Robert M. Holley
March 30, 2020
Two weeks ago I promised readers that in this second installment on Western Sahara I would lay out the basic outline and next steps of what I think needs to be done now to break the logjam on this issue and move towards a solution. I suggested that what is necessary is action to fundamentally challenge the circumstances on the ground in a manner that favors a win/win solution. In this article, I will argue that the first step in that effort is to test the commitment and resolve of the Party with the most to gain.
The time has come to test the intentions and the will of Morocco and, secondarily, the international community to resolve this. Both currently seem too content with the status quo. The international community has taken no action on this dossier since the resignation of Horst Kohler as Personal Envoy. Today, a year later, there is not even a candidate to replace him. Clearly, the Security Council is satisfied with things as they are.
What about Morocco? There are many in the international community who believe that Morocco is also content to simply play the waiting game. I can attest from long personal experience that this view is also not uncommon in Washington. The basic premise seems to be that Morocco thinks that time is on its side. Critics argue that Morocco believes that if it can prevent any of the major powers on the Security Council from taking a decisive position against it, in the end it will inevitably prevail.
The key battleground in Morocco’s effort to sustain the status quo in its favor, many argue, is in Washington. Paris, most analysts agree, is squarely in Morocco’s corner and no other Security Council member with veto power is definitively against them. Russia may never truly support Morocco on Western Sahara because of its close relations with Algeria, but other regional and international factors argue that Russia will also likely never fundamentally challenge Morocco in the Security Council. Russia is content with the status quo.
However, Washington periodically wavers in dangerous ways in the strength of its support, sometimes intentionally and sometimes through carelessness. As a long time insider, I can tell you that this invariably causes panic in Rabat (despite public denials) with fears that any decisive tilt in the US position could spell disaster. Several such moments over the last two decades have threatened a serious rupture in US/Morocco bilateral relations. Fortunately, to date, Morocco, with the help of its well-positioned American friends and other allies in Washington, has managed to prevail. But these difficult moments have left Rabat with an understandable suspicion about how much it can rely on the United States and sensitivity about rocking the boat in Washington.
But, if Morocco truly wants to resolve this problem in a way that most favors its interests, the time to rock the boat, both on the ground in the Sahara and in Washington, is fast approaching. I will not argue that the time is right now. The Administration of President Trump is simply too volatile, too quixotic and too unpredictable. But November is fast approaching and it is, in my view, very likely that Washington will be under new management next January. This provides some time for Rabat to prepare a fundamentally new strategic game plan and to begin building support for future actions with its friends in the United States, especially in the US Congress, foreign policy think tanks and among experienced US foreign affairs officials, both past and present, who will be in a position soon to influence thinking in Washington about new Moroccan initiatives.
I cannot overemphasize that there is no time to waste on this effort. A new Democratic Administration in January will bring with it both new opportunities for success as well as some old thinking that has caused serious problems between Morocco and the US in the past. Leadership in Rabat needs to be mindful of the kind of misguided activism from some quarters of the Obama Administration that could well reappear in a new Democratic Administration. Morocco should begin to take steps now to inoculate against a repeat of those troubles, as well as prepare support for new initiatives that would mitigate such potential opposition to its interests in the Sahara.
So what would be the first step in this new approach? It starts by beginning negotiations on the details of autonomy in Western Sahara.
The people of the Moroccan Sahara largely approve of the framework for autonomy that Morocco presented to the Security Council in April 2007. But that initiative was only a framework. It set basic principles for the arrangement, but left for negotiation many of the most important details about fundamental issues of jurisdiction, citizenship, residency, representation, conflict resolution, governance, police powers, judicial authority and division of resources, among others – including the important question of the borders of the Moroccan Sahara.
Algeria and the Polisario have succeeded in stalling such negotiations over implementation of autonomy for a dozen years. It is time to move past their intransigence. It is time to begin negotiations with the people of the Moroccan Sahara who are ready to negotiate. Morocco has a legitimate, willing and viable negotiating partner already in Western Sahara. That partner is fully able to decide for itself who should represent the interests of the population of Western Sahara in negotiations with the central authorities in Rabat. I predict that those negotiations will be every bit as thorough as any that would occur with Algeria or the Polisario. I also predict that the interests of those Sahrawis now living in squalid refugee camps in Algeria will be better protected through such negotiations than if Rabat were negotiating with the Polisario. The population and the leadership of the Moroccan Sahara has long experience in dealing with Rabat and knows very well how to defend its own interests.
Algeria and the Polisario must not be allowed to hold the people of Western Sahara hostage any longer. And the Security Council must not be allowed to ignore this problem indefinitely. If Morocco is serious about its frequently stated claim that it wants to resolve this issue sooner rather than later, it will begin the process of preparing these negotiations now and also begin the process of building support for them in the international community. The people of Western Sahara should not be expected to wait forever while their families in Algeria continue to suffer and the international community continues to ignore them because that seems more convenient. No more simply kicking the can down the road.
In my next installment in this series, I will offer more about how to manage such a new initiative in the international community.