Morocco-Algeria conflict: Why Washington, Paris and Brussels are looking the other way

By Farid Alilat, Nina Kozlowski
Posted on Friday, 7 January 2022 11:10

The Moroccan-Algerian border, seen from Oujda (in Morocco), in November 2021. FADEL SENNA/AFP © FADEL SENNA/AFP

From the UN to the African Union, the US, France and the European Union, the international community seems to be embarrassed about the historical conflict between Morocco and Algeria.

Three deaths and a threat of armed conflict. On 1 November, the 67th anniversary of the outbreak of the Algerian War of Independence, three Algerian truck drivers, who were travelling between Nouakchott and Ouargla, were killed in an attack that Algiers attributed to Moroccan forces.

Announced two days later in an official statement by the presidency, the news sent shock waves through Algeria and raised tensions between the two neighbours who had already ended diplomatic relations in August. The two armies have not gone up against each other since the battles of Amgala in 1976.

“Cowardly assassination”, “sophisticated weaponry”, “act of state terrorism of extreme gravity”, “assassination that will not go unpunished.” The Algerian authorities have carefully chosen these words in an attempt to internationalise this new episode in the Algerian-Moroccan conflict.

On 4 December, Algiers referred the matter to the UN secretary-general, the president of the African Union (AU) Commission, the secretary-general of the League of Arab States and the secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

A few weeks later, there was radio silence from these institutions. The same is true of Washington, Paris, Brussels and influential Arab capitals, such as Riyadh. The more tensions escalate, the more paralysed these foreign powers, who are in a position to prevent an armed confrontation, seem to be.

It needs to be said that the Algerian leaders have not provided any evidence to support their accusations, any more than they have provided evidence of Morocco’s supposed involvement in the forest fires that ravaged Kabylia last summer.

Why are these countries being so cautious? Why are Paris and Washington, important and influential partners of both states, refusing to intervene? Why are the Saudis, who played a decisive role – through King Fahd – in normalising relations between Algeria and Morocco in the mid-1980s, now keeping their distance?

The UN has remained silent ever since the Algerian truckers were killed in the Bir Lahlou area. On 4 November, Minurso went to the area to conduct a field investigation, but the results of the inquiry have not been communicated to date.

“One can legitimately ask what is the purpose of Minurso and the United Nations,” says Kader Abderrahim, a researcher at IRIS and a specialist in the Maghreb. “It needs to be said that the Algerian leaders have not provided any evidence to support their accusations, any more than they have provided evidence of Morocco’s supposed involvement in the forest fires that ravaged Kabylia last summer.”

The Minurso’s lack of eagerness to complete this investigation seems to illustrate the UN’s attitude towards the Western Sahara file. Above all, they do not want to risk offending any of the protagonists of a conflict that has poisoned relations between the two neighbours for decades.

Western Sahara: the status quo is over

After the 1991 ceasefire agreements were signed between Morocco and the Polisario – which provided for the organisation of a referendum on the Saharawis’ self-determination, under the auspices of the UN and establishment of the Minurso – the two parties have gradually decided to favour the status quo rather than risk making concessions. “None of the solutions proposed by this international body [have] been accompanied by a willingness to put pressure on the various actors in the Sahara conflict,” says Brahim Oumansour, a consultant in geopolitics and international relations. “The United Nations has engaged in voluntary negotiations without success, as the kingdom and Polisario’s opposing stances have hindered any progress.”

However, since its return to the AU in 2017, the kingdom has changed its diplomatic tactics and engaged in the strategy of fait accompli, stating that Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara is non-negotiable. This is evidenced by its military recapture operations in the Sahara, which have enabled it to gradually expand its security belt and push back the Polisario bases. Its policy of opening foreign consular offices in Laayoune and Dakhla, has managed to convince a little more than 10 countries – including many African states, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Jordan – to do the same. The latest manifestation of this firmness was King Mohammed VI’s speech, in which the sovereign ruled out any trade agreement that did not include the Sahara, on 6 November.

On the Algerian side, the Sahara issue was not really one of former president Bouteflika’s priorities. Things changed in 2019 when the latter fell and was replaced by Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who took advantage of this dispute with Morocco to redeploy a diplomatic strategy that had become progressively weaker under his predecessor.

Very critical of Rabat, which he accuses – often aggressively – of wanting to destabilise his country, Tebboune continues to hammer home Algiers’ doctrine on this matter. “Algeria is not a stakeholder in the conflict, which must be settled under the auspices of the UN, the referendum on self-determination remains the only way out,” he said.

Tebboune refuses to budge because he knows that he can count on the military institution’s support. Here, again, the former regime had adopted a very different stance. The Algerian army, which had previously remained practically silent regarding relations with Morocco and the Western Sahara issue, is now accusing its western neighbour of being an “occupying force” and warning about a “military escalation”.

Two pillars of stability

Nevertheless, Algeria’s solution to the problem is not supported by either the US or France. Washington has recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara and continues to view Morocco’s proposed autonomy plan as serious, credible and realistic. The same goes for Paris, which feels that the proposal should be up for discussion. Since these two powers support the Moroccan option, this means that they can’t make any attempts to change Algeria’s position, but do they have any desire to do so? Washington sees Algeria as an important security partner in the region and thus wants to avoid difficult subjects.

