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Security in the Sahara Not a Shell Game – Jean R. AbiNader

Threat not Overstated; Remedies Require “Losing Old Paradigms”

Jean R. AbiNader, MATIC
April 29, 2016

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

Jean R. AbiNader, Exec. Dir., Moroccan American Trade and Investment Center

Contradictions are not rare in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region when it comes to politics and diplomacy. This is particularly evident in the continuing efforts to resolve the Western Sahara conflict. While all of the parties voice concern over the lack of a resolution, most, namely the Polisario and Algeria, are unwilling to offer credible options for how to do so, essential for regional cooperation needed to address extremist threats emanating from ungoverned spaces and, unsurprisingly, a lack of regional coordination.

 The stalemated negotiations atrophying in the UN Secretary General’s office have underscored these concerns about how this situation impacts regional security and yet have offered little in the way of realistic options for resolving the conflict.

From the UN perspective, one needs look no further than the UN Secretary General’s report on his trip to the region. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted “The frustrations I witnessed among Western Saharans, coupled with the expansion of criminal and extremists’ networks in the Sahel-Sahara region, present increased risks for the stability and security of all the countries of this region. A settlement of the Western Sahara conflict would mitigate these potential risks and promote regional cooperation in the face of common threats and regional integration to bolster economic opportunity.” And yet, rather than use the security imperative to spur action towards a resolution, Ban Ki-Moon’s actions prior to the report put a negotiated political compromise further out of reach.

Soon, we will know the Security Council’s response and one can only hope that the future of the UN’s presence in the territory will move forward toward a realistic settlement that would not rely on dead initiatives like a referendum, but engage in discussions built on achievable solutions. Only then will the region be able to revive some sort of effective security coordination among all the state actions.

This has yet to be realized despite clear deterioration of security in the Sahel-Sahara region, largely because of ongoing regional rivalries and the antiquated thinking of Algeria and the Polisario. As Professor Mohammed Benhammou, President of the Moroccan Center for Strategic Studies, noted in recent article, “Regrettably, in the Maghreb the conditions for cooperation do not always exist due to antiquated thinking, particularly over the Sahara. The closed border between Morocco and Algeria has impacted most regional relationships. For example, Tunisia, Libya, and Mali are forced to develop security strategies with both countries separately at the expense of a more effective coordinated regional strategy.”

Some of the challenges to developing such a regional strategy, particularly with regard to Algeria’s role, are outlined in a recent article in the Sada Journal about the reconstitution of Algeria’s security forces. As the author indicates, the restructuring of the security services (DRS) over the past two years, designed at least in part to improve counterterrorism capabilities, has done little more than eliminate a competing power center to the presidency.

Another part of the current strategy – highly visible counterterrorism operations to “rebuild popular confidence in the Algerian military’s ability to maintain public security,” thereby, “sending a message to France, its neighbors in the Sahel, and other countries interested in regional security that Algeria is still the dominant player,” also rings hollow given Algeria’s increasing difficulty in securing its own borders. Not to mention when one considers the failure of Algerian regional initiatives such as the Joint Military Staff Committee (CEMOC), which purported to be a regional security mechanism that was convened without Morocco, largely because of the dispute over the Sahara issue.

This is hardly a recipe for effectiveness and conflict resolution. Unless the old paradigms dissipate in order to activate true regional security cooperation including all stakeholders, Ban Ki-moon’s fears will become even more tangible and immediate.

 

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