Monday, July 25, 2011
Negotiations Over The Sahara and Regional Détente
By Mohammad el-Ashab
What is more important than the negotiations over the Sahara per se, whether they achieve any progress or not, is the fact that they have considerably kept off tension from the North Africa region. In truth, the negotiations started at a time of extreme tension amid the nightmarish scenarios that had almost unraveled themselves indeed. Consider, for example, the arms race, which dominated the region, and which persists today, albeit amid less tension.
Normally, the drums of war are only sounded when all peaceful means have been exhausted, at which point war becomes the last resort. However, when it comes to the repercussions of the Sahara issue, the situation appears to be rather different. The war had started in 1976, without any warning. And while Morocco thought that the last conflict on the path to regaining its territories in the south took place with Spain, the former colonial master of Saguia el-Hamra and Rio de Oro, a conflict erupted with the Polisario Front, which the late Algerian President Houari Boumediene had never concealed his support thereof, based on what he considered to be a principled commitment.
The war was prolonged even more due to the fact that the Libyan armories were opened to the Polisari, following the dispute between Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and the late King Al-Hassan al-Thani. And in the most simplistic form of it, the war was part of the Cold War in North Africa.
The negotiations, meanwhile, did not start on the backdrop of the cease fire in 1991. They rather went through several phases and stops, characterized with secrecy and the involvement of several sides, before finally reverting to the United Nations, which ultimately decided on the formula of the “political solution”, as an alternative to all other approaches and confrontations. But the four year period, which included official and unofficial talks and negotiations, was not sufficient to lead to a final and consensual settlement.
Here, keeping out the specter of escalation was the most important achievement accomplished by the American Diplomat Christopher Ross based on his knowledge of the political mood of the region’s people. After all, he had spent a significant part of his life in Morocco and Algeria. This is in addition to his awareness that threatening a return to arms was often nothing more than mere pressures being exerted in order to achieve certain goals. Furthermore, it was clear that Ross’ goal was different from the others’, who did not mind coexisting with a prolonged crisis. He perhaps inherited from his predecessor, Peter van Walsum, his conviction that the regional sphere and its extensions, especially in the direction of Europe, is not much distraught over the continuation of a tension that does not reach the degree of deterioration.
During the unofficial negotiations of Manhasset, the issue was raised from the angle that a regional détente alone will constitute a natural opportunity for the exchange of ideas and initiatives that would guarantee the implementation of a “political solution.” This is because, in spite of the participation of Algeria and Mauritania as two observer sides in all the previous and subsequent negotiation rounds, the main problem actually lies in the ongoing geopolitical disputes between Morocco and Algeria. Thus, without renormalizing their relations on a new and solid basis, all the parallel efforts aimed at ending the dispute over the Sahara are pointless.
The clinging of Morocco and Polisario to their respective positions only means that there is an urgent need for a larger breakthrough that would search for more common ground. While Algeria can be credited with having played a major role in bringing about the cease fire, it is necessary to clarify the Algerian position with regard to cooperating with the United Nations, not the least because Algeria is a main partner in the quest for peace, security, and stability in the entire region.
In addition to this positive development, which might rebuild relations of trust with the regional surrounding, the international envoy Ross has once again expressed his desire to expand the scope of the negotiations. And just like the regional sphere is capable of assimilating the necessities of speeding up the solution, the participation of figures with Sahara origins will give the negotiations a sense of democratic validity, at least in terms of not marginalizing or quelling other voices that are not necessarily supportive of either Morocco or the Polisario. This means that new blood can be pumped into the veins of the negotiations, whose chances otherwise have habitually been thwarted at every important stop.
The mere agreement on holding an upcoming round of negotiations after the United Nations session next autumn signifies that there is a connection between accepting international legitimacy, and the elevation of the negotiators to the rank of authority that decisively weighs in on the areas of cooperation with the international community. But before setting their watch to international conciliation, the concerned sides must do the same on the regional level, as the latter is most effective in steering events, instead of waiting for things that may or may not come.
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 24/07/2011