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Morocco/Algeria: Western Sahara conflict shows signs of escalation

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Algeria – Morocco: crisis loading

By François Soudan
Posted on Tuesday, 2 March 2021 17:07, updated on Thursday, 4 March 2021 16:48

At the Moroccan border in Guerguerat where a soldier monitors the buffer zone. March 29, 2017. Vincent Fournier/JA

Tensions between Algeria and Morocco have never been as tense in 45 years. November 2020 unleashed pandora's box following the military intervention in Guerguerat and Washington's recognition of Rabat's sovereignty over Western Sahara.

This is part two of a five-part series.

Since 13 November 2020, the day the Moroccan army “secured” several hundred metres of the paved road connecting the small village of Guerguerat and Mauritania, the former Spanish protectorate of Western Sahara has been knee deep in alternate history.

This literary and cinematic genre – currently all the rage, as demonstrated by the recent success of the Netflix period drama series Bridgerton – consists of re-imagining past historical events in fictional stories, creating a sort of alternate, counterfactual reality.

A case in point: the Polisario Front’s top brass send out triumphant daily reports that Algeria’s official press service, Algérie Presse Service, routinely pick up.

If the reports of this parallel universe are to be believed, 13 November 2020 was the starting point of a war that is raging along Morocco’s defence wall, which stretches some 2,500 kilometres and the Sahrawi people refer to as the “Wall of Shame”.

On 22 February 2021, as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) celebrated the 45th anniversary of its independence in exile in refugee camps in the Hamada of Tindouf, the Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was on its 102nd parte de guerre, or war report.

According to such reports, almost all Moroccan military positions west of the berm, from Al Mahbes to Bir Gandus, and even some border garrisons in Guelmim Province and the region of Souss-Massa, outside Western Sahara, have endured three months of “intense bombing raids” and “violent attacks”, resulting in damage as extensive as “the destruction of whole sections of the wall” and of a command base. The reports also describe the Royal Moroccan Armed Forces (Forces armées royales – FAR) as having suffered “devastating” losses, whereas the Polisario recorded no deaths.

These updates on the conflict, so dutifully picked up by Algerian state media but ignored elsewhere, accurately reflected just one real-world event. On 13 November 2020, the Polisario launched a rocket attack on Guerguerat, but it failed to cut off the road or claim any lives.

A source from the FAR general staff described it as “an attempt to intimidate” that was “without incident” and the situation as “under control and quite calm”, before adding: “The Polisario leaders know that their militias cannot make a difference on the ground, so these reports are nothing more than wholesale propaganda directed at their supporters.”

Bloody assaults

Apart from the fact that no independent experts or reports have been able to confirm the reality on the ground in this latest chapter of the sand war, it is highly unlikely that Sahrawi separatists have the capabilities to wage such warfare.

The Polisario is a far cry from what it used to be in the 1980s and leading up to the establishment of the cease-fire almost 30 years ago, when its katibas [units] used a 106 mm cannon to launch bloody assaults on the flanks of Morocco’s army, its SAM-7 missiles shot down Mirage F1 fighter jets in mid-air and its 2,000 war prisoners languished in jails in the Tindouf camps.

Sahrawi leaders are also no longer in their prime, beginning with the Polisario’s 71-year-old secretary general, Brahim Ghali, and the same can be said of the rebel movement’s arsenal. Much of the equipment supplied by Libya (during Muammar Gaddafi’s rule), North Korea and Algeria, on top of the armoured vehicles taken from Morocco’s army at the start of the conflict, is no longer in working order.

The Polisario’s dwindling list of supplies includes a fleet of Toyota 4×4 vehicles outfitted with 14 mm machine guns, Russian-made multiple rocket launchers, 120 mm mortars and Soviet-made T-62 tanks.

Faced with a defence line flanked with minefields, peppered with detection systems, monitored by drones and protected by rapid intervention forces, the separatists, who number somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 men at the most, have no other choice but to use hit-and-run tactics that inflict little damage.

In all likelihood, this is what has been passing for “war” in Western Sahara since 13 November 2020, far from the mother of all battles playing out every evening on RASD TV, the Sahrawi state-owned television broadcaster.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude based on this description of what looks like theatrics to the military forces that all this action serves to maintain the status quo in the Sahara.