France, which has been engaged in the same dispute with Algiers for the past 70 years, is adopting a similar prudent stance. Each new tenant of the Élysée Palace makes efforts to revive relations with Algeria. However, most of the time, these attempts are mired by France’s failure to come to terms with its colonial past. Although Emmanuel Macron acknowledged the complexity of this task at the start of his term in office, he made a statement in September 2021 regarding the “Algerian politico-military system”, which has continued to anger Algiers. As such, it is unlikely – given the context – that the French president will set foot on the minefield that is the Saharawi issue.

The US and France favour Morocco. China is remaining neutral so that it doesn’t offend either the kingdom or Algeria.

Oumansour also feels that France lacks legitimacy. In addition to its colonial past, its role in the 2011 Libyan intervention and its half-hearted involvement in Mali have diminished its influence on the continent and its credibility as an arbitrator.

“In reality, the major powers have turned away from this old issue because they know that Morocco will not back down,” says Abderrahim. The consequence of this is that Morocco’s position divides the UN’s influential members. “The US and France favour Morocco. China is remaining neutral so that it doesn’t offend either the kingdom or Algeria,” says Oumansour.

Though Russia officially denies tensions with Morocco, it abstained (on 29 October) from the UN vote on Resolution 2602, which is considered favourable to Rabat. On 15 December, it called for “direct negotiations” between Morocco and the Polisario. This means that Algiers is not a party to the conflict in the Sahara, despite Morocco’s accusations.

Russia’s foreign affairs minister Sergei Lavrov called on Morocco and the Polisario to “make more of an effort”, expressed concern about “the risks of escalation in this part of Africa” and warned that the current situation could lead “terrorists to take advantage of this difficult situation”.

On the Maghreb chessboard, Morocco and Algeria are considered to be two pillars of stability in a region that has been extremely unstable since the Libyan stalemate. The kingdom maintains very close relations with Washington. America’s recognition of Morocco’s ‘full sovereignty’ over the Sahara and the normalisation of ties with Israel not only constitute the high point of these relations, but also a diplomatic and political victory for Rabat over its Algerian rival.

A ‘convincing’ autonomy plan

However, President Joe Biden may very well decide not to help resolve this conflict, let alone attempt to mediate. On the one hand, according to Benmansour, “Trump conceded on the Sahara so that his ‘deal of the century’ between certain Arab countries and Israel would come to fruition” – it is difficult to imagine that Biden would go back on that.

On the other hand, “Algeria, a pivotal country in the region, is a strategic and military ally of Russia. Washington has no interest in pushing the Algerians further into the Russians’ arms. More generally, the US is focused on the rise of Chinese influence and the Iranian nuclear issue, so they have taken a back seat on the Maghreb issues,” says the specialist.

Since Morocco’s return to the AU, several countries have retracted their recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and adopted a more nuanced pro-Polisario position so that they can promote economic cooperation with the kingdom. “Since 2007, Morocco has developed an autonomy plan for the Sahara, which is highly appreciated by the AU and UN, and which may convince some countries that are still reluctant. The Moroccan position serves as an example to Cameroon and Ethiopia. This conflict has gone on too long. It could contribute to breaking up Africa and degenerate into a regional or international conflict,” says Alphonse Zozime Tamekamta, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Yaoundé 1 in Cameroon.

Riyadh, Rabat’s objective ally

However, it is highly likely that the AU will hit a wall, just like the ‘Gulf brothers’ did in Saudi Arabia, the major player in the region. In May 1987, King Fahd managed the symbolic feat of organising a summit meeting between Algeria’s President Chadli Bendjedid and King Hassan II in a white Saudi tent that had been set up at the border. Attempting such an initiative with President Tebboune and Mohammed VI is a challenge mainly because Saudi leadership has changed, and with it the country.

Riyadh’s new strong man, Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS), belongs to this generation of pragmatic princes and emirs, one that doesn’t want to embarrass itself by trying to solve unsolvable problems in the name of an ‘Arab brotherhood’ whose flowers have now somewhat faded.

READ MORE Inside the rise of Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman

Above all, the Saudis unequivocally support Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, which makes them objective allies of Rabat on this issue. This means that they cannot enter into a mission of good relations with Algiers.

As proof, the Algerians curtly declined Saudi Arabia’s attempts at mediation following the break in diplomatic relations between Algiers and Rabat. At the end of October, Abdallah Al Moullami, Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the UN, delivered a speech that will certainly not encourage Algiers to be more open. In it, he said Riyadh “rejects any violation of the supreme interests or the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the brotherly kingdom of Morocco”.

The arrival of Israel – which has requested observer status within the AU – into the equation is also a “turning point, which brings a lot of uncertainty”, says Oumansour. Algiers certainly feels that this is a hostile move. In this context, the AU appears to be more a theatre of influence struggles than the continent’s peaceful agora.

However, in the absence of a resolution to the Sahara conflict, the slow ‘rotting’ of the Polisario is helping to strengthen terrorist cells in the Sahel, not to mention that the countries of the region offer another terrain for conflict between Morocco and Algeria, whether it be Mauritania or Mali, which has been plagued by instability for more than 10 years.

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