Regional tensions flare over Western Sahara
TUNIS - Morocco’s diplomatic showdown with Algeria-backed Polisario over Western Sahara status flared up ahead of UN Security Council deliberations over Africa’s oldest conflict.
Ramping up a dispute with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Rabat ordered the United Nations to pull 84 members of its peacekeeping mission in the territory and close a military liaison office there.
Morocco accused Ban of siding with Polisario when he used the term “occupation” as he toured the region in early March.
Ban had initially sought a display of support from the Security Council for his position but he back-pedalled when he found himself isolated amid diplomatic backing for Rabat abroad after thousands of Moroccans took to the streets to denounce him.
“We regret the misunderstandings and consequences that this personal expression of solicitude provoked,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The Moroccan move effectively crippled the work of the mission that was helping keep a lid on the dispute for 25 years by giving at least a pretext for hope to resolve the conflict peacefully.
In the first show of its support to the Polisario since the dispute erupted 40 years ago, Algeria announced its armed forces’ chief Ahmed Gaid Salah, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra and junior foreign minister Abdelkader Amsahel met with Polisario’s leaders regarding Morocco’s action.
“The meeting has a two-fold message that… Algeria remains a power to reckon with in the region’s security balance,” wrote Algeria’s main Arabic-language daily El Khabar, adding the “gathering represented messages of political warning to Morocco”.
The opposite moves were transforming Western Sahara conflict from a sensitive but dormant issue into a new pressing problem for the Maghreb — a region already reeling from jihadist violence and under pressure from Libya’s chaos and expansion of Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda affiliates.
“Morocco’s recent action brought the conflict to square one… if such move goes untackled the Polisario would be forced to resume armed struggle,” the Polisario said ahead of the meeting with Algerian officials.
Observers in the region pointed to the military parade February 26th during the 40th anniversary of the Polisario in which a new battery of missiles and new tanks were displayed. Morocco has shown no signs of relenting on its stance that the territory is its. Experts said there’s little hope that the UN-proposed referendum will take place.
“I don’t think it’s possible,” said Jacob Mundy, assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University in New York. “The Moroccans are so economically entrenched in the territory.”
Rabat had shown that it was ready for any sacrifice to back its stance in the dispute. It clashed with Sweden when Stockholm floated the idea to recognise Western Sahara as an independent state in 2015. Moroccan authorities blocked the opening of Ikea’s first store in the kingdom as part of putting pressures on Sweden, which eventually dropped its recognition plan.
In February, Morocco temporarily suspended contact with European Union institutions over a court ruling invalidating the bloc’s farm trade accord with Rabat and saying it should exclude the disputed territory of Western Sahara.
“Morocco cannot accept to be treated as a subject of a judicial process and to be buffeted between European institutions,” the Moroccan government said.
An EU court in February 2012 ordered a trade pact between the European Union and Morocco annulled, saying the agreement shouldn’t apply to Western Sahara.
The case brought by the Polisario Front threatens a deal that had expanded duty-free status to dozens of Moroccan agricultural and fisheries products imported to the European Union. EU-Moroccan farm trade in 2015 amounted to $4.6 billion. Officials said the verdict should have no immediate effect on trade between the two sides, which totalled $32.8 billion in 2015. The European Union has several weeks to appeal the ruling.
The tensions led Moroccan commentators to suggest Rabat should take the cue from Russia when it annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
“It is right that Morocco does not have the military and economic resources of a big power but it does have the regional power to wield against its rival,” said political commentator Sabri Alhou.
As the balance of world powers stands, only detente between Algeria and Morocco can bring an end to the conflict.
The European Union as a bloc is focusing on humanitarian aid in Western Sahara. Spain promotes dialogue with Rabat to fight illegal migration and terrorism, sacrificing the support for the front.
France has always sided with Morocco, its historical ally, while the United States seems neutral as it needs both Morocco and Algeria to stem the growth of jihadist Islam in the region.