dominic Dudley, “Morocco suffers sharp fall in phosphate sales from disputed territory of Western Sahara, As North American orders dry up,” Forbes, February 23, 2020. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/dominicdudley/2020/02/23/morocco-phosphate-exports-western-sahara/#9a7234c7761d

[6] “The Guerguerat border crossing reopened after Moroccan army intervention”, Deutsche Welle (DW), 14 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3fazgJg

Ismail Azzam, “New tension between Morocco and the Polisario: what is happening in Guerguerat?”, Deutsche Welle (DW), 12 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/38W74sK

[7] For further details, see: “Morocco carries out cleansing operations in the "Kandahar" border area with Mauritania and Western Sahara”, France24, 17 August 2016. Available at: https://bit.ly/35IcJAE; “What is the Guerguerat crossing, the source of tension between Morocco and the Polisario?”, eremnews, 14 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2IDArFx

[8] “What is happening at Guerguerat crossing?”, alriyadh, 15 November 2020. Available at: https://www.alriyadh.com/1853377

[9] “Morocco launches a military operation to deter the Polisario in Guerguerat”, Middle East Online, 13 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2IO8SJa

[10] “With pictures, the UAE opens its consulate in the Moroccan city of Laâyoune”, Sky News Arabia, 4 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/36V180y

[11] “Arab, Muslim States Support Morocco’s Latest Move in Sahara”, Asharq al-Awsat, 15 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2HTCbKk

[12] “The UAE affirms its solidarity with Morocco in protecting its territories”, Sky News Arabia, 14 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3pKkzkW

[13] For further details, see: “Saudi Arabia and Jordan support Morocco's move in Guerguerat”, Sky News Arabia, 14 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2KpcCSp

[14] “After the UAE and Qatar, Bahrain declares its solidarity with Morocco and supports the Guerguerat operation”, alyaoum24, 14 November 2020. Available at: https://www.alyaoum24.com/1476811.html 

[15] “Kuwait supports Moroccan measures in Guerguerat”, alroeya, 14 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/35HHp4L

[16] “Qatar expresses its support for the Moroccan move to put an end to the blockage caused by the obstruction of movement at the Guerguerat crossing”, mapexpress, 13 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3lLlC1T

[17] “Jordan supports Moroccan measures in the Guerguerat buffer zone in the Moroccan Sahara”, Saudi Press Agency (SPA), 14 November 2020. Available at:

[18] Boualem Goumrassa, “Algeria fears the impact of events on the ‘stability of the region’”, Asharq al-Awsat, 15 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/38SiOfK

[19] “The African Union expresses its concern about the deteriorating situation in Western Sahara”, Arabic Russia Today, 14 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/35Ok5CN

[20] “Western Sahara: France and Spain call for avoiding escalation and resuming negotiations”, France24, 14 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3nAZZlh

[21] “Moscow calls on Morocco and the Polisario to exercise restraint and avoid escalation”, Arabic Russia Today, 14 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3nxwuRe

[22] “Western Sahara: an ancient conflict foreshadows an armed explosion”, Monte Carlo Doualiya, 14 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2UEN0CT

[23] “The Polisario Front announces the end of the ceasefire with Morocco”, BBC Arabic, 14 November 2020. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast-54946434

[24] “Western Sahara: Tension prevails in the situation amid the exchange of threats between the two parties to the conflict”, France24, 17 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/36OdQ0P

[25] Mohammed Benhammou, “Regional Instability and the Sahara Conflict”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), 15 April 2016. Available at: https://bit.ly/2VjL96B

[26] “Moroccan Prime Minister describes Polisario fighters as "bandits" and promises a "shocking response"”, Monte Carlo Doualiya, 16 November 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3lK8CJU

[27] Sarah Feuer, “Escalating Tensions in Western Sahara”, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), 11 April 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Vmv0gE

 

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