While the Polisario was not, strictly speaking, created by the Algerian government – it is instead a joint Algerian-Libyan initiative dating back to the 1970s, when Sahrawi nationalism was on the rise – Algiers has been one of its driving forces for some time now.

Every decision made in the Tindouf camps is subject to the approval of Algeria’s leaders, and unless you believe that the latter have relinquished their sovereignty over part of their territory, this makes perfect sense.

The alternate reality is thus a smokescreen that obscures a much more worrying reality: tensions between Algeria and Morocco have reached a height not seen since the end of the 1970s.

In addition to governments in Europe (particularly France and Spain), the United States and Russia, the single-most concerned party is probably UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The UN has maintained a 462-person (including 245 military personnel) peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara – the Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) – over the past three decades. Currently headed by a Canadian diplomat and a Pakistani force commander, the mission costs $62m a year.

This small force of blue berets is tasked with patrolling an area extending all the way from the no-man’s land east of the wall to the border with Mauritania, representing 20% of the former Spanish protectorate’s territory – a full-fledged no-go zone the Polisario regards as “liberated”, one that is rife with landmines and oft travelled by migrants headed north, illegal gold miners and drug traffickers. In other words, the UN troops are on the front lines.

Admission of powerlessness

Sensing an escalation in the conflict, Guterres noted in his most recent report, dated October 2020, to the UN Security Council that the Polisario militias were “far less cooperative than in the past”, denying MINURSO personnel access to their sites, increasing the frequency of incursions in the buffer zone and establishing military units in several localities near Morocco’s defence wall, under the cover of setting up isolation centres for people infected with Covid-19.

Guterres’s concern is also an admission of powerlessness, as the former UN envoy on Western Sahara, Horst Köhler of Germany, who resigned in May 2019 “for health reasons”, has yet to be replaced owing to the absence of a candidate suitable to both sides. This means there is no longer a mediator between Algeria and Morocco.

Add to this powder keg Donald Trump’s announcement on 10 December 2020 that the United States would recognise Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara – one of his final foreign policy initiatives – and suddenly the situation is on the verge of exploding.

At the risk of brushing aside the diplomatic fantasy that Algeria is merely an “interested party”, and not a “party to the conflict” where the question of Western Sahara is concerned, Algiers immediately came to the conclusion that the United States was targeting its government by taking such a decision and simultaneously normalising Israeli-Moroccan relations.

And when the pages of El Djeich, the highly influential publication of the Algerian People’s National Armed Forces (Armée nationale populaire – ANP), refer to “the imminent threats that certain enemy parties pose to the region’s security”, they are alluding to these recent decisions.

Whether they buy into it or not, the narrative Algeria’s leaders are dishing out is clear: the Moroccan kingdom has made it so that “the Zionist entity” is now looming at the country’s borders. This explains Algiers’ twofold response.

On the diplomatic front, Algeria sent messages to Moscow to confirm that Russia, as a long-standing supplier of weapons to the ANP, would have its back, if needed, and stepped up its efforts to lobby the new US administration to undo Trump’s order recognising Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.

It is with this goal in mind that representatives from every parliamentary group at Algeria’s National Assembly and the upper house of the legislature, the Council of the Nation, sent a letter to Joe Biden on 2 February 2021 in which they urge him to reverse his predecessor’s decision.

Will Biden listen to their plea? While such a reversal is technically possible, it is hardly likely, as both sides of the deal (Western Sahara and Israel) are closely intertwined.

On the military front, Algeria’s response is meant to be openly threatening. This past 17 and 18 January, the ANP caught the media’s attention by conducting large-scale military exercises in the Tindouf region, within a few dozen kilometres of the border with Morocco.

Led by the ANP chief of staff, General Saïd Chengriha, the “Al-Hazm 2021” exercise was a show of strength and an opportunity to put the army’s next-generation Russian equipment on display (including Sukhoi Su-30 fighter aircraft, T-72 tanks, Mi-35 helicopters and Iskander missiles), these prized possessions that cost Algeria a pretty penny: $100bn between 2010 and 2020, or more than double the amount of Morocco’s military expenditures over the same period.

An expensive addiction

To be sure, Algeria has 6,700 kilometres of borders to protect, compared with Morocco’s 3,600 kilometres, but every expert concurs that the country’s shopping spree that began in 2006 far exceeds its security needs at home and abroad.

