Regional tensions flare over Western Sahara

Friday 01/04/2016
Moroccans waving their national flag in street of Laayoune, capital of 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.