Algeria’s stated desire to become the region’s top military power only partly explains the spending frenzy, which is now even more costly ever since the collapse in oil revenues. Also at play, as the researcher Laurent Touchard wrote at the end of 2013 in his defence blog, is “Algeria’s preoccupation with putting a financial stranglehold on its Moroccan rival, which will be forced to increase its military budget even though its financial leeway is nowhere near Algeria’s” and “the opaque deal-making of a military high command actively involved in finalising big contracts”.

The Latin adage si vis pacem, para bellum (“if you want peace, prepare for war”) is a dangerous one in this part of the world.

Fast forward seven years and Touchard’s assessment still rings true today, just as the breakdown in communication between each side of the border, which closed in 1994 and never reopened, has been watertight for decades.

In Morocco, Western Sahara is a national cause that rallies everyone except for an ultra-minority fringe on the far left. In Algeria, it is a politico-military, though not exactly popular cause, and it is extremely rare for prominent voices to venture to express a contrary point of view. Those who have dared to speak up – Ferhat Abbas, Benyoucef Benkhedda, Mohamed Boudiaf and, most recently, Khaled Nezzar – were fiercely reined in.

The history of direct armed clashes between the Algerian and Moroccan armies teaches us little about what would come to pass if the conflict were to escalate. Won on the military front by Morocco under King Hassan II and the diplomatic front by Algeria under Ahmed Ben Bella, the Sand War of October 1963 was a series of skirmishes along a sparsely populated area between the towns of Tindouf and Figuig.

All told, 350 men lost their lives in the war and Algeria’s army chief of staff experienced first-hand the operational limitations of pitting a people’s army formed out of the independence struggle against a traditional force on open ground.

Mobile combat

Some 13 years down the line, in the first and second battles of Amgala, which played out in the northern part of Western Sahara, the FAR forces took over the oasis in January 1976, but the Algerians took it back the following February.

While there were fears at the time that the bloody fighting would morph into a large-scale conflict between the two neighbours, it was limited to a small geographic area.

Would this still be the case today if the scales were to tip towards an all-out war? Nothing could be less certain since, judging by the configuration of the Algerian army’s latest round of mega-military exercises, Algiers is preparing to wage a high-intensity conventional war.

This conflict – one that could have disastrous economic and human consequences – would first and foremost be a confrontation between two opposing military doctrines.

The Algerian side has adopted the Soviet method, which is based on the wide-scale use of armoured vehicles backed by the air force to carry out strategically nimble and tactically rigid offensives. The Moroccan side, on the other hand, has a more Franco-American approach focused on mobile combat, counteroffensive operations and the manoeuvring initiative of commanding officers.

The conflict would also be between two armies that differ considerably in every measure except size. Algeria is hands down the better equipped of the two in terms of quantity of modern equipment, but Morocco has its own set of advantages, including a greater proportion of professional soldiers, higher management standards and better organised logistics.

‘Looking good on paper’

When asked about why Morocco’s army ranks 26 spots behind Algeria’s in the latest Global Firepower military strength ranking, our source from the FAR general staff said that he places little stock in “looking good on paper”.

He added: “The modernisation programme launched by His Majesty as commander-in-chief and chief of staff of the FAR gives top priority to the human element. Weapons are useless without courage, know-how and patriotism. Our strategy has never been based on military competition. That said, when Morocco decides to put an end to Algeria’s provocations, it does so in an aggressive, definitive manner. Guerguerat serves as a prime example of this approach.”

As our source suggests, Algeria’s quantitative superiority is faced with Morocco’s qualitative advantage. While this assessment isn’t sacrosanct, it sums up the situation fairly well. When the author of this story interviewed a Moroccan general a few years back about the most likely scenario if a war were to erupt, he explained that the first aggressor – who in his eyes could obviously only be Algeria – would have little difficulty in penetrating 100 kilometres into “enemy territory”, before paying dearly for it afterwards. An Algerian general would no doubt agree with the reverse version of this scenario.

Much like the Americans and Soviets at the height of the Cold War, the two estranged North African nations are gearing up for a hot war. They hope that they won’t have to go through with such a suicide mission, but they have never been so close to the brink of war since the battles of Amgala 45 years ago. The Latin adage si vis pacem, para bellum (“if you want peace, prepare for war”) is a dangerous one in this part of the world.

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